Ash Wednesday is Dark Hope

I love Ash Wednesday.  It’s not something I realized that I loved until I started planning the worship service for tonight, but it is something that I love.

All throughout seminary there was this hesitation to admit that we were incapable – on our own – to contribute anything to God’s mission, that we brought nothing to the table that wasn’t given to us by God and directed by the Holy Spirit, and that we are hopelessly broken without God and Christ’s salvific* act on the cross.  In the ordination process, too, there is a weird push-back if you place any emphasis on your unworthiness of the call of professional ministry.

I find this weird because I am a Presbyterian, and a strong Reform Presbyterian at that, and I went to a Presbyterian seminary and currently in the process of being ordained by the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I’m not quite a TULIP but Total Depravity has always been one of my theological pillars.  I have always known that I’m pretty screwed up, and that I can’t stop sinning, and I never see anyone else living without sin.  Total Depravity just seems like the logical theological position, given my reading of scripture and anecdotal observation of the world.

I think the push-back is because no one – myself included – really describes the absolutely joyous truth behind Total Depravity.  We get to caught up on the sinful part of the Total Depravity – and the correct discomfort that comes from it – that we forget that the whole point of that is the relationship with Christ that our brokenness necessitates.  The theology of Total Depravity is really a theology of hope that despite our brokenness, despite the sins that we commit every hour, we are saved and in a loving and caring relationship with our God, a God whom came to Earth and suffered our condition to save us.

364** days a year we try to ignore and/or downplay depravity and focus on forgiveness.  1 day a year we focus on our penance.  Never do the penance focus and forgiveness focus meet.  Forgiveness is light and bright, penance dark and heavy and oppressive.

I guess it just always melted together for me because I find comfort in melancholy and darkness.  It never made sense that it wouldn’t just feel comfortable to know you’re a sinner because I always knew the punchline of salvation.  It just made sense to me, and I couldn’t rationalize why there would be so much push-back when it came down to talking about it.

364 we ignore it, 1 day a year it’s all that we see.  We mark ourselves (or at least some do; I don’t, but that’s another story), we sit in ashes, and we confess.  And because we have a single-focus, we forget the hope that it is.

“Return to the LORD your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” – Joel 2:13 CEB

This is a day to return to God – prostrate, but knowing that you are saved – and return to the calls and talents that God has placed in your life.

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This blog is my major spiritual discipline, and you can see how much I have neglected that part of my life, citing being too busy and too tired and you name it.  I know that I’m saved, but I know that my soul needs healing, my spiritual life needs discipline, and I know that need to return to it.  My desk is a mess, my sermon for…5 hours from now isn’t finalized, and I haven’t eaten lunch yet, but I’m returning to a discipline of spiritual life.

Reflect on the darkness of your soul and of your sin, but know that the disciplines and penance are to show us hope and strengthen our relationship with God, not to create more darkness in our lives.  Focus not specifically on the sins of your soul, but on the necessity of the love that you are freely given.

Return to God, the God of love.

Peace,

– Robby

*Totally a word.

**365 this year.

Robby’s Rules of the Internet

I read an article today about race and “white evangelicals need(ing) to repent” for racism, and I got all hot under the collar and ready to fight and ready to write another long tirade about being tired of trying to be moderate just to be told I’m evil by everyone and tired of the co-opting of that word “evangelical” to mean “Crazy, Mean, Hateful Conservative” and tired of articles that proclaim the end of divisiveness actually creating more and tired of fighting and hating each other and tired of not being able to disagree with someone’s methods because somehow disagreeing with their methods, and not their message, is racist and then I decided I’m tired of all of it and I wasn’t participating this time.

But I needed to write because when I’m mad, that’s about the only thing that will calm me down that is even remotely productive.  So I decided today was my day to do a post I’ve been thinking about for a long time:

Robby’s Rules of the Internet

I’ve thought about this post for a while – usually any time I see something stupid on the internet, or people following something blindly, or a general lack of skepticism for things that you agree with – and today is the day I finally flesh it out.

Am I qualified to write this post?  Absolutely.  I’ve been internet savvy for longer than most, thought about the implications of social media for a while, actually researched how social media has affected our social interactions, and spent more time thinking about this than most because I could.

(If anyone wants to challenge my qualifications to write this article, I welcome that; but you must also point out why I’m wrong and present a reason why you – or someone else – is more qualified.)

Okay, now that I’ve provided my pedestal of judgement to stand upon, let us begin.

