Disbelieve it or not…

Street Level

Ever since I came to peace (I think I can call it peace) with shedding my Christian skin (or fleece, perhaps?) I have found it to be increasingly difficult to converse with those whose faith is still on solid ground. Some good friends have pointed out that my critiques have been offensive lately. I can believe it. People get offended, especially when it comes to issues they feel strongly about. I have always attempted to clarify that my statements are not personal attacks, but simply my own thoughts and experience with the subject matter.

Well, that doesn’t work.

For example, I recently pointed out how I think it’s dishonest if Christians mock and immediately dismiss miracle accounts of other religious traditions as being clearly absurd, but are offended if someone mocks the miracles of Jesus or Christian supernaturalism in general (as if some magic is more scientific than other magic). While I think this is a clear double standard, my critique comes across to many as an attack on Christianity. I am not making a claim as to the accuracy of said accounts (even though I’m sure someone could probably guess where I stand). The issue gets bogged down in the details, when I only meant to bring out the one seemingly obvious piece of intellectual dishonesty.

Oh, I guess calling something “intellectually dishonest” also sounds offensive. Hmm. There’s no getting around this, is there.

Over the past week I’ve been seriously questioning my motives, my approach. For so long I’ve wondered why a mere discussion of the underlying philosophies inherent to spirituality, belief, and disbelief was so incendiary to those I engaged. If someone believes in God, and they claim to exercise a rational faith, then why would they willingly choose to suspend critical thinking on certain topics? Why even “study” the Bible or theology if the cop-out becomes “God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts”? Why even claim a God whose evidence of intelligent design can seemingly be “plainly seen” but then become offended when skeptics wish to honestly discuss said evidence?

What offends me, personally, is the idea that skeptics are merely angry with God, as if we can’t come to conclusions about the implications of theistic beliefs without a broken, immature, or damaged spirit. Perhaps the “damage” was inflicted systematically over decades, and the “healing” resembles an immature “hissy-fit” when encountered by Christians. I’ll be the first to admit that anger is often involved whenever someone feels misled for a large portion of their lives. But to imply that a disbelief in God is a flaw in the individuals’ character… yeah, that’s offensive. Many of us battled with trying to believe in this worldview for years, often shedding many tears in the process… crying out with unheard prayers… and then with the pseudo “rejection” we also get a side “You were always the problem.”

We just never “got” it. And evidently we never wanted to “get” it. So, thanks for that.

All that being said, I think I now understand the nature of my offense. See, I have let go of the “faith” aspect and have transitioned to a purely intellectual interaction with the material. For example, since the existence of miracles is of no consequence to me anymore, a full critique of miracles has no possibility of offending me. But speaking of such things with someone who builds their own eternal foundation around the historical accuracy of a resurrected Jesus… Yeah, that could ruffle some feathers I guess.

But in all seriousness, I don’t have an agenda to remove someone’s faith. However, I do think there is something to be said about someone being honest about their beliefs. If you claim to believe in a good God who loves everyone unconditionally, yet you have absolutely zero problem with an eternal lake of fire set aside for his enemies, and also have zero interest in entertaining the “non-eternal lake of fire” theologies that are totally consistent with Christianity, then yeah… I think you want to have your loving-God-cake and eat him too, most likely to hide some prejudices you have against those of different faith traditions.

But I could be wrong.

And hey, if I am wrong, tell me why I’m wrong. I don’t want to simply prove my points. My friends can tell you that my points have changed, drastically and constantly. I want to be compelled to consider different points of view. I guess that’s where I’ve landed. I’m currently on the line between spirituality and secularism, hoping that there is more to the story than just the endless barking of internet message boards. Give me a reason to believe in something, to become passionate about something. I’d love for you to prove me wrong.

Disbelieve it or not.

 

Does God Exist? The Debate Comes to a Close.

exist

Does God exist? I assume you have an opinion on the matter. We may say we hate to talk about it, but for some reason we just can’t escape its sultry allure.  As it would happen, the internet is obsessed with this question. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a comment thread lacking this essential debate.

