Monday, November 25, 2013

Pastors Saving Faith

Over the last year, I’ve had the unexpected pleasure of becoming acquainted with a number of excellent pastors.  This might be a strange thing to say, since I don’t believe in the foundation of what they preach.  But these people have redeemed pastors for me, and by contrast, shown me where things went wrong for the pastors I grew up with, none of whom would have dreamed I’d say goodbye to faith.

Like a lot of young evangelicals, I experienced my “on fire for Jesus”  phase during middle school.  Puberty brings about lots of emotions, and among them, an emotional connection to the faith I’d been taught from birth.  Apologetics were the norm for me, and my youth pastor, a drop-out from Multnomah Bible College, fed those flames with a lot of skill.  People like me were his dream; We were young, outspoken, confident Christians who wanted nothing more than to set the world on fire for Christ.  If youth group had been held every night, I would have been there.  Retreats were the highlight of the season, and summer camp couldn’t come soon enough.  Looking back, the best (and in retrospect, the worst) parts of my childhood involved that youth group, and that youth pastor.

Like most things that begin with an emphasis on emotion over intellect, eventually the zeal simmered down, and the focus on apologetics increased.  Entering high school, and with it, the high school youth pastor (my church had different pastors for middle and high school), my zeal for my faith lessened as I realized that the pastor couldn’t handle the questions I was asking.  It wasn’t that he didn’t want to.  He just hadn’t been trained on things outside the very narrow scope of evangelicalism.  So many times, the answer to a question was, “We’re humans.  We’re not capable of understanding everything.  We just have to have faith.”  At 12, this was sufficient.  At 16, it was not.  Josh McDowell books were passed around, and some of the staff that were attending seminary would try their best to answer all the questions, but evangelicalism wasn’t built for doubt, and it showed.  Doubt was a sign of spiritual weakness.  Faith was the starting point, not the conclusion.  While each point of doctrine had been arrived at somehow, now that those items have been decided upon, it was apparently not necessary to explain how or why they became known to be true.

My mom thinks if I had attended Portland State, I would have remained a Christian.  It’s her belief that my atheism is some kind of rebellion against authority.  For her, it can’t be real.  Surely it’s just a phase, a sad detour on the road back to Jesus.  While I can’t say what would have happened if I hadn’t gone to a Christian college, where I finally lost all my faith, I do think that if my upbringing had been in a more flexible environment, things might be different.  As I said in my sermon a few weeks ago, faith is tenuous.  It comes and it goes, and it does this without our permission.  I firmly believe this. But I also believe there is value in community, and a community that can handle a divergence of opinion is a community that can keep its members while they sway wildly back and forth in the ideology.

Tonight I was reading from the blog of Eric Muhr, a youth pastor at Newberg Friends Church.  I’ve never met Eric.  I hear you want to avoid his van on a road trip.  In any event, in reading his blog, I felt really sad.  After thinking on it for awhile, I think what’s so sad about Eric’s blog is that he is the kind of pastor that might have saved Christianity for me.

In an entry from November of 2012, Eric writes:

“I want to normalize doubt for those who might otherwise feel abandoned by God and by their community.  I want to encourage serious questions that challenge our thinking and open up opportunities for growth.  I want to be part of a community that used faith as a tool (never as a weapon).

And I hope.
That 20 years from now.
Some former student.
Watching graduation reruns.
Might ask herself why she’s still at church.
And think of people who weren’t afraid of her questions, people who loved her because of (not in spite of), people who inspired and encouraged and modeled for and listened to and learned from…
That should would think of so many people
And that one of them might be me.”

A professor at George Fox recently commented on something Eric wrote, saying, “I’m so grateful that you’re involved in the religious development of my children.”

At the meeting we attend as a family, Taylor’s youth pastor, Mark, is the kind of person that I believe will preserve the option of faith for her.  It won’t be ruined with too much certainty, and it won’t be made silly with too much subjectivity.  Mark once told me that over half of his high school students don’t believe in God.  And yet, they show up.  They think together, learn together, and form a community together.  This is a pastor I would trust my child with.  Faith will be presented in its best light, and when they’re old enough, my kids will decide for themselves.

Quakers are unique in that the pastor isn’t a dictator.  He or she doesn’t have much executive power.  His/her opinion isn’t the most important opinion.  As I see it, the pastor’s most important contribution is setting the tone for how the meeting will be.  And in that regard, Mike Huber is a helluva pastor.  While listening to Biblical sermons as an atheist can be a challenge, on multiple occasions I’ve been startled by the direction he has taken with verses I’ve heard a million times.  One Sunday I had to bite my lip as he started telling one of my least favorite stories, the story of Abraham and Isaac.  I’d been waiting to be disappointed for a long time, and it had finally come.  But as the sermon turned from the verses into practical application, I was stunned when he said, “God does not ask us to sacrifice our children.  We. Don’t. Sacrifice. Our children.  We don’t sacrifice children in hoodies.  We don’t sacrifice our LGBT children.  We don’t sacrifice…”

What I appreciate most about Mike is that he’s never told me no.  When I’d only been visiting for two months, and asked to give an atheist manifesto from the pulpit, Mike said yes.  3 months later when I wanted to do it again, Mike said yes.  And a month ago, when I asked to give a sermon that included rejection of Biblical infallibility, and rejection of religious dogma, Mike said yes.  With each of those events, I finally got to air my grievances about church, to a church.  And each time, I’ve been swarmed with smiles, hugs, hand shakes, and “Can I get a copy of that?”  I’m in a community that can handle my lack of belief.  And if faith ever comes back, they’ll be able to handle that too.

Pastors are important.  There is nothing more personal than the things we believe about life and death.  And I’m so grateful, after 10 years of myself and the wind, to have people I can trust with these questions, especially when they tell me they can’t answer them.

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