Thursday, July 23, 2015

What do we say to the unbroken?

Several have taken up the challenge of suggesting what we as Christians have to say to those who are not broken, weak, wounded, or fearful.  Indeed, they are surely correct in suggesting that our problem as a culture today is not how to nurse the guilty conscience or heal the broken body or answer the fearful heart but what to say to those who believe they are strong, self-sufficient, and happy.  You can read my fellow Lutheran Pastor Tapani Simojoki here or another Lutheran, Anthony Sacramone here.  There are other voices to suggest the limits of preaching only to those in pain but these are two of the best.  In light of what they have already written, I am hesitant to add my own meager contributions but that has never stopped my big mouth before...

In a simplistic way, I learned that my job as preacher was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  This worked out practically in preaching the Law with all its force to break down and wound the conscience of the proud, the strong, and the secure while preaching the Gospel in all its sweetness to those already broken down, wounded, suffering, or sore.  I will have to admit that this was exactly the approach I took early on in my ministry.  While I still preach to the suffering, I try not only to preach to them.  But instead of merely breaking the back of the strong with the blunt force of the Law, I have learned to address those who are not suffering, wounded, or sore in other ways.

One way is the appeal to beauty.  We live in a world with trash as art, one hit wonders as the pop artists of the day, clothing budgets keyed to the ins and outs of style that changes minute by minute, and technology which requires our full time attention just to keep abreast of.  But what is largely missing in our world is beauty.  We have surrendered nearly everything in art to the erotic or the shocking.  The graceful nudity of art that once honored the form God made has been replaced by the erotic which plays on our every prurient desire.  It has become so familiar that it no longer shocks us and those who work in media have to reach ever deeper into the darkness to make us notice them.

One thing the Church once offered and can still offer is the truth that is displayed in beauty.  Though their lives were not nearly in sync with their music, the great masters left us a timeless tribute to art and skill that still reawakens in us the stirrings of the eternal.  It is the same with great art.  It rekindles within us the hunger for something beyond the ken of today.  The Church in preaching, teaching, and in worship needs to rediscover the call to the noble character of beauty, of talent and skill that reflects God's nature and not our own fallen one.  That is one thing we should offer to those who feel themselves not wounded or suffering but rather happily strong.

The second appeal of good preaching and liturgy is to the eternal.  This is related to beauty but not quite the same.  If all the Church can offer the strong and secure is something to compete with the offerings of modern media and entertainment, we rather impoverished in our ability to address them.  But if we take up again the call to the eternal, we have something profound and powerful to say to those who are accustomed to living for the moment.  The success of movies in which the hero figure sacrifices the moment for the larger cause of that which is beyond himself only shows to us that desire for the eternal lies dormant within all of us.  Let the Church be the voice that reawakens this latent desire with the call of the Word and the power of the Spirit to address more than today, more than me.  It seems we have presumed that our only choice is to forget the eternal and preach only to the present in order to appeal to the modern mind and the emerging generations.  That is itself a lie of our own creation.  God has planted eternity within us and even if we have buried or dulled our awareness of this, God can and will reawaken in us the dawn of the eternal day for which we were redeemed in Christ.

The final point, perhaps the strongest, is that we need to re-frame the shape of things.  Once all the world, strong and weak alike, saw things through the lens of sin and righteousness.  Now, at best, we see things through the lens of sin and forgiveness but not necessarily righteousness.  We have addressed things wrong with grace but have we really engaged our hearers to seek after that which is righteous?  Here I feel the burden especially upon me as a preacher.  It is not enough to speak grace to the penitent and condemnation to the proud.  We must also speak of righteousness, of that which is good, holy, right, true, and eternal.  This is not knowledge we come to on our own but only by God's revelation.  The Christian faith is also a path, a way though narrow that leads us to live beyond ourselves.

It seems to me that the Church has learned to be pragmatic in the worst sense of that term.  We have become more enamored with what works than we are with what is right, good, holy, and true.  We cannot have a worship services which has married the spirit of the moment and then think we are faithfully proclaiming the mystery once hidden and now revealed in Christ.  In the same way, we cannot let our lives revolve simply around what works when that betrays what is wholesome and good, right and true.  The Church's call to the strong is a call not simply to surrender their strength but to use it for godly purpose.  We are to seek out that which is costly and eternal and pursue these with all our strength, mind, and heart.

I can only speak for myself but I know this is a struggle for me -- in teaching as well as preaching.  Suffering is the shape of Christian life in a world at odds with our God and His gracious will but we do not always suffer.  Yet in suffering and in strength we seek the higher and more noble character of righteousness.  The nature of the Kingdom is righteousness, peace, and joy.  It is not merely the sacrifice of peace for the everlasting struggle or joy for the wounds of a world too filled with pain.  It is also the direction of our strength for godly purpose and His gracious will.  It matters not if you are strong if that strength is born of a pragmatic realism that seeks only to satisfy desire without hurting too many people in the process.  Strength is a gift with a conscience and calling and that is to seek to live as those who are righteous in a world either confused by or which rejects such righteousness.

Just a few thoughts to add to the larger conversation. . .


1 comment:

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