I woke this morning at 6am, a bit earlier than I normally do. My stomach butterflies are growing into bats, I can feel it. Today is the day I have to talk about my “problem” with a well connected pastor in the community. And Kevin is not just any pastor, he’s probably the most recognized and respected pastor of our entire region. He earns this title not because he’s a hard line preacher, but because he’s an honest and transparent preacher. When he preaches on sin, you are far more likely to hear him preach about his sin than yours. Kevin is fond of say “Our church is a church where it’s ok not to be ok”, and he leads that charge by example.
A few years ago I heard that Kevin was being forced into a sabbatical by his board. I know a few of his board members and I’m quite envious of how fervent they are at making sure he’s ok. However, in our world, the sabbatical is usually a death sentence. Pastors rarely return to ministry after a sabbatical. To this day, he’s the only pastor I’ve known to actually resume his position after one.
My hand is being forced here. I really do want to talk with Kevin about all I’ve been through lately, but current circumstance **cough cough***TBWSNBN***cough cough*** is forcing me into an impossible decision.
In the shower I mull over what and how I want to tell him. I brush my teeth, sick to my stomach. I grab a coffee and promptly forget it’s there as I kiss my wife and say goodbye for the day…leaving the life giving black substance on the counter.
Since I’m up and out pretty early, I head to my office first. Check some emails, reply to some comments…and wait for the clock to pass.
It’s time for me to go. I sit in my car and turn on NPR, Something, anything to draw my anxiety away. But alas, there’s some stupid human interest piece about musicians recycling trash by turning them into instruments.
Radio: So we take old cardboard tubes and other trash and ask students to create instruments that the world has never seen before and then they do!
My anxiety has gotten to the point to where I’m not even thinking or imagining talking to Kevin about this, but I just have the overall sense of fear. An ambiguous fear that knows precisely what it’s afraid of, but doesn’t dare utter it’s name out loud. If you’ve ever had a panic attack, this is just a little more focused than that.
I head into his office.
Kevin: Pretty fantastic right now. I just ran that marathon a couple of weeks ago.
Me: Like on purpose? You know what happened to the first guy to run that far?
Kevin: Yeah he died. Sometimes while I’m running them, I want to die too.
Me: You do realize that you don’t have to run for 26.2 miles, right?
Kevin: So they tell me
It might just be me, but no conversation is complete without one pastor telling the other pastor that they’re crazy for doing xyz. It’s how we relate to each other. Being a pastor is weird, so when you have an open relationship with another pastor, it’s like a compulsion to admit how crazy your life is.
Kevin: So hey, what’s going dude.
Me: (sigh) Well I got 2 problems today. One is huge, the other is smaller but related.
Kevin: Ok, go for it.
Me: So, I think I need to quit my job and do something else, because….because I’m not really sure what I believe anymore. I’m just not sure if God is with me anymore, or ever. I mean, some days I do and some days I don’t. I begin to recognize that I’m going through the 5 stages of grief. Now, I had always thought they were linear, that you progressed through them. But what I’m experiencing is that I’m going through all of them at once. Sometimes I’m angry, sometimes I’m in denial, sometimes I accept, sometimes I bargain, etc. I just think, I don’t know… maybe I shouldn’t be doing this anymore.
Kevin: So when you say you’re not sure about your beliefs, do you mean that in a “I’m not sure God is with me” or is it “I’m not sure God exists”.
It crosses my mind that the TBWSNBN may have contacted him in advance. I decide to be as honest as possible without over exposing myself. Either way, I’m still fairly confident he would listen and be kind.
Kevin: For instance: I just talked with two other pastors last week. One was like “I have no belief system at all anymore. Like it’s gone.” and the other said “I know God’s there but I just don’t think he likes my anymore.”
Me: Well, you know, I’m not sure. I think it depends on the day. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m denial or coming to my senses when I have moments of faith.
A statement that is more true than I’d like it to be.
Me: Let me take you through some of the process so you can better understand. You know about my problems with anxiety and depression.
Me: So I just started taking zoloft about a month ago.
Kevin: Ok, well I’m on [drug name that I can’t pronounce, let alone spell]
Me: I was praying last fall, that God would help me. Not to get rich or build the church, but that God would help me with my depression. Like a progressive sanctification, but instead of holiness, mental health. I just want to feel better. He doesn’t have to cure me, but at least help me. As I was praying, I just felt like it didn’t matter. That God wasn’t listening to me and he didn’t care about me.
And that was very…depressing.
