Holy Week for Non-Believers

Editor’s Note: Welcome to “Holy Week,” everyone. I certainly never thought I’d be observing it on something called the Rational Doubt Blog. But it warrants attention because it is a significant time in the life of non-believing clergy. This is the first of a series of pastors discussing their experiences preparing and preaching at Easter Time.

=====================

By “Stan Bennett”

How far in advance do you start planning for your Easter sermon? 

When Lent begins, I start thinking six weeks ahead to Easter, which is not just the sermon. I’ll work with others to prepare for the Good Friday Service as well as Easter Sunday: special music, decorations, the Easter egg hunt for the children, and perhaps we’ll have some baptisms during the Sunday worship hour.

Now that I think about it, it’s the Good Friday service that troubles me more than Easter Sunday. People can be quite vulnerable at this service, and it’s easy to manipulate their emotions.  We turn down the lights, play the sad music, and read the awful passages of Jesus’ death. Some preachers elaborate on how painful it feels to be crucified. Perhaps we’ll have sounds of the nails being driven into wood to make the readings more vivid. Or maybe we’ll give each person a nail to hammer into a wooden cross when they come to the front of the sanctuary.  Some churches reenact the scene.  These days, I try to be gentle with the ones who feel so tender on Good Friday, and I don’t do dramatic things but instead merely read the passages and provide the music.

And then two days later, it’s Easter Sunday.  Many ministers use the lectionary, a calendar that designates the scriptures to be read on Sundays throughout the year. I often take the assigned texts and think on them for the next few weeks, and a lot of my sermon will consist of a critical explanation of the scripture, like I would any piece of literature (what it really said, what it meant, what was the intent of the author).

I have a day set aside each week for “prayer and study” but I rarely get it because of funerals, fundraisers, and needy people. I develop my thoughts when I’m driving or taking my walk.

How do you feel as you’re preparing the sermon and then giving the sermon.  

I actually like examining the scriptures with a more critical eye, viewing them as an anthology of the Judeo/Christian culture. Now that I don’t feel compelled to believe that the Bible comes directly from God and therefore have no need to reconcile it with the church’s doctrinal positions, I can appreciate the artistry and ideas, and I can see more clearly the authors’ original message.

But while I like to study and think, the Sunday morning presentation fills me with dread because at some point, I’m going to be saying something I don’t believe. My whole life, I have tried to be truthful, and now I am intentionally saying something I don’t believe is true. This is what causes my heart to race, my blood pressure to rise, and bones to ache.

Can you give some examples of how your sermons changed as your beliefs changed? 

I used to love the Gospel of John because of its aesthetic language and drama, as if it were a Greek play.

Zampieri_St_John_Evangelist

I liked how women instead of men are used as catalysts to launch the big ideas. I loved the dreamy concepts of oneness, eternity, deity, light, and life. In fact, there’s still a lot I love about John, but it makes me sad that the promise of life beyond the physical has not proven to be accessible.

These days, I focus on the earlier Gospel account of Mark, which is often underestimated as a piece of literature. Mark shows a more human Jesus, who got tired, lonely, hungry, and agitated.  The author has an abrupt style that leaves stories open-ended in a way that forces the reader to ask questions. In the last chapter, if we remove the endings that were contrived at a later date, we find a story that does not show a resurrection, only an empty tomb and a man who claims Jesus was resurrected. Unlike the other accounts, Mark shows two women leaving the empty tomb, going out in the night confused and afraid.  It’s as if the author stops, looks at his audience, and says, “Now you finish the story.”

Which is how I leave it with my congregation: “What do you think happened and what does it mean to you? And then I speak of the renewal that we experience in this life, rather than dwell on the heaven I used to believe in.

I no longer speak of developing a personal relationship with Jesus, but instead speak of being loyal to his cause, which might include social justice issues as well as concepts of love, truth, and generosity.

What kinds of responses have you gotten from the congregation about your Easter sermons, for instance, unusually troubled, positive or thoughtful responses; especially surprising or unexpected responses? 

