by Stan Bennett

by Stan Bennett

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

I Haven't Got a Prayer

I haven’t prayed for years.

Oh, I’ve said the obligatory words. I still say them before the meal for the sake of my wife who doesn’t really know I’ve let go of my faith.  I say them at church, and I think of it as voicing the feelings and desires of the group. I say them in front of the troubled souls to whom I minister, on order to voice their desires and assuage their fears. 

For a while I was merely mad at god and I didn’t want to speak to him/her/it, because I thought he was trying to hurt me. 

I had a bad depressive episode several years ago where I felt my mind slipping away from myself, even as I begged for god's help. I thought demons had come to oppress me so I tried even harder for a while.  I lay prone on the floor of the church building before the cross. I even tried to speak in tongues, which was kind of pitiful and you would have felt sorry even as you laughed at me. I also begged for a miracle of healing and asked people to anoint me and lay hands on me.

And then I lost myself. I stayed a few days in the hospital. Afterward, for the better part of a year, I lied and told everyone I felt better even though I still fought suicidal impulses. 

I got a little better. I stayed a minister, hoping one day my spiritual life would return. But I didn’t trust god anymore. I had handed him my essence and he beat me to a pulp. I’ll mouth the words, but my thoughts are my own.

Still, I really thought the faith would come back to me one day if I stayed faithful and did good and right things. But the faith has slipped away even as I claimed more and more the ownership of my thoughts. And I realized that god was a product of our cultural mindset.  We invented him. 

And I dis-invented him. 

The prayers of others annoy me now. I hear someone begging for mercy like I once did and I have to shut it out.  I roll my eyes at the scolding sermons within the prayers: “Lord, help those whose faith wavers to stop doubting and truly see your good works.”

The ones that make me throw up are the “Prayer Warriors.” The ones who “stand in the gap” for the spiritual safety of their weakling spiritual sibs. The ones who boldly state that they “bind satan in the name of the lord.” The ones who think they get extra credit for screwing up their faces and ratcheting up their voices when they pray for the sick, the lost, and the democrats. 

Was it the lord’s will to become mentally ill? Some would have me think so.  I prefer to think of it as being part of the mass hysteria we find in religious communities. I got well when I took control of my own mind.

More accurately, I got better. I still have some more healing to undergo. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

God and the Children

Perhaps I'll use this to start a series of articles on the things I won't preach anymore.

There’s a story of Jesus raising a little girl from the dead. She was the daughter of the temple official who made his living as a religious servant of the people, similar to me. When they arrived at the man’s home they heard the wailers—people who made their mourning good and loud to express the collective sadness of the community. They told the man his daughter was dead and not to bother the teacher anymore. 

I’m still touched by Jesus’ reassurance to the man: “Don’t worry. Just believe.” He chased out the wailers and created a quiet moment in the house.  He uttered the sounds, “Talitha Koum” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, rise up.” And she did. And the father was given back his child.

The disciple Peter was there to see this event. A few years later, he performed the same miracle for someone else’s daughter, saying similar words. 

These two stories strongly resemble those of Elijah and Elisha, two Old Testament prophets who each raised someone’s child from the dead.  We’re supposed to note the connectedness of these stories.

They’re powerful. What parent can’t resonate with stories of persons losing their children and then getting them back?

That’s why I don’t use them in my preaching anymore. Too many of my people have lost their children. The rest of us harbor a terror that one day we might lose our children, too.  And unlike the stories, our children aren’t given back to us.  There’s no reassurance we can take from this story. If I said that one day, Jesus will raise all of our children from the dead—well that’s a cruel, crazy promise. 

I actually made the promise to people in the past. I'm so sorry.

The text I’m supposed to preach about this week tells the story of how God told Abraham to offer his only son Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham intends to obey, however God stays his hand just as he is about to stab the boy. 

I hate this story. I hate how people compare it with God actually following through with the sacrifice of his son. What kind of a heavenly father figure does this? And why would I want to worship such a god? 

