executing God

Executing God: the Book Review

“Why did Jesus have to die?”

We’ve all asked this basic question about our faith before. And as Sunday School teachers, preachers, theologians, and Bible college students try to explain it–using simple language or complicated concepts, I’ve always felt the answer was a little bit lacking. “He died to forgive our sins.” Yes, but why did it have to involve death? “He died to pay for our debt.” Pay our debt to whom? “He died to take our punishment.” How does punishment of an innocent person do anything?

Today I’m going to review the book Executing God: Rethinking everything you’ve been taught about salvation and the cross by Sharon Baker. In this book Baker brings up all these questions and more as she demonstrates the way theologians in the past have defined and understood the death of Christ, showing their strengths, weaknesses, and implications for how we think about God. She also gives us an alternate way to understand salvation and the cross. Last year Deb and I presented a series along with some fantastic guest bloggers about some of the theories of atonement, even explaining what atonement it. Check it out here.

I picked this book up last year at the beginning of Lent after hearing an interview with the author on Homebrewed Christianity podcast. My goal was to read it during Lent as I prepared to remember the crucifixion on Good Friday and celebrate the resurrection on Easter Sunday. Sadly, I have to admit that I was unable to finish the book at that time. Life got…busy. But this year when Ash Wednesday came around again, I picked up the book and was able to read it in 2 weeks. Her style is simple and easy to follow. She has the depth of insight and knowledge of a theology professor, with the ability to distill that down to a layperson’s understanding.

Why does it matter?

We sinned, Jesus died, God forgives. Christians of all theological and denomination persuasions agree on this. So why does it matter how we understand the atonement?

“There’s a lot at stake in theories of the atonement, because they show us certain things about God. The very nature of God  is expressed in how we interpret the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.” (Baker, 65) For instance:

  • Christus Victor teaches us that God is deceptive, because God deceives the devil in order to win us back
  • The Penal Substitution and satisfaction theories teach us that God requires violence in order to forgive (which negates the entire concept of forgiveness, but more on that later)
  • The Moral theory teaches us that God equates love with suffering

Baker encourages us to keep re-thinking and re-imagining the atonement. We often hear people claim that if the church has believed something for centuries, why question it? Wesley gave us a fourfold approach to understanding and forming doctrine which includes the tradition of the church. However, he also encouraged us to interpret Scripture and tradition along with reason and experience. Baker puts it this way: “the tradition is to reinterpret the tradition. We reinterpret continually, with a repetition of reinterpretation that preserves the relevance of the living and active Word of God” (p. 81).

What are the problems with traditional theories?

  • Forgiveness vs. transaction: The atonement has often been explained as Jesus “paying our debt” or “taking our punishment,” but that really misses the point of forgiveness. How can you forgive a debt that has been paid? Even if it was paid by someone else, it has still been paid. Traditional theories tend to see the atonement as a transaction: Jesus pays, God is satisfied.
  • Retribution vs. restitution: Traditional theories of the atonement talk about Jesus satisfying the wrath of God. When we understand God as vengeful, we begin to see justice as retribution, “an eye for an eye,” you stole my belonging, you owe me money. You hurt me, I hurt you. But true justice is about restitution: you wronged me, our relationship is damaged, I want to restore the relationship. As Baker puts it: “Justice born from love restores; justice born from hatred breeds and seeks retribution” (p. 97).
  • Bloody sacrifice vs. life laid down sacrifice: Ancient Israel understood sacrifice as a way to appease God’s wrath by shedding blood, but God never wanted a bloody sacrifice. The blood represented the life, and the animal’s life represented the person’s life. Sacrifice is about dedicating our lives to God and following God’s path of love and restitution. Traditional theories see a bloody sacrifice as appeasing God’s wrath, but the Psalmist tells us this about sacrifice: “for you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17)

A new way of thinking

“So instead of saying that God inflicted the pain of the cross on Jesus as a penalty for our sin, we can say that the horrific nature of the cross exposed and condemned the gravity of our sin. After all, human beings are the ones who put Jesus to death, not God” (Baker, p. 134).

The bulk of the book focuses on deconstructing our traditional theories, exposing their weaknesses and their violent nature. But Baker does not leave us empty-handed. In the final chapters she spells out an alternate view of atonement. She builds up to the “So what?” and answers it. So what is the point of Jesus? What is the point of the crucifixion?

Her understanding of the atonement focuses on the incarnation of Jesus, God becoming flesh. By becoming human, Jesus committed to living as a human, living among humans, and suffering the sin of humans, ultimately ending in the most gruesome and violent death imaginable for his time. She sets up the atonement as the story of God becoming human, teaching us about the extravagant love of God, and demonstrating that extravagant love by not seeking retribution for the abuse he suffered. Jesus actually prayed for the forgiveness of his abusers. “Even though God grieved at the sight of such horrific abuse, God let Jesus finish out the life he commited himself to live on Earth–which ended with a horrible death at the hands of the people. Despite the fact that God didn’t need or condone such a terrible execution and hated the evil that prompted it. Instead, God interrupted the cycle of violence with good. God created something good in spite of the wickedness of human sins” (Baker, 157).

Jesus didn’t die for God, he died for us. He didn’t die in order to give God what he needed to forgive us. He died to give us what we needed to accept the forgiveness from God.

Should you read it?

I highly recommend Baker’s book. For those of you who have become weary of violence in the name of Christianity, this books demonstrates a non-violent way of understanding the cross. For those of you unsure why we have such violent theories of atonement, this book explains how church history shaped the current theories. For those of you who want to understand all this without getting a theology degree first, this is definitely the book for you. Baker’s simple explanation is not too simplistic nor too academic. I found it very understandable and I think you will, as well.

How about you? Have any of you read this or any other book about non-violent atonement? What did you think? What books would you recommend for understanding the atonement?

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I’m Not Crying on Sundays

In early January I attended the Gay Christian Network (GCN) Conference in Houston, TX. It was an incredible experience. I chose to attend the conference after several discussions on the LQBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) Commiunity and realizing just how much I don’t know about the community. I knew that this was a group of people often rejected and persecuted, but I didn’t know any LGBTQ people personally. The Gay Christian Network Conference was suggested by a friend and it seemed like the perfect place to begin my quest to delve deeper into the lives of the LGBTQ community from a faith perspective.

