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Chill

I am the Very Model of a Modern Super Pastor

I am the very model of a modern, super pastor
I have information tried and true, hip and new and faster
I know all the reformers, and I quote divines historical
From Augustine to Teilhard, in order categorical

He knows all the reformers, and he quote divines historical
From Augustine to Teilhard, in order categorical

I’m very well acquainted too with matters psychological
I understand dysfunctions, both the simple and fanatical
About depression syndrome, I’m teeming with a lot o’ news —
With many cheerful facts of how to diagnose your spouse’s blues

I know our mythic history, St. Whitefield’s and ol’ bonnie Knox
I answer apologetics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox
I quote in bullet form the vision thing of Willow Creeker
With power point I highlight serving Starbucks to Joe Seeker

He quotes in bullet form the vision thing of Willow Creeker
With power point he highlights serving Starbucks to Joe Seeker

I can tell undoubted Warhols from Lichensteins and comic books
I know the midriff well of Spears although my dear I never looks
Then I can hum a tune of which the choir has sung just once before
And whistle all the airs from every hymn and song in time four-four

Then I can write a consultant’s bill in Hebrew hieroglyphics
And tell you every detail of my neighbors’ demographics
In short, in matters tried and true, hip and new and faster
I am the very model of a modern, super pastor

In short, in matters tried and true, hip and new and faster
He is the very model of a modern, super pastor

~~~~~~~~~~

C.A. Hutchinson, May 2003 with thanks
and apologies to Gilbert & Sullivan, 1879

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Farm House

 

by C.A. Hutchinson, 1999

Out of my window at the church, I can see cotton fields. School children run between my office and the sight, but there they are. Actual cotton fields, white unto harvest. This astounds me. I once interviewed in Vermont at an old red brick church, called by that very name in fact. Instead of a pastor=s chair up front, it had three overstuffed Victorian couches faded with age. But what I really remember was the smell. The smell of cows and what cows leave behind. They came right up to the brick walls of the church. I wondered what it would be like to have to preach over the noise and smell of those cows. But I can only wonder, for cotton offers no noise, and to my knowledge, no distinct smell either. What it offers is a culture, a culture once at war with that same small town in Vermont.

On our dining room wall hangs a painting. It portrays a white clapboard Congregational church, box-like in shape, and typical in its rows of regular rectangular windows. It could be set in any New England town square, except for the gray mass of tangled Spanish moss which hangs from the looming trees around, framing the church in its Southern setting, a study in paradox. Which is, I suppose, why I like the painting so much, for it is a metaphor of my own life. It is in fact the Congregational Church of Midway, Georgia, established by New England puritans who emigrated first to Dorchester, South Carolina in the late 1600s, and then to Midway the century after that. It supplied Georgia with some its finest statesmen, soldiers, and preachers. The singular impact of this little church is incalculable. It now lies empty.

 

~~~~~

 

When I was a young lieutenant in the Army, one of my sergeants lived just down the road from the Midway church, that is until his house burned down. I still remember his kids being let off the school bus to the sight of their smoldering house, his little girl at first yelling, ACool!@ to impress her friends, and then bursting into tears. It was also while tooling around the Midway church graveyard that I met a man who invited me to the church that would eventually, after marriage and war, reverse the studied pilgrimage and sent me off to New England to myself prepare for the ministry.

I know this will sound strange, but New England has been to me something of a promised land. As a native born Southerner with traditional leanings, this sentiment expressed in the waning years of the twentieth century sounds something akin to heresy, I know. But there it is. What is more, I find myself ministering in a denomination directly descended from one once populated with unrepentant and unrebuked slave owners, a denomination whose de facto theological leader once described all abolitionists as “atheists, socialists, communists, red Republicans, (and) Jacobins.” Perhaps this is why I feel an unnatural sympathy with those whose only route to the promised land was by an Underground Railroad, for I too have felt the secret pull of New England on my soul as the place where I might find freedom and rest, my promised land.

My father was born and raised near old Dorchester, South Carolina, in the town of Summerville, so named because it was where the wealthy were able to escape to from Charleston, where I myself was born. My father was there stationed as a naval officer, an elite submariner, always to be pronounced correctly — emphasis on any but the first syllable. His ship was in fact a submarine tender, named the Hunley after the first submarine to ever a sink a ship, a Union vessel which was too busy blockading the rebel port to notice the Confederate sub sneak up with a mine attached to the end of a long pole on its bow. The pole was in fact not long enough, and down went the Hunley as well. That never happened to my father’s ship. He speaks in an accent unique to Summerville, instantly recognized the world over by those experienced in it, and downright confounding to all the rest. There are those who have thought that he was English, to which apart from being reared Episcopalian, my father bears no resemblance.