Suffice it to say, she never finished her homework.

Suffice it to say, she never finished her homework.

Don’t you wish you could wave a magic wand and settle this matter once and for all? But does the fact you don’t even know if magic wands exist complicate the matter even further? Well, today is your lucky day! After many years of searching, I have discovered indisputable truth that will finally put this feud to rest.

Now I know what you’re thinking…

“Brett, you can’t go and ruin it for everyone. Countless pastors and professors and philosophers could be out of work! The fate of Christian music hangs in the balance!”

While I do not discount the legitimacy of said concerns, the time has come.

You see, it is easy to say “God exists” without backing it up. But a few days ago I was given proof of his existence. It was so mind-blowing, so miraculous. My journey was finally over. The logic was so blinding that I had to shield my eyes. I removed my loafers, for the ground on which I stood had become holy.

What is this proof, you ask? I hope you’re sitting down.

note1

See that little arrow in the bottom right corner? There’s more!

note2

You see, my atheist friend had been given this divinely-inspired post-it note from another co-worker. Spoiler-alert, the co-worker was a Christian. While normally such note-passing would be considered rude, pointless, arrogant, naive, or “a waste of a perfectly good post-it note” …this was the obvious exception to the rule. I mean, just look at the Einstein-ian rhetoric.

Have you ever read a book that is 100% true…

Perhaps we have all been blinded by our own worldliness to ever notice just how accurate the Bible actually is. I was under the impression that it contained at least a partial degree of “less than perfection”. Maybe 82% true? Engrossed in the illumination of the post-it, I read on…

…and in which every historical event actually occurred?

When I read these words I sat down and gazed into the distance. I couldn’t help but feel a momentary surge of rage flood my veins as I realized my history teachers had been teaching from history books where the events described didn’t actually occur. I mean, what the hell?!

The Bible is the only book that is always true, every time.

The wisdom of this passage of scripture (Yes, I have already declared the post-it to be scripture) was so mysterious that I did not try to interpret it right away. I simply decided to have faith that some books could be true some of the time, but not every time. Only the Bible was always true every single time.

The other side of this relic (Yes, it’s obviously a relic too) stripped away all my earlier notions of what the truth should look like. The truth doesn’t need periods, only commas. The truth goes on, and on, and on, and on…

Having shown you the truth, it would be glorious if you would rid your heart of doubt and ignorance. But many of you are sinners, and sinners hate the truth. In fact, if you reject this revelation, that only proves its authenticity. Also, accepting the message also means it’s true. See how that works? Brilliant. Checkmate, atheists.

Perhaps some could say that proving God’s existence is futile, since God can be defined in countless ways. Maybe some think that the Bible was written by countless people over thousands of years as a narrative about their community’s spiritual journey, an account stooped in Eastern philosophy, myth, poetry, allegory, and metaphor. I’d venture to say that some despise this debate, because it distracts us from what really matters on this planet. What if they prayed (or spoke to the empty godless void) every night that the debate would finally end, that the dogs would stop barking so we could all get some rest.

I even bet some people think it’s impossible to prove or disprove such things, so we should just “love” each other and “watch Life of Pi” already. But we don’t need to think about any of that anymore.

Yes, Jesus loves me. The post-it tells me so.

Confessions of an Ex-Youth Pastor

This coming June 15th, I will have been out of ministry for three full years. This seems unreal to me. What seems even more strange is that this coming Fall will mark ten years since I enrolled in my ministry undergrad program. I can’t help but look back on the past decade and wonder if it was a mistake. “Was it worth the heartache?” I ask myself that question daily. From a vocational standpoint, the answer is crystal clear; I failed. I was unable and unwilling to continue in my line of work. Simply put, I was fired twice, and I did not wish to try for a third assignment.