There were many poignant stories shared, but the one that stuck out the most to me was from Mary Lambert, the special musical guest. She explained that she had come out as a lesbian while in her teens, and was raised in an evangelical church. Every Sunday she cried during worship because she was told that God didn’t love gay people. I heard this same theme over and over again from the participants at the conference. As soon as they understood their own identities as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or gender queer, they had to make a painful choice between authenticity or faith. Many chose to hide their LGBTQ identities and live with the pain in order to be part of their faith communities. One girl shared through her tears that, upon coming out, her mother said “Don’t tell anyone.” Some chose to embrace their identities and leave the church, turning instead to a community who would accept and embrace them despite their orientations and gender identities, or even because of it. A workshop I attended was hosted by a transgender woman explaining how she had lost every single Christian friend upon transitioning, while the response from her non-Christian friends was “Well this will be weird, but we’ll get used to it.” All around me I sensed the deep wounds from the church, specifically the evangelical church. My heart was breaking for these beloved children of God who had been rejected by the people of God.

You can’t be gay and Christian. That was the message pounded into them, day after day. The church, the community of faith, is the place where you are supposed to feel the unconditional love and acceptance of God reflected in his followers.

Mary Lambert’s words brought back my own wounds from the church. Well, from a few members of the church. About a year ago I was publicly berated for my stance on LGBTQ inclusion in the church, among other things this person simply didn’t like about me. After that incident for about 3 months I remember crying every Sunday. I would get up in front of the church and preach, then go home and cry. Sometimes it started in the car on the way home. Then I would binge watch Netflix until I was numb to my own pain. Sometimes it was more than Sundays. I worked at the church and had to walk into that building, past the woman who so spitefully shamed me, 6 or 7 days a week.

I hesitate to compare my story with the LGBTQ community who have suffered far worse and have been rejected so much more simply for being who they are. I was hurt by the church, but I can’t deny how easy it would be for me to simply stay quiet and keep the peace. But those who identify as LGBTQ do not have that option.

But Mary Lambert’s story was not over. She finds acceptance and love now. She talked fondly of her girlfriend. She was open about her own struggles with body image, bipolar disorder, and being gay. Her openness has brought healing, and has been an inspiration for so many people touched by her music and poetry. She can say “I’m not crying on Sundays,” the poignant final line in her song, She Keeps Me Warm.

(You can also check out Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ Same Love, where Mary sings the same chorus and ends with the same lines.)

I also found this theme at the GCN Conference: acceptance and inclusion in the faith community. Some participants were pastors and ministry leaders, working toward inclusion in their churches. Some were, like me, straight allies, trying to understand more and speak up on behalf of the often condemned or misunderstood LGBTQ community. Some were students advocating for acceptance in their schools. Some had found the love of their lives and were able to rejoice in that union, regardless of the gender of their partners. Some still suffered rejection from their churches. One participant confessed that attending the Gay Christian Network Conference, once a year, was his only time in church. Across the spectrum: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gender queer, straight, evangelical, liturgical, non-religious spiritual, from whatever faith community, from their conservative families or liberal families, whether rejected or accepted at home, every participant found a place of acceptance at the GCN Conference. We all stood shoulder to shoulder and echoed the all-inclusive, unconditional love of God for one another.

As I stood in that beautiful community of faith, that group of misfits, broken people, struggling individuals from all backgrounds and walks of life, I, too, could say “I’m not crying on Sundays.”

Some of my new LGBTQ friends were heading back to communities and churches where they would be accepted and loved. Some of them were heading back to a place they didn’t even feel safe being open about their orientation or gender identity. I have spent a lot of time contemplating my time in Houston with the Gay Christian Network. What would I bring home with me? How would this change my understanding and my interaction with the LGBTQ community?

One final and prevalent theme that I found at the conference was reconciliation. The main session speakers reiterated the need for love and acceptance for all: gay, transgender, bisexual, women, gender queer, gender fluid, people of color, people of disabilities, and yes, even the conservatives that have traditionally condemned gay and lesbian people. This call to love our enemies was hard to hear. For people who have spent most of their lives being condemned, rejected, kicked out of homes, shunned, and accused of having an “agenda,” the call to respond to this hate was with love. Allyson Robinson told us on Friday morning “There is only one fight for justice.” We are all, as part of the body of Christ, called to build bridges, edify believers, and fight for justice for ALL. Just as I have come to understand the LGBTQ community as a group of individuals, people with stories, not a faceless group clamoring for rights; I have to begin seeing their opponents as people, individuals with their own stories.Reconciliation will come with unconditional love, not with winning arguments or finding enough Scripture to back my stance. Many years ago I made a commitment to love the unlovable, and befriend those who have no friends. Sometimes the unlovable are the people in my own faith community.

I know there is a long way to go. I know that this message will not be immediately accepted. I know that I will still be speaking against ignorance and bigotry. But it is a battle worth fighting. It is something I am not only called to do, I am privileged to do. So I will keep speaking up for the marginalized and ostracized. I will continue to use my privilege to elevate the voices of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ. I will keep shouting about the LGBTQ homeless youth crisis. I will continue to fight until one day everyone in our faith communities, gay or straight, cisgender or transgender, liberal or conservative, can say “I’m not crying on Sundays.”

everyone matters

womeninchurchhistory

Women in Church History: St. Hedwig of Silesia and Others

 “Catholic saints are holy people and human people who lived extraordinary lives. Each saint the church honors responded to God’s invitation to use his or her unique gifts. God calls each one of us to be a saint.”

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” -1 Peter 2:9, NIV

A few weeks ago, Deb introduced us to the topic of women in church history. She wrote about Mother Teresa, Lottie Moon, and Mary Slessor, women who pioneered missions by stepping into the unknown and uncomfortable, compelled by the love of God. She also introduced us to Hildegard of Bingen, a nun who was a prolific author. Today I want to introduce you to some women in church history who were part of the laity–members of the church who are not ordained or committed to exclusive full time ministry. These are women who held positions of influence outside the church who made great contributions to the church.

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St, Olga, burner of cities

St. Olga of Kiev “Equal to the Apostles”

Olga was the wife of Igor of Kiev in the early tenth century, ruling as regent on behalf of her son following Igor’s death. She refused a marriage proposal from Prince Mal, a member of the tribe that killed her husband. Instead she crippled their military power and killed their strongest and wisest leaders. Then burned their village, using pigeons to spread the flames She was converted to Christianity and baptized by the Emperor Constantine VII in 945 or 957. After her conversion she requested missionaries be sent to her country. She was successful in converting her grandson Vladimir who brought Christianity to Russia. Olga’s legacy is muddy to be certain. She was influential in spreading the church to Russia, but she was also known for her barbaric rule. Did she use a new religion for political gain? Or did her relationship with Christ give her a true change of heart? Perhaps we’ll never know. We do know that the church spread throughout Russia and Europe because of her influence.

A Deviant Art imagining of Matilda. I think it's exactly the expression she would have had.

