Category: Faith

Like A Man Running Out of Time

This is normally the time of year that college students start heading home and or start working summer jobs. But – given the addition of COVID-19 to our lives – a lot of students are either home already or well into their summer break already. My son, Baker, and I were talking about exams, grades, and summer jobs the other day – which reminded me of the summer just after my freshman year of college.

As it happens, my older brother – Dennis – owns and operates a masonry/construction company, and from time to time people who needed small repairs done on their homes would call him (they still do). That particular summer, there were several older people who needed some work done and Dennis thought that I would be able to do the work. I have to say it was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had – mostly because of the people I met and what I learned from them. In fact, just the other day I was thinking about one man I worked for and the valuable lesson I learned from him.

Mr. Buckholtz was standing in his driveway waiting on me to arrive. As I parked, I could tell that he was in a hurry to get started. After short introductions, he began showing the different jobs he needed to be done around his property. We moved around the place somewhere between a trot and a jog. That pace should have tipped me off about the speed with which the projects were to be done. After that initial trip around the place, I was off to work and work I did.

Over the next few days, I cut down trees and trimmed branches; I pulled up old shrubs tree-pruningand planted new ones; I carried stone and railroad ties (yes railroad ties). I painted and did a little masonry work. I plumbed and planted and shoveled at a quick step pace. He kept me working tree_branch_cutting_tsfrom the time I got there until the second I turned to leave. I didn’t mind the pace. I just didn’t understand it until a few days into the job.

Every day Mr. Buckholtz would get me started on a project and then he would head inside for a bit. He must have been watching me from a window because as soon as I finished one project, he was at my side inspecting my work. He would hand me a glass of water or tea or a sandwich and then inspect my work. He was always kind and complimentary about my work – even as he encouraged me to redo something or do something a bit better or a little different. As I rested for a few minutes, he’d ask about me – what my plans were – what I wanted to do with my life – that sort of things – and he sometimes shared little bits about his own life. Sometime during that first week, during one of those inspection breaks, Mr. Buckholtz said something to me that I’ve never forgotten.

Mr. Buckholtz explained that he was a man on a mission because his time was running out. He was dying and he had a lot of things that he wanted to get done around his house so that his wife and family didn’t have to worry about them after he was gone. In fact, everything he had me doing was for them. Then he said that time eventually runs out for everyone but he’d been given a gift of sorts. Due to the nature of his illness, he had a pretty good idea of what the future held for him and an idea of how much time he had left. He planned to take advantage of every minute in order to get things done for his family. He knew he had a short time left, which gave him time to do what he needed to do and say what he needed to say to those he loved.

I wasn’t the sharpest 19-year-old guy in the world but I was smart enough to know that I’d been given a gift of sorts, too. I was just at the beginning of my adult life and I was working for someone who was at the end of theirs. Granted, my own dad died when I was 14, but his death was unexpected and that sort of tragic end cuts a deep gash but it often only allows for grief rather than introspection. I was fortunate enough in the fact that my father’s last words to me were “I love you” and I’ve carried those words around like gold ever since. But, with Mr. Buckholtz it was different; he had time to say and do things for those he loved. He had time to think about his life and his death and what he wanted to do at the very end.

Okay, I know. I get it. Our own death isn’t something that we like to think about let alone talk about. Truth is, I’m taking a gamble here and hoping a few folks may allow themselves to read about it. For lots of reasons, we try to avoid the subject. We try to delay it. We try to deny it. We make jokes about it. We try to play it off like its no big thing. And then along comes a pandemic and we are suddenly reminded over and over of our mortality – and even then – some people try to play it off by saying – if it’s my time then it’s my time – but I always wonder when folks say that if they’ve ever actually given the notion of dying much thought.

Recently I was listening to an awesome podcast called Noble Blood. If you haven’t checked it out – and you are into history at all – if you love stories about nobility – you need to tune into Noble Blood. At any rate, on a recent show Dana Schwartz – the Henry-VIII-buried-2-1fdac08creator/host – pointed out the Henry VIII actually designed his own tomb. It was to be a shrine to how awesome he was (or thought he was). However, he never got around to actually having it built henry tombduring his lifetime probably because he, like most other folks, don’t like to think about their own mortality. So, Henry still lays in a temporary tomb in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle under a simple black stone.

