Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Just Who Are You?
Sometimes the best insight comes from a non-traditional source. The rock band Creed, one of my favorites, has a great song called "A Thousand Faces." "I stand surrounded by the walls That once confined me Knowing I'll be underneath them When they crumble When they fall. With clarity my scars remind me Ask yourself what's just under my skin ... You wear a thousand faces, tell me, tell me which is you." The song goes on to lament "Dug my grave, thrashed my name Yet here I stand so you won't fade away ..." What a powerful song. It calls us to find out who we really are. Who I am. We have a thousand faces with a thousand different people and we loose ourselves in the process. The song also testifies to the one who stays though some "thrash my name."
So Who Am I? We cannot even agree on the term to call ourselves such is the convoluted sense of identity among us. Young men (and women) are recruited (almost like the military does at times!), fed a line, given a vision and some basic training - frequently inadequate - and unleashed to "front line." Suddenly one is confronted with the truth of a thousand different faces. In any given week a minister is teacher, preacher, crises counselor, priest, a comforter, an encourager, marriage counselor, a care giver, administrator, referee, companion, diplomat, mechanic, janitor, secretary, the congregational role model! This is just a sampling of the thousand faces btw. Some of these roles (= faces) the preacher/minister is completely unprepared and untrained to deal with. All of these faces/roles worn in a fragile glass house.
Throughout the pages of my journal there are probably hundreds of examples of the last paragraph. I recall being in a home Bible study (to pick just one of those many examples) at an elder's house in the late 1990s and have it suddenly turn into a marital counseling session. Another of physically removing a revolver from a person's hands praying that the "whole armor of God" is bullet proof. I recall having a 15 year knocking on our door at 2 am in complete break down, pregnant. Scared. Her question, "will you come with me to tell my parents."
When the minister inadequately "performs" in any of these areas, some of which were never addressed in his training, he is dealt with, at times, very unkindly. Usually the harshest critic in all of this is the minister himself but he starts to buy into the thousand faces premise. His sense of failure and inadequacy is reinforced by unwise criticism. To be honest in that one area that the preacher himself may deem most important, the Bible, he is often inadequately trained.(in the Journal several more far more grave examples are given. I omit them for a myriad of reasons)
The minister must develop a sense of identity. Like Creed sings he must be able to answer the question "tell me which one is you!" Churches often have unrealistic, if not unbiblical, and unspoken expectations of the minister. The minister short changes the church because he willingly tries to wear those thousand faces and thus looses his real gift. To many churches (including elders) come to view the minister as an employee and he is never actually seen as part of the overall Body. Those with eyes to see pick up on this truth rather quickly.
Struggles to Find "the" Face
I have learned that many congregations are shaped and molded as much by the comfort of how it has always been done as by anything the Bible actually says. Biblical authority is the trump card that is used only when our pet identity markers are questioned. This sociological observation holds true still when it comes to many individual ministers. In most ministerial training the "candidate" is admonished to devour, digest, and internalize God's prescription for ministry from those books we call Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy & Titus). The professor in college says the "pattern" for the preacher is found here. Thus as the preacher is seeking to define his own face he is presented with a dilemma. To quote Donald Crittenden, few Churches of Christ (if any) actually believe or "accept as the proper province of the minister the full catalog of duties assigned to Timothy and Titus." I wrote in my journal several years ago next to this quote "this is a true statement if there ever was one."
But the minister must be able to say who he is. We need to be able to define our task, our vocation, better than anyone. It may take a few trips around the block to really understanding how important this matter is. We share in the life of the church as a member, as all members do. However our task within the body is very defined. The words of Paul apply to ministers as much as any other Christian,
"[D]o not think more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment ... For as in one body we have many members, and not all members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us ... ministry ... teaching ... exhorting ..." (Romans 12.3b-8)
What the minister needs to do is develop not so much a philosophy of ministry as he needs to develop a theological understanding of who he is and what God has called him to do within the body. I have my first job description from a church. They were good and loving people. I was to dumb at the time to know what it was I was really supposed to be doing. That job description omitted prayer entirely! Apparently Acts 6.4 was limited to the first century.
