Exit Interviews: What I Wish My Former Pastor Knew, Part 3

manwalkingaway

Note from John:

I’m very fortunate that I have a venue for my voice to be heard, and realize that most people do not. As a pastor, I spend a great deal of my days listening to people’s stories and trying to speak and write in such a way that those stories are represented in the world—and particularly in the Church.

I asked my readers a simple question, and the responses have been overwhelming in number, and in the depth of faith and pain they reflect. I believe they deserve to heard be directly, and over the next couple of weeks I will share as many as I can. I hope they will minister to you, that they will bring some comfort and encouragement. I hope you’ll realize how very not-alone you are in your desire to pursue faith in the tension between God and organized religion.

And if you’re a faith leader in any capacity, I hope you’ll sift these words to find the ones that resonate and reveal to you the ways you might better do the important, life-giving work you are called to do. 

As you read, resist the temptation to refute or argue anyone’s response. Simply listen and allow each person’s experience to weigh the same.

The question was: If you’re no longer in a church or struggle with the one you’re a part of—what do you wish your former or current pastor/priest/minister/leader knew?

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I wish that you had been constant but you weren’t, and therefore your church wasn’t. I wish it hadn’t become so intolerant as to embitter me toward organized faith once again.

But then again, maybe it was just me.

I wish I hadn’t been so naive.

_______

What I want ministers to know is that as a minister to the transgender community, most of my job is cleaning up after them. It is to give people back the dignity they were stripped of by the people they trusted, to bind the wounds that the church has given them, to lighten the load of an already hurting population.

And in this, the Church sometimes feels like my greatest enemy. I love the Church. I love the people of God. But I am forced to work outside of it because my people are tired of being attacked and shamed for the way that God made them. The Church to trans people not only doesn’t seem welcoming or inviting, it doesn’t seem safe. I remember getting lost on a day trip with a Cisgender friend of mine, and she stopped at a church and asked me to go in and ask for directions as there was nowhere else around. I was terrified. I looked at her like she was crazy. I remember the fear like it was yesterday. And I am not alone.

That this is what trans people see when they see a church: derision as the very best case scenario. We need the Church to do better and we need it proclaimed loudly. Because until we are sure you are on our side, we will stay where it is safe. We have risked enough already just by living our truth. We need you to risk loving us.

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I’d like ministers ( and I am one) to see that America is only one part of the church, a Church that began in the Middle East, by a Palestinian brown-skinned Jew. Also that the Church is called not only to teach heal and deliver as Jesus did, but to love as he loved; with no conditions, caring for the least of these, for human rights and social justice.

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I really, really wish:

1. The rules had been clearer (e.g. If tithing is so important, and people watch to see if you do, then just make it a membership subscription.)
2. That there was more acceptance than judgment (For example, the ongoing implication that you’re never quite acceptable as you are). This is a perfect recipe for pretense and hypocrisy
3. That church leaders didn’t deny or downplay things they were uncomfortable with.
4. That we hadn’t had a “Our brand is right and be warned about anyone who is different” indoctrination.
5. That they would stop pretending that certain things are facts when they actually can’t be sure, and it probably doesn’t matter that much anyway.
6. That the full extent of spirituality had been taught, rather than this being restricted to a hyper-narrow version based on rules and beliefs.

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How many ministers think that their followers need to “find Jesus” and to seek that “personal relationship” that’s supposed to change everything, but insist it’s supposed to resemble the one they or some of their followers claim they possess.

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I wish pastors would realize that presenting a watered down version of the gospel encourages Christians to settle into a spiritual immature state of being. In other words, a gospel that revolves around humans gaining access to God’s presence leads to spiritual formation that is “me” oriented. When this individualistic facet of the gospel is taught, as if it is the whole gospel, we end up with a very self-centered gospel. This self-centered state ends up leaving us comfortable in our immature state.

What Christians, and the whole world for that matter, needs is a more robust gospel. When we begin to look at a larger, more complex, multi-faceted gospel, we begin to see that the good news of Jesus Christ is concerned with more than giving us a free ticket to Heaven. The good news is for all of creation, throughout all time, and as recipients of God’s great gift of grace and freedom, we are called to work with him to love and care for the world we live in now. This multi-faceted gospel can spur us on to cooperate with the spirit of God that is at work in us. This meaningful, worthy, mandate that is born of and lives in love, can give Christians the courage and the desire to be transformed and live into the way of Jesus.

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I’m sick to death of the pageantry; everyone trying to outdo each other in how well they dress.

I’m tired of the offering plate getting passed around and the pastor getting a new Cadillac every year.

