How Long, O Lord?

I still have no words.

The beginning of Psalm 13 has rang in my ears since I first started watching the attack on our democracy yesterday:

“How long, O LORD?”

How long will we deny the problem?
How long will our leaders deny truth?
How long will the powerful sow seeds of hatred?
How long will can we bear the violence of weaponized discontent?

13:1 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
– Psalm 13:1-2 ESV

Lord, in your mercy…
…hear our prayers…
…hear our screams…
…hear our wails…
…hear the pain in our speechlessness…

I cannot give commentary, I cannot make more sense of it than anyone else has, I cannot even speak more truth to the powerful than has already been spoken.

I can only mourn. The America I believed in – the America promised to me by those who loved me – came under attack yesterday, or at least the illusion of and eventual hope for that America.

A misguided American – a misguided child of God – lost her life because she believed this was necessary; she was lied to and believed it, and she lost her life because of someone else’s lie.

I just…have no words anymore. I have said it all before, and today I can only mourn and pray for healing that has not come yet and does not appear on the horizon.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Come, Holy Spirit, come.
Come, Lord Jesus, come…

Blessed Agony

Pastors have a list of things they never learned before becoming pastors. We learn skills – some more useful than other – and learn about God and how to wrestle with God, but only living a call can teach you what that life entails.

You never learn about agonizing over something every time you do it. I believe every pastor has their thing – the thing they demand perfection of themselves over. When it comes, you agonize over your thing every time, worrying yourself sick and polishing imperceptible imperfections out of your thing.

(For those entering ministry: if preaching becomes your thing you agonize over every time, you cannot sustain that for very long. Find another thing to agonize over. Just, trust me on this.)

I agonize over every funeral. I put every funeral liturgy together from scratch, pulling bits and piece from every worship book I have, rewriting already beautiful prayers to make them fit slightly better, worrying about doing more harm than good. I will rewrite the opening words at least three times before I allow myself to go to the next piece. I will spend more emotion energy on the short homily for every funeral than I do for half a dozen Sunday sermons.

I agonize for hours, and I love the privilege of it. I will agonize for multiple hours today over a funeral tomorrow, I will stand there at 11:00 A.M. in the most nervous state I regularly feel as a pastor, I will humbly present my offering for a man who I never met, and I will feel the presence of God and the work of the Holy Spirit in me for just those few moments.

I will declare the love of Christ for people looking for hope and comfort in pain and loss, and for that moment I can provide just a small measure of comfort.

This moment – this moment when the weight and agony of seeking perfection makes me question everything I know I do well – fills me with such joy that I can – that I get to – do this for a family that expects nothing more than just a few words taken from a book, given by a person who has a calming and loving presence.

Maybe it ages me, maybe it takes too much out of me in a time when I have so much extra taken out of me already, maybe I should stop agonizing over every liturgy and allow sufficient to be enough, but I love the privilege of the skill and the desire to agonize over this and make it unique, good, and holy.

This is blessed agony for me, and I would never trade it for anything. These are the moments I became a pastor for.

Peace,
– Robby

Two Letters to My Beloveds

(This post started as just the first letter. I have felt the push to write that letter for months – maybe years – as a call for people after my own heart to see their real enemy and to stop serving as weapons of the powerful against other poor people.

I long to see the loving people I love vote and act according to that love and not political talking points force fed to them. I want them to vote and act according to their true identity and not a convenient, falsified identity given to them by the powerful.

Since starting that first letter, Iowa – my heart, my soul – suffered significant destruction, including 10 million acres of crops destroyed and 20% of the counties under a state of emergency. This happened to almost no acknowledgement and almost no national coverage. A forum post actually said, “I know we’re a flyover state, but still…” like being a flyover state is a legitimate reason to ignore the suffering of people.

As I thought more about the first letter, I realized I needed to write the second letter, something I have thought about for many years and wrestled with as my beliefs moved to what the American political spectrum would call “Left.”

As I write them, please read them in love and a desire love – and justice. Truly I love the people who I want to hear both. Both groups lovingly formed and molded me into a loving, compassionate, universal justice-loving pastor who truly wants the church to live as a reflection of Christ’s love, especially to the marginalized, the ignored, the impoverished, the despised.

I want the people I love to love each other and work together to make Christ’s love the definition of the church and the world.

I love you all, so I write you these letters.)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

To My Rural, White Siblings

I see you. You may take this as a liberal ploy to endear myself to you, but I do see you. I hear your frustrations and laments, and I feel your pains.

You are my heart; you always have been, and you always will be.

I know you are unheard and unseen. I come from you – you created me, raised me, and taught me how to be a pastor – and now that I find myself in an urban area serving on our presbytery council, I see more clearly how much the larger church – and the larger society – ignores you. I speak for you every opportunity I get, and my voice almost always goes unheard.

So, as I write you, I want you to hear me in love because I believe my path and your needs align. I believe a better way forward can come if we focus our anger and frustration at the people actually causing the pain and not everyone just trying to find a way to a better life, a better country, and a better world.

I have heard many blue-collar workers lament the disconnect between laborers, service workers, and the general the working poor and lower middle class, and those who govern us. A common refrain of, “I just wish someone like us would get in there; then things would be better.”

