Every so often, more often than I’d like to admit, I get this feeling that I am a failure- especially when it comes to this pastor thing.
I’ve been at my church for a little over a year. I think I’ve done a lot to help the congregation and to encourage them. I think this church is at a different place than it was last year. And yet, there is the feeling that I am not doing a good job, not good enough.
Part of this is dealing with some issues that took place in my life a few years ago that I am still trying to get past. But mostly, I feel like I haven’t done enough to attract new members.
I’m probably not alone in thinking this way. A lot of us do various things to help increase the visibility of our congregations. We engage in social media. We improve the church website. We host community events. And the result is…not many people darken our doors.
For me especially, it’s been frustrating. I’ve been trying to establish relationships with those who left the church just before I came. I’ve written, called and done everything short of showing up at their doorstep (and no, I am not trying that). I may have to just give up trying to extend a hand to them. I know that I’ve done the best I could, but I know that there is that voice somewhere that says I’m not good enough. If I were better, I would have made contact with them and woo them back to the church.
Then there is this feeling that I’m not reaching out to the community. If I were more outgoing, then maybe things would be better. Maybe if I didn’t have Aspergers, I would be better able to communicate with others and then there would be more members. I would be like that other pastor who can announce an event and 50 people show up.
All of this is nonsense to some extent. Some of the problems facing First Christian started before I came there. Some things are the result of changes in culture. But when few people show up to an event, or when few visitors show up to worship the questions always come flooding back.
If you want to know why so many pastors end up leaving the ministry, it’s because we tend to think that the success or failure of a church is all on us. Pastors end up shouldering a lot of responsibility on themselves.
In the end, I have to accept some grace. I am not all that. All I can do is be faithful. I try to do a good job, try to encourage the congregation, but in the end it is all on God. It’s God that I have to trust in, but that’s hard. I think we pastors are taught or at least we think, that we have to be demigods. I think God has to sometimes hit pastors upside the head and say to them “there is only one God baby, and you are not it.”
First-St. Paul might grow numerically and it might not. I am hoping for the former and that has been my prayer. But in the end, it is up to God. My job is to preach God’s hope to the people and hope they will see God at work in the world.
I just need to tell myself this over and over.
Another sermon for this coming Sunday preached in 2005.
Matthew 13:1-9,18-23, Romans 8:1-11, Isaiah 55:1-5,10-13
July 10, 2005
Community of Grace Christian Church
St. Paul, MN
When I was growing up in Michigan, I would always see these commercials on TV that made no sense to me. As most of you know, my hometown in Flint, Michigan, a small city known for its many auto plants. Flint is smack dab in the middle of two important parts of the state. To our south is the Detroit Metro Area, and we get a lot of the Detroit stations as well as the TV station from nearby Windsor, Ontario. To our north, are three small cities known as the Tri Cities and the agricultural region of the state. Flint also picked up those stations as well. It was during a certain time of the year, when I was watching some program on that particular station, that I would see it: an ad for Roundup.
I had no idea what this was. What did they mean that this product would give better yields? What was quackgrass?
For those of you who come from rural areas, you know that Roundup is a herbicide that farmers use to keep weeds from damaging their crops. But to a city kid like me, this meant nothing. For farmers, this was important, since a bad weed or a bug, could wipe out their crop and hence their income for the year.
Today’s Gospel text is a parable. Through the Gospels, the name we give for the first four books of the New Testament, we see Jesus using stories of everyday people doing everyday things as a clue to what God’s kingdom is about. Too often, though we tend to look at these parables, if not the entire Bible as a book of morals, a guide to show us how to live. Some people use the Bible in this way to lash out against those who don’t follow what they think is a moral way. Others see the Bible as a way to gain wisdom and to lead a good life. However, both assumptions are wrong. The Bible is not here to tell us how to live. Instead, it tells us about who God is, and what God’s kingdom is all about. If we become godly people because of this, great, but that isn’t the main point of the Bible.
Today’s gospel text is about a sower who throws his seed hither and yon, landing on different types of soil. We then see how the soil takes to the seed. There are some good results and some bad results. Now when I was younger, I remember how the pastor or teacher would focus on all the different soils. We would spend time figuring out how the different soils related to the spiritual temperment of the different people. Some people worried to much, some didn’t take the good news seriously and some were good adherents of the Word. The message here was that we needed to be good soil and work on not being bad soil to God’s word. For some reason, I can remember how I felt when we talked about this passage. There was a sense of dread. I mean, how could I ever be good soil? There was no way that I could be that perfect. I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t want to even preach from this text today for the same reason.