A Deviant Art imagining of Matilda. I think it’s exactly the expression she would have had.

Matilda of Tuscany “The Great Countess”

Matilda was a powerful political and military leader in the eleventh century. She was a key player in the conflict between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope as they both struggled for power over the Church. Matilda, deeply religious, supported the Pope and was later sainted by the Catholic Church for her efforts. Though her position as ruler does call into question her sincerity of faith, she did make other contributions to the church, namely donations of land and money for developing religious communities and building a school of law. Whether for noble or selfish reasons, Matilda’s influence on the direction of the church was significant and is felt even today as the Catholic Church still recognizes a papal leadership.

St. Hedwig was known for her care for the poor and sick

St. Hedwig was known for her care for the poor and sick

St. Hedwig of Silesia

Hedwig was married to Harry I, Duke of Silesia and Poland, with whom she had seven children. Together they ruled Silesia in the 13th century and used their wealth to fund monasteries in the area, contributing to the spread of German culture through the monks. They founded the convent of the Cistercian Nuns at Trebnitz with their own money, built on land they donated. They also built hospitals where Hedwig would personally visit to care for the sick. She is known for her piety, caring for the poor, visiting hermits and prisoners, washing the feet of lepers on Holy Thursday, and giving her money to such causes up until her death, leaving nothing as an inheritance. Following the death of her husband, Hedwig took up residence in the Cistercian Convent they had built and lived under the direction of her daughter, Gertrude, abbess of the monastery. She was known to walk barefoot, even in winter. Hedwig is an example of the great good that can be done with political leadership and wealth. She was not a nun, but she built and expanded the convents and monasteries where many nuns and monks would dedicate their lives to the cause of Christ and the betterment of humanity.

Many women throughout church history have made a lasting impact on the direction of the church and the spread of the Gospel. Some through complete devotion to God as nuns, missionaries, or ordained ministers, and some through political leadership and financial contributions. God desires to use all of his children, regardless of gender, occupation, gifting, economic level, or anything else. He chooses to build his kingdom on earth with us humans. The question is: are you willing to be used by God where you are?

References

http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=427

http://womenshistory.about.com/od/medievalsaints/p/princess_olga.htm

http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=7726

http://womenshistory.about.com/od/medievalitalianwomen/fl/Matilda-of-Tuscany.htm

http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-religion/1720315/posts

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07189a.htm

pastor

8 Ways to Honor Your Pastor

Welcome to October, the month of falling leaves, pumpkin spice everything, scary costumes, and ridiculous amounts of candy. It’s also Clergy Appreciation Month, a reminder to take some time to say thank you to your pastor and other clergy members in your life. As someone who has recently resigned from the pastorate, I can tell you first hand how meaningful any message of thanks is during Clergy Appreciation Month, or any time of the year. I urge you to take some time to remember your pastor this month and encourage him or her. If you are a pastor, think about the people in your life that have mentored you and supported you, chances are one of them is a pastor. Take some time to think about past pastors in your life. Are you still in contact with any of them? A quick “you made a difference in my life” will not go unnoticed.

If you’re stumped about what exactly you can do for your pastor, here are a few suggestions.

1. A Card This is the simplest and easiest way to honor your pastor, no matter what kind of personality they have, no matter how close you are to them, or how much you dislike their sermons or choice of carpet color, your pastor will appreciate a card with a heartfelt message of thanks. This one also doesn’t take much time. You also don’t have to spend much money, you can even make your own card or just send a short letter of appreciation. Trust me, your pastor has been told by someone that they’re not doing it right, that they’re not good enough, that they’re failing as a pastor. Give them a reminder that they are enough and what they do makes a difference.

2. A Gift Card These are flexible and convenient and any pastor with their busy schedule and stressful work would be grateful for a gift card. It also doesn’t have to be expensive. Even $5 would be appreciated. Or pool your money with other congregation members to give a larger amount. If you know your pastor well, choose a gift card to a place they already shop. If you don’t know which gift card to purchase, try a coffee shop or a restaurant.

3. A Homemade Gift One of the best gifts I ever received as a pastor was a hand made quilt from one of the quilters in my congregation. A gift you make yourself will mean even more to your pastor. So, give them a hand knitted scarf, a crocheted blanket, a hand made candle, a personalized scrapbook, a wood carving, a painting, whatever it is that you make. However, if your pastor is trying to eat healthy, maybe you shouldn’t give them a batch of your famous double chocolate brownies.

4. A Gift If you don’t like giving gift cards, and you don’t make your own gifts, and you still want to give something more than a card, try giving a simple gift. This works best when you know your pastor. What are their hobbies? What do they enjoy doing on their day off? Just as a caution, unless you know for sure your pastor wants one of these, they probably do not need figurines, plaques, books, Bibles, or crosses. They already have more than enough. Perhaps a mug if they enjoy coffee or tea, golf balls for the golfer, a bookmark for the reader, or a key chain with their team’s mascot.pastor-appreciation-mug

5. An Act of Service Here’s a gift that doesn’t have to cost any money: volunteer to do something for your pastor. Maybe you can babysit their kids for a night to give them a night off. Is there any church duty you can volunteer to do so they won’t have to? Perhaps whisk them away from the office for a pedicure or a round of golf or an afternoon at the movie theatre. An act of service might be worth more than any gift card, because you’re taking the time and effort to do something special.

6. Social Media Shout Out Tell your Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Youtube/Snapchat/Periscope followers how awesome your pastor is, followed by an invite to your church. You can even write a blog about your pastor such as this one or this one. Just be conscious that not everyone likes the spotlight. Don’t intentionally embarrass your pastor; that would have the opposite effect.iheartpastor

7. Remember Last Week’s Sermon This may seem insignificant, but it’s a huge one. You can usually remember the sermon while you’re shaking hands on your way out saying, “Great sermon, Pastor.” But what would really make a difference is giving your pastor a call in the middle of the week saying “Thanks again for the message on grace. Here’s how it had impacted my life this week…” Pastors spend many hours a week preparing for their message. If you can acknowledge that hard work, they will be grateful.

8. Prayer Last, but certainly not least, remember to pray for your pastor. They fight spiritual battles everyday. They are often weary from their multiple responsibilities, perhaps taking care of their family as well as their church, expected to interact in the community regularly, and the rewards are often not tangible. Pray for your pastor, tell them you are praying for them, and ask what you can pray for.

Hopefully these ideas have inspired you to do something to honor your pastor this month. What are you planning to do for your pastor? As a pastor, would you add anything to this list?