Your lament the poor treatment you receive economically. You lament how gutted your schools become. You lament that your bosses can – and joyfully do – underpay you. You lament seeing the rich keep getting richer and the poor staying poor. You lament the Sophie’s choice of either leaving the area you love – I love – and your home or working exceedingly hard to live in poverty until you die. You lament no one hearing you or caring about your pain.

I feel your pain my heart. When you hear phrases like “white privilege” while you suffer poverty with no opportunity or prospect to improve and while the people in Washington/Des Moines/Indianapolis/(insert your capital city) ignore you unless they want your vote, and then ignore your more until they want your vote again, you feel attacked while you presently suffer. You lash out – at people of color, at our “ruling class” of a different political party, at educated elites who tell you how awful and sinful you are – because no one sees or hears you.

It pushes you toward a political agenda that lies to you, saying “they” are the problem – they being the people who look different, live differently, think differently than you. If you just obediently follow a particular party, the party says it will protect you and punish “them.”  They lie to you – they do not provide for or protect you, and they only harm those who threaten their power – but at least they hear you, even if they will do nothing to help you and twist your concerns for their own greedy and racist agendas. They lie to you, but at least they do not call you “evil” because of where you live and what you believe, so you vote for them.

I get why you believe, but things continue to get worse. Their promises go unfulfilled, yet they tell you to keep believing because, eventually, you will get what you need.

Instead of seeing a system that oppresses you – that takes away your economic privilege, educational privilege, and many of the other privileges that, frankly, people like me enjoy – you only see people who want to oppress you and people who promise to stop them from oppressing you. Instead of seeing that a system built upon racism but also built upon keeping all working poor beaten down so they do not have the energy to revolt against it, the system feeds you a lie that Black and LGTBQ+ folks hate you because you are White, straight, and Christian.

They lie to you, promise fixes that will never come, and use you as a weapon to keep our anger focused laterally and down instead of up at the system that oppresses you and keeps you poor.

The system does the same to Black and LGBTQ+ people, just focusing their anger on you.

It breaks my heart when loving, gracious, good people act and vote hatefully because powerful people lied to them. You are gracious, loving, and good; I want the world to see that.

I will not lie to you and tell you the party you hate has treated you well. I will not pretend you do not get ignored and condemned as uneducated bumpkins who revel in joyful ignorance. I hear you, and I see you; I want your lives to get better, and I want people to see and hear you.

So, I will tell you what I see as someone who loves you.

In the war to control the lower classes – keep them underpaid while making billions for companies and select individuals – the wealthy have weaponized you and your pain, distracting you from the cause of it and convincing you to blame someone lower than you instead of the system.

If you blame people of color for your lack of opportunity, if you despise “educated liberals,” if you believe the LGBTQ+ community does not share your values of love, compassion, and authenticity, then you cannot see someone benefiting from hatred derived from your real pain. You become a vocal weapon in a battle pitting the poor against each other to distract from the real war of systemic oppression that, again, keeps you nearly as poor as our Black siblings and other siblings of color and nearly as minimized and ignored as our LGBTQ+ siblings.

They convinced you to righteously hate the “other” and rebel against identity politics. To do this, they have convinced you your identity aligns with theirs.

Whose identity do you actually align with?

  • A poor laborer who often loses his job because of his unreliable car and who cannot afford good work boots and tools, or a billionaire who started life rich and has never had a real job?
  • A bartender elected to a first term in office, or a senator who was first elected to public office in 1959, first elected to federal office in 1975, and has been a U.S. Senator making over the 2020 equivalent of $150,000 since 1981?
  • People told their culture is violent and they are the cause of their own misery, or people who have never served in the military sending your young people to war – causing literal violence and death?
  • People condemned by the church because of their consensual relationships and chosen identities, or people protected by the church after grooming and preying on vulnerable people?
  • People hassled by the cops, or people who the cops allow to commit crimes without repercussion – and whose political and financial influence helps them in court?
  • Normal people just living their lives and wanting basic human rights and the economic power to live comfortably outside of fear, or rich people who govern and create laws based upon donor requests and political party agendas?

If you take the race, sexuality and gender, and political party away from every person above, you look, act, and live more like the first person listed than the second. I know this, because I hear you and you raised me. I know you want a better world, I know you want no one to suffer, I know you want everyone who works hard to have enough to live comfortably; I know, because I hear you say it.

So, please do this for me. Listen to the stories of people who suffer and listen to their cries for justice. Listen and realize confessing the privilege of your Whiteness – lack of police and societal violence, representation in entertainment, etc. – does not minimize the lack privilege you have from economic disparity, educational disparity, opportunity loss, and generally being ignored by most of the system unless they want something from you. Share your own suffering and help them see that you, too, need what the system promises to provide but never does.

Unless you have vast wealth gained on the exploitation of workers, your fight for what you deserve as a human is the same fight that #BlackLivesMatter and PRIDE fight.

You have sins of racism, sexism, and homophobia to repent of, and smarter people than me have spilled more ink on the subject than a person can consume in multiple lifetimes to help you wrestle with those sins and your confession, but know that system built on racism was also built on keeping the poor, poor. It does not do the same violence to you, but it keeps you poor and ignored all the same.

Stop fighting the people the system also harms – and harms more – and instead focus your anger up at those doing the harm.

