Sunday, May 23, 2004

Intellectual problems

Winter takes a long time to disperse from Derby. Perched below the southern end of a spine of hills that runs through the center of England up to the Pennines, the westerly pushing damp air from the Atlantic rises over the town, and transforms itself into interminable banks of heavy grey cloud. It's depressing. It can be like this for weeks on end. Even if it rains it doesn't clear the air. The dampness simply lingers.

At least there was some predicatability. The old adage said that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. By and large that seemed true - then - before the world's climate was jinxed by over-abundant carbon emissions and mankind's craven folly in ruining the rainforests which function both as a sink for carbon dioxide and a massive generator of oxygen for the world. So the March of 1958 would have been like many another. I cycled to Derby Central School for Boys, and if it rained I got wet. With the other damp kids we steam dried as the day passed. With luck it wasn't raining when we went home.

The school was set in the lovely grounds of Darley Park, the building itself being at one time the grand home of a local mill owner, but requisitioned during the War to be a school. Its spacious tiled hall with mahogany fireplace often sported a log fire during the colder days of winter. The wide, winding staircase would have been the scene of many a splendid ascent for the gentry in past generations. Now it was a gully for disgorging teenage boys from the classrooms upstairs. If no-one was looking you could slide the entire length of the bannister rails and shoot off the end with a flourish projecting yourself several feet further across the hallway. If other boys were on the bannisters, you could race down, three steps at one stride, with flawless accuracy so that you never fell. Time it badly and meet the headmaster in the hallway and you were an instant candidate for a swish of the cane, or an hour of after school detention. You had to play this game carefully.

March - and the daffodils grew thick by the pathway that led to the school, guarded by the stout old park keeper, Bill Bailey, whose steel spiked cane was as good for picking up litter as warning tempestuous students not to walk on the grass. But March 1958 became special for me when I learned from my friend Roger Finney that a 17-day Christian Challenge Crusade was being held in town in the Co-operative Hall - where we also held our annual school Speech Days.

Roger stunned me with his stories. For a boy whose only awarness of church was the sombre liturgy of the Church of England and a family full of aging clerics, the thought of hundreds of people joyfully singing, of huge choirs and soloists, of preaching that seemed to go on for ever and of people streaming forward to get converted was incomprehensible. He urged me to come. He was a Methodist, he told me; this was not like the Church of England at all. So we argued. Me, anti-God; him, pro.

I had already outgrown what religion I ever had when I was confirmed in the C of E at age 13. No Holy Spirit had zapped me as the bishop laid his hands on my head, I still could not remember the Ten Commandments, and the sins of the flesh - which included lasciviousness - were a mystery yet to be unfurled and enjoyed. In any event I was now well into science and knew enough of chemistry, physics and evolution to know that the world was very old and was certainly not created by God. To cap it all Boss Swain, our Head Master, had taught us how in ancient days men had sat on the edge of huge deserts - like the Arabian desert - and asked huge questions about cosmology. These men, these ancient philosophers, invented the idea of God. And no wonder. Gaze into the pure desert sky at night with a billion stars shining unfiltered by today's pollution and you've got to be impressed. That was the basis of my world view, and apart from the fact that I was an insecure, lost teenager with no idea as to who I was, what I would be like or even why I was here, that was a good grounding for life. So I thought. And with these arguements I sought to repel Roger's insistence that I come to his Crusade.

But I gave in and went. I sneaked out of the house and didn't tell my parents where I was going. How could I? I was the rampant atheist, the avowed iconoclast who had renounced his confirmation, thrown fire crackers into the parish church after choir practice and insulted the hapless Sunday School teacher whose name happened to be Mr. Fogg. Why, what else could a boy do, sent against his will to Sunday School, but cough demonstrably and request in a loud voice that the door be opened to let the fog out! And having not long previously set the tables on fire with distilled meths just to show that with the burning temparature of alcohol being so low this did not actually char the wood not hurt your hand, the teachers were quite glad to see the back of me. I was on a roll, but not with religion. So my exit from home to go to Roger's meetings had to be very hush-hush. This was embarassing, a contradiction of my declared position.

