Standing By Truth

I ate dinner in a church basement the other night with a group of friends and colleagues. When it was over our host dismissed us with a blessing and his assessment of our experience. It was, he assured us, the essence of Christian fellowship. This is the sort of thing one often hears at church.  At potlucks, missions conferences and the church’s services in general, we are told that we are enjoying a foretaste of heaven.

I hope not. Surely there is more to heaven than boiled beef and small conversation about last night’s game. The problem here is not really the menu or even the company-though both could stand improvement on occasion. The problem is the language we use to describe our experience. I am not condemning the art of small talk, which has a legitimate  place in the life of the church. I am criticizing the church’s slovenly approach to language and its penchant for meaningless hyperbole.

In an essay entitled “Standing by Words,” Wendell Berry speaks of the importance of fidelity to language. According to Berry “there is a necessary and indispensable connection between language and truth.” Berry states, “My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning.” As a Church which is constituted by the Word and which worships and serves the one who is called the Word, we ought to be concerned about this decline. Language matters deeply to God. Instead, we ape the culture. We resort to cheap hyperbole to describe our Christian experience. We overstate, understate, and euphemize. We are civil tongued but inveterate liars.

The good news is that there is a remedy for this. According to Ephesians 4:15 we are to “speak the truth in love.” Unfortunately, most of us are proficient in only one of these languages. Either we speak the truth but without love. Or we speak out of love but cannot bring ourselves to tell the truth. We opt for the tired path of truism and cliché. But if  we are to speak as if language matters, such half-measures will never do.

Since You Asked

I was on the radio yesterday morning. It was one of those call-in programs where people ask questions about the Bible. The regular person (the man who has all the answers) was gone. So they called me. I didn’t mind. But I’m afraid I wasn’t very good at it. My answers were too tentative. Too qualified. Too many long pauses while I tried to locate the chapter and verse. On radio the rule is talk first and think later. Or at least, think while you talk. I can do both. But I find that it usually works better if I think first.

Still, I stumbled through to the best of my ability. Do this sort of thing often enough and I suppose you eventually come up with a supply of stock answers. I have answered questions on the radio often enough to notice that they are almost always along the same line. The questions themselves are not exactly the same. But they usually fall into the same basic categories. They are the sort of questions that everyone asks:

“If God is a God of love, why is there suffering?”

“Will God really punish the wicked?”

“Are we free to choose God or does he choose us?”

“And just who does God think he is anyway?”

 About half-way through the program (somewhere between the question about the Nephilim and the one about the origin of evil) it dawned on me that most of my callers were not looking for answers so much as they were hoping for air-time. They were not asking questions. They were making a point. And they are not the only ones. We all ask questions like this. We say things like, “Is there a reason you left your unwashed dishes in the sink?” or “Do I have to do it myself?”

 These are questions but only in the technical sense of the word. They are not intended to solicit information. Not really. More often than not the answer is implied in the question. So why do we ask them? Sometimes we ask them to make the other person feel foolish. The point made by the question is self-contradictory. More often the question is intended to provoke a response. The Bible is full of these kinds of questions.

God, in particular, seems fond of them:

“Where are you?”

“Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

“Who do people say I am?”

 If the Bible is any indication, we are just as prone to ask such questions of God:

“How long, O Lord, how long?”

“Will not the judge of all the earth do right?”

“Are you the One who was to come, or should we expect another?”

 Usually, our aim in asking God such questions is the same as my callers. We hope to make a point. We want God to see the inconsistency of his position. We aim to provoke him to action. And sometimes, we are even interested in his answer.

John’s latest book is coming in September. You can find out more about it at follygraceandpower.com.

Read John’s article on “the trajectory of worship” in the March issue of Christianity Today.

Are You “The One?”

During a faculty workshop on leadership yesterday, it occurred to me that churches and Christian organizations are drawn to messianic models of leadership. Our prayers and search processes seek to reveal “the one” who will lead us into the organizational land of promise. Occasionally the search uncovers an individual who ushers in a “golden age” which lasts only as long as that leader’s tenure and is usually un-repeatable.