In love, my beloveds,
– Rob

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

To My Justice-Focused Siblings, Especially Those of Faith,

I grew up with a definition of Christian – conservative, gun-owning, LGBTQ+ condemning, convinced of judgement upon others but not on real Christians who espoused those values – but I found myself questioning how we could believe those things that clearly conflicted with the person of Jesus attested to in scriptures. I could never reconcile my believes about Jesus and this image of Christianity.

Many of you loved me into a space where I could wrestle with the views I held and actually address the inconsistency between what I read and believed about Jesus and what I believed about the world. I have too many to name, but you telling me your life experiences – especially those beloveds of color – and embracing me as my full self unconditionally allowed me to grow and see the pain and injustice we must address.

You helped me find my faith. You helped me see the path of compassion and sacrificial love that I could not find on my own. I owe my soul to so many of you. I would not be the pastor – nor the person – I am without you.

I write you to remind you of the lesson you taught me: give special care to the suffering of ignored and marginalized.

When you call rural people privileged because of their race without acknowledging – or willfully ignoring and/or blaming the victims for – their poverty, lack of opportunity, educational disparity, and how our institutions, especially the church, ignore them, you make it impossible for them to hear you. You pass judgement for the sins of the powerful onto the powerless instead of helping them see how the systems harms BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people and that it harms them, too.

Please try to not mishear me. As I have become more vocal in my calls for justice, many racist views of people I love have become louder and more angrily and forcefully thrust at me. I do not, for a second, believe you should stop the calls for personal repentance and systemic justice. Many rural folk – especially those not encumbered with poverty – hold and act upon incredibly racist beliefs, and those beliefs cannot be ignored.

I do not want you to absolve them of the sin of racism; I only call for you to also see their pain and poverty.

We cannot equivocate rural poverty with the horrors of chattel slavery, violence against Black women and girls, white supremacy, and the unique sins of creating the mirage of race and building our system on racism. We cannot equivocate rural minimizing with violence and silencing of the LGBTQ+ community. We must acknowledge the difference in degrees of magnitude of suffering between the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities and poor, rural communities and definitively name that the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities have suffered more – especially in terms of violence and destruction of identity.

But same system that harms BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people also harms poor, rural folk. The same system that drives educational funding away from inner city schools also drives funding away from rural schools. The same system that keeps inner city laborers poor keeps rural laborers poor. The same system that enriches a select few does so in urban and rural communities.

The same system forces us to see each other as enemies instead of allies in the same war, forces us to see each other as victims of the other side instead of victims from a system of greed and weaponized hate.

The same system harms us all, and many I address this letter to do not suffer the economic and living hardships our rural siblings do because of other privileges you have – education, opportunity, location, etc.

If we want to fix the system – or burn it to the ground – and end the suffering of the marginalized, oppressed, and ignored, we must not ignore the suffering of people who look and act different than us; we must all start working on repenting of our own sins and working together instead of working to only improve the lives of those who look and act like us. For many of my justice-focused Christian siblings, that means you have to stop believing poor, rural folk do not suffer systemic poverty and marginalization.

Instead of attacking poor folk, attack the system that lies to the them and keeps them poor. Love them in the same way you loved me. Tell your stories to them, not accusingly but vulnerably and honestly. Try to not place the sins of the powerful on the shoulders of the powerless.

We cannot correct – or destroy – the system if we continue to punch those who the system has already beaten down. Punch up at your oppressors, not those the system has placed slightly above some of you only to make an ally an enemy – and so the system and pick their pockets while they focus their anger at you.

I truly love you, I truly owe my soul and life to you, I see the holiness of your calls for justice, and I long for our calls for justice to include – and come from – all oppressed peoples.

I know some of them hate some of you because of your identity, I know some of them celebrate your pain, and I know some of them refuse to understand racism and their role in it, but propaganda and lies shaped them and keep them beaten down. Given the fair opportunity, most of them would feed your – our – entire community with their last dollar instead of watching anyone go without.

They want what you cry for: to be seen, to be heard, to have enough, and to live as they want to live (as long as it does not harm anyone else). If we want them to hear our cries for justice, we must also hear their cries for justice. If we want them to see the pain and suffering of racism and homophobia – and their role in it – we must also see their pain.

Rural people value community above almost anything else; community is family to them. If we start treating our rural siblings as our community and not the other, we can help them to see their sin and also how they can fight the system with us.

We are not enemies and neither group is evil nor unredeemable; may we, as the one who know and understand, start fighting our battles in that truth.

In love, my beloveds,
– Rob

The Difference in Murders

My Facebook newsfeed has many pictures of Cannon Hinnant on it, a young boy who was murdered this past week.  And I am as horrified as everyone that someone – anyone – could murder a 5-year-old in broad daylight.

The world became darker that day.  And I cannot imagine the pain and rage his parents feel.

I weep for them. And I cannot believe I need to write the rest of this blog post.

Something dark and nefarious comes with these posts.  The refrain read, “White Lives Matter!”  Some include unsubstantiated and probably false claims the man murdered him due to his whiteness.  Comments about the “urban community” and how “awful” George Floyd was flood the conversation below the photos.

I notice one stark difference between Cannon’s murder and Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and even George Floyd: they already attested Cannon’s murder and charged him with first degree murder. 

Breonna Taylor’s murders still go free, Elijah McClain’s murders still go free, George Floyd’s murders were only charged because of a video and the protests – and only one received a second degree murder charge.