A lot of folks are like Henry VIII. They don’t really want to think about their own deaths but perhaps they should and perhaps they ought to prepare for it and do and say what needs to be done now rather than hope for the time and presence of mind later one. But there was at least one king who not only thought a lot about His own death, he talked about it with his closest friends. He too, however, didn’t prepare a tomb. Turns out he wouldn’t need one for very long anyway – so why bother?

At the risk of sounding preachy (which comes with the territory), I think Jesus is a good model for living and – as it were – dying as well. I say that because if you’ve ever read much of the Gospels in the New Testament you may have discovered that Jesus repeatedly told his closest friends that His death was imminent and at the same time he didn’t hold back or wait to do what needed to be done or say what needed to be said.

Without getting overly theological, Jesus kept His death at the forefront of his attention. He knew it was coming and He was prepared for it and he prepared His friends for it as well. Of course, they didn’t seem to catch on but He tried to talk to them and prepare them all along. Granted, His death and resurrection are the cornerstone of Christianity – without which Christians are, as Paul said, fools. But I think that there is an additional lesson to be learned or perhaps a model for how Christian folks ought to live; I mean if Jesus was prepared and didn’t shy away from talking about his death perhaps we shouldn’t either.

If Jesus bore death in mind it’s probably not a bad idea for we mortals to do the same. That’s not to advocate being morbid or overly obsessed with death. But sometimes we spend a lot of time planning for retirement or going to extremes to deny or delay death or aging without even factoring in the end or worse, not being prepared for it. As a pastor, I’ve sat with folks who – at the end of their days – were sort of surprised that death was upon them but I don’t think that’s what Jesus would have us do.

Again, Jesus not only talked to His closest friends about the end, but also didn’t hold back or wait to do what needed to be done or said. In fact, reading through the Gospels you’ll discover how often Jesus spoke into the lives of His friends. In fact, he did that so often that when it came to the end, the things Jesus said and did in essence just summed things up and affirmed what He’d been saying all along.

For instance, if you’ve ever had the chance to read John 13-17 you’ll recall that text shows the scene just hours before Jesus suffered abuse and then was crucified. From John’s text (and others) it is clear that Jesus knew that his end was near. During His last hours, he turned his attention – not to himself – but to his closest friends/disciples and even to those who would turn to Him throughout the ages. The things that He said confirmed what He’d been saying and doing all along.

Believe me, you need to read John 13-17 to get the full picture of all that Jesus said and did that night. I just want to point out one thing from among the many things. After Jesus had served his friends an incredible meal – a meal that the church still tastes – Jesus told His disciples that He loved them and He told them they ought to love one another – because truth be told they were gonna need one another (John 13:34-35).

As I mentioned earlier, my dad’s last words to me were, “I love you.” What I didn’t tell you was that my Dad was in ICU at the time. I’m pretty sure that He knew he wasn’t long for the world. In those last moments, my dad wanted me to know that I was loved. I can’t tell you what a gift those words are to me.

In the final hours of Jesus’ life among us, He wanted to convey His deep and abiding love to His friends – both then and now. Imagine that. Jesus knew that He wasn’t long for the world and in the midst of that – He wanted to make sure that His disciples – his friends – that and you and me – knew He loves us. That’s a pretty amazing model that Jesus gives us.

I know we don’t like to talk about our own mortality. But I think Jesus gives us a great model where He not only talked about His death he made sure to do what needed to be done and said what needed to be said. He made sure to do what God would have Him to do in the world (which thankfully as God’s Son means that we can have the security of eternal life through faith Christ alone). But He also made sure to convey the important things to His friends – then and now. It is a powerful lesson to a culture that is being reminded at this very hour of our mortality.

