Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Bending the Rules

God gave the Jews very strict rules for the observance of Passover. He also, apparently, blessed deviations from these rules. A particularly outstanding example is found in 2 Chronicles 20.
"Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, 'May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God – the Lord, the God of his fathers – even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.' And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people."

It is true that one of our jobs as clergy is to maintain the rituals and traditions of our faith. We believe these rituals and traditions have come to us from God.

At least as important in our work as pastors is our obligation to make sure these rituals and traditions never become barriers between people and the God they are seeking. All the rules and customs of church life are intended to serve as bridges between people and God. As agents of God our first loyalty is not to the bridges themselves but to the people they are intended to serve.

This means that occasionally in order to do right by the people God has called us to serve we will need to bend the rules. We will need to adapt the official, well-established rituals and customs of our church. These exceptional cases do not invalidate our customary practices. Our traditions are important and useful for spiritual life. On the other hand if we fail to make exceptions, if we fail to make room for individuals who are seeking God but who do not fit our norms, then we will misrepresent God.

Bending the rules is God-like. That's one of the lessons of Hezekiah's Passover story.

(Additional examples of this include: 2 Kings 5:17-19; Numbers 9:6-11; Matthew 12:3-8.)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Job of Pastors at Funerals

I've posted a narrative at God, Rocks and Souls that talks about the proper role of pastors at funerals.

Click on the link at right.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Greg Mortenson Debacle

This is cross-posted at At the end of this post I've added a few more comments about the relevance of this to pastoral ministry.

The Greg Mortenson debacle is a vivid example of the dangers of itinerant stardom, especially spiritual stardom. It is so easy for both the hero and the hero's devotees to be seduced by the heroes stories and charisma.

This is a danger for traveling evangelists, revival speakers, and spiritual stars.

The traveling preacher is constantly applauded for his or her special gifts, which are real. The traveling preacher is typically not confronted with the reality of his or her weaknesses, which are also real. Both the preacher and the admirers are seduced into thinking the extraordinary gifts on display in public are the fruit of an extraordinary character. both preacher and audience become blind to the weaknesses and failings in the preacher's private life.

Extraordinary gifts of preaching and storytelling have no essential connection to character.

The more a preacher travels, the more he or she is admired, the greater the risk for self deception.

Pastors who stay long in their congregations have a slight advantage over itinerant preachers. Their people are more likely to know them as whole persons rather than as performers. This personal knowledge tends to counterbalance a preacher's natural high regard for his own opinions.

The reality is there are no fully sufficient agents of the kingdom of heaven. Even telling the story of Jesus could not be entrusted to one person. Whether you view Matthew or Mark or Luke or John as the preeminent gospel, you have to at least grudgingly acknowledge there are three other Gospels, three other ways of telling Jesus story.

Pick any theologian, Adventist or non-Adventist. What they said is not sufficient. Pick any great preacher Adventist or non-Adventist. What anyone of those preachers said is not sufficient. God needed them all. And God needs you. If you are a traveling preacher, keep it up. But beware the special dangers of your role. If you are the pastor of a small rural district, keep up your preaching and your visiting and your administration. God needs you.

We celebrate the traveling preachers because of preaching is compelling and interesting and stirs our souls. If you are the pastor of a small rural district you may not get constant affirmation that your preaching is compelling and interesting and stirs people's souls. The reality is the traveling preacher could never do your job. He is not up to it. God's work in your world requires the gifts that you have. Gifts of constancy and invisibility, the gift of obscurity.

It's unlikely you will ever be the star of a book or a movie. You won't be famous.
Still, you are vital. You are indispensable in the work of God in your community.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Don't Defame Human Beings

This past Sabbath I listened to a nice, pleasant preacher declare that people are miserable, self-destructive sinners. An almost direct quote: "No man has ever sat down, thought about sinning and said, 'That's stupid. I won't do it.'"

But of course, lot's of men have considered doing something evil then decided not to do it precisely because it was not only evil but it was also stupid.

People are capable of great evil.

People are also capable of great good.

If the second statement is false, the first one is also false. If people are incapable of doing good, if they are so utterly enslaved to evil that they cannot do good, then they are not responsible for doing evil. After all the same theology that teaches that people are unable to do good also teaches that this defect is something we were born with, not something we choose.

I think the common practice of Christian preachers to declaim the words of Romans 3 as the absolute literal truth while dismissing the words of Matthew 5-7 as hermeneutical hyperbole is both a distortion of the Bible and a tragic disservice to their Master and their audience.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Other Hitchens

An article by Peter Hitchens, brother of Christopher.

Peter is as devout as Christopher is impious. Interesting reading. Enjoy.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Apologetics for Liberal Readers

If you consider yourself a theological liberal, you might profit from a book I just finished reading, The Devil's Delusion by David Berlinski. His writing is sometimes more florid than I like. Berlinski is bombastic and rambunctious. However, I think he presents a compelling defense of theism as a counter to the arrogant atheism of of Dawkins and company.

He addresses some interesting stuff from contemporary physics. This is where I think he is most helpful.

Happy reading.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Noelle, a movie about pastors

Just watched a movie that examines the role of a pastor. "Noelle" 2007, 90 minutes. Directed by David Wall, Kerry Wall and Sean Patrick Brennan, I think.

It is about a priest in a small struggling Catholic parish on Cape Cod and the priest/church official sent to close his parish down. And a woman, of course. (This is a movie, after all.)

The movie works with stereotypes, but it connected with my heart. It paints a picture of the role of a pastor that I appreciate. The pastor as a friend of his people, as a member of the church community and the larger community, as believer in God more than in the church system. Since I want to measure my own effectiveness using numbers--attendance, baptisms, money--or drama--as in marvelously transformed lives, miracles or visions or spectacular divine leading. And since my ministry meets my expectations in only one area in this long list, the area with the least "spiritual appearance" to it, the movie's affirmation of ministry as affectionate fraternization with the people of the church and the community was encouraging.