Well, so okay, I'm back. Again.
A year and a half ago, I had hoped that by this time, I would be in a new job away from the ministry, finishing up my fourth, destined-to-be-a-bestseller, book.
But I'm still pretty much in same place I was then. And perhaps I'll stay in the job for just a while longer. The denomination knows I'm unhappy and is trying to find a place for me in a bigger city, perhaps doing some unconventional work, which I'll tell about later if it comes to happen.
I had wanted to move far away to another part of the country, and perhaps I still will, but there are reasons to stay in the area, too. My sons are grown but it would be nice to be near them. My parents are old and sick and I need to able to see them if necessary.
And I still need a paycheck. I can't simply hop a freight train and move on. Well, I could but we need the healthcare and the income.
How can I manage the cognitive dissonance?
I still like doing chaplain care where I help the people find peace and resolution within the context of their beliefs. I go to the hospitals to visit people and I use their language, imagery, and rituals to make them feel comfortable. It's not appropriate to "evangelize" a patient. I'm not supposed to convince sick and/or dying persons that they've been wrong all their lives and that they need to make a change. I'm supposed to make things easier, not harder.
I try to do that in my church, too. I help people take the next step in front of them. I have never tried to insist that everyone be on the same page I am, theologically. I have always tried to help people take a step or two forward from where they are in their lives.
I'm still doing that as a pastor for a while longer. Maybe I always will in one way or another.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
I was “Stan” on the CNN special, “Atheists, Inside the World of Non-Believers,” which aired last Tuesday. That's right. I was the minister in shadows with the distorted voice.
I'm grateful to the CNN producer who has protected my privacy so I could actually talk about this with someone. The interview took place several months ago, and it was weird because it was the first face to face conversation I’d had where I discussed at length the shift I’d made from belief to non-belief. The interviewer had me talking for over three hours and I could have continued. It felt good to be able to say the words with my mouth, “I don’t believe in God.” For the first time in months, I felt the muscles relax in my stomach and shoulders.
I’ve read some comments about the show, and of course I looked especially for things said about me, most of which referred to my distorted voice, which I thought made me sound like Darth Vader. Cool, huh?
I saw a comment that stated I didn’t have enough guts to just “come out.” It's okay. He’s entitled to his opinion just as I’m entitled to invite him to go screw himself. Actually, I understand—they were words of a young man who still has energy, few obligations, with more years in front of him than behind him. Lack of understanding is often the basis of scorn.
Actually, I’ve thought the same thing, too. Why don't I just come out with it, walk away from it all, and let the chips fall where they might? I really want to. The pressure of keeping this secret makes me want to explode:
“Hey everyone, I’m an atheist and I don’t care what you think!” But the next thing I’d say is, “Can I have a job?”
A few weeks ago, I’d had hit my capacity for bullshit and I thought, to hell with everything--I’m telling. But then I was introduced to other ministers who had come out, and consequently lost many relationships, as well as income. In fact they are still struggling. From the wisdom of their difficult experiences, they urged me to be cautious. They knew exactly how I felt and were able to talk me down from that cliff. It eased the inner pressure to talk to others who understood, and I was able to heed their advice.
I continue to look quietly for other work. Meanwhile, I'll continue to use the name, "Stan," when I write.
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
My older son is home from college. We spent some time alone in the car yesterday, and I took the opportunity to talk with him, which is nice, but it usually takes a bit of effort to get the conversation going.
“Mom says you’re a little shaken about my quitting my job and moving elsewhere.”
“Mph,” he said.
“If you tell me what you were thinking perhaps I could help you feel better.”
Oy…. The boy makes straight As and took Accelerated English and this is what I get.
“You know wherever I go you can stay with me if you need to.”
“NO, I don’t know that! You don’t have another job. You may not even have a place to live.”
I prod a little more. What is he scared of, I wonder.
“It’s like I’m losing my safety net!” he said.
Ah. Away from home. In college. Facing career decisions. Mom and Dad were his security. If he failed he could always come back home. Only he is afraid there will be no home to come back to now.
A little more talk. “Let’s take some time to think about this,” I said. And we rode together in the car silently.
He doesn’t know, like I do, that he is going to be successful. He’s taller, smarter, handsomer, and stronger than I ever was. He’s going to make his way in the world just fine. He is just hoping his dad will be there for him in case he fails.
For the hundredth time I think maybe I should swallow hard and endure the job for a while longer so everyone will be secure. And then for the hundredth time, the despair hits me and I think, I just can’t stay or I’m going to die, which I’m willing to do, but the boy needs me to stay alive.
I grip the steering wheel a little harder as I guide us down the road, staying alert for the next turn, and I brush away the tears that refuse to stay put. He hasn’t seen me cry much over the years, and I didn’t want him to see how close I was to breaking into sobs, but he saw anyway and it made him feel awful.
I pulled it together.
“Son, your safety net is not where I work or where I live. It’s me. I'm your safety net.
I let it sink in and then I told him things he’d not known.
