Wednesday, May 24, 2017

I Was Tired

“I don’t think any of us knew how tired you were,” my friend said after I moved away. I didn't realize at first how right he was.  

When I arrived in Orlando, I thought I’d find a job right away, but in fact I stayed inside with the lights off and couldn’t move for days which turned into weeks. And I cried every day.

The secrets wore me down. I didn’t dare discuss my thoughts and doubts with anyone. I hid how unhappy I was. I called on every ounce of strength to present myself the cheerful, energetic preacher. I didn’t always succeed.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I’ve been tired most of my life.  I was always able to mentally move aside the fatigue and move on but it took its toll on my health as I got older. 

Now, Sylvia takes care of me. She fed me good food and took me to hear good music. We went to the beach and I walked on the shore where the cool water washed my feet and the waves established a new rhythm inside me.

I’m better. My health issues are fading. I’m able to rest.  For the first time in years I sleep through the night. 

I reflect a lot on what led me to this moment even as I begin living again. I still cry every day but it doesn’t last as long.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

My Last Church Was Wonderful

I had to leave because I was exhausted and because my beliefs changed. But I didn’t leave because people were mean to me.
   
Idabel FUMC, photo by David Mercer
At some point, I want to discuss the unhealthy dynamics of religious culture, but first I want to speak of the last church I served before I left ministry.  Plenty of churches behave poorly in extreme times, and I’m sorry to say that it’s quite true that they “shoot their wounded.” But the church in Idabel was different.   When I got divorced, people expressed their love for both me and my ex-wife, which is unusual. When I told them I needed to leave the ministry, they were kind and generous.

We weren’t perfect in our church.  We had our conflicts.  But we did good work together.  And when I needed it most, they were there for me.

I will always love the First United Methodist Church of Idabel, OK.  

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Am I a Hypocrite?

“I am told God loves me–and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?
--Mother Teresa,


Faith is not an either/or proposition. People often have powerful faith without sensing the presence of God—that’s why they call it faith.  People can speak of light yet feel they’re in darkness. People have doubts but they continue to live in service to a God who may not seem real.

Are they hypocrites? Was I?

I felt like one at times. However, I tried to stay truthful in my ministry. Occasionally, in the classroom and the pulpit, I shared my doubts and struggles. I taught from the scriptures. I represented the church doctrine. I helped people as often as I could. And I did it as a follower of Jesus.

Can a person struggle with doubts and be a minister at the same time?  A lot of them do.  After Mother Teresa died, her letters and journals revealed that although she was a highly regarded religious leader who led the cause to feed the hungry, she did not feel the presence of the God.

That’s how I felt, too, although no one is clamoring for me to be declared a saint.  But to the very best of my ability I pushed aside my doubt and did the work.

People who are deeply spiritual have often endured the “dark night of the soul,” a condition where God seems to disappear.  I think some eventually rediscover a holy presence, but the light just never came back for me. Or for Mother Teresa, who persevered in her service until death. 

I feel like I died, too, only I’m still breathing. However, I also feel that I’ve gained a new life.  I’ll be speaking of that soon.    

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Silent Reckoning

Photo by Sylvia Kirkendoll Mercer
I finally admitted to myself that while I prayed constantly, God never answered back. No words came to me. The feelings I experienced were my own.  And the events that happened after I prayed had only the meaning I attributed to them. 

It was painful.  I had poured out my life in service to someone who did not find me worthy of a response.

Friends tried to encourage me, saying that perhaps God is so great that I simply could not understand his communication. I accepted this thought for most of my life.  But I came to the conclusion that if God was all powerful, surely he could find a way to get through to me. (BTW, the story of God sending his Son is not direct communication, either). 

In one of my final one sided conversations with this unseen, unheard entity, I said “I will continue to care for people and do the things I assume are important to you because they’re important to me, too. If you decide someday to talk to me about that, I’m right here.”  As usual, I got no response but I quit expecting one and I went about my work. 

I still prayed publicly for the sake of my people.  I reflected their thoughts and hopes.  And I relied on the liturgies written by others. But my personal outpouring stopped.


God has remained silent, too.    

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Death and Dry Bones

I loved being a minister. The job fed my soul and drained it at the same time. I don’t think I can go back.  I want to try to explain but it’s going to take some time.  The following is just one of the reasons I’m done. 

The minister helps people cope with death.  I’ve been at scenes where death occurred violently and I’ve also stood in dark houses or hospital rooms and watched people slip away while loved ones cried and kissed them. More than once I heard someone sing softly into the dying person’s ear.  Another time I heard a woman scream at her man not to die on her but he did anyway. 

I was often present when someone found out that a loved one died. I actually delivered the message on a few occasions. If the loss was sudden such as in an accident, the message would have to be repeated three times before it sunk in. 

I visited the homes before the funeral service, often just watching as family members came in from out of town. Fast decisions had to be made. Errands had to be done. At some point, I would interrupt the activity and gather them together to talk about the service and I would ask them for memories of their loved one.  Often, they didn’t know what to tell me so I learned to let them talk to each other and I would listen to them trade their stories.