I, however, am of mixed race, for my father married a Connecticut Yankee whom he met at a dance while stationed in New London. His first words to her were to be careful not to eat too many peanuts, lest they give her the runs. They were engaged within two months. His parents agreed to it, seeing that her folks were originally from Richmond and Baltimore respectively, both fine Southern towns. My wife and I began our lives together later in a small Georgia town near the coast named Richmond Hill. The only thing Hill about it was that it was not under water. It was named that only because Henry Ford, who used to winter there, wanted it named that, and who could argue with that? Especially since not much money made it down those ways, not since the war. It was a few miles from Richmond Hill where Sherman=s army first made contact with the sea in the march named by that fact.

When I was little, during Sunday dinners in Summerville, we children were placed apart at a separate kids’ table on one side of my grandparents dining room. I remember once saying the word, “Sherman,” as loud as I could just to see the reaction. I remember something about utensils dropping along with the jaws, and receiving a lecture about what was and wasn’t proper language on the Lord’s Day. So even then, my mixed blood showed itself discontent with its Southern element alone, a hint of this unseemly longing for New England.

Or perhaps it is those summer months of my youth, when we would tumble out of our station wagon sleepy-eyed onto the fresh white pebbles of my grandfather=s driveway, fourteen car hours away from our home in the South. We would run into the kitchen shouting hello while looking for presents. My grandfather was nicknamed Bootie, after the nickname that he tried to pin on my older sister, on account of the baby shoes she wore. He kept a paddle above his workbench in the garage for spanking. It was nothing more than one of those ball-and-paddle toys except for the ball. Usually those balls just snapped off in mid-bounce, as I remember them, and thus, a new paddle. They were the equivalent of the missile submarines on which my father worked, more for deterrent than actual use, guarantors of the peace, at least we prayed so, for they looked like they would do a pretty number on our behinds.

We would eat from the endless bounty of butterfly pretzels my grandparents kept stored in glass vials on the counter, and then plunder their supply of sugar cubes whenever we could find them. We would put them straight in our mouths whole, sucking them into nothingness. Those sugar cubes were magic, you see, for these could not be found anywhere in our house down South. One time my younger cousin was not seen for hours but instead of eating sugar cubes, we finally discovered him in the dog kennel, sitting contentedly on the grooming table, having stuffed himself with all manner of dog biscuits. Red, green, brown and yellow crumbs littered his face. He was New England in the Fall.

All of this took place on my grandparents’ country property, where they lived in a white clapboarded farmhouse first built in 1742. There was a hole in one of the upstairs floorboards so deep and so mysterious that we once lost a toothbrush down it and never saw it again. Tumbling stone walls laced across the acres, through field and woods alike. We would adventure atop these walls, rocking back and forth upon the loose stones and scaring the wits out of one another whenever we caused a black snake to slither out. One time I found small old rusty nails and pieces of china within part of a wall, and I was sure I had discovered an actual Continental Army camp site, a tribute to those brave Yankee Doodles who had thrown tea into the sea and freed our country from the mean Lobsterbacks, all the while wondering why they thought their hat feathers were a kind of pasta. Other times we’d venture into the old barn with its mysterious black cats, and the weathered yellow cow skulls below. The dust itself in that place was mystery and history swirling around our cautious foot steps.

On occasion we’d visit for Christmas, and when snow graced the rolling fields around, it was as if the clouds of heaven itself had fallen as a blanket upon the earth. When we would awake and see the glistening magic outside, immediately we would whoop and run downstairs to don our snow suits kept for us there each year. They were thick and bulky and swished when you walked. Then we would carry our aluminum flying saucers and trek to the nearest hill and spend hours carving race paths into the snow. Only when enough snow had gotten underneath our scarves and mittens, and melted against our skin, soaking us, would we surrender to the elements and retreat back inside, craving cocoa. New England.

After a few years of living outside of Charleston, my father got transferred to Washington DC, where we moved into a suburban house where I spent the rest of my childhood years. I graduated high school and somehow got it into my head that I wanted to go to college in the South, where I reasoned I might find a more civil culture. The place I attended was considered one of the most prestigious in the South. There the future leaders of America smashed their BMWs into lampposts after drinking too hard because the several girls they had hit on all turned them down. Life alternated between dark, throbbing parties and classes where we were taught by the most respectable of authorities that there was no such thing as truth to pursue. I still remember the way my sneakers smacked down the dorm halls from the dried, sticky beer any given morning of the week. The Methodist chaplain whom the school kept on as a veneer of civilization called it a pagan place. Then again, the chapel over which he presided counted among its statued saints such heroes of the faith as Thomas Jefferson, whose belief in the Bible involved a generous use of scissors.

After college and before the Army, when I was laboring in the Southern summer to train my body for war, I visited some friends on the Massachusetts coast. There as I ran, my lungs filled with fresh New England air, and I ran not as a man afoot, but as a seagull, light as air, flying across the expanse of Kettle Cove. I ran through a small hamlet, past a gray, three-story building with a cafe. Though I did not know it in the least at the time, I was surveying the very place my wife and I would inhabit years later, the place where our daughter, named after my grandfather from Richmond, would first call home.

