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Grace, Finally

I arrived at work in a bit of a grouchy mood today. I had spent my twelve-minute commute listening to the first part of a recent podcast from CBC Radio’s Tapestry—a program that explores faith and spirituality in the twenty-first century Canada.  The host was in conversation with “Adam” (a pseudonym)—a pastor at a fundamentalist church in the southern USA who lost his faith a few years ago but has remains in his position despite his unbelief. For the interview, Adam had phoned from an undisclosed payphone in an undisclosed town and his voice was distorted to protect his identity and preserve his job. It all felt very grave and dangerous and important. And annoying.

I wrote a short piece about this phenomenon a few years ago when Daniel Dennett (and others) published their study about pastors who no longer believe. As I listened to Adam talk about how he needed to stay in his present position because he hadn’t been able to get a job for two years anywhere else, I felt my temperature rising just as it did back then. “Really?!” I wanted to say. “You’re going to lie to people for a living for three years because you’re ‘unemployable’ or can’t find anything better to do? You can’t find a job swinging a hammer or shoveling a ditch or sweeping a floor? You think we’re supposed to feel sorry for you, or to find your commitment to provide for your family despite your existential and spiritual torments somehow heroic? Really?!”

But then I did something that I don’t ordinarily do when I find myself getting grouchy. I began to focus less at what was making me irritated than on my reaction to what was making me irritated and what this reaction might reveal. Why do stories like this bother me so much? Because I think honesty and consistency and integrity matter? Yes, certainly. Because I would like to expect more from those in the pastoral vocation than “I’m doing this job because I can’t find anything else right now?” Um, yeah. Because I think that the people in Adam’s church (and every church!) deserve far, far better than a guy going through the motions while secretly attending “recovering clergy” meetings and receiving financial assistance from these groups to attempt to secure other employment. Yup. And the list could go on… and on… and on.

But there are other reasons, too. I think stories like Adam’s also unsettle me because they seem like one more brick being pulled out of the tower that is Christianity in the postmodern West. We cannot open a paper or turn on our computers these days, it seems, without coming across a story about dwindling congregations, shrinking budgets, and this or that survey that demonstrated that this or that demographic is walking away from the church. And with stories like Adam’s, we see one more person who finds this whole show unbelievable. One more piece of evidence that the story of Jesus is no longer capturing people’s hearts and minds and hands and feet. I’m pretty good at getting self-righteously angry at stories like Adam’s, but what if my anger isn’t very righteous at all? What if it has more to do with my own insecurities and fears and apprehensions about the future of the church, the future of faith?

Stories like Adam’s also unsettle me because I think all of us who have served in this role have had similar questions at some point. What pastor hasn’t stood up in front of people during corporate worship and asked themselves, “Do I really believe this? Can I really pray these words with integrity? Can I really call people to something that I so haltingly and inadequately embrace myself?” Who among us hasn’t felt like a total hypocrite? Who among us hasn’t been plagued by fears that our faith will never be strong or admirable enough, that we can’t possibly show anyone else the way to Jesus? Who among us hasn’t thought, “You know, I think it would be better if someone else spoke for God today (and tomorrow, and the day after that…). I just don’t think I’m up to the task.”

Anyway, after analyzing myself for a few minutes, I found that I wasn’t so angry with Adam. I don’t agree with what he’s doing, but I suspect he probably doesn’t either. I doubt he’s a malicious person or that he takes any particular pleasure in deceiving people. I’m sure this isn’t where he thought he would be in the middle stages of his career. I imagine he has had many, many sleepless nights. And, whatever I might make of his decisions, I think Adam is simply a human being—a child of God (whether he believes it or not)—who finds himself in a pretty desperate situation that he can’t see a good way out of. And that can’t be an easy thing.

I’ve been reading Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel this week. And I am discovering that one cannot read Manning without being confronted by the astonishing—and astonishingly simple!—grace of God. It is a grace that surrounds and sustains us, a grace that haunts and pursues us. It is a grace that says, “You are loved. As you are. Wherever you are.” We can never do enough, believe enough (or correctly enough), talk enough, read pray enough, even love enough to earn this gift. And we can never sin enough, disbelieve enough, reject enough, mock and ridicule enough, or hate enough to make the Giver stop offering the gift.

