Don Watson on the evangelists, and the God, we need


I’ve been slowly making my way through some old editions of Meanjin. A thoroughly enjoyable experience. Came across this lovely essay by Don Watson. It concludes with these good words:

‘We need a revival. We need more evangelists on the road. I mean real evangelists and a real God: not those unctuous neophytes and sanctimonious suburban lay preachers with their nice God. We need fiery preachers with a fiery God. Man and God in hot competition. Only then can we be assured that one day something funny will happen to those honey-tongued hypocrites in the United States athletics team. It will be very unpleasant for them you can be sure. And the irony will be — the really funny part — they won’t know what hit them’.

– Don Watson, ‘The Joke After God’. Meanjin 46, no. 2 (1986), 235.

[Image: Source]

An update on my forthcoming book ‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’

Forsyth 16A week or so ago, I received  finally  the first proofs for my forthcoming book Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth (Pickwick Publications). I’m really delighted with the typesetter’s efforts, and genuinely excited to see this 350+ page baby  which consists of forty-eight sermons (most of which are previously unpublished), a Foreword by David Fergusson, and an Introduction by yours truly – finally near full term. All going to plan, she should be ready to pop in the next few months. Of course, I’ll announce the birth soon after I know about it. In the meantime, here is a wee taster, an ultrasound (to keep the running metaphor alive), from the Preface wherein I attend to the matter and logic of the book’s title:

A note about the title of this volume is in order too. The phrase “descending on men and intervening in history” appears in Forsyth’s Yale lectures. In the section wherein the phrase appears, Forsyth was concerned about religious liberalism’s tendency towards vagueness and detachment from a more intellectually and morally rigorous or “positive” religion that speaks to the deep crises of human history and experience. The former understands Christ to be the product rather than the creator of the Church, reduces the history of redemption to “the ascending history of the race developed with God’s aid,” and begins from ideas and ends in the theological suicide of positive belief and distinctive experience. The so-called “positive” theology of the New Testament, however, is chiefly concerned with God’s moral action of overcoming human sin and the hallowing of God’s own name in the creation in order that God might hear an echo of himself therefrom. Whereas the former merely proposes prerequisites for and conditions of reconciliation, the latter bears witness to the reconciliation that has already taken place in Jesus Christ, trumpeting that we are already in a healed situation and “not merely in a world in process of empirical reconciliation.” Also, the gospel descends on, rather than arises from, us:

It is not a projection of [our] innate spirituality. It is revealed, not discovered, not invented. It is of grace, not works. It is conferred, not attained. It is a gift to our poverty, not a triumph of our resource. It is something which holds us, it is not something that we hold. It is something that saves us, and nothing that we have to save. Its Christ is a Christ sent to us and not developed from us, bestowed on our need and not produced from our strength, and He is given for our sin more than for our weakness.

So Forsyth could describe the experience of faith as that which rests on God’s finished work and then “takes a line,” appealing to “our moral mettle” and calling us not to mere consideration and pondering but to “moral verve and vigilance,” to stake the entirety of our being and eternity on selection, decision, and committal. This choice, Forsyth averred, depicts the gulf faced by preachers, a gulf that Forsyth believed is as wide and as irreconcilable as that between being a herald of the gospel and an advocate of culture. The former, Forsyth said, “will make you strangers and sojourners in the world, the other citizens of the world . . . One will make you apostles of Christ, and one will make you champions of humanity. One will make you severe with yourself, one will make you tender with yourself. One will commend you to the naughty people, and one will commend you to the nice.” He continues:

Now of these two tendencies one means the destruction of preaching. If it cease to be God’s word, descending on men and intervening in history, then it will cease as an institution in due time. It may become lecturing, or it may become oratory, but as preaching it must die out with a positive Gospel. People cannot be expected to treat a message of insight from man to man as they do a message of revelation from God to man. An age cannot be expected to treat a message from another age as they treat a message from Eternal God to every age. Men with the passion of the present cannot be expected to listen even to a message from humanity as they would to one from God. And if humanity redeem itself you will not be able to prevent each member of it from feeling that he is his own redeemer.

In other words, Forsyth sees at stake here nothing less than the nature of the gospel as grace, as that foreign word that descends and intrudes and makes alive, rather than that which arises from our own situation and in the end merely coddles a frondeur race in its blindness and recalcitrance. The latter promises to raise the dead while having nothing but death’s machinery with which to do so—machinery reluctant, moreover, either to name the corpse as corpse or even to attend to the right grave. But not so the preacher of grace, the preacher who, with words given, names a thing for what it is and by such naming participates in grace’s continuing event by which all things are being made new. To so recall Forsyth’s plea here is to recall that he was, of course, ministering at a time when the theology of the day was radically out of joint with the situation confronting the human community in Europe, when the easy optimism heralded as the new orthodoxy was about to be crushed under the press of catastrophic historical events. In response, Forsyth attacked the amorality of established theology and raised a too-lonely voice in plea for a staurocentric theology of redemption.

Hearing and responding to Jesus Christ

So what is happening when a person hears and responds to Jesus Christ? Two things strike me. The first thing to say is that someone is not acting out on their own bat, so to speak. Every movement towards God is a movement that is already happening inside the triune life, and so it’s a kind of prayer, a listening and participation in the divine conversation. Here I am reminded of a recent sermon by Rowan Williams in which he writes:

When I pray, I ask God to bring me into that mystery of love, to bring me into that pouring out and pouring back of love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I ask to be dropped into that ocean and carried along with its energy, its life.

Out of that, of course, come all sorts of other bits of praying. If you start there it makes sense to acknowledge that you have got things wrong, to acknowledge that you have failed – as in that wonderful song we sang earlier, ‘I am free to fail’, one of the most important messages any Christian can have. If I know that I am dropped into the ocean of God’s love, then I am not afraid to acknowledge just how much I have got wrong, just how much growing I still need to do. As I drop into that mystery I can say, ‘There is no comparison. Your goodness, your love, your abundance, your generosity are so immense that I cannot hold a light to them – I know how awful it must look. But hey, here I am in the ocean anyway. Let it come in, let it flood me through’. That is how our prayer includes confession.

And then in the context of that dropping into the love of God, we can also say to God, ‘You, God, must be passionate for the healing and the peace of my neighbours. You must care for their life, their openness to love and forgiveness. So I bring them to you knowing what you want for them. I put them in your hands because I know you want their life’. That is how we pray for one another, how we pray for peace in the world, and how we pray for our fellowship as a Church. Saying to God, ‘We know what you want for us and our neighbours’. That is the prayer of intersession, as we pray for each other.

