I Am Not Excited About Church, But…

Where’d you get them scars?                                                                                   How blue is your heart?                                                                                                Is it sad enough to break?                                                                                        She said, “It’s sad enough to break.”                                                                                                                  – Brian Fallon

The two pastors of the church we have been attending, took me to lunch this past week. We talked about a lot of things – fantasy baseball, Presbytery meetings gone awry, bacon, and what was I thinking about the church.

I’ve known one of these pastors for 16 years. This was not an awkward conversation. I felt like I could be gut level with both of them. So, I told them what I was thinking.

We’ve been visiting since the beginning of summer. And to be honest, we’ve missed almost as many Sundays as we’ve made. It’s our first summer since Seminary where we have not “had” to be there. So, if someone in our family was feeling poorly or the Zoo beckoned, we might have skipped. And we went on vacation once.

Summer is also a time when other church members are not around and guest preachers show up. So I told them we were going to stay in visiting mode for a couple more months before pulling the trigger on anything like membership.

And then I told those two pastors some more.

On the way back from the beach a couple of weeks back, Bethany and I reckoned we had three choices in regards to church. We could stay where we are and join the church we have been visiting. We could go back to the church where we thought we would be forever and ever, amen. Or we could start visiting elsewhere.

We were not excited about any of those choices. And I told them this. Yes, those two pastors. Don’t worry, I explained. And they were nothing but understanding and gracious, modeling what they preach.

I cannot think of any scenario in which we would be excited about a church. This is no slight to any ecclesiastical body and I guess a shot across the bow of them all.

After all we’ve been through in the past few years of ministry, being excited about church is impossible. It’s not even on our radar. “Excitement” about joining, getting involved in a small group, giving money, and being expected to serve others in the context of a church might as well be a lottery for which we refuse to even buy a ticket.

And we are OK with that.

Even if we were not, we would not be able to muster the wherewithal to correct the course we are on.

I find myself not only weary but weary of the excitement people have for church. Or their church. Or THE church. (For the record, there are no advertisements for churches with congregants weeping, they all look excited. And pretty.)

So much of that excitement has the feel of those parents who project the image of a perfect family onto everyone else’s facebook page. I’m real glad your 4 year old just found out he is an Eagle Scout while y’all are on your way to your daughter’s Cheerleading (“She made head cheerleader!”) practice, after which you will take a family stroll along a bubbling brook. Our kids are fighting like drunken Nazis and we have homework up to the eaves that neither my wife or I know how to do while the kiddos watch Phineus and Ferb, OK?

That’s probably not fair. You may have very good reasons for being excited about your church. Thought I cannot imagine any longer what they could be.

But I find myself among those who are not excited about church. Number me among those. Number me among those who go because we are hoping for a just a crumb from the table. Number me among those who would feel all that they need from God and his people would be cheapened if we worked up excitement over it.

We know we need it. On another level we want church. But excitement escapes us totally. Everybody wants to sing Chris Tomlin. I just wanna sing the Blues.

I assume we are not alone. I can only assume there are many out there who have not felt anything like excitement for weeks. Or years. You keep going. You keep at it. You taste the bread, the wine, and hope against all hope it will wash away the dregs swimming around in the bottom of your soul.

The problem is excitement is now the gold standard of authentic faith. For all our generation’s longing for authenticity, we have missed like lightning in the night, our obvious neglect of the real thing. Sunday mornings and retreats and camps are now fraught with designs upon our hearts to work up excitement. It’s not real. It disappears quicker than the toys my kids cry for at the dollar store.

There is good news for all of us, though. For all the calls in the New Testament to praise God and worship him, there are no calls for excitement.

Pastors and the other excited people are always saying they are excited about what God is going to do among their people. Well, what if he pulls an Ananias and Saphira on your congregation? Would you be excited if he made your congregation like the one in Corinth? Heck, would you be “excited” if he started taking you through unreal suffering for the faith like they went through in the book of Hebrews?

Right now, there are Christians in Middle East being crucified for their faith. No really, they are literally being hung on crosses. Are their pastors excited about what God is doing among them?

I am not excited. I am terrified and worried and restless and broke. Emotionally and financially. I don’t even tell my wife the horrors stories of the church anymore because I’m afraid of pushing her over the brink.

I am not excited. I am frustrated and exhausted and just wanna lie down with Sam Adams and Billie Holiday.

I am not excited. Sometimes I want to openly weep for myself and everyone else’s dreams that have crashed like my mason jar on our driveway yesterday, into a million pieces. I’ll be finding those dashed dreams….those pieces of glass for a while now.

I am not excited.

But there is a slight hum of hope in the background. Though the din of this life rings loud and clear – and in stereo – the hope is constantly humming behind it all. I’m not excited about the church but one of those two pastors said this past Sunday, “there is a hope that is deeper than what we are seeing and feeling.”

