Voices of doubt: Tiny church edition

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I struggle with doubt. Not just faith doubt, but self doubt, vocational doubt, doubt of other people, and future doubt. I want to believe, and so am always on the lookout for hope – searching for the evidence that proves me wrong. Because I have found that you tend to find the things you look for in this world.

One way I handle my doubts is to give voice to them. When I am most down, I will journal about the things in my head to give them voice and structure. This not only gets them out of my head, but also helps me articulate the issue, and once you are clear what the issue is, you can do something about it. (See, there I am looking for hope again! It’s pervasive.)

I said once on these pages that most of the stuff I write never sees the light of day – this is an example of why. Writing teaches me what I am thinking. The piece below is an excerpt of something from a journal entry from 2014 when we had a particularly crap-tastic Sunday service that played to all the voices in my head that told me I should maybe apply for a job at the auto body shop instead.

* * *

I’m a pastor. That is a title that doesn’t mean much anymore. As they say, that and $2.25 will buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

But I am one, still the same. I have tried to explain to my secular friends how that came about, but am left resorting to language about being called, and their eyes glaze over, and someone changes the subject, because Hugh is a pretty good guy to have around if he can stay away from the Jesus talk.

Called, huh. Called, indeed.

Like today. Today was Sunday, which means it is a work day. It means I am expected to stand at the front of the room, and deliver an edifying word, a bit of wisdom or glimmer of hope, to stand firm and bear witness to the goodness of God to a people that have legitimate reason to doubt that goodness.

So I am up early this morning, pouring over the scriptures because I just can’t seem to get my words to say what I want them to say, hoping they say something more intelligible this morning then they have said the last six mornings I have endured this exercise. But today is different. Today is game day. Today, “good enough” has to be good enough. Because today I have to be done.

So, I put some words on paper and hope they are more meaningful to the congregation than they are to me, because honestly, today I am just not “on it”. But whatever. All you can do is all you can do.

Today was also different for another reason – I spoke at a local church about our work, and I answered questions and allayed fears and was so damned awesome and winsome my head nearly exploded. And after that, which was good for the organization and good for the congregation and yet exhausting all the same, it was time for me to go preach our weekly chapel service.

So I go to the chapel, and of course the chairs aren’t set up, and of course we are out of grape juice and bread, and it is 15 minutes before we are supposed to start. I slip Danny $20 and send him traipsing off to the local convenience store, in search of grape juice. Meanwhile I cut some whole grain sandwich bread I found into strips and set them on the communion paten, and notice the cloth napkin that covers it is a bit dingy.

Maybe no one will notice. Speaking of no one, where is everybody?  Two people were at the chapel waiting on me when I got here, and now it is 5 till and no one else has shown up. Maybe I worried too much over that homily if no one is going to show up today.

People begin to trickle in now, and Danny shows up with a bottle of fruit punch he bought at the store because it was all they had. It has come to this – juice punch and sandwich bread and dingy napkins and a half-assed make-do homily that doesn’t make any sense to me. And did I mention the headache that has came on because I was standing at the front of a church being winsome instead of eating lunch today.

And of course this would be the Sunday a new guy comes, who looks around and sees us and, I am convinced, is scoping out the dirty napkin and Snapple juice punch in the chalice and totally judging us.

So I go over and meet new guy and introduce myself. We are now up to a whopping seven people, and it is already 10 minutes after the hour, and we are way late. It is obvious no one is coming, so we might as well start.

My News Diet

One of the best things I have done for myself over the last six months is gone on an information diet. Just like a food diet, that means I have deliberately put limits on my consumption of information, and only allow myself to consume it at determined times.

Here is what that looks like:

First steps

I abandoned my Facebook account, and started a new one, with relatively few close friends on it. I belong to no affinity groups.

I quit consuming my news via Facebook or Twitter or other social media.

The diet:

I own a Kindle Fire (which is an amazing deal. For less than $50, you get a decent, fully functional Android tablet). The Washington Post has a super deal for Kindle Fire owners, where you get a six month subscription for $1, and it’s 3.99 a month after that.

I also subscribe to a couple of “news aggregation” emails, including the New York Times and Need 2 Know. They both send emails to my inbox every morning with top national headlines. (Need to Know is also good about sharing pop culture things, so I know what latest shenanigans Taylor Swift is up to.)

When I do see an article someone shared on Social Media, I save it for later. I use Pocket, which is amazing, but you could use Instapaper or just use Facebook’s saving function. The tool doesn’t matter – you just want to separate stimulus from response.

So, every morning, I get up, drink my coffee and scan headlines from many different sources, with professional editorial voices at work. I read the articles that interest me, and, wonderfully, I have no chance to argue with people I know.

Before, I would see an article someone shared and then read it right there. I might, in a 5 minute period, swing from something the president did to this weird thing a cat did to here is why you should be scared about bees.

Then you are whiplashed all over the place, and you are out of control of what you see and what you feel, and then you get angry and your blood pressure goes up and… but maybe you’ve been there?

