Monday, July 29, 2013

How Preaching Is Different in the United Church Compared to Evangelical Churches

            Preaching to a United Church of Canada congregation, compared to preaching to a Christian Reformed (CRC) or evangelical congregation, is both incredibly similar—and amazingly different. Here I want to focus on a few key differences, and the spiritual impact of these differences not on the congregation, but on me.

            The first big difference has to do with the audience. CRC and evangelical congregations have much less diversity of theological opinion than United Church congregations.

            So, in evangelical Churches preachers are constrained in what they can say by theological boundaries. The exactly-right theology is a rite of admission to the pulpit. Those boundaries might be confessional or they might be understood even though they’re not written down. In an evangelical church, for example, you wouldn’t preach that scripture is a wise-but-not-infallible book, or take a prochoice position with respect to abortion. The focus is on a discrete number of key doctrines that everyone must accept—and which most members (whether they think about it much or not) also accept. Different denominations are notable, in part, for their slight variations on what is in this critical core.

            In the United Church, however, the reality is quite different. Here theology is a playground rather than a minefield. As a big tent church, much less emphasis is placed on trying to define a core of doctrines around which there must be agreement. Instead, pastors need to be sensitive to the diversity of opinion in the pews. In my congregation some parishioners are post-theistic (like Greta Vosper) and others are very traditionally Trinitarian. We have members who think prayer is talking to yourself (which, if allowed, can be a very positive experience!) and others who think of prayer as a personal conversation with God. Parishioners, in turn, expect the pastor to be sensitive when speaking about such matters. Parishioners want the pastor to be inclusive rather than a champion of some view that the parishioner holds. That doesn’t mean the pastor can’t have a clearly stated opinion—but it means that the opinion needs to be part of a friendly conversation, as opposed to a black and white judgment against the opinions of those who disagree.

            In my previous evangelical congregation, I always felt constrained by the need to stay with the doctrinal core. Although I found lots of pleasure in studying the text and trying to lay it out in sermons, I also found that when I had done so, I was often bumping up against the confessional or church-culture limits to what could be said from the pulpit. So in my evangelical congregation I didn’t preach about universalism or gay marriage or abortion. My views lay outside the confessions and the cultural norms of my denomination.

            In the United Church, however, there is a mirror-image challenge. When nearly all opinions about spiritual matters are supposed to be able to find a home—or at least a respectful conversation—what is there left to preach? Some of my evangelical friends will say, “yup, when everything is relative, you have nothing left to say. Anything goes.” The key difference, though, has to do with the function of theology—in one group of churches the core truths are (supposed to be) the key thing; in the other group it isn’t that you can’t preach about theology, it is just that you can’t clobber people with one view, and one view only.

            Of course, I’ve oversimplified here. There is lots of unexplored or undefined theological, moral, and spiritual ground in the CRC and evangelical churches that is fun to explore and preach about. For me that included topics like creation and evolution, inclusive language, and contemporary cultural issues raised by media and mediums. I do wonder, however, how much the trend to health and wealth preaching, and the trend to five-point sermons on pragmatic issues like healthy marriage or raising your kids correctly is an unexpected consequence of both pastoral and congregational widespread boredom with traditional theology in evangelical churches.

            There is also a core of consensus in the United Church. Rather than focusing on theological topics laid out in confessions, the United Church core has to do with spiritual habits of the heart. I’ve already mentioned the consequence of one of them—the decided openness to engaging many different perspectives. The habit of heart here is hospitality. In the United Church we are supposed to be hospitable to people who have very different ideas. Another habit of the heart that is quite different has to do with the United Church’s focus on left-leaning social activism. I’m talking about the popular perception that the United Church is the “NDP at prayer.” I actually pastor a church where this isn’t a very strong tendency, but in listening to sermons by my new United Church colleagues, I notice that they hammer away at issues that involve the last, the least, the marginalized, the poor, the refugee, the orphans and so on. I suppose Jesus did too! The problem here is that this sort of preaching can become boring—and very oppressive—pretty fast too. It can become a kind of legalistic, works-righteousness focused drumbeat.

            A few caveats. First, in both evangelical and United Church congregations there are plenty of people who can’t tell the three Persons apart from the two natures. Both denominations are full of people who belong to their church for a whole bunch of cultural, family, or social reasons that have nothing to do with theology. And that isn’t all bad. One of the key things that has to happen in churches is creation of a community that mirrors the love God and Jesus have for each other, and the “in-ness” that the father and the son share with each other.