Naah, I never have seen much of that.  They don’t want me to rock their boat too much and force them to think because it might ruin their day.  They expect me to use the religious language to which they are accustomed. Beyond the ritualism, it’s not real to most of them. Actually, it’s hard to disturb them because they aren’t listening.

On Easter, the people come to church to be with their families and show off the out-of-town relatives.

“Reverend, this is my son the doctor and his wife, and their children. Don’t the little girls look pretty in their Easter outfits?”

And they’ll crowd into one pew, sing the same songs as when they were young, watch the latest crop of children get baptized, smile at each other, and none of them will be able to repeat even a word or two of what I said, except maybe the funny story I told or an old thought that resonated from their Sunday school days.

How do you feel when Easter is over?

Tired. Relieved it’s over. Empty because I didn’t accomplish a damn thing except keep my job a little while longer. And I’m a little sad and lonely because I’m not a part of that community of families that are so glad to be with each other.

What else would you like to say about your experience with Easter sermons?

You know what? I find I still love the story, like I love all good stories. After all the grief I’ve seen and absorbed from others, I love the idea of a person who was so good that he couldn’t stay dead.  I love thinking of a gentle hero who was strong enough to plow through the depths of hell to burst through the bars of death, freeing himself and all the tormented spirits of that prison.  And I’m wistful as I imagine that people actually get to watch their loved ones come back from the dead so they can hold each other, and speak, laugh and cry with them.

Part of me still wants to believe it is true, but then I think, “No, I really don’t.  Delusions make us sick and I’ve had enough of that. But isolation and loneliness make us sick, too, and I’ve definitely had enough of that.”

=====================

Bio: “Stan Bennett” is a closet agnostic, still working as a minister for a mainline denomination. He is the same “Stan” who was recently featured in the CNN documentary, Atheists: Inside the World of Non-believers and in a follow-up article on the CNN website. He has been a pastor for over thirty years, but is searching for other employment so he can escape from under the clergy robes.  He has a blog called A Preacherman’s Secrets and is publishing a book in April by the same name.

 

>>>>>> Photo Credits:

“Zampieri St John Evangelist” by Domenichino – National Gallery, London. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

“Closeted Pastor” by Linda LaScola

 

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zampieri_St_John_Evangelist.jpg#/media/File:Zampieri_St_John_Evangelist.jpg

“Stan Bennett” bio photo, by Linda LaScola

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  • Pofarmer

    Ya know, I used to love Easter. It was on Easter weekend in College I had my forst sexual experience with a girl who was an atheist! But we broke up after years, moved on, dated and married a woman who is Catholic, started getting my “groove back” somewhat. Easter is a time of renewal, it’s spring, the weather is changing, it’s a time of rebirth, happy times, good feelings, winters leaving, etc etc. and then it happened. My wife started embracing more and more fundamental Catholicism and couldn’t stand me exposing our kids to my protestant background. We had a breaking point one Easter morning, when she had kept our kids out till midnight at Catholic Easter Vigil when whe knew I was taking them to sunlight services the next morning with my parents. The oldest was about 9, the youngest 6. I was furious. A happy day turned into a disaster. It nearly ended our marriage and started me down the long road of questioning that lead me to become an atheist. Now it’s kind of a bittersweet time of year. Still get the changing of seasins and etc, but have to put up with the seemingly unlimited amount of religious nuttery going in, as well. I dunno, interesting times.

    • http://preachermansecrets.blogspot.com Stan Bennett

      My negative events seem to happen in fall just before the Thanksgiving holidays. Perhaps you could plan something to treat yourself on what is usually a bad day?

    • mason

      “religious nuttery”, so perfectly well said.

    • Elizabeth.

