It is Tuesday. I am at a place called Nick’s diner, which seems to be the happening place for breakfast in Athol, Mass. The food is good. Simple diner fare, but good. The coffee is strong. There is a steady flow of people in and out, and the waitresses seem to know everyone. There’s no internet here, which makes it a good place to write.
I said a blessing over my omelet. That is something I often do when I eat alone. Less so with others. It’s not that I don’t believe in blessings, I do. In fact, even when I am with others I tend to close my eyes for a moment and send up my thanks at meals. Mostly, no one notices.
For some, this might make me a lousy pastor. I should, they would tell me (and some have, mostly other pastors), insist on blessings at every meal. It’s like advertising or marketing. Put it out there and they will come. And I can see the value in that. Many a time I have said a blessing in a restaurant and afterwards someone there will pull me aside and tell me how nice it is that people still say blessings in public. My assumption is that they are already people of faith, and they like (whether they do it or not), that some of us still have the trappings of faith in public.
I come from a place where faith is intensely personal. Despite the churches and the role of churches in our society for the past couple thousand years, despite the megachurches and the little country churches and televangelism, in the end, faith is a one on one relationship with God. People come to faith when their hearts are ready. I don’t believe in bible thumping, telling people whether or not they are going to hell, casting judgments, all that stuff that churches are too often are full of.
I get where they are coming from, those that see it differently. I understand the bible verses that they use that, in their minds, give them the right. There’s not a lot of those verses, but they are there – enough for some people to hang their hats on them. I get it. I just don’t agree.
My reading of the bible is that Jesus came and redirected our thinking. He helped us sift through all the contradictory seeming stuff in the New Testament and focus us on the right things. The important things. The things that are healthy for us as people and healthy for us as a society. He made it crazy simple.
Love people. Love God.
Paul came behind him and helped us know what love actually is. (1st Corinthians 13), and what a spirit filled life looks like (Galatians 5)
People need that kind of love. More and more as I go through life, I have come to see what happens when we don’t have it. The numbers of broken people, harmed by false love, by abuse, by neglect, by harsh judgment all in the name of love, instead of real, biblical, New Testament love is staggering. Absolutely staggering. The amount of depression, anxiety, mental illness, anxiety all caused by love that does not fit this description is almost overwhelming. I see it as a pastor. I see it as a person. The woman I love, a social worker, sees it every day. Every day.
I also see the opposite. When people are consistently treated with kindness, encouragement and acceptance, healing happens. Growth happens. Transformation, the good kind, happens.
It is, as Jesus said, simple.
It is not, however easy.
Our human nature makes it hard. We want what we want. We protect ourselves and often use tearing others down as a way to do that. (never mind that this method doesn’t work in the long run.). We forget that there is plenty of love to go around. We live with blinders on, missing what our neighbors, even those closest to us, are going through.
And at times, the church has made it harder. Focused more on judgment than love, more on tearing down, fear mongering, and self righteousness than acceptance and building up. Of course we do. We’re human. If you can’t tell, I have a love/hate relationship with the church.
“But you’re a pastor!” people say when they hear me say this.
Let’s get over that pastor thing. We’re not miracle workers. We’re not extra holy. We are people with all the fears, flaws, baggage and bruises everyone else has. We’re pilgrims like everyone else. We just happen to be at the front of the room because we feel called to be there, even when the whole idea is a bit terrifying. Many of us would rather be in the back of the room with everyone else. But….
Let me tell you something I found out ages and ages ago, back when I first began teaching Sunday School at Colonial Avenue Baptist Church. They must have been desperate to ask me because I had no credentials, no experience, and no history teaching Sunday School. But ask me they did and I said yes. What I discovered is that because I had a responsibility to teach each week, I began to read in the bible and read Christian books and articles. And all that study brought me closer to God, in a very personal way. The responsibility, the work, made me do what I should have been doing anyway.
Being a pastor, for me, is a bit like that. The responsibility makes me do the things I know I should do, but likely would not otherwise. I am a weak pilgrim and without the responsibility of preparing sermons, doing bible study, helping people through crisis like a sickness, death or other things, I likely would not do many of these things. And my own relationship with God would falter. And I would be weaker for it.
I call myself a 10% pastor sometimes. That’s because I only make about 10% of my income as a pastor. Basically the two churches pay me as a supply pastor. In other words, they pay me a small fee each week to come in and preach. If I am out of town, I don’t get paid. I don’t get paid for the other parts of being a pastor – visits, hospital trips, counseling – the real work. And that’s OK. I have other ways to pay the bills, fortunately, and churches in my ultra rural part of America don’t have enough money to support a full time seminary-trained pastor. It’s something I can do.
And besides, doing this work is part of my pilgrimage, part of my own growth and yearning to understand God and come along side him. Mostly, when I preach, I am preaching to myself.
The other reason I do it is because I believe in the simple message of loving God and loving people. I believe in acceptance and helping people in their journey not by tearing them down, but by simply loving them. I think that message often gets lost in today’s world and today’s church. And even if it is only in a tiny church in the middle of Nowhere, Vermont, if I can contribute to a small oasis of acceptance. then my life has purpose. And if we who see that kind of God in our bibles don’t speak out, all that will be left are those who hate in the name of God. I have real trouble with that.
And that is why I am part of “The Church”, that same church that I have a love/hate relationship with. I happen to believe all of us are flawed. We need God. We need him to hold us, comfort us and show us the way and fill us with a power to do good we lack as mere humans. And God knows this. He wants us to have his presence in our lives to help us live full, empowered lives. Church can be, when it is full of 1st Corinthians 13 love and Galatians 5 spirit, a safe haven for people to come, heal, grow and find their way to God.
Does it make a difference in the big wide world? I don’t know. Has it made a difference for anyone? That I do know. At least a few people have benefited by being in a tiny church that simply loves. I have benefited. And I’ve seen larger churches that live that kind of love, with powerful effect. Love and acceptance has changed my life and I know what it can do. It has changed the life of people near me, and I know what it can do.
So I may never be a big time pastor. I’ll likely never make my living that way. And that’s OK. I’ll do what I can do. I will continue on my pilgrimage. And in the doing, I will stay close to a God I believe loves me despite my myriad flaws and failings. (and oh what a list THAT is.). And maybe, just maybe, I can help others realize just how worthy of love they are.
Because they are. You are. We all are.
Be well. Travel wisely,
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
1st Corinthians 13: 4-8a
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.