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

Why People Voted for Trump

(UPDATE: So as I’m editing old posts while creating the new blog, some posts beg to be deleted but I can’t just bring myself to do it.  The situation with our now President has changed, I have, from the pulpit, called him out for actions I found despicable, and yeah, it’s been a weird few months.  As I’m looking for a position (and eventually will be an installed pastor), I wonder what I should leave up, and what should disappear.

This one stays because I had a friend who was calmed because of this post.  It was a pastoral post, even if it’s a bit harsh and WAY political.  It stays because it did good. – RB)

Okay, I wasn’t going to post about this because no matter what I say on the topic, I’m going to be accused of voting for someone.  I’m not sure who, I’m not sure who is going to accuse me, I’m not sure the ramifications, but I’m tired of people saying 48% of the nation is bigots.

It’s not and you know it.

Let’s get something out of the way.  Bigots were always going to vote for Trump, minority groups for Clinton.  Right or wrong, stupid or not, that’s how it was always going to go.  But that doesn’t include the majority of people.

So how could someone vote for Trump?  Let’s take a walk down the “Lesser of Two Evils” track.

So, you have Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton.  You see Trump as a millionaire bigot and Clinton as a millionaire criminal who is above the law.  Neither has your interests on their radar.  Both are going to get us into war.  Nuance – and some fact – is missing from this, but nuance and facts are often missed when selecting a candidate.

So how do they address you?  Clinton acts like you are unimportant, a benign growth on the body of the nation, while Trump at least treats you like the heart and backbone of the country.

So, you have to vote for one of them, one treats you like you are below them and the other like you mean something, who do you vote for?

It’s not bigotry, it’s not racism, it’s not because rural people hate women or Muslims or (insert whatever group they were supposed to have not cared about to vote for Trump); it’s because Trump spoke to rural America while Clinton spoke at rural America.

You want fly-over states to vote for you?  You want Iowa to go back to voting for Democrats?  Treat them like they aren’t a nuisance, and that their feelings and opinions actually matter to you, and then they’ll be way more open to having a conversation about progressiveness.

And about Iowa specifically.  We are a joke until it comes to an election; then we’re 6 electoral votes that are up for grabs.  Maybe we stop treating Iowa like a joke, remember that Iowa was 2nd for marriage equality, and try to actually reach out to farmers and factory workers and rural people instead of treating them like Risk pieces.

Most people will vote for their own needs over someone else’s needs, and unless you voted for the rural person’s needs over your own, you can’t judge them for it.  It’s not bigotry, it’s not evil, it’s self-preservation as far as they can tell.

And it’s not stupidity, either.

That’s it.  I’m posting it, consequences be damned.  Maybe, just maybe, we can try to understand each other – and why we make the decisions we make – a bit more instead of saying 48% of the country voted to restrict your rights and make your life more difficult.  Maybe they did what was best for them, much the same way you did what was best for you.

I’m not telling anyone what to feel.  I’m not addressing the fear that many people have.  I’m not pretending to know what is going on in the hearts and minds of the marginalized in our country.  And I’m not saying this is how people should have voted – I’m very much in favor of voting to protect the marginalized and believe they are the groups we should consider first.  What I am trying to do is explain why a rational, loving, unbigoted person might vote contrary to you.

And hopefully, we can act like a united people eventually.

Please, can we stop hurting each other and yelling at each other?  It is doing no good.

– Robby

The Problem of Pastors and Politics

I was having a conversation today…and yesterday…and Sunday about how it has been so very, very hard to keep my damn mouth shut about the political game.  I’ve slipped a few times – more this week than in all previous elections combined – but I am doing my absolute best to not tell people to vote in any way or imply that any candidate is not a Christian candidate.

I’ve wanted to.  My God, I’ve wanted to.  But I have been keeping my mouth shut.  Mostly.

I know I’m not alone, but I can’t help but notice that I have quite a few pastor friends who are quite vocal this election, and I get it.  I really do, I really, really do.  But I find myself at a crossroads.

I am a pastor(ish), and even when I am not in my pulpit, I may as well be because people are going to hear it as the pastor giving his pastoral advice.  I may not be presenting the Word of God in every moment (ESPECIALLY WHILE WATCHING DEBATES) but I am a pastor in every moment, and the words of my mouth are the words of a pastor no matter if I am commenting on the qualities of a specific sandwich at Chick-fil-A* or talking about the qualities of a specific candidate.  In every moment, my voice is the voice of a pastor.

