by Stan Bennett

by Stan Bennett

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.






Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Thinking Straight

It is so hard to think straight, and a lot of it has to do with my very self being torn in so many directions. 

I have a job to lead an organization that I think is unhealthy and don't think people should attend. I represent a god I don't believe in, yet I'm not quite able to completely reject the possibility of a deity. I have no friends or family I can discuss this with, including my wife and children. So everything I do feels like a lie, and the only reason I keep on is for the money (so it turns out to be true--this preacher really is in it for the money). 

There are some sweet, very dependent people who idolize me because of my position, and it doesn't matter that I remind them that I'm as human as anyone else.  They think I'm special, and they will feel true pain when they find out about me. It will hurt them when they hear me say, "All that stuff I used to teach? I haven't believed it in a while and I've really been trying to leave you for a long time."

I had a week off, and it was long enough for my heart to quit pounding at night, but now that I'm back, I feel the tension creeping back. 

And you know what? There are even more things I can't talk about and won't talk about here.   

I must change but how I do it and where I will go from here is still so goddamn murky.  

Onward!

I decided I'm getting out and I've boldly declared it in an anonymous blog to people I've never seen face to face.

But my intentions are clear. O-U-T spells out.

I just need to develop a more detailed exit strategy. At some point I probably need to tell some members of my family,... wife, etc.  And I'll need to decide what career direction I want to take... writing, teaching, bartender, male escort... (maybe I won't discuss that one with the wife).  And I'll need to send out resumes and set up job interviews, and swear EVERYONE to secrecy.

Yep, I am on my way. Watch my smoke. No that's not smoke. It's fog. And I'm in the middle of it.

O well.... onward. One step at a time. Just ah.... which direction?

Sheesh!

Friday, March 7, 2014

I'll Never Hit the Big Time

You know, I've never made it into the "big time." I've been meandering from denomination to denomination, until I finally settled at this present one. Oh, I've done okay and I'm well regarded. In fact, I give a lot of advice to other ministers. 

But sometimes I feel the pangs of inadequacy when I walk into a huge church building where the bulletin boards are bristling with announcements about different activities, and the furniture gleams with new wood, and the latest multimedia equipment sparkles in pride. And I'm sorry that I think about the ministers who lead those churches and wonder how in the world they got to higher places than me when their bulbs glow so dimly.  

On the other hand, every time I come up the ranks a bit, I get increasingly uncomfortable, like I'm getting more entrenched into something I don't want to be in--and of course, that's exactly what my problem is.  I don't want to be here.  

I've wondered in the past if I'd be having this crisis of faith if I were more successful in this career, and yes, I think I would. 

I've watched a lot of good ministers wash out, and others will think that is what will have happened to me. In a way they'll be right. It kind of hurts my pride. I thought I was going to do great things that would get me noticed. But at my age it may not happen. I guess I'll get over it. 


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Which Battle to Fight?

I respect the efforts of my friends who speak against the stupidities of surrounding religious cultures, especially when they try to be fair and respectful of those of us who tried so hard and so long to believe.   

At this point, after having given up my faith so recently, I'm not ready to take part in that battle just yet, and maybe I never will.  I have had enough dealings with crazy, ignorant, arrogant, bullying, bullheaded, religious folk--I say let the mean ones go to the hell they're so fond of.  I no longer want to try to love, heal, repair, and sanitize them. I'm done with that.  

On the other hand. I'm not sure I'm going to be able to sit on the sidelines, after knowing how much damage a sick religious body of people can do.  I want not only to leave the church, but I'd like to dismantle it completely. Of course, knowing how people love to create their golden calves to worship, I'm sure churches would spring right back up, but I can dream, can't I?

Perhaps we don't need to dismantle all the facilities, although it would give me great satisfaction.

I get so angry when I drive up and down the streets to see all the church buildings in the neighborhoods, locked up tight at night when homeless families huddle together in the cold, waiting to be first in line for the scraps of food the grocery store will throw out that morning.  All that empty space... and you know they keep it climate controlled to maintain the musical instruments, even if no one is there. 

Perhaps since schools have had to cut their art and music programs, why couldn't we turn these church assets into fine arts centers: studios, libraries and classrooms?  The salaries we pay church staff could pay the for teachers instead.  There would still be money left to feed hungry people.  

I used to burn with frustration as I walked up and down the halls of a church that spent (and I'm not kidding here) eighty thousand dollars on stain glass windows that weren't even pretty.  How many lunches could we have given out to hungry children with that money--we could have even paid people to make those lunches.  

GODDAMMIT FUCK IT ALL! I can't find a strong enough word here! 

Why have I been a part of this waste? I've shown my scorn, preached against it, but in the end I've gone right along with it.  I still am.  But one day soon....

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Who Am I If I'm not a Minister?