Why call for protests for this young life?  Who will you protest against?  You only need to protest justice not given, and the justice system came down hard on Cannon Hinnant’s murderer.

No one claimed his life didn’t matter, and the system declared his life mattered.

His death was senseless, and we long for something to make sense of it.  Making it about race helps the world make sense – even if horrific – and without that, we lost a little boy for no reason.

And people took advantage of that vacuum of pain and made it a story for pushing racist agendas.

Shame on you if you use a child’s death to further your racist beliefs.  Shame on you for creating a false narrative and claiming anyone – including the system – said his life was less than sacred.  Shame on you for caring less about the death of a child and more about you and your insecurities as a system of racism finds itself more reveled every day.

All like is sacred, and the justice system treated Cannon’s life as sacred.  The protests and cries for justice come because the system does not treat Black, Brown, and other lives of color as sacred.

As soon as you see people of color the same as you see this child, then you will see; until then, I cannot engage with your racism because we have no common ground.

I weep for you, Cannon. I weep for your parents. I only wish I could not believe people took your death and made it into something worse.

Pastoring in the Tension

I hate the profession of pastoring right now.  There, I said it.  I love being a pastor, I love caring for people, I love preaching – even when I must preach a difficult, prophetic sermon – I love the church I currently serve, I love this call.  But holy crap, we have found ourselves in a terrible time to try to pastor to people and the larger church.

Just open your Facebook account.  Today Iowa still has not declared a final count for the Caucus, President Trump gave the State of Union Address last night, and Nancy Pelosi ripped her copy of his speech in half after he finished – after he refused to shake her hand before he started.  Oh, and the impeachment vote will happen today.

What did your friends say about these things?  Or, for the pastors who might hear this, your parishioners?

I saw both Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump revered as the second coming of Christ and feared as the arrival of the anti-Christ.  I saw conservatives and liberals derided as stupid evil and deified as the saviors of our nation.  I saw discussion not happening and hyper-partisanship ending all dissent.

This morning, before I even got out of bed, I saw these things.  Long before I even got to the office to contemplate worship for the week and how I address another long list of unique things I have to address less some thought leader recommend people leave my church – or rather, I have to decide what gets addressed and what I cannot speak to – I saw all these things.

And, just by pointing out the hyper-partisanship, someone will inevitably accuse me of “Enlightened Centrism,” a code-word for complacence in evil by not choosing to fall in line with a side.  I cannot win; I will fail every purity check of the left and the right, and I will always be the “problem” despite my desire to do something right.

We live in a time were people celebrate a former moderator of the General Assembly publicly endorsing a candidate and publicly accusing other candidates of a whole host of evils – and publicly stating that people voting for any other party doom the nation.  And, when I say this, someone will accuse me of being an Alt-Right white-supremist.  How dare I question the actions of someone like that?

Pastors, I have a question for you: do you see any pastoral sensitivity in anything we do in 2020?  Recently, at a meeting where the group would vote on the proposed direction for the presbytery, a vocal activist equated being conservative with being evil to prove their point in a room of fairly liberal church people – and my parishioner, a moderate conservative trying to figure out her place in this church, sitting right beside her.

What the Hell should I do?  Do I stand up against the prevailing winds because I want pastoral sensitivity and for us to deal with our internal hyper-partisanship so we can more effectively reach out people who have loving hearts and misguided minds?  Do I just let the prevailing winds blow the church as they want because the ultimate goal lines up with the message of Christ despite its problematic language and method?  Do I even get to call it problematic when the problems come from isolating people the larger American church has largely coddled in decades past – and I see it as unhelpfully driving people away from the message instead of convicting them to change?  Do I just give up, sit in my little corner, do what I can to move the needle slightly toward love in maybe one person in the congregation I serve, and just be okay with that?

As I pain over that tension, I also have to provide pastoral care to people.  I know thought leaders say we worry too much about pastoral care, but I guarantee you the woman whose husband forgets who she is when he stands will not hear anything about whatever soap box the larger church demands I stand on today.  I guarantee the man who had to make the difficult decision to put his wife in a care facility because he could not longer care for her – and then had an appendectomy within two weeks – will not hear my prophetic message.  Or even make it to church.

Some people God called me to care for vote straight-ticket Republican, some straight-ticket Democrat, and they all need care.  My sermons, my social media presence, my speaking about politics will affect their ability to receive care from me.  I do not have a pastoral care staff.  I have some volunteers, but they are not trained in any real way.  They all have professional and personal lives outside the church.

When someone stares down death – either their own or a loved-one’s – I am it.  I believe they give me more leeway to accept my care when I get a bit feisty in the pulpit than I acknowledge, but I know a line of “too far for this moment” exists and I refuse to participate in pastoral ministry that does not at least acknowledge were my people are and what they can hear in a moment – and then receive the care God called me to give them afterward.

I find myself likening this profession to a tightrope walk, which itself just lends itself to the difficult beauty of this calling, but a thing has happened.  Thought leaders have demanded we do not spend time on that tightrope and only worry about staying apolitical for the sake of providing care or worry about having a prophetic voice and find someone else to provide that care.

