Friday, January 6, 2017

The Preacher Stands in the Uncomfortable Middle

photo by David / flickr
Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Seminary has written a great article about preachers and pastoral ministry. He says that after this stormy election--Pastors must get up every Sunday--not to speak of many conversations in between--and deal with members on the right and the left and some in-between. He asks a good question: "How does one be a pastor-preacher in a time of cultural division?"

So I looked back over my shoulder at my own more-than forty year ministry. I think Dr. Barnes would agree that this problem is no new dilemma for the Pastor. Remember Paul?

Most Baptist churches historically have placed the pulpit in the middle. History tells us that we non-conformists were suspicious of those liturgical ways that placed the Pulpit on the left or the right of the altar. And so for most of us the Pulpit was there: smack-dab in the middle. Often the church would have a center aisle. And I have heard more comments than I would like to remember about Mamas that would tell me: "We must have a center aisle so my Daughter can come down to the altar on her wedding day." They usually won. So much for theological underpinnings of church architecture. But I think that pulpit in the center facing faces on the right and left is a pretty good symbol of not only where we reverends are today--but how things have been for as long as I remember.

My own pressure in that first church--and I think all the others--came from standing there with an Open Bible--looking out at folk who voted left or right--maybe today we should paint one side of the pews red and the other side blue. Except--the reds would win out every time. There was a cultural divide even on Alternate Highway 54 in rural Kentucky. We had folk divided over Kat-licks. In  Western Kentucky we had quite a few Catholics and the Protestant-Catholic divide was very real. Maybe I felt this problem first-hand when the Catholic boy wanted to marry one of our Baptist girls. And there I was squeezed in the middle.
Early on a couple who had been divorced came to talk to me about getting married. Being young and naive and trying to be open--even then--I married them. And folk would come up and say: "Did you know that divorced men can't serve in this church as a Deacon?" And there I was standing right in the middle. We had other battles: Would Communion be open (to everyone) or closed (When only Baptists and some congregations: only members of that church could partake of the Lord's Supper.)  Even then I wondered just whose table this was.

If that was not enough there was in Montgomery, Alabama a bus boycott. And black folks stood up and demanded their rights. And being a Southerner and knee-deep in richest tobacco land in Southside Virginia--race relations came to church. The KKK burned crosses in front of some of my colleague's parsonages. Some received bomb threats. And Deacons met to decide if they would stand at the door on Sundays and protect the church from those black outsiders. It was not our best day in church anywhere. Somehow I missed the burning crosses, etc.--but I still found myself in the middle.

And through the years I have looked out on both sides of the congregation and felt the pressure. Women Deacons. Open Communion. Open membership (which meant you did not have to be baptized again if you came from another faith.) There has always been the divide about Scripture. "Is every word of the Bible really true? Or the same?" In one church speaking in tongues was all the rage in that community--and it infected our flock. And the Reverend had to deal with charismatics in the church.

Before I knew it the Baptists were more divided than usual. Through the years we had managed to stay together somehow. But when Fundamentalism marched down the aisle and crossed its arms and glared toward the Pulpit--well, I had to deal with that issue. Out of that squabble came another group of Baptists--more open and more inclusive.

It did not stop there. We had to deal with Viet Nam and those kids that came to church barefooted with dirty hair. And fine members would come and say: "What are you gonna do about all these people?"

If you moved to another congregation--sometimes the issues you thought were settled everywhere-were not settled everywhere and we Pastors had to deal or re-deal once again with issue after issue.

AIDS came to Church one Sunday and sat down in a pew--and people looked around and wondered. And members would come in and shake their fingers in my face and say: "What are you gonna do about these homos?" And so there were meetings and prayers and discussions in which we had to  hammer out another painful issue. And right in the middle of it all was the Preacher.

So Mr. Trump's election is not the first time we have been here and once again we must ask: How can we reach a lot or at least most of these folk divided over Trump-Hillary-Democrat-Republican--red-state-blue state. There they are sitting there in front of you every Sunday. President Barnes frames the question well: "What does it mean to be pastor-preacher who has taken a vow to love everyone in the congregation in such a divisive time?"

We cannot remain silent during this hard time--but we have to speak the truth in love to all those that gather under the sign of the cross. And we have to remind ourselves and others that the gospel of Jesus Christ has always been divisive. I do believe the centerpiece of our faith is a cross. So pray for those that stand up every Sunday trying not just to navigate through troubled waters and not offend too many--but to keep faith with a gospel and a book that is called a two-edged sword.

Dick Gregory was once asked why he took such a stand for black folks in a terribly divided and dangerous time. They would say: "Why did you stick your neck out over and over.?" And he said: "When my little granddaughter crawls up in my lap and looks at the flickering images on TV of the marches back there and the churches that were bombed and the little black girls that were killed. What if she looks into my face and asks: 'Grandaddy were you there back then? What did you do?' And Dick Gregory said: "This is why I did what I did for civil rights."

And so Preachers and Pastors don't forget that Book you open and that cross behind your pulpit and that charge you took on the day of your ordination.

--Roger Lovette /

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