No More Heroes

I recently had two thoughts.

Thought 1:  I have grown weary of “thought leaders” and famous pastors.  Nothing new – I rant about that all the time – but they keep getting shoved in my face.  One, in particular, has “Stuff That Needs To Be Said” at the top of his website.  I also have pastor friends and colleagues who have started calling themselves “prophet” without disdain and bitterness in their mouths, a la Biblical prophets.

I decided to start discounting everything written by someone who calls themselves a prophet and everything written by people who have no humility.  Did I make a healthy or good decision?  Maybe, maybe not, but I just cannot do it anymore.  No one has exclusive knowledge of the will of God and no prophet wants the job – just ask Jonah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.

Thought 2:  I idolize Fred Rogers.  Literally have a Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood coffee mug sitting right beside me.  (Nora got it for me, and it features Fred switching from blazer to cardigan if you fill it with hot liquid.  I love it and will drink “church coffee” sometimes just to use it.)  I want my pastoral ministry to mirror and mimic his television ministry in terms of love, vulnerability, authenticity, and intentionality.  I do a thing – I think we all do – where I look at my ministry and I compare it to my exemplar, in this case Fred Rogers.

Guess how I see myself stacking up?  I am a grumpy, curmudgeonly pastor for 33 years old; Fred certainly was not.  I certainly do not live up to the image of Fred Rogers, even if I wear the cardigan and have a warmth of curmudgeonly attitude.

I will always fall short of the example of a man lifted to be about a quarter of a step below Jesus, especially since my ministry will always look radically different than his and I have responsibilities I think he would have struggled with given his attitudes and personality.

Breath Break: As I got to this point, this wonderful song started going through the headphones. Prepare yourself for the Early-00’s music video goodness!

I realized, in a moment of clarity, both thoughts come from the same coin.  Humans have this problem with deifying other humans.  We lift people to god-status and allow them to direct us as if they have a special link to the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.  Oddly, but unsurprisingly, the people we place in those ivory towers tend to benefit – richly – from our deification of them.

But what about people like Fred Rogers?  Yes, he got to do something amazing for his entire career and had people to support him, but he wanted almost nothing to do with the fame it gave him.  Should we not try to live up to his standard?

We forget that everyone is fallen and sinful, even those we lift as great.  I bet, if we had a conversation with Joanne and his sons, we might see a man, lovely and wonderful, but just as flawed and broken as the rest of us.  And, if he had the humility I believe he had, he would want nothing more than for us to be the best versions of ourselves, not a version of ourselves that matches him.

In my younger years, I had a wise attitude – even if it came from a place of hostility and arrogance – that I would have no heroes.  Every human fails us, and, if we cannot live up to the example of another human, we do not know the fullness of their humanity.  Yet, as I grew up, matured in faith, and became good at a ministry, I decided to cast idols in the forms of humans instead of being the best version of myself.

I did this with a pastor and author, recently, and I had a friend very aggressively destroy that idol – from personal experience – for me.  I forgot how much I value humility and lifting other voices in my colleagues, and I wonder why I could not see the absence of those things in my idols.  (I know why I idolized this person – and I still think they did something I want to learn from – but these things mean to much more to me than success.)

And again, the ones who will not fail us as idols want nothing more than for none of us to idolize them.  True prophets do not want the role of prophecy – and give all honor to God.

No more heroes, just good people we learn from and see as human – flawed and loving all the same.

No idea if this makes sense – and this is a first draft – but I recently made myself a promise that I would write and blog more, and they can’t all be zingers. Thus, I published…

Peace,
– Robby

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 Love/Hate My Voice

I have a naturally loud voice.  Just…loud.  As a kid I could never automatically speak in an “inside voice”; it always required conscious modulation.  I constantly got told, “Be quieter!  Talk quieter!  Use your ‘inside voice’!”  Constant, unending admonitions to “be quieter” when I simply used the voice God gave me.

It constantly frustrated me.  I wanted to behave and yet I always failed at this despite doing nothing actually wrong.  Being constantly corrected for my natural voice just made me feel broken in some way.  Obviously I could not articulate that at the time, but it wears on a person to constantly hear that they have to change something inherent about themselves to fit into the requirements for a particular group.