      Can be tough with deep religious or philosophical differences between a couple. Maybe this is more frequent these days since we live longer, making more time for changes in each partner. Those who grow in sync are hugely fortunate. The rest of us probably are experiencing various dimensions and intensities of grief — at the loss of a deep philosophical or theological fellow journeyer. We know sadness, anger, denial, bargaining (trying to rationalize?) — and, if the difference persists, hopefully eventually some acceptance of the other’s view — ideally an appreciation if possible. As a former hospice chaplain & current volunteer, I’m reminded by ‘Stan’s’ suggestion of ‘planning a treat’ of the literature on “Be Gentle to Yourself While Grieving” — and I think Buddhist thought too encourages compassion toward oneself. Maybe thinking up a Spring ritual that could signify every year moving a little further toward compassion for your self, and your wife, could help during these ‘interesting times….’

      • Pofarmer

        Well, speaking of “in sync.” Our youngest child, now 12, was born with a genetic condition called “Hurlers syndrome.” Not a pretty thing, took about a year of Dr’s visits to figure it out. Then he had two Bone marrow transplants within a 2 year period, first one didn’t take. With each bone marrow transplant he was in the hospital for just over a month, then he had to be within an hour of the Hospital for 6 months due to any complications that might arise. This meant my wife was staying with her Mom who, to put it kindly, is a Catholic religious nut. In the meantime, I was staying at home, an hour and a half away, trying to take care of our other two kids between my self and my Grandmother who has since passed away and my Mom, while also farming full time. The first transplant didn’t take because we tried a different chemo regimen that wasn’t aggressive enough. Be that as it may, the second go around I guess they had prayer groups coming from our church up there to pray over our son and all kinds of stuff that I didn’t know about, and still wouldn’t know about except our oldest Son told me about it. That whole time, these people are driving two hours one way to go pray, but I never once got an offer for helping with laundry or dishes or taking care of kids or a meal or……….Makes a guy wonder. Anyway, that time period, when my wife got seriously more religious, and I just basically skated along the way I always had from the way I see it at least, is where I trace most of our problems back to. The medical problems, the financial hurdles, all of that was no problem, and the religious divide didn’t show up until later as my wife continued to get more religous, and I, ironically enough, kind of followed her lead a little, except I still didn’t want to be Catholic, I wanted to share my childhood faith with my kids, what I saw as the good things from that heritage, and she absolutely couldn’t allow that to happen as that “wasn’t Catholic” and we were “Raising the kids Catholic.” Well, now I’m an atheist as well as our two oldest boys. How did that lack of tolerance work out?
        As far as treating myself, I don’t know. This time of year is really busy for me, I farm, and the main treat I get is seeing crops come up and the year get a start. It really is a glorious time, but very stressful and full of work and worry and dust. Anyway, I know that all of this is much more than anyone asked for, but it’s therapeutic for me to write about it, and I hope that my situation can help someone else out.

        • Ignorant Amos

          That was a roller coaster of emotions reading that Po, thanks for sharing.

          My wife died at 27 and I had two youngsters, a boy of 18 months and a girl, 4 years of age. I was still serving in the armed forces at the time. It is astounding the amount of pious folk that are happy enough to hold you in their prayers when attending church, but way busy to keep an eye to the kids for half an hour while you nip to the shops for some groceries.

          • Pofarmer

            That sounds like tough times, as well.

          • Ignorant Amos

            Indeed, but well in the past now. I’ve got grand we’ens those ages now.

          • Elizabeth.

            Hello I.A…. You and Pofarmer are true heroes. Those are amazing stories of caring, protecting, and providing. ….But both of your experiences of church folk makes me think that ministers should preach Matthew 25’s “sheep and goats” at LEAST every other week. And humanists, the Golden Rule. I will try to do better myself! But for now, hats off to both of you, amazing fathers.

        • Elizabeth.

