I’ve been accused of saying controversial things. Don’t know whether I could ever be convicted or not. Even very recently I have been taken to task over some things that I’ve said, things that I felt were smack dab right down the middle of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. In the famous words of the movie, “Cool Hand Luke” and later “Smokey and the Bandit,” what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.
So, just for giggles and grins I thought I would explain my view of why preachers (and bloggers) sometimes say controversial things.
1. Sometimes they are jerks. There, I said it. I knew some of you would be looking for this one, so I decided to start off with it. Yes, some preachers are jerks – obnoxious morons who go through life with the motto, “I’m not happy until everyone around me is unhappy.” Of course there is no defense for these people, and I hope I do not fit that category.
2. Sometimes they are just clumsy. They are not intentionally rude, crude and socially unacceptable, it just seems like if there is a way to mis-state something or make a comment at the wrong time they manage to find and take advantage of that opportunity.
3. Conversely, some people have 10 sore thumbs, and they spend their day doing nothing but searching for hammers to stick those sore thumbs under so that they can yell and kick and scream at the one who wielded the hammer. In other words, what the preacher said was not so controversial, it was the ears of the person who heard it that caused the problem. I can relate here. I have had my fair share of people who are incapable of hearing what I said. Even if I plainly said, “I don’t believe in ‘X’” I would have the person walk up to me and challenge me in that “I’m concerned about your salvation” tone of voice, “Why do you believe in ‘X’.” Honestly, what do you do with such a person?
Those were all pretty bad reasons for a preacher either to be controversial, or to be accused of being controversial. Now let’s look at some other reasons:
4. The naming of sin is controversial. If he does his job well, the preacher must hold his congregation to a higher standard than what the world sets forth. That means he must not only name sin, he must condemn it. A preacher who never challenges his congregation, a preacher who always makes his flock feel better about themselves and the world around them, and a preacher who believes it is his task to make his congregation “happy, happy, happy” is not worth listening to. The “Good News,” the gospel, must be preached in its entirety (and thus there must always be the proclamation of redemption) but the message of mankind’s fall from grace must precede that message of redemption. When you start naming sins, you start becoming controversial. No one likes to hear their pet character flaw be named as a sin that would separate them from God.
5. If he is to do his job well, a preacher must spend a large portion of his time on the mountain talking with God. If he does so intently and humbly, when he comes down from that mountain his face should be shining with the glory of God. That means the words he speaks, having received them from God, will be threatening for the people who hear it. (Ref. Exodus 34:29f). Please note: I say this by way of illustration, not literally. But a man who spends time in the presence of a holy God is going to preach different from someone who simply reads commentaries and the daily newspaper. His words should be controversial – unless he is preaching to a congregation of God’s cherubim and seraphim.
6. Related to #5, this world is a bent and broken place. When you try to fix a bent piece of metal or warped piece of wood you face resistance. Once a body reaches a certain state of being, it will resist any attempt to change that status. What “is” becomes what “ought to be.” The only problem is, what “is” is very rarely what God wants it to be. Therefore, in order to change, there has to be some discomfort, some pain. That pain is frequently identified as the preacher being controversial. He is, but intentionally and biblically so. God intends his spokesmen to be controversial in order to change what “is” into what “ought to be.”
I know points 4, 5, and 6 are closely related, but each has its own little nuance. I hope they make sense. Simply put, I believe in the message of Ezekiel 3:16ff. If a man feels called by God to proclaim the words of God, some of what he says (albeit not everything he says) will be controversial. If it is not, then I believe that minister is simply failing to be the watchman that he is called to be.
A personal confession here. While I have been all too guilty of reasons 1 and 2 above, I feel that to an even greater extent I have failed in my duties as a preacher and “watchman.” I have avoided controversy, sometimes at all costs, and I have been too quick to retreat when I should have spurred my faithful steed and charged into the battle. It is difficult, sometimes exceptionally so, for a young minister to know where the line is and when it is more valuable to cross it and when he should back away from it. No one should ever be a jerk, and it does not help to be clumsy. I have been guilty of being both. I need to work on that. But I also know I have been rock solid, straight-as-an-arrow right about something, and I have pulled back simply because I have not wanted to “rock the boat.” I need to work on that weakness as well. I do not want the “failure to communicate” to be my failure to stand for what is right and true.
Controversy can be, and often is, a blight upon a preacher’s ministry. But it need not be, and it should go without saying that if there is never any controversy then perhaps the preacher is simply following the sheep and not tending them. What is sinful is not the existence of controversy, but the mishandling of that controversy. Does the preacher need to be rebuked? Do so in a biblical and spiritual manner. But, why is controversy always the fault of the preacher? On the other hand, does the complainer need to be rebuked? Paul plainly and clearly rebuked Peter, and John openly rebuked Diotrephes. Unless we are to assume that both Paul and John were blatant sinners and disturbers of the peace, we have to understand that sometimes a wayward, belligerent or complaining church member needs to be told to straighten up and fly right.
