A Reader Writes: What to do when it’s this hard? (4 steps you can take right now)

A reader writes (in response a Being Church in the Trump Years, Part 1 and Part 2):

I have heard you speak a few times and have most of your books, so I feel like I know you.  Anyway, you are touch stone of reason and higher thinking for me, and so I was grateful to read your articles about being the church in the age of Trump.

I am a mainline minister at a fairly large, somewhat conservative, suburban church in the heartland.  These past three months have been the closest to what I imagine PTSD to be like.  It’s hard to think, navigate, comprehend, or know how to respond.  My congregation is diverse in ideology.  I have members of my church who are no longer speaking to family members and have lost friendships.  I have tried to stay committed to the spiritual activism of which you speak, (not that I called it that), but that’s the path I realize I am trying to follow.  It is not easy.  It’s not easy, when you want to fight and write and rally and protest.  It’s not easy when Bonhoeffer is on your desk, and Jesus is in your ear.  It’s not easy, when my kids know something is terribly wrong, but most of their friends seem clueless.  It’s not easy, when you know you should be just visiting the elderly person in the hospital and taking your kids to soccer practice, and yet there is an awakening that says we can’t pretend like everything is status quo.   The struggle is real.

Anyway, thanks for those two articles. I have printed them out and they are on my desk, next to Bonhoeffer and CS Lewis and some books to prepare for preaching in Lent.  I will go back to your article and read it again and again.  I will try to take the path of spiritual activism. I must admit that I am afraid, deeply saddened and not 100% certain I can be as brave as I need to be.  Your article helped assure me that I am not alone.

Thanks for your beautiful writing and for being a prophet in our times.

Thanks for sharing this.

You are not alone.

A time will come for being brave. But now, I think, is a time for being wise. That means preparing for the worst, while working for the best. Here are four simple recommendations for preparing, which you’re probably doing already (but just in case – and for others):

  1. Find some friends, friends who share your concern. If they’re fellow pastors, especially of another denomination, so much the better, but they should be people outside your congregation. It’s important to gather them (over coffee, a meal, whatever, a video chat if need be) and tell them how you feel and why you need their support. They will probably feel the same way. Commit to staying in touch – by email, by Skype or Facetime, by phone, in person. Pray aloud for one another. That will feel more important than it has in a long time, I promise. Have each other’s back, as “friends no matter what.”
  2. Gather your board. Help them understand how challenging this moment is. Talk through three scenarios with them – a best-case scenario, a worst-case scenario, and a likely scenario in between. Get them thinking about how you can prepare for and handle each scenario. And get them praying too – not for an easy path, but for strength, courage, wisdom, and love to meet whatever comes.
  3. Working with your board, find the right language to name the tension to your congregation, and name the opportunity in the crisis. Say something like this: “Some of us listen to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh everyday. Some of us listen to MSNBC and Democracy Now. Somehow, we have to make this a place where we listen to each other, learn from each other, and listen to the Gospel … so we aren’t spiritually formed by the political forces at play in our culture these days.” Or  this: “We have three options during these tough times of political tension in our country. We can pretend everything’s fine and walk on eggshells to sustain that illusion. We can let ourselves be torn apart and treat each other like enemies. Or we can rise to this occasion and let this community model the kind of honest, respectful dialogue, deep listening, and spiritual healing that Christ teaches and that our nation needs.” You may even want to create some kind of altar call or other ritual of commitment so that people can publicly join you in that third way.
  4. Start aligning everything you do with a holistic understanding of the gospel, the kind of understanding that will prepare you for and bring you through these times – every song, every prayer, every litany, every sermon. Don’t focus on what you’re against; focus on what you’re for. Be spiritually focused, relentlessly positive, and outrageously confident in God’s love for all, and in that spirit, preach to your congregation the kind of messages you need to hear in these times.

Of course, it goes without saying that at difficult times like these, you have to be good to yourself, to be a friend to yourself. Don’t forget about delight … fun, joy, laughter, gratitude, rest. You know what fills you and what drains you; apply that knowledge in how you plan each day, each week. Living well during difficult times is not just necessary for your spiritual health; it’s an act of protest and defiance against the forces that want to keep you afraid and angsty at every moment.

When the time comes for brave action, you’ll be ready. And as Sarah Kendzior has wisely said, “If you cannot be brave – and it is often hard to be brave – be kind.” We’ll get through this, and with God’s help, we’ll do more than survive: we’ll thrive and overcome.

I’ll have more to say on this in the coming days. I hope it will prove helpful.

Remember – you’re not alone.