Pastor Knows Best

I’ve had the good fortune of enjoying healthy, positive relationship with my pastors over the years, relationships that have left me with enormous respect for church leaders and the challenges they face daily.

Having befriended a lot of pastors’ kids, I know that pastors and their families are often held to impossibly high standards that leave them constantly striving for perfection and subjected to great scrutiny.  That kind of pressure is enough to strain marriages, hurt children, and trigger major burnout.  I am thankful for all of the men and women who have persevered to share the gospel under such circumstances.

But lately I’ve been noticing something else. While some pastors are unfairly criticized by members of their congregation, others are overly revered. In conversations with friends and family, I’ve noticed more and more people talking about their pastors or priests as if they could do no wrong, as if they speak for God Himself. I'm not sure if circumstnaces have actually changed, or if I have changed. Perhaps I'm just now noticing - a result of my "posmodern" tenency to doubt and deconstruct.

These are three red flags that I’ve been seeing:

Red Flag One - Pastor as the Only Source of Counseling

I’ve known a lot of people to benefit enormously from pastoral counseling. Dan and I did our premarital counseling with a pastor, and we’ve certainly benefited from his advice over the past six years.

That being said, I think there are some issues that pastors are simply not qualified to address on their own.

I recently heard someone say, “My pastor counsels straight from the Bible...There’s none of this Freudian crap.”

That worried me a little. Freud had some good things to say, actually, and trained psychologists/psychiatrists bring lot of experience and education to the table when someone is suffering.  Yes, reading the Psalms can be therapeutic and helpful...but so can cognitive behavioral therapy. It seems to me that Bible verses alone are not going to cut it when something more serious, like hypnosis or even medication, may be necessary.

Furthermore, I’ve known some pastors to give some bad advice...mainly because they are so close to the individuals involved. Sometimes you really need an objective third party to help you sort things out.

Red Flag Two - Pastor as the Only Source of Theology/ Biblical Interpretation

Recently I’ve been corresponding with several different pastors from a variety of denominations. This has been a fantastic experience, as I love talking theology with people who have really studied it! What has surprised me the most about these conversations is the wide range of responses I get when I pose questions or challenges.  Most pastors talk to me like a peer, as if my thoughts are valid and reasonable and worth engaging. But a few have a tendency to get defensive or treat me like a child. They avoid answering my questions directly and instead turn the tables, posing litmus-test-type questions and then telling me whether I got them right or wrong.

I think perhaps some are just so accustomed to assuming the role of leader and teacher that  they aren’t sure how to respond to someone who has done her fair share of research on a topic.  They seemed a little surprised that I didn’t just accept their interpretation of Scripture as the only interpretation of Scripture.

I’ve never been the type of person to just believe whatever a pastor or teacher tells me to believe. For better or for worse, if something doesn’t make sense, I question it.  I look into it. Some pastors seem to be used to this; others seem caught off guard.

I would be wary of any congregation in which the pastor is revered too much to be questioned (though questions should obviously be posed in the right way, through the right channels, and with the right timing).

Red Flag Three - Pastor as the Only Example of How to Live

This happens when a pastor’s lifestyle choices are hailed as “the only right way to do things.” I’m thinking of spending habits, marriage relationships, gender roles, political persuasion, entertainment choices, etc.  When everyone in a church eats, drinks, and talks like its pastor, something’s not okay.

What red flags would you add?

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Rick Warren @ Inaguration: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

The blogosphere is abuzz about Barack Obama’s decision to have Pastor Rick Warren pray at his inauguration.  What do you think? Thumbs up or thumbs down?

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God Things

As my close friends and family already know, I’ve always struggled with the notion of God blessing His children with stuff. I get fidgety and cynical whenever something is said about God providing funds for a new building project or the money for a second car or new TV. I roll my eyes when pastors announce that God has intervened to help get parking lots re-paved or new sound systems ordered. 

I have an extremely negative visceral reaction when the term “blessing” is used, (usually with the purest of intentions), to describe a pay raise or a new job opportunity or a free couch. In fact, my attitude can get so bad that it hurts my relationship with God and with other people. I’m angry at someone or something, and I think sometimes it shows. 

I’m not exactly sure when all of this started.

It might have been when a friend of mine got married the same weekend that Hurricane Katrina struck. A member of the wedding party marveled at what a blessing it was that the nasty weather moved Westward so that the bride could enjoy a beautiful wedding day. It was such a “God thing,” she told me excitedly. I went home that night and watched footage of families stranded on their rooftops, and thousands of hungry people stuck in the Superdome, and I wondered if this was really a “God thing” after all.

