Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Preaching in the Age of Trump

photo by Chris Yarzab / flickr

(Recently I was asked to be part of a panel to discuss how can we preach faithfully on contemporary issues in 2017. I sat down and hurriedly wrote out some of my responses to this question. After more than 40 years of wandering in a pulpit wilderness--these are some of my thoughts.)

All my circuitous Ministry for over 40 plus years I have faced the same problem. If you have preached you know what I am talking about. What do you preach on—how do you preach on the swirling world around us?

It’s been as monkey on my back since I started in 1961. In my first church my first crisis came early. One of the known spiritual leader’s divorced sons wanted me to marry him to his divorced fiance. Believing naive that I was that the Church was for everybody—I married them. And minor hell broke loose. What kind of a Gospel was this—censorious or embracing. 

Down the road in Knottsville, Ky. was the Catholic church. And in Western Kentucky in 1961 Catholics were persona non grata especially for Baptists. And when I invited the Priest to take part in the dedication of our new building—well more hell broke loose. Kennedy was running for President and we had to decide what to do about that issue. Vote for a Catholic--no way my people said. By the way—when the Catholic church up the road dedicated their new building—they asked me to have the Dedicatory prayer. 

But probably the biggest heresy then and there was Landmarkism. Could other Baptists take Communion in our church? Not to speak of other denominations. So I stood in the Pulpit and wondered what was I to say to a cluster of my people that believed we really were the one true church—no questions asked. We won the Open Communion battle—but it took some time. 

In my next church—surrounded by some of the richest tobacco land in Southside Virginia—race was the overarching problem. If I had stood in the pulpit and welcomed blacks openly not only would I have lost my job but they would have run me out of town. I talked to many of our members about this issue and I did allude to racial discrimination when I preached--but outside our doors race relations were changing and I was more than a little cautious.

Luckily I landed in a tiny liberal church next to a college campus in Kentucky. The first crisis was that without a Pastor the church had ordained women as deacons. We were one of the first churches in the SBC to do this. So I had to deal with the women’s issue—and from my safe perch—even though we were summarily dismissed from the Association—the women served. Gloriously. Much more complicated was Vietnam and how irate our military members were at those long-haired hippies protesting the war. I learned a painful lesson there—to talk openly about an issue—solves nothing. And we solved little of these issues—but we thought if we talked about it—that settled it—and we could move on. Not so.

When I came to Clemson—without a Pastor the church without a Pastor had adopted an  open-membership policy. Any Christian baptized in any form could be a first class member. This new Pastor looked out at a very divided congregation—we’re not even Baptists anymore many muttered.  Identity was the big issue. What does it mean to be a Baptist—does the Association—which promptly dismissed us—write our agenda—or are we a free people following a great Baptist tradition. The doors swung wide open--finally--but this was a huge problem for Baptists t that time.

This was followed by an enormous changes in our denomination. What kind of a people were we?  Authority from the top-down or from the bottom up? Inclusive or Exclusive. Fundamentalists or more open. And at the center of course was a battle for the Bible. Was every word of the Bible literally true. And I can still remember one Sunday when a man came out visibly agitated. He said, “ I came here to hear the word of God—not some liberal watered-down version—you are a disgrace to the ministry and my family or our college daughter will not be back.” But sometimes we do entertain angels unawares—two minutes later another couple with a college son came by and told me how they loved our church and what we were doing.

But the struggle of what makes a Baptist was with us Sunday after Sunday. It took several years of conversations, sermons, Deacons meetings, Sunday School classes to finally come to the point where we became CBF—still sending some money to the SBC if people wished. But that whole effort took some doing. 

In my last church before retirement we claimed to be a liberal people. And then AIDS and gays came too church and sat down and the people wanted to know if we were gonna turn this fine liberal church into some kind of a gay thing. Whew! Scary. What would there Association say or the State Convention—what would Birmingham say? What would some of our best members scared of this issue—going to say.?When we lost members some would say: See…see. One prominent family charged in and wanted to know what we would do with these homos. I just said we are going to keep the doors open. We will turn no one away. Jesus said: Whosoever will may come and I stood by that. We lost our biggest givers which is a crisis in a small church. But the doors stayed wide open.