Rule 1: RUN EVERYTHING YOU POST ON SOCIAL MEDIA THROUGH GOOGLE

This particular rule bit me in the butt a couple of years ago, which is why it’s number one.  If you are going to post something, MAKE SURE IT’S TRUE AND ATTRIBUTED CORRECTLY (which is how I got bit)!  If someone says that MLK Jr. said something, make sure it’s all his and not partially an American school teacher working in Japan.  If you post an infographic or a political meme, make sure the facts are true (and not a horribly politicized interpretation of those facts).  If you post something scientific, make sure you aren’t just posting horrible clickbait.

Run everything through Google.  Just do it.

Rule 2: Anything That Attempts to Negate the Equality of the Internet is Evil

Period.  The internet is amazing because it is a great equalizer.  All information is equal, all people are equal, all data is equal.

This is a Free Speech Issue (just ask China), this is a Free Commerce Issue, this is a Human Rights Issue (just ask Saudi Arabia), this is a Freedom of Information Issue (ask any country that has filtered internet).

The reason that this is so important is that no one person, no one government, no corporation, no one gets to decide what is important, was is unimportant, and what is dangerous.  The internet allows all voices to shout, allows people to investigate and report on their governments and powers and corporations, and be heard despite the best efforts of those in power.

Anyone who wants to censor the internet or create a hierarchy of data has their best interest at heart at the detriment of the best interest of anyone else.

Rule 3: Don’t Feed the Trolls

Do you know what Internet Trolls feed upon?  People getting pissed off.  They feed on creating artificial controversy and getting people riled up against them and judging them.

Do you know that starves a troll?  Getting no response at all.  No getting angry, no getting angry at those who got angry, no even saying they are stupid publicly.  Give them nothing, and they starve.

This one came out of the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen – the stupid Starbucks cup thing that meant nothing.  A Christian internet troll got all indigent because Starbucks didn’t put…Santa Claus, a fun character that has become a consumer method of child control, and Christmas Trees, which are not at all Christian but an intentionally co-opted pagan tradition to convert pagans at the time.  I like both, I rather enjoy Christmas trees and figure parents can decide on Santa, but to say that it’s a war on Christmas from a Christian standpoint and using things like that might be the best trolling thing ever…

Rule 4: People Don’t Know You’re an Idiot on the Internet

…noting, importantly, that someone can be a troll even if they truly believe what they are saying.

The internet does not have the journalistic integrity checks that traditional media has.  In some ways this is absolutely the point – the internet is the great equalizer and every voice has the same power – but it pushes that responsibility to check the integrity of the author and the work to the reader.  Which is fine because we are at least running everything though Google, and should be doing more research if its important and the conclusions aren’t readily clear.

Unless you don’t do that, which most people don’t.  You can still find regularly updated “9-11 Truth” websites and people buying those conspiracies.  You can find out any fact about racial tensions in the country – any fact you want, just think it up and someone has said it somewhere about it.

In real life, we know the people who are idiots.  They are the ones who bait you into debates and then shut down and tell you are wrong when you approach their position with skepticism.  They are the ones that say things that are clearly untrue like they are gospel.  They do things that let you know they are stupid and their thoughts met with great caution.

(Mind you, we all qualify as this at times.  I got into an hour-long fight about the odds of winning the lottery that I was wrong about because simple math evaded me.)

The internet washes away our idiocy away and presents an image that we know what we are talking about.  Again, an equalizer – no one knows that the only descriptions I have of Scotch are “Hairspray” and “Piss” despite actually being able to describe bourbon and beer with some level of skill – but as susceptible to abuse, both intentional and accidental.

If you assume everything you read is written by an idiot unless otherwise proven, and you approach internet journalism with healthy skepticism, you will be much better off.

Rule 4a: …But Smart People Assume You Are

So address the smart people.  Resolve their skepticism if you can, address it if you can’t but still feel you are correct, and change when you are wrong.  And continue to be that questioning smart person; it makes you smarter and a better person.

Rule 5: Privacy is Not a Political Issue

Stop making it one.  If this was my major issue, I would protest outside of every event of every candidate because not a one of them has my interest – or your interest – at heart.  Their own power and control of the populace, absolutely, but not my actual interest.

And the multitude of times my privacy has been violated by the government has done nothing to protect me.  Stop telling me intercepting my private texts between my wife and me is making me safe because it isn’t.  If you are going to do something that can – and should – be interpreted as malicious for my benefit, you better be proving your benevolence and allowing people to decide.

I am not doing anything wrong, I have no plans to do anything wrong, I should be able to live my life as privately as I desire in terms of the government.  You don’t need to know what items are on our grocery list, what we are fighting about, or when we make up.