If God Almighty commanded in his most frightening voice to kill one of my children, I’d shout back that he could stuff it. 

It makes me angry and sad and sorry.  This god that I’ve taught about for so many years, that I’ve defended and explained—I almost wish he really did exist so I could express my contempt for him. 

But I’m left with the people who invented this god--these crazy, cruel, grief-stricken, fearful people. I’m angry with many of them, but somehow I still see them as victims who need someone to care for them. 

But it can't be me much longer. I'm going to quit my job as a religious official and direct more attention on my own children while they and I are still alive.  

Monday, June 23, 2014

Don't Be Friends With the Pastor

There’s a lady in my church who became friends with the woman who was the pastor before me. In fact, they are still friends, and that’s okay by me. 

But it’s not okay with some of the other members who still sort of resent her for it.  Nobody quite articulates why—perhaps they think she monopolized the pastor, or maybe gained special favor. Who knows?

The woman who decided to be my friend in this church has taken some criticism, too. Some have told her she shouldn’t get too close to the minister—there needs to be some professional distance. Then some started some ugly rumors about her and me, so we have put a little distance between us. She has paid a price to be my friend.

Another pastor told me how he befriended a family in his church, but another more powerful family in the community wanted the minister gone. His friends said, “We love you but we have to live with these people. Our livelihoods are affected by them.” And the minister had to go away.   

These are not isolated stories. It happens in most churches in most communities, I think.

I used to be angry that no one would stand up for what or who was right—the strength was on the side of those who had the money and the political power, and often the family ties. I’ve become more resigned that friendship with a pastor has its risks.

I really do understand, but is it any wonder why pastors self destruct with no friends, no place to feel safe, no place to belong?And is it any wonder that they act inappropriately, perhaps crossing forbidden boundaries? Mind you, I'm not excusing the wounds pastors have inflicted on the innocent but it doesn't surprise me that it happens all the time.

If you aren't a son of a bitch when you become a pastor, the job can make you one. 

All jobs have their difficulties--I know that. But usually, the people you work with don’t pick on your family, and usually you get to have at least some friends in the community.

I am so ready to get out of this.

Perhaps when I do, I’ll become secret friends with the pastor of a church nearby. He can come to my house to drink and curse. And I’ll listen to his frustrations and perhaps gradually tell him my story and show him there’s a way out. 

But first I have to get out myself.

Monday, April 21, 2014

I Feel So Crazy

Most, maybe all, preachers have complicated, compartmentalized lives. There's the public persona with the jolly laugh and the hail-fellow-well-met greeting or the reverent scripture quoting tone. Then there's the family man/woman who wears his pajamas (or less) in the evening, and the sweat stained T-shirt when he mows the lawn, and is silly with the kids, and romantic with the spouse (usually not enough, though). Then there's that special, very small circle of friends where he can speak his private thoughts, smoke a cigar, drink a beer, and say curse words.   

We all have those different circles, but the minister guards the boundaries very carefully, even though he often has to switch suddenly.  

I can be in the middle of love-making, but I'll HAVE to answer the phone because it might be an emergency, although it usually is one of those piddling problems people are so preoccupied with.  Or I can be on the toilet and the same phone will ring but this time someone might very well be crying on the other end of the line, and I'll sit there consoling someone while I discreetly wipe.  

I've worried that my children see me switch personas so quickly.  I can be grumbling about the bills when the phone rings and I'll immediately become "Genial Man" who laughs easily. Then I hang up the phone and become grumpy Dad again.  Do my kids think I'm crazy? Do they think I'm dishonest? And would they be right? On both counts?  

I write three different blogs having to do with being a minister. One is my public one where I write about religious insights. Another is anonymous about the true life of a clergyman. And then there's this one, where I'm struggling to find my way out of this life.  Actually, I started another one that airs my comments on world events, but I had to let that one go.  