Some years passed before that, however, in our first home of Richmond Hill, down south, selected because it was near my first duty station, Ft. Stewart, eleventh on a list of ten preferences I had requested from the Army. When they sent me to war, two months after getting married, I longed for nothing more in the deserts of Babylon than to return home and make a quiet living in some small, green place. Though I could not yet articulate it, I was longing for New England. The war over, my duty done, our church sent us to seminary there, and it was there that our marriage finally discovered a home, a place to prosper. It found a home not only in the beauty and the weight of the place, but in a small, Congregational church on the edge of the world, a small Scandinavian fishing village called Lanesville. There zeal met authenticity, and precision met love.

It became my dream to stay in New England and find some poor, floundering Congregational church to pastor, one steeped in history, but slouched against modernity, and I would become its reformer, reviver, messiah. It was my dream. It was my idol. I did preach once in exactly one of those churches, founded in 1642 in the suburbs of Boston, and now sporting a huge, ornate sanctuary they had built in the late 1800s to sit over 1,500 people. It had a pulpit so high that it took two levels of stairs to reach it, and standing in it that morning made me almost dizzy from the heights I had ascended. The morning I preached, all of thirty people were left to worship. And they each sat in the different far reaches of the sanctuary, so that as I preached, it was as if I was addressing thirty different congregations. Which I was. That is largely the story of New England Congregationalism, and not even one of the sadder parts.

 

˜~~~~~

 

As for the Midway Congregational church in Georgia, they died out it seems for two distinct reasons. The first is that they planted a number of churches in the surrounding towns, all Presbyterian, as the antebellum spirit between the two groups was charitable, for they agreed in almost every detail of the faith. And there being no other Congregational churches in the region, it seemed most fitting that the daughter churches take a new name and flesh. The second reason seems to be that after Sherman’s army came through, there was not enough of an economy to sustain the town or church, and so family after family moved away, until finally, the building stood empty, a monument to its forbearers, North and South.

If one visits the old Midway church and takes careful observation of its pulpit design, the place where God=s redemptive Word was proclaimed each Lord=s Day, and then one happens to worship in the church where I currently serve as associate, one might notice the deliberate imitation between the pulpits, we trust in all respects. I am told that our church wanted to duplicate the Midway architecture whole, but were informed that such ancient architecture would never hold up today.

My wife and daughters and I went back to New England a couple of summers back, I thought for a vacation. I realize now that it was to say good-bye. Not good-bye to a region, nor a people, and certainly not to friends. But good-bye to a dream, an idol. Good-bye to a time which belongs in the past, if yet its legacy lives on, even now, even here, under the gray tangles of Southern trees.

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Christendom

S0862086

 

CHRISTENDOM *

Ten proper Calvinists, keenly apace
Marching adroitly, Left and Right face!
Bearing Ye Answers for Every Last Case,
Neatly rolled up, each one in their place.

Ten sable presbyters, without whimsy or lace
Armed with the doctrines of explainable grace.

Off now to battle, bold banners unfurled
Down from the pulpits – into the world!
Come forth storm and come forth hail
Capture each thought and send it to jail!

Schoolyard and hospice and right scrubbed face
Soap, stitch and nail now the Means of Grace,
Refitting teacher and butcher and baker
Neatly reshelved in accord with their Maker.

All is in order, all is in place
Armed with our doctrines of explainable grace.

~~~~~

Comes now the True Storm, comes now the hail
Ripping out stitch and unfastening nail,
Trestles give way and crossbars fail
As all of Ye Answers turn vague and turn pale.

Crashing of Mystery rends silent the soul
As Passion run floods soak through every scroll.

~~~~~

Ten proper Calvinists, keenly aloof
Marching in circles – up there on the roof.
Back to the pulpit, explaining each proof
And trying again to flatten God.

 

~ C. A. Hutchinson

 

NOTES

Line 5 — TS Eliot, “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service”
Line 10 — 2 Cor. 10:5
Line 12 — Henry Ward Beecher, endorsing a brand in a newspaper ad: “Since cleanliness is next to godliness, then Soap must be considered a Means of Grace.”
Line 17 — Job 38:1

*  alternative title:  “Mustard Gas”

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S0712071 (1)

 

Parson Plummet Says a Prayer*

by C. A. Hutchinson

 

I found my place at the end of the head table and took my seat. A sizable place card sat behind my empty plate, its letters neatly printed by one of those fancy script computer fonts: Mr. Silas Johnson, Vice-President, Trendex Industries. A low murmur began to intermix with the soft, piped-in music as the invited guests each checked the master chart and then made their way to their assigned seats. Attendance was good this year, up at least 20% from last year’s Breakfast, I quickly estimated. I reminded myself to get the exact figures from Bob before I left.

