Sunday, May 20, 2012

Jubilee and Me

NOTE: I wrote the bulk of this post a year ago, but didn't post it.  It's been in blogatory since then, until I dusted it off, made a few revisions, then decided to go ahead and post it.  Enjoy.

My first post on included a list of my best guesses of the tags that would be attached to subsequent posts.   This list was both to prepare you, the reader, and to provide myself with some direction.  Some of the tags have been more used than others, which I expected.  But some have been strikingly (to me) unused.  Here are two of the unused tags and their initial descriptions from that post:

7. God & the Bible. At the time of this writing, I’m not a pastor anymore, but am still a Christian. It’s fair to say I’ve been struggling with God for a few years now. Maybe my relationship with God mirrors my relationship with writing in some ways; both connecting with God and writing take time, focus, and are easy to put off for another day.

8. Church & Ministry. Not sure what I’ll be saying about this yet.

Many of the readers of WPFF know that I was an associate pastor for 4 years at a fairly new, gen-X-ish church in my hometown.  It took me about 2 years to get the hang of the job, and another 2 years to dramatically burn out and quit under the weight of escalating, poorly-understood, poorly-communicated, and poorly-addressed conflicts between me and some of the leaders at my church.  This weight was in addition to typical ministry stress, and I felt that my walk with God was being overwhelmed by conflict-born waves of frustration and disillusionment.

The church—comprised of my closest friends—was also suffering.  So was my family.  With the goal of preserving most of the things that mattered most to me, I walked away.

Initially, things were OK.  I could breathe again, and I could spend time with my wife and daughters without feeling like half my heart was battered beyond repair, and that the half that was still alive was looking over my shoulder, bracing for the next round of conflict.

While I was waiting for my walk with God and my passion for ministry to resurrect, I instead found myself looking back at how everything related to my departure transpired, and I grew sadder and more confused.

I also felt more and more “set up” by God.  An old friend of mine was once backing out of his garage on his way to school.  The problem was that he forgot to open the garage door before doing so.  And the jaw-dropping aspect of the event was that his sister was in the car with him, and knew that the garage was still closed—and didn’t say anything!

As I looked back, I increasingly felt like I had spent 4 years backing out of a garage with the garage door still closed, and that God was in the car the whole time and didn’t say anything.  Or at least not loud and clear enough for me to hear Him.

Without trying, I have retrospectively come to view most of the characteristics of myself (e.g., easy-going nature, desiring to connect with the marginalized, giftedness at writing)—that I had once valued as uniquely God-given strengths—instead as flaws that kept me from seeing the garage door.  Disillusionment and embarrassment have grown.  My walk with God has not.

Starting this blog was a huge step for me to tread into the waters of making use of my strengths again.  And when I wrote the first post, I thought that within a month, I would have fresh and exciting things to say related to the tags that I copied and pasted above.

I’m not there yet.  I still don’t know what I would, could, or should say.

Today, as I was thinking about underused tags in the WPFF archive, I thought about forcing the issue a little bit.  What could I possibly write about that could be tagged either “God & the Bible” or “Church & Ministry”?

I thought about our new church, Jubilee Church.  I still feel funny calling it “our church.”  I don’t know if I’ll ever feel comfortable calling a church that again.  But it’s the church that we’ve been attending for 2 1/2 years.

I thought that a safe, harmless, and edifying post—but one that could move me towards more individually substantial posts in the future—could be “things I like about our new church.”  So, without further ado, here’s some things I like:

1)  The Pastor.  Bryan is down-to-earth, conversational in his messages, and funny.  He actually carries himself a lot like I do, which is a trait I usually find pretty annoying in people, but Bryan pulls it off.  He once even wore a shirt identical to one that I own, and I am nothing if not world-renowned for my fashion sense.

He values people and the grace of God.  He really pushes the grace stuff, which is good.  He has experienced it, and he is eager to share it with others.  He comes across like a drifter who happened to get picked up by God and who is very thankful for it.

2)  The Sunday Morning “Schedule.”  I haven’t checked this lately, but when we started coming to Jubilee, the website gave the ending-time of the Sunday service in the form of a time-range.  When I first met Bryan, I asked him why this was.  His explanation was matter-of-fact and dripping with common sense:  No one at the church knew exactly what the Holy Spirit would be doing any given Sunday, and they figured they should at least give Him some time flexibility on finishing His work.  I loved it.