So now that we see that privacy is absolute, you can see that privacy is a “Government vs. the People” issue, not a “Democrats vs. Republicans” issue because both sides contain people who are complicit and who are malicious on this issue, and not really any who are benign or benevolent

These are the major rules.  There are others, but these cover 90% of your interactions on the internet.  Just don’t be a pirate if you don’t know that you are doing, don’t install free software you don’t know the source of, and keep your stuff up-to-date and that could cover 98% of the rest.

But maybe I’ll so some more rules when I’m angry again and just need to write.

Peace,
– Robby

A Moderate in a Radical World

I just listened to this podcast and at the very tail end, when discussing why young protesters are more effective today than 20 years ago, one of the qualities of young protesters were described as was, “More radical.”

It stopped me in my tracks.  The whole episode is worth a listen* but that one little bit about current protesters being lauded for being “more radical” just stopped me.

A few days later I read this blog post** and again, I found myself stopped.  Instead of staying stopped, though, I got indignant.  I found myself wanting to scream at the culture of “radical or wishy washy” and being told the only way to be a force for good in the world, or a Christian, or even just a loving person is to be radical in a direction.

I’m not radical, and I will never be radical.  I am very strongly moderate – not moderate because I won’t make a decision but moderate because I believe the middle ground contains more truth than the fringes – and very passionate about extremism being the cause of so much of our world’s problems.  I’m that person who gets accused of being a bleeding-heart, communist liberal (stretching there) or heartless, gun-toting conservative (not much of a stretch) depending on who I’m talking to.

As a moderate, I have always valued discussion from all sides of an issue.  Opinions may be misguided, anecdotes and experiences may shade observations, and your personal feelings and desires will always bias your thoughts, but the truth comes from analyzing everything.  Politics should stop removing the “science” from “political science” and start treating the discussion like a scientist, observing everything, collecting as much information as possible, and then moving forward.

I try to live in the gray.  I fail sometimes, sometimes I get indigent over people not living in the gray, and sometimes I just don’t have the energy to fight for the middle, but I firmly believe the gray contains the most truth.

This nation has become black and white about everything.  Race.  Gender.  Sexual orientation.  Religious and Non-Religious.  Political Ideology.  Pro-Pot and Anti-Pot.  The idea of having conversations to find a common ground on any of these things used to be an uncomfortable necessity; now it doesn’t feel uncomfortable because impossible things aren’t uncomfortable

It is impossible to have a conversation because everything in our lives – politics, church, even our marriages and families – have become adversarially two-sided.  Nothing is a discussion; everything is a battle that must have a clear winner.

Does it bother anyone else that we treat our politics like a damn football game?  Does it bother anyone that we worship the letter that we put behind our name more than we worship Christ?  Does it bother anyone else that if they have the wrong letter behind their name – or, God forbid, they don’t have a letter behind their name – that we demonize them and make them out to be monsters who want nothing more than to kill your children/kill all the people who look different?  Or for those of us who aren’t on a side, we are “lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, [and God] will spit [us] out of [His] mouth?” (Revelation 3:16)

We do this at church, too.  Any time a controversial topic is decided, the losing team – because it is teams fighting each other in a game at this point – prays for the winning team to find God again and stop denying the teachings of scripture/the love that Christ taught us.  Why do we Presbyterians have a new denomination?  Oh, because the PC(USA) no longer follows scripture.  We all know that isn’t true, but that doesn’t stop us from saying it.

If you can’t tell, I’m pissed off.  I’m tired of being told I don’t love enough, I don’t care about safety enough, that I’m not allowed to mourn violence, that I’m not allowed safety because I’m not violently preventing violence (take a second to unpack that one), that I’m being to literalist or I’m ignoring the teachings of scripture.

I’m tired of being condemned because I’m not radical.

And I’m tired of us worshiping those who are.

I posted a comment on the Facebook wall of the seminary classmate who posted the article and his comment went to the motivation or pushing Presbyterians to action and “loving radically” and though I agree with him, I think, especially as pastors, we need to be intentional about what we said, and the article compared middle-of-the-road to being lukewarm.  It did, absolutely, and the comments basically echoed the ideal that we can’t be moderate and do any good.

Again, everything about this being more radical has nothing to do with loving more – or following Christ more – but moving closer to a side of our adversarial division.  No one has said that we need to give ourselves completely to loving our neighbor – all of our neighbors – but they certainly tell us how we are loving them wrong.