I looked around the room to evaluate the set-up and see how Steve had done. Pretty standard. A nice job as usual. Each of the round tables was surrounded by eight chairs and covered by a fresh, white table cloth. In the middle of each stood a centerpiece reflecting this year’s theme: an upright brass telescope with a forest green placard attached to the top, which I knew read, Where there is no vision, the people perish. I remembered from the planning meetings that each table had one place card with a red dot on the back, the lucky bearer of which got to keep the handsome telescope. I looked over to the middle of the head table, and seeing a telescope in front of the podium, quietly turned over my own place card to see if… but alas, no dot. I wasn’t surprised; I had only been on the committee a couple of years now.

I turned back to inspect the banner of peach and green which hung behind the podium. Welcome to the 7th Annual City Prayer Breakfast. Where were the programs, I wondered? Around the walls Steve had placed some of those motivational Christian posters to break up the monotony of the hotel’s tan panels. The kind with some majestic nature scene coupled with a scripture verse or two. Now that’s a bit much, I thought. Maybe I’d mention it to Steve….

The room was getting full with only a few seats here and there not taken. Most of the guests wore dark suits with bright ties, but a few were in sweaters and button downs, probably newcomers. A very few sported clerical collars under their jackets, a sure sign that our efforts to reach out to the mainline ministers and even the Catholics had met with success. The guests ranged in age from their mid-twenties on up, mostly men, but there were a few sharply dressed women as well, most of whom were quite attractive as things would have it. There was a good representation of African-American pastors and leaders, and I saw that we had done a nice job of splitting them up among the different tables so that folks could fellowship “across the tracks” as we called it. It looked good. Which reminded me; where were… oh, there, sedately in the back. Nestled between two doors I saw a small reporter’s table with representatives from the city’s main paper and perhaps some of the other local rags. Seeing them made me think that we ought to consider contacting the TV stations next year….

“Hey Si! How are ya?” Bob Batson slapped me on the back as he sat down next to me. AHow’s the wife? The kids?”

“Fine, fine. And you?” Bob was a local businessman, and like me, a member of his church board. We had both joined the Prayer Breakfast committee at the same time.

“No complaints. Quite a crowd this year. This is just great.” Bob unfolded his napkin and spread it on his lap, which reminded me to do the same thing.

“So, Bob, how are things at your church?”

“Great, great. The Lord keeps blessing us, and we just keep growing and growing. You know we have over 40 different ministry programs now? We’ve got to find a bigger building, maybe a place with some property, you know? Plenty of parking, nice landscape, all that.”

“Sure; it’s important that we don’t turn folks off for the …”

“Good Morning and Praise the Lord!” I was interrupted by Jake Matthews on the mike. Jake was senior pastor of one of the largest churches in town, and was asked to serve as MC.   “I never thought I’d see this many pastors up this early in the morning! But really, we are blessed to see all of you here today for this exciting event. I am convinced that the Lord is about to do something special in our city. To bring so many of the important leaders together is just really great. By being at this Prayer Breakfast, you demonstrate that you are crucial to what the Lord is doing ….”

Geez, he’s right, I thought; just look at us all in one room! I mean, if a bomb were to go off in this room, could you imagine what that would do to the gospel, the silence that would ensue in the city’s most influential pulpits? The impact would be… I shook my head and looked for coffee. Too many Schwarzenegger movies to be thinking like that that early in the day. Still, there are a lot of crazies out there. Corporations take security seriously; why shouldn’t we?

Jake went on, “Just the other day, I was spending some time alone with the Lord, and I felt Him really speak to my heart that He was going to do something exciting this morning, and tears started to well up and I just couldn’t stop them, and well, I know that many of you have felt the same thing, so let’s get started. We have a lot of ground to cover, so if you’ll take your programs and open them up to… what’s that?

Oh, apparently you do have them — they are under your plates. OK, I guess we goofed there.” I winced. Why did he have go and say that? Oh well. I found my program and looked it over as Jake went on. It was the usual fare: a nice cover with sponsors listed on the back and three to four pages inside with pictures and short bios of the key players. I knew the order of events but double checked anyway on the second page: Welcoming Comments followed by a Prayer of Thanks and then Breakfast.

Someone’s cell phone went off. I glanced up to see the offending party try to sneak out surreptitiously to take the call. I knew that several city and county officials were supposed to be here including the DA, and maybe even the deputy mayor who was vocal about his faith, so I vowed to try not to let those type of interruptions bother me.

