I get it.
I read Twitter and ChristianPost and Thom Ranier and multiple articles from all sources about the pandemic of discouragement, disillusionment, depression, disunity and depletion of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual strength amongst American pastors – and I get it. I frequently weep as I pray for unknown (to me) leaders bleeding words of despair as they confess the unrelenting desire to just walk away from their churches, their petulant, demanding, absent people – and sometimes even from the effort to draw another breath and or take another step.
And I understand. Some of it, at least. Probably a lot of it.
I’m a senior saint now. Daughter of a long-gone Baptist minister, who grew up in the church of generations past. From the front pew, I experienced the previous six decades as the church, with the sincerest of motives, shed layers of tradition, liturgy, Bible teaching practices and expectations and embraced the world’s methods in attempts to “bring them in.” Programs abounded, music morphed into catchy praise songs no longer requiring organs or multi-generational choirs. “Seeker-friendly” and “attractional” became single-phrase outlines for entire church structures, goals and methods. Successfully. It looked good. It sounded good. It worked.
Didn’t it? God worked, certainly, because that’s what He does. He calls His people. He builds His Kingdom. He prepares His Bride. He is faithful and true; a Promise-Keeper and the Completer of all He has begun. Isn’t He?
Then I have one question. And it’s the same question that I threw at the Heavens 40-plus years ago when I battled my way through to full belief in and surrender to the Lord Jesus Christ. It was both an accusation and a plea for understanding: “There has got to be more!”
I read about the early church. I read the epistles. I read the Gospels. I reveled in Revelation. I read about power and joy and perseverance in the midst of great suffering, and genuine conversions and changed lives and Kingdom expansion and exhortations and encouragements about how to live and what our lives should look like.
One problem. My life didn’t look like that. Other lives didn’t look like that. What were we missing? There has got to be more!
In His providential unique creation of me, and His spiritual gifting, God gave me a love for words – especially His Word. Long before I was able to spiritually discern much of anything in the Bible, I loved it, was drawn to it. I used to sleep with it. It was comforting, just to feel the weight of it in my arms, caress the smooth leather cover with my fingers, as I hugged it to my chest.
I was, and am, a natural student, teacher and writer. Also wired by my Creator to rise early, I’m at my desk every morning by 4. Coffee at my right hand, Bible open, current journal and a variety of colored pens and markers nearby, bookcase crammed with commentaries and hundreds of books at my back, I spend a minimum of two hours in the Word of God and in prayer. Abiding. It is a rare morning that it is less than that, and rarer still that the process is skipped altogether. This is my joy, this is the foundation of my day.
I believe the Word of God is exactly that: His Word. It is everything it claims to be; living, active, powerful, dividing, piercing, and revealing all that the God of glory has chosen to divulge to His highest and most beloved creation: those who bear His image. I have experienced countless times the illumination God’s Holy Spirit gives in a familiar word or passage, suddenly removing an onion layer to reveal another facet of meaning and application. Never contradictory, but deeper, richer, applicable to my circumstance or recent prayer or question or confusion.
Why do I say all that? Simply to factually state that I’m nobody special, but neither am I a (dare I say it?) stereotypical Christian who spends perhaps 10 minutes every other day reading a devotional thought in a well-meaning book that may quote one Bible verse and give a suggested 15-second prayer. I’m not a Biblical scholar, I don’t write books, no one outside of my small friends and family circle has any clue who I am. But I am perhaps a tad more knowledgeable about God’s Word than the average pew-sitter.
And I’m 73. Recitation of my personal life includes a litany of sinful behaviors – some of the so-called big ones – and tragedies and failures, the consequences of which still touch my life and that of others today. In other words, I’ve been around awhile. I’ve lived this Christian life for a few years. And loved it. Always wanting more of Jesus; to know Him, the power of His resurrection, and yes – the fellowship of His sufferings. (Philippians 3:10)
If you’re still reading (thank you) you’re wondering what all that has to do with where I started this essay. I’ve said all that because I’m asking a critical question, hoping for serious answers from serious people who will recognize that I do not want or need shallow, simplistic, Christian sayings that can be found beautifully framed in the home décor’ section of Hobby Lobby.
That heart cry I threw at God decades ago – There has got to be more! – came from studying and believing His Word – and not seeing it lived out. Not in my life. Not in the lives of those around me. That question has once again surfaced – and it frightens and discourages me.
I believed it when Jesus said, “without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) and when he promised soul rest because “his yoke is easy and his burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). I believed Paul when he taught that we would be “new creations in Christ” (1 Corinthians 5:17); that we were literally “crucified with Christ” and that He now lives His life through us (Galatians 2:20).
I still believe it. I believe the entire Word of God. I believe it describes, through the human authors, who we are in Christ and how we are to live on this earth, and by what means and power. I believe it teaches that we are indwelt by the very Spirit of the living God; that truly regenerated believers have new hearts that yearn after Him and long to please Him and ache with the desire to know Him and throb with anticipation of being with Him for eternity.