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Advice From an Ex-Pastor

Three months ago I resigned from my job as a pastor. You can read about that here. You can read some of my thoughts on being in charge here. Just before leaving I had lunch with one of my mentors who had supported me and prayed with me as I struggled through the decision to leave. We had a great conversation about what I had learned about myself, how I had grown, and what life and faith might look like post-pastorate. One of the questions she asked me was what advice I would give to someone about to lead a church. At the moment the only piece of advice I had was “get out while you can,” but I was told that was not the answer she was looking for. After the last few months of transition, spiritually and emotionally as well as the physical transition of a cross country move and a new job, I have had time to reflect on my years as a pastor, especially the last year being in charge and came up with a few pieces of advice I would pass on to anyone going into the pastorate. I am not an expert. These come from my own experience in ministry and may not apply to every pastor.

1. People will oppose you. Don’t take it personally. You have come into this church; you’re not the same person who used to be their pastor. You do things differently. People don’t like change. Be prepared for people to complain about every change you make. Also, be prepared for them to tell you to your face how much they like your new idea and tell someone else how much they hate it. One thing I had a hard time realizing was that many people won’t be upfront with the pastor or boss about what they don’t like. You may get church members telling you “Everyone’s been complaining about…” but when pressed they can’t give you specifics about who exactly has been complaining or why.

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2. There are sheep, goats, and wolves in every group you try to lead. Sheep will follow you anywhere and do anything you ask. Goats will butt heads with you on every issue, but they mean well, and eventually they will follow you. Wolves will tear you to pieces. Sometimes you don’t know who the wolves are until you’re already bleeding. Love the sheep even when their blind obedience gets annoying. Love the goats even when their constant opposition gets exhausting. Love the wolves, they are, after all, people created by God, and you don’t know what happened to make them so vicious. But you don’t have to take their harassment.

3. Don’t be afraid to question your work and your calling. But don’t let anyone bully you into questioning your calling. There will always be people who think you’re not good enough, not conservative enough, not liberal enough, not mainstream enough, not radical enough, not out-going enough, not quiet enough, etc. to be a pastor. God uses all personalities to build his kingdom. There isn’t a cookie cutter Christian, so why should there be a cookie cutter pastor? It’s important to examine your life and calling, ask the hard questions, and make the changes you need. but don’t change who you are based on what someone wants you to be.

4. Use your resources, that’s what they’re there for. While I was in charge I joked that I was best friends with the human resources representative from the denomination’s district headquarters because I called about everything. I wanted to make sure I didn’t make a stupid mistake, or an illegal move. I had built up a support system of experienced pastors who I could turn to for any question, whether about the Bible, about congregation life, or about business. Sometimes I sent an email to a person at headquarters saying, “Can you help me with this or tell me who to ask?”

5. Listen to your congregation’s stories. People want to be heard. They’ll tell you ten stories about their grandchild or their cat or their garden before opening up about their walk with God.

6. Praise liberally. People work better when they know they’re appreciated. Even when you need to correct someone, encouragement goes a long way. This holds true for staff members, leaders, Sunday School teachers, even misbehaving children. Love and encouragement don’t cost money, so give freely.

7. Build a support system. Find your supporters outside work and family (although, I also strongly encourage finding them inside work and family, too). They’ll be there when you need a sympathetic ear, a prayer partner, or a relief from work stress. Most important, they’ll be the ones to remind you to laugh and enjoy life. Personally, I chose to find a local support group so I could have face-to-face interactions with them every week.

8. You can have your opinions, but you don’t need to express them. I learned this one the hard way more than once. You can talk about your hobbies, but keep your opinions to yourself on controversial subjects. Sometimes it’s hard to know what is even controversial as I discovered in my first congregation when I mentioned tattoos around one of the older members. This can get especially tricky on social media if you connect with church members through those forums. Use wisdom, take criticism in stride, and find people who will listen to your opinions without judgment. This is where your support system can be very helpful. Whether they agree or disagree, they can listen without feeling like your opinions betray your position as spiritual leader.

9. Stay connected spiritually. This is the most important advice I have. It looks different for different people, and your spiritual life changes as life changes, but it’s important to remember to prioritize your own relationship with God. Remember, you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can help anyone else with theirs.

Those of you who are pastors, do you agree? What would you add to this list?

courage

Jenner, Jesus, and the True Meaning of Courage

“[Jenner] could have lived his entire life and let everyone believe the lie, believe the myth of the American hero. It takes an incredible amount of courage and strength to go against the grain of what people want you to be.” -Janet Mock, writer and trans advocate

What defines courage?

Last week Caitlyn Jenner was presented with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPYs after her transition earlier this year as a transgender woman.

There was controversy over this decision with a lot of people claiming that she didn’t deserve the award, that there were other, more deserving people, or even saying that the things Caitlyn has done did not require courage. I have heard people criticize her decision to become a woman by saying that it’s only a publicity stunt because Bruce Jenner was losing visibility. I’ve even heard that she didn’t go far enough in becoming a woman to be considered courageous, because she didn’t get gender reassignment surgery. So what should we make of Caitlyn Jenner? Is she a publicity seeking celebrity that will stoop to any level to get ratings? Or a hero who, in becoming her true self, has taught us to treat everyone with respect and dignity, no matter our differences? Or somewhere in the middle?

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I have to admit that two months ago I had no idea that the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage even existed. So I took the time to look it up. Arthur Ashe was a professional tennis player who became the first black tennis player chosen for the United States Davis Cup team. He was also the first black man to win Wimbledon and the first black American to be ranked number 1 in the world. He was a political activist who used his position as a black man in a predominantly white world to advocate for education and social reforms here in the US and across the world.  He contracted HIV in the early 80′s and turned his efforts to raising awareness of the disease while still advocating for the causes he believed in, speaking before the United Nations and petitioning in Washington D.C. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously. Following his death to AIDS, an award named in his honor is given each year during the ESPYs to someone whose contributions transcend sports through courageous action. Past winners include Michael Sam, the first openly gay football player to be drafted by the NFL; Robin Roberts, a black woman who broke into the white male dominated world of sports journalism and a survivor of breast cancer and a rare blood disorder; Dewey Booth, a boxer convicted of murder who served 26 years in prison before his conviction was overturned; Nelson Mandela, South African president who worked to reconcile white and black South Africans through hosting the 1995 Rugby World Cup; and Billie Jean King, a tennis player who won the 1972 US Open, but threatened to refuse to play again unless the women’s prize money was equal to the men’s prize money; along with many other notable sports figures who have gone above and beyond the sports world to fight for justice and equality.