More often it results in disappointment. The search for a messianic leader proves unfruitful and the organization settles for an “ordinary” person who must lead in the face of unrealistically high expectations and the inevitable criticism that comes when their leadership falls short of the ideal. This cycle of search and disappointment is mirrored by leaders who share the same kind of idealism in their expectations of those who are led. The gypsy church member who wanders from church to church in a futile hunt for the ideal pastor has its parallel in the restless pastor who moves from congregation to congregation searching for “teachable” elders or a “responsive” flock.

The most revealing moment in the workshop for me came when the presenter cited Patrick Lencioni’s observation that functional teams succeed because they “acknowledge the imperfections of their humanity.”  This is not the natural tendency of idealistic cultures. Because we expect so much of our leaders, we are more prone to criticize their imperfections than to acknowledge them.

No wonder we are so often disappointed. If Lencioni is right, the first step to successful leadership does not lie in finding the perfect leader but in accepting our collective imperfections as a leadership team. Lencioni’s observation assumes that leadership is a community rather than an individual discipline. It is a messy practice marked by imperfect choices, occasional chaos and constructive conflict.

Downward Facing Dog

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
Image via Wikipedia

 

 Al Mohler made headlines recently when he criticised the practice of yoga. According to an Associated Press report, Mohler stated that yoga’s idea that the body is a vehicle for reaching consciousness with the divine is “just not Christianity.”    

Of course, Christians who practice yoga are not using it to reach the divine consciousness. They are hoping for a more earthly benefit. They want to relieve tension, lose weight or tone their muscles. They are pragmatists not religious syncretists. Though I suppose the one may too easily lead to the other.    

In view of Mohler’s criticism and in the spirit of full disclosure, I feel that I must confess that I too have dabbled in yoga. That is to say, I tried the yoga module on Wii Sports. But not for long. I think it was the pose called “downward facing dog” that defeated me. I tried to follow the directions but somehow it turned into “Fat Man Without a Natural Sense of Balance.” I must admit that at that time I did not question the spiritual roots of yoga. Only whether it was really possible for me to arrange my limbs in the position I saw displayed on the screen. And who would help me get out of it if I succeeded.    

Working For God: Part I

Before I entered the ministry I worked for the General Motors Corporation trudging up and down the floors of the company’s world headquarters in downtown Detroit delivering telegrams. Every floor seemed to have its own culture. There were the computer technicians in their white lab coats in the basement who always seemed glad to see me. A few floors up the sales managers greeted one another in the hallway and talked about their golf game. I could feel the competitive tension between them when I stepped out of the elevator. 

High above us all, like the gods of Olympus, the president and vice–presidents were housed on the fourteenth floor. Visitors gained access to their wing by passing through a large glass door that served as a kind of veil into the holy of holies of the corporation. All who entered underwent the scrutiny of a stern looking security guard. This floor was a place of dark wood and dim light. The air was heavy with important decisions. Intimidated, I passed through those offices like a ghost, rarely speaking and barely noticed.

Although I liked my job, I spent much of my time wishing I could be doing something more “meaningful.” Eventually, I got my wish. I quit working for the automobile company and entered the realm of “vocational ministry.” I soon discovered that “full–time–ministry” had much in common with the world of work I thought I was leaving behind. It is tedious at times. It too has its share of mind numbing meetings that seem to go on forever and produce little result. I found that those in the Christian workplace could be driven by the same goals and beset by the same problems as their secular counterparts. I should not have been surprised. While I consider my chosen vocation to be more than a job, it is still work. This is not a bad thing. “Work,” Eugene Peterson has observed, “is the primary context for our spirituality.”

Ministry is my vocation. It is also my career. This is both a blessing and a curse. Its curse is that it means I am tempted to approach my vocation with the mentality of the hireling. One who is merely a hired hand will do the work but will not take responsibility for the outcome. The hireling does only what must be done and will do no more. When the task demands more than expected, one who is merely hireling does not possess the degree of commitment required to meet the challenge (cf. John 10:12–13).