Now, here comes the trickiest part in writing such a blog post. I am not here to wallow in the sweet, dirty aroma of martyrdom. I am not here to “bash” the churches and staff members who ever so gently placed me underneath the proverbial bus. I am no rockstar because I have suffered at the hands of church committees. I now understand that being on a church committee is its own punishment, so I wish them a smooth journey through their dark and stormy sea. I also understand that my differences of opinion and my failures to satisfy my job expectations are not marks of superiority. I will now and forever admit that being a youth pastor is not what God, Buddha, Vishnu, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson wants for my life. I will respect their wishes.

However, I am not ready to call it all a wash. I learned some very valuable life lessons that I’d like to pass on to the rest of you. If you sense a bit of sarcasm, don’t worry; it’s just what happens when oxygen flows past my vocal chords.

1. THE YOUTH REALLY ARE WORTH IT ALL

We all like each other so much!

I will begin by stating that if I ever had any regrets about tossing my hat into Youth ministry, the Youth were never one of them. I mean, I was 24 when I graduated from college and took my first position in Warner Robins, GA. (I won’t name the church, but it rhymes with “binity phunited smithodist”). I was practically still a kid myself. I immediately fell in love with the Youth, being reminded constantly of my own teen years with every conversation I had with them. I honestly wasn’t the most outgoing youth pastor, but I soon bonded to them with my own brand of dry humor, mind-stretching questions (like was it a sin to kill Jesus, or did Jesus have fleas?), and random mass-texting trivia games with no correct answers.

When you’re that in-love with a group of youth, you immediately become vulnerable to claims that you’re “too buddy-buddy” and not “adult” enough. There is no getting around this conundrum. There’s just not. If you don’t relate enough to the youth, watch out for parents holding secret meetings with your boss. If you relate too well with the youth, you may not be taking your job “seriously” enough. But you know what? All the bullshit was worth it, because I had an awesome time with those kids. I’ll always remember those life-changing conversations where I really knew I had helped someone get through a dark time. One girl even said I saved her life. What’s more rewarding than that?

 

2. YOU’RE A CRIMINAL UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT.

Did you send a mass text to my daughter?!

Let me begin by saying I don’t make light of the very real presence of sexual abuse in Christianity. I’m simply saying that when you are a male, given the task of overseeing a large group of middle and high schoolers, people are going to think/say a lot of things. Try relating to the half of the group that’s female. You’re expected to delegate that wing of your relational ministry through as many female volunteers as possible. Any texts, phone calls, or conversations happening on the far side of the youth room will set off red flags everywhere. And hey… I get it. We all want safety for our kids. But I’ll always think it’s odd that churches hire the “morally upright” and then assume their calling was actually just their excuse to flirt with teenage girls.

If those parents only knew how many of their own kids were doin’ the dance with no pants. Oh man. They’d leave the Youth pastor alone and start investing in chastity belts.

 

3. DON’T GET HUNG UP ON THE WHOLE “JESUS” THING.

John, I won’t ask you again. Where did you hide the kick-ball?!

I once made the mistake of thinking Church was about Jesus. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Brett, you’re getting petty. You’re just upset that you had a bad experience.” But what I mean is… Church is a business. If you haven’t sat through a finance meeting, try it out. It’ll clear up any doubts you may have. It is a numbers game. Managing metrics. Income. Payroll. Attendance. It’s about money.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s ONLY about money. It’s also about power grabs and politics. Are there good things too? Of course! But at the end of the day, just don’t be naive. I’ve been in a staff meeting where we opened with prayer, listened to the Pastor lie about why a staff member “chose” to step down, and looked across the table at that very staff member fight back tears knowing they were being removed against their will. Jesus had nothing to do with that. I knew a brilliant (and blind) associate pastor voted out of his position while he was in the same room. Jesus had nothing to do with that. I was voted out of my position while I was gone on a mission trip. Jesus wasn’t even in the same hemisphere for that one.