There I go, being controversial again.
Just sitting here ruminating on a subject that has been festering for a while. I really do not know who to address this to, so it will just be an open letter – directed at no one in particular and a lot of people in general.
To all those who are fed up with, cannot stand, and are otherwise angry at the church. I think I get your message. I want to say “I think” because to say “I fully understand” would be presumptuous. Because I have not met you personally, you may not fit every description that I mention in what follows. So, let me begin on a foundation of humility. I want to understand where you are coming from, and to a certain degree I think I get you. And, whether you believe me or not, in many areas I agree with you. But still, there is a yawning chasm between the two of us that bothers me…
The overwhelming majority of you are in your third decade of life. Some are much older, some are younger. That tells me that the majority of you simply have not had the opportunity to experience so much of life that longevity teaches. You may have traveled extensively, you may have lived with the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. But, you are still young. Youth has its advantages, to be sure. But youth also has its severe limitations. There is a reason that God turned the leadership of the church over to a group of individuals we refer to as elders. Age does a lot of things to our bodies, but it is an incredible teacher for our hearts and minds. So, I am not necessarily criticizing you for your youth, but I am making a point. You have not seen a lot of things and experienced a lot of life simply because you are not old enough to have done so. Hang around a while – you will.
That leaves some of you who are my age and older who still angry at the church but for entirely different reasons. Maybe something I say will speak to you as well, but I fear the issues you have need another letter. Increased chronological age does not necessarily equate to increased maturity. An angry senior citizen is no improvement over an angry toddler.
I want to tell you that we – the older generation that you seem to be so bent on overcoming – have been where you have been and we have done what you are doing. With our grandfathers, or maybe for some of us our fathers, it was the “social gospel.” For many others of us it was that promising panacea called “youth ministry.” Then there was the “bus ministry.” Our pet phrase was “ministry with a social conscience.” Then we were saved by becoming “seeker sensitive.” We were given a healthy dose of “purpose driven.” Now we are told the only thing that can save us to to become “emergent” “incarnational” or “missional.” Next up – “discipling.” We have been transfixed with Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and now Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. It has become so confusing that we need a scorecard to keep up with all the slogans and phrases and personalities. It’s just that we – the old gray head set – need bifocals to read all the small print.
As a member of the “traditional, fundamentalist, backward, Luddite” generation that provides so much of the anger that you are venting, I would like to suggest that you take a moment to analyze why it is that we are so wary of your efforts. After reading volumes of your books, scanning your blogs and watching your You Tube videos, I would gently like to suggest that you criticize without offering the least indication you have attempted to understand what it is you are criticizing. You think that you are criticizing the “established, traditional, fundamentalist church” but who you are actually criticizing are people. Real people. People who have stood where you are standing and who have asked the same questions and who have been through a lot more fights and defeats than you have.
You come across as selfish, arrogant, narcissistic, and vain. The very traits, I would suggest, that you criticize us for being.
You preach a tolerance of ideas and practices and yet you ridicule and reject the values and beliefs of the generations who have gone before you.
And, I say again lest I be misunderstood, we can recognize these failings because we pioneered them. You are simply perfecting the faults we instilled within you. But I hasten to add – the fact you have perfected them is no honor.
If we are hesitant to accept your panacea for church renewal I suggest that it is because we are tired of the rhetoric – the empty promises and of dealing with the burned out remains of ours and previous failures. The generation that is older than I am had to deal with me – they heard the same empty promises and they dealt with the same blown-up congregations and they had to pull out the bandages and try to put broken people and lives back together. And my generation blithely walked away from all the carnage and smugly patted ourselves on the back for being such faithful and devoted disciples of the Prince of Peace. Until it happened to us. Now we see the same thing that our forefathers experienced and it gives us a lot of heartbreak. We cannot undo what we did, but we are not much interested in having the same thing happen to us.
Believe me, many of us are looking for something better! We have not lost the idealism of our youth, but the scars and the broken bones have taught us to be a little careful about how we go about instigating change. We may need bifocals to read our old leather-bound Bibles, but we can see through the dim lights of your “new” worship. We may need hearing aids, but we hear nothing of substance in your theologically vapid praise bands. And we can smell a rat through the fog of your incense.
So, please – if you are asking us to give you the courtesy of listening to the next one greatest discovery that will save the church from every evil that befalls it, give us the courtesy of realizing we have heard this song before. We sang it too. We even added a few verses and an endless repeating chorus. Realize that we are not your enemy until you back us into a corner and give us no other option but to either leave or fight back. Yes, there are individuals who are my age and older who have demonized every word you say and every idea you put forward. I do not like them any more than you do. I reject their rhetoric and their hateful attitudes. Every mansion has a few cobwebs in the corners.