Over the past twenty years my own sense of identity has been forged through reading hundreds of articles, dozens of books, and finding the courage to say, "I disagree." My personal, written by me, job description takes seriously the words of Paul quoted above (similar ones are found in 1 Cor 12 and Ephesians 4) and his words to Timothy and Titus and the ministry of Moses. these words are in my Bible
"I am a sinner saved by the grace of God through the blood of Jesus Christ. Though I never wanted to be one, God has made me a minister within the body of Christ. Thus God demands that I drench my life with Scripture. Therefore I require an immersion in biblical study. I need hours to reflect prayerfully with the aid of every tool and especially the Holy Spirit to come to grips with the text. God is calling me to more than information the Spirit is calling me to worship with his body through these pages. This is my task."
This short statement reflects lots of evolution and further understanding. It will likely evolve again. But as flawed as it is it is, this is my self-definition as a minister and everything flows out of it. The prayer of Martin Luther is so appropriate even after we understand our role.
Lord God, you have made me a pastor in your church. You see how unfit I am to undertake this great and difficult office, and if it were not for your help, I would have ruined it all long ago. Therefore I cry to you for aid. I offer my mouth and my heart to your service. I desire to teach the people - and for myself, I would learn ever more diligently meditate on your Word. Use me as your instrument, but never forsake me, for if I am left alone I shall easily bring it all to destruction. Amen.
To answer the question from Creed, this is who I am. This is the face that defines me. Every minister needs to be able to answer that question. I am a sinner, saved by grace, being God's flawed conduit for that message of grace. Preaching is rooted first in the Great Indicative!
Creed sings "Now I'm forced to look behind, I'm forced to look at you ... Broken mirrors paint the floor but can't you tell the truth." The church that fails to grasp who and what the minister is complicit in his spiritual death. Since 1992 I have seen many gifted people - my friends - buy into the sales pitch of the recruiters only to be sacrificed upon the altar of "ministry." All I have to do is look at my own graduating class of my to see the shattered lives. I may be mistaken but of my class there are, I believe, only two that are still preaching. From that class there are those who do not attend church at all, those whose families and marriages have been shattered like my own, even those who are now atheists. Why is it a person will spend years getting a "degree" and are throwing in the towel within two years (which is the average life expectancy of a minister ... how does that compare to the "career" of the average NFL player?).
The problem, as I see it, is the thousand faces churches demand of the minister. The most insidious part is that frequently these "faces" are not even written down. Then when he fails they "dug my grave" and "trashed my name." Many a preacher feels as if he is hired to be the Master of Ceremonies of Everything in the local church. When he flops it is not simply the "members" that are let down he often feels he has failed God. This is when the powder keg is burning in the life of the minister and he is driven to "succeed" but success is not defined Spiritually or biblically. I have been victim of these broken mirrors myself and could not tell the truth (about myself). Thus I have felt the desire on more than one occasion of "throwing in the towel." One time I was literally within mere seconds of doing it on the spot! I wanted out.
My Salvation as a Minister
The only thing that has kept me going as a minister, especially in the last several years, has been the beginning of my personal statement above. "I am a sinner saved by the grace of God through the blood of Jesus Christ." This is my salvation as a Christian but also as a minister. I know before I even start that I will fail in wearing all the Mardi Gras faces just right. I know I am incompetent to fulfill all the roles and expectations that well meaning, but misinformed, people have of me. Knowing that my ministry exits by and through the grace of God alone takes the pressure off. God does not expect me to be perfect. I am perfected in Christ. God does not expect me to do it all. He expects me to surrender to him so He can do it all through me. Knowing who I am frees me to be what God has called me to be. I am a teacher/preacher who exists in holy covenant with the rest of the body in a symbiotic relationship of mutual blessing and accountability. The blood of Jesus bathes and sanctifies my wholly inadequate effort to wear a thousand faces. Indeed the washing of the blood is what makes me see clearly the truth that sets me free.