I say this to make a point, not to indict anyone. Businesses do what they feel they have to do. But when you are in the “Jesus Business” …your idealism will take a big hit. Your rose-colored glasses must come off, or the shrapnel will hit you when you least expect it. Don’t blame Jesus. When the coast is clear, grab on to him and jump the prison wall. You’ll finally be able to get some real work down once you get out.

Seriously, all joking aside, don’t take things personally. Assholes are everywhere. Sometimes they just live in parsonages.

 

4. EVERYONE THINKS YOUR IDEAS ARE STUPID

I blame the crowd for encouraging this one.

This one shouldn’t be too shocking. I bet you can name five people you work with right now who have stupid ideas. I’d also bet five is a conservative figure. But when you’re a Youth pastor, your grand visions for the future of the program? Crap. All of them. And hey, maybe they are crap. I’m not going to pretend I had it all figured out. I made my share of dumb moves (e.g. Saturday night youth service. Omg. Even Jesus shook his head at that one). But when you’re 24 years old, and the church has filled your position five times in the past six years, no one is honestly expecting you to have any new, ground-breaking ideas.

I still want to try LATE-NIGHT ALIEN LASER TAG PRISON ESCAPE. Maybe in my next life.

5. THE ENTIRE PREMISE OF YOUTH MINISTRY IS FLAWED

Stop me if I’m wrong, but I have always been told Youth ministry exists to…

“Foster and develop the students’ spiritual identities for the purpose of incorporating them into the life of the church”
(i.e. Let’s grow us some tithing church members)

From a business standpoint, there is nothing illogical about this approach. Obviously they need a long-term plan for sustained growth. And don’t misunderstand, I honestly believe they have the best of intentions and hope the Youth do find a healthy spiritual life, whether in their church or another somewhere out there after college. But you see… there’s a problem. If this is the point of Youth ministry, it’s failing. Big time.

If you do some research you’ll find a lot of figures and studies on the topic, but basically 70% of graduating teens leave the church, and maybe half of that 70% return sometime later in life. This is common across the board. It doesn’t matter if the church sets aside millions of dollars for its youth program. It doesn’t matter if normal Wednesday night attendance breaks 50, 500, or 5000 kids. Only 3 out of 10 youth 18-22 will stay in church, any church.

You see, it has nothing to do with the size of the program, or how well we relate to their interests, or how many community outreach programs we coordinate. When kids are done with youth group, they leave. And the reason why isn’t all that bad! They leave for all sorts of reasons, but a major reason is that they simply feel their life is beginning a new chapter. They’ve graduated. They did the Youth group thing, maybe they loved it (maybe they didn’t), but now it’s time to move on to other things. They may look back on their days in church with fondness. Their choice to leave has little to do with the trips to Malaysia, Third Day concerts, or lock-ins featuring LATE-NIGHT ALIEN LASER TAG PRISON ESCAPE.

The point of youth ministry is that those kids need to be cared for while they ARE in church. Now. It has nothing to do with creating church members. Oh, and if you want some stats on general decline of religion in America, click here (if you dare).

~

In closing: You may look up there^ and see the ramblings of a guy who still cares very much about the youth of Christianity. You might see a bitter, disenfranchised soul who wants to take cheap shots when he can. You might think I’m even being too easy on the Church. When I strike these keys on my laptop I honestly think to myself “Wow, if so-and-so from x-council ever finds what I’m typing, they’ll feel quite vindicated for their decision to vote me out.” My extensive usage of the phrase “bullshit” is enough to confirm their suspicions I was never Christ-like enough.

But at the end of the day, I guess I am thankful I was put on this path filled with the best and worst examples of Jesus’ legacy. I am thankful I didn’t waste any more time in Christianity than I did. I mean, there’s some fabulous believers out there who need to keep fighting the good fight. So, keep it up! But I had to break up with Jesus, or at least the Jesus I was sold so long ago. I still see him on the street, in my friends’ faces, in children’s laughter, in Life of Pi (great movie, people. Just buy the Blu-Ray), lots of places.