For the most part, I have kept the audiences separated. I mean, what would a reader think if he read my public one on my observations about a Christlike attitude and then read on this blog that I just don't believe this stuff any more?  

I try to tell myself: "Don't sweat it. Just lie about it all." But it's pretty wearing. I actually try to be a consistent, at least a little.  In my preaching, I focus on the scriptural text and break down its elements of literature, and then I'll point out insights that I still believe. And I'll talk in code, such as when I speak of resurrection, I'm using it metaphorically while the audience is thinking of it literally, and I do nothing to correct the difference. Perhaps there's someone in the audience who really is getting what I say 

The church is a crazy culture that demands deception for survival. It's ironic that we speak so much of truth, yet create a community where everyone has to lie.  

Monday, April 14, 2014

Loss of Privilege

We ministers enjoy a high status with many privileges.  

I often talk about the crap I take as a minister but there's another side to it and to tell you the truth, it's troubling to me.  People grant me a great deal of respect simply because I have the title, "Pastor." I get nice gifts, preferential treatment, and a superstitious regard as if I'm mysteriously linked to a higher cosmos.  Some people resent me for that, but as I said, I've spoken of that before.  

Just being with me grants a person status. If I eat lunch with someone, that person will proudly let it slip that "the other day while I was having lunch with the pastor...." If I drink morning coffee with the men in the local cafe, they'll talk later about how I came in and acted "just like anybody else...." 

Over the weekend, a woman came over and mowed our yard because our whole household had been sick in bed for a week.  It was embarrassing but the truth was I really wasn't strong enough to deal with an overgrown yard and I couldn't turn her down. I told my wife, "You realize if I quit the ministry, this kind of thing won't happen?" She nodded.  

If and when I leave the ministry, I'm not only going to have to learn how to do something different for an income, I'll have to do it without the privileges I've always had.  I'll walk through a crowd and not be noticed. No more special Christmas gifts from an "adoring" public. No one trying to curb their language out of consideration for me. People will be rude to me simply because they can get away with it.  

I quit being a minister a couple of brief times in the past, and I experienced that loss of privilege during the interim.  To tell you the truth it was a bit of a shock.  

I'm older now and won't be surprised, but it may still be an adjustment, and perhaps it's a good thing. No one should become accustomed to that kind of privilege. 

And You Want Me to Be Grateful?

God told Abraham to take his son--his only beloved son*--up a mountain, tie him to an altar, and kill him as a sacrifice. (Genesis 22:2). It is said that God was testing Abraham's faith and that Abraham reasoned God could raise the boy back from the dead if he chose (Hebrews 11:17-18). 

I have always hated this story, and I never believed it really happened. After we had our two sons, I put God on notice: "I will serve you in ministry, but if you take my children, the deal's off." 

This is holy week. Yesterday, the children came into the sanctuary waving the palm branches, and later in the week we'll celebrate Good Friday and I'll have people come forward to place their hands on the cross as they remember the story of Jesus' crucifixion.  And many of them will cry--a few of them will sob. 

Over the years, the story of Christ's sacrifice for humanity has made less and less sense to me. I remember when I was still praying that I told God, "It's hard for me to respect a father who just lets his child die in front of him. If I were you, I would have let the world go to hell so I could keep my son safe--if I had your strength, no one would ever hurt my child. Any father who doesn't try to protect his child is a failure as far as I'm concerned."

I switched over to John's image of Jesus as a deity completely in control of his destiny and so he chose to sacrifice himself.  Self sacrifice I can understand and perhaps even respect in certain contexts. 

But then again, what's the deal about the need for sacrifices? If there is a benevolent, gracious god, does he really need something to die as punishment for wrongdoing? Why must that happen? Forgiveness does not exact penalty. 

I understand that cultures have often invented a story that explains how guilt can be resolved and prosperity can be gained. Babies and virgins have been killed for just such reasons in lots of cultures, and Christians abhor that. Yet we're not just okay, but we're grateful, in fact we praise our God who sacrificed his Son. 