I appreciate your enthusiasm for the Lord and His church. I appreciate that you are not only willing, but also very capable of the skill of analysis and problem solving. I would suggest that one skill you are lacking significantly is the skill of the appreciation of history – your history, and your immediate history to be exact. I would also like to suggest that unless you seek to remedy this gap in your resume you will find yourself in an interesting situation in about 20 years or so – give or take a few.
You will be exactly where I am, peering through your new pair of bi-focals, writing an open letter to your children and grandchildren who have discovered the next latest and greatest saving prescription for the church they have discovered is old and stale and irrelevant.
The very church you are in the process of creating.
An old guy who is willing to listen, but justifiably cautious about swallowing every idea just because it is new.
Please, learn to be comfortable in your own skin.
I grew up as many people do, thinking that I had to be something that I was not, and quite honestly, was never, ever, going to be able to become. It is, to be perfectly blunt, a lousy way to live. But so many of us are conditioned by society (parents, school mates, teachers, preachers, trusted adults, etc) to think this way that it seems rather abnormal to find someone who just wants to be who they are, regardless of their cultural preconditions. With me it was not my parents (who were and are amazingly supportive) but rather the larger culture in which I was raised.
Just a couple of examples. For many, many years I was led to believe that I had to be an evangelist or else I was going to be a second class citizen of heaven (or worse.) My eternal fate would be sealed by the number of persons who would tell St. Peter at the pearly gates who baptized them. If I met that magical number of inclusion into the sainted masses, well then I was in. Miss it by one or two and I might as well learn how to love sulphur and brimstone.
It took me quite a while to find Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. It seems to me that the apostle Paul was quite satisfied to admit that not everyone could be, or even should be, an evangelist. Isn’t it amazing to discover that someone who beats you over the head with a Bible has missed such a huge part of it? Now, don’t get me wrong – I love preaching and teaching. I will study the Bible with anyone, anytime. But I am most certainly NOT a personal evangelist and I never will be one. But, I learned that is okay. I had to learn how to be content in my own skin.
When I got out of preaching (for a while) I became a pilot. Now, in the pilot world the equivalent of being a personal evangelist is being the captain of a Boeing 747 or Airbus jumbo jet. I was a little bit older, but I was still driven by the concept that I had to perform at a certain level or that somehow I was just not good enough, or that I still had some mountain to climb. Quite honestly I did not want to pay the price to become a captain of a Boeing 747, so failing to meet that expectation did not hurt too much. But I learned something valuable along the way. New generation Boeings and Airbuses basically fly themselves. And, for the piloting part that the plane does not fly itself there is a crew of two highly trained and very proficient pilots. In the job that I had (flying freight for a small company) all I had was me and a plane that as often as not did not even have a functioning auto pilot. And when I did get a plane with an functioning auto pilot all it did was keep the wings level and the altitude steady. I still had to fly the plane through weather that ducks would not fly into, and I had to do it by myself. That, my friends, is really piloting an airplane. I learned that the big boys could sit on the tarmac and swelter in 110 degree heat all they wanted to. I was going to enjoy flying my little Cessna 402 and 404 and really enjoy flying the airplane. Chalk up another lesson in being content in my own skin.
During my brief stint as a hospice chaplain I had the supervisor from Gehenna. This person was not happy with anything that I did (well, with one notable exception). I did not visit enough, or I visited too much. I did not give enough counsel or I gave too much. Once I met with a family at their request and had a wonderful session. The next week I was called on the carpet for not involving another “team” member (who, by the way, never included me in their meetings with families). It was utter misery. But, my skin was getting thicker and I knew who I was, what I was capable of (and, equally important, not capable of) and so finally I just chucked the whole situation in my supervisors lap and walked away. No one has the right to make another person miserable for doing a job to the best of the person’s ability and giftedness.
I now find myself as an educator and administrator. I find out daily that I am gifted in ways I did not fully realize, and I find out daily that I am a real klutz at things that I once thought I was good at, or at least was going to be good at. But, I’m nearing the age where I could be considered a “classic” (although far from “antique”) and maybe for the first time in my life I can say with quiet calm – I’m good with my gifts and I am cool with my limitations. I cannot take credit for the first, and I refuse to be blamed for the second. I am mortal, and every mortal is good at something and bad at others. I may not be a personal evangelist, but how many personal evangelists have landed an airplane full of critical documents, medicines and other essential freight at an airport shrouded in fog where the visibility is one half of a mile and the overhead ceiling is 200 feet? And in an airplane going over 100 miles an hour? Hmmmmm?
Two words of caution here. One, I am not speaking of throwing up your hands and saying, “that’s just the way I am, get over it” if you are behaving in a way that is truly counter to Kingdom behavior. I am not saying be happy if you are living in a sinful relationship or condition. God expects all people everywhere to live according to His standards, His criteria. I am not giving you permission to dismiss God’s word or the teachings of his Son.