Or it might have been when I travelled to India. There I met a little boy named Kanakaraju. Kanakaraju’s mother had unknowingly contracted AIDS from her husband and was very sick. The worry and pain was visible on Kanakarju’s face when he asked me in a sincere, almost pleading voice, to pray for his mother.  We prayed together. I don’t know if I’ve ever in my life wanted God to respond with a miracle more. But He didn’t. Kanakarju’s mother died a few weeks later, leaving her son orphaned.  Back in the States, I had a very difficult time praying for all those things I used to think I desperately needed—a book deal, a new computer, a good return on a real estate investment. It sounds silly, but I didn’t want God to go out of His way if it meant ignoring children like Kanakarju. “Why don’t you just take care of those kids,” I’d pray. “I don’t really need things like they need things.”

To this day, I am uncomfortable praying for myself. I am keenly aware of the fact that, in the time it takes for me to pray over a meal, about 21 children have died from hunger. Sometimes, when I stroll through the bottled water aisle at Wal Mart, I get sick to my stomach thinking about how many people get deathly ill simply because they have no access to clean water.  When pastors ask me to pray about the budget, I wonder how many frightened children in Darfur are praying for peace, how many desperate mothers are praying for just a piece of bread or bowl of rice to get their babies through another night. When Christian college administrators describe an uptick in enrollment or a big donation for a new building  project “a picture of God’s goodness,” I wonder how they would describe Kanakaraju’s situation. What is that a picture of? Did Kanakarju simply not have enough faith?

It seems to me that, if God’s goodness is determined by how much stuff he gives out, then He is not a particularly good God at all.  Sure, he’s been “good” to rich Americans, but He hasn’t been “good” to the millions upon millions who suffer terribly every day, and who cry out to Him for help to no avail. This is why, for several years, I actually preferred the term “lucky” to “blessed.”  As I told my friends and family, I would rather it be the result of luck that I enjoy good health, access to education, and religious freedom, while a woman my age in Iran can be killed for the suspicion of adultery, or a woman my age in Africa can get raped repeatedly for being of the wrong ethnicity. I’d rather it be luck than an act of God, because if it were an act of God, then God would be cruel and unfair.  

I spent a lot of years being furious with God about this until He graciously reminded me that His Kingdom works differently than any other. In His kingdom, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” The gospel of Jesus is best received, not by the rich and well-fed, but by the poor and the hungry.

As Jesus said:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy...But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. ...”

This upside down kingdom is something else I witnessed first-hand in India. The poor understand something about God that I don’t. They have a relationship with Him that includes far more dependency and love and thankfulness than I can ever know. Kanakarju, though not blessed materially, was blessed with remarkable faith. Maybe, when James says that “every good and perfect gift is from above,” he’s not talking about money.

With this in mind,  I’ve personally come to believe that material abundance is not necessarily a sign of faithfulness or of God’s favor. Folks like to talk about how America has been blessed (with riches) because of its religious origins (which included slavery and ethnic cleansing). I’m not so sure that America’s abundance necessarily means that it has been blessed by God. The Romans liked to brag that the gods had smiled upon them too.

So, while I’ve sort of worked though this issue personally, I still really struggle with the term “blessing.” Dan tries to remind me that people use it with the best of intentions. “They are trying to communicate the fact that they did not accomplish something on their own,” he says. “They are trying to show thankfulness and dependency.”

“...Or they’re just trying to justify their actions by inserting God into the conversation,” I shoot back.

“You can’t judge people’s motives,” Dan says. “For someone who claims to follow the teachings of Jesus, you’re being awfully judgmental.”

“You’re right,” I say. “Let’s play guitar hero.”

So, I guess my question is this: What do I do about this little attitude I’ve got? I’ve noticed that some of my friends get embarrassed when they use phrases like “God thing” or “blessing” around me, and I see that this is incredibly unfair. How do I keep myself from talking about genocide when someone just wants me to pray for their sick dog? How do I dial down the cynicism when folks are just trying to express thankfulness and grattitude to God? Has anyone else out there struggled with this? How have you kept your attitude in check?

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What is faith?

My apologies for the lapse.  As it turns out, writing a book can be a bit all-consuming at times. I really appreciate your patience.

So, what exactly is faith? This may seem like a really basic question, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently.

Most Christians believe that we are saved by faith. Many make sure to add “but not by works” to the end of that sentence, while others are sure to bring up the fact that “faith without woks is dead.”

For most of my life, I thought that faith was essentially intellectual ascent to a set of propositional truths. In other words, if you believe the right things about God, you went to heaven. If you believed the wrong things about God, you went to hell. A person’s eternal destiny was determined, in large part, to how much he or she knew.

I think that this is the prevailing attitude among Christians, particularly evangelicals, in America today.

This notion became problematic for me when I actually started to think about it. First of all, it meant that the majority of the human population went to hell without ever having the chance to be saved, which seemed remarkably unfair, unjust, and perhaps even evil. Secondly, it meant that faith need not have any effect on a person’s life. It was just a ticket to heaven. The focus was on eternity, not on the here and now, and the point was to simply believe the right thing, not do the right thing or be transformed in any way. And finally, it seemed to me that the Bible itself didn’t really support the definition of faith as intellectual ascent to a set of propositional truths.