I don't believe it anymore.  But say that I did. Say I still thought it was all true.

I choose not to worship a god who does these kinds of things and expects us to be grateful for it.  

*Actually, Abraham had another son born by one of his servants, but that's a story for another time.  

Friday, April 4, 2014

What a Stupid Journey

My journey, or deconstruction, as they say, is typical of ministers who lose their faith. I was raised in an ultra conservative denomination, had my doubts but committed myself to service. I wanted to help people and make the community and the world a better place. Over the years I moved incrementally to more liberal churches—each shift seemed pretty dramatic. However, no matter how far I may have come on this religious spectrum, it’s the wrong spectrum, and I have rejected it outright in the privacy of my mind and heart—almost no else knows I’ve come to this point.

I look at the shifts I made in the past. 

On past occasions, I came to a crisis of faith where I just wanted out of ministry, but decided to try again in another venue. As I reviewed each of those shifts, the commonality was not just a crisis of faith, but also physical and mental illness. 

I look at my medicine cabinet full of blood pressure pills, three different pills for diabetes, an antidepressant, two heart medications, and a little Valium to take the edge off when I get agitated or can’t sleep.  What happened to the vigorous man I once was? The one who was brave and daring? Why did I let myself break down like this?

I became a full time minister when I was 23 and immediately began to feel the inadequacy and frustration of ministry, and since then I’ve had many nights when I was so agitated I couldn’t sleep.  After a short time, I imagined what a relief it would be to just quit existing, and I daydreamed about ending that existence.

It was decades before I came out of that terrible depression but I have still looked forward to the day when I am done and if my current health problems brought that day fairly soon, well that wouldn’t be so bad. 

It seems so stupid now, to try to form some sort of spiritual support group out of people who are mean and superstitious, to try to find cosmic truth from a book of cultural myths, and to trade my health and happiness in a failing attempt to make an unhealthy organization succeed. 

But lately, I’ve come to realize that I’d like to stay alive and do more than exist. Perhaps it would be okay to actually be happy?  Christianity is suspicious of happiness and promotes the nobility of misery, which seems incredibly stupid, as I think about it now.

If there is a god in heaven, I don’t think he/she/it really insists that I be miserable to get there. And why would I want to spend eternity with someone who is so mean? And if he doesn’t exist, why have I spent so much time trying to live a contagiously unhappy life?

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Case Has Not Been Made

I don’t think I’m going to be arguing a lot against the case for god’s existence. If people want to say that there is an almighty, loving god who is in charge of everything, that’s fine, but they need to make their case.  Until they do, what’s to debate?

Shouting belligerently doesn’t make it true no matter how many people are shouting.  Neither does being calm and intellectual.  And while I appreciate sincerity, it doesn’t make something true, either.

Making it a matter of faith can be a good strategy in the short run, but eventually there needs to be a revelation.  And therein is my problem. I’ve never had the revelation.

I’ll go ahead and confess something here, especially since people describe atheists and agnostics as being angry.  It’s true that I’m angry. If there is a god, then he, she, or it, has let me down personally.  

First, I resent the promise that a holy spirit is present to guide and comfort me.  If it’s there, it has done a piss poor job.  I’ve spent most of my life with searing loneliness, as well as plenty of confusion and sadness. I’ve tried to pretend the spirit is there, and I’ve held onto faith, but after half a century of searching, I haven’t seen it or felt it or believed anyone who told me they did.  I’m angry because I would like for it to have been true.  