“Shortly after you were born, I was without a job, so I went out and got one that allowed me to pay for groceries and rent.”
Then I told him of the ups and downs of my work while he was growing up—how sometimes I made less money than others. Some times were easy, others were hard, and I spent a lot of nights worrying about the next move I would make. Life was often quite uncertain. This is every grownup’s story, of course.
“You weren’t aware of the struggles because you were a kid,” I say, “But whether we had a little or a lot, you had enough to eat and a place to sleep.” He hates it when I get too obvious so I let him connect the dots to the conclusion that I would make out somehow and always have a place for him to stay if he needed it.
My own father calls later that night to ask how I am. I don't really want to, but I go ahead and tell him how bad I feel. He doesn't know I've lost my faith but he knows I need to get out of church work and he offered me some money to help. And then of all things he said, "You know, if you need to, you can all come stay with us...
Sunday, March 15, 2015
For one thing, I seem to be the only one qualified to pray over the food before we start. It doesn’t matter if I’m with someone who has just revealed he is suicidal, someone will interrupt, grab my arm and say, “Preacher, it’s time for the prayer!” As if a fire broke out in the fellowship hall.
Am I the only person who can do this? I can hear the grumbling: “What are we paying him for then?”
I always go last through the line because, contrary to most church claims, there’s not always enough food. Someone always notices when I haven’t gone through the line and will exclaim, “You better get something to eat!” with the same anxiety of someone begging me to get my swine flu vaccination.
Others take inventory on what I put on my plate--what it is, how much of it there is, what I didn’t get, and how much of it I didn’t finish.
And what would these people do for humor if they couldn’t tease the preacher on how much he ate? “Got enough there, preacher?” (Ha ha). “How many servings have you had?” (Ha ha).
I’ve spent the morning with this crowd. I’ve played with the children, laughed at lame religious jokes, hugged those who are crying, taught a Sunday school lesson, sung a song, arbitrated the latest conflict, smiled in the face of a tacky criticism, preached a sermon, shaken hands with everyone, and made sure the air/heat is working.
Do I have to eat with these people, too? Yes, but only until I leave.
I know it sounds ugly. Even petty. After all, Jesus ate with the people, but he was a better sport than I am—besides, he got to have wine with his meal.
I once told a friend about this and she suggested I go first in line and lick all the serving spoons--she guaranteed they'd quit pressuring me to be a part of the potluck festivities.
Sunday, March 8, 2015
“A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. (Luke 10:31-32).
It’s from the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the hated guy was the one who actually rendered aide to the injured man.
Presumably, the two religious guys passed by the man because they were much too holy to defile themselves by touching someone who might be dead—they’d have been ceremonially unclean and then who would take care of the temple duties for the week?
I didn’t see it coming but I nearly lost control of my emotions this morning during the sermon. I started out with my typical wit and charm :). But then I asked the question, “Can our religion lead us to hurt people?
I answered that even now wars are being fueled by religion, but that’s a little too big for me to wrap my head around. So I said I could pick one of several groups of people that are the target of religious hostility but if I brought them up specifically, the tension would rise in this room, and if I got specific enough, someone could easily get mad and skulk out of the room.
So I picked an issue from a previous generation: divorce. It’s a painful thing with tears and heartache. In the 1970s the divorce rate began to climb and churches responded by excommunicating anyone who got a divorce. Neither would they let divorced people join. They were all permanently barred. Religious people felt free to gossip about and judge them from a position of righteous superiority. It was all quite shameful.
But by the 1980s, most mainline churches realized they needed to change their perspective. However, the diehards continued to rail against the “evil divorcees.” In a church I attended, the leadership decided they were being too lenient, so they brought in a guest speaker to address the subject and set everyone straight. The guy was sort of a holy hit man.
He used the handful of passages in the Bible that address divorce to beat that congregation just as harshly as if he were hitting them with a club. By the time he was done, some people were sobbing as they fled the building.
“If you turn on the TVs on Sunday mornings,” I said to the people, “or look at sermons on the internet, you can see preachers speak hatefully about persons, ridiculing them, stating they are evil and they deserve to go to hell and so would anyone who is nice to them.”
This is where my emotions got away from me and I actually shouted (which I never do).
“And they will say these things in the name of the rabbi who told this story. I’m standing here as the person assigned to be your pastor, and I’m telling you that IT IS WRONG!”
And I was done. I stepped to the back so I could quit crying before we went to the next thing in the service.
I have said before that when I leave the ministry and the church, I don’t want to be enemies. I’d just like to get away from them. But there is a pathology in churches, where religion fuels hatred and encourages respectable people to be mean and cruel, and then somehow feel justified for doing so.
I know a lot of people who have left church and are quite angry about the brainwashing they received, and I often watch them swing wildly with their criticism and rage to retaliate. Believe me I understand.