I heard, “there is hope in Someone and that hope is far too profound for excitement.”

Why Did I Keep Believing?

Some thoughts seem to come out of no where. You’re just driving down the eastern side of the mountain to pick up a Mediterranean pizza so you can have a nice stay-at-home date with the wife and watch some Hercule Poirot. Some thoughts are like that. Like this one…

Why was I able to keep my faith in college?

I’ve never even thought about this before. It’s never been asked of me. Never crossed my mind. Ever. And then boom, Mediterranean Pizza, and I’m thinking about it on the way back up the mountain.

Let me get two things out of the way before I attempt to answer the question.

First, I do not mean, “Why was I able to be moral in college?” That is an altogether different thing. I was never “wild” or anything like that. But I also do not look back and see a Puritan in the making. My question is in regards to keeping the faith in the face of all the intellectual challenges college threw my way.

Second, one answer is that God is responsible for me remaining a believer. God is sovereign, in control and powerful, so one might want to leave it at that. At the risk of being contrary, allow me to say how lazy that answer is. While true, it is incomplete. And while sounding spiritual, it is usually not. There are always earthly, human and “fleshly” means God uses to achieve such an end. Ignoring this is unspiritual.

OK, now that those are out of the way, the obvious answers need to be dealt with – Christian home, church attendance, church involvement, etc. All these I experienced and drank in deeply. My Father was an associate pastor for 25 years. My mom a SS teacher, my much older brothers were great examples of these things (come to think of it, my three brothers never rebelled against the faith). But here’s the thing making me ask the question above.

This was true for so many others.

So, humanly-speaking, what kept me believing in and following Jesus from the age of nine till now? Why did college with all it’s temptations, trials and challenges have no effect on me? Why did I never, ever veer out of the stream of believing?

I was never trained in apologetics. To be honest, besides a shallow interest in poetry, I had not read deeply at all. No classical education.

Actually I was the opposite of who you would expect to survive college with a faith intact. I was the son of a Baptist pastor. I went to public schools and was a terrible student, barely passing each year of school. My teachers, my parents, and I all wiped our brows that I made it through to the next grade. And I was a little nerdy. OK, maybe a lot nerdy. And heck, my parents threw away my copy of Kick by INXS (Jan 1, 1989…a day that will live in infamy). Just for that I should have rebelled. Add to all this a growing intellectual bent filled with lots of questions about the world we live in and you have a recipe for walking away from the faith according to the conventional wisdom.

But I didn’t. I kept believing.

Well, I have one idea. It is not one supported by science or any facts. It is mere theory. But one I think is worthy of more thinking.

Though I was a pastor’s kid immersed in church life to the nth degree, I was not secluded from the world.

When I got to college, I was pretty ready for the world. I was ready for all the challenges to what I believed, they were familiar to me. The rocky soil of a culture bent on unbelief was not all that uncomfortable under my feet. The shards of reasons for doubt were everywhere but they never really cut deep.

The world was familiar territory to me. But that is not all. If I left it there it would be too much like the above “God” answer. There is just too much more for me to leave it there.

My faith was forged in an environment of seeing the world filled with more reasons for wonder than fear. Sure, I knew there were reasons for fear. The monsters were real. But there was a lot of beauty out there too.

I grew up with all the usual, expected supports for faith you would expect in a Christian family.

But I also grew up in a home with Lionel Hampton in the cassette player, Merle and Willie singing “Pancho and Lefty.” I grew up with a Mom, who after years of collecting shells on the beach, still looked at each new one the way others look at Van Gogh. My parents took pictures of everything long before hipsters were on the scene. Back before my dad was struck with too many….far too many health problems, he built computers from scratch. And with each new innovation, you could see the awe and wonder.

I just didn’t grow up with a fear of the world. But I also didn’t fully trust it. I knew there was something bigger. Always. Something bigger than the sky above and more sure than the ground beneath me.

The theology escaped me. But the implications were present regardless. I had not yet worked out an understanding of God as the One, Who created all things good. The importance of this fact was not officially acknowledged. But it was enjoyed nonetheless.

Though I’m not sure this is why I kept on believing when others did not, I think it is one reason why I kept on believing. Others have reasons too, maybe far different than mine.

I’m not sure I want this to be advice. But this world is full of beautiful and terrible things. And I think it is important for young people to think deeply about the terrible things and to look on in wonder at the beautiful things. Criticism is far too often our only posture.

Maybe I’m thinking about this because my daughter is entering 4th grade. The shadow of all these things creeps closer to her life. And I’m tempted to do nothing but shelter. I mean, she can do whatever she wants when she is 35, right? I kid, I kid. But really, every reasonable parent veers into unreasonable thoughts of sheltering their kids. I’m afraid of sheltering too much and sheltering too little. I suppose this has been the dilemma for parents time out of mind. Maybe, just maybe, helping them see the terrible, gradually, for what it is AND making sure they see the beauty is the…a 10 and 2 keeping us on the road – betwixt the ditches – to where we want them to be.

