With Trembling Hands

Yesterday at church my hands were trembling as I stood up to teach.

I’m not a nervous speaker. When I used to pastor at a megachurch, standing in front of large crowds didn’t unnerve me in the least. And while putting on a microphone and talking about the mysteries of God and the universe, doubts, and abstract ideas like love, justice and forgiveness would freak most people out, it’s just the thing I do. No big deal.

Except for yesterday.

We’ve been having a tense conversation in our church for the last couple of months. We’ve been having a conversation about what the church should say to our LGBT brothers and sisters. And really it has been a conversation as we wrestle with the Bible, tradition, reason and our own experiences. (We’re not Wesleyans, per se, but we’ve always found the Wesleyan Quadrilateral useful in our deliberations.)

And so, since the beginning of the year, we’ve collapsed our two morning services into one service during which I teach, and we’ve set aside the second service time for conversation. We’ve welcomed people to ask questions and make comments, and every week during this series, I’ve walked away feeling so in love with these brave midwesterners wrestling with big issues.

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As the pastor, I probably think about these things differently than most. As pastor, it’s not about theoretical ideas about morality, but rather about relationships. And it’s not just about my own story and experiences, but rather the collective story and experiences of everyone in the church. Ken Wilson, in his excellent book A Letter to My Congregation describes it this way:

“The members of a congregation have a commonly held conscience on many, but not all, matters. A pastor stands at the crossroads of a congregation’s conflicted conscience. It’s a congested intersection, this place. Standing in the middle of it can be dizzying, frightening, awful, especially under the intense scrutiny that comes with religious controversy.”

And so, yesterday, as I prepared to stand up and say things that would challenge nearly every one of us, my hands shook in nervousness and anxiety.

Help me, Lord Jesus, to be faithful to the pathway you seem to be leading me down. Help me to say what I say with grace, humility and kindness.

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I’m a lucky guy. I sometimes hear stories of pastors who come into conflict with their congregation and lose their jobs. Or I hear stories of how parishioners leave a church angrily, “telling off” the pastor as they go. Yes, we’ve had a few of those, but not very many. The church I pastor is filled with kind, lovely people who, I believe, really believe Jesus when he says that everything hangs on how we love. Again, my experience is reflected in Wilson,

“Strangely, very few of you have actually asked me this question directly. Congregations learn to read their pastors. And many of you sense that I’ve been wrestling with this one for a long time. You’ve heard sermons that indicate a certain lean away from the traditional consensus, perhaps. I suspect that some of you haven’t asked me where I draw the line because you haven’t wanted to put me on the spot. Others haven’t wanted to situate me, your pastor, on what you may regard as the wrong side of an important moral issue. Or you may just be nervous for me, for us. In any case, I want to say: thank you.”

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I’m writing this on Monday morning. I feel emotionally spent. I could have spent the day in bed, which is why so many pastors take Mondays off. (They also tell us to never write our resignations on a Monday. Good advice!)

I actually don’t remember much of what I said. I don’t know if it’s this way for everyone, but there are times when I’m so “in it,” so focused on what I’m doing, that afterward I don’t remember the specifics. I’ve thought about listening to the podcast, but that sometimes leads to self-loathing. (Oh do I hate the sound of my own voice!) We’ll see how I feel in a couple days.

What I do know is that when I preach that kind of sermon, with that kind of emotion and intensity, I feel super-vulnerable afterwards. (I know from talking to pastors, musicians and other artists this is common.) I feel vulnerable because it’s not just a task I performed but, rather, I feel like I’ve given a part of myself to a whole bunch of people at once. And so, my tendency is to want to run and hide – to find any excuse to get to my office and close the door as fast as possible.

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In my younger years, I needed a lot of praise in these fragile moments just after the sermon to satisfy my fragile ego-self. But I’m learning that what my ego wants almost always leaves my soul feeling hollow. So I’m trying to learn to pay attention to my soul. My honorary-big-sister-even-if-she-doesn’t-know-who-I-am Liz Gilbert says,

“I know that I am not only an ego; I am also a soul. And I know that my soul doesn’t care a whit about reward or failure. My soul is not guided by dreams of praise or fears of criticism. My soul doesn’t even have language for such notions. My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires only one thing: wonder.”

I would add, in addition to wonder, my soul also longs for intimacy. In that moment, I need connection with my wife, boys and friends. I need my most intimate friends to tell me, “You are loved.”