And then there’s prayer. I’ve been talking, listening, and pleading, but there’s no one on the other end of the line. I wish there were, I wish there was a god who was really interested in conversing with me, who had some input for me. I wouldn’t mind if he didn’t always give me what I asked for, if I could actually hear from him. I’ll add that if he’s there but not answering, that’s fine, but I’m going silent, too

I can’t see that god is actually directing anything.  It’s ok with me if people want to believe there’s a grand designer, but they haven’t proved it.  If people want this taught in school, perhaps they should include it in sociology classes where they study cultures that insist on believing things that are not so, but not in biology or physics--those sciences deal in measurement, equations, and facts.

The claims of god’s power are not true. I’ve never seen a miracle. Oh, I’ve seen amazing things, and I’ve been glad things happened the way I wanted them to, but nothing truly miraculous.  And just because an old book said it used to happen is not proof.  Neither does someone telling that he once saw one prove it to me.  

There is no god of grace. Christianity and other major religious teach values of love and service. I think we all need to work for peace, mercy and healing, but god hasn’t done his part. If grace is so important, why haven’t we seen more of it from on high? And as many have asked, if god is so powerful, as well as loving, then why hasn’t he done something about the starving, the sick, and oppressed?

Bring me real evidence, not anecdotes or flawed statistics. Make your case and if you have something of substance, we’ll talk.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Battle Weary

In Caught in the Pulpit, Leaving Belief Behind, Linda LaScola writes of the liberal pastors who do not believe in the literal miracles of the Bible, including the resurrection of Christ, but that the metaphor in these stories have value. Liberal ministers don't like to be lumped in with fundamentalist christians by atheists. In fact, they find fundamentalism to be as abhorrent as atheists do.  (p. 152).

Like the ministers mentioned in her and Dan Dennett's study, I have disliked being caught between the fundamentalists and the atheists, sometimes having to fight a battle on two fronts, especially when I have mostly agreed with other atheists. 

I'm really tired of conflict. I spend a great deal of energy trying to reason with unreasonable people, and I'm talking mostly about my fundamentalist friends, although I've encountered some atheists who were so angry at any religion that there was no way for a minister to have real conversation with them (not all atheists, but a few--I also know and appreciate atheists who show me respect as well as friendship). 

These battles... they aren't what I want to spend my time on and they tend to define me in ways that are not accurate. I'm sick to death of trying to defend a god that makes no sense, but neither do I want to spend my time arguing against its existence.  

Honestly, I have a difficult time categorizing myself.  If I have to have a label I guess it's agnostic. I can't accept the image of the all knowing, violent but benevolent daddy of the heavens.  But I still think there is a spiritual component to life, and I'd like to be able to inch my way through the darkness to find out what that really is, assuming it exists.  And I'd like to do it without having to defend myself against multiple opponents, many of whom I feel some sympathy for.

I want to convalesce for a while. Is that possible? Would loved ones and enemies alike allow me a little respite?  

I want to sit in the dark away from all the rage and craziness and violence  and have some quiet.  But I'm also tired of being alone, so could I have some people around me who are gentle and like to talk and have music and would look at art with me? 

I wouldn't do it for the rest of my life. I still have some gas in the tank, and I think there are things to be done. Churches are collapsing and I'd like to help speed up that process because I think they need to go away. Truthfully, most fundies are victims of the culture, and are prey to the psychopaths who use religious superstition to oppress them.  I'd like to help the victims if I could and bring down some of those psychos, and when I say bring them down, I don't mean ridicule them.  I mean bring them down. And yes, that would require some battle, which I would be happy to do. Plus, I'd like to help other pastors who are trying to find their way out, as I am. 

But after I've recuperated.  

However, there's something else that kindles the fire in my belly. A few years ago, I wrote a paper on human trafficking, and I've never been able to quit thinking about it. In fact, more of our society is becoming aware of it.  It's so wrong yet quite difficult to address effectively because it's such a big issue, overlapping with other issues like immigration, prostitution laws, and poverty. I'd like to throw in with those who are already working on this problem and I'd like to work for the day when all slavery has disappeared. 

I'm talking about new battles when I meant to address my need for peace. but I see that I still feel some passion and I still have reasons for which I would jump into the fray to make things better.    