So I continued on till late winter when I thought that maybe the reason why I didn’t feel like God was listening to me was because he wasn’t there. Maybe God’s not there, I don’t know.
And it bugs me to pieces as I begin thinking that being faithful doesn’t matter to God. You and I know very successful pastors who are successful not because they’re faithful, but because they’re talented visionaries and leaders. Like, if you pick up Andy Stanley and put him at the head of a fortune 500 company, he’d probably succeed. Meanwhile, we both know pastors who are very faithful but have churches of less than 100 and are in danger of losing their jobs. It just feels like none of it matters to God. He’s doing nothing about. Which makes me wonder if he’s even there.
So, I’ve been thinking about that sermon series you did when you came back from your sabbatical. And how you went to [destination location] to get away and speak with God. You mentioned how He did. And I think that’s great for you! But I’ve been begging for that moment, and I’m not getting it man.
Kevin: You know, I can count on one hand, and still have fingers to spare, how many times I felt that God has spoke to me. But I get what you’re saying. Especially with the whole church faithfulness thing. Trust me, I’ve been a small church pastor before. You’re not really sure if you’re making any difference at all, but you feel like you’re getting the shit kicked out of you.
I told you. All pastor I’ve known swear.
Kevin: But I think an important question you need to ask yourself, and answer for yourself since no one else can answer it for you: Do you feel like you can do what you do with integrity? You know, I spent time out of ministry, especially after that small church crashed. I spent time on the construction site just building houses, so that I could renew my faith in God. Leaving the ministry for a season saved my faith. I can tell that you’re struggling, and trust me I know exactly what that feels like. I’ve been there, exactly there, though your circumstances are unique. Is this something you can continue to struggle with and still serve in ministry, or is it perhaps time to leave ministry and all the baggage that comes with it, and reduce your faith to just you and God? No stupid people, no board meetings, no church politics, just have your faith be about you, your family, and God, instead of all the crap the pastor needs on top of that.
You know this is what I was asking myself before I went on sabbatical, and I wasn’t sure what the answer was. And I was wrestling with God, and angry with God. I determined I liked Jesus, but I just hated his people. So I went to [destination location] to see if God would push back. I’ve been fighting for so long, I wanted to see if God would actually push back.
Me: You know, I’ve thought about that. I’ve thought about your experience. But that wells up in anger inside of me. I’m glad you did that, and it was positive for you, but I’m like,
“What the fuck God? Why do I need to go to any destination to find you? YOU’RE EVERYWHERE! ‘Where can I go to hide from you? If I go across the sea you are there…’ You are everywhere. Why do I need to go to [destination location] to ‘find you’? Why can’t you find me?”
Why couldn’t God speak to me in my office like he did for you at [destination location]? I haven’t gone anywhere, He should have no problem finding me. So I’m not going to go anywhere to find me. He needs to make a move on this one, not me.
Kevin: Well, I’m hearing a bit of stubbornness on your part. “I’m not going to move” you say. That’s stubbornness, and stubbornness comes from pride. And God doesn’t deal with the proud.
Me: But I have moved. I didn’t grow up in Christian household, I had to “come out” as a Christian to very disappointed parents. I decided to go to seminary instead of progressing my education in the field I studied in college. I uprooted my wife and took her away from her friends and family so we can be here and serve God in ministry. I’ve dedicated my entire life to God. I have moved. I’m tired of moving. He needs to move.
If feel like Job, shaking my fist into the sky saying “I deserve an answer”. God needs to show up, and I don’t need to go anywhere for him to find me.
Kevin: Well you remember what happened and what God said to Job? “Gird yourself up like a man, an you will answer me!”
Me: And that’s fine with me. I’d rather live in terrifying fear of the presence of God, and therefore KNOW, than to live this agnostic life, either as a Christian or an Atheist, and just bumble along NOT knowing anything. I don’t even need God to give me answers, he just needs to be present and there. He doesn’t even need to talk.
But there are lots of questions that could be answered.
Did you ever go to that marriage seminar thing in [nearby town]?
Kevin: Oh yeah.
Me: I don’t know if you went the year I did, but there was that one lady who talked about how she had 3 kids and was pregnant with number 4 when her youngest at the time came in and told her that the other two drowned in the nearby pond. Like, why? What’s easier to believe: that God watched the whole thing happen and did nothing? Or that water is dangerous for kids if there is no one there watching over them? And on some days I think, no one was watching them including God. I have atheist days, I have agnostic days, and I have Christian days. Today is an atheist day.