I went to the crusade not just once, but time and again. Something there niggled at me. I had never heard singing like this. Nor did I know at the time how easily influenced I am by music. So the rising choruses of Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine blew me away. Not that I could sing the words - of course not. I was only there to fight, to prove Roger wrong. The massed choir facing us from the stage seemed so young, and clean and other-worldly. People came up to give personal testimony of God's dealing with the. They were funny, vibrant and full of conviction that what they spoke they believed, and what they believed was true. And then we prayed. Perhaps we is the wrong personal pronoun. They prayed. Nobody was going to catch me praying. Talk about reversal: that would be the limit.

The preacher was the Rev. Stephen Olford, who went on to become the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, New York. No Anglican clergyman I had ever seen preached like this. There was none of the boring reading of a little irrelevant homily from the pages of a small black notebook. There was no hiding behing a clerical collar or pulpit. With suit and tie, Stephen Olford strode from side to side of the platform and seemed almost to reach out and grab us by the lapels to make sure his points made sense. And when he'd finished he invited people to come forward as an act of wtiness that they were ready to accept Jesus as their personal saviour and Lord. For absolute sure, this I would NEVER do!

Saturday, May 22, 2004

The search for truth

There are many forms of religious enquiry. Some people care little about the intellectual search for truth: they want the emotional experience of somehow being 'in touch' with whatever they perceive to be 'god'. Perhaps they have figured out that arguments about truth have too easily led to division and bloodshed in the past. So while looking for a connection with God they do not wish to be party to sectarian divide. As a temporary expedient they may affilate with some particular church or denomination but they freely admit that the teachings of this body are in no sense a final and definitive encapsulation of truth. I will have much more to say about this later.

My own pathway of spiritual inquiry was more focused in an attempt to find truth. Should I capitalize the word and call it Truth? I mean only to say I was looking for clear answers to the Big Questions of life and eternity: Where did the world come from? Why am I here? Does life have any ultimate meaning? Is there a god and if so what is he like? Is there a life after death and what is it like? Who qualifies for it? Are good and evil simply convenient social devices to keep good order or are they grounded in some absolute morality?

Now vast millions of people do, in fact, care very much about these questions. They are not absorbed with them all the time, but the questions and their answers form a basic bedrock of internal stability for their own lives. They are content that they have a credible set of answers to fundamental questions and can now get on with the rest of life.

It is not difficult to find people who know that they have got to the bottom of truth. These people are often very adept at pointing out that the answers of the other guys are wrong and that we should not be misled by them. I became aware of this when I was quite young. Although I couldn't have identified this at the time I was in fact a teenage philosopher. I had few friends with which I ever discussed what was going on in my head but the thoughts tossed around every which way as I emerged from the security of childhood beliefs and tested everything with the critical cynicism that comes with puberty and growing independence.

Many years later I would come to formulate the search like this: How do I know that what I believe is true? Or let me pose this to you; How do you know that what you believe is true? If you don't care, then you might be better reading another book - anything in the Something for Dummies series would be just fine. I don't mean to derogate that great series of books that has made so many aspects of information accessible to people who otherwise would never get a handle on the subject. But I do mean that we are going to think very hard about fundamental questions in this book and come at them in a new way that may have disturbing consequences. If you want to come for the ride please be prepared to think, to argue, to find new answers, and even to get irritated. Stay with it. No search for good answers ever pleased everyone.

Here is the question again. How do you know that what you believe is true?

In my own spiritual journey I spent many years believing I had an answer to this. This was not a matter of sudden insight, but a slow piecing together of a coherent world view that was sufficiently grounded in biblical scripture, history and experience for me to make it my life's work to share this with others as a pastor and preacher. If you could draw a graph of my growing convictions against time it would look like a bell; at first a gradual climb, then getting steeper until in the top portion of the graph there was a long, flattened out, period of confidence. But the curve descends again to the right of the bell as the certainties of faith were either dismantled or shattered. This descent was, at times, devastating. The perils of descending a mountain are often worse than the perils of ascent. For this reason the mountaineer might well leave warning signs for others who will yet pass this way lest others make the same mistakes.