[This by the way, is the greatest gift a church can give to their pastor: the freedom to have their own intimate circle of friends, even if those friends don’t attend your church. Yes, your pastor should be friends with everyone at some level, but your pastor also needs an intimate space of people who can authentically say, “We will love you regardless of anything about you that is ‘pastor.’” Let your pastor have a circle of people to whom they can say, “I need something from you,” so they don’t need it from the congregation.]

After the service, my wife grabbed me in the center aisle and hugged me, and my good friend sought me out as I was trying to escape into my office and gave me a hug and reminded me that I’m loved. And my closest circle – the ones who know that I need them – tended to my fragile self throughout the day with texts and love. That’s what my soul needed.

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My hands were trembling yesterday before I got up to speak to these beautiful people that I get to lead. But there’s goodness here. I think I said some things to challenge all of us. And, to the best of my knowledge, I’m leading our church down the pathway that is right for us. It’s not easy. And there will be sadness and tears to come.

But we’re together in this.

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Hope Rising

Fair warning: if you have sensibilities about strong language, you might want to skip this post. The “grandaddy” of swear words lies below. You’ve been warned.

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It was exactly a year ago when Jennifer sent me a text while I was at work. “Have you read this post yet? You need to.”

We were both in gloomy, dark places. We each had our individual griefs, heartaches, doubts and fears, and on top of those were some we carried together. Last winter was hard for us.

And when I read Micah’s post the first week of Advent last year, it ripped through me. Especially this part:

Oh that you would rend the inky blackness and

crash into this ice cold planet in an explosion of light

again

How long oh Lord?

How long oh Lord?

How long oh Lord?

Fuck this shit, oh Lord.

This is my tired advent prayer. Fuck this shit indeed. Amen.

which, being translated, means:

how long oh lord? until you heal what has been

rent nearly beyond repair.

I forwarded it to my friends. I think they probably thought I was being cheeky or just swearing for effect, but in my quiet spaces, where it’s just God and me, it’s all I could say last year at this time. “Fuck this shit indeed. Amen.”

How many nights, my love, did we whisper this to each other in the dark, because it’s the only thing we knew to pray? How many times did we read Micah’s post to each other and promise each other that we were in it together?

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I think we sanitize religion too much sometimes. If you read Micah’s blog regularly, you know he gets a lot of flack for his use of colorful language. And yet, there are times in our lives when “church language” doesn’t even come close to expressing the despair of our hearts. There are times when the most true thing I can say to God is not suitable for children. But, hey, news flash: the condition of my heart isn’t always suitable for children.

The lament Psalms demonstrate that this is okay with God – that God seems more interested in my honest, passionate engagement than he is with the culturally-defined “bad” words I use. God seems much more okay with me sounding off expletives to the heavens than me running away and saying nothing.

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At a gathering of pastors in Minneapolis a month ago, a song written by EastLake Community Church in Seattle cut through me like a beam of light, like Cupid had threaded his arrow with hope. (I sang that song, “Thank God,” to our congregation my first week back.) So, I downloaded the album from Bandcamp. And another song on the album got stuck in my head a couple of weeks ago:

Hope is building in my chest

I can feel it like a heartbeat

Somewhere underneath this mess

I can feel it like a heartbeat

“Heartbeat”

Something good happened inside me during Sabbatical, and the darkness I felt for most of 2014 and 2015 started to lift. I went on an amazing trip to Asia, I kept having breakfasts with a friend who kept telling me he loved me despite my prickliness, I hung out with pastors I really liked in Minneapolis, I had an 18-course dinner with a dear friend, I ran a half marathon, I went to a Halloween party and for the first time in a long time, I started to feel like myself again, like winter was turning to springtime.

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In the winter of last year, I thought things had been damaged beyond repair. For awhile, I thought I might just be scarred for life in some areas deep inside. I was afraid my insecurities, my anger, my grief would just become my new way of life. I rumbled with my story, and I was resigned to living my life in that dark place.

Last week, a friend loved me enough to start a long conversation, one that isn’t finished yet, but one that’s bringing me hope that all is not lost. The night before Thanksgiving, our families hung out, ate pizza, played games, talked and cried like old times, and hope filled me that maybe, sometimes, things I thought were dead will come back to life.

Hmmm. That rings familiar.

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May you experience hope this Advent season. I hope wherever you are, no matter how dark the night, you experience shreds and glimmers and arrows of hope that light your way, even in the darkness. The sunrise may still be a long way off, but my wish for you, in this Advent season, is that you will find something – or perhaps someone(s) – that will remind you that at the heart of the Christian story lies hope – that things we thought were dead sometimes come back to life.

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