3)  The Approach to Money.  Money is a huge topic in the Bible.  It’s also a topic that scares a lot of people away from church, never to return.  So what’s a church to do?  At Jubilee, the approach is to talk about money with roughly the same frequency that it is talked about in the Bible, while at the same time making it clear that Jubilee as an organization couldn’t care less about YOUR money.  For example, Jubilee is footing the bill for anyone at the church to attend a regional church conference at the start of June.  Registration is around $100 per person, but Jubilee actually printed a code on their program for anyone to use on the registration website that completely waves the fee.  Jubilee is covering thousands of dollars of fees, trusting that God will take care of the church’s finances as He sees fit.

4)  The Facilities.  A few years ago, Jubilee moved into a building that had been a funeral home.  Turns out, funeral homes make great church buildings.  Big foyer, lots of kids rooms, large meeting room, plenty of parking.

The interior design is contemporary but not showy.  The signage and layout are functional but not sterile.  All very nice.

5)  Worship.  Full band, regularly including a favorite instrument of mine that is surprisingly neglected in some newer churches: the keyboard.  The worship leading is solid across the board.  Songs continue long enough to build momentum, but not so long to seem manipulative.  Typos and technical glitches are rare, and are quickly fixed.

6)  Diversity.  In most churches, anything more than token diversity is fairly difficult to achieve, especially in mid-west cities and towns that are generally fairly segregated.  But several different ethnicities, nationalities, ages, and socio-economic groups are represented at Jubilee, and the level of diversity is one I have seldom experienced in a church.

7)  Prayer.  After service on Sunday morning, attendees are invited to walk down to the front and pray with any of the team of pray-ers that gathers for that purpose.  It’s nothing dramatic or showy.  They’re just there, ready and willing to pray with and for you for whatever reason you’d like.

All in all, Jubilee Church has been a blessing to me and my family for the past many months.  I am grateful, and I am glad to share some of its strengths with you while I continue to sort out and make use of my own.




  1. I can relate to some elements of your story, Rob. When I left my job as an associate pastor it was part burnout, part conflict and part just wanting to start a career in tech. My plan was to take a step back and re-approach faith, devotion and church involvement on my own terms. But two years after leaving the job, I still had not been drawn into a renewed devotional life or an involvement with the church beyond attending Sunday morning services.

    Without really planning to, I had run an experiment. Would I still have a need or a desire to practice my religion once I stopped pouring so much effort into maintaining it? Turns out I didn't. It just became less and less important to me. It began to dawn on me that despite the amount of work I had always put into my faith, it wasn't something that I missed when it began to diminish. In fact, I felt more freedom to ask questions and explore ideas.

    I can understand why you'd feel disappointed in a god that remained silent rather than helping you. But for me, that silence didn't suggest an indifferent god, but an imaginary one.

    1. Hey, Danny. Good to hear from you. I suppose that I have also run an experiment, also without planning to. If I could switch metaphors on you, I came to see all of these pieces of reality floating around, and I believed that they could be put together like pieces of a puzzle. When things fell apart for me, I realized maybe the pieces didn’t fit together like I thought they did. Maybe the puzzle was bigger than I realized. And maybe I was missing some pieces altogether. It has been at times frustrating, excruciating, and disillusioning to re-examine the pieces. And yes, more than ever before in my life—even in my pre-Christian days—I wondered if the piece marked “God” wasn’t even a part of the puzzle. Did I make it up?

      I imagined as best I could what my puzzle would look like if I removed the piece. While doing so seemed to make some pieces fit together better, it made other pieces not fit so well. If I removed the “God piece,” there were more pieces that no longer seemed to fit than there were that fit better with its removal. Some of these pieces were objective, some subjective.

      Subjectively, there’s things like love and music and conversations that neither participant planned on having but both ended up needing more than they realized. Too many good things in life seemed like more than just the chance coming together of elements, with nothing spiritual involved.