Yet despite this threat, it should be noted that Jesus Himself introduced the metaphor of the “worker” into Christian ministry. It was Jesus who sent the disciples out and told them that “the worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). The apostle Paul used this standard as the basis for his guidelines to those who provide for the church’s elders (1 Tim. 5:17–18). Because my vocation and my career are the same, I enjoy the privileged of devoting myself without distraction to the calling that I love. I don’t have to try to fit it in around my regular job.

Those who direct the affairs of the church are worthy of “honor.” Those who labor in preaching and teaching are especially deserving.  Ministry is our work. It is good work, worthy of our time and energy. Hard as it sometimes is, it is work that is well worth the reward which is yet to come.

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #10: Feeling Inadquate

Anyone who has seriously considered all the challenges a pastor must face cannot help feeling inadequate. The task is immense. The stakes are high and the things which are most important to us in our ministry are usually things over which we have little or no control. Like the apostle Paul we ask, “Who is equal to such a task?” (2 Cor. 2:16).

 The answer to this question is that we are equal to the task. Not because of the strength of our personality, our native intelligence or even because of our spirituality. Instead, “our competence comes from God” (2 Cor. 3:5). Despite this biblical assurance, feelings of inadequacy do not magically disappear once we enter the ministry. They may even increase the longer we serve, as we discover just how dependent upon God we are for success. Nevertheless, God has promised to make us “competent ministers of the new covenant.”  

 This demands an important caveat. The competence that the Bible promises is mission specific. It is a competence related to the gospel. Contrary to popular dogma, you cannot do “anything you set your mind to.” In the body of Christ the eye is not meant to function like the hand. God supplies ability to each according to their gifts and calling. John Newton warns, “If you had the talents of an angel, you could do no good with them till his hour is come, and till he leads you to the people whom he has determined to bless by your means.”

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #9: Preaching Beyond Our Experience

Pastor4
Image via Wikipedia

 

I once heard a pastor lament, “My prayer is better than my preaching and my preaching is better than my life.” One of the great challenges of the pulpit is that of preaching beyond our experience. We are the first to feel the sting of the sermon’s reproach. In preaching against the sins of others, we censure ourselves. This is not hypocrisy. Those preach to others must preach to themselves first (Ro. 2:21; 1 Cor. 9:27).  

Preaching also takes me beyond my own experience because by it I offer hope for those whose sin or suffering may exceed my own. I do not have to have personally experienced all that those who hear me have experienced in order to speak with authority about their situation. I do not need to become an alcoholic to offer hope to the alcoholic or an adulterer to speak with authority to the adulterer. Jesus has already “been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). The word of hope that I have to offer is based on his experience not my own.  

 One obvious implication of this challenge is that those who preach must do so with humility. We do not speak as those who have mastered all the disciplines of grace. There may be many in the congregation who are further along in their walk with God than we are. But we need to be just as wary of exaggerating our sins for the sake of credibility as we are of exaggerating our victories. We do not preach ourselves but Christ. It is God’s word not our personal experience that is the standard by which others should measure themselves.  

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #8: Prophet or Priest?

I first felt a calling to preach when I was in my teens. To my surprise my mother, who was not a church going woman, beamed with pride when I told her about my intention. “Oh, Johnny,” she gushed, “you’d make a darling minister.” I did not want to mouth poetry in a clergyman’s tame frock. Camel’s hair and thundering declamation were more my style. I aspired to the prophet’s mantle.

 The parallel between the preacher and the prophet is obvious. But prophet is not the only metaphor that should shape our pulpit ministry. There is also a priestly dimension. Priests, like prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s word (Lev. 10:11).  The priest, however, differed from the prophet because he shouldered an additional burden, serving as the people’s advocate. Priests were not only “selected from among men” but were “appointed to represent them” (Heb. 5:1).

 Like the priest, the preacher does not stand apart from those who hear but is called from among them in order to sympathize with them.  Whenever we take our place before God’s people to declare his word, we also take upon ourselves this responsibility advocacy. We may stand above or before the congregation in order to be seen or for the sake of acoustics, but our true location is in their midst. We speak to the people but we are also for them.