I’m tired of the plastic weatherman smiles and politician’s handshakes with the endless gossiping and backbiting just beneath the surface.

It’s grotesque how they show up to church every week and congratulate themselves on what great Christians they are, but you’ll never find them in a homeless shelter, on the streets, or in the slums.

The worst part is that they don’t understand. At its core, Christianity is establishing a personal relationship with God. A connection between you and Him, and letting the effects of that relationship flow out from you.

That’s it. That’s all there is. If you’re not doing this, you’re doing it wrong.

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I wish he’d realized there were gay kids in his small church (one of whom was my son) so to be so careful what you say, and what you joke about.

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I wish they knew that I needed as much help as anyone else. I wanted a community—a family. I wanted to love God and serve people. But neither pastor seemed satisfied even when I gave until I was empty. I wish they knew I was a human. And I wish they had taught me I was a good human, not just a broken one.

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I had a gay son. I was divorced and remarried. Therefore, according to the church, there was no hope for me or for my son. I lived with a man who molested my child, yet was told it was not God’s will for me to leave him, because God hates divorce. I desperately miss not having a place to worship, but I’ve never been happier in my life as I’ve been since I left the church, now more than 20 years ago.

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I wish church leaders understood that social justice is not simply a project, but setting the world right through fighting for equality for everyone is the gospel.

That sins are not simply individual, but corporate (scapegoating, blame, tribalism, nationalism, etc).

That Christianity is not American.

That I love Jesus more than ever now that I am done with your church.

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I wish that you had not proven your words completely false by way of your actions, when you decided to pull the church put of a 10-year mission in an impoverished African nation because the mission partner wanted to extend benefits to its employees’ same-sex spouses, showing you cared not one whit about loving the gays or loving the poor or loving non believers.

I wish that every sermon thereafter hadn’t felt like so much canned dog meat to my family and me, because we had seen the truth of your heart and had seen that you were false with us.But most of all, I wish that it hadn’t broken my spirits so. I wish that I could have decided to stay there and be the light in the rapidly growing darkness of your church, as the loving members slowly shuffled away in alienation. I wish I could have convinced myself that continuing to teach ministry to new believers within the church might show them that loving side of Christians that your church chose, more and more frequently, to ignore.

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I wish they knew that the negative LGBT reference once mentioned in a sermon before my son came out has completely frozen my 13-year old gay son from ever wanting to go to church again. A child once completely enthralled with our church and church family now identifies as agnostic. His most fervent prayer, prayed daily for two years was for God to allow him to wake up straight. It’s not a choice. And he was born this way. Words matter.

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That silence from the church leaders when I had been one and was in incredible pain, was worse than any stumbling words or dorky verbal hugs would have been. When you’re terrified and life is spinning out of control, the silence from those who were supposed to care is deafening.

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There is a difference between political party affiliation and being a Christian. Somebody who votes differently than you is not an apostate/ It should be about the heart, not the ballot box. And other religions are not dangerous. Just because somebody believes differently than you, whether it be politically or religiously, there is no need to denigrate and deny civil rights. Not only are we closed-minded when we verbally attack others, we are also putting a limit on God. He is more infinite than any human can possibly understand. To think that you have an absolute, exclusive right to legitimate faith is to say that you completely and exclusively know the complete mind of God and have an exclusive relationship with God – which are completely unchristian concepts. God is bigger than all of us. We are mere mortals. To limit God is to deny Him.

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That the words he directly said to me (in front of my daughter) had a profound (negative) impact on us both. He told me that although my husband had drugged, beaten, and raped me and I was filing for divorce, that it was still my ” job as his wife” to stay. As I look on it now I don’t know that he understands the depth of his hurtful words. It was at that time that I completely turned my back on any church. I also denounced myself from being a Christian, although I very much still believe in God.

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I would definitely like them to know how their words have effected me emotionally, and how their words held the blade to my inner thigh and held the syringe full of air in my vein. (Failed suicide attempts) I would all like them to know who their words made a number of my friends, including two people I loved, take their own lives.

Most definitely they need to know that their words are the reason why I will never step foot within a church again and I have to struggle, yet again with forgiveness and questioning whether God is important within my life. Because of their words, and the nasty pokes from people within the church, I feel more displaced than ever.

And I want them to know that I still have faith in God, because it was not God who pushed me away from the Church. It was the Church that kicked me, when I needed them the most, and they slammed the door and turned their back on me.

