Tuesday, January 15, 2008

My Past - Part 2

Yesterday I ended with this paragraph:

I said at the beginning I can no longer answer the question 'why' -- why did I begin pastoring. However, I can answer why I walked away. Four things influenced my decision: I worked at a Baptist college, I attended a Baptist church, I read the state Baptist newspaper and I was married. Those need explanation. I'll save the explanation for tomorrow.

I worked at a Baptist college. I think it's true to say there is nothing that is holy or sacred. Holy ground does not exist. Religious music is simply music labeled religious. Christian education is no different than secular education. We have a tendency to apply labels but the underlying reality doesn't match the label.

I worked at a Baptist college but I had unrealistic expectations. I didn't expect classes to begin with prayer nor did I expect the teaching of creationism. What I expected was honesty, integrity and a set of values consistent with the recruiting propaganda.

Permit me with one experience to illustrate the source of my disenchantment. For a few years I worked in fund raising. Some employers match their employees contributions to charitable organizations. If the employee donates $1,000 then the employer will contribute an amount that is equal, double or triple the employee's contribution. We had a man make a large donation to the college that was being matched double. A secretary learned the money was being diverted from the general fund to the accounts of his daughters. In essence, this man was paying his daughters' bills, getting a tax benefit and was getting the benefit of his employer's contribution. This is clearly illegal in multiple ways. The employer's forms stated the money must be deposited in the general fund. The secretary approached me and I went to the campus post office and retrieved the forms before they were put in the mail. We discussed the issue with a vice president who refused to acknowledge the problem. He mailed the forms. A few months later the employer learned of the deception, fired the employee and demanded repayment from the school. (I did not tip off the employer but I think I know who did. Due to respect and discretion I never asked her to confirm my belief.) I decided to change positions and began searching for another job.

This is one story of many. There is no excuse for blatant unethical, illegal and dishonest behavior in any business but especially not in a church-related institution.

I attended a Baptist church. People are people. Applying the label "christian" does not change the underlying person. One of my favorite stories relates to a seminary professor whose patience was growing short with a student and made the statement "Young man, before I became a Christian I was a man. Don't scratch the veneer!"

Right or wrong, wise or unwise, I expected something of church members. My variety of christian experience focused on people and relationships. I didn't and don't care if a person drinks, uses profane language, dresses provocatively or does other things traditionally labeled "unchristian" by many groups. I was concerned about how we related to people. My focal point was a social gospel as referenced in the story in Matthew 25 of the sheep and goats: I was hungry, sick, imprisoned, etc -- and you cared for me.

He died a few years ago and I counted him as a friend. He was an alcoholic who did three tours in Vietnam. He had been married five times to three women before marrying for the last time. He had problems but in my opinion he was good natured, friendly, harmless and always treated me with kindness and respect. He began attending church. I felt good about that but one church member made the comment "We don't need his kind in church." Don't need his kind? What kind do we need? He had remarried, quit drinking and had a new daughter less than a year old. Do we need her kind? Do we "need" any kind?

This isn't among my worst experiences but is one small memory from many that illustrate church has become impotent, a group meeting for entertainment and self admiration of their goodness.

I read the state Baptist newspaper. Power is power and power is desirable. It seems there is something to the personality of religious people that causes them to need to control society. They need power. Several years ago within the Southern Baptist Convention there was a power struggle disguised in part of a theological debate. A faction began planning a takeover through propaganda and political maneuvers. In spite of biblical injunctions to peace and love, one person said "We're going for the jugular." The state Baptist newspaper wasn't filled with news of plans, accomplishments and successes related to dealing with significant problems like ignorance, hunger, disease and violence. The paper was filled with news about the fight for power.

It got to the point that I chose not to read the paper. It was a depressing, hopeless waste of time. It wasn't just my church and my college that was missing the point of Christianity. It was the entire denomination.

I was married.My children read this blog and I write this with caution and a belief that it's wise and for the best. My wife and I divorced after my son and daughter were out of high school and I have always tried to be fair and honest with them without denigrating their mother. Belittling a former spouse is never wise nor constructive. Secretly, early on, I gave my wife 90% of the blame for marital failure. As the years have passed I've realized I was probably a real pain in the neck that dropped to the bottom vertebra. Today I'll take 49% of the responsibility.