While we ate, the head table and other special guests would be introduced, and then a multi-media presentation called Your City for Christ would be shown on a screen up front. I glanced around and surmised that the projectors must be hooked into the hotel’s slide system hanging discreetly from the ceiling between two track lights. After the breakfast, there would be an Award Presentation, followed by the Special Music, a nice little contemporary number sung to a sound track one of the Christian radio stations donated. After this was the main address, Mobilizing Your Ministries for Dynamic Growth, given by a successful pastor we had flown in from the suburbs of Dallas. We would close out the morning with ten minutes of Group Prayer, and still hopefully be done in time for everyone to get to work. Few things are worse for Christian witness than tardiness. I knew I had a staff meeting at 9:15 to get to; my secretary had better have had those reports done….

I heard my name and, jerking my head up, saw that suddenly everyone was looking at me. Jake had finished his welcoming comments and was pointing to my picture in the program. “What, what?” I asked automatically.

“He wants you to give the Prayer of Thanks. Apparently, Dick didn’t make it,” Bob whispered as he leaned towards me.

Now I have yet to forgive Dick for skipping out on us, and I don’t know why he did, but you can bet he heard about it the next time I saw him. The thing is, I hate to pray in public. Almost anything else I will do. Announcements, motivational talks, seminars on efficient ministry techniques, anything except prayer. Pray silently, sure; I do it all day long as if the Lord was sitting beside me, me and Him, my best buddy. (I sometimes even jokingly refer to Him as “My Co-Vice-President,” but nobody gets it.) I don’t know what it is; I just don’t like to pray out loud. So then I was on the spot, and suddenly the track lights pointing at the head table seemed brighter and felt warmer on my forehead. Someone coughed in the back. Now I promise you that I had no idea that my response would result in the subsequent fiasco, and that is the gospel truth. So I blinked a few times, and said the first thing that came to mind, “Why don’t we, uh, honor our senior guests by having the oldest minister here offer the prayer?”

I saw a few smiles and nods from the tables, and people began to look around, but Jake just stared at me, grinning and dumb struck. “Yeah, sure, we can do that, Si. You have any idea who that might be?” He looked down at his watch and licked his lips.

“Well no, but if we ask….” And then I saw him. Sitting at the table closest to the podium, but in one of those chairs facing towards the back, so that the occupant has to constantly strain his neck if he wants to see the speaker without missing his breakfast. The man had turned his chair around as Jake was looking down at his watch and stared directly over the podium into the top of Jake’s well groomed hair. He had a dark, leathery complexion with wispy white hair on the sides of his otherwise balded head. Small, round spectacles sat upon his broad nose which only seemed to highlight all the more his sharp, grey eyes. His lips were sucked in and straight, giving him a sort of vacant countenance which clashed oddly with those artful, attentive eyes. A collection of wrinkles completed the face and though they were not harsh, it looked as though he had borne more worry than he should have in his life. I reminded myself to not be judgmental, that his generation didn’t know the techniques of stress reduction that we have since developed. And he was clearly the oldest man there.

I knew he was a minister from his full circular collar which wound around his neck, a white halo atop the traditional black shirt that most clergy used to wear. Over that he wore a ragged tweed jacket with leather buttons and elbow patches which happened to match his plain, brown shoes. Upon his wrinkled, khaki pants sat a small, black leather Bible which looked as worn as the rest of the package. The old man folded his weathered hands in his lap and waited.

“Um, perhaps there,” I pointed and began, but Jake had already seen the man and smiled. “You sir, what’s your name?”

“Eh, what’s that?”

“Your name, sir,” Jake said a bit more loudly, his smile still fixed and sincere.

“Plummet. Ezra T. Plummet. I do beg your pardon, sir. Jehovah has not favored me with outstanding hearing this particular morning.” He spoke in a clear, alto voice which was overly loud like many who are hard of hearing, so that everyone in the banquet hall could hear his remarks though they were addressed to Jake only ten feet away at the podium.

“Where did this character come from?” Bob leaned over to me again, the back of his hand in front of his mouth. “Obviously from one of the smaller churches in town; I’ve never seen him before,” he continued, answering his own question.

“Rev. Plummet, would you care to offer a prayer of thanks for the food and for the blessings of this gathering?” Jake pushed on, stealing another glance at his watch.

“Eh, what’s that? Prayer? Indeed, don’t mind if I do,” the old minister responded, pushing himself up to his feet, and turning his frail figure round to face the room, his hands upon the back of his chair, as if to steady him.

“Yes, of thanks. A brief one,” Jake instructed, but it was too late; the old man had already closed his eyes tight and begun. And as we bowed our heads over our plates, I swear (and the audio tape can prove) that he then offered word for word the following prayer:

 

O Lord, Great Jehovah, we thank Thee for this fine day, a day like any other in The Day of import, the Day of judgement and the Day of redemption, in which Thy kingdom advances gloriously throughout the world, with or without us. We thank Thee especially for this gathering in which we can make Thy name known, perhaps together with our own, to the world. And so we thank Thee for the manifold blessings of this meeting:

We thank Thee that Thou hast brought together so many of the key-players and spiritual leaders of our city, that the world may see that Thy gospel is not contained to the outskirts of society, but that it is embraced by many who are successful, and influential, and well, normal like them; and that even though Thou carest equally for all people, the needy and the unneedy alike, Thou canst especially use the unneedy in Thy kingdom. And so for all the wise and powerful gathered here this morning, we thank Thee.