Some examples:

  • James writes (in James 2:20-24) that even the demons believe that there is one God. Obviously, believing something to be true doesn’t mean reconciliation or relationship with God.   (James goes on to say that “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” – I’ve never completely understood how the sola fide/sola Scriptura camp deals with this one.)
  • The Bible does not stipulate how much a person needs to know about God in order to have a relationship with Him, but simply qualifies that the fruit of saving faith is good works. Paul writes that “it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” People who have no knowledge of the Law but who “do instinctively the things of the Law,” will be judged, not on the basis of how much they know, but on the basis of how they respond to their conscience. (Romans 2:9-16) ) Many exclusivists themselves concede that people living before the time of Christ were made righteous by faith without explicit knowledge of Jesus.
  • Although I believe that God revealed Himself uniquely through the person of Christ, (I am a Christian after all!), I cannot believe that God’s grace  is limited to or exhausted by Christ. If we accept the idea of the Trinity, then we believe that God the Father and the Holy Spirit are also at work in the world, and that the breath of God is free to “blow where it wishes.” (John 3:8) Looking at things from this Trinitarian perspective, it is reasonable to assume that one can maintain a saving relationship with God the Father through the Holy Spirit without knowing the name of Jesus Christ.  Just as a right relationship with Jesus results in a right relationship with God, a right relationship with the Father is, in effect, a right relationship with Christ. (John 8:19, 42) This makes me a little more cautious about making sweeping judgments about people of other religions.
  • Jesus says that when it comes time to “judge the nations,” the Good Shepherd will separate the sheep from the goats based on their treatment of “the least of these.” (Matthew 25:31-46) We forget that Jesus Christ is indeed present in every nation, and has been at every point in history. He is present in the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the imprisoned. Perhaps many will choose to reject or accept Him in that unlikely incarnation.
  • I think that sometimes people quote verses like Romans 10:9 (“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved”) and John 14:6 (“I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me”) in isolation. They forget that these conversations were happening among people who had encountered Jesus Christ...people who had the choice to respond in faith to what they had experienced. Just a few verses after Jesus says “no one comes to the Father but through me,” he adds, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have not excuse for their sin...If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well.” (John 15:22,24)

- On a side note: As I wrote in a past post, I don’t think that salvation is simply a matter of getting into heaven and out of hell. For me, following the teachings of Jesus Christ saves me from my sin in the here and now. It can save me on a daily basis from selfishness, materialism, passing judgment, hatred, vindictiveness, and fear.

- And to clarify: I also do not think that faith/savlation is a matter of checking off a list of dos and don'ts in an effort to please God. In other words, I also reject the notion that salvaiton comes from works alone. 

So, if faith isn’t simply a matter of believing the right thing, if it’s not about being right, or checking off a list of propositional truths in your head, then what is it? How do we know if we have it?  How do we know if someone else has it? Can we know for sure? 

It seems to me that God reaches out to everyone in love, and that faith has something to do with how a person responds to this. I know that this sounds super-vague, and I am certain that someone will call it “postmodern.” So be it. The truth is, I’m just trying to figure it out myself. 

What do you think? What is faith?

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Thanksgiving with Mother Teresa

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers!  I hope you will take a few minutes to read this beautiful story from Mother Teresa, and this prayer from St. Francis of Assisi. As we celebrate our blessings today, let us remember those who are hungry, lonely, and afraid, and let us commit ourselves to doing everything we can to help.

From Mother Teresa:

“One night, a man came to our house to tell me that a Hindu family, a family of eight children, had not eaten anything for days.

They had nothing to eat.

I took enough rice for a meal and went to their house. I could see the hungry faces, the children with their bulging eyes. The sight could not have been more dramatic!

The mother took the rice from my hands, divided it in half and went out.

When she came back a little later, I asked her: ‘Where did you go? What did you do?’

She answered, ‘They also are hungry.’

‘They’ were the people next door, a Muslim family with the same number of children to feed and who did not have any food either. 

That mother was aware of the situation.

She had the courage and the love to share her meager portion of rice with others. In spite of her circumstances, I think she felt very happy to share with her neighbors the little I had taken her.

In order not to take away her happiness, I did not take her anymore rice that night. I took her some more the following day.”

From “Mother Teresa: In My Own Words,” compiled by Jose’ Luis Gonzalez-Balado, 1996

From Francis of Assisi:

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
where there is hatred let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
Lord, may I not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
Because it is in giving that we receive,
in pardoning that we are pardoned."

Feel free to add your own favorite prayers and quotations in the comment section! Happy Thanksgiving!

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