Then I started to think about something. This is called the parable of the Sower, but we never really talk about this sower, who is God. We talk about us, but God gets the short shrift. Has anyone wondered just how incredibly wasteful a sower God is? I mean he is just throwing seeds everywhere, without any regards as to whether the seed grows or not. I know there are a lot of gardeners among us this evening and I know many of you would never, never do this. I mean, if we saw someone throwing seeds everywhere, on the lawn, on the sidewalk, on the parking lot, we would wonder about the wisdom of this person. And yet that is what God does. For those of you who come from farmer backgrounds, you know that seed is precious. A farmer takes care of their crops so that they can have a plentiful harvest. The farmer in this story was probably considered a poor, tenant farmer who has to have a good return to feed his family. Now with all this substandard farming practice, throwing seeds wherever they may go, you would probably think that this farmer would get a poor return.
You would be wrong.
The seeds that did fall on good soil produced a harvest beyond anyone’s expectations.
So what was Jesus getting at here? Well, it’s that God’s love is extravagant. It seems wasteful to some, showing love to those who might not love back. It seems even dangerous to others, showing love to those who are different or who are our enemies. Why would God waste God’s time on such people?
That is the message here. We all receive God’s love, no matter if we are deserving or not. Yes, some will ignore God’s love. But that’s not the issue; what’s important is that God gives love to everyone.
This message of extravagant abundance is out of place for us because we live in a world defined by scarcity. If you’ve filled up for gas recently, then you have some idea of what I’m talking about. If you are like me, then you’ve probably set up an IRA and/or 401k to prepare for retirement, again, because money is scarce and because Social Security can’t fund all of our golden years.
We live in a world where resources are scarce. That’s a reality. What is sad is that we allow this valid principle to seep into our faith. Love becomes conditional and limited. Followers of Christ decide who is worthy of God’s love and who is not. We open our churches to those who are acceptable and close it to those who are not. Better to now waste our precious seed on “bad soil.”
But while scarcity is an important part of the science of Economics, it has no place in faith. God’s love is abundant and is freely given to all-good and bad. In Isaiah 55, we are given a clue to God’s abundance when the prophet proclaims that all who are hungry and all who are thirsty can come to God. Don’t worry about money; because God will take care of you.
My prior understanding of this text was one where I had to do all the work. Be a “good Christian” and the seed planted within will grow. That is a gospel of works, of trying to do good things so that God will like you. The thing is, none of us will always be good soil. We are human; we sin. We are tempted by the things of the world. We worry about the future. There are always “weeds” that will interfere with our seeds.
But if this parable is about God, then it doesn’t matter as much about my condition. Through the good times and bad, God’s love is always present. In times when I’m a wonderful garden and in times when I’m a weed infested backlot, God always love me.
And that is how God’s people should be. Let us go out and love the world regardless of how good or bad people are. Let us throw open our churches and our hearts to people.
Years ago, the chemical manufactuer Dupont, used to have a slogan that went “Better Living Through Chemistry.” I propose that as followers of Christ, we enter a life of “Better Living Through Grace.” God’s grace is abundant, and we need to enter into that reality-one where scarcity doesn’t exist. Amen.
One of the things that I have learned since my diagnosis of Aspergers is my willingness to be more forgiving of people’s mistakes. I’m not always good at that, but I try. I try because all I have to do is look at my own life and realize that I will make a ton of mistakes and I need grace.
The worklife of someone with Aspergers, is always going to be chaotic. Looking back at my work history, I can see that a lot of the problems I have, the ones that were summed up with people thinking I’m incompetent or worse is because of how my brain in wired. No matter how hard I try (and I do try) I will always, always fall short. This isn’t an excuse for mediocrity; it’s just an admission that I will frustrate others no matter how hard I try.
The social life of someone with Aspergers isn’t any better. It’s hard to make friends and even harder to find someone to date. Somehow I ended up with a husband and friends, but I have had to work hard at being a good friend and husband (at least in the neurotypical sense). I have to learn what comes naturally to others. During my time in Orlando for the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I forced myself to be social. It was worthwhile, but I have to admit that at the end of the day, I had to go to my hotel room to “calm myself down.”