Now if I say that a chicken sandwich at Chick-fil-A* was tasty but the breading was a bit soggy, I have expert status because I eat a lot but not because I’m a pastor.  I’m just a sad, sad man at that point.  But if I say that one candidate is better than another, my being a pastor gives a level of expertise as a theologian and professional minister.  If I say a particular candidate is not a Christian and demonize them, then I have declared – even unintentionally – that the correct Christian choice is to vote against them.  If I say that the country is doomed if a particular candidate is elected, I say that using the authority I have as a pastor.

Maybe that’s how you think pastors should work, and I won’t be able to convince anyone otherwise, but consider the situation I find myself specifically and tell me how I am supposed to be political and not do a disservice to the Christians I serve, because all of them are baptized, confessing, and worshiping Christians just like me, flaws and all.

I have a staunch Trump supporter, a few that will vote Republican, a strong Clinton supporter or two, a few that will vote for Hillary, and a pile that seriously think the only answer – the absolute only answer – is for neither to be on the ballot and so they feel so helpless and hopeless.

Now let’s say that I demonize Trump and support Hillary.  The Hillary supports just feel supported, the Trump supporters no longer feel like they are welcome Christians, and those frustrated in the middle point to things that she has said that clearly go against my preaching and ask how I can support her.  Most people (or at least half) were just told – albeit possibly unintentionally – that voting for the candidate of their choosing is a sin and that they should feel ashamed.

Now reverse it.  Different people, same result.  I literally told half or more of the people in my congregation that they are sinful for disagreeing with me.

Maybe you don’t see it as forcefully as I do.  Maybe you see yourself as speaking in a voice that isn’t your pastor voice.  Maybe you believe that absolutely no real Christian could support a particular candidate – and that your view is absolutely correct.

But I do.  And before I get an onslaught of things that are wrong with both candidates, I’m watching the same news, reading the same blogs, and having the same thoughts as everyone else.  I can see – clearly – what is going on.  I don’t need you to tell me why you hate/love a particular candidate.  I am not blind or dumb.

I just don’t think it’s responsible for us to be so publicly demonizing and deifying candidates and tell those who we serve who disagree with us – that those that serve right along with us – that we hold the only possible Christian option and dissent is unacceptable.

Now jokes about voting for Mr. Potato Head and Aaron Rodgers (whom I hate with the fire of a billion suns) and expressing your frustration with how the election is shaking out is an entirely different matter.  That’s called being human, and my success as a pastor is about 75% due to my being willing to be a human.  But when you discussion of political situations turns to “Absolutely not her/him”, you tell those who disagree with you that they cannot have their position and still be Christians.

I’ll admit I hate elections, and I want my Twitter feed to go back to beer, jokes, bourbon, jokes, and occasionally a profound statement, but the rhetoric is out of hand, even if I agree with 99% of it.  We’re pastors, we have a different standard and a different calling and we should respect that even when it pains us.  We serve our congregations (or different ministries), not the political process of our country.  Think about the people you serve and if what you are saying will make them less served by you.

Rant over.  Contemplating turning the heater on in my office.

– Robby

*I hadn’t had Chick-fil-A in years and then one opened in Dubuque and I was on the road a lot and found myself having to choose take-out and now I’ve had enough Chick-fil-A for a year…

How to Choose a President

So I watched every second of the debate last night.  It was a huge mistake on my part, not likely to be made again.  But it got me thinking, how do we actually decide who it is that we have leading the executive branch of our federal government?  What is the thought process that we go through to actually make the decision?

I am not endorsing or detracting from any candidate officially (though I really, really want to…) but I think it is more than fair to give ideas on how one might decide who to vote for.  A set of questions, in a specific order, that gives you an idea of how to choose a candidate.

Remember, these are in a specific order.  Start with the first question and move down.

1. Is this candidate qualified to actually fill the role of President?

If I sent an application to an engineering firm, it would rightfully be tossed out.  Do you know why?  Because I am incapable of completing the tasks of the job I am applying for.  It doesn’t matter if I have the same design philosophy of the company, it doesn’t matter if I’m a really cool dude, it doesn’t matter if I’m fresh blood while another candidate is old hat, if I cannot complete the tasks required of me, I should not be hired.

I think all the vast majority of people – include Christians – get so caught up in the political game and black-and-white nature of partisan politics that this very simple question gets ignored.  It needs to be first on the list, period.  You don’t hire pastors as security guards – usually – and we shouldn’t hire people who can’t actually complete the tasks of President to be President.

(Sidebar: I hate capitalizing President…)

2a. (Specifically for Christians, but also applicable to others) Will this candidate embody the Greatest Commandments?
2b. (For everyone) Does this candidates actual political positions align with my moral convictions?

I tried to come up with something more instructive here, but I couldn’t.  Look at the political positions the candidate purport, look at how they speak and act, and then decide if you can give them the yes on these questions.