A few days ago I was out in my yard and had to move a railroad tie – much like the one I moved when I was working for Mr. Buckholtz. I thought about him doing all that he could in the time that he had to do what needed to be done and say what needed to be said as a man who was running out of time. And then I thought about what I knew of Jesus and I hope in the time that I have left that I’ll do what needs to be done now and say what needs to be said now rather than later. I hope I’ll live like a man on a mission, like a man running out of time. I hope you do as well.

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Contrast

I’ve been thinking for a while now about contrasts: the way things that appear similar but are strikingly different and do very different things. That may be a strange thing to be thinking about, but I have my reasons. For one thing, I roast coffee. The art and science of roasting coffee fascinate me because there is such contrast between coffee beans. While coffeecoffee beans appear similar they roast differently. While a bean from Bali does amazing things at 400 degrees, other beans will burn at 400. Another contrast that has been on my mind is rooted in my experience as a pastor. This contrast involves the way we imagine church.

I have been in ministry since 1992, which is not a long time but long enough. However, I have always struggled with the balance between “disturbing the comfortable and then comforting the disturbed,” as John Stott wrote. Frankly, it seems like all the comforting that pastoral work requires has left very little time for leading the discomforted out of their comfort zones and into the mission of the kingdom. In other words, I’ve spent way more time in committee meetings focused on the business of the church than on the mission of the kingdom (inside rather than outside). I was in one of those internal meetings a few years ago when I realized how lop-sided that is and the utter necessity there is to change it.

A young woman in our church met with me to talk about her concerns regarding her neighbors. They were refugees who had been settled in a few different houses within our community, and specifically her neighborhood. As she got to know them she realized that despite our government’s best efforts there were a lot of things that her neighbors did not know how to navigate very well. For instance, most of them had very little understanding of banking and currency. Because of the variety and abundance of food, many of them were overwhelmed when they went to the grocery store. One woman had no idea how to use a washing machine; she continued to wash clothes by hand in the bathtub. So, this young woman had come to see me to ask what her church could do.

I felt like it was a great opportunity to share the love of Christ and to live out the love of neighbor. I set up a meeting with the person who coordinated our women’s ministry and asked her what we ought to do. The coordinator had a heart for the Gospel and for the needs of women. However, she surprised me with her response. She said that the mission of the church is to worship and teach, “then you let people just go and do.” I remember saying, “that can’t be right.” But, when I met with a few elders from our church I quickly realized that was exactly how they thought of things. A pastor’s job goes hand in glove with the role of the church. We are hired to lead in worship and to teach. That’s what we do every week. When I started thinking about it, I realized how true it is for a lot of churches. Very often a church’s identity is rooted in worship and teaching (discipleship programs).

It is hard to deny the place that worship and teaching have played in regards to significance and identity in church history. After all, worship and teaching are key to the Christian community. What I am suggesting, however, is that worship and teaching are the primary identifying aspect of most churches, at least in the US. That may not be so good and in fact, it may be part of the problem. What happens on Sunday morning and perhaps Wednesday evening drives the church engine, so to speak. Worship and teaching are the mission. Getting people engaged in the life of the church means getting them into worship or a small group. But that endeavor has little to no impact beyond the church.

Churches that focus largely on worship and teaching are what I call worship communities. Of course, that is not to say that worship communities only care about worship but they often restrict the definition of worship to what happens on Sunday morning (per se). A simple list of programs offered by worshipping communities provides ample evidence that churches care about things beyond their doors: mission budgets (conferences, trips), schools, VBS, Celebrate Recovery, Divorce Care, Meals on Wheels, food pantries, tutoring, ESL, etc. Nevertheless, it is difficult to suggest that those programs are the primary focus of any church. In fact, a lot of those programs are done with the hope that it will somehow lead to more people coming to worship or being part of a small group where they will encounter Christ. Thus, the community is usually built around worship and teaching.

Most, if not all, of the churches that I’ve been associated with were worship communities. A real giveaway to that was the way assets were used. The amount of time, money, staff, and effort spent on being outward facing paled in comparison to what was spent on worship and teaching. In one church that projected their worship service on the wall, they spent more on printing the order of worship than on youth ministry. When that fact was brought to the leadership’s attention it was quickly tabled for a future discussion, which to my knowledge has never taken place. Beyond that, worshipping communities can lose their focus and become insular.