The second thing to note is that a miracle has taken place; specifically, a miracle about the nature of Christian preaching itself. As one theologian put it, ‘No one has ever heard the gospel from the lips of a human being’; i.e., from the lips of a human being other than Jesus. If I have heard the gospel, then the who that I have heard is not the preacher but Jesus Christ. This reality describes both the possibility and the impossibility of preaching.

So when a person hears and responds to Jesus Christ (who is the Father’s right hand) one is gathered up by the Spirit (the Father’s left hand) to share in the inner relations of God’s own life and love with Christ by the Spirit in such a way that the very life of God is made to reverberate in us, and our very life is brought to reverberate in the spaciousness of God’s. This is sheer gift. As this happens, the Church recognises her true nature and purpose as centered with Christ in God in such a way that all her faith and obedience is a joyful and thankful sharing in and with the actual mission and ministry of the living Christ.

‘A preacher’s morning hours’

God doesn’t seem to be too
interested in keeping office hours
and very few sermons are written
when the sun is up.
When it comes, the divine speech
almost always comes sometime during
the third watch. The sermons are
almost always long and taxing;
these are no homilies or ‘thoughts
for the day’. I ebb,
beaten, taken again to the lynching
tree; am wrenched once more

© Jason Goroncy
7 August, 2012

On the art of disassociation

‘When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous’. So penned Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners. In such ecclesiolatrous gogglesness, the Christian artist, O’Connor believes, sacrifices reality birthed and fostered through extra-ecclesial but no-less graced experience in favour of a sole voice very likely to soon sing out of key. And O’Connor calls for an end to what she understands to be a false dichotomy while drawing attention to a genuine tension which is neither false nor one typically handled with due care. O’Connor’s concern, however, is not here to dissolve this tension between what the church sees and what the artist sees; rather, she wishes to understand the nature of the Catholic artist’s responsibility to look with both eyes, as it were. The real vocation of (prophetic) artists, she argues, is to achieve and communicate a wholeness of vision, and to take a stand on such a vision rather than engage in enterprises about which side in the conflict is more correct or more fitting. This can only be done through the artist’s willingness to look at what is there to see – and further, to what is not yet seen. Either way, we are talking about activities of hope. (Here, too, the artist and the preacher have much in common.)

It seems to me that Jacques Maritain is trumpeting an analogous (though not the same) melody in Art and Scholasticism and the Frontiers of Poetry when he writes:

Do not make the absurd attempt to disassociate in yourself the artist and the Christian. They are truly one, if you are truly Christian, and if your art is not isolated from your soul by some system of aesthetics. But apply only the artist to the work; precisely because the artist and the Christian are one, the work will derive wholly from each of them.

To press even further, or perhaps to press backwards, I would still want to argue (with Paul Ricœur and others) for a more pronounced expression of and commitment to communal (ecclesial and other) existence; that the Christian artist – whether a prophet or not – does not carve out her own story ex nihilo, as it were, but rather works both at different levels of consciousness in the streams and side pools of narratives – and of that most basic of all Narratives – into which her existence and vocation have been gathered up and formed, and in a network of relationality in which her existence and vocation find the kind of meaning that is both healing and abiding. There is an acute difference, it seems to me, between disregarding one’s own eyes in favour of those of others alone (so O’Connor’s concern), and abandoning the cloud of witnesses altogether. The former posture is, among other things, a denial of our being-as-responsible. The latter is a performance (understood in its positive sense) of proper humility, hope and love, and an act of faith born of the conviction that whenever Jesus comes to us he always tends to bring his friends along with him as well. In like vein, there is no art without community.

Preaching and the virtue of untidiness

Recently, I read Thomas Long’s What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith. In some ways, the book promises more than it delivers. Where it does deliver, however, is with Long’s persistent reminder and call that ‘preachers do not have the luxury of dismissing in the pulpit a serious question that arises from the pews’. I love that. Given Long’s proven track record in writing some of the best books on preaching around (although my favourite of his books remains Accompany Them with Singing), it is perhaps unsurprising that some of the richest insights shared in What Shall We Say? have to do with preaching. Here’s a taster:

‘Sometimes people assume that preaching works this way: a preacher prepares a sermon during the week, finishes it at some point – maybe Friday afternoon or Saturday night – and then gets up and preaches the finished product in worship on Sunday. This may be the way it appears on the surface, but experienced preachers know better: sermons are never actually finished. There are always loose ends, questions that could have been pursued in more depth, stones left unturned, intriguing aspects of the biblical text unexamined, thoughts not quite fully baked, an untidiness at the heart of things. At some point, though, preachers have to take what they have, stand up, and speak. Preachers do not preach because the sermon is finished; they preach because it is Sunday. The time has come.

That sermons are never finished is actually a good thing. Sermons get presented in incomplete form not because of procrastination or negligence – not most of the time, anyway – but because preaching mirrors the character of faithful theology and of the Christian life itself. Karl Barth once described God’s revelation as “a bird in flight.” By the time we have paused to snap a photo, write a systematic theology, or craft a sermon, the bird has flown on. “All theology is provisional,” said theologian Arthur C. McGill. “It is the movement … from darkness toward the light, so that as movement no point along its way has permanent or final validity.”’

– Thomas G. Long, What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011), 114.

Bad sermons

Like most people who hang around churches, I hear a lot of bad sermons. Some of them are my own. And from time to time, I also read some bad sermons. I also read about what makes bad sermons. (Ironically, or perhaps not, these essays are often written by someone who themselves is a dismal preacher.) So when PT Forsyth suggests that ‘with its preaching Christianity stands or falls’, I hope like mad that he’s wrong, even while secretly acquiescing with his assessment of God’s strange ways with us. Anyway, I was recently reading Bonhoeffer’s novella titled ‘Sunday’ which appears in his Fiction from Tegel Prison material (I’m slowly making my way through Bonhoeffer’s works this year). Therein, he offers us one of the best expositions I’ve yet read on the bad sermon, and on the costliness of such. Here’s an excerpt:

Frau Karoline Brake sat upright on the park bench, her eyes lost in the red splendor of blossoms and in the dark green foliage. A few brimstone butterflies fluttered in the hushed stillness of shimmering sunlight. The birds’ soft rustling in the hushes, their voices now almost silenced by the fire of the sun climbing toward noon, the chirping of crickets, the mosquitoes’ fine, bright hum – all these sounds reached her ear, penetrating the stillness. Feeling happy and profoundly thankful, she breathed in the fullness of the summer air.

