Recently, I had a conversation with a pastor about a possible pastoral position in a small, urban church looking to do mission outreach. There was a lot to like about the prospect, but my conversation with them also convinced me to stop looking for ministry calls, or at least stop answering church adverts.
Mostly, I have learned that the churches placing adverts on indeed.com (or elsewhere) are likely to be much more theologically and doctrinally conservative than I am. And I’m okay with that. A number of them are Baptist in orientation, which is a church culture I’m not familiar with (and I know how important culture is to how we do church, and to doing it successfully, or failing at it miserably), and so it’s just as well they have warned me off. I’m much more “catholic” in my understanding both of church and worship. All of these are importance concerns, and ones I cannot fault anyone about.
But the pastor also expressed some concerns about this short blog entry I posted some time ago (caution, the language and sentiment is pretty foul):
Hello all. I have an essay mostly completed that I started Saturday. But it is not finished, and I just don’t feel like finishing it right now. I just noticed someone who started seminary after me got approved, called, ordained, and has just bought a house. Yet another person moved along smoothly and happily in the process.
And here I am — unemployed, impoverished, and nigh near homeless.
I blame Jesus. Truly. I hate Jesus right now. I hate the fact that Jesus called me to follow him, gave me no real choice, set me in the midst of insular, skittish, easily frightened people who did not know what to do with me and judged me harshly — who condemned me — for it. I don’t want to follow Jesus anymore. I hate Jesus. I hate this call. I hate the gospel. I almost think the gospel itself is a lie. And if not a lie, at least a great cosmic joke, a way for God to get a good giggle at the expense of pathetic losers like me. “Ha! I’ll say you’re forgiven but I’ll also make it clear that being forgiven doesn’t really matter because no one will treat you like it!”
And clearly, no one who really matters can be bothered showing me anything remotely resembling grace.
I wish I could be done with all of this. I wish — I really, really, really wish Jesus would just stay the fuck dead. And leave me fuck alone.
I can understand why someone might have a concern about what I write here. It’s harsh, especially in our Jesus-loving culture, to say something like “I hate Jesus.” That’s a statement of disbelief, or it begins a diatribe on why God doesn’t exist.
But at the same time, I do not understand why anyone would have a concern over that. Essentially, the pastor said such a sentiment suggested — especially if read all by itself, without looking at anything else I’ve ever written — I was not ready for a position of leadership.
And that … THAT I don’t understand.
Life is hard. Unpleasant. Sometimes unending suffering and misery. Frequently, our lives feel pointless, empty, and without meaning. Eventually, we all die, some of us slowly and painfully. We have to, as pastors, as followers of the crucified and risen Jesus, be able to look into the face of the suffering of the world, of its misery, its violence, its seeming inherent meaninglessness, and hold out hope. Not platitutdes, but real hope.
A couple of examples. I have been doing an online ministry with teenagers — it began by responding to posts on an app called Whisper — that has allowed me to walk with and be present for some amazing but incredibly troubled young people.
One young woman, just barely a teenager, had been regularly and repeatedly abused by a foster family. After escaping from that situation, she was abducted and held captive for a little more than 48 hours before being found by the police and freed. (It is, of course, a great deal more complex than this, but I don’t want to reveal too much.) I have gotten to know this young woman a bit, and she has a remarkable faith. But after being freed, even she asked:
Why didn’t God protect me?
Now, I was able to engage her in a bit of ocnversation, because I knew she had a faith. I don’t know why God didn’t keep you safe from harm, I said, but Jesus was there, suffering with you. Because that’s what Jesus does — he suffers with us. She eventually did decide that God did protect her, that God was there, with her. And that was good.
Another young woman, not yet 18, who has been the recipient of much violence and abuse in her life, just lost her baby, who had gotten sick with pneumonia and was in the hospital. The conversation that night was a stream of broken hearts and crying, of wailing and the metaphorical ripping of clothes, of profanity and pain and hopelessness. This young woman does not believe, and when I asked if I could pray, she wailed:
THERE IS NO GOD!
And I wasn’t going to argue with her. I was going to sit, in silence, with her, holding her sorrow and her anger and her despair. Because silence sometimes is all we have. And silence, sometimes, is all we need.
I’ve been told a lot, mainly by people who have been wounded by the church, that I have a very grown up faith. I do not seek answers, meaning, or even much solace in biblical platitudes. Yes, God has got it, and I have a future, and the Lord knows his plans for me and my life, knew me even before I was born, and Jesus is the truth and the truth has set me free.
But I also know we live in a world of real pain, of real sorrow, of real doubt, of real, gripping, life-numbing despair. “My God, My God, why have you foresaken me!” Jesus says from the cross, feeling that very human sense of despair and abandonment, a feeling that must be real or the whole crucifixion, including Jesus’ death, is all an absurd game is which nothing is really risked and therefore nothing is really gained.
He had to wonder whether God would really raise him, he had to not know how it would end, he had live with the fear that maybe death really is the final answer we think it is. Jesus, on some very important and very real level, had to not know.
Like we don’t know.
So, okay, maybe I’m not leadership material if church leaders need to have happy faces, perfect faith, and all the answers. If the expectation someone will look to me to see if life is going to be okay, well, my life isn’t quite the best example of God materially blessing one’s faithfulness. I wouldn’t, at 48, be sleeping on a mattress on a floor in someone else’s apartment if God really did materially bless everyone’s faithfulness. I’d really and truly be the failure I’m sometimes convinced I am.
I have found, however, that too many pastors do not know what to do with such despair, such pain, such suffering, and even such hopelessness. (Mostly from personal experience, sad to say.) This is what the happy face gets us — clergy who cannot handle the suffering of the world, who retreat to the nonsense of piety and lectures on doctrine because they cannot look upon that suffering without flinching.
I have never doubted. Even the words of that blog entry — I wish Jesus would stay dead — betrays my real understanding. Because I know he isn’t. Because I do trust in the resurrection of Christ. That’s my hope. It is the only hope I know is true. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. I know this to be true. And whatever happens to me in life, I know that Jesus rose from the dead, and in him, I shall rise too. We are already dead, and therefore, already risen to new life. I know I’m part of that, in baptism, in my call to follow and feed sheep.
Even if that leads me … well, nowhere.
That feeding sometimes includes letting people know faith is tough, painful, and in this world, sometimes doesn’t end well. But Jesus can take our anger, our pain, our rage, even our lack of faith. As Shusako Endo wrote in his novel Silence, about Christians in Japan, when a Portuguese priest refuses to walk upon an icon of Christ, Jesus tells the priest:
“Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”
Jesus can take it. Which means we can too.