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.

///

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.

///

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.”

///

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.

///

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.

///

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.

If you liked this post, please share it!
FacebooktwitterredditpinterestmailFacebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

I See Beautiful Things in You

I posted this just about a year ago, at the old domain in the Lenten season. I was reminded of it recently and it’s one of my favorite posts that I’ve written. It’s deeply personal, written about my wife (you can hear her story here) and it’s what I believe about faith, journey, darkness, pastoring and “in it together.”

///

You don’t know I’m watching you across the sanctuary.

The room has mostly cleared, most of the people have hurried off this first warm(ish) afternoon in the Spring for outside activities. But there you are, deep in conversation, tears filling your eyes. I noticed them throughout the teaching time as I talked about the pain and frustration of unanswered prayer. Somehow your blue eyes shine even more brightly when they are filled with tears.

I know this season of your journey is difficult. I know it’s hard to pray when you’re not sure what – or even if – you still believe. I know even to show up at church on a Sunday morning is difficult, surrounded by people who by all appearances seem to have it all together. (Spoiler: They don’t!) And I know that you don’t even always have the words to express exactly what you feel. Sometimes there are only tears.

And still you come nearly every Sunday. And still you keep fighting, arguing, naming your rage, identifying your doubts, rebuking the angry, vengeful, “mean Gandalf” God that was pounded from the pulpit into your fragile, young mind. And still you keep talking about what you think and how you feel, saying the truest things you know to the people who are safest to you, even when those things feel scary and dark.

And in this season of Lent, you still lean in. You still create spaces of quiet and reflection, even though the quiet only seems to lead to fogginess of the soul instead of the enlightenment promised by so many. And still you come.

As your pastor, let me say this to you; behind your tears, I see beautiful things in you. I know naming your doubts feels vulnerable and scary, and I’m so privileged that you’ve chosen to include me in the journey. So many people would cut their pastor/priest/husband out of dark conversations like the ones we’ve had. And even though it feels scary to you and you feel alone and more than a little lost, I can tell you from where I sit in my office and coffee shops and bars and restaurants talking to so many people, there are many of us who wrestle with the same doubts, the same fears, the same “not-knowing” that you feel. And we are in it with you.

So, please, keep moving forward. Keep stumbling in the dark, because even though it doesn’t feel like it to you, even though you feel broken and fragile and vulnerable, what we see is an incredibly strong person who is willing to face the darkness and keep wrestling with God. You may never arrive at the assuredness of the faith of your childhood, but – as we’ve already discussed – that was a lie anyway. God was never that simple. Instead, you’re figuring it out for yourself, and in the end, I’m confident that where you arrive will be beautiful and strong.

[And just to be all “pastoral” for a second, let me remind you that you’re in good company. Moses argued with God and refused to go to Egypt alone, Jacob wrestled with God (perhaps literally), demanding a blessing and David specialized in bitching at God about nearly everything. And these were God’s “favorites.”]

So – especially in this season of Lent – keep at it. We’re in it with you because we believe in you, and behind your tears we see beautiful things at work.

 

If you liked this post, please share it!
FacebooktwitterredditpinterestmailFacebooktwitterredditpinterestmail