Suddenly a shadow passed across her face. She had heard another miserable sermon. She had walked out of church in a very bad mood, and only the radiant blue sky and nature’s summery light had made her feel better. But now she felt her rage rising once again within her. What rubbish she had been forced to listen to again. Could one blame the children and grandchildren who, for years now, had let her go to church alone? She could still hear her oldest grandson’s precocious words as he had accompanied her to church for the last time: “You know, Grandma, we’ve outgrown this kind of preacher wisdom just like we’ve outgrown our Latin teachers rattling off Ostermann’s exercises. I really can’t understand how you can bear to listen to it Sunday after Sunday.”

At the time she had replied, “Dear boy, what’s important is not that something is new, but that it’s right. And we need to hear what’s right again and again, because unfortunately we keep forgetting it.”

“I don’t understand,” he had replied. “I don’t forget it at all. On the contrary, I can recite all these sanctimonious clichés backwards and forwards.”

‘‘Yes, you know them in your head and your lips can rattle them off my dear, but the heart and the hand learn more slowly.”

She had said this and yet did not feel right about saying it, for what they had heard in the sermon was neither new nor right. It was sanctimonious prattle, and to her mind that was the worst thing that could happen from the pulpit. Perhaps she should have admitted that openly to her grandson. Perhaps she should have said to him: “You mustn’t confuse Christianity with its pathetic representatives.” But he was a smart boy and would not have spared her a reply: “Anything that has such pathetic representatives can’t have much power left; I’m interested in what is alive and relevant today, not in a dead faith of the past.”

How could one argue with that? To distinguish between original Christianity and the church today was really a feeble attempt to justify it. After all, what mattered was simply whether the Christianity in which Frau Brake had grown up and lived her life still existed today, and whether or not it lives in its current representatives. Every bad sermon was another nail in the coffin of the Christian faith. It could no longer be denied that here, in this suburb in any event, hot air had taken the place of God’s Word.

Frau Karoline Brake no longer saw the bushes in full bloom; she could no longer feel the pleasure of the warm July sun. Instead she saw her children and grandchildren before her mind’s eye and uttered a quiet “Oh, well!” In her voice was a little amazement about the ways of the world, a little worry about her own inability to change them, but also a good bit of that calm assurance with which older people entrust the future to hands stronger than their own. But, as if she had already let herself go too far with this little sigh, Frau Karoline straightened her body with a quick, rather indignant jerk, stood up, and strode resolutely through the park to the street that led to her home.

No, she was not the kind who gave up easily. You could tell from the way she walked that she was making decisions as she went along. She would see that this old windbag of a preacher left this pulpit, or that a second pastor, a preacher of the word of God, would be called to the parish.  She rejected the idea of speaking to the windbag again. She had made several attempts, but had been met with nothing but vain defensiveness and hollow officiousness. In fact, she had felt the pastor avoiding her glance since these visits, and she had heard by the grapevine that he had thwarted her reelection to the parish council [Gemeindekirchenrat]. Some said he emphasized that she must be spared because of her age; others said he thought her strange. He even went so far with some as to accuse her of intolerable presumption. There was no doubt about it; he was afraid of her because she saw through him. Despite these events she had continued to go to his church every Sunday, even when she had long since given up hope of ever hearing the word of God from him. She had taken this humiliation upon herself as a salutary discipline. But in the end she had had enough. It wasn’t so much for her own sake; she had learned through the years to ignore the talk and to focus on the few words which contained truth. She could have continued this way for the rest of her life. But more important things were at stake. The congregation, the whole town, her own family was deprived of the word of God and that meant that their whole life must sooner or later lose its center. This could remain hidden for a while yet; memory and tradition could postpone complete disintegration for a while yet.

But her grandchildren’s generation would need to find new ways of its own, and several things these young people had said had led their grandmother to recognize the first signs of protest, even of revolt. It was not the young people’s fault if things were as they were. Rather, the older people let things take their course so unperceptively, without insight or concern. That was the worst thing about it. Frau Karoline Brake had asked herself tacitly whether it could be God’s will to bring judgment over this generation by withdrawing God’s word from them. But even if it were so, she told herself, God would also want people to resist [widersetzen] this judgment, to take God at his word and not let him go until he blessed them. But why was she so alone with her ideas and opinions? Why did hardly anyone who had been in church today, except the old sexton, notice that all they had heard were hollow phrases and cheap clichés? Why did the educated, of all people, fail so completely in their discernment? To be sure, they hardly ever went to church, but when they had to attend a baptism or wedding they always found the “speech” [Rede], as they called the sermon, very lovely, very artistic, very modern, very relevant. The old woman shook her head dejectedly and was totally lost in her thoughts when she heard a voice behind her.

“Good morning, my dear Frau Bürgermeister, hasn’t the dear Lord blessed us with another beautiful day?” It was the neighbor, Direktor Warmblut’s widow, who was also walking home from church. She had already greeted two or three other women from the neighborhood on their way home and was now hurrying after Frau Karoline Brake to reach her before they arrived at their houses. It wasn’t easy for this short, rather plump woman to catch up to her neighbor, who was ten years her senior. Now she ran breathless with a shiny, red face beside the agile and stately figure, who presented a rare picture of moderation and dignity in her gray dress, gray silk parasol, gray hair, and the dry gray skin of her intelligent face.

“Good morning,” said Frau Brake with her quiet, clear voice. “Yes, the sun does us good; we need it, too.”

“Oh, I do hope things are going well with you. What wonderful health the dear Lord has given you! Well, of course, he loves you and why shouldn’t he? Such a blessed family life, and you their beloved grandmother, the idol of all the grandchildren. Oh, these charming children, and they’re growing up now. But they’re still good, cast in the same mold, and why shouldn’t they be? How fortunate for you, to be surrounded by your family – just think, my dear Frau Bürgermeister, I have had such trouble again the last few days. Oh, I know, the heavier the cross, the closer to heaven, and why shouldn’t it be so? But just think, my daughter Hilde’s husband has left the church and doesn’t want their child baptized. I’ve shed so many tears over it. What would my dear husband, God rest his soul, have said about it? And what will people think of us, and what will become of the poor little wretch? Yes, and I’m almost ashamed to admit it, my Hilde doesn’t seem to mind at all. She says the child can decide later on for herself what she wants. That really hurt me – and coming from my own daughter! And all this to the widow of a man of such an honorable position! I just can’t understand it. I always told her about the dear Lord and prayed with her. She always had to go to church with me, and even at her wedding the pastor gave her such lovely maxims to learn, and she always had the saying over her bed, “Do right and fear no one.” Believe me, dearest Frau Bürgermeister, I haven’t been able to sleep for nights fretting over my daughter. But during the sermon today all that blew over, and now I’m relieved and happy. Oh, and the dear Lord has given us our dear church and our dear pastor, too, who has such a beautiful way with words, so down-to-earth and close to the people. Forgive me, Frau Bürgermeister, I know you don’t always agree with him, but today, don’t you agree, today he outdid himself.”

