Friends, I thought I might share with you a post about what it feels like to be a pastor in this season that we are in. I don't usually write anything personal on this blog, but since I don't have a personal blog space and I needed to get this out I am doing it here. It is not for sympathy that I write, but to help people understand what my context looks like in this political season as a minister. I write this both to enlighten people who go to church and also to encourage pastors. To say things that they wish they could say, but often can’t. Much of what I am about to write is bits and pieces of things that I have written to congregants in the last day and some of this are thoughts that I have often had but never shared. Many people have been after me for “what I think” in the last day. I have been inundated in the last 24 hours with messages, texts, calls, Facebook posts etc.
First, as a pastor I am trying. Trying in general and trying to be as a-political as I can be. Trying. First and foremost I am not trying to create MORE divisions as I am deeply scared about what those divisions have already done and will continue to do for the foreseeable future in our world. Here is a sampling of what I have received in the last 10 hours alone.
1.) I have two young women in my ministry and one from a former ministry who were sexually assaulted or raped and cannot figure out what to make of our election. One has reached out specifically, the other two have posted content revealing their fears about how the election turned out. They wonder if it will be permission giving to all perpetrators.
2.) I have Hispanic Latino families that are worried about family members and friends being deported.
3.) A pastor friend of mine told me that they were at a children’s birthday party at which a 9 year old child showed up wearing an F- Donald Trump t-shirt. Only it didn’t even have the decency to not fully write out the expletive on the shirt. What in God’s name has happened to us when we are politically militarizing and mobilizing our children!? That is the kind of thing Klan members do to their kids to indoctrinate them against other races!
4.) An African American friend in ministry posted a shot of a shop in his Philadelphia neighborhood that was graphitied with “Heil Hitler!” and Swastikas on election night and the words “Go Trump!”
5.) Another friend of a friend woke to find her car spray painted with the words “Black Bitch” and Trump for President yesterday morning.
6.) I have LGBTQ friends who are afraid about their marriages and their ministry positions this week. Some are afraid that they will be attacked. I am not interested right now in where you stand on those issues. What matters to me is that they are my friends and they are afraid today.
7.) I have an evangelical seminary friend who posted that his neighbors' children were asked on the bus yesterday morning by a small group of white teen girls "shouldn't you sit in the back of the bus today”? It doesn’t matter whether you think that is a legitimate threat or "merely" disgusting sarcasm, it’s has to be terrifying for those children of color.
8.) I have people whose children are in tears because they think it’s the end of the world. Not literally, but they think evil has won. Or they are just confused. Or they think that can't be friends with those other kids that supported that candidate.
9.) I have a college student who wrote to me at 2 a.m. this morning to ask me what I thought about the events. Thankfully the had the decency and the spiritual maturity not to ask me to take sides. Here is what they wrote:
“I have done a lot of reflection in the last 24 hours. At first, I was so incredibly pissed that Trump won. Hundreds of students on the_______campus were chanting "fuck donald trump." And for this whole election cycle, I immediately thought that anybody who called themselves a Trump supporter was a bad person. And now I'm very ashamed that I felt that way and I think I was very misguided. That kind of sentiment is exactly why Trump got elected. I had a class today where the professor and a bunch of students were crying and ranting about how America is going to be ruined. And I want to empathize with them, but I didn't really feel comfortable at all in that environment. I was actually very frustrated because I feel like they either aren't willing or just can't understand why someone would vote for Trump or think differently from them. And I know for a fact that if I said something in that class like "maybe Hillary wasn't the best candidate guys" or "maybe people have some legitimate reasons to vote for Trump" I would have been crucified. I can't even imagine the verbal hellfire that would have rained down on me if I would have broken up the echo chamber of extreme liberalism that was going on. And it made me feel sad, but it also made me feel glad with my new perspective. At this point I don't want to attack Trump or his supporters anymore. I just want to understand where they're coming from. I've lived on the west coast all my life and this election really woke me up and made me realize I've lived in this crazy liberal bubble and I really don't understand what most Americans in other places are going through. And I want to understand why people voted for Trump. I want to know why they supported him and what we can all do, on both sides, to address some of their grievances. All the demonization of republicans is why they feel so validated with Trump in office. and now I understand that. I have an uncle that voted for Trump and he said one of the main reasons he likes him is because he "drives liberals crazy." And for so long I thought that was such a stupid quote. But now I understand. Of course he feels that way when liberals are constantly telling him what a terrible human being he is. So I agree with your message. At this point I want to listen to as many people as possible, on both sides, and just try to understand where everyone is coming from. The polarization has made me sad.
