Wednesday, February 28, 2007

What Lies Beneath

It's not really spring, but you'd have to be blind not to notice the changes outside the big picture window. Two weeks ago, we were in the midst of a blizzard -- 12 inches of white flakes and 40 mph winds. Since then we had another 3 inch storm blow through, but more recently it's been drizzling rain and above-freezing temperatures. So when I peer out the window today, I see some older, dirtier piles of slushy snow sitting amid bare ground covered with dormant grass. It's a slight hint of green and grey and brown emerging from beneath the once-beautiful-but-now-icky snow.

The more of that sandy brownish-green that appears, the greater the reminder that even when the snow is white and pretty, underneath is something completely different. The snow is only a covering over what is actually a grassy lawn. Even two weeks ago, while a blizzard was raging, there was something different lying beneath to drifts of snow.

Recently I talked to a guy about my age. Steve grew up wanting to enter the priesthood. From an early age, Steve took a great interest in his local church and in the priest's responsibilities. He was an altar boy and volunteered to do other work around the church, sure that this was God's call for his life. He grew to greatly respect the priest, Father Phil. In many ways, Father Phil would be a role model for Steve's life.

Steve wasn't sure what to think when Father Phil began touching the teenage boy inappropriately. The night a couple of years later when Steve claims that the priest spiked his drink and sexually assaulted him, he said he abandoned his thoughts of becoming a priest. It was a number of years later that he finally approached the local diocese, prepared to tell his story. It was many years afterward when the priest was finally removed from service.

I have no way of knowing whether Steve's version of the story is completely accurate, but I'm fairly sure he believes it to be true. And I know that Steve has been called some mighty hateful things by supposed Christians, despite his claims being called credible by the diocese. Some of those hurling insults and accusations against Steve are demonstrating loyalty, but they seem to be missing the possibility that the priest they are so staunchly defending could be guilty.

Steve claims that Father Phil has been leading a dual life. Those who have sent Steve nasty letters and spoke badly about him don't look fully at the idea that a priest is a man, complete with temptations and failings. They claim to know that nothing lies beneath the surface which would contradict their perception of a holy, loving man of the cloth. What is even more interesting, one letter spoke of the possibility that Steve was right, but that author was willing to forgive the priest yet seemed only bitter and hateful toward the one who reported the incident. Forgiveness for one. No forgiveness for the other.

I've known clergymen who have fallen. When one friend was accused of sexual contact with young boys, my mind reacted in much the same way as those defending Father Phil -- the kid must be lying! It turns out he wasn't lying. My friend was living a dual life.

Another clergyman was accused of a sexual crime, and I knew that man couldn't be guilty. He wasn't guilty. But that doesn't mean there was no dual life. That's the thing about priests and pastors -- we're fallen human beings. There is always something which lies beneath the covering.

I'm not a Roman Catholic, but I do understand some of the confusion that Steve related to me. He spoke about trusting the church to do the right thing. He didn't report the incident to the police, choosing instead to trust the church, only to be left as more hated than the one he claims to be the criminal. He trusted the institution of men.

As a pastor, I fully realize the danger of someone with an ax to grind, making up a story, pointing a finger and damaging my reputation, my life, and the reputation of my Savior. And I try to give these fallen clergy members the benefit of the doubt. But I've know too many who have fallen hard. The pastor running off with his secretary, the female pastor running off with a parishoner while the pastor's husband was hospitalized, the youth pastor who made a habit of seducing the babysitter... it's a familiar story.

Maybe the lesson here is remembering what lies beneath. The Apostle Paul claimed to be chief of sinners. Why would we think today's pastors and priests are better? Our faith is to be placed in Christ, not in Christ's servants.

I feel sadness for everybody still involved in this sorted affair. Steve says he has moved on, yet he is still active in support groups. Father Phil's whereabouts are unknown to me, but he isn't currently working as a priest (although he hasn't been disqualified from such work).
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Monday, February 26, 2007

The Jig Is Up

Apparently, the director of the motion picture, "Titanic" is on to us.

Caught red-handed.

Guess I'll be out of a job before Friday...

Oh, a tip of the ol' ballcap to Dunker Journal.

The Trouble with Statistics

First, a quick apology for my absence for the past four weeks. There are times when a person has four jobs when there just isn't much time. And at my house, there isn't a whole lot of spare computer time either, so that has complicated the past month or so. Hopefully, I'm through that avalanche -- at least for the time being.

As most of you know, I pastor a small church. We'll usually have 50-60 people on Sunday mornings. Sometimes more, every once in a while, less. That's been the size of that church for over 100 years, with the given ups and downs over the years.

As a pastor, I feel a bit of pressure to see those attendance numbers go up a bit. And I think those numbers should go up, but it seems the rate of new people becoming more and more active in the church is only enough to replace the rate of older people who can't be there as much or the sick among us. We're not the same old 50 people sitting there every week. That would be waaaayyyy too easy. But I do keep an eye on attendance statistics. I don't live or die by them, but I keep hoping to see a nice jump, reflecting some of the spiritual changes I see in many of the people attending.

January showed a nice uptick. February was looking very good too. Instead of a 52 February average as we've had for the past two years, we were averaging 57 through the first three weeks and carrying a good bit of momentum.

On Saturday, the area was being bombarded by weather warnings. We were told to expect 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch of ice, knocking down trees and power lines Saturday night and making Sunday morning traveling impossible. The storm was supposed to start around 9 p.m. Saturday night and last through noon the next day. Now I'm not from Missouri, but when it comes to weather predictions I tend to be a "show me first, then I'll believe it" kind of guy. I have seen far too many warnings for storms that have never showed up. So I told a few of the congregation that I was out with early on Saturday that I would wait to see if this supposed ice storm was as advertised before I called off Sunday services.

The storm began Saturday evening, but after an hour or two of light freezing rain, the temperature started to rise. Soon, freezing rain had turned to rain and ice had turned to watery slush on the roads and sidewalks. No real driving hazard.

When I awoke early Sunday morning to survey the situation, I found no situation. It was chilly. It was wet. It wasn't icy at all. A quick drive down my road confirmed that there was no reason to cancel services.

Now, at that point I realized that many from the congregation were not going to go out to the car and drive to church because they had gone to bed expecting an icy wonderland and a day away from traveling. There would be few in the pews, I was certain. And for a brief instant, I thought to myself, "Oh well, there goes the Tuesday average!"

The day played out as I expected. We had only a few families brave the country roads to come to services. As a result, instead of having a February attendance average of 57 (if I had called off services), we finished the month averaging 51 per Sunday... just a bit below normal... again.

Let me say upfront that I'm not the kind of guy who will let church statistics determine whether or not the congregation will gather for worship on Sunday morning. That's tacky and worldly all at the same time. Yet I also understand the temptation to do just that by a pastor who has been told to get the attendance figures up to par.

I've always felt that statistical trends in a small church have been vastly overrated. Most months, if a family of four can't get the car started and has to miss a Sunday, the church's monthly average attendance drops by one. At my church, that would be a two percent drop because somebody forgot to turn off the headlights on the Buick. Conversely, that same family coming three times a month instead of once a month shows up as a four percent increase. Among many church statisticians, that means proper attendance growth.

Perhaps Mark Twain was right when he classified statistics as the worst of three classifications of lies. Put me down for favoring "proper use and context of statistics" and not "live and die by the numbers," please.