            Second, in both denominations, there are prophetic moments when the exact right time has come for the preacher to say a very difficult thing. And one of the gracious things God has always provided the world with is people (more than we realize) who actually do speak out as prophets, regardless of their views on scripture or even their religion. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and David Suzuki all come to mind—but there are many pastors in both the United Church and evangelical congregations who in their own small way have also said those difficult things in a timely way, in spite of their different scriptural bases and theological frameworks.

            Personally, I’m glad I made the switch. At times I feel a bit out to sea, like a gold fish dropped out of the bowl into a big lake. Too much freedom and space. Too much to reconsider, relearn, rethink. Everything is up for grabs and nothing feels solid. At the same time, the opportunity to freely rethink my perspective, to change my mind, to try to realign myself with what I think is the best in the Christian tradition, to examine myself—all without fear of retribution or exile or warning, is an exhilarating experience of freedom in Christ.

            And as I explore my new space, I’m reminded of what one of the denominational leaders who shepherded me into the United Church said. “We welcome your spirituality  and your doubts. We want to be a sanctuary for people like you.”

Friday, July 19, 2013

Kuyper and His "Not a Square Inch" brand of Divine Sovereignty Reconsidered

         Growing up Christian Reformed, my favourite go-to scholar was the late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century Dutch theologian and politician, Abraham Kuyper. He famously (at least amongst his followers) wrote, "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, 'Mine!'"

         There was a lot for a young Calvinist to like here. Kuyper’s words were an apt summary of what Reformed people most believed in, namely the sovereignty of God. But more than that, Kuyper’s words were inspiring because they gave us young Calvinists something to do with our lives, a program. Our mission was to boldly claim each and every sphere of human activity as one that needed to be brought into alignment with—even submission to—the sovereign rule of God. We were shock troops for raising his flag over those square inches. So we set up Christian organizations to proclaim, in each sphere of human activity, what God’s rule would look like. Kuyperian Calvinists in Canada set up Christian labor unions, Christian schools, Christian hospitals, and Christian political parties—all in the image of what their parents and grandparents had done for Conservative Christianity in the Netherlands, and what the socialists and communists and liberals and monarchists had done for their respective gods and heroes in the Netherlands.

         But now I’m not so sure. I have two related reasons to doubt this program.

         First, the identification of human institutions with God’s rule inevitably invites making God’s sovereignty the perfect cover for acting coercively. After all, if God is on our side, how can we be wrong? Of course, acting in this way is inevitably shortsighted, or unloving, or even evil. In justifying their actions by appealing to God’s rule, people and institutions inevitably bring God’s name into disrepute.

          History is full of examples. Over and over, the identification of the church and or the Christian establishment with the ruling monarchies of Europe put the church, and thus in the eyes of the people, God on the side of the rich, the powerful, and the unjust. I think it was Felicite de Lamennais who said that the alliance of church and monarchy before the French revolution meant the loss of three generations of Christians to the faith. But there are endless other examples. Consider the barbarity of the crusades. The one instance of a country besides the Netherlands where rulers actually put Kuyper’s ideas to use was apartheid South Africa. Kuyper’s notion of sphere sovereignty and his disciple Dooyeweerd’s concept of cultural differentiation were both used to support the idea of apartheid. Back in the Netherlands, Kuyper’s Antirevolutionary Party would go on to defend the cruel Dutch colonial presence because the rape and pillage of Indonesia’s resources was good for the Dutch economy.

         The bottom line is this. When those in power believe they are doing God’s sovereign will, beware if you’re not on their side. The practical good that has come from politicians trying to implement God’s sovereignty in the world has not been impressive.

          But there is another, related, problem with Kuyper’s quote. I’ve come to see that the degree to which we make God in the image of some imperial, kingly ruler who may or may not send out lightning bolts of support in response to our supplications, we involve ourselves in all sorts of difficulties. Not the least of these is the problem of explaining why bad things happen to all sorts of people and creatures all the time. If God is sovereign you have to wonder why he saddled his “good” and beautiful Edenic garden with rulers who would bring it to ruin. Or why tsunamis and earthquakes have killed hundreds of thousands of people in our lifetimes through no fault of their own. The sovereign God of metaphysical theism is one who is inevitably weighed down and made unbelievable by the problems of theodicy that are a direct result from thinking of God as sovereign.