“The Tremendous Lover has taken to the chase,” Manning says. And—thanks be to God—we are pursued by one who’s faithfulness is stronger than ours, whose love is deeper and purer than ours, uncontaminated by fear and self-interest, and whose grace really is sufficient.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Yvonne Peters #

    Thanks Ryan. Great read. Y

    May 2, 2013
  2. I heard that Tapestry segment too and can totally relate to the range of reactions you felt. — I also allowed myself to be comforted by the fact that the Spirit might continue to speak through the words “Adam” speaks, whether he believes them or not. A kind of Balaam’s donkey grace, if you know what I mean. 🙂

    May 2, 2013
    • “A Balaam’s donkey grace.” What a great way to put it, Dora!

      Of course, that would make Adam a… um, never mind.

      May 2, 2013
  3. My response to Adam was that he was really hard to put up with. You can easily imagine how annoying he would have been as a fundamentalist pastor, now that he’s a fundamentalist atheist.

    May 2, 2013
    • Actually, to be precise, he is a fundamentalist atheist who is ALSO a pastor :). Strange days…

      May 2, 2013
  4. Bruno #

    Thanks for the perspective Ryan, actually quite helpful.

    May 2, 2013
  5. mike #

    Great Post,Ryan…your words convey such authentic sympathy and compassionate understanding for the guy despite the grevious lie he’s living, I wish I had more of what you have. Interestingly/Coincidentally, I was talking to my spiritual advisor today about how that I tend to condemn preachers at the first sign of their human-ness(shortcomings). Im not sure yet what makes me this way. I expect preachers to be perfect..hence im always eventually disappointed and bitter with them AND christianity. I think possibly a toxic combination of having had a demanding father AND the residual indoctrination of strict fundamentalist pentecostal teaching I absorbed in my late teens may make me this way. My spiritual advisor says that because of my deep need to see myself as “perfect” Im actually projecting/transfering my anger and disappointment with my own personal failings onto others. Working to overcome these character defects is such a struggle,and as the old Russian proverb says: “Some Days You Get The Bear, Some Days The Bear Gets You”.

    May 3, 2013
    • Thank you, Mike. To be truthful, I suspect that my words probably sound more sympathetic and compassionate than I often feel :). Maybe I am writing to try to convince myself of how I should think and act…

      Thanks also for sharing a bit of your story here. I notice some of the same tendencies in myself. I have very high expectations of preachers and of the church (expectations which are rarely met—by myself or others!). I didn’t have the same kind of fundamentalist pentecostal experience you did, but there is a pretty strong moralistic strain in the Anabaptist world as well—I’m sure this continues to rear its head in my life in countless ways. It’s amazing how attractive grace is as a concept and a deep truth about God and the world, but how difficult it is to actually turn into a lived reality…

      May 3, 2013
  6. Larry S #

    Ryan wrote: “What pastor or priest or rabbi or imam hasn’t stood up in front of people during corporate worship and asked themselves, “Do I really believe this?” “Can I really pray these words with integrity?” “Can I really call people to something that I so haltingly and inadequately embrace myself?” Who among us hasn’t felt like a total hypocrite?”

    I’ve come across a few preachers/pastors who appear to have utter certainty. They make me twitchy…… I’ve found exploring the edges of presuppositional apologetics (ala Cornelius Van Till) a useful way to try to understand the perspective I’m encountering.

    does this make sense?

    May 4, 2013
    • Yes, it certainly makes sense based on what I’ve read of presuppositional apologetics. If you define yourself into a kind of impenetrable epistemic zone that is immune to outside argument, I suppose it’s pretty easy (and natural?) to convey a kind of utter certainty.

      Unsurprisingly, I’m not very attracted to presuppositional apologetics :).

      May 4, 2013
  7. Tanya #

    Really enjoyed this Ryan. ‘Enjoyed’ is a weird word as I feel very sad for ‘Adam’, his family (wife) and his congregation and very, very sad reading your honest reflections in paragraph four. That the story the church has is becoming so unappealing to the rest of the world makes me want to cry and I feel disappointed with myself for rarely bringing someone new into the kingdom.
    Its a good reminder to pray for our pastors much more and for all the ‘Adams’ brewing out there…

    P.S. I loved Dora’s comment on ‘Balaams donkey grace’. That made me smile.

    May 6, 2013
    • I take encouragement from two things, Tanya:

      1. It is Christ’s church, not mine (or anyone else’s). The future of the church does not depend upon my efforts… or “Adam’s”… or anyone else’s (thank God!). Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church and I believe him.

      2. The church has historically been most faithful to the nature and mission of the kingdom when it has been on the margins of society. Our situation is not as unique as we might be tempted to sometimes think it is. The story of God has always moved forward, even when it is a story often ignored, forgotten, and misunderstood.

      May 6, 2013

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