Personal politics have no bearing on loving neighbors as self.  You want radical talk?  You don’t love as much as Christ commanded you to.  I don’t love as much as Christ commanded me to.  It doesn’t matter what American political ideology you subscribe to, you are not loving as much as you could nor as much as you are commanded to.

You want to love radically?  Forget your own needs and desires and love at a personal loss to yourself.  Love even when it hurts or is uncomfortable or you cannot help but hate the person you love.  Show love to Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton and Kim Jong Un and ISIS and the drug addict down the street and the husband cheating on his wife and the hacker who stole your identity and the guy on Facebook who’s political posts make you sick.  Show love to people who have killed, to people who have harmed children, to people who have left God completely, to people who rape and murder, to people who enslave and torture.  Show love to people you hate – all of them – and people who mean to harm you.

That’s radical love.  Spouting off about how much someone you disagree with isn’t loving enough or isn’t Christian enough isn’t love; it’s battle and it’s war.  Christianity is neither of those things.  Christianity is submission and sacrifice and love despite our own desires.  Christianity has no political affiliation because both completely ignore the call to act outside of your own desires and your own needs and to love all your neighbors, evil and good alike.

That is not lukewarm, but that is moderate.  That is the middle of the road in our two-sided, adversarial culture.  That is loving both sides more than you love yourself, and showing love to both sides despite their hatred of you and calling you “lukewarm.”

My prayer – my ultimate prayer – is that we can put aside our narratives, our political ideologies, and our need to win, and we can instead take that truly higher ground of loving everyone – literally everyone – and showing that love even to those who desire us jailed, tortured, and dead.

I am passionately moderate, I am passionately in the middle of our two artificial sides, and I am not lukewarm.  Stop interpreting scripture in the midst of American politics and interpret it as love, not war.

Now my head hurts, I killed two hours I didn’t really have, and my blood pressure is up.  Need to breathe a few breaths and do some work.

Out of Love and In Peace
– Robby

* I will make one remark about the second half of the episode talking about the race protests around the country.  It is wholly uncritical of the protests, making out that their methods and ideologies are absolutely correct.  I don’t want to make this a forum to discuss race relations in the country, but I do want to be fair and make that observation.

** </pastor hat>As a side note, Donald Trump isn’t anything other than what he can convince you of to increase his own power.  He is super-pandering, working to combine people’s irrational fears of people who are different, rational but overblown fears of terrorism, and legitimate desire to be not-crazy.  I will, without fail, vote for an other candidate, even the ones I fear most, to prevent him from becoming President.<pastor hat>

A(n Unanswered) Prayer

(UPDATE: As I read old posts to transition to the new blog, I see pieces that are a snapshot of what we went through before and not where we are now.  So many of our prayers were answered in a way that we love, just on God’s timeline and in ways we couldn’t understand in the moment (or even now).  Everything I wrote is true – and I firmly believe that I am allowed to hate God’s timing, which I did and still do – but things are better and prayers were answered.  This piece is good, but I think context is important, and the context of this is very different than the context of now. – RB)

I’m frank but guarded about what is going on with me when I’m writing on this blog.  I strongly believe that we should all be more frank about ourselves and admit our weaknesses and struggles, but that is a far cry from the specifics of our dirty laundry and what is specifically going on in our lives.

Frank, but guarded.  That’s my motto, I guess.

So this is a vast departure from my normal policy of frank and open but vague descriptions.

Nora and I have a prayer that, at least in our broken eyes, has been unanswered for a few years: despite having skills and being a very hard worker, Nora cannot find work outside of retail.  Every year we pray that she will not have to go through another holiday shopping season as an underpaid, overworked, and miserable retail worker, and every year the answer from our prayers has been, “No.”  Or, “Wait,” as some commentators would have us believe.

This isn’t a new prayer – not even close – but driving home from Dubuque this afternoon we were discussing my sermon and I was trying to explain the direction I would go with it (it’s on James 5:13-20).  I was half-reading, half-expounding on the passage when I hit the bit about Ezekiel praying for the rain to stop and then the rain to start, and how he was just a man.

Nora looks at me – while driving, which is a bit scary, now that I think about it – and asks, “So does that mean that unanswered prayers are because we didn’t pray hard enough?  Or that we didn’t have enough faith?”

For all pastors whose significant others haven’t asked them the theodicy questions yet, especially when you know the prayers that haven’t been answered and those prayers being repeatedly answered with. “No,” have affected your life, your marriage, and the joy of the one whom you have dedicated your personal life to, the right seminary answers won’t come to you.

Part of the struggle I have is that even when things have gone vastly outside of my desires, my hindsight has shown me the path.  I know why God made me go through some things, made me struggle with things that are actually my strengths, and made my ministry path much…longer and more difficult than I thought it should be.