You know where the tightrope is easiest?  On the edges, off the actual rope.  If you refuse to balance the multiplicity of this calling, of course you can just say whatever you want from the pulpit without any sort of sensitivity or just not rock the boat in your sermons because you always think about the hospital room and the funeral home.

I think the profession used to rejoice – if privately lamenting – the balancing act we must do and the tension we feel between all our callings.  Or, at least I thought that when I started seminary.  Now, though, I only see thought leaders and “important pastors” pretending that all pastors have staffs, budgets, and opportunities to do all the activism and prophecy – and condemning pastors who have pastoral work to do.

Pastors, I have another question: how many of you actually feel supported?  Hopefully your spouses, partners, and families provide some support, but who actually feels supported in their ministries – and their struggles in this soul-killing tension – by colleagues, regional ministers, or church leadership?  Or, like me and so many others that I talk to, feel like they have to do it all alone and no one cares about their struggles – and they do not even have a place to express those struggles at all?

Pastors, I have yet another question: how many of you have received the answer, “Find a Therapist, Spiritual Director, or Coach,” when you express frustration over your lack of support?  How messed up has the church gotten that we say that you need to pay for the support you need?  We preach in a time of hyper-partisanship, provide pastoral care for people we need to preach a prophetic message to, and then must pay for someone to care about our struggles.

We have to choose to pastor in the tension – or choose not to.  I just do not know how we sustain this.  Or is it just me?

Peace,
– Robby

Who Am I?

Who Am I?

New Year’s Eve.  A day to contemplate the previous year and try to discern the path for the next.  For me, and a few others, I suppose, this day provides a moment for depressive introspection.

Oh, just me?  Cool, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool…

This really starts from a different question that invades my thoughts almost hourly: Am I enough?  I have immense gratitude for a few colleagues who have answered that for me resoundingly and loudly despite my inner being’s inability to hear it.

My car read me the first text below after I had just sent a friend “Thank you” for the unearned support and love she gave me.

Imagine the wall of emotions – while in a very emotionally raw state – when I heard the word “enough” instead of the “welcome” I anticipated.

Calling me Bobby Brown just made it clear she sent it from a place of authenticity.

Today Brian McLaren posted New Year’s Resolutions for Pastors and “Smoke What You’re Selling” really hit me.  I think, at some level deeper than just intellectual, I have started to believe I am enough.  I am starting to hear as I say it to the parishioners God sent me to serve.

Not perfectly – I will probably always struggle with feelings of vast inadequacy – but the message has started to go from my brain to my soul.

As I try to internalize it, another force starts working against me.  Thought leaders like John Pavlovitz instructing you to leave your church if your pastor does not speak out against (insert weekly atrocity)*, Will Willimon telling a room full of pastors to abandon pastoral care for prophetic preaching, mega-church pastors saying they understand the pains of small church ministry because they went down to 3,000 members instead of 10,000 while they say the pastors do not spend enough time crafting perfect sermons while sitting in their multi-staff ivory towers, William Barber demanding Christians actively protest and march against the atrocities of the world, and so many others who truly see evil in the world and want to actively change it while not leaving space for any path other than their own.

I have wrestled with this a lot this year, and I see the same evils in the world they do.  I have wrestled with how I walked along a path to overt white-supremacy and only found myself changing and healing when a couple of loving people showed me a different way – and how my path could not co-exist with my desire to care for and love all people.  I know this calling – the Rev. behind my name and pulpit I fill – require me to speak out against evil in the world and use a prophetic voice from time-to-time.

But I struggle to reconcile who I am when I see these demands by intelligent thought leaders – who I agree with largely in philosophy – conflict with the realities of my ministry.  I found myself needing to ask “Who am I?” to even begin the process of reconciling my call and the very vocal demands of thought leaders many of my colleagues blindly follow.

Who am I?

Quick cute break: Giselle is snoring – loudly – just a few feet from me.  Thought you could use a picture:

Aww!

This whole thought process started last night.  I watched the Season 13 finale of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and THIS SCENE HAPPENED and she says, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay…” and it just gut-punches you in the most beautiful way possible.  The whole scene comes from Mac’s season-long battle to figure out his identity and place in the world – and trying to express that identity to a father who refuses to understand. 

I sat there watching this beautiful scene, tears welling up in my eyes, and my mind just asked that question.  “Who am I?”  Now, my struggle for identity comes from a professional and spiritual place and not my sexuality – and I acknowledge my co-opting one thing for another – but in this time of identity politics, purity checks for advocates, allies, and politicians, and the constant demand for preachers to speak with a prophetic voice that mirrors the voice of popular thought leaders, I have wondered what the Hell my identity is.

I know this comes from feelings of isolation and abandonment, from not finding a community to join that wants the full version of me (I have so much thankfulness for a congregation that wants the full version of me to lead them, a thing I feared would not happen), and from not knowing which part of me I would need to change to find community.

When I get to this stage of thinking about my identity, all my wounds from bullying, isolation, and (insert deeper things I do not need to write about here) start bleeding all over the keyboard.  I look in the mirror and wonder to myself, “Who the Hell are you?  What about you is more than privileged milquetoast feeling sorry for himself?”  Especially when every theological and denominational battle becomes “Us vs Them” and I checked “Neither and Both,” I want to just start saying, “I have no identity and I want to find the community that requires no identity.”

But, in rare moments of self-loving clarity, an identity does appear in the mirror: pastor.

