Preaching and Pastoring in Hard Times

kanon-the-preacher

Preaching Ain’t Easy

IFB sects are sometimes reminded that while preaching is neither easy nor popular, their preachers works hard. Very hard. And while I’ve absolutely no statistical basis for so saying, I’ll say some do. But fundamentalism being what it is, IFB preachers will never wrestle with some of the most perplexing and difficult issues other pastors face every week.

M. Craig Barnes is no Christian fundamentalist. But his freshly published article, ‘The Pastors I Worry About’ [Christian Century, Jan 4, 2017] names a number of difficult issues no fundamentalist pastor should ever face.

The Princeton Theological Seminary President points out that having the President-elect they wanted, many are now stuck advocating for someone whose private life and public policies contradict much of what preachers should say in their pulpits. I would suggest that other than protesting supposed lack of support for Israel, few IFB pastors will chafe much at that lack of morality.

That is a hard problem, but few IFB pastors will face it.

Then again, there are preachers who denounced Mr. Trump, who said that the center would hold, that churches would remain sanctuaries for Muslim-Americans and that harassed women would still be protected? What are those preachers now to say to their congregations?

That is a hard problem, and few IFB pastors will face it.

Barnes’ article shows special concern for pastors of politically divided congregations. In our much conflicted vision, he perceptively sees a tearing at our churchly mission. Undoubtedly this is more so where churches understand and take seriously their calling from God to be Jesus Christ to the poor, the hungry, the stranger, the marginalized, the uninsured, the undocumented, the outcasts and more.

That is a hard problem, and few IFB pastors will face it.

Barnes understands the need to unite congregations while being prophetic on issues that matter, to attend deep wounds without special pleading to ‘be nice,’ and to preach into cultural divisions while also transcending opposed political platforms that shape those divisions. Barnes does not say so, but preaching requires the wisdom of Ahithophel.

That is a hard problem, and few IFB pastors will face it.

Perhaps the most trying challenge many preachers will have is to fulfill their calling and promise to love all the members of their congregation, including those the pastor believes committed grave error of judgment when they went to the polling station.

For all they may say about the pastorate being a tough job, they should have to try to navigate these political minefields, along with all the normal stuff encountered in the pastorate. The fact is, plenty of pastors are faithful while struggling every week with issues of conscience.

That is a hard problem, and few IFB pastors will face it.

Planting Seed, Cruciform Living

spreading-seed

Christians have a message and a mission. One of the good things about Christian Fundamentalism is that it knows this.

The exact wording and statistics escape me; but it has been said that people ‘forget [roughly speaking] 90% of what they hear in 48 hours, and 98% of what they hear in 72 hours.

You’d think this would be distressing for fundie preachers. You’d think it would be at least mildly amusing for their parishioners.

Seed Planted

Across the years, I have many times heard God’s people say, ‘I remember many years [i.e. decades] ago, old Reverend so-and-so once said that …’

The quote that followed would be every much like, or perhaps a close corollary to, something that the current pastor said that morning.

It occurred to me that those ‘one-liners’ which stick with people across the years — those are the things that shape the faith of God’s people. Sometimes, stuff is said or happens that brings to mind things of which we have not thought for many years. We begin to ruminate. We may do some of our best theological thought at such times. A seed was sown.

And seed sowing is important in Christian Fundamentalist circles.

But rather than coming in the form of thoughtful, reflective discussion of texts or a particular set of circumstances, seed-sowing in Christian Fundamentalism can take rather diverse forms.

It can be a sign held up at a football game referencing John 3:16.
It can be someone shouting from the back of a pickup truck.
It can be telling a parent at a graveside that their 4 year old daughter died because their spouse didn’t trust Christ.

Planting the seed is a good thing. But not all that is planted is good seed. Bad seed is planted also. So is chaff. Witness is good. But not all witness is true and faithful. And while the preacher is instructed to preach the word whether or not it is convenient [2Ti 4:2], we are also to be wise and harmless in our ways. Something is to be said for a winsome witness.