We thank Thee also for the blessing of syncretism which we enjoy: the joy of taking the best of both worlds and so deploying them that their synergy is far more efficient together than apart; that Thy Word can be so intermixed with the methods and assumptions of our society as to produce this most relevant gospel, undivided in its substance, if yet confounding her two natures. Oh how blessed we are! For though we are not of this world, Thou hast made us competent in it, and so we give Thee thanks.

And likewise, we thank Thee for the freedom to remain so ambiguous about our beliefs that we may unite with all who profess a general faith in Thy deity; for the freedom to apprehend Thy Triunity as a simpleton unity, the gospel of Grace as a gospel of moralism, and our state of sin as a psychological impasse.

 

Up until this point I had kept my head down and eyes closed as a good supplicant, and I admit, I didn’t really know what in the world he had been talking about. But at these last words I cast a glance up at him, not knowing just exactly what I expected to see, or how that would help explain this most uncomfortable prayer. I noticed several others also opening an eye here or there to behold the spectacle, but all they saw was an old man leaning upon his chair as he prayed. And still he went on:

 

And we thank Thee for Thy Word which Thou hast given for our use; a Word so perspicuous that we may comprehend its meaning at a mornings glance and immediately apply it to all those we run across that day; whose verses are so powerful in and of themselves, that we may freely lift them from all context and attach them to bumpers and strategies, seminars and refrigerators alike. For Thou hast freed us from the dead letter of study, so that our zeal may flourish unhindered by the burden of excess knowledge.    

And yet we thank Thee that even with Thy Word, we are not bound by the tyranny of its Truth, but are equally guided by life experiences and the mastering of our common sense of which we Americans have a particularly generous dose; and that we have testimonies and anecdotes so rich and entertaining that we scarce need to turn to Thy Word for guidance, except to find a verse or two to confirm the conclusions at which we have already arrived.

And so we thank Thee that Thou hast freed us from the endless and impossible struggle of attempting to pursue means which are as godly as the ends Thou hast commanded us. Oh! All thanks be to Thee for unveiling new economies to us, particularly for unwrapping that most remarkable gift of Pragmatism as our unassailable guide: that we might win people to faith by any means which work. For thou hast freed us from that oppressive law of David, that we may count our numbers and so assess the strength of our ministries, that we might not be a burden to Thee nor stand in Thy way for want of effectiveness. For all those Thou givest to our ministries that we might cajole and maneuver to further Thy cause, we give Thee praise. Help us to feed on them in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving.

 

Fully half of the room were now fully erect, eyes wide and mouths agape, wondering why someone didn’t put a stop to this embarrassment, for the old man’s own good, you understand. But no one moved; we all just sat there, watching, the drool of inaction beginning to collect in tiny pools on our plates, as Plummet droned on:

 

We also thank Thee that Thou art a just God, and though we may lose heavenly reward by parading our positions and good works here this morning, yet Thou hast promised that we shall receive our reward in full here on earth and so for the blessings of fame and prestige and influence we give Thee thanks.

And so, for the presence of the press here this morning, we also thank Thee, that this event may receive the publicity it deserves and so gain a hearing in the marketplace of ideas through a two or three inch column and maybe even a picture with a snappy caption. Guide the photographers to just the right people to capture on film, while displaying their best profiles, so that they might have a nifty clipping to put up on their church bulletin boards.

And we thank Thee for the many other blessings which Thou hast rained upon us and of which we can only mention a few in order that this might remain a short prayer: for head tables and head honchos, for titles and telescopes, for car phones and catacombs, for piccolos and peccadillos, for every conceivable Christian trinket currently on the market; and oh, yes, for this food which we are about to receive. Bless it to our use and loving service. Amen.

 

And so ended the breakfast prayer of Rev. Ezra T. Plummet. There then ensued a quiet so long and so total that were it not for our worldly dress, one entering the room in those moments would have thought that he had stumbled upon an order of silent monks enmeshed in some Ancient Rite of Sacred Dumbfoundedness. Jake just stood there behind the podium, his expression one of pure shell shock, for once having forgotten about his watch.

Finally, from somewhere in the back, the calm was broken by a simple: “What was that?”

Bob responded with what was perhaps his most profound statement of the morning, “Whatever it was, it sure as hell wasn’t my prayer!”

Rev. Plummet turned to him and spoke, simply and quietly, “Make sure of it, sir.”