There are more of these, but that is just a sampling believe it or not. How do I acknowledge some of those fears without appearing to take someone’s side? Will my people allow me to do that work? I am not so sure at times. This election was a train wreck no matter who won or lost and many of us pastors are now being asked to take up our swords and pens.
The tension that I live in as a minister is that I am asked by my church to never say anything political while having to respond in certain seasons of the church’s history to events that very much involve politics. So when they try to lift up a gospel truth or a theological truth or a scriptural truth as best they understand it, like comforting those who feel afraid, it is assumed that they are being political or it assumed that one knows who they voted for. The difficulty then becomes that they aren’t supposed to talk about their actual politics. We have to articulate what they think the gospel might be saying, and people just get to fill in the blanks with assumptions about the minister's actual politics. It is a really weird spot to be in. And I am not surprised that I am here right now writing this post.
Three to six months ago, as I could sense all this division ramping up, I remembered the story of a pastor friend of mine in California who was retired. I have thought on this story off and on during my 16 years of ministry. I remember asking him, when I was about 18, why he had left the ministry. I had been surprised to learn that he had been a pastor. I had known him for several years as he had come on our high school house building trips to Mexico. His answer as to why he had hung up his collar had struck me at that time. He had said that that he had been a pastor in Oakland, Ca. during the Civil Rights era during all the riots, protests, hippies, conservatives vs. liberals, blacks versus whites, etc. He left the ministry because everyone wanted him to take their particular side on Civil Rights and all the other issues of the day. It tore him in half and after a few years he couldn’t take it any longer. People assumed he was for them or against them, that he had a political agenda behind every theological claim and gospel truth that he was trying to proclaim. He watched as his church community was torn apart multiple times.
I was struck again by that story that I hadn’t thought of in years. I had sort of logged it in my brain because at the time I knew it was an important one, but I didn’t know why. But about three months ago I knew it was coming. Such a season was coming. It was like a small prophetic glimpse from God. The kind of season we are in is just such a season of ministers, churches, and nations being torn in half. Congregants have a funny way of treating their ministers as kinds of representatives at God. When they are mad at God because they have lost someone, they often project that outward onto the minister because he or she is the most present symbol of God that they can see. The church represents people's greatest ideals even when they don't like it and sometimes it represents that for people who don't even believe in God. "The church ought to do....". And the minister is the stand in for those projections. You see what I mean I think.
What your ministers need you to understand more than anything is that in this role, we cannot be “on your side.” As much as it is humanly possible there are no sides here. Twice in the last month people at my church have come and tried to get me and another pastor at our church to preach more directly about certain candidates from opposite sides of the political aisle. I always want to ask those folks, “Well, just who would you like to write off and run off from our church? I mean I can take your side, but it might be easier if you just went ahead and wrote some names on a piece of paper and I could just send an email or something. It would be a lot more efficient. Who should I refuse communion to? Who should I tell that they just don’t get it? Sometimes, I can’t tell whether my congregants want a strong man/dictator or a minister. A celebrity or a servant. I happen to think that the Apostle Paul would be horrified if I came into work each day trying to figure out which part of Christ’s body to cut off. As he said, “The hand cannot say to the foot I do not need you.”
There are days when I feel like King Solomon. People arrive in our community and they hand me their political baby, so to speak, and ask me to cut it in half. But, boy can I tell you that no matter how we saw that child in half it is never fully satisfying to our people. I categorically refuse to use it to win anyone to “your side” politically. I refuse to run someone off to suit your needs. My calling space is to proclaim the gospel. That gospel WILL have political implications. Some of them you will want to duck. I want to duck them too at times. But the role of the minister is not to stoke divisions and create more camps. To use our power to push people out of community or away from God's table would be the grossest abuse.
