I've been pastoring officially for only 1.66 years, but I've already experienced the compulsion people seem to feel to defend their faith positions, despite no challenge having been issued. I suppose that means that my very presence constitutes an unspoken challenge, in their minds at least.
Typical example: Neighborhood gathering, at which a good friend introduces me to another of her friends, proudly identifying me as a pastor. Her elderly friend looks me over and pronounces airily that she "doesn't believe in God." As she waits expectantly for ~ well, for what, exactly? ~ I say, "It's so nice to meet you. I heard that your granddaughter just graduated from college?"
I've been thinking about this seemingly instinctual hostility toward faith, and Christian faith in particular, since my two pieces have been published in the Huffington Post. The first, a shortened version of a blog posted here, and directly primarily toward Christian pastors dealing with those who grieve, generated some negativity which I took to mean that neither intended audience nor word count had been understood.
Nevertheless, I was a bit startled. And remorseful. I think it would be difficult to find a pastor more open to other faith experiences and expressions than I am, but clearly I had failed to communicate that.
The second post, about faith responses to suicide ~ to those who are contemplating or have attempted suicide, and those who have survived their loved ones' completed suicides ~ was written with a more general audience in mind. Nevertheless, one commenter noted that,
"I think it was you who had another article on HuffPo about helping people deal with the grief of a loved one's suicide and I was very glad to see someone approaching the topic (1 1/2 year since my father's and 7 years since my mother's last attempt). I was disheartened by the tone some of your talking points took in that earlier article seeming to push religion a little much for my comfort. I love the changes that were made it make it more inclusive of all peoples of every religious shading. This is a great guide to helping people talk about dealing with this kind of lose with others. Thank you very much."
I'm glad she found the second one helpful, but I wondered: What on earth had I said in the first one?
As far as I can tell, it was the following:
"This is a chance for Christian pastors and friends to shine with resurrection hope and assurance. Almost everyone, regardless of how tenuous or strong his or her connection with the church, regardless of whether he or she is a staunch atheist or a lifetime believer, has some sense or perhaps downright fear that the beloved friend or family member might be in hell, whatever he or she imagines hell to be. If ever there were a time in which people need to hear God's infinite grace and love proclaimed in a ringing public voice and in a quiet private whisper, this is it."
I can understand atheists taking issue with my statement about them if their experience differs; I can only report what people have said to me. (In 850 words or less, and without divulging confidences.)
But . . . shining with resurrection hope? God's infinite grace and love? Proclaimed and whispered?
What have we done, we Christians, that people respond with such negativity?
Of course, I know. I hear it all that time. And it's not just Pat Robertson and his ilk.
"You must . . . ".
"You have to . . . ".
"You'll go to hell if you don't . . . "
We pastors find ourselves in a calling filled with people who love to talk, love to preach, love to teach. I know this, because I am one of those people.
And we have sometimes proclaimed God's grace so loudly and emphatically and obnoxiously and invasively that people have come to associate it with words and acts they cannot stand to hear or watch.
I think of my father's quiet statement, as we left the funeral home after his wife's funeral. "Those people are so well-meaning . . . and so intrusive."
When I try to convey resurrection hope, I'm talking about the hope that God is already re-creating and renewing the face of the earth. (Frankly, I don't feel the need to say much. If you know me and my life history, you know that the fact that I'm alive and in ministry bespeaks resurrection hope.) When I try to reflect God's infinite grace and love, I'm trying to show that God is out and about, gently loving and caring and tending to all, whether they ever know or acknowledge it or not.
It seems that we have mostly ourselves to overcome.
I'm not going to write an article about how God doesn't matter, because I don't believe that to be true.
But I wish I were better at conveying that I'm inviting people into a discovery of that God, not trying to pummel them into adopting a belief system they're assuming I want to further. As has been said by many others besides me, I don't believe in that God whom they're rejecting either.