I feel for those who must stand in the pulpit today. Any Pastor looks at on as slice of our country—divided, angry—fearful—weary of change. Mr. Trump has not helped us. The way the Evangelical community has embraced this man despite his shabby ethical standards is frightening. I can now see how so many Christians and Churches in Germany responded to Hitler. Culture triumphs over Christ again and again.

On our plates is the mega-church. The Muslim problem. The poverty-problem. The insurance problem—Right or choice. Not to speak of the Refugee problem and our fear of ISIS. Not too speak of the lies that our President foists upon us every single day. Whew—that’s quite a list.

What are we to do? Having won some battles, having been chicken or scared I would be booted out or just hated and the lingering problem all Pastors know: will this split the church? And also having our offering plates come by emptier and emptier. Not to speak of the bitch-goddess success , moving up the ladder as God leads of course—there have been more than a few times when I just dropped the ball. The treasure always come in an earthen vessel. Always.

What are we to do?

1. We must turn back to the Book. Re-read the Prophets. Listen to them. Then turn to Luke 4.18-19 and read Jesus' first sermon which came from Isaiah 61. I haven heard that Billy Sunday always placed his notes this text in Isaiah 61:"He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed...bind up the broken hearted...proclaim liberty to then captives...and release to the prisoners." (61.1) Not a bad place to rest your notes. Luke says this particular passage was really a prelude of all Jesus would do. This is the preacher's mandate. The challenge has always been lurking there has any Preacher stands behind the pulpit.

2.  Frederick Buechner says the central task of the preacher is to tell the truth. I think one of the reasons that the world looks askance at the church today is that we don’t always tell the truth—not only by what we say but by our silence—which in a time of crisis—may be more tragic than our paltry  words. 

3. After I Corinthians 13 ended Paul said: “Make love your aim.” We have got to somehow love them all. Even that man selling tee-shirts at the Trump rally in Pendleton. ”TRUMP WILL KNOCK THE S... OUT OF ISIS”. Paul gave us a hard word. Which brings us to one of my hobby horses: All is the word. For God so loved the world…Come all ye who are weary and heavy laden…”

4.  We have to be fair and give everyone—even our President-- the benefit of a doubt. 

5. Listen. Listen. Listen to your people. Dialogue—give and take is essential. Hopefully we can learn from one another. 

6. Redefine justice for our people. We are long on charity but short on justice.

7. Challenge modern axioms. Put these down beside the Biblical message. What are some of the modern axioms today? Almost all of these cut across the Gospel grain. And we are judged by the Gospel message--this is our measuring stick.

8.  Mr. Buechner also said that if Paul were writing today he would say: Faith, hope, love but the greatest of these is hope. Now I have to speak to this choir here. Hope begins with us.And if we can’t give it out—who will.

9.  We will have faith as did Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Bishop Tutu, John Lewis and our present Pope. Bishop Tutu spoke in Birmingham a couple of years ago. Somebody asked him how he could keep going with the world in such a mess and all the problems in Africa and everywhere. And he said, “I keep going because I am a Christian.”

10. George Buttrick used to say when you deal with controversial issues—touch the issues and then move on. You are letting them know where hyoid stand. But you don’t hit them over the head. 

11. Do not promote political candidates from the pulpit. 

12. We might annually teach a course on Baptist history. Many of our people have no unearthly idea about how we came to be who we are. 

13.  We have to renew our ordination vows. The story goes that the church was ordaining their new minister. As the man knelt and people starting filing by to lay hands on him—his little boy asked his mother: “What are all these people doing to Daddy?” she whispered: “They are taking his spine out.”

As Dr. Fosdick wrote in another stormy time: "Grant us wisdom...grant its courage for the living of these days."

photo by ideacreamanuela2 / flickr

--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com

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