You have to control what you allow in. If you don’t, it is easy to get overwhelmed with the weight of everything coming at you. The pace of information is maddening, and unsustainable. There is far more media created these days than we are capable of ever consuming.

So you need to go on a diet.

A helpful book for me in this was The Information Diet, by Clay A. Johnson

Don’t do it by yourself.

One of my favorite stories:

A salesman was driving through the country on his way to his next appointment. He took a curve too fast and ended up in the ditch.

He had no cell service to call AAA, and was cursing his luck when he looked over the field next to the road and saw an old man and a mule, plowing the field.

He walked over to the man and asked for help. The farmer unhitched his mule and together they walked to the car.

The man hitched the mule to the car, told the salesman to stand back and gave a mighty holler.

“Sam – Pull! Mikey – Pull! Davey – Pull!”

And then the mule leaned in, and pulled, and with a creak and a groan the car rolled onto the road again.

As the farmer unhitched the mule, the salesman stood there in disbelief.

“I don’t understand”, he said. “You called three names out, but you only have one mule. What was that about?”

The man smiled. “Oh, that was to trick Davey here into thinking he wasn’t trying to do it alone. If he thought he had to do it by himself, he wouldn’t have even tried.”

* * *

When we know we have a team of people with us, we can accomplish things we never would have dreamed of taking on by ourselves.

Don’t do it by yourself.

The most important thing to learn

In a meeting with an intern a while back, she complained that the things she was studying in school didn’t seem relevant to our work.

“After all”, she said, “how often do we use algebra here?”

I told her she was missing the point.

You don’t go to school to learn things. Not really, anyway.

You go to school to learn how to learn things.

Most of the ways people make money now did not exist when I was in college. There was no way, for instance, they could have taught me how to make iPhone apps – the average person had never even seen a cell phone, and the iPhone was years in the future.

Change is the only certainty, and in the world of the future, you have to be able to learn new things. Because if you don’t, you will get left behind.

As an example: right now everyone says the future of the internet is video. I love writing, and hate being filmed, so it would be easy to ignore them and keep on writing.

But if they are right, then I will one day be as obsolete as a computer programmer who hated all languages other than C++. People who do not change get left behind.

So I am trying to learn how to edit video.  I’m not good at it, and the learning curve is steep. But I will get there.

(On a related note – I now have a YouTube channel. The goal is to get to a place where I can release a video weekly.)

Plod on, brother. Plod on.

I have written about this story several times, but my blog post about it got lost in the website redesign. Because it is so important to me, I am republishing it here. – HH 

It was January of 2008. I had been doing this work for about five months or so, and I was already burnt out. I had no money. None. I was surrounded and overwhelmed by the immense amount of need I was confronted with daily. There was nothing I could do to fix any of it.

Most days, my response was to weep.

I was sinking, and fast. I had only been in Raleigh a short time and had no real network of friends or relationships. There was no one I could talk to about my work or my despair – at least, no one who had also experienced it.

There were several people whose writing had inspired me to do this work, so I figured that maybe, just maybe, they knew what I was feeling. I wrote a couple of emails, asking for help. Only one of them replied.

But his email saved my life, or at the very least, made the life I have now possible.

From his email:

I hope you are able to pace yourself and develop enough of an outside life to sustain you over a long ministry in one place. The real fruit of this stuff doesn’t start to appear for years, and too often people burn themselves out early trying to prove how committed they are. Take days off. Keep your own living area sane and comfortable. Establish boundaries. Read good books about stuff other than the inner city. Exercise.  Eat as healthy as you can. Remember, the people you are working with mostly don’t change that much, so ministering to them isn’t about ‘getting things done’ but rather accompanying people on their hard journeys, and that is an endurance sport that favors the plodder.

So plod on.

The writer was Bart Campolo, a former inner-city youth minister with a famous dad and no illusions about the difficulty of this work. And he is one of the people most responsible for my ability to continue this work.

Because his response meant so much to me, I tear up a bit when I get similar emails now from fellow pot-stirrers and justice workers. They read something I wrote once that makes them think I would understand, so they write me. The emails that say, “I am doing similar work to you, but I am struggling because no one understands the work I am doing, and no one is changing.”

Because Bart’s email meant so much to me, I almost always respond to those emails when I receive them. And like Bart’s email to me, my advice is seldom what they are looking for, but most often what they need.

I ask questions like, “Who is your team? Who are you talking about this stuff with? What do you do to enjoy yourself? Do you want to do this in 10 years? When was the last time you saw the sunset? Who does this with you? What books are you reading that have nothing to do with this work?

They want me to tell them the magic words to fix the relationships they have with people who are desperately poor, or to show them the strategy that will make bitter, jaded people have hope, or the way to get their church to embrace people who live outside. Instead, I want to tell them how to live.

Because if you want to do this work long term, you have to learn how to live. You need to immerse yourself in beautiful things. You need to learn boundaries. You need to have friends who have nothing whatsoever to do with your work, and you need friends who do the work with you.

Most importantly, you have to realize that loving people is a team sport, and that whatever positive outcome you will see as a result of that loving takes years to measure. It is, like Bart said, an endurance sport best suited to the plodder.

So plod on.