A Reposted Comment From Another Blog, or I Am Lazy: Part II

This is a long comment I wrote in response to Zach Robert’s post at Baptimergent asking whether  there is something seriously wrong with our current ecclesiastic structuresI’m not going to summarize it here because, duh I am lazy, but I highly encourage you to read it.  Unfortunately, some of the comments have devolved into an argument about who is and is not being legalistic, although Andrew and gracerules had some really good thoughts. Since I haven’t posted in a while (I will get back to health care/end of life at some point), and I don’t have time to write anything else for the next several days, I thought I’d post it here as well. In addition, I would ask, assuming you accept that something is wrong with the current system of professionalized clergy and corporation like churches and denominations, how do we go about fixing it? What parts of the old system would you keep? What parts would you discard? What consequences would it have for those who are currently employed by this system? What consequences would it have for those of us who are laity?

Great post, Zach. I’m really glad I started reading your blog, as the “bapti” in “baptimergent” put me off in the past (I am learning to get over my prejudice against Baptists).

I’ve attended a number of churches, some with great pastors, at least by the outward measures of sermon writing and delivery, ability to provide loving and caring pastoral support/guidance, and managerial/organizational skills; but most with pastors who fall short on or more of those counts. The crackerjack, triple-threat pastors tend to rise to the top of the megachurch heap, and as a result often preside over churches are either impersonal and corporate and/or cults of personality.

Most of the churches I’ve stuck with have been congregations where I felt a strong sense of love and community, despite the (often considerable) shortcomings of the pastor. These churches usually are not the ones with the stellar worship team, great children’s programs, etc., but they are the ones where I see a living example of Paul’s beautiful image of the body of Christ. They’re the places where, as the song goes, everybody knows your name. They’re the churches where, if something is going to happen, more often than not, you and a few other congregants are going to have to make it happen, because there are only three paid staff members and they have enough on their plate as it is. Sure, the VBS may not be as cool and dynamic as the VBS at Brand X church across town, but it’s made with love.

My point is, that it’s the body, not the leaders, that make a church home for me. I think Zach makes a good point about codependency. Why do I need a pastor to pray for me when I am sick? Why not my dear friends and neighbors? Why do I need a pastor to tell me what is right or wrong, or give me guidance? What ever happened to working out our own salvation with fear and trembling? I need it because my pastor tells me I need it. If we all stop needing his services, he stops getting paid. I am not suggesting that there is no value in the work and discipline that goes into studying the Bible or that I have no respect for the wisdom of elders. But often the people whose wisdom I have the most respect for, the people I view as true giants of faith, are not paid clergy.

I grew up in a non-denominational charismatic church, and the anti-intellectualism I observed there left me with a profound respect for the amount of scholarship that is required for ordination in a mainline denomination. I think that theology, biblical history and criticism, etc., are valuable disciplines that are worth pursuing. And I do worry that they would die out if those studying them could not be assured of a career as an endpoint.

At the same time, I realize that for all that biblical knowledge, pastors are often no better than those they purport to shepherd. I have met too many clergy who have been just as venal and self serving as anybody else. I’ve seen friendships, faith, and communities destroyed because of the hypocrisy of clergy.

That said I’m not against pastors per se, but I do think there needs to be a restructuring of our current systems. There often seems to be a vicious circle of starting new programs to bring in new members, who bring in more money, which can be used to hire more staff who can then start more programs. And of course, with all these new members we now need to build a bigger building, which requires more money, which requires more people tithing, etc. And if a church decides to opt out of this crazy cycle of consumption and acquisition of souls, they risk losing members to Brand X across town, which in turn puts the pastor’s livelihood in jeopardy. And thus our modern church culture becomes virtually indistinguishable from the entertainment industry or the fast-food industry. It becomes another way for the masses to consume, rather than create.

So anyway, I appreciate that there are clergy trying to find a way out of this mess. There are days when I want to opt for the whole blow it all up approach, although today is not one of those.

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Death’s Sting (repost)

This is a post I wrote a few months ago for Merging Lanes. I wanted to ask why a religion (Christianity) that teaches the ultimate defeat of death produces adherents that are terrified of it. I’m reposting it because it’s relevant to what I want to discuss in my next post or two.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about death. Actually, I’m always thinking about death (and life), it’s an occupational hazard of an ICU nurse. What interests me is the way faith impacts one’s reaction to, and acceptance of, death.