Funeral dinners at the church were uncomfortable for me because while the family ate and visited, I usually sat out of the way at a separate table. It’s not that I was disliked or unwelcome. I just wasn’t one of the family. Often I avoided eating altogether by being busy with setting up the service.

At a funeral, if everything goes right, there's a certain progression.  Friends trickle in and take their seats. I  have them stand and watch the family enter and sit down.  The music plays, the tears flow, and people reach across the pews to touch each other. I speak words that I hope will comfort them. Sometimes the message is effective enough to help the people reach inside themselves to find their strength.  As I help them review the life that had passed I realize that I have missed out on someone special, and I feel the loss even if I hadn’t known the person

At the end when the people filed past the casket, I shook hands or hugged them, trying not to look like a politician cultivating votes. The hardest moments were watching the family members say their final goodbyes to the body. They’d literally hold each other up as they sobbed. 

My office was usually quiet after the service and most of the time, I would simply pack up and go home. My family wouldn’t know what I had experienced and they would go about their activities while I sank into my chair or lay down on the bed. I’m not sure I actually processed the events. It’s more like I let it all settle quietly into my bones.

After thirty-five years, sometimes it feels like all of their sobs and wails echo in my mind.  

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bloody Love

“God so loved the world that he gave his only son….”

The older I get, the less I can accept this idea. When my own sons were born, I discovered a depth of love that I didn’t know I had and I went a little crazy thinking about how to care for them. They’re grown now but I would still fight tigers, armies, and hurricanes to protect my sons. I have cried in frustration and shame when I failed to care for them adequately.

How am I supposed to respond to a heavenly father who hands his child over to be sacrificed and says he did it for me?

Child sacrifice. It's an old concept where cultures thought it would protect them from disaster or perhaps give them a good harvest. Butcher a child, sacrifice a virgin, throw someone into the mouth of a volcano, and the village would be saved. Nowadays we know better and we understand that human sacrifice is reprehensible.

Except when God does it. For some reason, we don’t say it’s awful. Instead we say it’s beautiful—a gesture of God’s love and we sing lovely songs about it.

We especially sing of the blood of Jesus spilled on our behalf.

There is a fountain filled with blood.
Are you washed in the blood?
What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood.
Oh, the blood of Jesus!

But wait, there’s more! We have a special ceremony, a commemorative meal, where the bread is his body and wine is his blood. Some Christians say it miraculously changes to actual flesh and blood as it enters us. “Take this body, take this blood,” we say, "remember what was done for you and be grateful.”

No.

No more.

I do not accept.

I do not celebrate the blood of anyone’s child.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Is The Story of Jesus' Resurrection True? You Decide

Mark’s gospel is the earliest account of Jesus’ life, and includes details left out in others' accounts. However, it comes to an abrupt end. 

Two days after Jesus was crucified, three women went to the tomb to attend to his body.  When they arrived, they saw the stone rolled away from the entrance and a young man waiting for them.  He told them Jesus was not there and that he was alive again. The last sentence of Mark's gospel says that the women left the tomb bewildered and afraid. 

That it. That’s where it ends.  An empty tomb. 

Evidently, people were dissatisfied so two different endings were attached at later times. One was short; the other was longer and more detailed. Take your pick. There's been much discussion but most scholars think the endings are not part of the original text.

The writers of the later gospels changed the ending, too. Instead of one guy at the tomb there are two angels. John says Mary Magdalene returned to the tomb and actually saw Jesus (she even hugged him). Then Jesus appeared to disciples in different places for the next forty days. A handful of those disciples watched him rise into the air and disappear into the heavens with a promise to return. 

But not Mark. The earliest account ends with fearful women looking at an empty tomb. If we look through the whole text we can see that it’s his style to end a story abruptly, leaving the reader to ask, “What happened? What does this mean?” I think he meant to challenge people to find answers within themselves. 

So…

You’re looking at an empty tomb and a stranger saying Jesus has risen from the dead.  What do you think?

A lot of preachers say, “Here’s what really happened, and this is what you should believe about it.” Many of them also say, “Everything is pointless until you agree that it actually happened.” If they refer to the later gospels, picking the passages carefully, they may find something to back up their assertions. 

But it boils down to this. A story is told that a long time ago, there was a great teacher who worked miracles. He was executed and became a martyr. But he didn’t stay dead and the evidence of his resurrection is an empty tomb. 

Did any of it happen? We don’t know. Did Jesus rise from the dead? We don’t know. Is Jesus a deity worthy to be worshiped? You get to decide.

A lot of people have insisted it’s all true, including the parts that are added later.  They have the right to believe it. They also have the right to speak up and say they believe it. 

But they don’t have the right to force others to believe it. They don’t have the right to insist that it be taught as history in our schools.  They don’t have the right to legislate belief in any form. Even if they did have the right they still wouldn’t have the power, no matter how hard they try, to force someone to believe. 

Preachers can preach. Teachers can teach. Parents can read it to their children at bedtime.  Movies can depict the story with stirring music and graphic detail.  But none of that makes it true and people don’t have to accept it as such.


However, if you want to believe it, by all means do so. It’s your choice.