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In too many communities, church is not healing force

Updated: December 13, 2011 8:27AM

This is the fourth and final part of a series, “Letters to a Pastor.”

Dear Pastor,

It’s just after 4 a.m. I write to you with tears in my eyes, depleted and heavy with the burden of feeling compelled to say publicly what so many among you will not about the church’s current state. I can’t blame them.

The church has, after all, become a sacred cow, a cash cow. And raising one’s voice can draw the ire of even loving, little old church mothers, even if motivated — less than by anger, bitterness or any disappointment over any perceived failings of the church — more by a heart that agonizes over the debilitating and deeply enslaving conditions of our people.

I can’t sleep this morning. Honestly, I felt like buying a bottle of rum to anesthetize my pain — the pain of saying what I feel about something I love as dearly as the church; the haunting pain of having seen as a ghetto child, as journalist, as man, the destruction of black folks, far too many of whom stagger like zombies on hyper-segregated islands dotted with liquor stores, drug dealers, poverty and also too many impotent churches.

It is the pain of being a writer with a love for God’s people and the sense of obligation passed through generations to help our brothers and sisters — a sense that unless we all “make it,” none of us truly ever makes it, and that in the words of the gospel song, “If I can help someone as I pass along, then my living will not be in vain.”

I believe nothing holds greater transformative promise than the church of Jesus Christ—a healthy church, moving, living, empowering. And yet, in so many communities, the church is no more effective than a bottle of rum in healing what ails us.

Know this, dear pastor: I am not your enemy.

But some apparently believe I am the enemy, at least one of the devil’s minions. Recently, at an event where I was master of ceremonies and standing just off stage, a pastor remarked in passing that my writing about the church was bound to make more people become atheists. And I thought, “How so, when my doubt is only with man, not with Christ?”

Since I began writing these letters to you, while I sat one day recently minding my own business in a café, a pastor whom I barely know asked with a twisted expression on his face, “What qualifies you to speak on the church?”

I might have asked him the same about being a pastor.

For theology degrees and ordination certificates, clergy collars or gold crosses don’t equip someone to love, or to serve. And one need not be draped in church pedigree, have apostolic authorization or bear the clergy-certified stamp of approval to think aloud for themselves, feel, cry — only a heart, a brain, a soul, a voice and knowledge of the Gospel truth.

Dear pastor, I understand how difficult and unpopular it can be to speak truth, especially to power and especially when we are ourselves imperfect, fallible. How tempting it can be to say only those things that tickle people’s ears. I once heard a preacher say before a large audience that he knows his calling: “To preach the kingdom of God.” Then he added, “But if I do that, I’ll have to look for another job.”

But don’t callings supersede mere jobs? Isn’t the sustenance of every believer truly greater than any of our momentary earthly resources or treasures? And if the Gospel, pastors and also preachers are compromised by the materialistic infection we now see spreading like cancer, what is the hope of the poor, the widowed, the downtrodden and all those whom the Gospel can redeem?

That is why I choose to not remain silent, even at the expense of being labeled the enemy. It’s like fire shut up in my bones.

Never am I more contemplative, cautious, careful — prayerful — than when writing about matters concerning the church. It is a church I see through the eyes of a black man with a foot in each world — one black, the other white; one secular, the other spiritual — and through the duo lens of having been both insider and outsider.

And what I have come to see regarding the current state of the church is simply this: We have left our first love.

Returning to it — to Him — is the first step to healing our homes, our neighborhoods, our lives, our souls. We’ll need good pastors in our sojourn, shepherds connected, committed and clear on their purpose, priorities and passion.

As for your question of which fire a pastor should put out first — the one at the White House, the church house or his house? That’s easy. Charity begins at home.

As for buying a Rolex or other earthly treasures to compensate for “not having a life,” I say, “Take some time to enjoy life, brother” and also, “What profit a man to gain the world and yet lose His soul?”

Good pastors get weary. There is always work to do, always someone who wants something from you, the hours long, the job sometimes thankless, and the folks you help the most sometimes the least grateful. I get it.

But there is no greater calling. And He who has called you says, “…be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life.”

The same Bible exhorts me, especially in times like these, to be sober — even if sometimes in pain — and to cry aloud. So I write, understanding that the answer lies neither in liquor nor in my silence. I write.

Keep me in your prayers. Your brother, John.

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