Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Transparent-ish Pastor

     How honest do we really want our pastors to be? I recently read a post entitled, "Dear Pastors - Tell us the Truth," encouraging ministers to be more transparent with their struggles, doubts and weaknesses. The author, who signed the letter as "the congregation" promised understanding and support as the preacher allowed a more candid glimpse into his/her soul. It sounds ideal, but ideal is usually unrealistic.
     How vulnerable are pastors allowed to be before they run the risk of being judged, criticized, or fired? This blogger can offer reassurance as much as she wants in regards to understanding and support, but realistically, is that what would happen? I was visiting a church and the pastor said that he has a group of people that he is accountable to and they are allowed to ask him the tough questions. He didn't say what his struggles were, but what if he had? "I gossiped yesterday." Big whoop. "I was gluttonous at the potluck last Sunday." Who wasn't? "I looked at porn a few weeks ago." You're fired.
     Growing up, my pastor used to say "I'm a sinner just like anybody else," but I didn't believe it. He had to say that. It was even harder to grasp when I only saw him on Sundays in his three-piece suit on an elevated platform worshipping and preaching.
     This is how many parishioners see their pastors, high and lifted up, nicely dressed, and only talking about spiritual things. How could they possibly be less than perfect? I was once talking to a young man I was discipling and a certain minister's name came up. The young man said he couldn't imagine this very popular pastor struggling with the same things he dealt with. But I knew better. Pastors do struggle, pastors are sinners. Pastors make mistakes yet are recipients of the same grace and forgiveness from God that any sinner receives. But would they be offered that same grace and forgiveness from their congregation should they mention their specific weaknesses in a Sunday morning sermon?
      Though some pastors enjoy the pedestal they are perched upon,  I lean towards sharing out of my brokenness. I was asked to speak at a youth snow retreat several years ago. The Lord led me to share with the kids something I had never spoken of in public. I was nervous about it and felt very vulnerable. At the end of my message, I talked with several teenagers one on one who had the same experience I did and they had never shared it with anyone. They had been holding on to the pain and the shame of the past and felt so alone... until that night.
     When I decided to be up front about my struggle with past pornography use, I realized I wasn't going to be pedestal material any longer. There was some back-lash over it simply because I was a pastor, and I realized that was going to come with the territory, but each time I receive a phone call or message from someone asking for help because their story mirrors mine, I know I'm doing what God has called me to do. "Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses..." (see 2 Corinthinas 12), because as I share out of my brokenness, it connects with someone else's, and they can be assured that there is hope.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Non-Cheesey Title for a Post About A Friend

     I pulled out a journal from 1995 tonight, "The Single Years." In it, I had recorded a time when I had gone to my mailbox and was pleasantly surprised to find a letter from my friend Troy. At that point, I had known Troy for eight years. In that time, we had created a treasure trove of memories that can still make me smile.
     I met Troy in youth group and found a friend that I could laugh with. Troy was funny. I consider myself to have a picky sense of humor, but Troy could have me rolling on the floor (in modern script, ROFL). So my daily agenda was basically work and then  going to Troy's house. There was a succession of days where we had seen each other every day, 14, 15 in a row I'd say, and one night I barely made it to his house before midnight to keep our streak going.
     We made movies with his 35mm film camera. One feature was titled "Terror Talk Show," our version of an 80's teen thrasher comedy that we thought was hilarious. There was no audio in our film, but we would watch it and ROFL! Our youth pastor even let us premiere it in youth group.
     I could rattle off a list of inside jokes that formulated out of our friendship that we would repeat to each other and just crack up. They did not lose their hilarity with repetition. I could say to my wife, "Your hair's to the side. Looks good," and she would look at me like I need to be committed, but if I said those same words to Troy, we'd be busting a gut, and the inside jokes would just flow from there. That letter I received from him in 1995 contained several of what we liked to call our "Top 10's." I took that cherished piece of mail, sat down and just... ROFL.
     The last time I saw Troy was in August of 2008. I had just gone through my parents' house itemizing their belongings for probate. That coupled with terse exchanges between grieving family members made for a heavy day. Knowing I would be in my home town, I called Troy beforehand and asked if he would be available for dinner after the anticipated unpleasantness. Thank God he was. He took me to a good Chinese restaurant and we had a chance to catch up. He let me unload on him about the day, and instead of laughing, there were some tears on my part. He just sat with me and listened and let me cry.
     We've been in contact a little since then, a post here and there on each other's facebook page, or a message sent. But I'm realizing it's not the frequency of the conversations with good friends that matters, it's the quality, and with Troy, it's always been high end.
     "Monique! Freet! Why aren't you with Ricky?" (a top 10 hit).

