Sunday, May 26, 2013

Hostility Toward Faith

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.


  1. Oh Robin, you exhibit courage, humility, vulnerability and grace with your pieces, and yet they seem to get those comments. *sigh* I do think that people are pre-loaded to hear what they want to hear and believe.

    What a pity.

    I love what you say at the end of this post, about not believing in that God either. Amen and amen and amen.

    Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Fran.

      My daughter says there are just so many people in the world with nothing but negative energy to exude . . .

    2. I asked my priest about this and he said, somewhat like your response, to respond with have a nice day. Yes. Especially for this argumentive Italian. Challenge.
      WriterLinda (Linda G)

    3. Me (WriterLinda) again. Yes and God is here whether we/they like it or not too, thank God. I think we worry too much about convincing people with words -- instead of with our living. Remember the guy who said, "A man convinced against his will / Is of the same opinion still" (author unknown to me)so really argumentation does absolutely nothing. Nothing at all. We have to live the way God wants us to and HE will fix the rest when the time comes. His timing of course.

      Robin I like the way your site and its postings show HOW religion works for the individual instead of just yakking about it. Obviously everyone has been reading/doing/following Richard Rohr's The Naked Now.

  2. Robin, as Fran says, people hear what they want to hear. Having said that, we also take to heart the negative comments when, in fact, many people don't comment when they feel positive about something. This is human nature. You wrote a gentle and sensitive article and now please know that God will use it in whatever way God chooses.

    I agree totally with your ending. My God embraces everyone yet waits patiently and gently for them to choose.

  3. Robin, When I was in my twenties I was terrified of Christianity and Christians. My terror was somewhat superstitious, a response to having lived in a very dominant religion that pounded its narrow theology into its members. As a result I had an instant reaction to just the word "Pastor" or worse, "Christian" and became certain what that meant, saw a subtext into words like you wrote, that was not actually there - but it's what I saw and heard. I think Christians have done a terrible job of expressing God's radical love for all, even those who reject God and for whom God surely waits and waits. Instead Christians have done a great job of conveying a wrathful, judgmental, narrow God who cares more about obeying rules than about loving people. sigh. So, I suspect such people as you are encountering are just reacting from their own place of fear and hurt, which runs so deep they can't really hear what you are saying. Because yes, your life does indeed speak right into the reality of the resurrection.

    1. It's very helpful to hear your experience, Terri.

    2. I know it's the "wrathful, judgmental, narrow God" whom I have rejected...rather than Christians or Christianity, necessarily. The Almighty is so much more than most human religions either convey or believe...

  4. I am always extremely reluctant to disclose that I'm a pastor when I travel. It's far easier to say I used to practice law and throw in that I worked for Habitat for Humanity. (It's a bit strange to be able to say one worked for an overtly Christian organization, but not the church.) We have let the crazies take over who we are. When I tell congregations that the sort of apocalyptic thinking in the left behind series has been declared a heresy (the only heresy) in the Presbyterian Church, they are dumbfounded. And it was the southern church that made the declaration sometime before reunion.

    Peace to you.

    1. I have recently had the same experience with a remark I made about the Left Behind series being "unbiblical" -- an adjective that has meaning in my ministerial context -- resulting in expressions of astonishment.

    2. They need to comprehend and appreciate that not every word that is uttered is written into a sentence in the Bible. God gave us speech so that we may articulate his meaning in our own style as the various scribes did in Scripture. They did not all write in the same style, some of the writing is actually humourous (for example the OT passage where it says something like woe is me life is doomed or to that effect, which is an indirect quote, folks). It is written to get the point across whether it be through metaphor or right-as-rain (I hate cliches) or any other form the author utilizes to drive their point across (another cliche).

      I am sure you did not say anything heretical and that if your words are not exactly as written in the Bible, so what! It says eye for eye and tooth for tooth, too but we already know that is not what is meant and besides they need to read the rest of the sentence. People can be so starched like they think they are still in the Victorian era or somewhere. Makes me mad. WriterLinda (Linda G).