Pouting Places: Spiritual Spelunking, Don’t Let Your Core Cave!

I.

My neighbor said to me the other day, ”I must be the only one in the neighborhood who cares about keeping things looking good here.”  

I said, “Yeah, you probably are.”

He explained, “I notice you and those Mexicans across the street aren’t too particular about how fast your bring your trash cans in after the trash guys come.”

I responded, “Thank goodness for you.  The `Mexicans’ from the Dominican Republic and and I–we’re so thankful for you, and we’re all the time wondering what in the world Elsmere would do without you.  Keep up the good work.  We’re all depending on you to set the standard for rapid trash can retrieval!”

 

 

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“Pastor,” said my parishioner in Baltimore who was doing everything in her power to keep the church from pulling out of the Southern Baptist Convention, “I think I’m the only one in the church who truly loves this church.”

Responding, having to draw deeply into my well of formal pastoral counselor training in order to say the professional thing, I managed to form these words, “Your love for our church is well attested.”  

“God has told us,” she went on, “that if University Church dissociates with the Southern Baptist Convention, we will have to find another church home.”

“I didn’t realize that God has such vested interest in the Southern Baptist Convention.  How did I miss that in a lifelong association with the Southern Baptists?” I asked her.  [Before anybody gets up and walks out on me, let me clue you in to the fact that I walked out on Southern Baptists shortly after the conversation I’m reporting.  Geez!]

“God has used the Southern Baptist Convention in a mighty way,” she said.

And I said, “Not as much as the Southern Baptists have used God.”  

“Whatever you may think about them, I will never stop supporting them; and if you and the deacons loved the church like I do you’d stop this pullout process right now.  If you don’t, we’re outta here.”

“You’re a core member of this congregation,” I explained, stating the obvious, “and we would all be pained if your family were suddenly not a part of us.  In any case, you will vote at the business meeting like the rest of us, and the count will be taken; and we will live with the results.  Please do keep in mind as you ponder all of this that some of the people who will vote for the withdrawal will be doing so because of their own powerful love for our church.”

As she was departing in a huff, she blurted out, “Like I said, no one loves this church more than I do, even the pastor!”  

I’d been found out. Now everyone would know I was and had been pastoring a bunch of people for whom I felt low levels of love or no love at all.  Maybe one day, I thought to myself, I can learn how to love my church a lot.

 

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Have I ever been guilty of playing the victim?  Let’s keep this professional, and I must confess, yes I have.  I don’t like that I let myself go there, but since I’m pinging others who have I must say in fairness I also have given in to whining–usually not in earshot of too many people.  

In an academic setting or two in which I’ve taught, I’ve sometimes thought, “Am I the only one upholding basic academic standards here?  Yes, I think I must be.”  I didn’t really believe I was the only one; I figured there was one other, probably.  When academia became a branch of big business while students became consumers and deans became division managers, professors–especially part-timers–began to wonder what the price would be of assigning low grades. If you don’t keep the customers happy, what use are you to the business?  

Same thing happened when the age of the mega church dawned.  Mega churches are unashamedly entertainment-based.  There were (and are!) churches who wanted to have mega church memberships and money, but they detested the entertainment model for church.  There is only one place to affix blame in this case–church leadership, the paid folks and the elected lay leadership.  And, yes, I have gone to bed many a night through the years when my church numbers weren’t keeping up with the churches down the street–and that wasn’t always the case–asking myself, “Am I the only one in the crowd who realizes that church growth doesn’t happen because of wishful thinking or because of a dogged determination to avoid thinking about anything other than what made the church grow in the good ole days.”  I think I can safely say that while I’ve been a pastor during the last 28 years of the three best ches any liberal pastor could have served, I’m quite sure that even though the future has always been a concern the vast majority of conversations I’ve had have focussed on the congregation’s long gone hayday.  Poor-pastor me.

The victim mentality is a certain way to prove to oneself and others that we are frozen in the past and generally unable to be free enough of the past to move into an ever-changing, curveball future.  The mega churches grew, thrived, and survived in many places because some folks at the respective helms would not allow the victim mentality related to congregational numeric deline to blind and paralyze them.

II.

Talk about a winner-take-all kind of deal!  A prophetic powers contest was staged in ancient Israel.  On the one side was a group of the most highly regarded prophets of the god, Baal, whom the ancient Hebrews regarded as a figment of his followers’ imaginations though to his devotees he was very much alive.  On the other side, was the greatest of all the Hebrew prophets, Elijah, working (or performing–you might say in this case) solo.  

Elijah won the match, and in his victor’s glory, he ordered that all the prophets of Baal should be slaughtered; and so it was done.  One might well wonder why or how a prophet of God would desire a mass execution of clergy-nemeses, even though such wishes and implementations came to be repeated frequently as history unfolded from Elijah’s point onward.  

A tiny bit of background to set the stage.  The king of Israel at this point in Elijah’s ministry was Ahab.  Many of Ahab’s subjects were displeased with their king for having chosen a wife who not only rejected the God of Israel whom they believed was the one and only deity there was, but also she was the primary benefactress to the Baalite religion.  She–Queen Jezebel–contributed to the upkeep of worship sites; she kept the seminaries afloat financially.  No one knew how they could survive without her.