          Yes, I.A. says it well, that is a roller coaster read, and deep. Grief lit often suggests constructing a ritual, which sometimes can help healing, but you actually live one in the changing of the seasons and the new life peeping up, yet the threats of hail or drought or potato bugs. I salute your good spirit, enduring through everything, in spite of everything. To me, it’s really remarkable, and a big encouragement against all the awful stuff the news tells us every day about earthlings. I am not very familiar with conservative Catholic outlooks… do you think Pope Francis is going to be a help toward a more open attitude? And I notice just now that there’s more in the next Rational Doubt blog including Catholics… so hopefully this is a good place for pondering. Thank you; all good things to you and yours; staying tuned

          • Pofarmer

            The Catholic Church in the U.S. has been aping the Evangelicals and turning out more conservative Clergy, at least from what I’m seeing. If Francis has an impact, I think it will be years down the road, at best. What I see in the U.S., is a bunch of Conservative Cardinals and Bishops who have too much political pull.

          • Elizabeth.

            Found this hopeful article while looking for a report I thought I’d seen about a positive appointment in the U.S. — but as you say, it may well be years before the impact is felt at the grass roots. Tho maybe not! http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/03/13/for-pope-francis-personnel-is-policy

            Our household developed (to my surprise) deep religious differences, too, and I’ve thought how sad it is for each of us — that we haven’t been able to share some of each other’s most meaningful moments, and have even been antagonistic toward some of what the other deeply holds. I think we’re becoming a little more accepting of each other’s nuttiness… probably we’re just getting old! : ) …and enjoying each other more again. Life is quite an adventure… As you say — “interesting times”!!!

  • ObscurelyAgnostic

    Great post, Stan. Gotta serious (vs frivolous) question for ya — if as you say your folks couldn’t tell you what you preached, then does that let you off the hook for preaching things you don’t believe?

    • http://preachermansecrets.blogspot.com Stan Bennett

      OA, that makes me laugh in a cynical kind of way. I guess it does let the pressure off a little. And yet if people could listen seriously and respectfully, I wouldn’t be so scared to say what I really thought.

      • ObscurelyAgnostic

        I use the “they’re not really listening anyway” head game myself every Sunday! But I think Elizabeth makes a great point above — that there’s likely to be a few in any congregation who will be shaped over time by “the tenor of your perspectives”? After all, there are some very good liberal ‘nuggets’ in your opening post that would preach very well those to those folks — which reminds me to ask — do you try to preach or teach ‘subversively,’ smuggling in a few lines here and there that are more true to what you believe?

        • http://preachermansecrets.blogspot.com Stan Bennett

          I haven’t analyzed it too carefully. I try to say as much as I can about what i really think before reigning it in and saying, “of course, I don’t really buy this crap at all.”

          • Linda_LaScola

            When I was considering leaving church, I started listening to sermons carefully for the first time at the Episcopal church I was attending. I heard the ministers say things like “those old myths of the bible” and “The resurrection is a metaphor for new beginnings.” I felt that they were stating their true views and that some people in the congregation got it and some didn’t and probably a lot weren’t listening.

          • Pofarmer

            I could stay in a church like that. Fundamentalism I couldn’t handle.

          • Linda_LaScola

            The numbers in churches like that are dwindling, as is the case overall in churches. I’m waiting for the research that studies reasons for that.

          • Elizabeth.

            There’s a fascinating study that traces U.S. literalistic belief in the bible to a choice of textbook at Princeton Seminary in the early days. Rather than teaching the bible as “accommodated language” as Calvin and the reformers did (specific situations must be understood in context and interpreted), the Princeton dons used Francis Turretin as textbook, which regarded the bible as “a nonhistorical body of propositions that offered a base of inerrant information….” Since Princeton taught so many of the first pastors, Turretin’s view became prevalent, and the Reformers’ actual views bypassed.

            So — the ministers’ “true views” are probably more true to the texts themselves than the literalism that spread here in the States. Alas

            [Rogers & McKim, “Authority and Interpretation of the Bible,” 1979/1999,p186]

  • Elizabeth.

    Wow, ‘Stan,’ really moving and appealing insights and perspectives on the gospel accounts. Your congregation receives a great gift…. the tenor of your perspectives is bound to soak in — I would think people would be being shaped by them even if they aren’t “taking notes.” Would you ever think of leading a congregation if there were an understanding like John Shuck has with his congregation and denomination? — that is, as he puts it, seeing Christianity as cultural rather than belief-based? …….I am so sorry for the recurrent theme of having suffered slings and arrows, and hope consolation will grow strong soon.