Before I return to how my teenage philosopher mind worked let's spend a few moments pointing up the relevance of the issue - how to know what we believe is true. I will do so by disparaging some beliefs - but just for the sake of argument. Please understand that. I am not some cowboy sharp-shooter who plans to demolish most of the opposition before the real fight begins.

Take the Mormons, for instance. I have very dear friends who are Mormons. And we seldom discuss truth because, for one thing, neither of us are going to convince the other of anything. So we'll just be friends and let the issues go. I'll admit that when I was a fully fledged preacher I would see Mormons as a kind of sport for an hour of (rather pointless) argument. Here they came on a Sunday afternoon, or even Christmas Day, immaculately suited, carrying smart brief cases, visiting the homes of the neighborhood: missionaries, elders all, no matter how youthful in appearance. Boy, if anyone was totally sure they were right these were the guys. Except, perhaps the Jehovah's Witnesses, but that's another story. You see I have always thought that what Mormons believe is quite potty and that any sensible, thinking person could see that!

However, even before we discuss anything Mormons believe, I cannot lightly dismiss the epic journeys these people made to find a land where they could grow and prosper free of persecution. I cannot fail to be impressed with the architecture and culture of Salt Lake City, and cannot ignore the fact that the Church of Latter Day Saints has reached the place of widespread acceptance in American society: it is just there as a part of the multi-faceted social and religious landscape of America. Put aside the tabloid headlines about red-neck polygamy and you'll find good, stable families earning honest livings almost anywhere you go in our society.

But I still say that what they believe is quite potty! Right now I don't even need to vindicate this, only to show that I respect the people but think they are wrong. Of course it is essential to add they also think I am wrong - which is why their missionaries graciously come around to convert me. We have a stand-off.

Monday, May 10, 2004

PREFACE: "Goodbye, Pastor!"

IT IS THE FIRST WEEKEND of October, 1986 - exactly 20 years to the day since I first entered the Christian Ministry and became pastor of a medium sized Baptist church in North London.

Now I am standing at the porch of one of the largest and most famous Baptist churches on the south coast of England. My wife, Jill, stands across from me shaking hands with the worshippers as they leave. I have just preached my last sermon from the last verse of the last book of the Bible. "The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God's people. Amen." My eyes are heavy with tears, my heart with a tumult of mixed emotions. A few people shun me as they leave, averting their eyes as if to have me believe they never noticed me standing there. Many grasp my hand and we exchange a few words, some full of regret, many appreciative and loving. We bid farewell and make empty noise about what the future may bring. They will, it seems, all be praying for me. One person after another simply says, "Goodbye, Pastor."

Very few of those people knew what lay behind my departure that day. What had really taken place in the many closed door meetings with deacons and church officers? Were the rumours true? Did I jump or was I pushed? Some months later, after my name and actions had been held up for scrutiny and condemnation many of them would come to believe that I had become the instrument of the devil, engaged in a dark strategy to subvert the church.

In the years that have passed since that awful day I have often reflected on the great number of men who for various reasons left the ministry prematurely, though surely some would also suggest, not a moment too soon. They, too, have heard the people say, "Goodbye, Pastor." The nuances of that farewell would not be complete unless I also remembered the many church members I have seen who walked out of the church - broken, disappointed, bitter, never to return - who in as many words also said, "Goodbye, Pastor." Usually they were not so courteous.

This is a book about leaving the church, leaving behind the structure, the comfort, the security, the family of believers - the body of Christ. It explores the reasons why pastors and people quit, and where they go next.

My departure from the hallowed walls of organised Christian religion was, for me, one of the best steps I ever took in my life. Yet I still look back upon those years with a certain nostalgia. I am at an age when many of my contemporaries from the days when I trained at the London Bible College are now retiring from ministry having served the cause with which they started without ever looking back. They have held their course and kept their eyes on the goal of their faith. A few have died and, in the jargon of the faith, gone to glory. I have a sort of envy for men I once knew well who have now become household names within Britsh evengelicalism as some of the best preachers, teachers, writers and pastors of the late 20th century. And I might have been amongst their number.