Cruciform Living

The term, ‘cruciform’ means ‘cross-shape.’ Cruciform living means that our very lives — all our works and words — are pressed into the shape of the cross in our dying and rising again. Since this includes witness and seed-sowing, perhaps we should rethink, ‘if you were do die tonight…’

Apocryphal Illustrations

Apocryphal Illustration

The Tale is Told

A preacher ascends to his pulpit to tell the story of a missionary.

A young man answered God’s call to preach the gospel in foreign parts. The congregation was ecstatic. God’s praises were proclaimed loudly. He enrolled in Bible School, took the required courses. He built his life on prayer and study of the word. On completing his studies, he returned to his home. Again, it was all celebration. A week of food and festivities.

On the eve of his departure, there was a final service of prayer. He was commissioned with the laying on of hands. This young man implored the home congregation to prayer for him — every day, and every Sunday. Pray specifically for him, his ministry, and the tribe with which he would work. Promises of faithfulness in prayer were made. And with that, he left.

Ten years later, an unknown man visited this place for a prayer meeting. His breathing was haggard, he coughed frequently. Like his health, his body was broken. He walked with a limp. After service, he stood and in a rasping voice asked to address those gathered. He explained.

‘Ten years ago, I left this place with promises that you would pray for me and for my missionary labors in a far-off tribe. Now I have returned. Tonight, I heard my name mentioned not one time. There were no prayers for me, for my health, my ministry, or the people among whom I labored.’

His disfigurement made him unrecognizable, and when he told them his name, the congregation was stunned. Weeping followed. Many confessed their prayerlessness. Revival broke out all over again.

Apocryphal Illustrations

An apocryphal illustration is a fictitious story that is told as though it were true in order to achieve a spiritual end. Some may call this manipulation, and others may call it lying. But in fundamentalism, it is beyond doubt that apocryphal illustrations and stories get people recommitted to the Lord and perhaps even outright saved.

If your heart is right with the Lord, who is going to complain about that?

Preaching and Discovering Incarnation

us-russia-syria
National Flags of Russia and United States. Superimposed over them is the National Flag of Syria in the form of a map of Syria. For those aware of current political dynamics, this image is potent and full of meaning.

If the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement ranked claims that ‘validate’ its interpretation of the Christian faith, strong preaching would be one of the top two. Yet the movement itself would never endure pointed preaching. If exceptions exist, IFBs have little patience for in-depth exploration of Scripture. Thoughtful questions little interest them, and those who want depth will find their way out of the IFB movement.

Over the years, I’ve practiced a self-made spiritual discipline that places highly disparate perspectives beside Scripture, and then teases out a kind of dialogue between them. The extra-biblical texts intentionally contain deep social antagonisms.

The intent in doing this is not to create a simplistic parody. That is not right, desirable, honest or even possible. Rather, the intent is to think about the text and social conditions creatively, deeply and incarnationally. Often, more questions than answers result. But the questions generated in this way can broaden and deepen our understanding of faith and life.

Social Antagonism:

As the Presidential election spectacle unfolds, the unmentionable reality is that US/Russian relations are quickly metastasizing with substantial risk of direct military confrontation with Russia. This means a new world war.

This also explains why Clinton’s campaign attacks Donald the Despicable from the right as being soft on Russia/Putin. A Clinton victory can then be twisted to infer that the election was a referendum on war on Russia.

The Disparate Reading:

‘With boundless hypocrisy, US State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that Russia had failed to maintain its end of the bargain…’

‘Moscow has instead made increasingly clear that it is unwilling to back down in the face of US threats to encourage Islamist terrorists to direct their attacks against Russia. After Kirby menacingly declared last week that extremists could attack “Russian interests” and even Russian cities, an ominous pronouncement given Washington’s long-standing collaboration with Jihadi terrorists, Russia shot back that any US escalation in Syria would lead to “total war” and cause “tectonic shifts” throughout the Middle East.’