It generally happens when a church allows worship and teaching to take center stage of everything they are doing – sometimes at the expense of the very neighborhood where they are located. For instance, a large church in a mid-western city had a parking issue. Parking in a city is always at a premium. Congregants often parked in front of the houses in the neighborhood behind the church, which frustrated the church’s neighbors. Their complaint was well grounded; congregants sometimes blocked a driveway or worse took parking place in front of houses on Sunday and Wednesday (weddings and funerals, too). The church tried to work things out by raking leaves and baking cookies; they tried to have conversations with their neighbors. What they didn’t do was no longer park in the neighborhood. Some within the congregation felt that they had a right to park there since it was a city street and they were there for to go to worship.

To help settle things, the city offered a parking lot down the street from the church, but the congregants felt the half block was too far to walk. The neighborhood went the legal route. The church responded by secretly buying up houses in the neighborhood through a dummy corporation set up by a few of the elders; they planned to tear down the houses and build a parking deck on the edge of the neighborhood – despite the protests of the neighborhood. Eventually, the neighborhood appealed to the city council. The city council sided, rightly, with the neighborhood. The Sunday following the decision the senior pastor comforted the congregation, “While the city council has impacted our parking they will not impact our freedom to worship.” He was right, of course. However, while the church had preserved their worship community they had done so at the cost of a relationship with nearly everyone who lived in the neighborhood and with a lot of people in the city. Not that it mattered, most of the people in the neighborhood didn’t attend the church.

While some churches can afford to burn relational bridges, most churches cannot. And yet, a lot of churches are just as insular in their own way; they work hard to maintain the integrity of their worship community because that is what has been communicated. An all too familiar story involves churches in demographically changing neighborhoods. The church, however, eager to maintain its worship community does not change. It isn’t out of stubbornness. Often attempts are made to engage with the neighborhood. However, those attempts are often done with an invitation to be part of what the church is already doing. In other words, the church wants people in the neighborhood to join their thing. While the church may be warm and welcoming they often don’t make an effort to accommodate the cultural differences. Inadvertently the church sends a clear message and simply wants people to step into what is already happening. To borrow slightly from C.S. Lewis’s Last Battle, the church is for the church.

Too often in those cases, the church comes to a place where they must close its doors. Through death and attrition, they simply do not have the people to maintain their worship community any longer. The real tragedy may not be that the church closed but rather that no one noticed. What a terrible epitaph. A church closes and no one notices. It was so focused on being a worship community that no one in the neighborhood is even aware that it no longer exists.

For a lot of churches, the idea of being in community with one another is so important that it overlooks the way it interacts with even its closest neighbors. Community, however, is Biblical but maybe it ought to focus on something beyond itself to be healthy. Hebrews 10:24 tells us that we are not to forsake gathering together. The assumption that is often made from that text, however, is that it means gathering together with worship and teaching as the focus. I’m not sure why worshipping communities expect more people to be involved in mission when the clear (if not subliminal) message is that the church focuses on “worship and teaching.” When 20% of the folks do 80% of the church’s work and that 80% is focused on maintaining the community for the sake of the church, well, it might be more of a worshipping community than what I call a mission community.

For the most part, there isn’t anything wrong with being a worship community. However, some people in worshipping communities feel like they need to apologize for not being more engaged in mission. They see a need in the community and they want their church to step in and do something; sometimes that happens. Generally, however, when something happens it is either for the short-term (think responding to natural disasters) or it takes a dozen or so committee meetings before anything is ever done. Worship communities can be frustrating for people who want to see the church on mission. What they are asking is that the church become a mission community.

Mission communities are generally more focused and driven by the needs of the community around them as opposed to international mission work (of course they care about that but they are hyper-focused on their community). While a mission community resembles a worship community in the sense that they worship together and are concerned about discipleship, the major contrast is what drives the congregation. For instance, a mission community takes Jeremiah 29:7 as its core identity and works for the welfare (shalom) of their community. Of course, the greatest need that people have is a relationship with Christ. A mission community goes about the work of sharing the gospel by working for the good of its neighbors out of the love of Christ. Sharing the gospel is by proclamation as well as by acts of service.