“Yes, today he really outdid himself, Frau Direktor.”

“You see, you see, oh, I’m so happy that you agree. Didn’t he say it beautifully? Yes – uh, what did he say, anyway? It’s so lovely one could never convey it. But it really doesn’t matter at all, you can just feel it and it’s so uplifting and you don’t even quite know why, isn’t that right, dearest Frau Bürgermeister.”

“Yes, you really don’t quite know why.”

“Well, anyway, he said everyone should live the way they see fit and then it will be the right way, and it doesn’t matter that much to the dear Lord whether the little one is baptized or not, right, Frau Bürgermeister? And it really doesn’t matter that much at all whether my little Hilde goes to church or not. We’re all free people, after all, that’s how he expressed it. Oh, what a wonderful idea! So liberating, so deep, and why shouldn’t it be, right, dearest Frau Bürgermeister? In fact, he had a Bible passage. Now what was it about again?”

“Yes, indeed, what do you think it was about, Frau Direktor?”

“Yes, what was it about, anyway? Oh – you’re getting me all confused, Frau Bürgermeister. But it really doesn’t matter at all, does it?”

“No, it really doesn’t matter at all, because it wasn’t about the Bible passage at all. He wanted to preach about plucking the ears of corn on the Sabbath and about the verse, ‘The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ Instead of saying that Christ may do things because he is Christ, but that doesn’t give us the right to do them by any means, and that if Christ keeps the Sabbath by breaking it, then we first have to learn how to keep the Sabbath holy in earnest, by keeping it – instead of saying that, he babbled on about the freedom of all human beings, and that people may do whatever they think is right, and that we should spend Sunday out in nature rather than in church, and that it doesn’t matter so much at all because the dear Lord is so kind and sweet and good that he isn’t even capable of wrath. My dear Frau Direktor, did it escape you again that the pastor said what you wanted to hear; but didn’t preach the word of God?”

Walter Brueggemann on the imagination and preaching

In his wonderful book, Rabbit is Rich, John Updike offers the following observation: ‘Laugh at ministers all you want, they have the words we need to hear, the ones the dead have spoken’. Here Updike is suggesting that religious language, the Bible’s language, or what he calls ‘the words … the dead have spoken’ are the very bread and butter of a minister’s vocabulary, words which determine not only the content of a minister’s speech but also the conduct associated with a minister’s speech. Indeed, ministers are permitted to speak only that which has been given. All other words are only waffle, a foul and unholy wind. No wonder that Bonhoeffer said that ‘teaching about Christ begins in silence’. For the words which the dead have spoken are, as Walter Brueggemann reminds us in his book on the psalms, ‘words that linger with power and authority after their speakers have gone’. Brueggemann understands the psalmists and prophets to be the great poets of our tradition, who speak to God out of the fullness of the human condition. He considers the entire psalter as a collection of three kinds of psalms: there are psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of new orientation. ‘Poets exist so that the dead may vote’, said Elie Wiesel, and they vote in the Psalms. ‘They vote for faith’, says Brueggemann. ‘But in voting for faith they vote for candor, for pain, for passion – and finally for joy. Their persistent voting gives us a word that turns out to be the word of life’. Brueggemann is concerned about the kind of exclusively happy-clappy churchianity that exists, saying that ‘the problem with a hymnody that focuses on equilibrium, coherence, and symmetry (as in the psalms of orientation) is that it may deceive and cover over. Life is not like that. Life is so savagely marked by incoherence, a loss of balance, and unrelieved asymmetry’. True poets, painters, musicians etc. take the fullness of creaturely life seriously and, insofar as they do this, open up space in which the Holy Dove of God has room to flutter her wings.

Revelation, healing, hope, forgiveness, worship, prayer, the transformation and redemption of human community – what are these if not fundamentally engaged with the matter of the human imagination. The psalmists new this. The prophets new this. And Brueggemann calls upon preachers today to embrace a like posture with the utmost seriousness. He begins his book The Prophetic Imagination with the following words:

The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act. This enculturation is in some way true across the spectrum of church life, both liberal and conservative. It may not be a new situation, but it is one that seems especially urgent and pressing at the present time. That enculturation is true not only of the institution of the church but also of us as persons. Our consciousness has been claimed by false fields of perception and idolatrous systems of language and rhetoric.

The internal cause of such enculturation is our loss of identity through the abandonment of the faith tradition. Our consumer culture is organized against history. There is a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope, which means everything must be held in the now, either an urgent now or an eternal now. Either way, a community rooted in energizing memories and summoned by radical hopes is a curiosity and a threat in such a culture. When we suffer from amnesia every form of serious authority for faith is in question, and we live unauthorized lives of faith and practice unauthorized ministries.

The church will not have power to act or believe until it recovers its tradition of faith and permits that tradition to be the primal way out of enculturation. This is not a cry for traditionalism but rather a judgment that the church has no business more pressing than the reappropriation of its memory in its full power and authenticity. And that is true among liberals who are too chic to remember and conservatives who have overlaid the faith memory with all kinds of hedges that smack of scientism and Enlightenment.

He continues:

 … The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us … So, my programmatic urging is that every act of a minister who would be prophetic is part of a way of evoking, forming, and reforming an alternative community. And this applies to every facet and every practice of ministry. It is a measure of our enculturation that the various acts of ministry (for example, counseling, administration, even liturgy) have taken on lives and functions of their own rather than being seen as elements of the one prophetic ministry of formation and reformation of alternative community … [I]f the church is to be faithful it must be formed and ordered from the inside of its experience and confession and not by borrowing from sources external to its own life.

So in calling upon preachers to take seriously the role of the imagination, Brueggemann is not asking us to discard our own tradition and to take on something new. Rather, he is inviting us to do what God’s prophets and apostles have always done – to hear and to see and to taste and to touch and to speak the word of God, and to do so with all the powers of new imaginings that God has given to us, even in our own tradition, so that we might wrestle with the Word of God, with the old old story, as if for the first time, and have our lives formed by it.