    • http://preachermansecrets.blogspot.com Stan Bennett

      Elizabeth, I’ve thought a little about that and sometimes it’s appealing. I would love an opportunity to be with thoughtful people to discuss ideas and continue to search for truth, yes I think I’d love that. But I’m tired of the near-hysteria of “respectable” churches, as well as the full blown hysteria of some of the more charismatic churches. I’m tired of the dishonest superiority it breeds. When I walk away from them, I will never return.

      • Elizabeth.

        You will make great contributions wherever. Thanks so much for the links here… especially the fathers and sons post.

  • Andy

    I understand entirely. And you’re right. On Easter, few people really listen. My sermon title this year is ‘We are raised’. Going with metaphor all the way. I did, however, confess in my newsletter article for April that I don’t believe in miracles. Fortunately, many of my members don’t either.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Just a minute — the resurrection was a miracle. Do you think any of them made the connection?

      • Andy

        Yes they did. We had a very interesting conversation in a Bible study recently in which at least half the group (10 out of 20) said they didn’t need a body (of Jesus) to believe in the resurrection. They had already made the jump to metaphor. I’m very fortunate to be in this congregation.

        • Pofarmer

          Once you make that jump to metaphor, however, it’s just short skip to dumping the whole thing It’s no more relevant than Aesop’s fables, which were also metaphorical.

          • Andy

            Something doesn’t have to be literally true to be relevant. The myth of resurrection, like a good Aesop fable, can convey a relevant ethical value (fresh starts, second chances, etc.) Is it not relevant that the slow and ponderous effort of the tortoise often leads to victory?

          • Ulricii

            Second chances after you’re dead? I think that’s a confusing metaphor. Aesop’s tortoise was alive all the way to the finish line. I would have been similarly confused if he’d been run over and killed on the way but somehow managed to come back to life and finish the race.

          • ObscurelyAgnostic

            As a liberal agnostic minister, I have found it exceedingly difficult to find atheists who are open to mythology (esp the Christian variety;) as a mode of expressing human moral truth — and yet most atheists would embrace literature (even the novels of devout Christians like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky) as fully legitimate moral allegory …

          • Andy

            I have found the same to be true Obscurely! There seems to be a bias among atheists against religious mythology. Maybe it’s just because I choose to remain in the church that I have to make something out of our mythology. I accept that, but is this not better than letting conservatives steal the show (and the interpretation) on the resurrection? There needs to be some resistance to literalism from within the church, because church outsiders are not respected.

          • ObscurelyAgnostic

            You are preaching to the choir, brother!

          • Ignorant Amos

            The problem is that too many religious don’t consider it mythology. How do you feel about the Muslim or Hindu mythology being the grounds for laws and rules in society?

            Yesterday was Good Friday, here in Northern Ireland antiquated Christian drinking laws mean that those of us that are not Christian are restricted by a 2000 year old myth. It also affects the businesses of the leisure industry in general. Not everyone is Christian so why should their businesses or social lives be retarded by Christians…and a Christian myth at that?

            That is the problem with religious myths, the religious are not content to keep their nonsense to themselves, if they did, a good proportion of the worlds problems would vanish.

            I’m happy to accept religions as mythology, I do in fact, in just the same way as I do all those dead religions. The problem is that the religious are not. You are in a tiny minority. If only that were not the case. But kudos to you all the same for recognising your religion as myth.

          • Elizabeth.

            Yes, that’s the difference I was thinking of — non-religious myth and metaphor are take-it-or-leave-it, whereas myth in a living religion often implies or requires adherence. Maybe that’s what sets off the warning alarm for many.

          • Andy

            I understand your point, and it is well taken. I wish I could make religious fundamentalism go away because I agree it is very dangerous to life on earth as we know it. It’s simply Medieval. I just try to do my small part in one small corner of the world. Thanks for your reply.