I don’t want to fight organized religion. I don’t want to expose a lot of scandals. I don’t want to be engaged in heated debates with people who are too crazy to know when they’ve lost. However, I would like to be a healing agent for those who have been wounded. And if a cadre of crazy religious bullies decided I was their enemy and want to pick a fight… well, okay. If that’s what they want….
Saturday, March 7, 2015
I like checkers. I haven’t played in a while but I was unbeatable when I was in second grade. The game goes quickly and it’s direct: You only advance at first—there’s no backing up, and then I’ll try to jump your checker piece before you jump mine. Whoever wipes out the other player first wins. It’s satisfying.
On the other hand, I hate chess, where you sit and think, and then you sit and think some more. You can’t visit with each other because you’re supposed to concentrate, and I get fidgety.
I usually get impatient and think, Screw it! Charge! Wipe out everything in my path and GET THAT KING! And then my opponent cheats and beats me with one of those damnable strategies concocted in the 18th century by some guy with a weird name, and he usually takes my king out with a lowly pawn.
I’m getting restless, almost hoping someone will find me out and expose me so I have no choice but to move on. A friend expressed concern that I may be getting too reckless, and I can see she is right. It’s best to stay in control, keep thinking, and choose my path wisely.
Tomorrow is Sunday and once more I’ll lead rituals I don’t believe in, and phrase my sermon carefully so I won’t feel like too much of a liar. Some will tell me I’m a wonderful man of God while others plot to get rid of me, not because I’m evil or immoral, but because they’re threatened by me. However it’s not really me—they always feel threatened.
I’ll worry that I’ve already been found out and within the day my wife, children, and I will be thrown out of the parsonage and into the street while my neighbors peek through their windows at us as they lock their doors. And then my elderly parents who were so proud their son was a minister will find out and be ashamed, and other family members will quietly decide not to talk to me, and my lifelong friends will desert me. And my children will be alone and friendless through no fault of their own.
I’ll go to the church building with my head and heart pounding, and my blood pressure so high that I’m dizzy.
And that’s when I want to say from the pulpit, “SCREW IT! I DON’T BELIEVE THIS SHIT AND I DON’T EVEN LIKE YOU!” I'll stride out the door, taking my family with me and we’ll leave with the clothes on our backs and take to the streets of our own volition,
But then I’ll swallow hard, tamp down the panic, and go to work like I always have.
But the day is coming when I can’t do this anymore, and it’s coming soon, whether or not I have an exit strategy.
This isn’t checkers or chess.
Friday, March 6, 2015
You know how Ebenezer Scrooge was escorted by the ghosts to see people from his past, present, and future? Remember how he could watch them but no one knew he was there?
It was sort of like that.
The Christmas season was lurching onward with Santa Claus, holiday hymns, and candy. Lights dangled from the bare limbs of small trees and they did the best they could to bring gaiety to the gray Midwestern town. In a grand gesture of hospitality, a prominent family invited us to their home for Christmas dinner. I didn’t want to go because I’m grumpy on that day after dealing with the sad craziness that goes with the season and I’d rather sit alone in the dark for a time. However, it was rare for us to be invited to anything in that town so we accepted their invitation
The house was packed with extended family and the food was plentiful, which was served near a mountain of presents that lay under a tree bristling with decorations. But although we were amidst all the people and food, no one spoke to us. We sat in the seats they assigned us and ate our meal while they visited loudly with each other. I tried to start a conversation or two but failed.
It’s not like they were hateful. They just didn’t see or hear us. Like old Ebenezer, we didn’t exist in their world.
Someone declared it was time for opening presents. We hadn’t known about that and we felt embarrassed because we had not brought gifts, but they didn’t care—they’d brought presents for each other, and since we didn’t exist, they didn’t expect for us to participate.
I tried to find a way to leave but the room was so crowded that the door was blocked, and since no one would even look at or listen to me, it took some time to figure out our escape. Meanwhile, my wife, our two small children, and I sat uncomfortably and watched the gift giving bacchanalia, complete with squeals of delight, sentimental hugs, and lots of camera flashes. I thought my children would be unhappy to see all the toys they weren’t getting, but it turns out they didn’t care—they had new toys to play with as soon as we got home, which I hoped would be soon—I reached the point where I was looking for any avenue of egress—window? Ceiling vent? Chimney? (Hey, if Santa could get through it with all those presents…. )
It was a bizarre experience that illustrated how the entire church acted. They didn’t speak to us or even look at us unless they couldn’t avoid it.
You know what’s so ironic about all this? They told me that I was the best preacher they ever had and they wished I had stayed with them longer than I did. Years later, some are still so angry that I chose to leave them that they won’t speak to me if we cross paths. But then, they never spoke to me when I lived with them.
I’ve hoped for many years that one day, we would be in a church that would love me and my family. But the truth is that church people rarely talk to me. They talk plenty about me, and they’ll discuss church business with me, and they’ll lay all their sadness, frustration, and childishness before me. But I’m not a person to them.
Yet they’ll be angry and hurt when I leave.
I wish I could say that I didn’t care about that, but for some reason, I do.