A mission community is on the lookout for the broken places within its community and takes it as their responsibility to bring the hope of the gospel to bear. It works for the restoration and renewal of its community. Rather than being insular, a mission community is constantly orientating itself toward the welfare, the shalom, of its neighbors.
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Worship communities could say the same, except for the fact that a mission community doesn’t try to start its own thing. For instance, a lot of churches will start their own food pantry rather than work with one that exists in other churches or one that the city has put together. Sectarianism does a great deal of harm to the mission of the kingdom and shows a real lack of spiritual imagination. A mission community, however, often looks for ways they can engage in what is already happening in the community and figures out ways to get involved with the work that is already being done. That allows those who are engaged in the mission community to build relationships and work for good. Mission communities start their own work when there is a gap that needs to be filled.

In one community, the school system has been working diligently to increase literacy among its elementary students. One mission community approached the school system with an offer to provide volunteers needed to launch the program. In the process, they began asking others, outside of the mission community (and not involved in worship communities), to participate in helping kids. In other words, they invited people to participate in the mission. They didn’t expect those folks to participate in worship and discipleship before they could work for the good of their community. The hope was that they would be able to build relationships with people beyond their church walls. A mission community invites people to see the gospel at work in the lives of its people and on display in the community.

There are not many churches that are mission communities. The reason for this is quite simple. It is tough to change the DNA of an established worshipping community. It requires change and most churches, like people, would rather face “ruin than change” (WH Auden). Not only that, but change often leads to conflict and most pastors and church people are conflict avoidant. Additionally, pastors may not have the leadership skill needed to navigate change or conflict. Nevertheless, it is my belief that if worship communities do not start becoming mission communities they will become obsolete and insignificant in their communities. There may be more churches closing soon if they do not move toward the needs of their communities.

That goes for church plants as well. Very often church plants start off with the idea of being missional, focused on the welfare of their community. Over time, however, they begin to take on the shape of a worshipping community – complete with all the specialized ministries that go with the territory. Every so slowly, their focus shifts from being outward facing to being attentive to “comforting the disturbed” to the point they have little time to shepherd folks to think of others as more important than themselves. Eventually, the pastor finds himself enmeshed within inner-church issues, and the budget reflects they have settled neatly into the rhythms of a worshipping community where 20% do 80% of the work. Ten years into a church plant and many of them are no different than any other worshipping community.

It is difficult to maintain a mission community because it is so different, but it is exactly what the church needs and exactly what communities need. Though they may look the same, though they may both be called a church, there is a striking contrast between a worshipping community and a mission community. The former can easily become insular and concerned with its own interests. The later, while not perfect, as least has the needs of the others as its highest end, which after all is closely connected to the way Jesus fleshed things out.

The essay was first published by Tactical Faith where I serve as a Pastoral Fellow (https://www.tacticalfaith.com/pastor-fellows-2/).

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Captive

 

hands boundOver the last week news outlets have buzzed with the fallout surrounding the “alleged” racists comments of Clipper’s owner, Donald Sterling. Everyone from former NBA players and coaches to the President have contributed to the discussion. Even non-profits who have benefitted from Sterling’s wealth are weighing in – some returning his donations and others refusing to receive any further money from him. Sterling’s alleged remarks have left some wondering how this sort of thing could still be with us in 2014 after all we know how horrible racism and bigotry are. We have seen how it can lead to violence and that it also shows up in apathy and neglect. What we may miss, however, is just how captive we may personally be to racism and bigotry.


john perkins 2John Perkins understands how racism and bigotry enslaves humanity perhaps better than most people. Perkins experienced the violence of racism first hand – with the murder of his brother and welcoming justicehis own brutal beating at the hands of law enforcement in his Mississippi hometown. However, as Perkins lay recovering from near death he realized that if he returned the hatred that is inherent in racism he would be captive. He realized that racism and bigotry cuts across the intent of the Gospel. On recovering, Perkins continued the work that he had done earlier but he also began the work of reconciliation. He realized something incredibly important which is at the core of his life work. In the book, Welcoming Justice, John Perkins wrote, “No one ever put a chain on another human being without tying the other end to himself. We know this. But it can be hard for white folks to see how race continues to hold them captive.”