In another book, Finally Comes the Poet, Brueggemann turns his attention specifically to preachers:

The gospel is too readily heard and taken for granted, as though it contained no unsettling news and no unwelcome threat. What began as news in the gospel is easily assumed, slotted, and conveniently dismissed. We depart having heard, but without noticing the urge to transformation that is not readily compatible with our comfortable believing that asks little and receives less.

The gospel is thus a truth widely held, but a truth greatly reduced. It is a truth that has been flattened, trivialized, and rendered inane. Partly, the gospel is simply an old habit among us, neither valued nor questioned. But more than that, our technical way of thinking reduces mystery to problem, transforms assurance into certitude, revises quality into quantity, and so takes the categories of biblical faith and represents them in manageable shapes.

He continues:

When truth is mediated in such positivistic, ideological, and therefore partisan ways, humaneness wavers, the prospect for humanness, is at risk, and unchecked brutality makes its appearance. We shall not be the community we hope to be if our primary communications are in modes of utilitarian technology and managed, conformed values. The issues facing the church and its preachers may be put this way: Is there another way to speak? Is there another voice to be voiced? Is there an alternative universe of discourse to be practiced that will struggle with the truth in ways unreduced? In the sermon – and in the life of the church, more generally, I propose – we are to practice another way of communication that makes another shaping of life possible; unembarrassed about another rationality, not anxious about accommodating the reason of this age.

The task and possibility of preaching is to open out the good news of the gospel with alternative modes of speech – speech that is dramatic, artistic, capable of inviting persons to join in another conversation, free of the reason of technique, unencumbered by ontologies that grow abstract, unembarrassed about concreteness. Such speech, when heard in freedom, assaults imagination and pushes out the presumed world in which most of us are trapped. Reduced speech leads to reduced lives. Sunday morning is the practice of a counter life through counter speech. The church on Sunday morning, or whenever it engages in its odd speech, may be the last place left in our society for imaginative speech that permits people to enter into new worlds of faith and to participate in joyous, obedient life.

To address the issue of a truth greatly reduced requires us to be poets that speak against a prose world. The terms of that phrase are readily misunderstood. By prose I refer to a world that is organized in settled formulae, so that even pastoral prayers and love letters sound like memos. By poetry, I do not mean rhyme, rhythm, or meter, but language that moves like Bob Gibson’s fast ball, that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion, and pace. Poetic speech is the only proclamation worth doing in a situation of reductionism, the only proclamation, I submit, that is worthy of the name preaching. Such preaching is not moral instruction or problem solving or doctrinal clarification. It is not good advice, nor is it romantic caressing, nor is it a soothing good humor.

It is, rather, the ready, steady, surprising proposal that the real world in which God invites us to live is not the one made available by the rulers of this age. The preacher has an awesome opportunity to offer an evangelical world: an existence shaped by the news of the gospel. This offer requires special care for words, because the baptized community awaits speech in order to be a faithful people. What a way to think about a poetic occasion that moves powerfully to expose the prose reductions around us as false! … Because we live so close to the biblical text, we often fail to note its generative power to summon and evoke new life. Broadly construed, the language of the biblical text is prophetic: it anticipates and summons realities that live beyond the conventions of our day-to-day, take-for-granted world. The Bible is our firm guarantee that in a world of technological naivete and ideological reductionism, prophetic construals of another world are still possible, still worth doing, still longingly received by those who live at the edge of despair, resignation, and conformity. Our preferred language is to call such speech prophetic, but we might also term it poetic. Those whom the ancient Israelites called prophets, the equally ancient Greeks called poets. The poet/prophet is a voice that shatters settled reality and evokes new possibility in the listening assembly. Preaching continues that dangerous, indispensable habit of speech. The poetic speech of text and of sermon is a prophetic construal of a world beyond the one taken for granted … This poetic/prophetic utterance runs great risk. It runs the risk of being heard as fantasy and falsehood … The more tightly we hold to settled reality, the more likely the alternative construal of the poet will be dismissed as ‘mere fiction’. The poet/prophet, however, does not flinch from ‘fiction’, for the alternative envisioned in such speech is a proposal that destabilizes all our settled ‘facts’, and opens the way for transformation and the gift of newness.

And so Brueggemann encourages us to think of preaching as ‘a poetic construal of an alternative world’, the purpose of which is to ‘cherish the truth, to open the truth from its pervasive reductionism in our society, to break the fearful rationality that keeps the news from being new …  After the engineers, inventors, and scientists, after all such through knowledge, “finally comes the poet”. The poet does not come to have a say until the human community has engaged in its best management. Then perchance comes the Power of poetry – shattering, evocative speech that breaks fixed conclusions and presses us always toward new, dangerous, imaginative possibilities … This speech, entrusted to and practiced by the church, is an act of relentless hope; an argument against the ideological closing of life we unwittingly embrace’.

It is precisely this posture towards and way of thinking about the poetic and fantastic (i.e., from fantasy, fiction, etc.) nature of reality and the shape of divine revelation that is just so imperative, not only for preaching but also for prayer, for pastoral encounters, for crafting liturgy, for choreographing church leadership structures and meetings, etc. Surely one of the main roles for leaders of faith communities is to help transform and foster our imaginations with the rich and fundamental traditions and texts that have formed us as a people, and to help God’s people to hear those afresh, as if for the first time. And for leaders of Christian faith communities, this means fostering an imagination baptised in the promises and stories of the Bible, seeing and hearing and tasting them as God’s ever-new speech.

And what art encourages is the opening up of hermeneutical space wherein our questions are taken seriously, where we can feel safer to explore them with God and with God’s people. Such a posture is something of a confession too; a confession that (i) there is truth that desires to be known; and (ii) we do not and cannot monopolise and control the truth of things.

Brueggemann reminds us that the meeting of the community of faith is an odd kind of speech meeting which ‘has the potential of evoking a new humanity’. And he suggests that in order for the new reality to be birthed, four partners need to be present:

1. The first partner in the meeting is the text. The congregation gathers with a vague memory of the text – a memory that has the text mostly reduced, trivialized, and domesticated.