But. Why, then, are pastors by the hundreds apparently so soul-sick, so exhausted and wounded and angry that they are at least emotionally ready to go dig ditches, rather than continue the shepherd-teacher role they once felt called to? Why, then, do recent studies suggest that at least 20% of former faithful members will not return to their churches? Why has this unexpected COVID-19 crisis resulted in toxic levels of disunity, vitriolic speech, fear, isolation, an apparent falling away from God and each other?
But let me stop right there. I could easily answer my own questions. And my answers would probably mirror many of your own. And I could also rather easily give a list of remedies; again, a list that might sound like many others.
Here’s my problem and my question: why do those remedies depend upon me? Where is the power of God?
- I need to stay in the Word
- I need to pray more
- I need to look for opportunities to serve others and stop concentrating on my own life
- I need to have more faith
- I need to recognize that this earth is not my home; my citizenship is in Heaven
- I need to understand that believers were promised suffering
- I need to understand that God is sovereign
- I need to understand that God is, in fact, God – and while He has revealed much of Himself through His Word, His thoughts and ways are higher than ours – and always will be
- I need to love others with an agape’ type love; self-sacrificial love
- I need to extend grace and forgiveness to others, just as it has been extended to me
- I need to try harder, believe more, love more – oh, and rest, take care of myself and my family, guard our health, be patient, be understanding…
I am willing to bet that every pastor who is struggling so mightily and hurting so deeply has repeated variations of those thoughts to himself until he is sick of thinking. He has beat himself up over why he can’t seem to pull himself up and out of the black hole he is in.
And he has asked the question: “Where is God? What is He doing? Where have I gone wrong? What have I missed? Is He real? Have I been fooling myself all this time?”
What’s my point? I’ve asked those same questions. And I believe so have a lot of people. Genuine, born-again, regenerated believers. Those who have simply been cultural Christians have, I believe, gone one of two ways by now: begun or even completed the process of completely falling away from the faith or, ironically enough, become some of the loudest, harshest, most hateful accusatory voices of disunity.
So let me wind this up. It’s way too long to be of much use to anyone, but that’s okay. It’s stuff I needed to get out. I frequently think by writing (hence, the few dozen journals I’ve kept over the years.) And it’s helped me crystallize some of my questions because I really do need to talk to someone about them. Not just share for the sake of sharing – I need someone I trust to help me walk this out.
There are some people God has placed in my life that seem to think I may be able to help guide them in their Christian walk, and I’m honored and humbled by that. And I encourage them all to ask the tough questions. We all have to know what we believe and why we believe it. In our world today, people neither want nor need smoke and mirrors. They want Truth, delivered with honesty and passion. If you believe it, then live it. But right now, I need help myself.
Almost six years ago now, I was (to the surprise of my medical team) recovering from a multitude of post-surgical medical issues, including seven weeks on a ventilator and five months of hospitalizations and rehab centers. Still tethered to a trach, multiple IV lines, and an NG tube, I was gradually learning to walk again and slowly regaining mental acuity. But very slowly. I had been heavily sedated for two months, and the long-term effects of those drugs was substantial.
Between therapy sessions, I tried hard to reconnect with God. I tried to read my Bible. The words blurred into unintelligible lines. I tried to listen to my beloved pastor’s expository sermons. I couldn’t comprehend them. I tried to pray. I couldn’t form coherent sentences. I just cried, which was an uncomfortable thing to do with an NG tube and a trach in my throat.
One afternoon, in absolute terror as I felt my grip on reality slipping, I mentally cried out to God. “I can’t hold onto You!”
His answer was immediate, life-changing and life-sustaining. “You don’t have to hold onto me. I’m holding onto you. Rest.”
And I did. Fear left and never returned. Anxiousness left and never returned. True healing began that day. And continues to this day.
I believe Him. I believe His Word. I trust Him. But I don’t understand. Where is the power of the Holy Spirit Paul refers to in Galatians 3 when he challenges his readers with “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
What have we missed? What do believers in other countries seem to know and have that we don’t?
I’d welcome your comments. Just please don’t tell me something else that I’m supposed to do.
And for God’s sake – literally – don’t go to your pastor and tell him something that he’s supposed to do! Instead, prostrate yourself before the Lord and ask, first, if you might be part of your pastor’s problem. If so, repent immediately. Get up off your face and do something. Write a card of encouragement. Give he and his family a gift card to a nice restaurant. Offer to babysit the kids so they have an evening of rest. Encourage. Support. Be the one who stops or at least refuses to participate in whatever litany of discontent and disunity is swirling amongst the members of your church. Pray. And pray some more.
Okay. I’m done. I do know one thing. God is up to something in the American church. He may be completely dismantling the thing we’ve built it into in order to shape it for His glory and the expansion of His Kingdom. But He is at work. If He is not, then we are, of all men, most miserable.
What Peter said to Jesus long ago is our only hope today: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)