Is it difficult for white people to see how race holds them captive? Is it difficult for you to admit, to acknowledge racism and bigotry in your own life?

Here is an exercise that might be beneficial (or perhaps not).

  • If you are white, does it bother you that an African-American in Mississippi said this about white people? Why?
  • If you are African America does it make you feel good that Perkins says this about white people? Why?
  • If you are neither white nor African-American, how does this statement strike you?
  • When was the last time you heard someone say, “I’m not a racist but…?” Who said it? Why did they feel comfortable saying that to you?
  • When was the last time you heard someone say, “I don’t have a problem with gay people but…?” Did it come from your lips? Who said it? Why did they feel comfortable saying that to you? Or why did you feel comfortable saying it?
  • Would you rather not have certain “types” of people for neighbors? (I once had people react because they didn’t like the idea of living next to a pastor and his family).
  • Does race influence where you eat, shop for groceries, drive, live, or send your kids to school?
  • Does it influence where you worship?
  • Last week a man was sharing with me about where his kids would have to go to school if he didn’t send them to private school. He actually said, “it is a little dark over there – if you know what I mean.” Seeing my reaction he quickly followed up with, “I’m not racist but…” as if that would cover him. How would you have reacted? What would you have said? (I’ve wondered why he felt comfortable saying that to me).

Perkins is spot on and perhaps the Sterling debacle highlights how race and bigotry continue to hold people captive. Here we are in 2014, we have made all these advances in regards to equality and yet it is still with us. Why? Because racism and bigotry do not live in bans, fines, policies, legislation and even in electing an African-American President. Racism and bigotry live in the fertile soil of the human heart where they are planted, take root, bear fruit and harvested. Perhaps we need to ask what is within our hearts.

Perkins could have returned to his bitterness and anger after being beaten. It was certainly an option. It was as much a part of his heart as yours or mine. Instead he went the opposite direction. How?

John Perkins is not the hero of his story. Perkins points to one who triumphed thru him. In the New Testament Gospel of Luke, Jesus, we are told, entered a synagogue and a scroll, from the Prophet Isaiah, was given to him to read. He unrolled the scroll and found what we know as Isaiah 61. He read these words, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

As a Christian, it is the image of “liberty to the captive…those who are oppressed” which captures my imagination, especially as it relates to racism and bigotry. It was Jesus that helped turn Perkins away from the captivity of racism. It was Jesus that transformed his life and heart and keeps transforming it.  And yet, as much as I would like to say that racism and bigotry do not exist within a Christian context I can’t without lying. Sunday morningsslavery_hands_chain are often called “the last segregated hour.” Church folk do not always do what Jesus would have them do.

Nevertheless, I believe, as Perkins states so well, that Jesus “came to drive a wedge in the status quo and create space where new life can happen.” That is one thing that Jesus does – he pushes against even the hidden places of the human heart – the places where the seeds of racism and bigotry are planted – and brings good things to bear. It starts with something difficult – admitting, at least to God and ourselves – that we simply do not love all cultures and all people.

Perhaps when we are ready to admit some things about our hearts, the way we believe and think, then we can look to Jesus – even if you are not a Christian – and see how he interacted with people. Look at where Jesus traveled (Samaria), whom he engaged (prostitutes, tax-collectors, rich, poor, religious and self-righteous). Take a look at Jesus’ life and see how it differs from the way we make decisions about where we go, shop, eat, live, and especially the way we treat other people who are very different from us (Jesus, after all, was very different from the people interacted with). Perhaps Jesus will help us see the ways we are held captive by racism and bigotry. Perhaps he will help us the way he helped John Perkins – who in turn has brought good to bear in so many places. Perhaps Jesus will help you and I to become more aware of the ways that we are held captive to race and bigotry.