Actually, being a pastor is a “the worse of both worlds” for an aspie. We have to deal with the whole job thing and at the same time learn to be social with others. I’ve learned to do both, but I’m never going to be perfect, not like my “normal” colleagues.
It was nice to read today a blog post by a woman who used Autism Awareness month to remind people to be little more patient with the parents of autistic children:
Children with Asperger’s can seem like a typical child, until you are around them closely for awhile, then you will notice the behaviors that are “quirky” or “inappropriate” (not in a bad way, just in an uncomfortable way).
Communication skills are on par or even above, so these kiddos/adults are verbal, often very much so. They just lack the filter for what is appropriate to be verbal about and lack the self control skills to stop themselves, which falls in the social and behavior category.
Behavior often seems obsessive to others or repetitive in an unusual way. Their behavior often shows a lack empathy for others.
Social interaction is often completely inappropriate or awkward. There is usually an inability to read a situation or even nonverbal clues from others.
I am not attempting to fully describe Asperger’s. Here is a test/checklist for Asperger’s that may help you see some more characteristics.
Naturally, these vary in degree for each person with Asperger’s.
Of course, with training, they can develop and improve these skills, but they will always a struggle in some way.
Usually, these behaviors are ones that “should” have been mastered at a younger age, so what mommies do is jump to the poor parenting card.
They may not flash the card, but they’ll wave it in their heart. They’ll possibly show it on their face. Or talk about it to other mommies.
And one mommy is suddenly judged. And found lacking.
I’m that autistic kid thirty years later. I’m the guy that looks rather normal, but then starts doing or not doing something that annoys co-workers. I’m the guy that is now branded as a less than stellar worker with bad skills- the older version of blaming the parents.
As the blockquote notes, I have tried to develop and improve my social and communication skills and I think there have been some successes. But none of that means that I will “get over it.” I will always struggle in some way.
Which is why I find grace so attractive. You see, grace isn’t some abstract theological concept. No, it’s very real and I for one desparatlely need it. I need it every day that I get out of bed, because at some point I will do something that will more than likely piss someone off. The idea that I’m loved and accepted by God inspite of my faults is just amazing.
So that kid that is acting out with his mother trying to calm him down? Well, he grows up to become me. Autistic people need grace. Actually, everyone needs grace, but someone that’s autistic is more aware of it because we screw up so often.
That the thing; I can’t hide the fact that I’m not perfect. It’s right there in front of God and everyone. All I have to do is breathe and I end up making some stupid mistake.
So I need grace. A lot of it. I need to go to Costco and get grace in bulk.
It wasn’t til seminary that I really understood grace. Lutherans are good at talking about grace. But ten years later when I was diagnosed I realized how much I needed it.
If there’s anything good that comes from being autistic, it’s that I am aware of God’s grace. I know I need it. I want to see it in others and I want to be more graceful to others.
We all need this grace. So I say to everyone out there; let’s try to be more graceful to each other. Because that person next to you isn’t perfect…and neither are you.
T’was Grace that taught…
my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear…
the hour I first believed.
Note: I should state that my current employers have been understanding of my diagnosis and all the baggage that comes with it.
Rod Dreher who has a son who is also autistic, wrote a post called the “Gift of Autism,” and he said he wrote that title with some trepidation.
As someone who is autistic, I can understand that. I know the common thing among those of us who are autistic is to talk about how wonderful being autistic can be and how we are just different and all. I get that and understand it to a point.
That said, autism can also be a pain in the ass.
It’s not easy being around someone who is autistic. It’s not easy for the person, for their loved ones or their co-workers. It can be a chore.
For me, this means that I make a lot more mistakes in my daily life than those that aren’t autistic. And I have to spend a lot more time trying to rectify those mistakes. The worse thing about it? Most of the time I don’t know that I’m pissing people off by not doing something or not asking something. I come off as an uncaring ass even when I don’t mean to be.
But being autistic has made me more aware of the need for grace, the need to learn to love others even as they make mistakes. I’m not always good at being patient, though reminding myself how I can be makes me remember that I need a lot of grace from others and so do those others.
Being a person with autism means you are going to make mistakes. There is no way around that. I can’t pretend I have my crap together because I don’t. It’s all out there. I can’t hide.
As humans, we pretend that we do have it all together. Grace is supposed to remind us that we aren’t all that and a bag of chips. But we find ways of hiding, of telling ourselves how great we are and basically telling ourselves and each other we don’t need God.