The path leading to this point for me makes sense.  The path, forward or backwards, from where Nora is blocked by the densest fog.

“If you have faith, you will receive whatever you pray for.” – Matthew 21:22 CEB

I will be completely honest, this question has given me debilitating pause this evening.  Scripture clearly says – very clearly, in multiple spots – that if we have faith and we ask, it will be given.  I don’t buy the idea that Jesus was speaking in hyperbole – it strikes me as a cop-out – and so I find myself asking the same question:

Are we just not praying hard enough?  Is our faith not strong enough?

I keep asking myself this, and I keep thinking the answer must be, “Yes,” and then I wonder how our faith is so weak that we can’t pray hard enough that someone who needs a hard worker in nearly any field won’t hire a hard worker with skills and a willingness to learn anything, or that we can’t at least see the reason why our prayer isn’t being answered with a “Yes” or “Okay, now you can go.”

The other option is that God is truly willing this to be what is going on, and it is God’s plan for her to not find different work.  Which wouldn’t be so damn hard to swallow if we could just see a little bit through the blinding fog.

So here is my prayer:

God, please give us direction or guidance or vision or a change to lift the struggles.  Something to make this easier.

Amen.

– Robby

Responding to Senseless Tragedy

My soul weeps at every senseless death, and stands horrified if that death is intentional at the hands of another person.

Period.  Nothing I say after this has any influence on what I just said.  I will draw a line in the sand and make sure that everyone knows what they are responding to.

I want to make sure that I am heard, and what I say is understood. I want to make sure that no one can accuse me of placing my belief and understanding in the 2nd Amendment above human life.  I want to make sure that everyone understands that my shotgun is not being placed above the effects of tragedies like the one Umpqua Community College.  I want everyone who reads this to know that I am in shocked horror that yet another senseless mass murder has happened.

I stand in horror and mourning, and yet I was told I’m not allowed to mourn, at least not with that person.  Not that I would consider myself a great “gun lover” but rather a hobbyist who enjoys hunting and killing pieces of paper.  But having any sort of belief in the second amendment is evil, so I have been lead to believe today.

There are two things about me that should be readily known and accepted as I write it that I am a vocal moderate – not luke-warm but vocally and passionately in the middle of most everything – and that, in times is crisis, I value logic and rationality over emotion.

And if everything that I have read is true, then we are in a crisis of mass murders in our country.  This is an active crisis, current and ongoing, and we, as a nation, have not entered into the post-crisis part where emotions are addressed and mourning, as a nation, can happen.

(To all those directly effected by the events, this does not apply to you.  Personal crisis trumps national crisis, and you should be in a state of mourning.)

We need a cold, thought out, rational course of action to stop mass murders from happening.  We cannot dive head-first using our sadness, our anger, or our frustration as our guide.  Emotional responses as not going to fix the problem, no matter how much we want them to.

What we first must do is stop tearing each other down.  We cannot fix anything if we refuse to work together.  Stop telling me about conservatives valuing guns over human life or liberals trying to destroy the second amendment.  Stop telling me that people I love are responsible for this tragedy, both those who believe in gun ownership and carry and those who believe in gun-free zones.  Stop telling me that someone is evil because they disagree with your, or a particular political party is responsible.  All you are doing is stopping the conversation.

We must approach this as a problem with a solution, not a horror to be stopped.  We must detach ourselves from the horrors emotionally and look at facts and figures.  Not all of us are called to be the emotional strength and comforter of those who have directly experienced this tragedy, especially including our elected officials.

We must approach this issue with humility, accepting that we may be wrong.  Both sides need to stop placing themselves on a moral high ground and demonizing each other.  Because both sides of this debate have the same goal: stopping senseless tragedy.

And no, no gun owner I have ever known – and I have known a lot, including gun shop owners and political activists who work towards increasing gun rights – would ever place their gun above innocent human life.

The problem is that their resistance of change is not placing guns above innocent life; it’s that they believe that their guns and their rights changing would have no effect on the innocent life.  Period.

Everyone involved in this discussion needs to put their emotions aside.  Period.  Much the same way a doctor cannot save a life if overwhelmed by emotion, we cannot prevent these deaths if we act on our emotions.  We need cold though, period.

Can you do that?  Because if you can, absolutely you should be suggesting ideas and thinking about how the laws and funding can be worked out to prevent these senseless deaths.

But if you can’t, if you can only think emotionally or selfishly politically when a tragedy strikes, you need to remove yourself from the conversation.  Mourn, even publicly mourn, but rash, emotional responses – especially those condemning others that are not responsible – are as useless to national tragedy as they are to surgery.