          You see, modelling God on some earthly sovereign means that you have to think of God as responsible for what goes on in the realm. Not solely responsible maybe, but ultimately responsible. That is how it is with rulers. If a prime minister or president doesn't use his or her power to fix systemic problems, to improve the lot of a nation’s citizens, the people will eventually dump that leader. So what has God improved for most people in the world lately? Would you re-elect him? Would a Saudi? Or a North Korean?

         Of course, you will object to this sort of point of view. God is inscrutable. His ways are higher than our ways. To speak of the sovereignty of God is to use a metaphor. So beware of taking it too literally. Besides—leaving out tsunamis and earthquakes—we are mostly responsible for our own messes.

         Maybe. But in our contemporary context, “sovereignty,” is a singularly unhelpful metaphor, more associated with the Saudi regime and other dictatorships than with public service or justice. For the writers of the New Testament, speaking of God as a sovereign was meant to subvert the principalities and powers of the Roman Empire. To speak of God using the language of sovereignty was a way of underlining how God was a stranger to the violent power of Rome—not a positive description of God qua God. When we use the language of sovereignty, we immediately put God in a place where, as a divine power, he (or she) needs to be held accountable for why so much goes wrong, for so long, in the realm.

         So are there are other metaphors used in scripture to describe God? Of course. In his Anatheism: Returning to God after God, Richard Kearney reminds us—as many other scholars have—of the kenotic view of Jesus not as primarily sovereign, but as one who achieves his mission by letting go of divinity, becoming a human, a slave, and dying on a cross. “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” This is not sovereignty, but turning the other cheek, giving even more than the coat off of your back, and loving the enemy. It is a God who eschews all claims to Roman-like sovereignty. Kearney recalls Bonhoeffer’s observation that “it is as he grieves in Gethsemane that Jesus asks us to ‘watch with him for one hour’: the very opposite of what the religious man expects from God (namely, a supernatural answer to all our problems).”

         Richard Kearney also explores the metaphor of God as “stranger.” Thus Jesus reveals God to us when we find him in the powerless—in the poor, the thirsty, and the prisoner—all strangers to most of us, most of the time. But there he is, not on a throne, but in the pit.

         Well, there is much more to say and wonder about. What use is such a God? What makes a non-sovereign God a God at all? How far can we trust scripture and its ancient writers to really reveal God? Were they not as tied up in knots about describing God as we are? I don’t know.

         One thing, however, seems clear. Perhaps instead of quoting Kuyper, we might say, today, "There is not a square inch in the whole world for which Jesus does not ask us to turn the other cheek.” Not sovereignty, but humble service.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Torture Is a Moral Issue

         Yesterday, I was walking by the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle, past a United Methodist Church, when I noticed a huge banner hanging over the front door. It read, “Torture Is a Moral Issue.”

         I didn’t know what to think.

         On the one hand, I know that torture is an issue that has a moral dimension. I’ve gone to seminary. I know that scripture says we should turn the other cheek, that love does not remember wrongs, that we need to forgive, that we should not kill, that we need to be peacemakers, and so on. All of which suggests to me that far from merely being a moral issue, torture should probably be thought of as an old fashioned, unadulterated sin—that is, if you mostly try to take the Bible at its word. Or is it more complicated than that?

         My spiritual intuition says, “no.” But maybe not everyone agrees with me. Perhaps that is why we need a discussion, and we need a banner on a church to initiate the discussion. Except that there is something odd about this. You see, more Christians believe you can justify torture than non-Christians.

         According to a Pew Forum survey in 2009, the less you go to church, the more likely you are to oppose torture. So, while 54% of churchgoers (and 62% of Evangelicals) thought torture is “often,” or “sometimes,” justifiable, only 42% of those who rarely attended church thought so.

         So, since more church goers than non-church goers think torture is okay, maybe this banner was hanging over the front door of this church for the sake of that church’s members. Maybe the pastors of that church thought that it was the Christians who entered those doors who needed to be challenged to rethink their attitudes about torture.

         On the other hand, given that this was a liberal United Methodist campus church, I thought—my gut told me, actually—that the sign was not meant especially for that church’s members. It was probably meant for anyone who thinks that torture is merely a means to an end, Christian or not. It was meant for the pragmatic majority, to suggest to them that “no—it isn’t just the end that matters, it is the whole thing, from beginning to end. And it is the principle that matters.” The people who hung the sign would then mean by it something like, “torture is a moral issue, not just a pragmatic one.” Even when the end that the means is supposed to justify is something as sacrosanct as “the national interest,” the morality of torture in and of itself still matters and must be discussed.