Friday, March 11, 2011

My Five Year Old Found a Five Finger Discount

     I picked my son up from preschool yesterday and on the way home we stopped by a store I like to peruse for journals. On a "clearance" table, Max found a toy dinosaur that was out of its package. Of course, he wanted it, but we weren't there for him, we were there for me! Alas, I took him over by the toy section to see if there was anything he might like for his upcoming birthday. After leaving the clearance table, he had asked three times, "Can we go home now?" Not an unusual question from any of my children when we are patronizing a store that isn't named "Toys R Us," but he was persistent about wanting to leave. As we got in the car, I noticed he put something on the side of his booster chair in a manner that tipped me off that he did not want me to see it. I asked him what he had. "I don't know." I insisted on seeing what was beside his chair. Sure enough, it was that dinosaur. No wonder he wanted to leave so badly, he had just ripped off the joint! "Max! We didn't pay for that! That's called stealing!" I told him we had to give it back. He didn't like that idea. We walked back inside and I made him give the toy to the customer service person and say he was sorry, which he did, but as soon as we turned to leave, he erupted into tears.
     As soon as we got home he went straight to his room completely on his own and got under the covers of his bed. I followed him in there so we could discuss what happened. I put my arm around him and explained what stealing was and how the Bible teaches us that we shouldn't steal and how we need to be pleasing to God if He tells us not to steal. "Did you like going back in the store and giving that dinosaur to that man?" He shook his head. "That wasn't fun, was it?" Shook head. "Are you ever going to do that again?" More head shaking. Then I hugged him and said we weren't going to talk about it the rest of the night.
     At dinner, the girls brought up the random items Max had been bringing home from school saying friends or teachers had given them to him; a bell, a coloring book, an old-school fisher price bald headed man toy... little did we know he had been lifting things from his classroom for weeks. I told him when I dropped him off the next day that we were going to thank each person that had given him these gifts. He didn't like that idea.
     Later, I asked Max if he had taken those items without permission. And he fessed up. So, he will return each "gift" and make it right just like he had to do at the store, and I'm praying he has learned a lesson. But I think I was learning just as much as he was, about flying by the seat of my pants as a father when I clearly didn't remember this chapter in the parenting handbook they gave me when my kids were born. After all, no one caught me when I took the little gun out of an opened Star Wars action figure package in Payless Drugstore, but those guns were so easy to lose, you have to understand...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Two Sweetest Words I Ever Heard

     I'm not what one would call a natural athlete, but as a kid, I would play touch football with the other  kids who lived on the street. I was even down for tackle when we would move the game to the grass in the park. On Reimche Drive, no one made fun of me if I fumbled a pass or dropped a pop fly, mostly because I was under the protective wing of my brother who was the king of the neighborhood. I wasn't a natural, but I could be taught.
     In 6th grade, of my own volition, I signed up for the lunch hour softball league. I thought it would be fun. I thought wrong. There was a kid named Steve who obviously didn't understand what being a team was. We were supposed to be teammates, but he saw me as the weakest link, so he made lunch hour baseball miserable for me. One day I hit a triple. Was Steve happy about it? No. There weren't any "good job" comments or atta boys. I just got lucky, or at least that's how Steve looked at it.
     After my lunch hour league experience, something inside me shut down when it came to organized sports, which made gym class in Junior High the worst period of the day for me. And just what were those PE teachers paid for? All they did was tell us to do some jumping jacks and then would have the same "cool kids" be captains to pick teams for whatever sport we would be playing that day. Then they would disappear, leaving us to fend for ourselves. Whenever we would play softball, I would usually get picked last (and on good days, second to last), and then find myself out in right field. In Junior High, right field was reserved for the least of all players on the team.
     One day a pop fly was coming my way, and I ran for it. I held out my glove and somehow that ball ended up not on the ground. Did I get a "Nice catch, Couch"? Not exactly. Instead, I heard a very sarcastic, "Happy Birthday!" Needless to say, I was ecstatic when I had completed all my PE credits and never had to go to "gym" again.
     When I was in my late 20's, I decided I wanted to play on the church softball league. This was a big risk for me. I was putting myself out there just like I did in 6th grade, trusting that people on a Christian league wouldn't judge my abilities. Our team had a great captain who took our practice times very seriously. He actually taught skills and I learned a few things, one of them being  how to hit the ball pretty good and far.
     Our annual church Memorial Day picnic came around and some of the guys were getting a softball game going. After being in the Christian league for a while, I felt safe enough to play in that setting. When it was my turn at bat, I noticed a youth kid in centerfield who was on his high school baseball team. Was I going to be intimidated by this official baseball player who was right in my line of vision? The ball was pitched, I swung, and I watched that ball soar over that kid's head. He had to turn around and chase it. Ironic that I got a triple out of it, just like in 6th grade, but there was no "Steve" around on this day. I was playing softball and I was enjoying it.
     A few innings later, it was my turn at bat again. As I stepped up to the plate, I heard two of the sweetest words ever uttered: "Back up!" Really? My presence in the batter's box caused someone to shout out "back up"? Well, okay! Once again that ball flew over that same kids head resulting in another triple.
     When the game was over, someone said to me, "You're a natural!" Not really, but he didn't need to know that.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Good Grief Support