To me, it seemed especially fitting that Caitlyn Jenner be honored with this award that has recognized athletes who break barriers and advocate for minorities and oppressed people groups. However, many others disagreed with me. Through this controversy I observed a few things:

First, most people have the idea that courage is somehow quantifiable. It can be measured by what you do. It seems everyone who disagreed with the decision had someone else in mind who was more courageous, who did more, or who overcame more.

Second, all the criticism I’ve heard has come from cisgender persons (cisgender, as opposed to transgender, is someone whose gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth). It strikes me as quite arrogant for someone who have never experienced gender dysphoria to be so critical of someone who does. If you’ve never experienced it, you can’t begin to guess what the struggle is like. Which brings me back to the idea that courage can be quantified. It’s hard to measure the courage it takes to face something you’ve never had to face.

Third, ironically, all the arguments for why Caitlyn doesn’t deserve the award for courage are actually proving the opposite. She has demonstrated courage just by putting up with all the criticism against her. She acknowledged this in her acceptance speech last Wednesday: “If you want to call me names, make fun of me, doubt my intentions, go ahead. Because the reality is, I can take it. But for the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with being true to who they are; they shouldn’t have to take it.”

Which brings me to my last observation: Caitlyn Jenner is promoting awareness and acceptance of a group of people who have been bullied, ostracized, and victimized. Twenty percent of transgendered persons are homeless, often being sold into sex trafficking. Forty-one percent of transgendered persons will attempt suicide in their lifetime. I’m not going to tell you whether or not Caitlyn’s transformation was right, but if her public appearance stops one trans person from attempting suicide, then she’s a hero for me.

 

Courage in the Bible

Before we can say whether or not Caitlyn deserves an award for her courage, let’s take a look at courage in the Bible.

The most popular verse about courage is Joshua 1:9 “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” These words were spoken to the nation of Israel as they were on the precipice of entering the land God had promised them. They were a small tribe, weary from a generation of wilderness wandering, discouraged by the reports of the powerful nations dwelling in the land, and ready to turn back to a life of slavery. Joshua calls for them to proceed in spite of their fear, to have confidence in the promises of God, to display courage in entering the land.

Throughout Israel’s history we see many people who displayed courage in spite of fear because of their faith in God. David went toe-to-toe against the well trained battle soldier Goliath because his faith in the God of Israel was greater than his fear of death. Daniel, though a war captive in a foreign land, “resolved not to defile himself” (Daniel 1:8) and risked demotion, execution, and later even a den of lions, each time displaying courage as he made the choice to honor God with his actions. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego also stood up to the king (literally) by refusing to bow before his golden image. When facing the possibility of death in a fiery furnace they told the king: “ If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18). When Mary finds out she is pregnant, facing social stigma, possible divorce, and even stoning for being an unwed mother, she responds with courage “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38).

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Peter and John display courage in their act of civil disobedience in Acts 4. When told to stop speaking in the name of Jesus they answer, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard. (Acts 4:19-20).”

Jesus displayed courage when, hated by the religious leaders, jeered and insulted by the Roman leaders, and shouted down by the crowd, he chose to submit to the humiliation and pain of death at the violent hands of the humans he had created rather than use his power to escape their grip. Jesus endured the death of the cross, not because he wanted to prove something, but simply because of his love for us.

From the names listed in Hebrews 11, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab and many others, to the martyrs in Revelation and throughout church history, we have a great legacy of courage in the faith. They were men and women who acted with courage, facing their fears, some enduring death, all because they chose to do what was right instead of what was easy.

 

Can We Just Stop the Competition?

“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” -Arthur Ashe, athlete and political activist

As much as I admire what Caitlyn has done for the transgender community, I don’t know that I would have chosen her for the award if it were up to me. I have a hard time saying who is most courageous because I don’t think courage is something that can be measured. We all have it, in some amount, and it shows up in different ways for different people.

Do you remember the scene in the 2004 movie Mean Girls where Cady was voted Spring Fling Queen? During her acceptance speech she acknowledged the many girls who were also deserving of the title. And as she did, she broke the crown into pieces, tossing them to the girls.

I feel like we should do that with an award for courage. This year I left my comfortable job for the unknown. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I finally had to face my fears and do what was right for my life. I feel like I deserve a little piece of the award. I have a friend who is in the middle of a divorce. She chose to leave her controlling and emotionally abusive husband even though it has been very unpopular with her evangelical Christian community. I feel like she deserves a little piece of the award. I have another friend who is forging her own life after growing up in a controlling, fundamentalist childhood. She’s been free for several years, but she lives every day with the echoes of her past. I feel like she deserves a little piece of the award. I know of a pastor in my denomination who celebrated a same sex couple in his church despite the public stance of the denomination. He will likely have to face consequences for that decision. I feel like he deserves a piece of the award.

Courage is something you may not even recognize in another person if you don’t know their struggles. I’m pretty comfortable with public speaking, but I know some people who are mortified by it. They display courage whenever they stand in front of a crowd. For me, a sober day is just a normal day, but for an addict, a sober day is a day of courage. Just getting out of bed in the morning and going about their routines is a great act of courage for someone who struggles with depression.

Courage is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, or pain. And you don’t know what courage another person needs to face their own demons.

Whether you’re looking at Caitlyn Jenner, a US soldier, a child fighting cancer, a recovering drug addict, or your own neighbor, you can’t measure courage from the outside looking in. Instead of trying to figure out who has more, let’s embrace it where we find it and practice it where it’s needed.

Where do you find courage? And how do you celebrate it?

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4 Reasons We Need Spiritual Authority

Eleven years ago I had the privilege of traveling to Israel for a school study tour. While it was an amazing trip, it did come at a time of great unrest in the Middle East. Many organizations had stopped sending groups altogether. There were a few tense moments when we weren’t sure what the schedule of the day would look like or if the authorities would let us visit a particular sight. At one site we actually came across signs saying “Danger: Land Mines. Do not cross fence.”land minesTo a group of American college students, this was funny. These were the kinds of signs you might find in one of our dorm rooms. A couple of the students wanted to duck under the fence to get a picture of themselves past the warning sign, standing in the danger zone. Our guide, however, warned us to be careful. The signs were not a joke. There were real land mines in the field and we would be very foolish to disregard them.

Have you ever seen a sign saying “Do not touch” and immediately had the overwhelming urge to touch it?donottouch

This week I left my job as a pastor. I preached my last sermon, led my last worship service, spoke my last pastoral prayer, gave my last pastoral benediction. The boxes are packed, the office is cleaned out, and I am officially on my way to my new life.

As I make my final goodbyes to the church that has been my home for the last 7 years of ministry I have to admit to feeling just a little like I’m back on that field in Israel, itching to defy the warning sign. There were so many “Do not touch” signs in my life for so long, that I’m tempted to go a little crazy breaking all the rules.