And maybe I’m thinking about these things because I’m a former youth pastor whose been hearing from his students over the past week as a result of this. So I’ve been rehearsing my decisions and second-guessing. But this kind of thinking is why I think so many of my students were ready for college. We talked about the terrible things of the world. We talked about the fears and temptations. But we also listened to and talked about Josh Ritter and U2 and Bob Dylan and encountered a lot of beauty along the way.

There are a lot of reasons students walk away from the faith in college. And my guess is those reasons are as myriad and complex as the students themselves. But after 40 years of taking strides in my faith and watching myself fail, I’m pretty sure I would not have stayed on the trajectory I kept in college if I had grown up in home without a Mom, who listened to Neil Diamond and a Dad, who listened to Jazz while cleaning up the house on his day off during the week.

No, no, no…I’m not suggesting what parents should be doing, so much as saying we tend to see them as unspiritual parts of my upbringing. But, the more I think about it, I’m not convinced that kind of thinking doesn’t hold any kind of water. I’m more inclined to call those actions very spiritual.

OK, maybe I’m suggesting a least some Van Morrison.

There is a reason why unbelievers walk away from things like The Grand Canyon and U2 concerts and call them “spiritual.” They were. They have souls created by God to be moved by all he has created. How much more a believer?

When I was much younger, say about the age of ten, we had some relatives, who lived up in Gatlinburg, TN. They lived up on the side of one of the mountains just off that main strip. You turned left at The Goof Golf. Seriously.

Anyway, we went up there at least once a year. I loved it. You saw bears, bought cheap pocket knives and saw real Native Americans from the Cherokee tribe (I did not know I am 1/16th part of their tribe till many years later). I have lots of great/beautiful memories of those trips. And some are scary. I cut myself really bad with one of those knives and on the same trip, my older cousin david fell down into a ravine while hiking. No harm done but I was scared when it happened. I remember it was the same trip I got the pocket knife because I wondered if it would have hlped him to have my knife…with a picture of a bear on the side. All three inches.

One of those always stands out like the oldest of mountains high above the younger ones, all covered in mist.

We drove up to Cades Cove, a pioneer settlement, long deserted. If you have not been there, picture The Village and you have it. But the thing my Mom loved the most and would keep my Dad driving around the dirt roads on the top of that mountain were the deer. There were deer everywhere. So many even a non-hunting 10 year old could look at them in wonder. My Mom wanted to count everyone and she remarked at how many, many there were again and again. And I would bet there were tears on the edges of her eyes. You had to keep the windows up and the doors locked because of the black bears. But that fear never kept us from the beauty of seeing dozens upon dozens of deer wandering around, some with their heads just above the long winter grass. If I live to be a hundred, I could not forget all that, even if it is just me remembering the memory.

I’m not sure my parents had all the theology worked out. I know I didn’t. But I’m so thankful I was sent out into the world with the understanding that it was my Father’s world after all.

Tuesdays 10: What I’d Like to Tell My Former Youth

“Working”

A few weeks ago I got to spend some time with a family, who was part of a church I once ministered in. I was youth pastor to most of their kids, counseled another on baptism, and was friends with Dad.

At one point while we were all talking, the subject got serious and they told me how much my time as their youth pastor had meant to them. I had no expectation of this whatsoever, having been there for only about 16 months. And when I left it was not pretty.

There was no party. Nothing. It was weird and painful and we are most likely still licking our wounds over that. Anger has given way to sadness and now I just hope the youth in that church encounter a wondrous and gracious King to serve and love.

That visit did me a lot of good. You want the honest truth? I have always stood firm that the youth ministry I led was what I told them they would get – no frills, serious, serious discipleship. With a lot of laughter and frisbees.

But honestly, I always wondered….I wondered if I had any real impact there. When your youth cry and give you an iPhone (back when no one had one) like they did at the church before, you don’t wonder. There was just too much love to wonder.

So hearing from them and hearing those kind words put me in a good place. A lot of healing in that area has happened since that weekend.

That’s a long introduction for the meat of this post – a post in which the lion’s share of motivation comes from that always hanging thread of wonder – did it matter?

I had the thought that whole weekend of the heaven it would be for me, if I could put them all in a room, from all three churches, and remind them of what we experienced and we learned. And tell them of my affection for them. So, this is my attempt to do that.

Here are 10 things I would tell those hundreds of students I have known and ministered to. Some of this I told them so often they could finish my sentences. Some of this I neglected, either because of ignorance or willful blindness. Anyway, feel free to listen in even if you are not among that wonderful number.

