On the Notion of a Sleeping God

A young minister who had been a pastor for about 10 years sat in front of me, tears in her eyes.

“I just don’t know if I believe anymore,” she said.

“Believe what?” I asked.

“In God…and in the goodness of God.” Her tears began to fall freely, and then she began to sob. Her shoulders shook violently and the sobs came from a deep place, like from the pit of her very soul.

After a while, her sobbing slowed down, her shoulders relaxed, but she looked at me with such pain in her eyes that I looked away. It hurt me to see that much pain in one who, I knew, had come into ministry with such high expectations and such joy.

“I can’t do this,” she said, finally. “Why would God put me in a place where I can’t do what God has called me to do?”

I  didn’t answer right away. From where I sat, she had done a lot. She had overcome barriers. She had ignored being slighted by male ministers in the city where she worked, and just plowed ahead, forging paths for women who would come after her. She had embraced the poor, encouraged her flock to take care of “the least of these,” and her faith had been an example to, well, to me. And yet, here she sat.

As I listened to her, I remember having had a conversation with another pastor, this one a male, who asked me to read a book, Your Pastor is an Endangered Species. This colleague expressed the exasperation that pastors normally feel from dealing with the stuff they don’t teach you in seminary. My colleague said, “You have to really have a call from God to do this, or you won’t last.”  I knew what he was talking about.

But this young woman before me was expressing emotional pain the likes of which I had not seen in a while. She felt like a failure. She was unsure of what she was doing “wrong.” She could not seem to find her “place” in her role as pastor. What she did know was that she entered loving God and wanting to serve God in this way, but now she wasn’t so sure she had heard God right. And…she wasn’t sure she believed in God anymore.

She was expressing through her sobs what Benedict XVI expressed this week as he talked about his papacy, the feeling that sometimes, God sleeps through the crises that come with our attempts to serve.

“I cannot pray like I used to,” she said, her tears multiplying. “It seems like God doesn’t hear, or doesn’t care.” I reminded her that many in the Bible felt like that, too, as a way of reminding her that what she was feeling was not unique or different. That was no consolation, however. Something had happened that had crushed her to her soul.

It occurred to me as I listened to her that, as a pastor, you have to understand that there will be plenty of valley times, where you don’t feel like you’re doing anything right or that God or the people whom you serve care…and you have to be willing  to stand through that very lonely time, absorb the loneliness, and wait for God to bring the comfort that only God can bring.

My young friend, however, was in a different place. She was burned up and burned out.  She said she felt like her very faith had been scrubbed out of her soul.  She was always a loner, but now had isolated herself even more. I felt like I was looking at a younger version of myself.

“I am going to quit,” she said finally. “I cannot do this anymore. I love God, but I cannot do this anymore.”  Her sobbing resumed.

I didn’t want to tell her that Jesus had felt her kind of frustration, too. Somehow, I knew that wasn’t going to fly. In her state of mind, she would have dismissed that as religious rhetoric and not at all realistic. Jesus was the son of God, for goodness’ sake. So, I kept my Jesus thought to myself.

But I wanted to help her know that she was not alone, that all pastors feel or have felt what she was feeling. I wanted to let her know that churches sometimes are not kind to pastors, but that God really did know and God did care. Knowing that is all you have sometimes. But she wouldn’t have been able to hear it.

After a while, her sobbing stopped and she just sat before me. I waited for her to speak, and after what seemed forever, she finally did.

“I loved my people,” she said, “but they threw me under the bus. I cannot …and I will not …do this anymore.”

I didn’t press her. Whatever it was that happened, she didn’t offer to tell me and I knew not to ask. The wound was still too new. I just asked her to be still for a moment, to pray, and fast, and wait to hear from God.

I wish seminaries would offer courses in dealing with the people of God, and courses in helping would-be pastors identify their personality traits, including strengths and weaknesses, so that they could go into church situations a little more emotionally prepared and armed.  Learning to do Biblical exegesis is good, learning Hebrew and Greek is good, but nothing prepares you for the people/relationship angle of being a pastor. And truthfully, some pastors are good at it, but I would surmise that a whole lot more are not so good.

Those people end up feeling more than the people with good people and administrative skills that “God is sleeping” sometimes.  News commentators kept emphasizing that Benedict was a scholar, not an administrator.  He was a “good man,” but a “bad pope,” someone else wrote.  So, in the office of Pope, Benedict must have felt, must have carried, what my friend was explaining to me…and what I myself felt about me being a pastor as well: that we were/are good people, but not so good at the pastor/pope thing.