2. The second partner in the meeting is the baptized. The community, he suggests in Finally Comes The Poet, ‘gathers to be shaped by a text that addresses us, an articulation of reality that lies outside of us that we cannot conjure and need not defend. The ones gather have been baptized. They may understand in an inchoate [i.e., tentative, embryonic, etc] way, but they have in fact made some vague decision about the cruciality of this text. They do not have a clear articulation of the text’s authority. Or they have a clear articulation that has become so scholastic as to be without use. Nonetheless, they are prepared to accept, in a general way, that this text is their text, the voice of life addressed to them’. He continues:

The baptized then, have been struggling with this text. The ones gathered are those who have either been other texts and have found them wanting, or have greatly resisted other texts and need this text reiterated Once again. Either way, out of compromise or resistance, the community gathers not for entertainment or private opinion, even for problem solving, but for the text made available yet again. They gather to hear the text that is shamelessly theological, candidly kerygmatic, and naively eschatological. The community waits for the text that may be a tent for the spirit. It waits with the hopeful yearning that the ‘house of authority’ is still intact. But if the text is to claim authority it will require neither the close reasoning of a canon lawyer, nor the precision of a technician, but it will require an artist to render the text in quite fresh ways, so that the text breaks life open among the baptized as it never has before.

3. Third, Brueggemann avers, there is ‘this specific occasion for speech’. Here he notes that ‘when the music stops and the rheostat is turned down, then there is this precious, awesome moment of speech’:

It is not time for cleverness or novelty. It is not time for advice or scolding or urging, because the text is not any problem-solving answer or a flat, ideological agent that can bring resolve. This moment of speech is a poetic rendering in a community that has come all too often to expect nothing but prose. It is a prose world for all those who must meet payrolls and grade papers and pump gas and fly planes. When the text, too, has been reduced to prose, life becomes so prosaic that there is a dread dullness that besets the human spirit. We become mindless conformists or angry protesters, and there is no health in us. We become so beaten by prose that only poetic articulation has a chance to let us live.

Into this situation, in this moment, the preacher must speak. She does not get to speak a new text. She must speak an old text – the one everybody knows. From the very first syllable, the ending is already known. But it is a script to be played afresh, so that in this moment of drama the players render the play as a surprise to permit a fresh hearing, a second opinion. It is an artistic in which the words are concrete but open, close our life but moving out to new angles of reality. At the end, there is a breathless waiting: stunned, not sure we have reached the end. Then there is a powerful sense that a world has been rendered in which I may live, a world that is truly home but from which I have been alienated. The speaker must truly be a poet. After the scientist and the engineer, ‘finally comes the poet’ (which Israel calls prophet) – to evoke a different world, a new song, a fresh move, a new identity, a resolve about ethics, a being at home.

4. Brueggemann’s fourth and final cadence concerns the fact that in the voice that takes the old script and renders it to evoke a world we had not yet witnessed (cf. Isa 43.19), a ‘better world [is] given as fresh revelation’. ‘Something’, he insists, ‘is revealed’, and ‘we know not how’. He continues:

A probe behind the closed parameters of religion too-long settled and politics too easily comfortable. It is not only truth disclosed, but it is life disclosed. Life unclosed, Life made open, certitudes broken so that we can redecide, images moving, imagination assaulting ideology. We find new configurations of life yet unformed, unthought, but now available. The old slogans sound unconvincing. I thought I had come for certitude, but the poetic speech does not give certitude. As I am addressed by the gospel, I hear anew that possibility overwhelms necessity in my life. The only available absolute given me is a ‘fiction’ to which I must trust myself – a gracious ‘fiction’ on which I stake my life, authored by God who also authors the text and the speech.

The congregation departs. Same old quarrels in the car on the way home. Same old tensions at dinner. Same tired beginning on Monday. Now, however, there is disclosed a new word, a new hope, a new verb, a new conversation, a new risk, a new possibility. It is not a new truth, but rather one long known that had been greatly reduced. That long-known truth is now greatly enhanced in riches, texture, availability, demand. My life is mapped in mystery and I accept that new life; but it is also mapped in vulnerability and it frightens me. The mystery gives regal authority and freedom in the face of an IRS audit. The vulnerability permits me to come out from behind my desk, my stethoscope, my uniform, my competence, my credentials, my fears – to meet life a little more boldly. Yet again, as the word is spoken one more time, we move through the wearisome death-ridden days of our life and come back once again to Easter to be stunned into disbelief, and then beyond disbelief, to be stunned to life, now filled with fear and trembling.

The meeting involves this old text, the spent congregation believing but impoverished, the artist of new possibility, the disclosure. The Prince of Darkness tries frantically to keep the world closed so that we can be administered. The Prince has such powerful allies in this age. Against such enormous odds, however, there is the working of this feeble, inscrutable, unshackled moment of sermon. Sometimes the Prince will win the day and there is no new thing uttered or heard. Sometimes, however, the sermon will have its say and the truth looms large – larger than the text or the voice or the folk had any reason to expect. When that happens, the world is set loose toward healing. The sermon for such a time shames the Prince and we become yet again more nearly human. The Author of the text laughs in delight, the way that Author has laughed only at creation and at Easter, but laughs again when the sermon carries the day against the prose of the Dark Prince who wants no new poetry in the region he thinks he governs. Where the poetry is sounded, the Prince knows a little of the territory has been lost to its true Ruler. The newly claimed territory becomes a new home of freedom, justice, peace, and abiding joy. This happens when the poet comes, when the poet speaks, when the preacher comes as poet.

On manipulative preachers and the mawkishly pious

Critical of those preachers who set out to manipulate people’s emotions, Forsyth averred that the

Gospel of a Saviour who even dies just to impress us with His love, instead of surprising us with joy as we discover Him going to the business of our case and really acting for us with God and against our enemy, captor, and accuser … must be ineffective on all but the weak. It is an æsthetic Gospel; sympathetic at best, and at worst sentimental; it is not action, it does not work; and it is part cause, part effect, of that green mould of sentimentalism which is sapping so much popular religion, and sinking adult men to read novels of mawkish piety that sell in tens of thousands and madden the manly mind to refuge in Tom Jones.

– P.T. Forsyth, ‘The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ. [VII:] The Meaning of a Sinless Christ’. The Expositor 8th Series, 25 (1923), 304.

The full text of the sermon from which these words come can be found in my forthcoming book ‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth (Eugene: Pickwick Publications).