But I became, in their view, an apostate; one who denied the faith, one who (in the words of Hebrews 6:6) crucified the Son of God all over again, subjecting him to public disgrace. A few believed that one day I would return to the fold, clinging to the fond notion that once saved always saved. Others prefer to go on record that I was never truly saved and that my whole ministry was a sham, a lie, an act of self-conceit.

This gives steel to my determination, finally, to set down the side of a story that many Christians would prefer not to hear. The bitterness has gone, but not the memories. This is a book that needs to be written. It is my story. It is the story of people I knew, pastors and church members alike. It's a story that must be told.

Michael Buss
Santa Ana, California
May 2004.

How to share in the writing of "Goodbye, Pastor!"

Send me your story and you could earn $50. It's that easy!

Here's how it works

I am preparing a book on the theme of what happens to people when they LEAVE churches, or organized religion? Sound different?

Why did they quit? What put them off? Disillusion? Treated badly? Time conflicts? Personal trauma? The system did not work? Money or moral problems? A ctually, I do not want to do the thinking for others. What were their reasons? We hear many abuse scandals these days, but I suspect that these are not the reasons why most people quit. Let's find out.

Who were these people? Church professionals like pastors, priests and missionaries? Officers like church workers, deacons, Sunday School Teachers? Or ordinary adherents - church members and attendees?

What did they do next? G o to another church or religion? Invent their own? What personal or religious discoveries did they make? Did they wander into nothingness? And how did they handle the transition?

What are they like now? Just the same? Still confused? Better by far?

No book like this has ever been written

This is not intended as a book to knock religion; far from it. This is to track the journeys people take when the traditional pathways seem to fail. Frequently they lead to amazing personal discoveries, struggles and triumphs - but we do not hear the stories.

Myself? I left the Christian ministry in 1986 after being a pastor and preacher in England for 20 years. Apart from some nostalgia for the music, I have never looked back. My story, with all its trauma and discoveries, will be in this book. Yours can be too - and I will pay you $50 if it is featured.

The small print

Will everybody's story be in there? No. Many of them will form part of the descriptive analysis of different groups of people and their journeys - which is why we need thousands of responses. But quite a number of personal stories will be published. Nobody's story will be used without further direct permission. At their request we will change names and places to conceal identity but we will still need to know that the story is true. We reserve the right to make final editorial decisions on which material is included.

Everybody submitting material that is not directly used will be able to buy the book at a special discount because you will still have helped us enormously. We are pledged to confidentiality with your stories and will not share or divulge the details to anyone outside our editorial team. Some stories will be painful and emotional and we will be sensitive to this.

How to submit your story

Send it by any means you like - but I prefer emails (and attachments are okay). You must state your real name, age, contact phone number and mailing address. Your email address should be a real one and we prefer if you added us to your safe list so that our occasional emails do not get filtered out as junk mail.

How to prepare your story

You do not need to write a huge essay!

Background. Family, school, place you live, work, etc.

Religion or church. What was it and where? Include names if you wish, but indicate where you would not wish these to be used in print.

Nature of the problem that caused you to change direction. What you did. What happened. How you handled complications. What happened next.

An evaluation of the whole experience. Compare how you are now with where you were then. What did you learn? Why do you think this all happened?

Be very honest. If you made mistakes, admit them. It is very rare that these stories are all one-sided. Reflect on what others might think about what you did.

Spelling and grammar. Don't worry about this. We will deal with that. And we will do whatever basic editing is necessary to make your story effective.

You could start right now! Look for my email address uinder my Profile, and write to me.

Pass on the message

Email the address of this WEBLOG to others whether you think they would be interested or not. You cannot tell whom THEY know for whom this is a perfect fit. There are thousands of people out there who would love their stories to be told. So pass on the message.

The web address of this WEBLOG is

Just copy/paste into emails to your friends.

When will the book be ready?

This is impossible to be sure right now, but we will keep you in touch by email from time to time. As a provisional guide I reckon we will discontinue story collection by the end of 2004. You will be among the first to know.