— Jordan Shilton, Oct 4, 2016 in US Suspends Talks with Russia

Terrorism, Patriotism, Nationalism, Preaching

US citizens know that they are often held in contempt. But they might be surprised to learn that in part, this is because we are sometimes seen as a supporter of terrorism. Seems absurd, right? Yet it does no violence to read John Kirby’s words to mean, ‘do as we say about Syria, or we’ll introduce terrorists into Russian cities and destabilize your country.

The point here is not to debate ‘facts,’ premises or politics, or to decide who to blame. Instead, this is held up as a kind of ‘still picture’ in which the spiritual dynamics at work in the cited commentary are studied.

The Biblical Reading:

‘While He was on the way to Jerusalem, he was passing between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten leprous men who stood at a distance met Him; and they raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they were going, they were cleansed. Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine– where are they? “Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has made you well”‘ [Lu 17:11-19].

— Revised Common Lectionary, Gospel lesson for Oct 9, ’16.

Beginning Dialogue:

What are God’s kingdom interests in the John Shilton quote? How might the antagonisms of the Shilton quote inform our reading of Lu 17:11-19?

How do we understand ‘disease’ in the Biblical text? We know Hansen’s Disease [leprosy] results from bacteria; and we cannot endow bacteria with personality. But in the Biblical world, leprosy was understood to have a spiritual and religious dimension, not so unlike demonic personalities. What, if anything, might this suggest about the Shilton quote and how we understand the demonic potentialities of US/Russian relations?

How might the symbols/imagery of the story connect these two readings? If only in an ‘hypothetical’ sense, can we ‘see’ disease as spiritual power? Is it possible for us to ‘see through the eyes’ of disease? Or is it possible to see political relations as ‘diseased’ or through the eyes of disease? Can we relate the antagonisms between Jews and Samaritans to relations between the US, Russia, Syria, Israel, the Occupied Territories, Iraq, Iran, China and others? If so, what does Lu 17 suggest about these relations?

What are the worst effects of disease? Do we desire to be rid of them? Or do we cling to disease as a weapon to be used? What would it mean if the ten lepers refused to keep their distance? In today’s world, what does ‘showing yourself to the priest [i.e., to be ‘clean’] mean? Is this like transparency? Is this revealing ourselves? In what ways might threats of war or of unleashing terror relate to possession/ownership of disease?

What is revealed about spiritual pathology in ‘keeping one’s distance?’ What do alienation and reconciliation mean in the Biblical reading? What do alienation and reconciliation mean in Shilton’s quote? What is revealed about Dread and Death as demonic powers of this age? What does it mean that Christ overcame all earthly powers? How do the healed lepers in general, and the Samaritan leper in particular say about preaching Christ and praising Christ in our world?

In such a world, what does it mean to ‘turn back,’ prostrate one’s self, give thanks, praise, or be made whole? What does ‘faith’ mean in such a world? Understanding ‘prostration’ as a relinquishing of power/will, at whose feet have we ever prostrated ourselves — as a people, a nation, a church or as individuals? Will we ever do this? What might that suggest about our relationship with God as alienation or reconciliation? What does this say about our faith and wholeness and wellness?

The first question asked in this ‘Beginning Dialogue’ section was, ‘what are God’s kingdom interests in the John Shilton quote.’ If we can find no indication of God’s kingdom interests in that quote, how might that relate to the nine whose praise to God is absented from the picture? And if we can find nothing to say about God’s kingdom interests and praise in our world, what does this reveal about our church/nation grasp of the gospel?

Concluding Question:

Suppose that after prayer, a pastor’s next step in sermon writing was to prepare a list such questions for their text, and keep that before her/him as [s]he brokered issues of disease/alienation/faith/reconciliation in the life of members, the church, nation and world with the Biblical text.

What difference would that make for preaching?

Discovering Preaching:

Those who embrace what that means will never be IFBs. And we DO need that list. Whether the story is a young, unarmed man shot in the back by police, the breakdown of a cease-fire, or a story of rescue or perhaps of deep reconciliation at great, personal cost — it is simply imperative that preachers incarnationally connect faith to life. And that means that one seeks out points where life and the cross intersect.

Where life and the cross intersect, they interpret each other. And at that point, incarnational preaching happens.