And yet, God loves us. God gives us a second chance. Just like so many friends, employers and loved ones give me a second chance. It’s a chance to try again, to know that you are loved for who you are, but also loved with a love that makes you want to get right and be better, not so that you can be loved, but because you are loved.
So, yeah, autism can be a gift- not in the sense that it’s wonderful, but in the sense of letting me know that I am human after all.
And I am still loved by God.
I sure loves me some Maria Dixon.
Dixon is a Methodist minister and decided to share he thoughts about the whole Paula Deen affair and decided to take Progressive Christians to task for their selective grace:
When it comes to discussing race, progressives have little tolerance for intolerance–past or present. We throw labels around as easily as the Pharisees threw stones at adulterous women. How dare someone not have OUR enlightened view on the world! How dare they not have been born with the innate view of justice, righteousness, and soul that we have!
So when Paula Deen’s transcript was leaked to the press last week, the script was already in place. The media would report that she used the “N” word–everybody would gasp–then the outrage would begin. She would be crucified by the New York Times, Facebook pundits, and of course, her fellow chefs. She would be tried by the court of public opinion who would judge her entire life’s work and character by the use of the “N” word in a private conversation. RACIST! we would yell. She would cry. Her business would be destroyed and progressives would declare victory.
Yet, here is the reality: Deen told the truth about her past. Knowing everything: her empire, her contracts, and sponsorships were at stake–she told the truth. She was more honest under oath than at least 3 US Presidents, several dozen Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and Non-Denominational preachers and countless business leaders. Unlike the Pope, Joe Paterno, or Donald Trump, she acknowledged she hadn’t always gotten it right but that she and her company was committed to doing it better and were doing better.
Dixon isn’t done yet:
Progressives Christians love to talk about grace except when they have to extend it to someone who has offended their political reality. The grace that we proclaim that washes us clean and entitled us to a new life is for everybody as long as they have not offended our politics. A cursory look at the progressive schizophrenic (and hypocritical) view of who deserves grace bears this out. Anthony Weiner shows his weiner to someone other than his wife–Grace abounds. My beloved Bill Clinton gets a handy j in the oval office–Grace abounds. Barney Frank shacks up with a male prostitute–Grace Abounds. President Obama–doesn’t close Gitmo; listens to our conversations; and uses drones to kill civilians–Grace Abounds. A woman uses the N word AND admits it knowing that a great portion of her clientele is African American (I’d say Paula probably has used it more than that)–our verdict: Off with her head, her show, and her ham.
What really angers me is the fact that most of the people really tripping about Deen’s past are from the North. That’s not to say that Southern African Americans are passive about the use of racial slurs but we are also aware of the reality that mindsets don’t all change at the same pace and that if we judged every white southerner over the age of 50 by what they said in the past, we could never buy a car; house, or eat in a Waffle House ever again. Perhaps the reason that much of the civil rights establishment, the men and women who got their heads beat in on the regular, have not condemned Paula Deen is because they know the complexity of the human heart on matters of race. Moreover, they are also aware that someone’s past doesn’t predict their present. Perhaps they remembered that the same George Wallace that stood in the door at the University of Alabama saying that Blacks would never be welcomed, returned in 1985 to the campus to crown and kiss that year’s Black Homecoming Queen, my sorority sister Deidra Chestang at a time when our campus was threatening to boil over in racial turmoil. That kiss silenced the bigots that day and his words begged all of us to embrace a new South. Though we lost that game to Vanderbilt, that kiss symbolized the magnificent change that God’s grace can make in a man’s heart. Many African Americans are standing by Deen, especially those that through the years she has launched into business because they are judging her actions as well as her words.
When I first heard about this, my thoughts were: and this is shocking because….
Like Dixon, I don’t condone the use of the N-word or any racially insenstive word for that matter. But I don’t expect a nearly 70 year old woman from Georgia, who grew up in a very different South where the N-word was used a lot to somehow be a paragon of virtue. She told the truth of a past slip-up. PAST.
Having relatives and friends in various states in the South, I know it’s an odd place to a Northerner. People from South, can be friendly and caring to a fault to a person of a different color and yet still harbor some racial amimosity. To outsiders, it makes no sense. But the South is a place of contradictions and they don’t have a problem living with those oddities.