There is an argument that these questions (especially for Christians) should come first, but the best morality and the best politics and the best person means absolutely nothing if you can’t put those things into action.  The reality is that if someone cannot actually do the job, it does not matter how awesome they are.  There is a reason I’m not, nor will I ever be, a baseball pitcher or starting NFL quarterback.  I’m pretty awesome, but I can’t do that.

3. Is this person the best candidate for everyone who isn’t me?

I am a white male, protestant, religious, moderate, working class (and slowly clawing my way up), beer drinker, bourbon drinker, short, over-weight, non-pot smoking, writer, pastor.  And I could focus that microscope even further.  Who is best for me may not be best for my wife, or the church secretary, or the family that just moved in down the street, or the banker, or the homeless guy I gave money to that one time, or the pan-handler I gave money to that one time.

When we choose someone who is best for us, we are choosing on a very narrow microcosm to benefit with our choice.  If we decide to be a bit less egocentric in our decision-making, then we actually consider a much broader set of benefits and actually, you know, attempt to improve the world, not just our personal microcosm.

And really, everyone else being better off makes you better off, just saying.

4. Is this person the best candidate for me?

If you actually get this far, then you can actually be selfish.  If you are fortunate enough to get through all of the questions with two (or more?) candidates who can actually do the job, embody your moral convictions, and are good for everyone, then you can selfishly choose a candidate who will pass laws that will make your microscopic microcosm of the world better specifically for you.

That’s the end.  Hopefully this was unbiased enough to not actually endorse/detract from anyone specific, but I can’t guarantee that.  This is the first election where I very much wanted to just start screaming publicly about political matters, but it isn’t my place and certainly my pulpit will not be sullied by partisan politics.

– Robby

The Bible Trivia Exam came up again…

(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)

Okay, I’m so done with the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) and how ridiculous they have become.  I should try to be more diplomatic and pastoral with this, but I’m just done.

The Bible Trivia Content Exam is a 100 question multiple choice test you take after your first year of seminary.  Does it actually show anything about your giftedness for ministry?  No, not a thing.  Does it actually help show what your weaknesses in scriptural knowledge are?  Maybe, but probably not.  Is it full in inane questions that requires you to know the random minutia of scripture that you will likely never use again?  Yes, yes it is.

Did having the old tests available to I knew what to study help me pass the test?  Yes.

Did having the old tests reduce my Biblical knowledge and prepare me less for ministry?  No.

Did having the old tests increase my Biblical knowledge?  Yes, a lot.

So the PCC has got a lot of criticism – and loud criticism – about the change in the BCE and the PCC basically said, “Yup, we hear you, but we know better than you and we’re responding without actually addressing your concerns.”

So, here’s how testing has changed in the PC(USA).  The BCE has become harder and impossible to prepare for short of memorizing all of scripture, while the senior ordination exams – you know, the actual professional exams that test your true readiness for ministry – have become easier with the removal of proctoring, the removal of any closed-book questions, and recently the removal of any time limits.  So basically, you have to know trivia like the back of your hands, but the actual meat of ministry you can rely on time and resources?

So you know, I’ve got a solution.  Make the BCE a senior ordination exam.  If this exam is supposed to “assess competency in core areas of knowledge within [ministry],” why exactly are you assessing it before the education that you are supposed to learn about these things is completed?  You are asking people entering into seminary to have a full seminary education’s worth of knowledge – including a bunch of first-career pastors – of the minutia of scripture before actually completing seminary, and then you are surprised that less and less students pass the exam.

The test is supposed to “…assess one’s knowledge of stories, themes and pertinent passages in the Old and New Testaments,” and you know, you learn those things in seminary.  Because if you come in knowing all the answers, you don’t learn and you aren’t challenged.  So if we are going to make the BCE more difficult to prepare for and more difficult than the senior ordination exams, then maybe, just maybe, it needs to be a senior exam.

OR, maybe just maybe, the PCC can stop being stuck in a “memorization is the only way” mentality with the BCE when you certainly don’t need memorization for the actual professional exams.

OH, and I was curious about something because Tim mentioned pathology in that condescending letter.  I called my nurse sister about her boards and you know what?  They didn’t randomly get a test before their education was completed that tested knowledge that they haven’t gained that they will gain in their education.  So their boards where tough, timed, and to make sure they don’t kill someone – like our ords are designed to make sure we aren’t heretics and don’t turn people away from Christ – and guess what?  They release to previous years exams to practice on.

This is just stupid, and most people outside of the PCC see it.  But those who think that we all know nothing about scripture and somehow this trivia exam weeds out those who don’t know enough are also in charge of the PCC, and it pisses me off.

Pastors, remember the bull crap you went through when you were going through ordination, and fight to make it better.  It doesn’t need to be easier, but it can be fair.

GRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

– Robby

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