During my last pastorate I expressed my lack of contentment and loss of belief not in my theology but in the institutional church. My wife's response was "But, we need the money." End of discussion.

My wife and I always had money troubles. I could never earn enough. Well, that's not true. No matter how much I earned it would be spent and to this day I don't know where it went. Rather than learning to manage money she expected me to be discontent, hypocritical and pastor for money -- to prostitute myself. That was the final straw.

My resolution.My next to last pastorate was a trying experience -- one constant fight after the first year as one group fought for control. During the drive home from my father's funeral I decided to resign. It seemed pointless to continue and miss more of my children's teenage years as I tried to keep the struggle from erupting into a blowup. I resigned as pastor but was still a member. I didn't attend and had no intentions of attending because the church needed the freedom to select their next pastor without my shadow, influence or interference. I made sure I never said anything negative about any of the members or the church as a whole. But, the fight continued and the next pastor took sides. The leadership resigned and half the church left. My name continued to be brought up as fuel for their fight. One Sunday evening I went into the church after the service started and sat in the back. When the service was ending, as is custom in a Baptist church, I stood, expressed my disappointment with the fight and made a motion that my name and the names of my wife and children be removed from membership. There was a quick second, a quick vote and it was done.

There's a problem here. Their anger was with me, not my children. Had they acted on my motion and voted me out of membership but said my grown children could speak for themselves then I would be satisfied. As it is, they voted them out without one word of dissent. At that moment I vowed I'd never again join a church.

Well, now you know most of the story, my version of the story. I've left out my blunders, mistakes and indiscretion (that's a nice euphemism!) but I acknowledge them. I don't look for perfection. I look for flawed effort. Sadly, I couldn't find it in others or in myself.

Today I make statements that I'm not certain if I'm christian, atheist, agnostic, deist or what. What am I? I don't know and don't care to label myself. I have a complaint against institutional churches but have no problem with the teachings and example of Jesus. I see the truth in other non-christian religious writings but I have no desire to follow any one way. I feel better about myself today than I ever felt while pastoring.

Church can be oppressive. Many years ago in a moment of frustration at the illogical need to control every thought and breath I made a promise to myself -- If ever I found myself close to a nude beach I would find it and strip down as an act of rebellion and freedom. I fulfilled that promise to myself and enjoyed every moment of it. For me, that was an act of resolution.

After yesterday's post (part 1) I received an email from my daughter questioning taking her sons to church. I have yet to answer her email but my short answer is "Yes, take them but teach them to think critically, to question, to challenge authority, to be bold, to develop their personal beliefs and never accept a packaged set of dogma. Encourage them to be individuals and leaders and to be cautious followers when needed. Take them but don't send them. Teach them to acknowledge truth, to resist propaganda, to be realistic in their expectations, to accept the good and to discard the bad."


Blogger Miss Kim said...

Thank you for writing this post. My husband and I were in a similar situation many years ago and you've expressed many of the reasons why we also left the church. It was good to read your thoughts.

1/15/2008 03:08:00 PM  
Blogger Buffalo said...

That noise you hear, Paul, it's applause. It took courage, honor, honesty and introspection to write this. Good all over you.

1/15/2008 09:11:00 PM  
Blogger Alex Pendragon said...

This is one of the best things I have ever seen written. Thank you for sharing. Perhaps the fight needs to be taken TO these "Christians", who are anything but. Christianity seems to be the worst thing ever done to Christ, including his crucifixion.

No wonder we can't hear what "God" is saying, over the din of all those who claim to speak for him/her/it.

1/15/2008 09:16:00 PM  
Blogger Melody said...

I am in awe of your heartfelt writing. Thank you for sharing what is obviously personal and valuable to you.

I understand your pain, disillusionment, and frustration. I feel it every day.

1/16/2008 10:35:00 AM  
Blogger Anvilcloud said...

Hey Paul. I don't know what I believe either. Maybe we could start a new ch... Naw, I guess not. :)

1/16/2008 09:53:00 PM  
Blogger Malcolm said...

I love the integrity of this post and, am sadly all too familiar with some of the scenarios.

1/20/2008 12:54:00 PM  

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