Two, just because I may not be gifted in some areas, or even if I am gifted in other areas, that does not mean I cannot try to improve where I feel God has called me. I want to become a better preacher, teacher and administrator. I would not even mind becoming a better personal evangelist. But I must use God’s standards for my life, not the standards of someone else who is exceptionally gifted in one particular area, and who cannot accept or refuses to accept that not everyone is as gifted as they are in that area.
Get comfortable in your own skin. God made you to be someone special – find the dirt where you feel especially happy and bloom where you are planted.
And don’t let some supervisor from Gehenna tell you that you are worthless. God sent his Son to die for you to tell you you are priceless!
I was having a bad day. Nothing earth shattering, just the usual accumulation of junk and garbage that can turn a sunny day into a cloudy one. I was feeling peevish and just a little out of sorts so I posted something on a social media site that I considered to be witty and expressive of the kind of day I was having.
Then I received the phone call.
A young father had been killed in a car accident. Dozens, if not hundreds, of lives were instantaneously broken. A few will never completely be put back together. Those that are able to move beyond the immediate tragedy will always carry the scar of the gaping wound in their life.
All at once my peevish outlook turned utterly repugnant. I was concerned about a mole hill, perhaps not even a decent sized molehill, and others were facing an emotional earthquake. I removed my trite and now worthless little rant and prayed that no one had seen it, or if they did, that they would not pay any attention to it.
I was visiting with a student who was experiencing what I would consider to be legitimate and worthy feelings of pain related to a personal issue. In the midst of this person’s grief they sobbed, “I feel so guilty because I know there are others who have it so much worse.” Ouch. Here was a young person desperately attempting to make sense of a situation that was beyond any sense being made of it, and yet they were looking through the lens of seeing the suffering of others.
My self-pity just took another hit. When I make a mistake, I really do it up good.
When we view our own miseries and discomforts it is always beneficial to ask, “From what perspective have we judged this particular pain or sorrow?” More often than not it is strictly selfish and far more often than not, it is fatalistic. Everything revolves around ME and every crisis is equal to or greater than the ending of the world.
Now do not get me wrong here – there are tragic accidents and vicious acts of violence and there are always many, many people who are left to pick of the pieces of their shattered lives. And there are many more situations where a person is attempting to bear up under a load of guilt and pain that far exceeds what they should be asked to carry. Like it or not, accept it or not, there are just evil people in the world and they inflict far more than their share of evil and misery upon others. All too often the innocent pay the greater price for the behavior of the guilty.
I guess I am just rambling here – trying to think in pixels and disjointed sentences about what I have experienced in my own life lately.
I want to tell my young friend, and many others, that it is perfectly okay to scream at God and to cry with the psalmist, “May God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” (Ps. 22:1) It has been the cry of the persecuted faithful for millennia. Jesus cried out in pain; what makes us think we are better than the Son of God? When life truly kicks us and knocks us down we receive no consolation by making believe that the dirt being ground into our flesh is actually quite valuable for growing petunias.
On the other hand, there is an eternity’s worth of difference between experiencing a rough day at the office to losing a father, a life’s mate, a son, a co-worker and trusted leader. What right do we have to compare a small sprinkle to a tsunami? Our selfishness very quickly devolves from the absurd to the obscene.
It is all about perspective. I want to (no doubt with greater and lesser degrees of success) view things from the perspective of the Kingdom from now on. I reserve the right to cry out in pain and sorrow to my God, but I pray that I will only do so when the “cords of death” encircle me.
I pray for my young friend. I pray for those devastated by the loss, or the impending loss, of a husband, wife, son, daughter, mother, father, dear friend. There are reasons to mourn for 40 days. Do not short-circuit those righteous emotions. God gave them to you. Own them with dignity.
It is all a matter of perspective. May God grant us a Kingdom vision.
Before I get to the theology, permit me a little comic diversion…
A very prim and proper old spinster called the police to report her neighbors involved in lewd and unbecoming behavior. The vice squad arrived at her apartment and began their investigation. The lady pointed out a window and told the officers if they looked toward her neighbor’s house they could see all kinds of activity that she was quite certain violated most of the Levitical code of sexual behavior, if not all of it. The officers looked out the window and saw nothing. “We’re sorry, ma’am, but there is simply nothing that we can see to substantiate your report” they told the lady. “Sure you can!” the lady retorted, “All you have to do is pull the dresser over to the window, climb on top and crane your head out the window and you can see all kinds of sin!”
Please don’t ask me where I get my jokes.