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How do you describe being exiled from your church. It’s like a big wall, where everyone on one side is told they can no longer talk to you. There is a long wall that extends as far as you could see. You feel as though you have run the entire length of that wall, looking for another way back in, because this is where you thought you had to be (Inside that wall) but, I met Jesus more often outside that wall, which makes me realize that Jesus is not present within any church I have been in. Jesus meets the exiles, and he brings them home, yet home is not within the church. It is a place within the heart and not within the confines of a special club that decides who is “in” and who is “out”.

Maybe the Church did me a favor?

Read Part 1 HERE.
Read Part 2 HERE.

We Need a Softer Faith for These Hard Times

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Look around you.

Take a glance at your social media feeds. Watch the news.

Listen to people. Hear the strained weariness in their voices.

Look at their faces. See the tightness of their jaws and the furrow in their brows.

These are hard times.

Not that they are difficult (they surely are that too), but they are heavy and rigid and unyielding.

Hard times have a way of hardening people, even the most faithful people.

We rack up our battles and our disappointments and our damage, and the scar tissue gradually begins to accumulate on the lining of our hearts. Our soft spaces slowly solidify over time. The tender places of compassion and goodness that we had when we were younger compress and petrify until our very centers become stone.

Here hope gets squeezed out and joy dries up. Only bitterness and anger remain.

And when this happens our faith so easily becomes religion.

Religion is made to be hard.

Religion wants to mark the line between the inside and the outside, to delineate the blessed from the damned.

Religion builds its walls of creeds and confessions. It fortifies its perimeter with doctrine and dogma.

Religion defends its rightness and justifies its arrogance.

Religion fights wars and for that one needs armor. One needs to be shielded. One benefits from calloused flesh.

Yes, these are hard times but they don’t require an even harder people.

In days like these we need a faith that makes us softer.

This softness is not the opposite of conviction or the absence of principle. It is the quiet confidence that doesn’t require anyone else to mirror them. 

This softness is the sacred, supple core of the peacemakers, the forgivers, the healers. It is the holy place that has always been where love does what love only love can do.

A faith that softens us will always make us more like Jesus.

His was a soft soul.

You can tell this because the afflicted sought him out. The broken reached out their hands to him. The wounded never recoiled from his embrace. People knew that their pain was safe in his presence.

From the hard places and the hard people, he was a refuge. His softness was sanctuary to which they ran.

I wonder if this is still what the people of Jesus are known for. I wonder if it’s what I’m known for. I’ve felt the growing coldness in the center of my chest in these days, so sure that it’s been conviction and principle, certain it has been fierce faith—but maybe I’ve let these times harden me too.

The world has had enough of hard, religious people claiming that they come in love while throwing stones; the preachers and the Evangelists and the enthusiastic judges who see their inflexibility as virtue, their intolerance as noble, their abrasiveness as righteous. 

The Church as a building will be perfectly fine being hard. It will welcome the rigidity and solidity that religion promises.

But the Church as a living, breathing, feeling body, will need to hold on to its flesh so that it can be the gentle, loving response to all the hardness around it.

Hurting people never fear faithful people whose hearts are still soft. They will always fear hard religious people.

I am trying not to respond to religion with more religion. 

I am trying to hold onto to the pliable heart of Jesus in the middle of very difficult days.

I am doing my best to not become stone in hard times.

I am praying for a faith that will make me softer.

 

 

The Day I Chose My Heterosexuality

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I still remember the day I chose to be heterosexual. It was the fourth grade.

I was 10 years old and I already knew all about girls. I knew to take precautions with them. I knew to be very careful.

I knew they all had girl germs.

And if there’s one thing a worldly young man like myself already realized, it’s that you definitely did not want to catch girl germs.

And so I spent every recess sprinting through the schoolyard, tearing around the jungle gym, and barreling through clusters of scattering kids, trying to escape being touched by one of the female runners. It was like the cornfield human round-up in the Planet of the Apes (or maybe The Walking Dead, a few decades early). I did my best to help the other boys when I could, of course, but we all knew that when push came to shove, it was every guy for himself. Better them than me.

We ran for our lives every lunchtime, knowing that to be touched was to be contaminated. But I was super fast. Maybe it was my sweet new pair of Zips, maybe it was my natural ability, or maybe it was Adrenaline and desperation—but I was one heck of a runner.

That is, until Lori Kopcash.

Up until that day, Lori had been my greatest playground nemesis, and her very presence struck fear in my 10-year old heart. She was gross and icky and absolutely crawling with girl germs—and she could run fast too.

One afternoon Lori was chasing me through the blur of the screaming crowd around me, when I suddenly realized I wasn’t running as fast as I could anymore. In fact, I was sort of dogging it on purpose. The truth blindsided me like a truck: something in me really wanted Lori Kopcash to catch me.

That was the day I chose my heterosexuality.