I look at myself and I have to say the things I do/have:

  • I am sensitive to the pains and struggles of others – and what words and actions do to others.
  • I desire to make the world better and do what I can from my position and calling to create feelings of justice in the hearts of the people I lead.
  • My heart and soul demand I care for the people whom I shepherd in their moments of deepest pain.
  • I preach – well – to a congregation that I know personally and have provided care for outside of the pulpit.

I am not a prophet – at least I do not think I am.  I have a prophetic voice that I use, I will speak justice to power, and I do address sin, but I cannot fulfill the role of prophet as thought leaders demand of all clergy.

I am not an ally.  I do not do enough.  I do what I can, but it falls short of what marginalized communities need to call someone a true ally.  I love, I teach, and I try to move my congregation in the right direction, but I do not do enough for someone else to call me an ally.

I am not a preacher.  I preach – again, fairly well – but I absolutely will let other tasks of pastoral care – and self-care – interfere with polishing and perfecting a sermon to speak the needed prophetic messages.

I am a pastor.  A lonely pastor, a pastor without consistent community, a pastor who does not make friends easily, a pastor regularly and constantly fails the purity checks – either of moral purity from the conservative side or justice purity from the liberal side – which makes him inadequate for almost every clergy group, a pastor who fails his congregation not infrequently, but a pastor who God ordained, a denomination ordained (after many years of hostile battle), and a church called to serve them.

I do not know how to reconcile this with the world and the church at large.  I do not know how to reconcile that with political trends in our broken, human expression of the Body of Christ.  I do not know how to make that identity work in community when my identity only opens doors of traditional community that wants nothing to do with me.

But today, I know this:

I am a pastor.  My pastoral identity demands I provide pastoral care.  Providing pastoral care for my entire congregation – not just those who agree with – require me to step lightly.  If I am enough, and God made me who I am intentionally, that must be enough.  Thought leaders will – and have – said it is not, but I am enough, so that must be enough.

My goal for 2020: internalize that and find a community who will accept me for that.

Peace,
– Robby

*I know I have linked and responded to this post before.  Still chaffs me a bit as I try to do what I can while still being a pastor to right-leaning congregation.

I Did Not Forget

I will never forget that feeling.  We drove to the next town over to buy gas, and we sat in line, waiting.  The prices steadily rose until someone important finally said, “No, put the prices back where they belong.”

We filled each of our vehicles out of fear that the gas supplies would run out.  We wanted to get gas before the prices skyrocketed more than they already had.

I remember seeing lines outside of Red Cross Blood Donation centers.  People decided to donate from their very bodies, people who had not donated before.  I remember how much we wanted to come together and provide for the people affected.

I remember that feeling of unity, and then I remember a more powerful feeling mimicking that unity: hate.

In 2001, conservatives taught me their knowledge of Islamic faith, about evil Middle Eastern countries, and about Jihad.  Not one bit of that knowledge contained a sliver of untwisted truth – most justly racist and imperialistic propaganda – but I learned that “those people” hated freedom and America.

I learned to hate the other.  And I learned that patriotism required me to hate.

And so I did.  I supported a plan to turn the Middle East – except Israel – into a glowing sheet of glass with our nuclear bombs.  I wanted war so we could do…something…I honestly have no idea what goal I thought the war had, but I wanted it.

We had an opportunity, 18 years ago, to say that we care only about the content of your character and become a nation of unending lines outside blood donation centers and responding to acts of terror with love, compassion, and strength of character.  We could have become the nation of our ideals and our promises.

Instead we allowed the bigots, racists, and war hawks to create a culture of hatred of the other.  They convinced us that, if we did not hate the other, we desired more attacks on our soil.  Many of us – especially young, impressionable minds like mine – just went along with it.

“We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way!”  We rallied around songs calling us to respond to terror with violence and hatred.

And please, do not misunderstand me.  Terrorists exist and desire to create terror for some abstract and unattainable goal, but their religion serves as a tool to their terror, not a cause.  The Muslim doctor in a hijab had no desire to kill me – or even convert me – as we discussed DNR/DNI options with a patient during my CPE, and plenty of white, Christian men have killed people this year alone in an attempt to do something I cannot comprehend while using their “faith” as the justification.

We could have done better.  We failed.  But maybe we can try to do better.

I will never forget.  I will never forget images of first responders running into the towers, condemning themselves to death in a futile attempt to save people.  I will never forget hearing the phone calls from Flight 93 and the heroics of the passengers that saved lives.  I will never forget the feeling of fear and the realization that we, too, could experienced violence of that degree on our mainland.  I will never forget that terrorists attacked us and want to destroy us.

But I will not let that memory become a path to hate.  If you want to do something to remember, make this a day of charity and hospitality.  Donate blood, donate to aid agencies, volunteer, learn first aid, renew your CPR certification.

Make this a day of good, not a day of justifying hatred and lifting up “good will” without doing anything.

Peace,
– Robby

Scared to Preach

A neat thing happens when I confess my struggles to my congregation: I suddenly can write about them publicly!  When I say, in the middle of my sermon, “I am scared to preach and paralyzed every week,” no one I currently serve gets a huge surprise when I write about it for you 12-50 internet people, that number depending on random chance as far as I can tell.