Of all my “15 Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection” I think I have the most fun with #8. It is certainly one that I feel like deserves a lot more attention from the pulpits and class lecterns in our churches. For those of you who do not have my 15 Truths memorized, here it is -
8. If you have to rely on just one single verse of Scripture, or some obscure variant reading of the original text, or an obscure definition of grammar or of a word or phrase in the original language, then your conclusion regarding that passage of Scripture is in serious trouble.
I am variously amused, stunned and terrified by the bizarre conclusions some “theologians” make concerning certain passages of Scripture. Maybe not so much by the actual conclusion, but by the tortured and strained “logic” that is used to justify and defend the conclusion. I am certainly no stranger to coming up with the wrong understanding of a text. But at least I hope I am using the proper tools in the proper manner. Anyone can make an incorrect mathematical calculation, but it takes a real genius to apply the rules of algebra to the process of theology. That, I fear, is what many preachers and teachers attempt to do.
A large part of this problem, I must admit, is the manner in which we train our pulpit ministers. (And by “we” here I am referring to the only group of which I can speak with first hand knowledge, and that is the Churches of Christ.) For example, we teach the skills of using the Greek and Hebrew languages without really enforcing the why of using those tools. My favorite example of this is the Greek word ekklesia. The common English word used in translation is “church.” So, years ago somebody noticed that the word ekklesia could be made up of two smaller Greek words, ek, meaning “out of” and kaleo meaning “called.” So, ispso facto and abracadabra and rub-a-dub-dub we come up with a fine three-point sermon based on the incontrovertible proof of the Greek language that the “church” is the “called out” people of God.
Believe me, I’ve preached the sermon. And it is just wrong. It is not right. It is using algebra to prove a linguistic point. It sounds so right, and it looks so good on paper, but you just cannot get there from here. The more I replay the sermons (note the plural) that I have preached using this methodology the more my head hurts. I do pray that God is lenient with his young preachers.
The fact is that the word ekklesia is one of two primary words that the Greeks used to translate the Hebrew word qahal, meaning assembly, or congregation. The other significant word was “synagogue.” When the Jews translated their Hebrew Scriptures into Greek they chose the word “synagogue” as the primary word to equal qahal. So, in the early church the writers were faced with a choice – they could use the word synagogue and attempt to explain the wide difference between a Christian synagogue and a Jewish synagogue, or they could appropriate another word that did not have the attached religious meaning that came with “synagogue.” They chose ekklesia and for good reason. But not for the reason that it is made up of the words “out of” and “called.”
How could I dare make such a hideous accusation? Well, because the text of the New Testament bears the weight of cross-examination, for one reason. Turn to Acts 19 beginning with v. 23. Paul has angered one Demetrius, a silversmith whose livelihood is endangered by Paul’s preaching. So, Demetrius whips up the emotions of his fellow silversmiths and artisans and they get the whole city into an uproar and everybody heads down to the theatre to figure this whole thing out. For at least two hours there is a great cry and hullabaloo and Luke tells us that Paul wanted to enter into the theatre to speak to the “crowd” that was assembled (the Greek word in v. 30 is demos, meaning crowd or assembly). Eventually a cool-headed town clerk arrives and lets everyone know that the whole group is in grave danger of violating the rules of proper conduct and they should all go home. Three times in this passage the word ekklesia is used as a synonym for demos - in v. 32, 39, and 41. Now, it is never translated “church” in any translation that I know of, and for good reason. The mob in the theatre was not a church, but it was an assembly. They were not the “called out” of God. There was no super spiritual meaning attached to the ekklesia that wanted to remove Paul’s head from his shoulders. It was a mob of angry and confused people. But our inspired writer Luke properly identified it as an ekklesia because it was that. It was an assembly, synonymous with a demos.
Would we attempt to divine the meaning of the word “butterfly” from the cognate words “butter” and “fly”? That is, would we identify a butterfly as a disgusting little winged vermin that somehow is connected to processed milk? The thought is ludicrous. Let us not even consider what would happen if we tried to do the same thing with “babysitter.” But we routinely do the very same thing with Greek words and the results are just as mystifying. Entertaining, perhaps, but mystifying none-the-less.*
I could go on at some length, but I hope my point has been made. If we build our theological mansion on one single verse, or if we have to refer to some obscure, or fanciful, or strained definition of some Greek or Hebrew word to justify our theological position we are standing on quicksand. The manner in which we do this is legion. Just because we do so frequently does not make the process right.
I hope I have made it clear that I am not guiltless in making these mistakes. I do hope that I am a little more aware of the pitfalls and so I am a little more guarded in the words I use. I may still believe that the church is the “called out” of God, but I will never use the Greek morphology of the word ekklesia to prove my point. I may or may not believe that God created the world in six 24 hour periods, but I cannot use the Hebrew word yom as my proof. I may or may not believe Jesus could create intoxicating wine, but I cannot base my conclusions on the Greek word oinos. And I certainly cannot build an entire theological enterprise upon a word that does not appear in the text.