      Objectively, I’m sure you’re a big fan of Josh McDowell, right? :) Even beyond Josh, to me, there sure seemed to be a lot of historical and archeological stuff that would have had to have lined up just right to give the impression that Jesus was real and really did a lot of the stuff that the Bible purports him to have done.

      For me, removing the “God piece” would have required the removal of many other pieces.

      It’s been periodically reassuring for me to realize that the apostle Paul seemed to have as many “unattached pieces” in his puzzle as I have. Lots of things seemed to frustrate him, and there were a lot of questions that he didn’t seem to have the answers to—at least not in the sense that I use the word “answers”. So it’s not like I could say to him, “You just don’t understand.” I think many Christians minimize or dismiss their frustrations. Paul seems to model something different.

      A puzzle piece that I am thinking may help me to connect the “God piece” with the “WTF pieces” is labeled something like, “God values faith.” People have anywhere from a few years to a few dozen years to practice this virtue that God may value very much. Why God has divided things into “this world” and “the next”—well, that’s a question in itself. But if he exists, then it certainly appears that he HAS made such a division. And if he HAS made such a division then, yes, it appears that he values faith. Faith, by definition, requires the belief of something even when there appears to be very strong reasons not to. As I have discovered, the strongest reasons I have NOT to believe seem to be the ones that punctured me deepest in my heart. Forget the garage door and the car: It feels like God sat and watched while a giant corkscrew was slowly lowered into the place in my soul where I stored the things that I most treasured. It still hurts, almost every day.

      But if my faith is based on the experiences and teachings of Jesus, and subsequently Paul and others; and if God does, indeed value faith; then nothing that has happened necessarily requires that I remove the “God piece” from my puzzle, especially when (like I was talking about above) it seems to be the piece into which so many other pieces so snuggly fit.

      So far it seems that our respective experiments have led to different results. I hope you still like me, though. :) I like you.

      And I’d certainly be interested to hear any reactions you have to any of this. If I understand this blogging thing correctly, that’s kind of what these message boards are for. Until then…


    2. Rob,

      Thanks for your reply. Of course I like you. Our friendship is still one of my favorite things about my time at Truman.

      Julia Sweeney uses yet another metaphor in her show "Letting Go of God" (recommended). She talks about taking off her "God glasses" for just a moment to see how the world looked without her faith. It is an uncomfortable thought. There were plenty of things about the Christian worldview that I wasn't eager to give up. Not the least of which was the belief that I would survive my own death. Sweeney also talks about re-experiencing the grief of losing loved ones as she realized that they weren't waiting for her in Heaven after all. It also wasn't easy to give up the idea that our actions and relationships are infused with enduring supernatural purpose and meaning. But without the God glasses, many other things made so much more sense. I no longer had to agonize over why God just silently observes so much suffering. I no longer needed to reconcile scientific knowledge with the unscientific stories in the Bible.

      But I know that for many people life still makes more sense when viewed through the God glasses. The experiments continue.

      Faith is a subject I've thought about quite a bit these last few years. I no longer see how it could possibly be considered a virtue. In any area besides religion, we wouldn't be impressed with someone who claims to have certainty despite a lack of evidence. So, why would a god value faith? It's easy to see why faith would be described as a virtue by people who claim to speak for a deity that isn't real, but why would a god want our credulity? As a parenting strategy, it's neither sensible nor compassionate. I don't think my relationship with Emma would be improved by exchanging communication and presence for silence and absence. Would I value her love more if it was given to me when I was aloof? Far from it. I wrote more about this subject here and I'd enjoy hearing your reactions:

      I did have my favorite apologists and arguments that I read and preached (more C.S. Lewis than Josh McDowell), but those became much less convincing when I started to read some responses and counter-arguments. I still enjoy reading in and about the Bible and trying to sort fact from fiction and good ideas from bad. I suspect that there was a real Jesus, but the stories about him grew over time (compare Mark to John, for example) to the point that I can't trust much of what I read in the Bible that claims to be history. I do recognize some good insights on the human condition, but for my money, those tend to come from Jesus more than Paul.

      One area that we seculars could stand to improve is the construction of ubiquitous, supportive communities. Churches have a big head start on us and they deserve credit for that. So, I'm happy to hear that Jubilee Church is helping you to be part of a community. I have no doubt that the people there benefit from knowing you, too.