(Sound familiar?  Judging a person based on their inherent qualities?  Trying to correct and punish away the way God made a person?)

As I grew up and matured, I figured out how to “automatically” modulate my volume to a situationally-appropriate level.  I quote “automatically” because any time I would get excited, get frustrated, get anything other than normal, that modulation would disappear and my natural volume level would come back.  And someone would always pop up to make sure I know I got “too loud” and I needed “be quieter.”

I experienced this well into adulthood.  Occasionally my loud voice would benefit me – I always enjoyed public speaking and, for a time, theater, two areas my strong voice served as a boon – but usually I had to consciously make sure my voice never got too loud.  And I failed constantly; I could never verbally communicate “behind the scenes” in a play without someone hearing me that should not hear me.

Oh, and you cannot convince people you are shy and self-conscious when you always have a strong voice.  Unless I actively have tears streaming out of my eyes, my voice does not waiver.  I get anxious and nervous, and I feel the physical manifestations of those emotions, but my voice does not show it.

Seminary did something magical for me: it made my voice good.  Not to say the majority of people wanted to hear my words or my opinions, but my physical voice suddenly became an actual asset to my life and ministry.  I can speak in front of a group of people in my natural voice – at its natural volume – and those people can generally hear and understand me without a microphone.

Despite that, though, I still had people tell me that I needed to “be quieter.”  Honestly, any time I get excited, someone will tell me I am too loud because the volume modulation still goes away when I focus on my excitement instead of my properness.

I am 32 years old.  I have been ordained for nearly two years, graduated from seminary for six years, and I still have friends and colleagues tell me I am too loud whenever I get excited.

I recently had this happen three times in the course of a month, and I realized how much it hurts to get excited and have someone, every time, tell you that you are too loud.

One has stuck with me and probably why I spent time thinking about it.  I went to a retreat and learning program (CREDO for Presbyterian and Episcopal folks) and one of the facilitators gave an amazing sermon.  I think everything happened the next evening during fellowship with drinks.  The facilitator was immediately behind me at a different table and the conversation around my table moved to how great of a sermon she gifted us with.

I wanted to tell her and had not had a chance to, so I turned around in my excitement and, with my unmodulated voice – excitement and a couple of drinks contributing – went to tell her that I really appreciated her sermon.

Obvious my loud voice startled her because…well, because and I cannot judge anyone for my voice and mannerisms startling them.  The comment made was, “How does it feel to be yelled at by a bearded, white man?”

I simply wanted to tell a colleague that I appreciated the gift of her sermon and instead I became a bearded white man yelling at an Asian woman.

I do not necessarily begrudge anyone for how it played out – I am also awkward and having my unmodulated voice unexpectedly put in your direction is probably startling – but it hurts when you get told that your expression of excitement is unacceptable and every verbalized moment of excitement or energy gets deflated.

I try to tell myself I love my voice.  When I step into a pulpit – physical or metaphorical – I do not worry about the physical voice that needs to come from within me.  People understand the words that come out of my mouth.  I have never lost my physical voice.

But I actually find myself hating it more than loving it.  I hate that my frustration and exacerbation get heard as rage and fury.  I hate that I cannot verbalize my excitement and actually speak into my energy.  I hate that I am 32 years old and I still do not have a quiet enough voice for my friends and colleagues.  I hate that I have to modulate my voice in every conversation, even if I can do it automatically 80% of the time.

And I hate having a loud voice when I simply want to be heard in a conversation and not seen as trying to dominate the conversation, and I want people to understand that my soul’s voice often refuses to speak.

If I can offer an aside: when a child loudly brings you their excitement, maybe we find a way to just focus on the excitement instead of deflating it to reduce its physical volume.  I do not think you need to allow kids to scream, but some kids just have a loud voice and telling them that their natural voice is bad will follow them into their adulthood.

Just a thought.

Peace,
– Robby

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

All are Reflections of God

I would never consider myself an ally.  I do not have the strength to stand up like my stronger colleagues and march with our LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers, especially in the complicated political time and place that I find myself.

I know “complicated political time and place” is nothing more than an excuse, but it is my excuse and I love it!