Saturday, May 12, 2012
Preaching was often cast in combat images. Speakers spoke of "gospel bullets" instead of "gospel facts." Satire and ridicule were share among these preachers (not limited to Churches of Christ either). This kind of preaching was called in the literature "manly" or "plain."
R. L. Whiteside wrote in early 1932 for the need of more "straight gospel preaching." Apparently some were complaining about the unpleasant image of the church in the community. For Whiteside, though, "the faithful preacher knows" such preaching "makes it the more binding."
Preaching that stressed the love of God was frequently referred to as "sissyism." Rather than being "real men" these preachers were weak and feminine -- they were called "soft." "Let us forever have done with pop-Gun irrelevant sermonettes [sic] on pifling, sub-minor topics, which can have no more weight against sin and the world than peas shot at a mountainside."
A classic example of this tendency is Hugo McCord's evaluation of a sermon preached by R. H. Boll in 1936. The name of the article is telling: "Piety Versus Pugilism." McCord summarizes Boll's message in a paragraph then makes these comments,
"The spirit of the discourse was certainly spiritual and devout, and no Bible believer could deny that every word was true."
But McCord is not satisfied with this. Boll did not stick it to the "sects." It never stressed "man's side" of salvation. Hear McCord,
"True, it was a devotional service, true, it was emphasizing God's side rather than man's side of forgiveness. But any sermon that treats God's forgiveness of man is surely perverted if it doesn't give the conditions which man must comply ... Such a sermon, though good in reverence, and in exaltation of God did more harm than good ... Bro. Boll's sermon was purely faith only as far as practical purposes are concerned ... Boll was niceness gone to seed."
Fred Rowe, long time publisher of the Christian Leader, invited J. Edward Meixner to do a meeting. After several rather pugnacious sermons, Rowe (over dinner) asked JEM to preach a sermon on the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. After hesitating a minute Meixner said, "Brother Rowe I cannot do it, I have never studied the subject."
Of course not all preachers were guilty of this. However we get a gloomy picture of the state of preaching in Moser's day. It was militant. It was issue oriented. And, if K. C. Moser is to be believed, it was frequently "crossless." There are wonderful exceptions ... Boll was one of them but look how he was castigated for that exception by Hugo McCord no less. The "spirit" of Moser's teaching was cutting against the grain. He became the embodiment of "sissy" preaching.
I began with Harrell's characterization of our being rednecks. I end with an observation by Price Billingsly about preaching in 1920. Billingsly is protesting the education of preachers because that only resulted in the perversion of the true militant gospel. He would rather be a "M A N" in God's sight than have an "M A." He continues,
"But I will hope they will excuse me, VERITABLE RED-NECK and born insurrector [sic] that I am, for inquiring as to just what they intend to do with these degrees ... I am a little doubtful of such equipment making them more effective gospel preachers."
Monday, May 07, 2012
But for me Pepperdine is not just the beauty it is a time when God's Spirit brings together men and women from all nations singing, worshiping and fellowshiping as in Revelation 5.9b-10 and 7.9. Getting to visit with my friends and sit at the feet of disciples who are wiser than me. What a blessing. This year I listened to Tom Olbricht, Rick Atchley, Don Kinder, Terry Gardner, keynotes ... bought books from Leafwood/ACU Press: Don Kinder Capturing Head & Heart: The Lives of Early Popular Stone-Campbell Movement Leaders, Juan Antonio Monroy, An Autobiography, Edward Robinson's I Was Under a Heavy Burden: The Life of Annie C. Tuggle. Other books I got was Calvin Bowers Ollie's Kids: Our Family Journey, Warren Baldwin's Roaring Lions, Cracking Rocks and Other Gems from Proverbs, and for fun I got Peter Schafer's Jesus in the Talmud. Can't wait ...Tolle lege!!
