WHEN PEOPLE LEFT MY CHURCH

Dublin Priest

Photography by D. Plasman

Twenty years ago this week, eighteen members of the congregation I served informed me that I was not a Christian pastor.

This unsolicited evaluation came from people who were active members, faithful attenders, and regular givers. I baptized some of their children. I had no reason to suspect their motives, any more than I had reason to wonder if they fudged on their taxes.

To substantiate their claim that I was not adequately Christianized, they mailed me a list of questions, the responses to which they hoped to evaluate with me at a later meeting. The questions: (1) Is the Bible the inspired word of God and inerrant (without error) in all things? (2) Are the biblical commands and decrees by God binding in all times and places? (3) Is abortion ever permissible? (4) Is Jesus the only way to eternal life? (5) Can a good Buddhist get to heaven? (6) Is hell a literal and physical place? (7) According to the Bible, is homosexual behavior a sin?

Welcoming a healthy theological discussion and with it the possibility of respecting each other in the midst of disagreements, I wrote one-page responses to each question. Here’s the Cliff Notes version: (1) Yes and No. Though all inspiration comes from God, inerrancy is not a concern of inspired storytellers. (2) No. How worse off we would be if the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy were the laws of our land! (3) Yes. This decision should be made by a woman in discussion with her doctor. (4) Jesus is my way to eternal life. (5) Yes. I lean into the belief that God’s heart is big enough to include a good Buddhist, even a lapsed Buddhist — all of which leaves open the door to infinite possibilities. (6) I have no idea other than to acknowledge that some people and entire populations experience this life as a living hell. Two hells, then, seem to me unlikely. (7) Not once does the Bible refer to committed and loving homosexual relationships. The biblical writers simply didn’t know what today we know about the godliness of same gender love.

Not intending to pat myself on the back, I was more than pleased with my responses. The group thought otherwise. Within three months, all but one of the members left the congregation in search of more biblically sound pastors. I did not feel vindicated.

I don’t know the man in the photograph I took. On a Dublin street, in front of windows displaying watches and jewelry he cannot afford, wearing colorful garb he offers incense and prayers to his god, to a deity, to the dead, to nature, to the Mystery Beyond, to the Irish sky. Maybe the sadness in his eyes is the memory of a departed loved one. Maybe for the world he is sad. I doubt he could give adequate responses to the seven questions. Yet, he is no stranger to holiness.

Poet and playwright Archibald Macleish said it well: “Religion is at its best when it makes us ask hard questions of ourselves. It is at its worst when it deludes us into thinking we have all the answers for everybody else.”

 

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7 Comments

  1. Abigail Goerg March 11, 2016 at 2:09 pm #

    This is a beautiful!

  2. Marge Vander Wagen March 11, 2016 at 2:24 pm #

    We say God is almighty. We say God’s ways and thoughts are higher than our ways and thoughts. We have a God of justice and mercy.
    Hmmm. Who are we to decide what God should do and how he should do it?
    I am to love my neighbor as myself. I am required to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly before God. My job is to perfect me, not others. The Holy Spirit is more powerful, the Father more knowledgeable, and the Son more merciful than I. I need to stay out of the way and let them do their work.
    In the end, God decides. God judges. Amen.

    • Robert Smit March 11, 2016 at 2:42 pm #

      Very well said, Marge!!!!!

  3. donald jiskoot March 11, 2016 at 2:29 pm #

    Daniel: You are my friend AND Pastor. Thanks.

  4. rfrholton March 11, 2016 at 2:41 pm #

    It seems to me like you aced this test. The little group that sent the questions fell short (or failed) on many levels. I wonder where they are in their thinking today. It would be nice if they grew from this experience.

  5. Dani Veenstra March 11, 2016 at 3:51 pm #

    Thoughtful responses to hard questions. It sounds like they were not interested in a conversation, just a chance to judge from a lofty place of knowledge none of us should lay claim to. May God’s mercy rain down on them daily as they seek a truth to live by.

  6. Allan Martling March 11, 2016 at 4:41 pm #

    Dan, Thanks for being present with the righteous 20 and entering into a dialogue they did not want to continue with you. In a consumer oriented church going culture like we have, people come and go for less reasons than those questions. It might have been worse if they stayed and continued to be headwind to your journey of ministry with the church your were serving.
    Grace and Peace, Allan