Of course, there was no real decision to be made here; no furious debate in my mind, no great wrestling with the choice at all. I simply became aware that Lori Kopcash made me feel something I’d never felt before. I couldn’t rationalize it or explain it—I just liked her. I just liked girls. My perception of girl and their respective germs was never quite the same again.

We all can point to those moments early in our journey when we realize something true about how our hearts and bodies work. There would be more times, but this was the first.

It wasn’t until later that I learned through the faith tradition I’d inherited, that apparently not all people worked this way. Some people, my Christianity told me, choose to be gay; they reject the very natural reality of what God had hard-wired into them, and make a conscious decision to be a different way. What I experienced without thinking in that playground, they somehow decide. What was an awareness for me, was for them a premeditated choice.

I knew right away how ridiculous an idea that was.

I knew that it was both arrogant and ignorant to imagine that anyone else’s experience of attraction or affection or desire was any different from mine, simply because their conclusion was different. The story that my religion told me just didn’t ring true. It still doesn’t.

Later when I became a pastor, I was committed to remembering how natural what I felt that afternoon for Lori felt, and to work toward a Church that respects that we each have a truest truth; that we should be allowed to live and love and worship from that most authentic place. If God made any of us to naturally feel what we feel without getting to choose it—God created all of us this way.

One of the greatest failings I see in my fellow Christians, is assuming that they can determine what is natural for someone else; what is their real, their truth, that they can decide for another person who they are.

It grieves me when I see followers of Jesus dismissing someone else’s story; their sense of identity, their inclination to love, the orientation of their affections, and the revelation of their own hearts—as if they know more about those people than they know about themselves. It’s the height of hubris.

One of the prayers I carry daily, is that more people who claim faith in Jesus will find the humility to remember what they learned about themselves at some point in their lives, and to allow everyone the dignity of coming to their own conclusions.  

There in the playground of St. Mary’s Catholic school, Lori Kopcash made me stop running. And when I did I woke up to the way my heart worked. I didn’t choose anything, I discovered it.

That is a gift we should give everyone, both inside and outside the Church: the joy of being who they really are and trusting them with their own stories.

We should tell all people that when it comes to how they love and who they love—they can stop running.

 

 

 

 

Exit Interviews: What I Wish My Former Pastor Knew, Part 2

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Note from John:

I’m very fortunate that I have a venue for my voice to be heard, and realize that most people do not. As a pastor, I spend a great deal of my days listening to people’s stories and trying to speak and write in such a way that those stories are represented in the world—and particularly in the Church.

I asked my readers a simple question, and the responses have been overwhelming in number, and in the depth of faith and pain they reflect. I believe they deserve to heard be directly, and over the next couple of weeks I will share as many as I can. I hope they will minister to you, that they will bring some comfort and encouragement. I hope you’ll realize how very not-alone you are in your desire to pursue faith in the tension between God and organized religion.

And if you’re a faith leader in any capacity, I hope you’ll sift these words to find the ones that resonate and reveal to you the ways you might better do the important, life-giving work you are called to do. 

As you read, resist the temptation to refute or argue anyone’s response. Simply listen and allow each person’s experience to weigh the same.

The question was: If you’re no longer in a church or struggle with the one you’re a part of—what do you wish your pastor/priest/minister/leader knew?

I wish he had answered my questions when I was starting to question my faith, rather than skirting or ignoring them. Failing to answer challenges to the Bible just pushed me further away, as did the inevitable “God exists because the Bible says so.” Christian leaders should be well-versed enough and open-minded enough, to have honest conversations with folks (especially kids) that are starting to question their beliefs. Burying your head in the church’s sand or laying down a “Do you really want to go to Hell?” guilt trip can’t be the best way to handle it.

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That the words spoken in their churches damage those of us that aren’t even there. That the hate spewed in those walls rarely stays in the walls, but rather spills out to affect so many. Rarely does love have the same affect as hate. You must love much more than someone hates to make a difference.

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That I left because I felt like I was suffocating. How can I be a part of a church that doesn’t acknowledge current events, specifically, when Trayvon Martin was killed and a string of other after him—and to this day. How can you not talk about it? How can you talk around it and think that it’s just the same?

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As a pastor who no longer has a church, I am appalled at the ageism that exists in the church when it comes to being seen as eligible for a calling.

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That they didn’t have all the answers and it was okay. To honestly question and challenge the norm. To have an open mind and heart to new ideas, thinking of new ways to do things and not think everything different is from the “devil”. To really learn to love and not be judgmental. To not have the perfect family, so that everyone else can be real too. To stop trying to get people to come to Church, but instead go to them. Once you learn to love people right where they are, they will probably want to come to you. To quit basing “success” on numbers, but on changed lives. To quit being so pious. To not guilt people into doing everything at the Church.