I wouldn’t recommend my old job to anyone in good conscience, but if you’re ever looking for a wild 18 month ride, give youthspecialties.com a spin. I hear those churches are always hiring.

…Kinda like Wal-Mart.

Breaking Up With Jesus

bridge

So I used to be a Christian.

It’s such an odd statement for me to make. It makes it sound like I was a Christian long, long ago. Really, the unraveling began several years ago, but the loss of the title was rather recent. There was a struggle inside me to hold on for dear life, to summon the divine intervention I so desperately needed. At the end of the day God didn’t show up. So I did what I had to do.

I had to break up with Jesus.

When I express the aforementioned conclusion, some predictable responses quickly surface. The most common rebuttal goes something like “God did show up. You just didn’t have the eyes to see.” This cliche is insulting to say the least. However, I used to be a Christian, so I understand the mindset of giving God all the benefit of every doubt. He’s right, so any beef you have with him must be wrong, misguided, sinful, or lacking maturity. Your suffering? Hey… Jesus suffered, so that means you can’t complain.

The obvious problem with this line of thinking is that it invalidates the human experience. It teaches us to ignore the very real feelings we encounter. If God is silent, we should be patient and wait. When he’s still silent, we should be patient and wait. When he still says nothing, we should take it as an answer. When we lash out in anger (since silence as an answer is obviously bullshit), we should repent. Our anger is unjustified, because God is always just. We feel alone, but we’re the ones not “present” due to our lack of faith. We don’t feel God’s love, so there must be sin in our hearts. The list goes on and on. The story is always the same.

“It’s not you, God… it’s me.”

Imagine you overhear a conversation that goes like this…

“My husband never talks to me. I feel like he’s never even really there, you know? It’s like I do all the talking. I get mad at him but I know deep down it’s really all my fault. But he provides everything for me so I should just be thankful. I’m lucky, really. Some people don’t even have a husband. Sometimes I think about leaving him but then I remember I am nothing without him. He completes me. I took his name and I should honor him by serving him the rest of my life.”

 
Does this sound familiar? Most would describe such a relationship as extremely unhealthy. So why is it that so many depict their relationship with God in a similar light? Why are these qualities grotesque for humans but endearing for God? A few more cliches may attempt to satisfy this accusation. “God’s ways are higher than our ways” or “God is worthy”. Elevating God above any criticism we can muster due to his sheer… um… being-God-ness… is a popular route, however it completely ignores the central Christian theme of having “a personal relationship with God.”

Again, a “relationship with God” asks us to ignore everything we know about healthy human relationships. We are asked to leave our better judgment at the door. All that life experience? Psshht.

You may think I’m just bitter about some narrow-minded group of Christians who falsely represented the true nature of God’s unconditional, radical love. You may be thinking “God isn’t like that!” or “Brett, you know better!”

Well, you see… that’s the thing. I do know better. I know that if God exists, God is good. If divine love is real, it’s not static and lifeless. But honestly, I don’t know if God exists. I only know that we exist. Us. Here and now. While my own experience has led me to leave the title “Christian” behind me, it breaks my heart. Why?

Because Jesus was once very real to me. But then I had to leave him behind, all the while feeling it was my fault. I had failed him by losing my faith. I just wasn’t strong enough, good enough. For those who did not grow up Christian, rejecting Christianity is a matter of differing philosophies. For the rest of us, it’s a death in the family.

My journey has led me here. I make no apologies for that. If your journey has led you to a similar place, don’t despair. Trust the sermon of your own path, the voice that says “You are perfect, broken or not”. The voids we possess, deep down… do not fill them with dogma, with doctrine, with wailing and crying for God’s attention. Fill it with your passions, your aspirations. Do not let the barking dogs disturb your dreams for one more second. You are good enough. You’ve always been good enough. In finding this truth, you find something greater than anything you leave behind.

You find yourself. And damn, you look sexy.