I’ve never wanted to be a smoker, but I kind of want to buy a pack of cigarettes just because I can. I know the dangers of gambling and I don’t intend to become a gambler, but I really want to buy a lottery ticket just because I can. Now that I am no longer representing this church as one of its pastors, I can do anything I want, I can say anything I want. I can blast the theology, the church politics, the denominational leader. I can get on my soapbox about ANY cause I care about with no fear of consequences. After all, what are they going to do, fire me? The filter is off and I can say and do anything.

Or can I?

It’s true that my church is no longer my place of employment. I’ve moved into a different relationship with the church, but I haven’t removed myself from it entirely. There is a certain freedom from some of the restraints they had placed upon me. But that doesn’t give me a free pass to say or do anything. Paul talks about this a lot in his letters to the churches.

1 Corinthians 10:23 “’I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive.”

I have the right to buy a jar of mayonnaise and eat it with a spoon straight from the jar, but that doesn’t mean that I should.

Not all of those “Do not touch” signs can be ignored. There are real dangers in the world and the church is one way God provides to protect us from those land mines. Even if your church is a little non-traditional, everyone belongs in a body of believers who have authority over their lives.

Before I go any further, let me clarify that being under the spiritual authority of the church is NOT the same thing as spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is insidious, manipulative, and has no place in the faith. Spiritual leaders have the authority to call you out on your actions, but never to control your thoughts or feelings. Spiritual leaders are always under spiritual authority themselves, not acting as though they have a direct connection to God. Spiritual authority is an appropriate way of leading the church to becoming more Christlike, more loving, and more welcoming. Spiritual abuse is a way to control a group of people by preying on their fears and insecurities. If you feel like your church may be using spiritual abuse, check out this resource for a better explanation: Spiritual Abuse: 10 Ways to Spot It.

Having said that, here are the reasons we need to be under spiritual authority: accountability, direction, correct theology, and support and encouragement.

Accountability

Accountability is necessary in the church to insure that resources are not wasted and that leaders are honest and open. If the church gives me money to help feed the poor, I can’t use that money to treat my family to a night at the movies. If the church lets me teach a Bible study, I can’t use that time to sell a line of make-up or cleaning supplies. The church keeps its members accountable through community. To truly experience the richness of fellowship with one another, we have to be honest with each other. And that honesty keeps us accountable for our actions. Some churches have specific policies in place to insure accountability in certain areas, like asking for receipts or sharing teaching responsibilities. But it is the life in community that really fosters openness.

Direction

When a member feels called to ministry or a leadership position, the church provides the direction to help that person fulfill their goals. When a member wants to start a new program, the church gives direction. When a member flounders in their education or career, the church gives direction. Obviously, the church can’t tell you which job to do, but it is the place to go to seek encouragement, prayers, and maybe even vocational advice from each other.

Correct Theology

A rogue Christian who’s trying to live without the church can develop some wacky beliefs. It is through accountability to the community that we keep each other in check. This does not mean that the majority is always right, nor does it mean that you can never change your beliefs or deviate from what your denomination believes. It means that your theology has to come under the scrutiny of other believers. Wesleyans like to evaluate beliefs and practices using what we call a quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. The tradition part of the process is the church. Does this belief line up with the teaching of the church? It’s not the only evaluation of correct doctrine, but it is an essential one.

Support and Encouragement

The church is the place where we love and serve each other as fellow believers. Spiritual authority creates the environment where our love for each other can grow and prosper. Anyone can find a group of friends to be their cheerleaders. But true encouragement comes from people who you’ve given permission to call you out on your wrong choices.

So, I guess it’s not right to say that I have no filter. As a Christian I am a representative of Christ, or as the Apostle Paul put it, an “ambassador for Christ.” I will always have this as my filter. There are still land mines out there, and my submission to the authority of the church protects me from them. I am under the authority of Christ, and I am still under the authority of His church.

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Why I’m Not Worried About the Church

“Oh come to the church in the wildwood, come to the church in the dale. No spot is so dear to my childhood as the little brown church in the vale.” –Church in the Wildwood by William S. Pitts

There’s a lot of concern these days about the state of the church. Is it dying? Will it last? Can it adapt to the changing culture to remain relevant? Or should it adapt? Church attendance numbers are dwindling. Churches are closing. Church leaders everywhere are beginning to get worried about the church. But I’m not worried. Here’s why.

Jesus loves the church

“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” –Matthew 16:18

There’s a lot of criticism about the church. Some from outside Christianity, looking in. Some criticism comes from within Christianity. Of course, the church is made up of humans. There are definitely going to be flaws. Each generation seems to have their own blind spot where the sins of the church hurt people. It’s easy to look at our parents’ and grandparents’ era with condemnation. How did the church ever think that was okay? But, if we look closely at our own generation, we’ll see our own flaws and shortcomings. The sins of the church vary from culture to culture and denomination to denomination.

I’m not saying we should forget these flaws. It’s important that we acknowledge them, and deal with them. The church needs to be first at pointing out its own sins and first to seek change through the Holy Spirit. But when calling out sins becomes condemnation of the church, we have a problem. Like, I said, it’s east to condemn the church. And some Christians will gladly do just that. But Jesus loves the church. She is his bride. Instead of condemning her for her flaws, Jesus cleanses her of them.

Ephesians 5:25-26 “Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word.”

It has become popular to talk about loving Jesus but not church. You can find popular authors talking about how they don’t like church (I know it’s dated, but here’s one from Donald Miller). You can find people at your workplace or in your neighborhood who think they can connect with God in nature or alone at home better than they could at a church. You’ll find those Christians who want to love Jesus and condemn the church. But the church is Jesus’ wife. They are a package deal. You can’t love one and not the other.

I’m not worried about the church. Jesus loves her and she’s not going to die as long as he’s around.

You need the church

You can’t be a Christian alone. God designed us to live in community. The very first thing that is not good in the Creation narrative is a single human alone. Genesis 2:18 “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’”

We see in the metanarrative of Scripture that God created humanity in community, that sin brought a curse that infected every area of life. Humanity immediately began struggling with community. Hatred, violence, and murder became part of humanity when the bonds of community were broken. The Old Testament gives us a picture of a downward spiral of sin, violence, and broken relationships with God and with each other. When Jesus appears, his death and resurrection begin the process of breaking the curse of sin. The curse will not be fully removed from earth until the Second Coming of Jesus when the earth is restored and our eternity in Heaven begins, but the breaking of the curse began immediately. Relationships that were broken by sin, are restored in Christ. And that’s where the church is born, right in the place of restored relationships.