I wrote out a plan to fix the problem, but it doesn’t work, either  The other half of this crisis is that no solution can be written in the days after a tragedy.  This is going to be a long and painful process, one that will not win any political points and will absolutely make people mad.  It will either go too far or not far enough, depending on who you ask, and it will slowly fix the problem, not instantly.  But if we have a serious national crisis, serious long-term repairs to the very fabric of our nation are necessary, not just sweeping and quick changes that ignore the law-abiding half of the country that, again, is not responsible for this tragedy.

No one gets to be on a moral high ground today, no one gets a soapbox, no one gets to claim they have the answer and that everyone who disagrees with them is wrong and/or evil.  You don’t get that right today.

I am mourning, and no one can tell me I am and those whom I love are responsible for this, because they aren’t.  So instead of demonizing me, let’s mourn the senseless taking of life, and mourn that someone’s mental health was so ignored that they came to a point that they could commit such evil.

Let’s not throw stones at each other today; let’s mourn together.  Maybe if we can find a common ground – humbly find a common ground – we can solve this crisis and finally truly mourn a dark part of our history.

– Robby

Friends

(UPDATE: Things are a changing, thus the new blog and such.  Like other posts, this is still a good piece of writing – or at least as good as I’m capable of – but situations change and it’s not as relevant as it used to be.  I also took a small part out; just didn’t seem to be necessary, even if I do still agree with it. – RB)

Real talk time.  I told myself, when I started this blog, that I had to be honest and frank when I wrote.  Holding back was counter-productive and if I want this to help someone else – if I want someone to feel or learn something – then I need to give them everything they need, not just the things that I am comfortable sharing.

No specifics – not worth it or even helpful – but I have found myself in a situation where I no long feel like I am friends with a bunch of people I have been friends with for a couple of years.  We are still friendly acquaintance, we still work together, we still laugh, but some childish drama placed a wedge between us.  I am kind of alone out here – I’m not a member of the Presbytery I’m serving because I’m not really officially serving and the ordination process is what it is – and I haven’t found a plethora of friends.  Support, clergy discussions, direction, that all I have, but I found having a group of friends where being a pastor wasn’t defining of our friendship relaxing and uplifting, and I feel like I lost that.

I wasn’t sure how to process what I was thinking about, but this idea popped into my head: I should write out what it means to be a friend to a pastor.  I’ve seen it before, and my version will probably be inadequate, but this is where I’m at.

So, here’s how to be a friend to a pastor:


1. If you are friends with a pastor, they aren’t judging you.

Stop trying to be perfect around your friend because they are a pastor.  Treat them like a friend.  They don’t want to be your pastor; they want to be your friend.  They are not looking for your sins to write down in their register to talk to God about.  They simply need a give-and-take relationship.

And they chose to be your friend.  If you drink beer, that probably influenced their decision to be your friend.  If you smoke pot, that might have influenced their decision to be your friend.  If you are a thrice-divorced degenerate, that probably influenced their decision to be your friend.  Given all of these things, they want to be your friend.

Friends don’t judge friends, which leads right into…

2. If you are friends with a pastor, they don’t want to judge you.

I don’t spend my day telling myself to not judge.  I don’t struggle with wanting to see you for all your faults and making mental judgements of your soul.  I’ve never once saw someone sinning and thought, “My, it would feel good to mentally condemn that person to Hell, but the Bible tells me not to!”

I don’t want to judge you.  I know that we are all sinful, and I’ve got plenty of sins on my own heart that deserve me being condemned.  Only self-righteous jerks take pleasure in judging and building themselves up by tearing others down; that’s just as true in the Christian world as it is in the secular.

3. If you are friends with a pastor, remember that being pastor is their job.

Doctors, nurses, computer techs, mechanics, chefs, beauticians, and almost any other job that serves people understand this.  No, we don’t have a time clock that we punch, and that emergency phone call may force us to run out of the building like it’s on fire, but when I’m around you, I’m not working.  I’m not looking for ways to proselytize to you, I’m not going to try to convert you, I’m not going to pull out a Bible in the middle of a beer and pull the whole “Relevant and Relatable Pastor” spiel.

I want to drink beer and talk about how horrible the Vikings game was and commiserate about how much I hate Wings even though I love the Beatles and that the Rolling Stones are just awful in my mind.  I don’t want to pastor to you any more than you want to do your job for me while we drink beer.  I just want to be your friend.