My friend resigned from her church. She went back to school to pursue other career options. When I see her, she seems freer, happy, relieved. I would imagine the pope feels that way, too. I don’t know where she is in her struggle to believe in God.

Me? I am realizing anew that though it seems sometimes that God is sleeping, God is never absent.

A candid observation…

Girl Talk: Losing A Friend but Not Really

I don’t even know what to title this piece for us “girls.” I know, though, that this thing, whatever it is, is widespread among us.

I am talking about the situation where two women are friends, and then one of the pair gets a boyfriend (or girlfriend) and the other person in the friendrelationship feels abandoned.

The woman who has the new relationship begins a whole new life with the love of her life …and leaves her friend behind, all the while insisting that nothing has changed.

But the one left behind knows all too well that much has changed. Maybe her friend, now in a relationship, feels the same love for her that she did, but the thing that matters most – the time spent together – has been altogether changed, and the friend left behind …feels left behind.

I had an amazing friend. We did everything together; we talked on the phone several times a day, about nothing. We had always been friends, but then her husband died and our friendship deepened. When her husband died, I was with her as much as I could be, both as friend and pastor. She and her husband had had an amazing relationship, and her pain was beyond belief.

The fun we had! Even while her husband was alive, we really “hung out.” She was there for me when I was divorced. I went into a shell and hid myself in my house. I wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t answer my door, but there she was, outside my house, in her car, patiently waiting. She later told me that she would have sat there all evening until I opened the door.  When I saw that she was not going to leave, I opened the door for her, pissed. She said not a word and was not at all bothered by my  “pissness.” She came in, fixed me some tea, got herself some, and sat down. We said nothing, but she was there …and silently, I was so glad. When my divorce was made final, she was there. We went out to “celebrate” after the pronouncement was made.

She coached me in how to look more “like a pastor.” She had (and has) a great sense of style and gently reminded me that blue jeans and tee shirts probably wouldn’t cut it in the work I was doing. She took care of me and I took care of her. She met my family and became part of my family, as I did hers. She would cook ribs for me (she is an amazing cook) just because she knew I loved them.  As a member of the church, she would not let anyone say anything negative about me, not in her presence. She put up with me, which took a lot.

I am not sure of what I did for her, except “be there” for her when her husband died. I would call her every morning just to see how she was, long after her husband died. When she had a cold, I “tended” to her, making her take meds I deemed necessary for her. We would take road trips together, and I would drive; she was worthless on the road as a driver, but was great company as I drove. We would laugh at her music selections on those road trips. Mellow jazz, I would tell her wryly, is probably NOT the best music to listen to when you’ve been driving 8 hours … She took my jabs with grace.

She traveled with me when I took my daughter to college,settling her into her dorms and getting her out for the summer. She and I laughed together and cried together. She was a protector of me in church; I was the pastor, but she was the guard. I always knew she had my back.

And then she got a boyfriend who took her all over the world, took her to the nicest restaurants, treated her like she deserved to be treated, and I felt left behind and left out.  If I called her, I was not able to get her. From talking every day we went to talking “whenever.”  She was going all over the place: to the Superbowl, to opening nights of plays in New York. She said once that, while in New York, when she and her boyfriend were in some fancy hotel, that she thought of me, knowing I would have LOVED the hotel and the play.

I had to get it into my craw that things had changed. I never doubted she loved or cared for me, but I had to accept that her life was different, and that we would no longer be the “hanging buddies” that we had been. It was immensely painful, but it was the new reality.

We have stayed in touch. We occasionally talk, albeit very briefly. She sends me emails from time to time; I have to admit, I don’t send her many, but I do respond to the emails she sends. She is still very precious to me, and always will be.

We will make our way back to each other, or, rather, I will make my way back to her, with the new reality of her new life smack in front of me. This whole situation is hard because I love her so much and want her to be happy, which she is. I just didn’t like feeling like I had been pushed to the curb. I’m not even sure I WAS pushed to the curb, but I felt like it.

I think a lot of women know this scenario well.

Though I have given myself time to heal, I have not pushed her all the way out of my life. She was and is a real friend. Even now, were I to be in trouble, I know she’d be there, no questions asked. Friends are precious; even as our relationship changed, I would tell her that. And because she will always be a friend, I will never completely let go of her or the friendship.

I don’t have any advice to anyone on this. I just wanted to share. As I get older, I realize even more how precious are friends. There is nothing quite so precious as a friendship.

A candid observation …