by Stan Bennett

by Stan Bennett

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?