But in this month, as we remember Stonewall and give opportunity for those who society relegated to the shadows to stands in the beautiful light of day, I have a thought rolling around in my mind:

How can anyone looking at themselves in the mirror and see themselves as made in God’s imaged and then look at another human being and see them as an abomination somehow less than and not made in God’s image?

I will not go into the exegesis and theological discussion of homosexuality and sin – much, much smarter people than me have tackled that task already.  I simply want to know how anyone can look at someone else and believe God did not make them in God’s image.  I want to know how you can choose one thing you perceive as sinful and that one thing makes someone an abomination while God still loves you despite the host of sins that tarnish your soul.

I recently had coffee with a college friend and, like you always do, we started to reminisce and talk about who we were back when.  She pointed out that, in college, my politics never lined up with my desire for compassion and love, and I often did feel the tension between my “conservative Christian politics” and my actual Christian values.

I never fully owned the title “conservative”, but I always found myself leaning toward Republicans.  I started to believe the little racist things like “I want White Entertainment Television!” and “Affirmative Action is just as racist as the racism it’s trying to fix!”  At the same time, I still believed in loving people and felt compassion for the marginalized and the outcast.

I think the first crack in my conservative politics came from Acts.  I grew up with the knowledge that “socialism is evil and just ‘Communism-Lite’”, but readings Acts give you a very different view of communal living and resource sharing:

44All the believers were united and shared everything.  45They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them.  46Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity.  47They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”

My conservative beliefs came from people who held the Bible as the ultimate truth and yet praised the values of unfettered and unregulated capitalism that encouraged the abuse of workers so the wealthy could have more.  Throughout the gospels Jesus gives special care and consideration to the poor and broken, yet the very people who claimed Christianity supported politics that harmed those same people Jesus took special care of.

As I dug deeper – and also started seminary – I found myself moving left (in American political terms).  I found myself realizing my broader theology did not line up some of hotter single-issue position that I held.  Relevant to this month, my position on homosexual ordination did not line up with the broader theologies of universal brokenness and everyone being made in the image of God.

(I hadn’t quite gotten to a point where I would see homosexuality as not sinful; it takes me time to change, like any good Presbyterian.)

It still, 8 years later, fascinates me how vitriolically and hatefully people started treating me.  I would have still considered myself conservative (in black and white terms) at that point and yet I failed the “Good Christian” check of needing to see homosexuals as sinful and homosexuality as a choice.

And mind you, I hadn’t even touched the waters of non-binary gender or other sexualities.  I had failed them – which, even typing it, seems asinine – and I needed to either fall in line or accept my relegation as a liberal heathen.

As I continued to study, to learn, and to grow, I kept moving left.  I recently attributed this movement to the centerline moving right, but I have also walked left, I suppose.  We have values in the United States that we claim as Christian that often exist outside the prevue of scriptures but more often exist in conflict to the words and ideals of Christ we have recorded in our scriptures.

Not the point, though.  The larger point exists as this: as I have grown and learned, I have come to realized that God made every person – of every sexuality, gender, and race – in God’s own image, and every one of them has the capacity to minister and share God’s word.  No one exist who does not reflect the image of God despite our own personal biases, bigotries, and discomforts.

I have not gotten to the point where I do enough to call myself an ally, I fail “Woke Checks” on a constant basis, I am certainly not liberal enough to be trendy or traditional enough to be orthodox, but I see you, I love you, and I want you to share God’s word in a way that I can’t.

And to my sisters and brothers who can see someone as anything other than a reflection of the creator: how?  And how dare you?

Peace,
– Robby

 

 

 

 

Our Divisions Will Kill Us

Go read last week’s sermon as a prelude to this.  I preached that sermon as the Word of God–as ordained ministers do from the pulpit–and though I still struggle to believe I could possibly give the Word of God, if I do that, preaching that sermon gave the Word of God.

I–the guy who writes this blog–have more to say that does not qualify as the Word of God.  I want to follow-up with on how our divisions shatter our world and how we should approach the crisis of today.

I believe we live in a crisis state.  The United States had a policy of separating families–including infants–who illegally crossed the border, many wanting to claim asylum but found themselves unable due to boarder stations not processing people attempting to enter the country.  The United States has deported parents without their young children.  The United States has an active and growing resurgence of vocal and violent racism that claims moral superiority not unlike the Ku Klux Klan before them.