I just can’t pray for someone’s stupid trip to [nearby vacation spot] knowing that there are children dying in Syria because Assad’s forces gassed them to death. I’ve seen the pictures, Kevin. 5 year old kids dead with their eyes open. Can you imagine the horror of their parents finding their little babies dead. If God would not hear their prayers, why the fuck would he care about my depression? Why would he care about so and so’s trip to [vacation spot]?
Kevin starts giving super lame answers. I decide not to argue with him. I do notice that he is constantly affirming both the logical nature of my arguments and the emotional weight of them. He is trying to avoid offending me or arguing with me. He’s also being fairly agnostic about the plans of God. He’s saying the words “I don’t know” a lot.
Kevin: My niece recently sent me an email. It was picture of a starving child being held by an aid worker. Next to the aid worker, the child looks horrible. Hunger has so deformed this child that he doesn’t even look human. My niece said that this picture was the reason she couldn’t believe in God. If God was loving, then why would he let this happen to that child? But I asked, what about the aid worker? That child is being ministered to. There is someone there trying to fix the problem. Why would you make a decision about God based on only half the picture?
This is the old, “we are the answer to someone’s prayer” logic. In essence God is doing something about the world’s problems and the Church is God’s way of helping. Every aid worker is the hand of God bringing relief to those who suffer. Pity God isn’t powerful or wise enough to use more reliable and effective methods to alleviate suffering and injustice.
Christians should really stop saying “be the change you want to see in the world” because it only proves that people are the only ones who change the world, not God. How many billions of people starved to death before the 20th century concept of “aid workers” was invented?
I decide not to argue that point.
Kevin: All pastors have atheist days, John. I’ve never known an honest Christian, let alone pastor, who didn’t sometimes feel exactly as you do, with the same questions. With me, I found I needed to quiet myself, stop yelling at God, and just listen.
Me: But why should an all powerful, ever present God need silence to speak? He spoke the freaking [caught myself that time] world into existence, surely his voice is louder than mine.
What I don’t tell Kevin is the last time I prayed, I simply asked God to help me believe. There was no arguing or yelling. Just tears and a plea for help.
I later regret not mentioning that.
Kevin: So let’s cycle back to your position. Can you continue doing what you do with integrity? And I’m not trying to impose an answer onto you. This is for you to decide. To me, the worst possible scenario is doing ministry for a pay check. That would suck. I’d rather flip burgers than go to a church and go through all the crap of ministry if I didn’t believe in it. Can you do this with integrity?
Me: I could if God would show up.
Kevin: Then let me ask you this: if a job was offered to you today, would you take it immediately or would you reject it.
Me: (sigh, pause) I’d think about it.
Me: But I have applied at [local non-profit], [local brewery], and [Mark’s company].
Me: I’m just having a hard time finding jobs that I’m qualified for or pay more than minimum wage.
Kevin: Yeah, I think we all go through that “I have no marketable job skills” feelings. But you being torn about leaving your job gives me hope to think you’re not hopeless. You’re wrestling with God. You may come out of this.
Me: One of the reasons I’m slow to leave ministry is because I don’t want to find out it was a mistake to leave. I don’t want to be 50 years old and realize that God was there all along and I threw away the chance to lead a fulfilling life, serving God as a pastor. To think that I could be wrong, and putting my wife and family through all this turmoil for nothing. That bugs me.
Truth. I’ve heard many ex-Christians say they occasionally still fear hell. I don’t fear hell or death, I fear wasting my life. So sometimes I’m afraid that I’m wrong about God, and he really is there. But then I can’t figure out why he’s so hard to find.
Kevin: Well I’ll pray for you until you find that answer. Are you ok with me praying for you in that way?
Me: Yeah, of course. I tell everyone that’s a Christian who knows, to pray for me.
Kevin: Well I’m going to have to run on you here…
Me: I’ve got one more problem…
I explain TBWSNBN situation
Kevin: Are you afraid she’s going to out you?
Me: Yeah but I’m really mad for how she treated my wife. I read the text messages they had back and forth, and my wife kept pleading with her to be a friend and listen while [TBWSNBN] was more concerned about the integrity of the church. You know she never even once asked how me or my wife were doing?
Kevin: I’ll contact her.
He gives me a hug and we head out the door.
I tried to be as honest as I could. Obviously the fact remains that I’m letting him think I’m struggling as opposed to I gave up struggling. I don’t feel comfortable about this. This isn’t how I wanted to tell him originally. When I get a job I’ll need to do a follow up meeting.