Let’s don’t be guilty of pulling the dresser over to the window to see something that we should never be interested in seeing in the first place.
*I am indebted to the book Exegetical Fallacies 2nd Ed. (Baker Academic: 2008) by D.A. Carson for helping me see the errors of my youth, and for these examples. I highly recommend anyone who is interested in this subject to acquire this book and study it. You may not agree with every conclusion that Carson makes, but the book will certainly make you a more careful exegete.
It begins when we are very young. We ask a question and someone laughs at us. Or we ask a question and someone tells us we have asked a stupid question. Or we are told there are no stupid questions, so we ask a question and the non-verbal response lets us know right away that the teacher or whoever truly does believe that we asked a stupid question. Or, we asked a question and the person in charge got the impression we did not know what we were doing, so they took our job away, or we did not get the promotion, or we found our responsibilities curtailed. It does not take long in our culture today to break someone of the habit of asking questions. There is probably no place on earth that is more devoid of honest, soul-searching questions than a Bible class or other assembly. A person might be willing to ask a question of fact (assuming there is a sense of safety in doing so), but rarely will a person ask a question that reveals any serious doubt or insecurity inherent in the person asking the question.
That is really a sad commentary on how we view questions, and the importance of questions in developing a healthy faith. Read through the gospels, for example, and take note of how many times Jesus is approached with questions. They represent not necessarily questions of fact (although many of the questions appear on the surface to be questions of fact), but the majority of the questions penetrate much deeper than just “yes/no” type of questions. Our gospel accounts would be significantly shorter if Jesus had responded to every question with a “what a stupid question” kind of response.
As a minister I felt this issue creates one of the major short-comings of our modern concept of the sermon. It is all one-way communication. At least it is in the predominantly white, middle class, mid-level high church in which I grew up. (Mid level because we were certainly not liturgical, but eschewed Pentecostalism with a fervor.) Many has been the time that I have been listening to a sermon and I really, really wanted to raise my hand and blurt out, “You don’t really mean what you just said, do you?” but I have felt just the slightest bit uneasy in doing so. Or maybe just an innocent, “Could you please explain that last point again, you lost me somewhere.” Most of the time by the time the sermon is over we have forgotten our question, or the issue has become so confusing that we lost the whole point and it just did not seem important to pursue at a later time.
I understand the whole “decently and in order” instruction that Paul gave to the Corinthians. But can we not ask and answer questions in a decent and orderly manner? Would it not be advantageous to develop someone’s faith if we stopped our formal sermonic delivery and took the time to explain a confusing thought or stopped to undo a slip of the tongue?
Anyway, the point of this post is not to re-structure the sermon part of our assemblies. The point is that we will never grow or develop our faith if we are unwilling or too fearful to ask questions. We should not surrender our God-given inquisitiveness and desire to learn just because our culture has put a damper on the asking of questions. We need to develop the courage of the early disciples of Jesus and we need to voice our confusion, our doubts, and our fears. In that way we can be taught, encouraged, and strengthened by those who are older, wiser, or who have walked the path that we are just beginning.
So go ahead – ask your question with courage. You will be surprised to find out how many people wanted to ask the very same question, but were afraid to do so.
As the old joke goes, experience is a wonderful thing. It allows you to recognize the same mistake the second time you make it. As you get older you (hopefully) gain a lot of experience. That means you either have made a lot of mistakes in your life, or you are wise enough to learn from the mistakes of others. I do things the old-fashioned way and learn by stubbing my toes and smashing my thumbs with the hammer. Amazingly, sometimes I have to hit my thumb two or three times before I learn to hold the nail with a pair of pliers. Like I said, experience is a wonderful thing.
Over the past couple of posts I have shared some experience that I have gained in my years as a minister/preacher. The things that I have written about have not been profound, but if a young man reads them and gains some valuable wisdom, then so much the better. Actually, I think that what I wrote is valuable for every Christian, but maybe has a little more application for the life of a preacher. Certainly we can all learn to hold our tongues when we are angry and also to learn to withhold our criticisms. Today I would like to continue in this thread, but hopefully change the tone slightly. Today I would like to focus on a positive character trait that will serve anyone well, but especially someone who is serving in a professional ministerial context.
If you choose a people helping profession to earn your living (or even to volunteer!) you will get hurt. It is a horrible fact of life, but it is absolutely certain that either the people you are trying to help will hurt you, or someone closely related to them will hurt you. Maybe the same is true for accountants and engineers and carpenters, but when you sign on as a preacher, a teacher, or a counselor you open yourself to some harsh and sometimes vindictive emotional attacks. It is in the nature of the service. The closer you get to the center of someone’s life the greater the danger of exposing their wounds. When those wounds are opened up it causes a great deal of pain. The most obvious response is to strike out against the one who exposed that pain, and with very few exceptions that means you, the preacher, minister, teacher or counselor. When that occurs (note I said when, not if) you have a couple of options.