         Or maybe the people who hung the sign just wanted people to ask what they meant—by torture, that is. Water boarding? Sleep deprivation? Solitary confinement? Not letting you speak on the phone to your loved ones more than once a week? Being subject to rape, abuse, violence that is a normal part of prison life in North America? Being forced to live in the most efficient gang-education institutions in the world? Is that torture? Or are just some of these things torture?

         Or maybe the people who hung the sign wanted to reacquaint people with the word “moral,” as being a word that has a life beyond its use by the (so-called) moral majority—a word, for example, about God’s gracious attitude to prisoners. It is before him, after all, that scripture says the groans of prisoners will finally arrive (Psalm 79:11, 102:20). And perhaps it was a divine response to those groans that Jesus died on a torture rack himself, also groaning.

         And perhaps it was in anticipation of that death that before he died, Jesus said something like, “If you want to find me, go to a jail. I’m the prisoner (Matt. 25:36).

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Pastoring and Preaching to the Rich

            So how does one preach to rich people? Years ago I actually gave a workshop on this topic—not that I had any experience with preaching to wealthy people back then. But I now pastor a church that has its fair share of wealthy people. I want all the members of my congregation to hear good news on Sunday. So what about the rich? What do I keep in mind? I’ve come up with a list of ten things:

  1. The most frequently discussed moral issue in scripture isn’t adultery or homosexuality. It is money. Money may not be the root of all evil, but it is the root of many evils. But this is so for rich and poor both. While the rich may turn away from the really important things in life to build bigger barns, the poor can spend their lives coveting. Both are great temptations and neither is a good idea.
  2. Well-to-do people need pastoral care just as much as sick people or poor people or Jane Average in the pew. The key here is that ministers must be pastors to the whole church. Get out there and visit everyone. Get to know them apart from their wealth or lack of it. Then, when the pastoral need arises, you will be ready.
  3. Don't generalize about rich or poor people. I've known door-to-door sales people who failed miserably when it came to building wealth but were great church leaders—or not. I’ve also met others who became fabulously rich selling door to door, but who were bullies in the council room and didn’t have an ounce of empathy—or not. Don’t let a person’s wealth or lack of it define who they are, what they can do at church or in the world, or what their values are.
  4. Preach sacrificial giving. Many studies have shown that most wealthy people give a smaller percentage of their income to church causes than poorer people. The widow's mite story is so powerful because it resonates with reality. So I challenge well-to-do people to consider sacrificial giving. Rich or poor your wealth is your budget for being an ambassador of God’s grace.
  5. Remember that many people give sacrificially to other causes than the church. That’s great. All of us live in communities that need the public to support art galleries and cancer centers and symphonies and the Red Cross or Habitat for Humanity. Preach a generosity that extends far beyond the church’s needs.
  6. Whether people are rich or poor, their whole lives ought to be lived for higher purposes. Preach that. Whether someone is a banker or a poet, a stay-a-home dad or mom, or a carpenter, he or she can make a positive difference for the work colleagues, for the institutions upon which our society depends, for the customer, and for God. Life is worship. Work is worship. Never forget that wealth is a means for loving God and neighbor.
  7. Money is power. People need to hear about how they can and should use the power they wield for good and not merely for selfish or silly ends. Explore how power works in the world, and how it ought to work differently in the church. A key word here is kenosis. Look it up.
  8. Insist that all gifts given to the local church be given without strings. Allow people to respond to the church’s financial gifts and goals as they are able. Feel free, as church leaders, to underline special needs. But once the gift is given, remind givers to really let go and let the church leadership accomplish the goals that were set even before the gift was given.
  9. Don’t preach party politics or economics. Politics, strictly speaking, is a very religious issue. It is bounded by ideals and values, hopes and dreams—the very stuff of religion, and the content of many a sermon. But stick with preaching those hopes, dreams, and values—not party platforms. Churches must remain nonpartisan.
  10. Don’t regularly beat up on the rich, or business people, or those who have inherited great wealth, and then when you need money, go running after them with the big ask. This is really, really shallow and dehumanizing for your parishioners.

 I’m sure that a lot more can be said. What would you add?