Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Worship and The Pastor

Last week I attended The Festival of Homiletics in Atlanta, an annual national preaching conference.  There were 2,000 people in attendance, many (if not most) of them pastors.  It was an incredible and inspiring event.  I heard nationally-known pastors, preachers, homiletics teachers, civil rights leaders and musicians.  I felt as if a long-dry cup was finally getting filled with rich wine--and it never overflowed.  I had no idea how much I needed people to lead me in worship.  As I sat in the Ebenezer Baptist Church--where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached--or heard the pipes of the organ at Peachtree United Methodist Church open up, I felt beyond blessed.

Whenever I get a chance to worship, I am reminded of what a transforming experience it can be.  I also recognize a deep need within myself to worship.  Sometimes I feel as if I am clinging to the words of the sermon or the liturgy like my kids clung to me the first time I took them into a pool.  The hymns connect me to strangers as we stand side-by-side and sing with the abandon only pastors who are temporarily released from leading worship can display.

A lie we pastors tell ourselves is, "I'll still be able to worship while I lead worship."  Not true.  I go into a zone while I lead worship--it's a fog I don't leave until I leave the sanctuary.  The one moment that breaks me out of it is when the lay assisting ministers look me in the eye after we've served communion and give me the bread and wine, declaring them Christ's body and blood.  I hear the words, "for you," and I'm able to step back for a moment and remember this worship is about God and not me.

When I go too long without worshiping myself, I lose track of the purpose of worship.  I start to worry about it getting boring and stale.  I see it as a reflection of me and my abilities and I forget there are others in this church who can plan, lead and create worship just as well (if not better) than me.  I forget it is an act of God and we are participants.  I forget how much people need it.  I also forget how much people are desperate to hear a sermon preached for them.

It was beyond wonderful to hear so many inspiring preachers last week.  They challenged me to look more closely at justice, community and acts of faith.  Their preaching made me want to better my own preaching.  But they couldn't replicate the honor I have--the privilege of preaching to the same congregation week after week.  I get to preach to people I know and love, people I see day in and day out.  I get to interpret the Scriptures for them.  My sermons are not academic essays.  They live within a community.

I may not be able to worship as much as I'd like, but I have the great opportunity to create and carry out worship week after week.  I get to provide liturgies and sermons people need.  I'm not doing it alone, for God is present whenever two or more are gathered.  And I need to remember to let myself sit in the pews too, for I need it as much--if not more--than those who get to sit in them regularly.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Doubt Part II

In college, I went to listen to a Holocaust survivor speak on campus about her life.  During her talk, someone asked her about her religious beliefs.  She responded by stating she had no belief in God.  A student in the crowd stood up and pressed her on her lack of faith.  I remember feeling deeply uncomfortable as they exchanged words.  The speaker said she witnessed too much suffering and horror to believe in God.  She was firm.  “I can’t believe.”

As a na├»ve college student, raised in the church, her words shook me.  I still remember the proud look in her eyes and the confident way she spoke about her beliefs—or lack thereof.  The reaction rooted in my gut surprised me the most.  I couldn’t relate to her experiences, but I felt her perspective.  Of course she couldn’t believe in God.  My ability to relate to her scared me.  If I could understand her lack of belief, did that mean my own beliefs were weak?

This memory came back to me this morning as I listened to a program about atheism on MPR.  It included an interview with Teresa MacBain, a former Methodist pastor who recently claimed publicly that she is an atheist.  This comes soon after I saw an interview on a major news network with an ELCA pastor who also claimed a personal loss of faith.  My first reaction was suspicion—not of their claims but of the public way they chose to share them.  Anytime someone purposefully looks for attention from the media, I question their motivation.  A story about a pastor losing faith and living a lie is juicy in our current culture of arm’s-length compromise.  Either you have belief, or you don’t.  Either you embrace atheism, or you don’t.  I hope they are trying to encourage conversation and mutual understanding, but I am doubtful.

I don’t claim to know what it is like to be an atheist.  I don’t know what it’s like to experience judgment for my lack of belief.  I would never claim a person needs belief in Christ in order to be moral or lead a life of service to others.  To feel sorry for their lack of belief is a patronizing and unhelpful stance.  To maintain a distance from others because of their different ideas about God leaves a real void.  I am constantly fed by the brilliant writing of Roger Ebert, himself a staunch unbeliever. 

I think, as believers, we are unable to separate our intellectual response to atheism from our inner reality—we understand.  We truly understand it often feels impossible to believe in a loving God when the world is so full of violence, the Bible feels so full of contradictions, and we have experienced long stretches of lonely prayers—sometimes for years—that fall to the floor rather than rise to heaven. 

I don’t know why belief takes root in some and not in others.  Children who are raised in the same family, go to the same church and experience the same religious instruction can and do have incredibly different belief systems.  Yet I do not believe faith is all-or-nothing.  I struggle daily with the absurdity of belief.  The doubts and questions rise up as naturally and quickly as the stubborn dandelions that are taking over my lawn.  But I believe God is bigger than my lack of faith.  God does not depend of my ability to believe.  Rather, God works despite my unbelief. 

I can only tell others of my experiences with God.  Jesus reached out to those unlike himself with care and respect.  His integrity never wavered, and he himself uttered words of painful doubt.  I respect an atheist’s right to unbelief.  I also pray my own struggles with faith lead me to compassion rather than judgment.   

But I will also be honest about my own imperfect faith.  My faith is rooted in the cross of Jesus Christ.  Jesus meets me where I am most weak, unfaithful, vulnerable and broken.  No longer do I need to fear my lack of unbelief.  Rather, I trust in a God who knows my struggles and—despite them—gives me hope.  I believe on my darkest days of unfaithfulness God is still working in my life and the life of the world, restoring creation and mending relationships.  I also daringly believe God is working in the hearts of all people, whether they believe or not.

I refuse to believe Christians and atheists are facing each other across a wide span.  Our first instinct is to be afraid of those who think differently than us.  But God calls us into community with all people, and for good reason—this community is enriching and faith-stretching.  My belief is God is present in all of it.