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I have learned more on this journey of being transgender than both doctorate degrees you possess: theology and psychology. Since you refuse to learn beyond your own understanding, your teachability in these areas has little effect on His kingdom.

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I wish they knew it was OK to admit that they don’t have all the answers. I wish they all we’re comfortable enough to admit that from time to time. Admit they have doubts like the rest of us. Narrow it all down so people can keep the main thing about their faith the main thing. Help people to become less heavenly minded and more earthly good.

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I wish my pastor and church knew I would have continued to be devoted to them (as I had been for 21 years) if they hadn’t abandoned me during my time of doubt and youthful rebellion. People make mistakes. But we only mend through grace and kinship, not condemnation.

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That divorced women have value, are strong and are good mothers. There are no positive affirming programs for divorced people in my church. We are treated like second class people. Many others are judged even worse. The LGBTQ community is treated much worse so I have it good I guess. Anyway, not a problem any longer as I don’t attend gatherings where only a few are accepted with conditions.

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I was gay, but only two people knew: me and God. I wish my pastor knew how damaging it was to the ears of a 12-year old kid to be taught that “homosexuality” was the worst possible sin in God’s eyes.
I wish he knew how harmful it was to the ears of a 15-year old to be taught that same-sex attraction is what happens to those whom God has given over to a worthless mind.
I wish he knew how hurtful it was to the ears of an 18-year old to be taught that people like me are reprobates.
I wish he knew how devastating it was to a 21-year old’s ears to be taught that the abominable act that the anti-Christ will do on the alter in the temple in the last days would be a homosexual act.
I wish he knew how sad I was at 25 years old knowing I had no safe person to talk to.
I wish he knew how scared and broken I was at 28 years old when I knew God wasn’t going to fix me.
I wish he knew how I walked away from God at 31 and even questioned the very existence of God and Christ because of the way my fellow “Christians” felt and spoke about people like me.
I wish he knew how his vitriolic and graceless teachings about homosexuality ingrained such disgust and fear into my family that they can no longer love me unconditionally, even though they want to.
I wish he knew how this fear-based theology steals the very life out of young people and rips families apart.
I wish he knew me.

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I wish they knew that I saw how they carefully avoided partnering with the minority-led churches in the area in the wake of several notable police brutality incidents against people of color. I wish they knew that I see their actions as being fearful and timid, which isn’t what I think Jesus wanted us to be. I wish I could trust them because after all of these things. I don’t think I can trust them.

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I don’t do church anymore, and I won’t go either but the saddest of all is I don’t miss it.

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What would I like my former pastors to know? For a start, that I’m gay, that God knows, and I’m pretty sure He’s okay with it. More importantly, a church should be a refuge, a place to grow, a place to heal. The church they ran was anything but that for me, especially in the end. I gave up when I began to leave church feeling worse than when I walked in. I don’t regret coming to God in high school, but I regret coming to that church.

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As a former church staff member, how little I miss church: the stress, the pressure, the “machine” of church. I prefer the pace of life and relationships outside of the weekly church commitment. I am a seasoned follower of Jesus so I know what I need and how to find it. I’m not sure someone who is younger in their faith would have the same experience.

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I wish my youth pastor knew that I was 100% gay when I was leading youth worship, but was lying about who I was. I’ve never felt more separated from God than when I was in the closet.

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I wish my pastor and all the male pastoral staff knew that I consider them to be misogynistic and sexist. I wish I could communicate to them how I see this, and how true it is to me. I wish they understood how I feel. I wish they knew that perpetuating purity culture will damage their daughters in ways they will (hopefully) know nothing about. I wish they knew that by denying women equal roles in the front of the church, that they are suppressing the calls and the gifts that God has given to the young women and girls growing up in that church, and that it will damage the church for years to come.

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When I tell you I don’t know where God is just tell me that you don’t either. I promise I will think more of you, not less. I don’t actually expect you to have all the answers. And yes, when I’m on the floor with morning sickness bring the church to me; not in a formal deacon visit that I would have to clean for, but come, step over the playroom toys, find me exactly where I am—not how you want me to be.

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I wish ministers remembered to minister by leading people to Christ instead of trying to replace Christ. He is the One who loves perfectly and completely and faithfully. He is the one who can bring peace and joy, wisdom and understanding—not them. They don’t need to pretend they have all the answers. None of us do. We only need to know the One who does. That, and a friendly word can work wonders.

Read Part 1 HERE.