 The key to priestly advocacy is identification. This means that the priest/preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the word of God on their behalf. The prophetic nature of preaching gives us authority to make demands of the listener. But it is the priestly nature of preaching obligates us to make demands of the text. It compels us to take our cue from the patriarchs, the psalms and the apostles, as well as from the prophets, and ask God to justify himself: Will not the judge of the earth do right? How long, O Lord? Why have you afflicted us?

Our priestly responsiblity compels us to give voice to the silent questions that plague our listeners. Our prophetic obligation means that we will refuse to smooth out the sharp edges of the text. These two dimensions work in harmony.

Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #5: Living Under Scrutiny

Every pastor feels the pressure of living under scrutiny. It is not the pressure of living in a “glass house” that creates difficulties so much as it is the burden of expectation. Often church members hold the pastor to a double standard, expecting far more of him than they do of themselves.

 Some expectations are warranted. James warns those who teach that they will be “judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Does he mean that they are held to a higher standard? Or simply that those who prove to be hypocrites will be condemned more severely? He is at least implying that teachers will be held to their word.

 Unfortunately, congregations do not always limit their expectation to the pastor. Sometimes the entire family feels pressured to live by a standard that church members do not always apply to themselves. The embittered pastors’ child is so common it is almost a cliché. The factors that contribute to this are complex and not always easily addressed. But a basic starting point is our recognition that no matter what some church members (and a few pastoral parents) may think, God does not hold the children of clergy to a higher standard. They are not more holy than other children. Though there are certainly some benefits to growing up in a pastor’s home, this “privilege” also has its drawback.

The children of pastors are exposed to the inconsistencies of the church more than other children in the congregation. They hear the criticisms leveled against the pastor and feel the pain when he is mistreated.

 You cannot avoid the scrutiny of the congregation. Nor can you keep others from having unrealistic expectations. But you don’t have to live up to a double standard. Nor are you required to enforce their expectations upon your family.

 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God. 1 Cor. 4:1-5

Challenges Pastors Face-#4: Ministry to those in Distress

Trouble is Heaven’s goad. God applies it to good purpose in the life of the believer and unbeliever alike. For the unbeliever suffering often serves as God’s rude awakening, a sharp slap intended to bring the sinner to his senses. It is a measure of the deceitfulness of sin that this aim cannot be achieved unless suffering is also accompanied by the grace of God. When suffering enters the believer’s life, it functions like the potter’s hand that shapes the clay. Distress is the discipline which proves that God is treating us as his children.

This means that those who seek the pastor are usually hurting. Alexandre Vinet notes: “the principle occasion of religion and the ministry is suffering.” The pastor is exposed to the difficulties of the church more than anyone else. Many who come to him are suffering from self inflicted wounds. Often they expect the pastor to repair in a few minutes what has taken years to tear down. The nature of the difficulties the pastor must deal with run the entire gamut from physical to emotional to moral problems. The pastor sees people at their worst and is aware of the church’s deepest flaws, exposure that  can lead to depression or disillusionment. There is no “magic bullet” that will eliminate distress from the lives of those to whom we minister. More often than not our place is not to offer a quick fix but to exercise the ministry of presence. It is enough to be with people in their distress and serve as a reminder of God’s presence with them. Even if we could make the trouble disappear, we might not be doing them a favor.

But the natural discomfort we feel over their discomfort makes us especially vulnerable to what Jeremy Begbie has called “the pathology of sentimentality.” The sentimentalist, Begbie points out, cannot engage in another’s pain as pain or face up to another’s negative features. Those who sentimentalize the distress of the congregation are compelled to “keep on the sunny side of life.” Begbie is writing about the effect of this pathology on worship and notes how music in the contemporary church has sometimes been “deployed as a narcotic, blurring the jagged memories of the day-to-day world, rather than as a means by which the Holy Spirit can engage those memories and begin to heal them.” In the same way, the pastor is tempted to speak when he ought to be silent, offering up platitudes in the face of distress. Such words, though well meant, can blunt the sharp edged lesson God intends to teach through distress. In such cases it would be better if we were silent.

Perhaps it is time that we crossed over from the sunny side and joined God in the shadows.

See Jeremy Begbie’s excellent essay entitled “Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts” in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, edited by Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands and Roger Lundin (InterVarsity): http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=2843