This was article I first started writing when I thought of this blog. I decided to finish it and put it out here.  

Everything I write has to do with my identity as a minister: my blogs, newspaper articles, even a very bad novel that was about a minister (No you will not get to read it).

As I've said, I want out of the ministry. I'm tired of it. I'm sick all the time both in body and mind.

And I don't believe anymore. 

I don't believe in the god of Christianity, nor of the god of the Hebrew Bible, from which Christianity sprang. I don't believe there is a hell, and I don't believe in the version of heaven that Christianity has invented--and it has been invented as well as evolved over the years. 

But what am I if I'm not a minister. I've never been anything else. 

I have worked as a professional minister all my life. It's the emphasis of my education and I've thrown myself into the work. It's how people know me, like me, hate me, admire me, speak to me--all in the context of being a minister. 

I trapped myself.  I'm not credentialed to do anything else although I probably have abilities to do other things.  I fear I'm too tired and maybe too old to work hard enough to start something new.

Yet that is exactly what I must do.  I've paid too high a cost. My marriage is troubled and my children have been harmed. It's like the life has been sucked out of all of us. I'm sick all the time.  

I don't want to make just a small adjustment. I'm not looking for a easier denomination to work with or go into chaplain work.  

I'm not sure what I'll do it, but if I don't change, I'll unconsciously precipitate some crisis that will expedite my leaving, and I'll be serving up burgers at the fastfood if I'm fortunate.  So I'll make my change deliberately  

I Can't Market this Crap Anymore

A masters of divinity is twice the size of most masters degrees and you'd think it would make us better ministers, but some of the very best students become the worst pastors. A studious demeanor is not attractive to the masses--they think we're dull, and maybe we are. Perhaps we'd be more successful if seminaries taught us how to sing and dance, tell jokes, create a budget, raise money, deal with staff issues, and develop marketing ploys.

Rick Warren is a nice man and the truth is I kind of like him, and a year after his son's suicide I don't want to be ugly toward him.  But he didn't grow one of largest, wealthiest churches in the United States based on his deep theology. And his book did not sell a jillion copies because he's a great writer (I'm sorry, but he's not). He accomplished all this because he is a great marketer.

In my current denomination, I'm sent by leadership to the churches I serve.  But in my earlier years, I would be hired outright by congregations.  Search committees would interview me and they were interested in how funny I was, how much energy I had, how well I got along with others, and how good a speaker I was. They never asked questions about goodness or morality or theology or mission. They asked about how we could get new people, while keeping the ones they had.  And that's all.  

Some churches do well with ministers who are less educated and trained. Often they come from other occupations, and people say they're good because they've had experience in "the real world." Especially in sales.

I am a thinker, a teacher, and I take care of people.  That might make me a good minister, but it won't make me a success at marketing churches.

In fact, I suck at marketing because I don't believe in the product. Churches don't make people better, they make them sicker.  They preach about truth, but no one is allowed to think. They speak of spiritual growth, but they make people infantile. They speak of freedom in Christ, but they brainwash through intimidation.

Even if I was a good marketer, I can't sell that. Not anymore.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

An Apology to my LGBT Friends

In one of my seminary classes a fellow student had a sudden allergic reaction that made her body swell up and it threatened to shut off her airway passage.  

It happened quickly and all of us were so shocked at the sight that we froze, except for one woman, another ministerial student who put her arm around our classmate and said, "It's going to be okay. I will take care of you." And then she went through the student's backpack to find the medicine that would help her.   Soon the woman was stable and they were able to get her to the hospital. 

The woman who had the presence of mind when the rest of us froze is the real deal when it comes to caring for other people. She is calm, nurturing, and reassuring. She is a natural toucher when she talks. I never had a conversation where she didn't pat my shoulder and chest and squeeze my arm. Like other good ministers, she surveys the face of the person she speaks to, looking for any signs of distress or struggle.  

I often thought if I had to step down from the pulpit, I would be happy to listen to her every week.  

You know what? Though she's one of the best ministers I've seen, she cannot be ordained in my denomination because she's lesbian.  

My church talks out of both sides of its mouth on the subject of homosexuality. On the one hand, they want to be accepting and gentle, but on the other, they still insist it's sinful behavior, and they won't allow gay and lesbian people to serve as clergy, and they won't allow me to perform a wedding ceremony for gay or lesbian couples.  

I apologize to the LGBT community. My church is wrong and I have not stood up for you. If I were to speak up and and call for the culture to change, I would lose my job, and my credentials. 

A real prophet would speak up regardless of the consequences, but I do not because I must protect my family--I notice most of the biblical prophets weren't married. 

So I'll stay in my own closet for a while longer and when I've given up my credentials voluntarily, I'll try to make it up to my LGBT friends.  Please forgive me for not showing more courage now.