So, here is what I am asking and what I think, I THINK, might be our calling right now.
1.) First,the asking on behalf of myself and other ministers around the United States: I am not asking for sympathy or a woe is me. I am simply asking for your prayers and some patience as your pastors do the difficult work of trying to faithfully remind us of the gospel in a really difficult political season. This season is not going to come easy for a while. The arcs of history are pretty long usually and I don’t think we are going to wake up any time soon and be all together as a people on a whole bunch of things. We are doing our damndest to try and find the middle road here. There is no way this is going to be anything but messy. My hope is that you and your families can be patient with us and trust us as we do that difficult work. My hope is that the sum total of all our talks, texts, in person discussions, private messages, sermons, and prayers that we offer bear the mark of the gospel. It might be difficult for you to trust that at times. Cut us some slack. We love you guys, but it can get exhausting. Don’t write us off because of one message or comment. We will try to do the same for you. Heck, you ignore our spiritual advice on a regular basis anyway, can’t you just ignore it when it makes you uncomfortable politically? If we upset you with something do us the favor of assuming the best intentions and coming and talking to us. Don’t attack or assume and please don’t just quietly walk out the door. That leaves us in a void where we can neither know what went wrong or work to reconcile. Most of us have developed some pretty thick skin over the years, so just talk to us. That is what I am asking.
2.) Second, here is what I think we MIGHT be called to: I think we are called to be people of reconciliation and healing in this season. This communion table we gather around is representative of the greatest miracle of medicine in the history of the world. That the God of the universe could take a relationship that was physically and spiritually torn apart by sin and draw it back together is astounding. This table reminds us that within church community and as much as is possible beyond it, we are are to have no enemies as far as it is possible with us. This table is a symbol of who we are supposed to be. That even while the world is trying to tear us in half as ministers, or as students, or as spouses, or as business people we will continue to stitch and duct tape and sew, and staple this world back together until Christ returns. You may think in your heart of hearts that the fear that people of color have, or women, or Muslims, or Hispanic Latinos, or the white working class are inflated. You may think that your neighbor is stupid. My guess is that we don’t know our neighbor that well and that we probably are seeing things mostly from our end of the playing field. You might feel that people’s grief and lament over this election are overblown whether they are conservative or liberal. The data shows that most of us believe the other side of the aisle is dangerous. The data shows that we have been buying our houses and choosing our churches based increasingly on politics since about the mid 1960's. Look what that has done. We need to listen again. That's where healing will start. Listening precedes healing, which precedes reconciling. If I could distribute 600 small tables at my church and set them up in all of our neighborhoods with bread and juice and simply let people come together and listen and talk and eat, I would. Because that is largely what we need. We need people who seek to understand their neighbor. We need less division, not more.
And we are also called to keep the faith. I don’t mean keep the belief either. We have too many people who passionately believe to many things. I mean we need keep trust in God. We need to calm down, breathe, and remember that God is bigger than all of this. The history of the church has involved seasons where people were being burned at the stake, fed to lions, and cut in half and seasons where the church itself was doing the burning, the cutting, and the feeding. And yet, somehow despite our actions God has moved us onward to better places little by little despite our greatest efforts at resistance. We can certainly trust, I would hope, that the same God that carried an imperfect church through those seasons is capable of carrying His people through this season as well. Tell your kids and your spouses not to lose hope. We are people of hope. Even when death itself is visited on us God is bigger. God’s love is bigger, God’s truth is bigger. God’s joy and lament are bigger. The question is can we be bigger too with God’s help? Can our trust of God grow as a kind of mustard seed? There is so much fear that is causing all of this division and hate and violence. We have got to figure out how to trust that God is bigger than all of that.
Anyway, may you keep the faith and keep watch with Christ until he comes again and be healers while you do it.
Oh yeah, and as God works on you this season, be patient with your pastors. God isn't finished with them yet either.