I remember Mrs. Martin a well-to-do white woman whose husband owned the local paper mill in Pineville, Louisiana. My dad and uncles did a number of jobs for her and whenever we went South, we would visit her. I remember one time she gave us a gift- a figurine of a black kid eating a watermelon and sitting on a bale of cotton. The porcalain figurine had a square hole that contained and acutal piece of cotton.
Now, this gift was offensive. I mean total racist. But she gave it to us, not out of spite, but out of love. So, while it was horrible, I understood the intent. So did my Dad.
The other thing to remember about Deen; she told the truth when asked. So, this is how we treat people who do the right thing? What this is telling people is that when it comes to having a “conversation on race,” it’s best to lie or just say nothing at all. When it comes to race, we expect perfection. Anything short of that makes you nothing more than a Grand Dragon.
Part of the condemnation of Deen has to do with the South. It’s always surprised me how many folks up north really, really hate the South. They see it as a backwards region, filled with stupid racist bumpkins and in their minds, Deen is the exhibit A.
What we seem to forget is that racism didn’t stop at the Mason Dixon line. Here in my adopted state of Minnesota, I learned shortly after I moved here that back in the 1920s, three black men were lynched in Duluth. Mind you, I said Duluth, Minnesota NOT Duluth, Georgia.
If we really care about racial reconciliation, then we have to have some grace for old Southern white women and men who may sometimes say the wrong thing. Not all of them are part of the Klan. Some of them are trying their level best.
Paula Deen said a horrible word a long time ago. I’m dissapointed by that, but I’m not going to judge her. And neither should the court of public opinion if they looked into their own hearts.
I haven’t really blogged about what’s happening in the Presbyterian Church (USA) when it comes to changes in its ordination standards for a simple reason: I get paid by them. I know people who are more conservative and opposed the change and liberals who supported it and I haven’t really wanted to offend folks or get people upset.
But I also know that most people just have to look at my Facebook page to know where I stand. And that doesn’t change how I would work. My job is to serve the whole church with love and grace, not just those who happen to agree with me.
That said, I would like to say one thing to those people and churches that are leaving or thinking about leaving.
I wish you would stay.
I wish you would stay because we need your witness in the larger church.
But I have a more important reason that I’d like you to stay: I want you to get to know gay folks like me; especially those us who happen to be or want to be pastors.
I know that’s uncomfortable. I know that might even go against what you understand in the Bible. I understand. I know you take the Bible seriously and want to live a righteous life. I also know that you already feel that you aren’t really welcomed in the PC(USA) as it is. I think sometimes you have been treated poorly for your beliefs. I don’t think my side has always treated you with love , let alone respect.
But I wish you would stay and be willing to be a bit uncomfortable. That you would try to live in this changed environment and see what God might do.
Yeah, I know it’s hard. I get that. But I want you to remember this. People like me, who are gay, well, we’ve had to live in the tension ourselves. We’ve had to put up with laws and rules that we didn’t like. Some of us got tired and left, but a lot of stayed even though it was uncomfortable. We waited to see what God was going to do, what God is doing. And while I can’t speak for every gay person, I want to be a bit uncomfortable myself and get to know some you more.
I’m not under any illusions that you will change your mind. But I do think if you got to know us, you’d learn that we love God as much as you do. That we gay folks can take the Bible as seriously as you do. It might be a different verse, but in a lot of cases, it’s the same song. Maybe if we live together in that tension, we will learn to love and respect each other even when we don’t see eye to eye. Maybe we can learn to do mission and ministry together instead of in our little silos.
I know that I’m not even Presbyterian. But my own denomination, the Disciples of Christ, is having a big debate this summer. I can imagine there will be a few people who will want to leave if the vote goes my way. I want them to stay too and learn to be a bit uncomfortable for the sake of the kingdom.
You see, I think the Christian life is about living in tension. We live in the now and the not yet. We are saints and sinners. And in honor of the late Will Campbell, we are bastards and loved by God. The Christian life is kind of messy at times and doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes things are clear, and sometimes things are a bit cloudy. Maybe the Christian life isn’t always a birthday party, maybe sometimes it’s that uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner. Either way, God is there and might just surprise you.
I tend to think that heaven is going to be a shock for all of us. We’ll be thinking to ourselves “God let him in?” Which means heaven might be a bit uncomfortable at first as we get used to God’s truly amazing grace.
So, we might as well start practicing now.