You need the church. You need the community of believers to encourage and teach you. You need the elders of the church to lovingly redirect you when you go astray. You need the youth to give your life to, to pour yourself into and disciple.

Paul points out the intergenerational beauty of the church in his letter to Titus, a young pastor that he was mentoring: “Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love, and in endurance. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live…Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children…similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good.” Titus 2:3-4, 6-7

In the church, we find a place where everyone is valued, everyone has something to give, and everyone has something to learn.

I’m not worried about the church because as long as there are believers in Christ, the church will exist because the believers need it.

The church showcases the vast diversity of the faith

Just as we’ve seen that the church is a place for all age groups—it’s also a place for many other diverse groups of people. The church is filled with people from all over the world, in every culture, in every economic level, in every political and philosophical leaning.

Sometimes, when we’re concerned about the church, it’s because we’re focusing on a narrow demographic. Just because church attendance numbers in middle class America are dropping, doesn’t mean the church in India is in trouble.

In response to a listener question about the necessity of church, Homebrewed Christianity podcast hosts Bo and Tripp recently discussed church on their podcast Theology Nerd Throwdown. Bo emphasized that you can’t be a Christian alone, you need people beyond you, behind you, and beside you in terms of spiritual maturity.

Then Tripp made this statement about the church:

The church is a huge, diverse place. At different times in your life you’ll have different spiritual disciplines, different relationships to different communities, and different traditions within the church. It’s the activity of being grateful for the existence that God’s given you, sharing in your brokenness, and receiving forgiveness of sins, with people you’d never hang out with otherwise. Isn’t there something cool that Republicans and Democrats and Green Party members call all be at the same place. That people from different classes and races and education levels can gather together. If you get so postmodern that that’s not cool to you, then you aren’t postmodern at all. Postmodern should be the celebration of difference and there are very few places where that much difference comes up. I think it’s cool finding a community where you’re with a group of people and all you’re doing is giving permission for something to happen that blesses someone else, then you get to the part that blesses you. But you’re doing it together because it matters that you’re in this community.

The church is where you can be broken, where you can be real, and where you can be loved in the midst of that brokenness. The job of the body of believers is to build up one another.

I’m not worried about the church because it’s bigger than what you think and it’s deeper than what you think. It’s not in danger of dying out.

What do you think? Is the church in decline? Or incline? Or standing strong?

foster parent quote

What I’ve Learned as a Foster Parent

This week our guest blogger is Julie who shares with us about her experience as a foster parent.

If you had asked me 18 months ago when my husband and I were having kids, we would have told you that we weren’t.  We didn’t want children.  It wasn’t in our plan.  We liked our freedom, our quiet, and our dogs.  So much for that.

There was a family that had been attending our church for quite some time.  They struggled economically and there had been several questionable situations that suggested something serious and foul was happening within the household.  On the evening of Easter 2014, I got a phone call from one of the kids that the family was in a homelessness situation.  They were being put up in a hotel for the week until a more permanent solution could be found. One of the seven children (we’ll call her Kiddo) needed a way to get to and from school, and since she was one of my teens I offered to let her stay with us.  Her school was on the way to my job and, after all, it was only a temporary situation.

In less than a week we were approached by DCFS and asked to be foster parents to the teenager we had taken in just a few days before.  They explained how difficult it is to find homes willing to take in teenagers. I texted my husband a short novel about what was going on and he responded with one simple word.  Absolutely.   The first day was an absolute whirlwind.  We are not licensed foster parents.  We are acting as godparents, so we are able to foster as relative caregivers.  There was seemingly endless paperwork, background checks, home inspections, and an ER visit all within the first couple of hours.

The last 13 months have brought many surprises.

  1. I didn’t realize how many people that I knew had been involved in foster care. There were people from our church, other students at Kiddo’s school, people just kept popping up out of the woodwork. It has been really amazing to me the number of people who have been involved as fellow foster parents, or who had family members who were foster parents, or who had volunteered or worked in some aspect of the system.
  2. Working with teenagers, and parenting a teenager are two very different things. All respect in the world to parents of teenagers. Seriously, you guys are amazing.
  3. Navigating the foster care system is like a roller coaster. It is full of ups and downs. Things can change in an instant, not just day to day, but even hour to hour.
  4. The rights of the parents are often calculated before what is in the best interest of the child. There is a phrase I have grown to detest in the process called “minimum parenting standards.”   The ultimate goal for children in foster care is to be reunited with their family. The families are offered a variety of services to help correct the situations that got the kids into care in the first place. If the state can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the parent is unable to meet these minimum parenting standards, at that point the goal changes to adoption or independence depending upon the age of the child.

I have been reminded throughout this process how God calls us to this important ministry of foster parenting.  Just as we have loved and taken Kiddo into our home, God has loved and taken each of us into His kingdom, and He calls us to do the same.  “He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.  From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight” Psalm 72: 13-14.

I was not prepared for how discouraging and emotionally draining foster parenting can be.  Sometimes it feels like we, as foster parents, are the only ones fighting for these kids.  Maybe it is because we have the daily contact with them.  We are with them through the big and the small.  It has challenged me to rely on God in new and deeper ways than ever before.  God gave me a verse that has stuck with me over the last several months.  It’s Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.  When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”  When I am consumed with worry for my Kiddo, I am constantly and consistently reminded to simply trust.

It has been a crazy process, but we are so glad we could help Kiddo and her family in this way.  We are even considering becoming licensed foster parents.  If you have ever considered foster parenting or foster to adopt, I recommend it.  I would not trade a single minute of it.  If you are unable to foster, please pray for children in the system, for their foster parents, for their biological families, and for the caseworkers and judges who are making the decisions that will impact the lives of these children forever.

Trusting as the moments fly

Trusting as the days go by

Trusting Him whate’er befall

Trusting Jesus that is all

-Simply Trusting Every Day by Edgar Page Stites

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The Day I Resigned

My fingers trembled as I lifted the phone to my ear. Thousands of butterflies took up residence in my stomach as my fingers slowly began dialing the number of my direct supervisor. This is it, I said to myself, There’s no going back now. I held my breath as the phone rang gently in my ear. I could barely keep my voice even as I asked the administrative assistant to connect me to my supervisor.

“Hello?”

“This is Ruth.” Deep breath. “I’m calling to tell you I have decided to resign.”

My eyes skimmed the notes I had jotted down to be certain I didn’t leave anything out of this important call. And I waited with anticipation and a little anxiety. I had rehearsed the speech a hundred times that morning, but this was the part where my imagination went silent. I couldn’t even begin to formulate the response I might receive from him. Would it be condemnation? Pity? Anger? Cold professionalism? How would my other colleagues react?