4. If you are friends with a pastor, remember that they are always faithful.

I’ve been friends with a multitude of atheists in my life, and some of them have been my best friends.  I had at least one atheist stand up for me at my wedding.  Maybe I just don’t make friends easily enough, but some of the best people I have met don’t believe in God.

But I don’t pretend to have a weak faith when I am around them for their sake.*  My wedding revolved around God, not around us.  I pray frequently.  I bow my head when we film games at the Catholic high school.  I have a relationship with God no matter where I am.

This has been a struggle with previous friendships.  I don’t want to try to convert you – at least not while I’m relaxing on your couch or on a bar stool – but I will continue to be a Christian while I relax.  I make choices for myself as a Christian, and I will do or not do things because of that, but I’m not judging you because of my choices and I’m not doing these things as an example of what I think you should do.  I’m doing them because of my relationship with God, not my relationship with you.

5. If you are friends with a pastor, please relax around them.

I need to relax.  I’m on call always, my sermon is never out of my mind, there is always something that I could be doing, the work is never done.  I need to relax.

I won’t relax if you are constantly tense around me.  I need a friend, I need a two-way relationship, I need a beer buddy, and you being nervous to relax around me is not going to help me with any of those things.

Remember everything above, and then chill out.


Hopefully this isn’t just rambling.  Hopefully tomorrow when I read this again, I don’t shriek in horror at what I put out there.  Hopefully reconciliation is possible.

To friendship,

– Robby

* I did that once with a girl I was dating.  Failed miserably.

Bible Trivia and Ordination

(UPDATE: So I wrote this post a while ago.  Since then, this happened.  I’m leaving this up for posterity, but I can say correct decisions are starting to be made on the topic.  Hurray! – RB)

I was on Facebook last night when a pastor friend of mine posted this post from Rev. Timothy Cargal’s blog on the Office of Preparation for Ministry website.  In it, he talks about the results of this years Bible Trivia Content Exam.

And then goes on to defend this years BCE and the changes that they have made.

When I called it the Bible Trivia Exam, I wasn’t just speaking of my own opinion.  Everyone I went to seminary with – everyone – had roughly the same opinion of the test.  It doesn’t test your fitness for ministry or your professional abilities – that’s the purpose of the other four exams – and it doesn’t test your useful knowledge of scripture, but rather if you picked up the trivia of scripture that they decided to test you on this year.  For example, this year1 they were tasked with matching salutations to epistles.  Mind you, not once in my ministry would have I ever benefited from knowing off the top of my head which multiverse Pauline salutation goes with which letter, but somehow a junior in seminary needs to know that to show familiarity with scripture.

Before I really get into why I’m frustrated, I need to write out what the purpose of this exam is.  When you are a junior2 (or just finished junior year), you take a test to demonstrate your familiarity with scripture.  The point – supposedly – is to demonstrate that you are familiar enough with scripture to successfully complete seminary and also point out areas of weakness that you have within scripture.3

At least, I think that’s why you can fail it.  Try as I might, I can’t rationalize another reason why this is a necessary exam to pass and not just an evaluation of current state of knowledge.  And before someone says that it’s proof of biblical knowledge for a professional reason, the descriptions of the 5 exams specifically say this isn’t that and the senior exams are specifically professional exams in contrast to this exam.  So it must be proof of knowledge to continue into the ordination process or seminary studies.

What change recently was two things.  First, they stopped releasing the new questions to the exam.  For 30 years students could access the exams – paper form and then, in recent years, online form to take as practice tests.  The test has historically used 83% old questions and 13% new questions but importantly, those questions could pull from the entire history of the test.

And the old tests were a good study tool.  The OPM is convinced that students were just memorizing answers to pass the test, but every student preparing said that they learned things about scripture using the old tests.  It actually was quite helpful in giving us a wider primer is scripture.

I still remember who Jael is to this day because of it, and I read that story specifically because of studying for the exam.

In 2009, the OPM decided that they would stop releasing the old exams entirely.  No releasing of questions missed, no allowing CPM’s to view the exams, nothing.  So every year since 2009, the exam has been completely hidden except to test takers actively taking the test.  All you get is your score and how well you did on each section of scripture.

Every year they have come up with new questions and phased out old questions.  And as it has come to pass, this is the year when the exam is 100% previously unreleased questions.  They still recycled questions, but every question was created post-2009.  And this year, because multiple choice wasn’t quite…adequate?…they added the matching section.