But for the moment, I need some quiet.  Just a little rest. And if I should need to come back slugging, I can do it, if it's for the right reasons.  

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

No Matter What, It's Okay

When I preach, I try to find a middle ground where I can say something that accommodates the people's faith and keeps me from feeling like a big liar.  I can do it by focusing on the text, identifying what's really happening in that text, and what its message is.

Those people who claim the Bible is inerrant actually believe it to be a written form of god's presence, something to be read and heard with great superstition. Okay, they don't actually have to know its content, they're happy just to fear it. 

I actually still like the Bible, and I value it as I do all classic literature. It sheds light on the culture of the times and much of it is still interesting, especially since it has no superstitious hold on me anymore. And I like to teach people to study it critically, as I do at the local college.

So I can relay the meaning of a biblical passage with a certain honesty. And I can speak of right and wrong, as well as mercy and insight and love and generosity and the healing of persons.

And perhaps I can still use the authority that people thrust on me with their superstitions.

This morning I was visiting the nursing home. I sing the old songs with them while I play the guitar and I give them a little preaching to go with the music.  Afterward, I shook their hands like I always do and one lady, whose awareness sort of fades in and out, was shaking her head, saying something quietly.  I bent down to hear her say repeatedly, "I just don't believe. I just don't believe. I just don't believe."

I touched her shoulder and said, "I'm sorry." 

"I am too," she whispered.

It was hard to have a protracted intellectual discussion with a wheelchair bound woman in a crowded room that was busy getting ready for dinner. It's loud and neither of us hear well and it's hard for her (or us) to focus anyway. So I couldn't talk much.

"If god is real," I said, "then he still loves you even if you don't believe. And if he's not real, it's still okay."

I don't know if it got through, but it made me feel a little better.  

No matter what, it's okay.

The Next Step

So far I've written that my job sucks, that I don't want to do it anymore, and I've even outlined reasons why I don't like it.  The sentiments are legitimate but they're not helping me get very far.  I need to get some traction.

Lots of ministers in my position are finding it hard to change careers. Our education and experience equipped us for ministry but not much else, or that's how it seems.  I really do have valuable skills in communication, administration, and leadership--qualities that give me some versatility. But transitions are hard for everyone and I'm no exception.

Perhaps I have made an increment of progress today.

First, I spoke to my wife about the need for me to find other employment. I focused on the practical aspect: churches are declining and there's less opportunity--that kind of thing.

I did not speak of my lack of belief. A few years ago, during one of my many crises of faith, I tried to talk to her about it and it made her very afraid--she thought I would go to hell. I feel bad for her about that now, but at the time it made me furious. I don't speak of it now because it would be still be hard for her.

However, I did say this about church work: "I can't keep asking people to join something that makes them worse and not better."

"That's true." she said softly. But coming from her, that's a big statement.

She has been adversely affected by our church work, too. She has sacrificed a great deal to live this life and frankly, she deserved better than how she has been treated.  People have been unkind to her simply because she was married to me.

Our children have also been harmed, but that's another story.

One of the skills my wife developed in recent years is her ability to research scholarship opportunities and to help our son apply for them for college. The boy is bright--valedictorian--and he won many scholarships but it was his mother that did the work and found all the benefits that were out there so that his four years of undergrad work will be completely paid for with no loans or out of pocket experience.

A friend suggested that I ask her to help me in the same way.

I am so busy at this job that I don't have a lot of time or energy to search for a new path. But she can. Last night, I asked her to start looking for education opportunities. Specifically, I need to talk to a career counselor who can advise me on my best options. I need to know what the area schools are offering. And I need her to see what kind of financial aid there is--believe me, she'll find whatever is available.

So that was the next step. The first one was deciding to get out. The second one is to enlist the aid of my wife. I don't know why I didn't think of it before.

Now on to step three. I'll tell you about it when I figure out what it is.