And then a most remarkable thing happened, subtlety at first, but then more distinctly, almost as if it had been predetermined. Every one of the gentlemen and ladies who were sitting between Plummet and the entrance way began to shift their chairs until an unobstructed pathway was created to the door, lined on either side by a row of unrelenting eyes. The old man was still looking at Bob, but when he shuffled around, he saw their unmistakable invitation.

Jake saw it too and quickly leaned down to the podium mike, his hand grasped around its flexible stem. “Well sir, uh, that’s up to you. You’re welcome to stay of course… but if you feel that it might be better… “

“Don’t worry, I’m leaving,” Rev. Plummet interrupted. And with that he glanced at his pocket watch, and headed down the golden path created especially for him. Jake visibly relaxed behind his podium. He flinched, however, when half way out, Plummet suddenly stopped, turned around and strode back to his table, just as fast as his gait would take him.

“Yes?” Jake asked. Plummet reached to the middle of his table, grabbed the telescope there and tucking it under an arm, responded, “Red dot, you see. I do enjoy my souvenirs.”

“Of course,” Jake said, “you’re welcome to it. The least we can do….” And so the old man finally left, while I wondered how he had managed to land a red dot.

Everyone turned back toward Jake who was running his hand through his hair and smiling. “Oh well, everyone’s a prophet, I guess! What’s next? Uh, well, let’s do introductions later and get that video rolling, while you enjoy your breakfast. I think you’ll find it just tremendous, the video I mean, or both really. We got it ready? OK, let’s roll.”

The rest of the meeting was uneventful, and apart from that one prayer, everyone agreed that it was as successful as always. We never saw or heard from Ezra T. Plummet again, nor learned from what church he came. Doubtless none big enough to do too much damage.

The next year the planning committee instituted admission tickets for the Prayer Breakfast. To communicate properly the importance and quality of the program, you understand. After all, corporations and schools have invitation lists for their award banquets and such. The church of Christ should do no less.

 

 

* Loosely inspired by The War Prayer,

a short story by Mark Twain.

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Cathedral close

 

This article will be published in an adapted form at https://tabletalkmagazine.com in the near future.   All rights are reserved to Tabletalk upon its publication until released by them per our agreement.

 

The communion of which I am a member has from time to time experienced a lively debate between those who wish to advance a more contemporary, “seeker-friendly” worship style on the Lord’s Day and those who wish to uphold (or return to!) the more formal, liturgical forms of traditional Protestant worship. It is a complicated discussion, and opposing camps often too readily form, so that further strife over the subject seems almost inevitable.

But perhaps most disturbing to me is the apparent assumption that those who support the “seeker-friendly” style are more clearly on the side of grace than those who do not. The argument goes something like this: The Gospel is about grace, and grace is about meeting people where they are. Therefore, in order to meet people where they are, we must remove all extra-biblical obstacles from their path to Jesus. Traditional worship forms and language are an extra-biblical obstacle for most people in our culture. Therefore, they must be replaced by cultural forms which are familiar so that the Gospel might become clear to visitors. Likewise, the entire atmosphere of the church must be welcoming and comfortable, and the teaching must be accessible to first-time visitors and clearly applicable to the everyday problems of modern man. Those who insist on traditional worship forms seek to bring people to Law rather than grace, and will become increasingly ingrown, irrelevant, and consequently foul-tempered.

That is, as I see it, the basic argument attempting to link the doctrine of grace with the compulsion to alter one’s worship style to mirror the current culture. And before I state my thesis, it must be said that there is much truth to these reasonings and observations. Far too many traditional Protestant churches are ingrown, irrelevant, and yes, foul-tempered. Far too many are unwilling to alter the least jot or tittle from the way they have done things for years, though the item in question may be a relatively recent innovation only fifty years old or so. Far too many traditional churches think well of themselves, so that for them it is no quandary to emphasize Law and moralism in place of grace. In this sense, the worship progressives are quite correct: there are few churches less effective in communicating the Gospel to our times than a church which is both traditional and ungracious.

But a contemporary worship format does not guarantee a gracious church anymore than a traditional service will guarantee a moralistic church. For the purpose of this essay, I would like to focus on different approaches to preaching. I wish to show first, that it is not as simple as all that; and second, that on the contrary, in the long run, it is traditional Protestant preaching, properly done, that is far better suited to carry the message of grace to our times than its contemporary, “seeker-friendly” rival, which is, ironically, in far greater danger of producing a works-based religion.

One of the common denominators of the seeker-friendly/seeker-driven worship services I have attended these past few years has been the style of preaching. More a teaching really, the intent is to give the hearer a very clear, practical message from the Bible on daily living. Explicitly religious and mysterious terminology is eschewed in favor of every day, concrete expressions. The message is outlined in the bulletin, often with significant words left blank for the hearer to fill in as the preacher gets to them. The use of an overhead or slide presentation of the main points is almost mandatory. Great passion is neither emoted nor invoked; these are reasonable, civil men representing a reasonable, civil God, after all. Sometimes the preacher will sit on a tall stool, as if hosting a talk show. One preached in jeans and a gas-station-attendant shirt with his first name written in cursive on a patch over his pocket. I do not mention these details to ridicule, but to paint a picture. Given what he was trying to do, I thought it rather a nice touch. Gone from every one of these sermons, of course, were all semblances of pulpit, robe, mystery and urgency.