Now, there is nothing particularly egregious about those changes without consequences.  Yes, it takes away the only useful resource short of stringently studying the entirety of scripture in the months before taking the exam – all while being in seminary and having an internship and trying to also remain emotionally healthy and not burning out – but if people continued to pass at a similar rate and everyone agreed the changes were good, then it’s just students complaining because they want it to be easier.

That’s not a valid complaint, no matter how much I would have wanted it to be.

Why I even took the time to write this post – my BCE was in 2011 and this has no relevance to me directly – is the results of this year’s test.

71.7% of people taking the exam failed this round.  Compared to the Fall 2009 failure rate of 18.3%.

Rev. Cargal chose to write that as a percent passed (28.3%) but I write it as the majority, not the minority, to not hide what actually happened: over 70% of inquirers taking the exam were told that they do not have the biblical knowledge to continue in the ordination process or their seminary studies (I’m still not sure which).

Which is insane.  I know that it can’t possibly be that over the last 6 years students have gotten progressively less qualified for seminary that the failure rate jumped 291.8%, and I know that people who passed previously were mostly all ready and qualified to continue in the ordination process or seminary studies.  This isn’t an indication that it was too easy before with the old exams, no matter how much the OPM wants the stubbornly claim that it is.

This is a sign that the test is flawed, and I think that everyone knows it.  Some people are good at an exam like this and have this variety of recall.  They are the ones you want on your team for Trivial Pursuit and you don’t want to go against in Trivia Crack.  But ministry is not a game, and your level of Biblical knowledge and familiarity is not based upon recall of minutia.

But what I think is most frustrating, given all of this, is the absolute defense of the changes.  Not once in the note – that was originally an e-mail to CPM’s and as such, not immediately public – did Rev. Cargal mention that they would evaluate the testing procedures, take a hard look at if students truly were unprepared for study, or even acknowledge the frustration that would come from this.  It is all a description of the changes and a strong implication – intentional or not – that the 70% failure rate should be expected.

And on top of it, when CPM members commented that the CPM’s would benefit from seeing the questions and what their inquirers got wrong, the only answer that was given was security concerns.  He implied, hopefully unintentionally, that test takers – who are studying to be pastors, mind you – are going to look for ways to cheat, and CPM’s – pastors and ruling elders tasked with preparing people for professional ministry – can’t be trusted to follow the instructions of the OPM and not give students the test questions beforehand.  There is only a security risk if someone is posing that risk.  The level of mistrust that the security comment shows is astounding.

And what is most astounding and confusing, to me, given everything else, is that this junior exam that is not supposed to weed people out but give guidance in their preparation is being made intentionally harder while the professional exams are being made considerably easier.  Not that long ago they were 3 hour exams of 3 questions, 1 open book and 2 closed book, and proctored.  And hand written not that long ago.  When I took them, they were 3 hours, 3 questions, completely open book, and unproctored, which was perfect for me but also required less preparation.  Now they are 9 hours, 3 questions, unproctored, and considerably easier because there is no effective time limit now.4

It makes no sense.  I know I probably shouldn’t write about this and blast an entire office of the General Assembly publicly, but the changes are bad and I’m going to call them bad.  The Presbyteries Cooperative Committee on Exams seems to be at least in connection with a segment of the church and actually taking comments and criticisms to heart with the senior exams (and responding to the criticisms they are not acting on) but whomever is responsible for the BCE seems to be stubbornly holding some ideal up without considering the response and a belief that they are right despite widespread disagreement.

I’m going to point out that my pastor friend is not a young friend, nor an old pastor.  She is second career, wore her Master’s robe the same day that I did, and is not rebelling against the system.  And she disagrees with the direction it is going, too.

I just wish, above all else, that the response to criticism was actually a response, and not just, “(It is an) exam security measure.”  Because if I was one of the inquirers that failed this round, you can bet I would be furious (and it sounds like at least one CPM is pretty agitated, too).

Comments?  Thoughts?  A solution?  Because, frankly, I’m at a loss, and it doesn’t even affect me.

Peace,

– Robby


1This was according to committee member on a CPM somewhere within our denomination after talking to inquirers who failed the exam.  I can’t guarantee it because the OPM refuses to give any information about the actual content of the exam so take it with the reliability you can reasonably attribute to it.  Given the content of the previous exams, though, I wouldn’t doubt it…

2Your junior year of seminary is your first year. Then you have middler year(s) and senior year.

3Mind you, my CPM and I have never discussed which areas I was weakest in with that test, only that I passed. And I don’t fault them for it in the least; I feel they probably view it similarly, even if they would never admit it.

4To answer a potential question, any candidate could work with their committee to make adjustments to the testing to accommodate learning disabilities that would not interfere with fitness for ministry.