I did not exaggerate or say anything close to untrue when I spoke those words a few Sundays ago.  From the moment I got back from Festival of Homiletics, I have had constant, paralyzing fear when it comes to writing and giving sermons.  I sat down on eight separate occasions – eight separate, scheduled occasions – to write my Pentecost sermon and I still, given four weeks of no sermons and nothing but time, wrote the manuscript at 7:00 P.M. the Saturday before.

To talk about this, I need to talk about the voices and “ghosts” who sit on my shoulders and make sure I constantly feel my inadequacy.  But first, let me talk about how we valiantly try to make this feeling go away when we look at and prepare for professional ministry.

We had this thing we said in seminary as we discussed our inadequacies and “being not good enough” for ministry.  The solution always came out as this answer: You aren’t good enough; get over it.

As a theological construct and encouragement, it fits the bill, more or less, kinda.  God does not have adequate and perfect people to call to ministry, so God calls the likes of you and me.  God sees my brokenness and inadequacy and calls me anyway, sometimes using that brokenness and inadequacy for holy things.

Great, wonderful, lean into that if it loosens your voice, but it does not help me a whole lot after eight years of preaching every Sunday with short interludes of every-other Sunday.  It really does not help me as I feel more fear and trepidation “stepping into the pulpit” now than I ever have.

I found the fatal flaw in that mindset: we never addressed the fact that our discouragement does not come from God – remember, God called us to this wonderful and awful task – but from other broken people who will, at the drop of a hat, make sure I know exactly how terrible of a pastor and preacher I am.

I recently wrote a post called “Not Enough” about a lot of these feelings of inadequacy, but, as I finally decided to name the voices screaming in my ears every weeks as I try to prepare for the task God called me to, I can address the voices I alluded to.

One voice from the past screams in one ear: the “ghost” of my preaching professor.  In January of 2012 I nearly left seminary.  The professor tasked with preparing me to bring the Word of God to a congregation decided to prepare me through bullying, both his own and encouraging the class to participate.

(And before any apologists come forward, loving people I trust confirmed my experience.  I have grown weary of people minimizing this experience, even nearly eight years later).

For the past few months, only his judgements and the “rules of homiletics” I break come to mind.  You ever have inspiration, only to have a ghost say you are not allowed to do that?  That defines my last few months.

But I have battled with this ghost of the past before and come out with an unhealthy but helpful chip on my shoulder.  Now, though, something else screams in my other ear, giving the fear created by this ghost additional force and power.

Christian thought leaders have put a demand on clergy to constantly preach from a prophetic voice.  A mainline leader of the church told the Festival of Homiletics to put pastoral care to the side and focus solely on preaching and prophecy.  Progressive thought leaders demand people “leave their churches” if their pastors do not speak out against [insert new, weekly travesty].

As I sat at the Festival of Homiletics, I feel encouraged and convicted to do better and try harder.  Upon arriving home, the weight of never living up to the standard these pastors and thought leaders set before us that week sat on my shoulders and has made my voice…shaky and scared.  I participated in an alter call for preachers to speak out against the evils of the world – a thing I thought I did before but, in that moment, believed I had failed at – but now have no idea how I, Rev. Robert Glen Brown, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, live up to that alter call.

Since then I have preached.  But the pit in my stomach comes every week, and every week I feel a little bit more like a fraud because I did not do something someone “smarter” or “more important than me” would demand of me – or worse, intentionally did something they would look down upon.

I am scared to preach.  Horrified, paralyzed, frozen; I have more fear today than I did that first week I preached during my first internship.

I once read something from a seminary professor – I think – confessing that he often told students that preaching gets easier when, in fact, it actually gets harder.  (If anyone reading this knows this piece, shoot me a link, please.)  When I first read that, I believed it but I could not actualize or internalize it.  Every Sunday, though, despite feeling more skilled and having more experience, it feels harder.

It gets harder.  The expectations – both real and imagined – of congregations for good preachers to always preach well, the world constantly finding new ways to cast people into the darkness, and thought leaders telling small church leaders that they need to live into the ministry and preaching models of megachurches make it harder every Sunday, every season, every year.

I do not want anyone to express sympathy or support in response to this; my people have supported me more than I realize more days, and I got a powerful and confidence-boosting affirmation on Sunday that I needed.

I just need to say it.  And, if you happen to be/know one of those thought leaders who demands small church leaders abandon their good ministries for activist, megachurch, prophet models, maybe try to remember what small church ministry looks like/spend some time serving a small church.

I am trying, and I do not need more voices condemning my efforts.  The ghosts of seminary have that job taken care of enough.

Peace,
– Robby

Resist Hopeless Fatalism (or Stop Diagnosing Everything as Terminal)

I can own my personal frustration and purported hopelessness as of late.  I read my public writing – and especially my personal writing – and I can see how one might read my as hopeless.  I want things to go differently, I want a different world and/or a different situation constantly.

But I am still here, and I am not running away from anything.

I read the same church statistics as everyone else.  I read the same news as everyone else.  I see the same chaos and decimation as everyone else.

And I want to do something!  I want to fix the problems – or at least lessen the pain a bit.  I want to use my voice, my privilege, and my position to improve the world.  I want to improve my congregation and my denomination beyond its current brokenness.