Now I cannot gripe too much with the loss of pulpit or robe which are, in fact, clearly extra-biblical and not necessary for the preaching of the gospel (although I find a music stand or my own memory to be a poor substitute for holding notes.) I do not use a pulpit or robe when I go to a nearby orphanage to lead a Bible study, for instance, though I still expect the Word of God to be made effective by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the Word, and not the instrument or means, which is authoritative, so the loss of these props is not fatal. But the loss of mystery and urgency in our preaching is, for their replacement with sermons driven by accessibility and practicality cannot help but lead to a common place works-based religion, even if the metamorphosis begins subtly.

Here is what I mean: first, the loss of mystery in favor of accessibility makes God and His Salvation so familiar as to devalue the very Gospel of grace it is purporting to promote. So many of the statements of the New Testament epistles are so vague, spiritual, and well, other-worldly, that on first reading, I have to admit that I have little idea what the author is getting at, much less what sort of immediate application I should derive. And if this is so with the epistles, mind you, how much more the case with the prophets, poets, and our own Lord, who spoke in parables, in part, that those outside the kingdom “may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand?” (Mark 4:12).

Now the good news is this: when through effort, exasperation and prayer, the Holy Spirit begins to show us the glory and the beauty and the truth in these passages, we find their meaning and import to be far greater than we can have ever imagined at a first reading. This is grace. This is valuable grace. And it cannot be had at a glance or through terms which communicate easily to our world, for heaven is a foreign land with a foreign language. If a first-time visitor is able to easily apprehend the storehouses of our faith, I am not sure that I can wait until Wednesday night to be fed; I would rather doubt that there was enough there to begin with. But when we represent a prize so precious that only words such as “redemption,” “atonement,” “sinner,” “justification,” and “glorification,” can describe it, then we present a prize worth panting after, a prize worth the selling of all one has to get. A sermon diet whose primary purpose is to be palatable to the uninitiated cannot serve forth anything so nutritious as to merit the name of grace. But preaching which retains a mystery about it, which holds the prize a little beyond reach, can only be accessed by one means — that of faith in the Good News of Jesus Christ. That is how real, heart-rending, and life-changing grace is made accessible.

But this is still not the real danger to gracious religion. The real danger is the second characteristic of “seeker-friendly” preaching, that of its practicality. Why so? The loss of urgency to practicality in preaching makes it more man-centered than God-centered, which in turn, leads to us trying to please God by our own efforts, the death-nell to the doctrine of grace. This is not to say that urgent preaching is not ultimately practical, but it starts where it should: the desperate plight of people given over entirely to their own sin so that they have no hope but for the rich, mysterious grace of God. Add to that a God who does what pleases Him without being bound to any machinations of man, and that should create a sense of urgent need for the grace of God to grant us the faith that is needed to produce any sort of helpful activity in our lives. And so the urgent preacher exegetes scripture as it is given, with the hope that his hearers’ hearts would be worked upon by the Holy Spirit, who comes and goes like the wind. Specific application he often cannot give from the text, but must trust that God, in His sovereign ways will be at work the rest of the week.

But if you start with the premise that all messages should be ready-made to take home and apply right away, the urgent dependence upon God is replaced by the hearer’s ability to put the lesson into practice. This inevitably leads one to rely upon oneself to fulfill the very practical and specific applications from the message. And relying upon oneself ultimately leads to one of only two results — self-condemnation, or what is worse, self-commendation. And this is the kind of religion we call moralism or legalism — that the basis of our relationship with God is dependant upon our own behavior. It may not seem like moralism because it is not stern and does not come from a high pulpit, but that is exactly what it is in every danger of explicitly becoming. Moralism in blue jeans is still moralism. Legalism made comfortable is still legalism.

This is our chief complaint with liberal Christianity — not that they engage in empty rituals or support homosexual rights or any number of other things — but that they have abandoned the Gospel of grace, and have nothing to replace it with except moralism. And as liberal aberrations have always been driven by apologetic concerns — to make the gospel relevant to the present age — so the “seeker” movement is likewise driven. And like liberal Christianity, its chief problem is not innovation but simple unbelief — unbelief that God saves people through sincere, rich, sin-and-grace-based preaching. It would rather believe that God needs our help through new and creative methods. And since its methods are essentially man-centered and works-based, so will its disciples also be. I do not doubt that “seeker-driven” churches will thrive in the next few decades; what I doubt is that they will remain Christian.

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