The first option is the “low road.” The lowest road of all would be to retaliate in kind to the person who hurt you. Return their fire – if it is an elder, a grumpy church member, a defiant divorcee – whatever, blast them with everything that you have. This is frequently done from the pulpit or teacher’s lectern, so as to be cleverly disguised. Except that retaliation is very seldom disguised as much as we think it is. Of course, by taking the low road you will virtually guarantee that the person who attacked you will simply elevate their level of antagonism and will return your fire, but once the battle is joined there is little that can be done to alter that response. Also, it is a fairly certain reality that by joining in the conflict you will shorten your tenure wherever you are. If you a minister/preacher, you will be asked to move on or you will decide that the grass will be greener and the people more loving somewhere else, and you will just move your family and your baggage. Eventually, though, the next person you counsel will hurt you and you will respond by firing back, and the cycle will repeat itself once again. Remember that experience thing that I mentioned in the first paragraph?
Another low road is to retaliate against the person who hurt you by striking out at a safe person, someone you believe will not attempt to hurt you in return. So we yell at our husband or our wife, lash out at our children, or kick the cat. The insidious part of this response is that it is all done unconsciously. We do not intend to do so, we certainly do not want to do so, but we have these pent-up emotions and we have to get rid of them somehow. Bingo – we shoot at the nearest target, and those we love the most bear the brunt of our wounded pride. This behavior has its own punishments, however, and so the downward spiral of pain and retaliation simply takes another course and all too often the end result is either divorce or alienation from our children. This is certainly not a happy place to be.
Now, let’s consider the alternative. Take the high road. This road can be described in by referring to several different passages of Scripture, but the basic thought is the same. Do unto others as you would like them to do to you. Love your neighbor as yourself. Turn the other cheek. Walk the second mile. As far as it is dependent upon you, live at peace with others. Bear one another’s burdens. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus the Christ. If “firing back” is the best way to describe the low road, the high road can best be described by “unload your weapon and put it down.”
I will be the first to admit that taking the high road is not a natural response. I am pretty good at firing back. Maybe not at the person who hurt me – I am too clever to do that. I shoot at people who are utterly clueless as to what has hurt me. Remember my luck with nails and hammers? Well, other people’s thumbs are in danger any time I pick up a hammer. And given the fact that I am frequently asked to preach or teach, my opportunities to lash out at innocent bystanders are numerous. I have learned that I have to be very careful when I have been wounded not to carry that wound into the pulpit, or to carry it home. Sometimes I can succeed, all too often I fail.
But Jesus did not come and die to bless or justify sinful human pride. He came to expose the nature of that sinful pride and to remove it. He also provides the heart that is to replace that sinful human heart. It is a heart of self-sacrifice, of loving others with the love of His Father. It is the heart that David prayed for in Psalm 51. It is the heart that searches for, and then walks, the high road. The more pride we have, the lower the road that we are forced to take. The more that we allow God to destroy our pride, the higher we can go.
Walking the high road means we do not retaliate, either against the one who hurt us, or the safe people who surround us. We do not “return fire,” we unload our weapon and work to help those in pain safely unload theirs. We absorb the barbs, the jabs and the slanders and we return love and forgiveness. We may need to challenge and correct where it is necessary (never allow sin to go unchallenged) but we do so in humility, knowing full well that we all bear a heavy burden of sinful human nature. We keep our eyes focused on Jesus, knowing that he is our great example of being humiliated beyond description, yet remaining silent and even praying for those who hurt him the most.
I cannot say that I am where I want to be in this regard. I’m just too short-tempered. But I’ve got enough bandages on my thumbs to know that I need to work on this issue, and I pray that I am better at handling attacks than I was a few years ago. I pray that I am better next year than I am today.
Maybe I can even get to the point that people do not run for their lives when I pick up a hammer.
In my last post I talked to preachers about the sin of preaching when anger is the primary motivation. Closely related to that temptation is the temptation to criticize your congregation.
One of the things that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was adamant about in his mentoring of young pastors was the demand never to criticize the congregations where they worked. Now, in the Lutheran system in Germany the way in which pastors were sent to parishes was much different than our “free” church system in which congregations choose their ministers. In his context pastors were sent – I believe the congregations had some freedom to “call” a pastor, but the process did not resemble our “courtship and marriage” that modern minister searches sometimes resemble. But the end result is much the same – ministers find out that the congregation is not perfect, and the congregation finds out that the minister is not perfect.