The impossible possibility of being a minister

Many Barthians, non-Barthians and anti-Barthians alike like to quote and debate the so-called ‘impossible possibility’ in conversations about soteriological universalism and about das Nichtige. But a more pressing ‘impossible possibility’, for Barth, concerns the fact that the Word of God might be unveiled ‘through the foolishness of our proclamation’ (1 Cor 1.21). I was reminded of this again recently while reading Barth’s wonderful chapter on ‘The Task of the Ministry’ in The Word of God and the Word of Man wherein Barth sums up the pastor’s dilemma thus: ‘As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory. This is our perplexity. The rest of our task fades into insignificance in comparison’ (p. 186).  I am also reminded of the ‘impossible possibility’ when I read Arnold Kenseth’s poem ‘Sunday’s Hour’:

Comes Sunday’s hour, and speech hangs itself
On God’s red tree. Preacher, word-monger, I
Defy the interdict, naming dark Yahweh, taking Him
And His fire in vain. O havoc, cry havoc! Sigh
His deep blue breath into phrases and praises.
Still, it is impossible. He will not dwell half
Or anywhere in my capture. Yet I must draw home
The net, try to catch somehow His graces.

For it is by grace we live, and all the people
Must be told. So I could wish my body more
Contained Him, that my walks more shaped, here
And there, His amble. How ill beneath a steeple
I incarnate! Despite me, then, come now,
Let His enlightening strike us row by row.

– Arnold Kenseth, ‘Sunday’s Hour’ in Seasons and Sceneries: Poems (Iowa City: Windhover Press, 2002). [HT: Rick Floyd]

Helmut Thielicke on preaching

It would be fair to say that I am not known for my speediness. That confessed, I am currently racing to finish off a wee manuscript on the sermons of PT Forsyth (hence the relative paucity of posts here at Per Crucem ad Lucem). So I’ve been thinking much of late not only about Forsyth but also about preaching. And in regards to the latter, it’s been fun to revisit some of my old reading notes on preaching. Here’s one from the pen of Helmut Thielicke that I wanted to share:

‘The aim of the sermon, after all, is to create something living and set it in motion. Consequently, it should be directed not only at the intellect, but must at the same time also be aimed at the conscience, will, and imagination. It is addressed to the whole person! Corresponding to the complexity of this goal are the wealth of reflections in which one is absorbed before one makes ones way to the pulpit.

The extremely pluralistic composition of my audience forced me to still further reflections. The different levels of education and social background necessitated an inquiry into that aspect of human nature that is common to all human beings, that center of their being in which – each in his own different way – human beings are moved by fear and hope, by their finitude, by ambition, desires, the search for meaning, by the burden of guilt and torment of conscience. My goal – and I strived to attain it at least partially – had to be above all to ensure that everyone could say afterwards (because he had been personally touched in this center of his being, “I was the subject of this sermon, he meant me.”

In order to find associations with the text for my sermon and so to illustrate it with images, stories, and a human touch, I constantly kept an eye open during my varied reading for anything I could use in the pulpit. I started various collections in files and card indexes in order to have suitable quotations and other material at hand. If this material then nevertheless failed to hit the mark, I could at least comfort myself with the fact that I had done all that I could.

I did not, by the way, keep to the prescribed readings, that is, to the texts stipulated for use in church sermons. At best these prescribed texts have one useful function, namely, they safeguard the preacher from misusing the text by preventing him from choosing a text simply as a motto for his pet ideas. Preachers who do this quickly preach themselves dry. Their only achievement is to cause deadly boredom – probably not only to the audience but also to themselves – by their constant rummaging through the remnants of a crop that has long since been completely harvested. A prescribed text is certainly the best protection against the law of inertia taking effect in this way. It is also possible for the preacher himself to build a defensive wall against this temptation. This can be done in the following way.

I forced myself to give series of sermons oriented towards a sequence of biblical texts or a single subject. This is how the aforementioned series on the Lord’s Prayer, the parables, the biblical creation story, the pastoral conversations of Jesus, the creed, and many others came about. I also gave openly “didactic” sermons, which were a sort of catechism lesson for adults, in which I explained, for instance, the theological significance of historic-critical textual research and allowed the congregation to take a look into the workshop of academic theology. This principle of preaching series of sermons proved to be fruitful for both sides. It was fruitful for the preacher because it subjected him to a salutary constraint and safeguarded him against arbitrarily choosing texts on his own authority. It was fruitful for the audience because their interest was sustained by the continuity and development of a particular subject or train of thought, as a result of which they always looked forward eagerly to the next sermon.

The fact that I brought current events into play in my sermons should not be taken to mean that I had been talking politics in the pulpit. In my opinion, there are two types of degenerate sermon, both of which, although very different in themselves, are today having a ruinous effect on the life of the church service.

The first of these decadent forms is the transformation of the sermon into a set political speech proclaiming a particular political position as the Christian position. In my experience, this mostly gains the upper hand among people whose spiritual substance is too diluted for them to give a rousing proclamation of the Gospel. They are then forced to give their sermons a political shot in the arm to lend their dead spirituality the appearance of life. But this form of sermon has no permanence. People very soon wonder why it should need the circuitous route of the pulpit to get this political message across and whether they could not get the same thing cheaper and without the Christian paraphernalia simply by going straight to a political meeting.

The second type of degenerate sermon is a certain ritualism that suppresses or at least obscures the personal faith of the individual through the excessive use of time-honored phrases and traditional musica sacra.

This brief look into the “theological laboratory” has not yet touched on what goes on inside the preacher. This remains hidden to outside eyes. I can only give the following hint at where one should look for an answer. Whoever sees so many eyes directed towards him is in great danger. He may believe that they are directed towards “him,” whereas he is in fact only the ambassador of another. In the sacristy of the Church of St. Michael there is a little altar where the preacher prepares himself to approach the pulpit and arms himself against the temptations that threaten him. This is all that I wish to say about this matter’.

– Helmut Thielicke, Notes from a Wayfarer: The Autobiography of Helmut Thielicke (trans. David R. Law; New York: Paragon House, 1995), 291–93.

On the sermons of PT Forsyth

It might well be argued that before he was anything else, PT Forsyth was principally a preacher. It would certainly not be going too far to say that the greatest portion of Forsyth’s public life was given over to preaching, and to encouraging preachers. To be sure, and by any standards, his literary output was significant. But by far the majority of the words in his published articles and books are sermons, or were ideas developed from sermons. And even those that are not betray the rhetorical form of one shaped by the pulpit and the task that attends that space. And this is not so strange, for Forsyth believed in preaching.

I too believe in preaching. I also believe that Forsyth has much still to teach us about preaching. To be sure, not everything about his own manner or approach remains helpful today, or is particularly worthy of emulation. (But of whom might that not be true!) Still, regarding the things that really matter, it is difficult to go past the likes of one like Forsyth. (We could add here too the names of Karl Barth, Eduard Thurneysen, James Denney, Helmut Thielicke, Paul Tillich and others.)