But Pepperdine is more. I will never forget back in 2001 I got not only a letter but a phone call from Jerry Rushford inviting me to come to Pepperdine to teach a one part class. I had no idea how he knew who I was. I had recently been fired from the congregation I was working with in Grenada, MS. I had not yet found a place to move my family too (fired preachers are not a hot commodity in Churches of Christ ... I would later discover that divorced preachers are not either). But Jerry said my name was passed on to him by Tom Olbricht. To this day I do not know why Dr. Olbricht did such a thing. I have been grateful for that grace ever since. I was, and still am, a nobody yet I will never forget when I arrived at Pepperdine that Jerry spoke to me and my wife and even knew our names. My class in 2001 was "hidden" away in the Keck Science Center and I think there were 20 or so people that attended. It was called "Desperately Seeking SPIRIT-uality: Connecting to God's Refreshing Spirit." A lot of water has gone under the bridge since 2001. The transmission of our Saturn broke down on us a mere 25 miles from Pepperdine in 2007 (HERE). That year the Three Amigos spoke on "A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Sacramental Encounter" (Adventures at Pepperdine &; Adventures at Pepperdine 2). Jerry has graciously asked that we return and we do our best to have something worthwhile to say. Among the other classes have been
Deuteronomy: The GOSPEL According to Moses
The Struggle for the Soul of the Churches of Christ, 1883-1983 (originally planned with JMH. I spoke at the Restoration Quarterly luncheon on "Jesus, David Lipscomb and the Spanish-American War)
A New Hope: Creation to New Creation (with John Mark Hicks)
The Holy Spirit Unleashed: Robert Richardson, James A. Harding & K. C. Moser
Walking with the Spirit: The Transitions of K. C. Moser (with John Mark Hicks)
I am sure that my experience with Jerry Rushford is not unique but typical of those who have been blessed to share in this blessed event. I dare to say that over the course of his thirty years that, with Rushford at the wheel, the Pepperdine lectures have impacted the Churches of Christ more than any other forum including Jubilee, the ACU Lectures, Tulsa Workshop or even the Freed-Hardeman Lectures. I've been blessed to participate in some of these other venues and they do marvelous work for the Lord ... I am still waiting for Dr David Lipe to invite me to address the FH Lectures.
Certainly at Pepperdine there has been no attempt to serve as a "Church of Christ Vatican III." That is to declare what is, or is not, "Church of Christ doctrine." Rather at Pepperdine, and for this I am thankful, one can hear both Carroll Osburn and Everett Ferguson taking two sides on the role of woman. At Pepperdine you can hear both Cecil May Jr and Rubel Shelly. When others have attempted to draw lines, on both sides, Jerry has reached out in the spirit of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians on the one hand and James and the Jerusalem Church on the other because the family of God is more important and greater than our pettiness.
The breadth of the Pepperdine lectures however is not limited to the so called theological spectrum. A refreshing wind blowing by the Malibu beach is that the lectures are not focused on hot brotherhood topics but are centered around biblical exposition. Entire books of the NT and Hebrew Bible have been covered like Deuteronomy (yes Deuteronomy!), Exodus, Genesis, Psalms, Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, etc, etc. This is not to say that some speakers or classes did not scratch where there was an itch but simply to acknowledge the driving force is Scripture ... as a "People of the Book" it is nice to see that sometimes we actually want to listen to the word and not worry about the controversy raging all around. Other fresh breezes blowing on those Pacific slopes is the ethnic and gender diversity on the programs. By my count in the brochure over 45 non-Anglo speakers were on the program this year alone. Likewise over 140 women were also on the program this year. I think this is amazing and simply is unmatched anywhere in Churches of Christ.
I believe Mike Cope will do a wonderful job with the new lectures, Revelation is already a great theme for 2013. I do not know if I will be on the docket, or if I will get phone calls at 11:30 at night (wish Jerry was known to do from time to time), but I will be at Pepperdine simply because the Lectures have become a little piece of the New Heavens on the Old Earth a blessing for a formerly fired and divorced preacher struggling to get on in the world. Now the journey continues with Tifani, Rachael, Talya, Avery, Evan and John Mark and Jennifer and thousands more.
For several years now John Mark and I have been been scheduled after the evening keynote. Jerry is always so guilt ridden that he makes mention of it while making announcements ... I get a kick out of it. Well Jerry thanks for the memories I hope to see you at Pepperdine in 2013 even if you are a passenger rather than the pilot.