So many people say they hope that when their time comes, it will be peaceful and quick. They often look at the news stories and television shows depicting individuals hooked up to various life support devices and think, “I would never want to go through that.” Yet when it comes time to make decisions for a loved one who is no longer capable of deciding for himself, they find they are unable to make the choice that would allow Mom, or Grandpa, a relatively quick and peaceful death.

No, I’m not talking about euthanasia here. I’m talking about the decision made to apply various life-extending technologies and treatments that are often futile at best and actually harmful in that they prolong and render agonizing the dying process at worst. Of course, the reality is, it is easy to talk about the best choice when it is an abstract proposition, and painfully difficult when we are facing the loss of someone we desperately love. And so, rather than face the reality of the situation, we instead choose to cope with our grief by engaging in avoidance, denial, or magical thinking.

I have pounded on the chest of a frail woman, riddled with incurable cancer, wincing as
I felt a rib crack beneath my palms. I’ve assisted in the intubation of a tired old man whose best possible outcome was to return to a dreary life of diminishing capacity in a nursing home for his few remaining years, a life he had no further interest in living, according to his family (there’s a reason we call pneumonia an old person’s best friend). I did none of these things because I or any of my coworkers wanted to, but because we had no choice. I did them because we live in a culture and society that is ill-prepared to address the end of life in a realistic yet meaningful way.

A century ago, if a person had an untreatable disease (which accounted for most diseases), there was little to do but hold her hand and make her as comfortable as possible. If an elderly person fell ill, it was understood that it may well be his last illness, and if that was the case, it was a bittersweet occasion, with the recognition that he was blessed and fortunate to have lived a full life. When a death occurred, bodies were often prepared by their families and laid in state in the family parlor before burial. Death was understood as the price we pay for living, as natural and inevitable as the turning of the seasons, though perhaps less welcome.

And now? Death has been, if not conquered, at least sanitized, held at bay, and swept under the rug. People don’t die at home, they die in hospitals (well, most of the time, I do need to acknowledge the wonderful work of hospices). Bodies are carted off to funeral homes where they are either rendered completely unrecognizable, in the form of ash, or made up to look as lifelike, or at least as palatable, as possible. The thought of touching a dead person is horrifying to many, as it was to me until the first time I faced it as a nursing student. I remember my preceptor at the time saying to me, “It is our privilege to assist someone into the next life,” and I’ve tried to take that tack ever since.

Modern medicine has wonderfully allowed us to fight and sometimes cheat death, giving life to many who would otherwise have been lost far, far, too soon. At the same time, it has proven a double-edged sword, facing us with ever more difficult decisions regarding how, when, and to whom our treatments and technologies should be applied. Television shows and movies, always catering to the desire for happy endings, often portray unrealistic outcomes to such dilemmas, leading to unrealistic expectations on the part of patients and their families.

What I have often found striking, though, is that the ability to face death in an honest manner seems to be inversely proportional to one’s degree of religious conviction. Faith can be helpful when facing the end of life in that it gives one a framework with which to understand and make sense of death. Many Christians and people of other faiths face death stoically, even, in the case of the elderly, welcoming it. These individuals tend to be somewhat low-key in expressing their faith, however. As faith becomes more fervid and outwardly expressed, it seems that many become less equipped to handle death. While denial and avoidance are universal coping mechanisms, there seems to be a special place in the hearts of fervent believers for magical thinking. These people, even when understanding that circumstances are truly dire, will often demand that every possible treatment be administered and insist that God is on the verge of restoring their loved one to full health and capacity. Even when a patient has irrevocably lost any meaningful neurological function, the true believers often choose to keep the body alive at all costs, as in the tragic case of Terri Schaivo.

If we preach the resurrected Christ, and ask “O Death, where is thy sting,” why don’t we live like we believe it? Why do we sing hymns about a better life to come while clinging desparately to this one? Why does death still retain the power to terrify?

Who blogs anymore? It’s soooo 2004!

So basically I found myself wanting to say things that were longer than 140 characters. I’m not sure who will read this, but even if I only write for myself, I think forcing my jumbled musings through the sieve of the written word will be useful. Not to mention many of the best conversations I have are with the voices in my head.

Oh, and if your name begins with Jeffrey and ends with Straka, all comments will be blocked.