     I don't know if I would consider myself an expert on loss and grieving, but I've lost and grieved quite a bit. When I was in Junior High, my family had to say good-bye to a close family friend, my cousin, my grandma, and our pet dog (who was not on the same level as the humans we lost, but it still hurt). A few years later, my brother tragically died at the age of 21, and more recently, my parents passed away within three months of each other. Feeling support in times of grief is essential to weathering the trauma of loss, but some support is not as helpful as others. Based on my experiences, when people don't know what to say, they tend to say too much. Words aren't always the most helpful when someone is grieving. I wanted to offer a hand guide for those who want to help but don't know what to do when tragedy occurs in a friend's life. Keep in mind everyone grieves differently so their needs will vary, but here's some advice (take it or leave it) from someone who's been there...

  • Avoid Christian cliché's. For some, statements like "You'll see him again in heaven someday," or "She's in a better place," don't bring comfort. It may be very true, but in their very emotional state, they may not want their loved one in heaven at that moment. They want them here and that's all their broken heart desires. Remember, even good solid Christians can become irrational when they're grieving, and that's allowed. These kinds of phrases can possibly cause confusion for the person. They may feel they're a bad person because they want their loved one here on earth and not in heaven, or that they don't trust God.
  • Don't recommend songs. Certain songs may have brought you comfort in your trying times, but it doesn't necessarily mean it will to your friend. More than likely, a song isn't going to take care of the raw emotions someone's feeling. If they find a song on their own that comforts them, that's one thing, but to suggest one or quote one implies, "This song will make you feel better," but it might not. 
  • Don't say, "I know how you feel, I lost my..." and then proceed to tell your experiences. It's not about you in that moment. I know hearts can be in the right place and a common ground is trying to be found, but very often, for the one grieving, your experience isn't going to compare with their present loss. When my brother died, someone tried to tell me they understood how I felt because they lost an uncle. It did not equate in my mind. I heard a priest say at a funeral to the devastated parents of the deceased that he knew how they felt because he had lost a nephew.  Even if the details of your loss are similar to your grieving friend's, it may not feel the same to them. Save your experiences for later when they are ready to dialogue. 
  • "If you need anything, just call." Again, a very heartfelt offer, but not very practical for someone who's in mourning to follow through on. They're not going to call. Instead, if you see a need, meet the need. Organize a schedule for dinners to be taken over for the next couple of weeks. Arrange to pick up their kids from school. Clean the house. Do the shopping. There will be needs as life continues to move around them so anticipate them and then meet them. I'll never forget our pastor coming in our house the day my brother died with bags of groceries for us. That was very helpful and made a lasting impression.
  • If you have to say anything, say "I'm so sorry. I love you. I'm praying for you," (again being careful of Christian-ese and sensitive if they don't believe in prayer). Better than words is being there for them if you're a close enough friend. Cry with them (which is huge). Hold them if they want to be held. Laugh if they want to laugh. Talk about the departed if they want to. For some, it may be too painful to mention their loved one by name, but others may want to reminisce about the departed. Follow their lead. 
     As I mentioned, everyone grieves differently, so my advice isn't carte blanche, but I believe it will help you as you desire to support your friends and family who are hurting.