Jezebel had a particular dislike for Hebrew prophets, and since Elijah was the most famous of them all, she hated him the most.  Elijah didn’t help his cause with the Queen because he loved to stir things up by reminding those in power that he, Elijah, was a servant to the real power in the world–namely his God.  

At one point for reasons unstated, Jezebel had it in for a group of a hundred Hebrew prophets in particular, and they would have died at her demand had not King Ahab’s chief of staff not secretly hidden them in caves and kept survival supplies flowing there for them.  This likely was one of the reasons Elijah called for the slaughter of a huge group of Baalite prophets when he won the “Israeli Idol” episode in which his God acted as per his request while Baal didn’t do a thing his prophets begged him to do.  Instant fame, which not many clergy have handled so well through the years.  

Elijah expected the God who apparently performed on cue in the big prophetic power event to continue to do so.  Thus, when Jezebel announced her plan to have him rubbed out, Elijah expected God to show her who was boss, but when her troops were selected for the singular mission of killing off the greatest Hebrew prophet of all, Elijah thought that was much too close a call, and he began to run.  The more he ran, the angrier with God he became.  

At some point he decided that he’d rather die than be unsupported by his people and, worse, unappreciated by God.  That is certainly the most absolute way of making sure that nobody can benefit from one’s talents.  

By and by, Elijah found a cave in which he decided to take emotional and spiritual refuge.  Eventually, God found the Hebrews’ star prophet, and God asked Elijah, “Don’t I remember a sermon you preached once upon a time, Elijah, in which you explained to your hearers that it’s not possible to run from me?”

 

 

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“Nope,” snapped Eliah.  “You have me confused with some other so-called prophet.”

“That must be the case,” God said.  

“Why don’t you go spend time with your hard-headed children who get by with murder, literally?  Or how about those much less successful prophets–the few you have allowed to live?  They seem to be your favorites.”

“Is that a fact?” asked God.

“Yes,” insisted Elijah.  “The God I know is a God who can send fire down from heaven and who could send a killer ailment down on an evil queen trying to undo God’s greatest prophet to date.”

 

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“And you’re sure, are you, Elijah, that you’re not confusing me with a Jinn or a genie?”

Elijah droned on with his pity party, and finally God interrupted and said, “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, Elijah, I want you to take note of something.”

“Fine!” Elijah shouted.

God said:

“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

 

 

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Do you follow the writer?  God was in the silence.  God had been quietly present throughout Elijah’s escape effort, but not in anything earth-shattering, if you will.

III.

My middler seminarians were preaching the other evening, and there seems to have been the group tendency that particular night to blame any sermonic difficulty on time constraints. Now, there’s always a time limitation on sermons in any of my preaching classes, just as there was when I taught public speaking.  A professional needs to learn to speak within a given time frame each time she or he speaks.

In every course, there’s someone who has an interesting cell phone timer or a clever timing app on her or his laptop, and that person usually ends up being the timekeeper.  On Thursday, one too many students complained about the lack of time as the basis for having made a particular error.  It was humorous after a while.  I have to tell you these students are phenomenal, and so the polish is for sophisticated errors, not beginners’ let’s-get-to-first-base polish, but don’t tell them that yet in case some of them stumble into a Gathering before end of term.  I don’t want them to ease up on themselves until the very last day of the semester.  

 

 

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Anyway after hearing those nonstop complaints about lack of sermon time the timekeeper asked the most recent complainee if he wanted some cheese with his “whine.”  Hilarious.  Of course, I was probably the last person in the United States to have heard that expression, but it was a first for me; and I couldn’t help laughing for a while.  

When it comes to personal challenges, the dynamics are different.  Let me let you know that if you need to whine about a personal difficulty, your pastor is available to listen.  That said, let me also say that the people of Silverside collectively have suffered tremendous tragedy and loss without whining at all–even when whining would have A-OK.  In my almost 14 year tenure here there has been no whining about about overwhelming personal affronts.  None of us would have faulted anyone who cried or cried out while feeling like the weight of the world had been suddenly thrust on her or his shoulders.

There’s a difference, though, between the emotions that result in having lost a loved one to some dreadful disease, for example, and letting oneself come to believe that she or he actually is the only one who cares about an enterprise or an undertaking when results get to the place of being undesirable as in Elijah’s case.  The victim mentality is pointless and contributes nothing to resolution.  Of course, by the time the typical victim menality “victim” gets to that point, she or he is not much interested in resolution.  The whining, by then, is the only reward desired.

Nurturing the victim mentality usurps energy that would be better utilized in coming at the problem one more time OR admitting that if there is a solution someone else may be, probably is, in a better position to bring about the needed result than I.  The future of the Hebrew religion didn’t rest on Elijah’s shoulders though he was quite disappointed to make that discovery.  

 

 

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I’m not convinced that my neighbor would be happy if I and the neighbors across the street brought in our trash cans as quickly as he does.  If we took that away from him by leaving out our trash cans several hours longer than he, we’d be robbing him of one of probably several victim roles he enjoys playing.  And the pseudo-logic that I love my church more than anybody so I’ll leave it if it doesn’t do exactly what I want is its own ridiculous, pointless babble.  

How about if we tried determining to be victor instead of victim…period!?

 

 

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