And I feel hopeless like everyone else.  I do things and it does not help.  I say things and no one who need to hear will listen and internalize what I say.  I find myself silent when I have thoughts on difficult topics and can feel that no one wants to hear my opinion for a host of reasons.

I feel that tug of knowing I need to do something and struggling to understand what that “thing” is.  I know others feel this way; you have told me as much.

And in this moment of frustration, fear, anger, and ineffectiveness, you can start to see things fatalistically – that we cannot affect the course of history and everything is predetermined.  And you may want to write off everything as doomed in this state of frustration, anger, and fear.

“Let it burn to the grown and dance in the ashes!”

But I find myself angry and tortured not because I have given up, but because I refuse to.  We can do something to make this world better, even if just a tiny bit.  We can do something to make our churches better, even if it does not return our past glory.  We can, but we just have not figured out how, yet.

This continues to torture me – I still jump back and forth between “outrage” and “outrage hangover” on an hourly basis – but I refuse to become fatalist in my frustration and pain.  It may kill me and my soul, but I will never not believe it can be better and I can do something, even if that “thing” seems indiscernable in the moment.

We live in a dark time, but not an insurmountable and irredeemable time.  Let us stop diagnosing the world and the church as terminal and instead live in our fury and internal torture.

Because I refuse to accept that it cannot be better than it is now.

Peace,
– Robby

 

Not Enough

Question for preachers and worship leaders: how often do you tell the people you lead that God makes them enough?  How often – especially if you come from the Reform tradition – do you tell them about their inadequacy but how the Spirit will work within them and make them enough?

I do this often, bordering on weekly.  Maybe I do not use so many words, but I do it essentially every Sunday.

I have started to struggle with this idea.  I do not want to imply I disbelieve in this whole process of the Spirit empowering us beyond ourselves, but I keep finding myself inherently “not enough.”  I do not even know how to describe it, but I keep running into things in my life and ministry that require me to “be more” of whatever that situation require:

  • I am not woke enough. I do not march, I do not protest, I do not do enough of the things our “thought leaders” and “prophets” demand all clergy do.  No one would confuse me for an activist pastor.
  • I am not apolitical enough. I have lost members for speaking out against child separation already and I had a member refuse to talk to me after my last sermon.
  • I am not tall enough. Thank God I have a powerful voice.
  • I am not hip enough. I lead a liturgical service with standard movements, and I feel comfortable and empowered there.
  • I am not traditional enough. I cannot just use the Book of Common Worship; I must change the language, make it inclusive, and soften it.  I try to be playful in the liturgy, making it less formal and more relaxed, which means people who grew up with the traditional liturgy get lost sometimes – especially those who struggle with hearing.

And continue ad infinitum.  I could go on for days about the ways the world and leaders on our faith have implied – both directly and generically applying to me – that I am not enough.  God did not make me enough for…anything, it seems.  I can have a good ministry but even then, it feels as if I should feel shame over how I do not do something enough.

I feel this demand to fit into a label to find any sort of community or acceptable ministry.  My pastoral ministry feels irrelevant to everything because we now live in a time of overt evil that demands constant, constant attention.

Wil Willimon told the Festival of Homiletics that pastors care too much about pastoral care and too little about their prophetic voice.  John Pavlovitz told people to leave their churches if their pastors did too little to speak out against the evils of today.

I lost members to this already.  I have to walk a tightrope of prophecy while also needing my members to not hate me before I show up at the ER, the surgery ward, or the funeral home.  I can only speak so loudly, but the thought leaders demand loud and constant voices, implying we can only be true to Christ if we march with our signs at every opportunity.

I am not enough, and I keep running into that fact.  Hell, I am not enough of anything to even find community here – not liberal enough, not conservative enough, not heteronormative enough, not queer enough, not political enough, not apolitical enough, not nerdy enough, not geeky enough, not dumb enough, not confident enough, not humble enough, not weird enough, not normal enough, not anything enough.  I have no strong labels, making me feel like the world sees me as personification of Revelation 3:16: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

I know I bring severe feelings of inadequacy and inferiority to this, but I want to know: how do the rest of you preachers and worship leaders know you are enough?  I know God chose me for this work and called me – the Spirit has made my ministries too effective to doubt – but how do I shake this feeling?

Is it just the Age of Polarization and Trump?  Is it a thing about Urban Ministry I did not understand coming in?  Am I actually not enough and just did not realize it before?

I did not write this for sympathy.  Yes, I will own existential pain drives this a bit, but I also find myself angry.  When someone says my parishioners should leave my church if I do not do something but leave that something vague, and no one can tell me how much I must do to not deserve my church dying, what should I do?  How much is enough for the prophets and thought leaders?

I take exception to a call to exodus without so much as a sliver of guidance for the pastors you threaten with exodus.  I take exception to condemning ministries without a conversation about the day-to-day of solo pastoral ministry and trying to help struggling churches find their way in the world that includes more than protesting – like care, fellowship, discipleship, and teaching.

I just wish I was enough.  The Spirit gave me a pastoral heart and a strong voice, but that is not enough, so it seems.

Anyone else?  Am I alone here?  Or are other pastors starting to feel it?  And please, for all that is holy, I did not write this for someone to patronize me and softly tell me, “You are enough, it’s just tough.”  I want to know:

Am I alone in feeling that I cannot possibly be enough in 2019, or are other pastors feeling it, too?

– Robby