The United States currently exists in deep, painful, and life-threatening crisis of evil, both in the philosophical sense and a real, practical, and horrifying sense for many populations within her land.

I believe the crisis is a an opportunistic infection of a much different disease.

The disease is hateful, vitriolic division.

Do not misunderstand my point.  The opportunistic infection can and will kill us.  I do not write this to downplay the dire crisis situation we find ourselves in.  We need to cure the infection or what we know as the United States will die.

As we seek to cure the infection and heal the damage caused, we need to desperately need to understand what allowed such an infection to happens and treat the problems so it cannot happen again.

I want to start with a troubling Twitter hashtag I saw over the past few days that exemplifies our vitriolic division.  #CivilWar2 has declared war between Democrats and Republicans.  Mind you, the declaration does not go against the infection but against other parts of the body.  It declares a political philosophy morally correct and refuses to accept dissent.  It demonized half of the country and tells those who would gladly join the cause of fighting the infection to fall in line with their political philosophy or suffer the consequences, driving those potential allies into the welcoming arms of the crisis-makers.

I do not speak of new things.  I remember hearing in college–my much more conservative days–that voting Republican means I want women to get cancer.  I remember hearing in my youth–as my mind and philosophies formed–that voting Democrat means I want to murder babies.  I remember hearing that standing right of the line means hating black people.  I remember hearing standing left of the line means I cannot call myself Christian.

I wrote no exaggerations.  Someone told me each one of those things, each multiple times.  As I stepped right, someone called me evil; as I stepped left, someone else called me evil.

I can picture their faces.  I do not exaggerate; people called my changing and evolving positions evil, often adding stupid and immature to the mix.

I could only learn one lesson aside from than how lonely I would feel desiring and working toward politics and ministries of reconciliation and subtly: disagreeing would force me to the outside.  Not having a tribe forced me to the margin, and we have no tribe for subtle, strong centrists who desire the best policies for universal love, universal survival, and universal growth.

I am not evil.  I am not stupid.  I am not immature.  My growth marked improvements in each of those areas, and multiple someones called my growth each of those things.

When everything that you disagree with is evil, nothing is evil.  When everything you disagree with is stupid, nothing is stupid.  When everything you disagree with is immature, nothing is immature.

I have finally arrived at the root of the problem as I see it.  We live in a unique crisis of evil.  I cannot state that any differently.  We live in a unique crisis of evil.

We have so overused that word and vitriolically divided ourselves into two tribes and killed all dissent that when we actually have something evil in front of us, we have no way to call it as such.  By writing this someone will believe I said, “Republicans are evil!”  By writing this, someone will believe I said those who speak out angrily should not be so uncivil.  By writing this, someone will hear a political message.

We all did this by politically dividing our stances on morality and evil.  I found myself marginalized by the American political dichotomy, but I have my tribes, as well.  I find myself ready and willing to tear down other denominations for what I want to call evil when they simply interpret the Bible differently.  I have wholesale condemned people who believe in “Ecclesiastical Separation.”

I can name them as easily as I can name those who condemned me.

We have called the other evil for so long that when evil appears in great force, we cannot call it as such for fear of sounding political or do speak up only to have that fear painfully realized.

Our hateful, vitriolic divisions allowed this to happen.  We allowed this to happen and shattered the safeguards that would have prevented it in the name of political expediency.  We found ourselves shocked that evil could take advantage when we opened the doors wide open.

This crisis can kill us.  The opportunistic evil that comes from our divisions can and will kill us.  We felt morally superior as we allowed this to happen and patted ourselves on the back.

I ask this of every #CivilWar2 political activist:

When this war you declared ends, do you plan to call the other side “our countrymen (sic) again”?  Or do you plan to shoot your guns off and make sure they know you won and demonize them, furthering the divide between you and those who would stand as your allies?

If we would stop dividing ourselves, and especially stop dividing the Body of Christ, we could fight evil.  Now we have to watch it do its work until we can stand united again.

I am reaching out to you, asking that you ignore our divisions and stand united against the crisis of evil we currently live in.  We shattered the safeguard; help me rebuild it.

Peace,

– Robby