At the point in which the minister and the congregation find out that each is somewhat less than advertised there is the proverbial “fork in the road.” One option is to find a like minded individual and lay out every gripe and complaint that one side has about the other. From a minister’s perspective this is often done in “preacher’s meetings” or in phone calls to trusted friends. Every bellyache is describe is nauseating detail. Elders won’t eld, deacons won’t deac, teachers won’t teach – the list is long and distinguished. I have to admit my own failings in this area. There were times when I felt like I just had to unload my pain and anger. Pity the poor recipient of my venom. I have been on the receiving end of such complaints too. All too often it becomes a contest of one-upmanship. Sort of a “my congregation is worse than your congregation” kind of competition.
On the other side of the equation is the gossip and complaining that occurs about the preacher, but that is not what this post is about – so we will just admit that it occurs and we are not going to change it, so let’s accept it and move on.
No, what I want to stress is that by complaining about our congregations or criticizing them (even to trusted friends) we poison the well from which we drink. If we label our elders or congregational leaders as ignorant or incompetent buffoons sooner or later that opinion becomes very evident in the way we respond to them in public. If we tell others that our congregations are full of stupid, mindless hayseeds then at some point they will learn that we have no respect for them and they will respond in kind. If we fire the first shot, we should not be surprised that we get back what we give, pressed down and heaped up. Remember – we only have one pop-gun. The congregation comes armed to the teeth.
I know – believe me I know – that there are times when we as ministers need to seek out the counsel of trusted friends. I know that there are issues that need to be addressed, and those issues involve real flesh and blood human beings. I am only too aware of the fact that there are situations in which the relationship is so toxic that the minister needs to leave (and, to be honest, a “Do No Enter” sign needs to be placed on the door of the church to warn off any prospective ministers!). But when those situations arise the manner in which we deal with them speaks volumes about our own Christian attitudes. If we seek out the counsel of a good and trusted friend and speak honestly and humbly about the situation, he or she can help us see the failings in our own life and ministry and help us to overcome the problem we are currently experiencing. If all we do is criticize and vent our spleen nothing positive can be accomplished, no matter how brilliant and caring our friend might be.
And so, as much as I hated to read Bonhoeffer when he writes it, I ultimately have to agree with him. Never criticize your congregation. Seek the wisdom and guidance of a trusted and spiritual friend – but always do so from a position of humility and repentance. Remember this one very important fact – if the congregation was smart enough to hire you in the first place, then they are smart enough to unhire you as well. If they were worth courting and relocating for, then they are very likely worth working through problems for. When the time comes to separate, separate on the most beneficial and amicable terms possible. Remember that unless you plant a congregation, you will be following a minister that left for one reason or another, and there will be someone to follow you in your current position. In that sense there are always three ministers involved in any position change.
Let’s make it easier on the other two guys when we move – and to the best of our ability let’s remember that every congregation is imperfect, but it, and the people who make up that congregation, are the blood-bought children of God.
Let us be very, very careful about how and when we criticize someone else’s children!
Perhaps some of you read an earlier post that has now been removed. I have to admit that it was a tad bit, um, how shall I say, “prickly.” I guess I just woke up the wrong way this morning.
What I really wanted to say was that my little girl will never have the chance to experience the things that I considered to be a given part of life when I was her age. Life has moved on. Things have changed so radically in my adult life that I cannot even begin to imagine what will happen in the next 20 – 30 years. I fear for my daughter’s generation and the one that follows that.
We have lost so much. We claim progress, but I really do not see much progress. Most of what I see is just motion, movement.
So, I was writing out of a lot of pain and some fear and not just a little frustration. I hope that I did not push too far.
But, just like the referees in the NFL now use instant replay to make sure they get the call right, I decided that I needed to make sure I had the call right. Upon further review I decided to throw a penalty flag on myself and my post.
Thanks for following along – and I hope that the things I DO end up posting are beneficial to all who stop by.
In composing this series of thoughts my mind has been racing with ideas and examples of how I have made mistakes and how I have heard and read other mistakes. The other day I was sitting here thinking to myself, “I sure wish someone would write a book to warn folks like us how to avoid these stupid mistakes.”
And then it hit me. Someone has written a book doing that very thing!
Today’s thoughts will be very brief. Buy the book Exegetical Fallacies (2nd ed.) by D.A. Carson (published by Baker Academic). If you are a preacher, buy this book and study it. If you are a church leader, buy this book and study it. If you are a member of a church and you are serious about Bible study buy this book and study it.
As with any book there are some things I may not agree 100% with Carson. But it occurred to me that much of what I have come to object to in modern biblical exposition relates to the fallacies that Carson identifies in this book.
As preachers, teachers, church leaders and student’s of God’s word we must do a better job of handling the text. We must avoid making stupid mistakes. Mistakes of ignorance and misunderstanding will be made, to be sure. Those can be corrected easily enough if we are humble and willing to submit to examination.
Buy, read, and study this book. Disagree where you must – but be honest and see if your pet conclusions are not tweaked just a little, if not deflated completely.