When you work for an organization long enough, it begins to feel like family. This is especially true for a church. Sure, some days my church feels stifling—rules and regulations flow freely as representatives from the head office demand reports and programs and statistics and updates. But this “stifling” could also be described as “security.” It was this authoritative hierarchy that knit us together as fellow pastors. We complained about the same regulations and uniformity that bonded us as allies. What would my colleagues, fellow members of the organizational family, think of my decision? Would they assume that only a grievous sin could rip me from my calling? Or feel betrayed by one of their own? Or just sad for a loss? Or, maybe, just maybe, they would rejoice with me as I stepped out in faith.

 

Step One: Called to Serve

As I contemplated my colleagues’ reaction, my mind went back to a wooden altar in a camp chapel in Wisconsin. The altar where I knelt and heard, oh so clearly, a calling from God: “I want you to serve in full time ministry.”

The speaker had started his message promising that we would know God’s will for our lives by the end. He used the image of an egg—a white and a yolk. If God’s will is the white and your will is the yolk, you can go anywhere you want, do anything you want. But if you make God’s will the yolk and try to fit him into your life, you’ll always have problems.

Don’t ask me how, but that simple illustration translated to a call to ministry. I had made a commitment as a teenager that whatever God called me to do, I would do. I refused to waste any time attempting to run. So when I heard God call me into full time ministry I said “Yes.” I remember feeling inadequate, and more than a little scared. But I told God “If that’s what you want from me, then I’ll do it. I’ll need a lot of help, but I’ll do it.”

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Step Two: A Crisis of Career

Fast forward 13 years. I followed God’s calling into ministry and began serving with my church as a pastor. I soon began to feel the burden of ministry. It’s not a typical 9-to-5 job. It’s long, lonely, heart-breaking hours with little pay, few accolades, and a constant supply of critics. I was miserable most of the time.

There are true rewards in ministry and I experienced them, but I also experienced the heaviness of the work. As I looked back at my ministry, the misery outweighed the reward. And I knew that wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. I knew other people who were called to this work and loved it. They felt the burdens, too, but the rewards were enough to counter that burden.

I looked closely at my life to see what exactly I didn’t like about my job:

It wasn’t the people. I loved working with people—heartache, joys, and everything in between.

It wasn’t the town or the church I was assigned.

It wasn’t the office staff. I worked with an excellent group of employees.

It was pastoring that I didn’t like. It was being responsible for another person’s spiritual life. It was being on-call 24/7. It was never leaving the work at the office, as spiritual burdens tend to follow you home and gnaw at your mind as you attempt to fall asleep. It was getting a call on vacation to hear someone criticize me. It was the constant feeling that I was behind on emails, or reports, or program preparation. It was the relentless anxiety that I was not measuring up to someone’s ideal of pastor—whether it was my colleague, my supervisor, a representative from the head office, or one of my parishioners. There was never a day that I found approval from all sides.

I know what you’re thinking: Ruth, that happens in every job. No matter where you work, you’ll find someone who doesn’t think you’re good enough. True enough, but that doesn’t erase the sting of the feeling of spiritual inadequacy.

Maybe at this point you’re saying: Ruth, why did it matter that you didn’t please a few people. Isn’t it God you’re supposed to be pleasing anyway? Another valid point. And if you can confidently say that no one else’s opinion matters, then maybe you’re cut out for the ministry. But it did matter to me. And I couldn’t shake it.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t something I could fix by just not caring about others’ opinions. It was deeper than that. I was miserable in my job calling, and I wanted out.

 

Step Three: God’s Release

I struggled with understanding how I could hear God’s voice so clearly as a teenager, but question that same calling as an adult. God, didn’t you call me? Did I hear you wrong? Did you change your mind? Did you get the wrong person? Am I just not working hard enough? Do I need to hold on a little longer? Stick it out through the wilderness and find the reward?

These were the questions swirling through my mind as I prayed at a retreat. Suddenly I found myself drawing a picture of an egg in my journal. God’s will is the white, the notes seemed to scream at me. This job is only one small piece of the whole picture. “You’ve served me well in this area, but I have other areas of ministry.”

Tears ran down my cheeks as I felt God’s release. This ministry wasn’t a life sentence after all. It was okay to not like it. It was okay to move on.

 

Step Four: Resignation

It would be more than a year before I acted on that release. God continued to work in my life as I experienced a whole new level of joy and heartache in this ministry.

But, eventually, I had to do the right thing for myself and for the people I serve. It was time to resign from my position.  When I finally made that decision, a weight lifted from my shoulders.

Then, I knew I had to give my resignation to my supervisor.

I waited anxiously to hear his response to my resignation. No condemnation. No questioning me about God’s will or if I had prayed enough about it. Just a calm acceptance, and concern for my wellbeing.

Few things are as rewarding as discovering your boss is a godly leader. Although, I really had nothing to fear. In the short time he had been my boss I had been called into his office twice, and he had calmly sat through my blubbering in front of him. He had assured me that I had what it took to do the job. In every interaction he made it clear that he cared about me as a person, not just as one of his charges. And when it came time to hear my resignation, he prayed with me.

 

Step Five: Now What?

Soon, everyone will hear the news of my resignation. I began with close friends, family, and cherished mentors. I have heard messages of encouragement, confirmation of my decision. But now I will really find out what people think.

Maybe some will say that I failed. That’s okay. Really, I did fail, and it’s a good thing.

One of my favorite podcasts is Freakonomics, a quirky look at economics and life. One of their most popular podcasts is called “The Upside of Quitting” where they examine just how good quitting can be for your health and life. One of the interviews was with Eric Greitens, a Navy SEAL talking about “Hell week” where recruits are pushed to their limits and many end up quitting. It turns out there are two kinds of quitters, the ones who make excuses and the ones who are honest with themselves:

“I don’t think many people want to say to themselves that they’ve quit. At the same time, we’ve all failed in our lives, we’ve all failed at different things in different ways and I think there’s a lot to be said about facing that failure squarely. And the people who I know, who were able to admit, ‘This isn’t right for me at this time and I decided to quit,’ they’re really able to move on from their experience. And I do find that there’s only shame in it if you feel shame.

quit now

I’m not leaving because this work is hard. I’m not leaving because of my political or theological views. I’m not leaving because I’m angry with God or with the organization.

I’m leaving because this is not right for me anymore. God is leading me elsewhere. I’m anxious about the future, about stepping out of the comfortable security of this job, but I’m confident in the words of Stanley Ditmer:

I’m in His Hands, I’m in his hands,

Whatever the future holds, I’m in his hands

The days I cannot see have all been planned for me

His way is best, you see, I’m in his hands.