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Resources:

  1. http://www.jvmpf.org/
  2. Marsh, C. and J. Perkins (2009). Welcoming justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community. Downers Grove, Ill., IVP Books.
  3. https://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/policysocial-context/24114-some-nonprofits-keep-donald-sterling-s-money-others-send-it-back.html
  4. http://www.esvbible.org/Luke%204/
  5. http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2008/dec/17/radical-faith-the-revolution-of-john-perkins/
  6. http://www.esvbible.org/John%204/
  7. http://www.esvbible.org/John%203/

 

 

Falling From Grace

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I sat across from Jacob[1] as he stared into his coffee. We spoke a few days earlier on the phone and arranged to meet. He shared little with me on the phone except that Trish, his wife, had urged him to call. Trish is the friend of a friend who thought Jacob and I should talk. Though we were strangers we had attended the same seminary a few years apart and we were both pastors. Perhaps I would understand. We sat in a coffee shop in St. Louis Jacob trying to frame his thoughts and me wondering how on earth I could be any use to him.

“A few days ago,” he started, “I gave serious thought to ending my life. Schindler’s List and a picture of my family stopped me.” The clatter of the coffee shop with its ironic, retro-music was a strange but oddly comforting backdrop. “I can’t believe I am in this situation – can’t believe it. The church thing sucks but to make it worse…it turns out that Jesus hasn’t shown up like I thought he would.”

He took a sip and hid half his face behind the cup. “I knew being a pastor would be tough – I’m not naïve. But I didn’t expect to be picked apart by a church that I had given so much of my life to. The worst part is that I felt my faith slip away – in the church and in Jesus. Through no fault of my own I’ve fallen from grace.”

I knew he needed someone who understood, but I wasn’t sure how I could really help him. The story he told was too familiar. He longed for Jesus to show up in a real way, to comfort and assure him in the midst of a dark time, his wounds were deep and perpetrated by the bride of Christ. As painful as it was to be wounded by those he had shepherded for years it was far more severe to feel abandoned by God. “For decades,” he said, “I’ve been telling people Jesus always shows up, brings comfort, healing and hope. But I’ve got to tell you I’m not sure any longer and that terrifies me.”

Sometimes – but not always – the church while preaching grace, mercy, love, and gospel actually embodies judgment and exclusion[2]; it is painful to experience that, especially as a pastor. Jacob dipped a cookie in his cup and bits of it loosened from the whole and floated around the surface. I said little, letting Jacob talk. As he looked up from his polluted cup I hoped he would find the look of a friend who understood.

“It’s hard not to dwell on the past when the future is uncertain – in every way. I mentally replay every conversation, every event to see what went wrong. I confess every sin I can think of. Still there is no relief. I sat in my living room praying, crying out to God. I was wrestling with what it would be like to give up on faith, on the church – on Jesus. I was staring at this picture of my family and I at the beach. We are all laughing. I remember when we took that picture. Then I thought of the scene in Schindler’s List where a woman stops someone from ending her life by saying something like, ‘this is not how your story ends.’ Was God in that for me? Was he in that moment saving me? Or was that just me trying to make God fit into something?”

Jacob’s voice trailed off as he looked out the window of the nearly empty shop. He gathered himself and carefully laid out all that had happened to him. I listened to him for the next several hours. I wondered how to help Jacob – wondered if I could do more than suggest counseling and quietly praying for Jesus to show up.

I have been where Jacob is – felt as if God disappeared – felt the ground give way beneath my feet and all that I thought I knew to be true vanish. Imagine that happening; imagine something that was seemingly solid giving way – only to return stronger than before.

Jacob’s gaze returned from the street. He asked, “What now?” The heart and soul of this pastor had been laid bare; nothing trite was going to bring him peace; no promise to pray for him was going to bring healing. Telling him my story wouldn’t help either. God was going to have to show up or not (though I believe he would). I encouraged him to do as a friend of mine had encouraged me. I said, “Let everything else fall away that can fall away and speak the same words to God that Jesus spoke when he felt God turn away: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani…My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV).

 

[1] This is a work of fiction…

[2] Allan Gurganus – http://williamgiraldi.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/gurganus.2.pdf