1. Jesus is glorious. He was always our main subject. I hope he still is for you. His life, his teachings, his death, his resurrection, his intercession for us is still is worth your time. If you walked away without hearing me say this then I did not do well by you. The whole Bible is about The King so hopefully I did that fact justice.

2. Justification is good news. Every single one of you had it drilled into your heads that it is really good news that through the work of Jesus we are justified by faith. We are treated “justasifIneversinned” and “justasifIhadkeptthewholelaw” if we place our faith in Jesus. It’s a simple truth and it’s not the whole of the gospel story but man, it is so important. Let it be an anchor, a beacon, and the sea in which you drown.

3. “Love God and do what you want.” Y’all loved this one. Keep at it. Keep loving it until you can go deep inside of its truth. Luther knew what so many of you discovered – as you grow in your love for God, what you want tends to change dramatically.

4. Christian fellowship is valuable. We often spent time together just eating and talking, laughing. There was no agenda, no bible study, we just enjoyed being together. Sometimes there were dozens of us. Sometimes it was just the two us. Every time it was holy. I’m still convinced that more good was done in those moments than in all the intricate planning of retreats and events. I miss this the most.

5. Cut “cool” off at the knees. In our culture “cool” is a tyrant. And he will get you to do things you could not imagine. We are all susceptible to his stratagems, you just happen to be at an age when all his guns are leveled in your direction. Your best defense is still what you have in Jesus. Take Bono’s advice “Be uncool, be awkward.”

6. You are not stupid. For some reason evangelicals think teens need to be taught as if they are incapable of learning the great and glorious and deep truths of God and his world. I always got frustrated with that. You can learn algebra, The Scarlet Letter and Western Civ. You never needed me to do something crazy for you to listen. I never swallowed a Goldfish or shaved my head if our numbers grew. The gospel is simple enough for a child to understand. But it is not simplistic. Keep going deep, my friends.

7. Love others. Even if they are not reformed/Presbyterian. Even if they are not believers. I never stressed this. I should have and I’m sorry. I was too tribalistic with our faith. I love the Reformed faith…it has been a rock for me in tough times. But we do not have exclusive rights to truth. You will learn from Baptists, Catholics, the Orthodox and even unbelievers. Love them with the kind of love Jesus loves you with. One of grace and kindness and smiles and generosity. And humility.

8. Don’t be afraid of being small. Too often I probably made it sound like if you were really serious about your faith, you should think about ministry. Being a teacher or doctor or farmer was not worthy of your time. Well, that’s just stupid. Don’t be afraid to be in a “small” part of the kingdom. Be ordinary and unknown and be content. That’s more radical than anything else you will here in the church today.

9. God has given us many good gifts. Enjoy them. How many times did we pull the van over and stop in the middle of the road and marvel at the stars? How many times did we listen in wonder to an amazing song, again an again. How many times we did stop in worship at the taste of food? So very often. And I’m so glad we did. Those memories are worth more than gold.

10. My affection for you is still strong. I’ve told many of you that I am still your youth pastor, years later. You are now married, in grad school, raising kids, playing pro baseball, dreaming of being a doctor, starting college. You are a part of my life in ways no one else could be. I read books, hear songs, watch a movie, catch a bit of a conversation and I’m taken back to all we enjoyed. I look back on LYM, our trips to Jackson, and DEC with incredible joy. And thanksgiving. Because apart from the King, we would not have enjoyed all that and I would not have all these simply incredible memories.

Don’t forget these things.

Oh wait, one more thing – make fun of legalists. 😉

A Few Thoughts on the Chick-Fil-A Issue

This is quick post before work and will contain many grammatical and typographical errors…

1. My more liberal leaning friends have often been known for thinking it is a problem that Christians are defined by what they are against instead of what they are for. In this case, the head of Chick-Fil-A sai he was FOR traditional marriage and was thus vilified for being AGAINST gay marriage. The problem is that if you are for something you are against something else. It’s a distinction without a difference and is supposed to be clever. But if you stop and think, it’s not.

2. A lot of people – pastors and other Christians –  are worried today’s appreciation is not a good idea and a mistake. They think it furthers the culture wars and forfeits an opportunity to be compassionate to those we disagree with on the gay-marriage issue. Let me get this straight – the head of Chick-fil-a says he supports a view of marriage everyone supported 5 seconds ago, the left goes nuts, politicians tell Chick-fil-a they are not welcome in certain cities (violating fundamental laws of the land) and people who love the chain (including many non-Christians) want to show their support to a succesful, quality company in a down economy. The criticism of those who want to support the business today just sounds “above-it-all” and snobbish to me.

3. Lastly, this is way bigger than gay-marriage and Chick-fil-a. And all the social justice people need to think long and hard if they really care about social justice or are they just wanting to support all the hip causes and be seen as a with it believer.