          • Elizabeth.

            I like the way some Native Americans are said to put it: — “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true.” : )

  • mason

    Hey Stan, do you think anyone figured out who you were on CNN? I wonder if anyone in your church saw the program?

    • http://preachermansecrets.blogspot.com Stan Bennett

      Hope not!

  • Christian Innocent

    Stan, there is no need for some things you listed here, though i cant mention any,.
    http://www.believeall.com

  • pennyroyal

    As a former minister and hospice chaplain I have been in your place. I retired 5 years ago and still I’m exhausted from having to say words I didn’t believe and enact rituals that I found empty. I hope you get out of there soon. (It’s not “the Lord will provide” — it’s that you are in transition and may need to move faster through it).
    Living out a role people wanted me to embody took a toll on my psyche. If felt a loss of integrity and was wearying. I wish you well.

    • Pofarmer

      In reading some about Mother Theresa, I think she underwent the same thing. At the end, she was trapped inside her own theology with no way out, which in no way justifies some of the horrible things she said and did.

      • pennyroyal

        I hear you. I think she was depressed a lot. Christopher Hitchens certainly exposed her in The Missionary Position.
        I was never a Christian. I just had to fake it a lot in life. So being a Unitarian Universalist was a good fit for me. Now I call myself a secular humanist and that has helped me leave my past indoctrination behind. I co-led a class at the Humanist Institute which was wonderful for passing on all that I have learned and was learning.
        I still do some phone counseling with people I know who are religious but that’s okay, as was most of my ministry with good Christians who were good, decent people who needed companioning, active listening, support, encouragement, etc. They never suspected I was a non-theist because the focus was on their faith and working within their faith system.
        Again I wish you well.

        • Mark Edwards

          I am happy for you.

          • pennyroyal

            Thank you. For so many peace and acceptance only comes after decades of turmoil. It’s good to be here.

  • frenchie11

    Oh well for me here in Bermuda, it is a good rest, kite flying and fish cakes on a hot cross bun with a beer!

  • Guthrum

    I often have skipped Easter service so that a visitor or infrequent member can have my seat. As an active Christian church member and leader it has always disturbed me that many Christians show up only at Christmas and Easter.

    • Elizabeth.

      I’m usually just glad to see them, and hope they find meaning… maybe they are seekers and trying best they can to stay connected

  • http://www.thegodreality.com/ johnheno

    Reading Stan Bennett’s confessions make me want to throw up. A phony engaged in lies and deception: Devoid of character, substance and integrity. The classic “wolf” in sheep’s clothing. His congregation must be likewise spiritually bankrupt, or deaf, dumb and blind not to discern this. To thyself be true Stan and find another job. Contact Linda LaScola or Humanist movement for a job, as they greatly value people of like character.

    • Elizabeth.

      Hello, John! This blog is moderated by Linda LaScola, so this poster is in touch with her. Reading his posts on this blog, I understand that he is in transition, eager for it to be complete, and is a person of great character, substance and integrity. From your point of view, during this transition period, shouldn’t God be able to use the scripture readings, hymns, and retelling the Story to communicate His love to the congregation?

      • http://www.thegodreality.com/ johnheno

        Its not the loving reading of scripture that is the issue. The issue here is that we have a person who is pretending to be someone he is not. And deceptively taking money from his congregation under false pretenses. This is not the mark of “a person of great character, substance and integrity” by any definition. It’s sickening! Particularly for a person in a position of trust who supposedly values truth. He’s a dishonest sleaze. And your supportive comments don’t alter this fact.

        • Elizabeth.

          Yes, our opinions don’t alter the truth of the matter. You won’t find the hypocrites excoriated by Matthew’s Jesus on this blog — at least, I haven’t encountered them. There are people with sacred obligations who have come to this place honestly and are seeking the best for all concerned. I will rejoice with everyone who finds that path…. and wish you well