Friday, January 6, 2012

Ministers I admire

I am often a harsh critic of the church. Most of contemporary Christianity endlessly exasperates and offends me. So many churches today represent so little in terms of anything that comes even close to a sacred space or a place where someone might find arms of welcome no questions asked. A place where they are given room to explore their beliefs, to grow, and to remain human and real.

Too many are old fashioned places of outdated rules and harsh judgments against people not like them. Or they are huge corporations for greed with their “seed faith” message and lifestyle of the rich and famous promise. Or they are political action committees that shamelessly promote specific political candidates and advocate one party representation. Or they are entertainment centers filled with garish music and an atmosphere disguised as some kind of contemporary Jesus scene with a Bible verse thrown in here and there sprinkled with empty talk of God that is little more than religious pabulum only fit for the immature.

I spent 22 years as a career minister serving four congregations in that time. My last was my best and the most influential of my life. There the people allowed me to grow along with them. They gave me the freedom to explore my faith and shape a theology that made sense to me, and, I think to many of them as well. Some of my best and dearest friends still today I met there.

I’m not active in any church any longer. But I still follow its progress and its struggles. And I have a few old colleagues I greatly admire and respect. They have stayed in the battle and they carry the wounds to prove it.

George Mason, of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, is one of them. I haven’t heard George preach in a long time but his messages were always relevant, insightful, interesting and on point. He is a gracious soul and enormously gifted as one who effectively communicates life lessons through biblical truths.

My friend Charlie Johnson is another. He leads a small congregation, Bread Fellowship, in Ft. Worth. Charlie is one of the most talented preachers I have known. He has a great mind and an even greater heart. I love him and what he does for people and how he lives out his faith through his own humanity. We met for drinks recently and caught up on old times. I have yet to visit his little band of the faithful but I will. I want to see how church is working on the far edges of life among people who have no agenda except to try and be good followers of Jesus. Charlie inspires me.

Another friend is Rick McKinney, senior minister of Faith Baptist Church, Marion, Indiana. Rick follows a more traditional approach to ministry. But he has a liberal streak in him and is a bit of a rebel. I love that about him. He’s open to nearly anything that he thinks might appropriately help people experience God’s love.

These men, and I know there are many others and women too, are all that keeps the church from withering into obscurity. They each have hearts the size of silos filled with compassion and light and favor for all people. They are restless souls open to new ways of doing ministry, always growing, asking the big questions, staying students of life and people. They’re not denominational men. They are not bound by some name someone gave their group years ago: Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc. They are free spirits who serve within the confines of a settled religious gathering, but in their souls, they are not anchored there. They possess a nomadic spirit that leaves them in search of God down unknown pathways into places where people are hurting and confused and in need of a friend and a small spark of hope.

They challenge their congregations to get out of church and live their lives in the hard world where faith both lives and dies and sometimes resurrects. It is only out there that any talk of God is truly validated.

Sara Miles is a journalist, writer, and director of St. Gregory’s Food Pantry in San Francisco. She was once an atheist but she later found an experience with God that made sense to her. She found it in the care of the homeless and the forgotten street people of her city. Sara has written, “Faith, for me, isn’t an argument, a catechism, a philosophical ‘proof.’ It is instead a lens, a way of experiencing life, and a willingness to act.”

I really like that. Faith is a lens. It is how we look at life and people and ourselves that really authenticates any idea of God within us. If we see through beliefs that are human and real, that are honest and unafraid of the truth, that admit our own failings and needs, that encourage us to be kinder, more tolerant, open-hearted, and thinking, and move us to act in ways that affirm those beliefs, then our “faith” has value.

There are ministers and churches today that are refreshingly different, real, relevant and inspiring. I honor them and wish them well in the difficult tasks they face.

© 2012 Timothy Moody

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