I have suggested before that one of the real gifts that the Aberdonian bequeaths to the Church is the encouragement of her pastors to forego the ‘sin of bustle’ that would see them running errands for the culture motivated in no small part by an attempt to convince the world – and the church! – of the use, value and worthiness of their vocation, and to instead give themselves to preach the Gospel, to believe in that divinely-ordained foolishness – what Forsyth calls ‘the folly of the cross’ – and to trust its effects to God.

Those who carry the burden – a joyous burden to be sure, but a burden nonetheless – of preaching week after week will no doubt be familiar with that anxiety that attends the final read through the manuscript, the fruit of one’s wrestling with the very real possibility of God’s communication – which is nothing less than God’s self-disclosure – to those not only desperate to hear the Word of life but also to those long-deafened by the drums of seemingly-endless counter words, that Saturday-night feeling that, despite all one’s best efforts, things for tomorrow’s sermon just don’t seem right, that the fire that burns so freshly in the heart of the biblical witness has all but been snuffed out by the time the sermon was penned, and perhaps the best that one can now hope for is to simply trust that something that one says might find fertile soil. To be sure, to believe in preaching is to believe in miracles; or, more properly, it is to believe in One who not only already longs to speak but who also ‘gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist’ (Romans 4.17). Moreover, to believe in preaching is to believe that such calling into existence occurs via the irresponsible method of liberally sowing seeds whether in places where there is no soil, or on rocky ground, or among thorns, or in fertile and productive soil.

I’m in the near-final currents of preparing a manuscript of some unpublished, and hard to find, sermons of Forsyth’s. This will be published by Wipf & Stock under the tentative title of ‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth. To those who also believe in preaching – or who wish to believe in preaching in spite of all appearances – I hope that the words of this volume might come as as much an encouragement to them as they have been for me.

As I write, I’m thinking about why people read Forsyth, why they should, and what strikes them when they do. One of my friends, who has himself published on Forsyth, has suggested that the answer lies somewhere in the fact that ‘Forsyth loved the Lord, knew the scriptures, and understood ahead of his time the pitfalls of both a vague liberalism and an obscurantist fundamentalism. He also knew the difference between theology and anthropology. And he could turn a phrase’. Another has been struck by the ‘affective tone of the whole; the desire to really embrace the Triune God in all the beauty, terror, majesty and mystery’. I agree with both of these statements, and the latter reflects too what Forsyth so appreciated about Jonathan Edwards’ theology, and Calvin’s for that matter. I will post some more thoughts in due course, but for now I’m very keen to hear yours. If you’d prefer to email rather than leave a comment online, then you can reach me here.

Unheard sermons

A friend of mine asks: ‘What are some particular subjects or passages that you have never heard a sermon on, which you would like to hear being addressed from a pulpit?’

I’m sure to think of other topics, but in my haste I fired back the following suggestion: ‘The sermon and the responsibility of, and invitation/command to, the hermeneutical community to hear the Word of God; i.e. how do we hear the sermon’.

How would you answer my friend?

[Image: Dave Walker]

Prophesying to dry bones: Some encouragement for preachers

There can be little doubt that one of the real gifts that P.T. Forsyth bequeaths to the Church is the encouragement of her pastors to forego the ‘sin of bustle’ that would see them running errands for the culture motivated in no small part by an attempt to convince the world – and the church! – of the use, value and worthiness of their vocation, and to instead give themselves to preach the Gospel, to believe in that divinely-ordained foolishness, and to trust its effects to God.

Those who carry the burden – a joyous burden to be sure, but a burden nonetheless – of preaching week after week will no doubt be familiar with that anxiety that attends the final read through the manuscript, the fruit of one’s wrestling with the very real possibility of God’s communication – which is nothing less than God’s self-disclosure – to those not only desperate to hear the Word of life but also to those long deafened by the drums of seemingly-endless counter words, that Saturday night feeling that, despite all one’s best efforts, things for tomorrow’s sermon just don’t seem right, that the fire that burns so freshly in the heart of the biblical witness has all but been snuffed out by the time the sermon was penned, and perhaps the best that one can now hope for is a decent night’s sleep and to simply trust that something that one says on the morrow might find fertile soil. To be sure, to believe in preaching is to believe in miracles or, more properly, it is to believe in One who not only already longs to speak but who also ‘gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist’ (Romans 4.17). Moreover, to believe in preaching is to believe that such calling into existence occurs via the irresponsible method of liberally sowing seeds whether in places where there is no soil, or on rocky ground, or among thorns, or in fertile and productive soil (see Matthew 13).

To those who so believe – or who wish to believe in such things in spite of all appearances – I hope that these words of Forsyth’s from a sermon on Ezekiel’s prophecy to the dry bones, and to the Spirit, preached over a century ago might come as an encouragement:

‘God takes the man of little faith, takes him like Ezekiel, carries him back in spirit through history to the dark ages of Europe; plants him beside a church with its faith dried and enterprise dulled into mere orthodoxy beneath the Pagan empire. He sets you in the valley of the dark ages, when the Spanish Moors had more light and life than the Christians of Europe. He asks you, “Can these bones live? You cannot say, but God’s answer is the wonderful eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. The past was not dead; the Church is never without its recuperative power somewhere. As the body of Christ, it must rise, and cannot be holden of death, howsoever long the torpor may be.

Or again, God takes you onward, and sets you in another dismal valley, the church of the Borgias and Medicis, amongst the parched bones of faith, when the former revival had shrunk to a mere renaissance, when Paganism was not in the Empire but in the Church’s own heart and head. He points you to the wicked Church of all the cultures at Rome in the valley of the fifteenth century, when the faithful had all but ceased to be. “Can these bones live?” You see not how. God’s answer is Luther, Calvin, and the sixteenth century, the rediscovery of St. Paul, the coronation of faith, the vitalising of Europe, Puritanism, the birth of democracy, the rise of constitutionalism, Free Churchism, and the dawn of modern times. No, the past is not dead.

And once more He plants you by the English Church of last century, with Deism outside, and drought within, but no thirst. Can they live? God’s answer is Wesley and the Evangelical revival, Newman and the Oxford revival, and much more that I cannot name because I must single out the feature which has gathered us here – modern missions. I doubt if any such answer has ever been given to the prophet’s question as this. We have the answer before our eyes. The world has it, and it is often as smoke in its eyes. But the men who first faced the problem, and first moved in these missions had not this answer before their eyes, they had it before their faith alone. They were prophets indeed, in the true inspired line, for they had it in their souls only. They had it surer there in their faith than many of us who have it in our sight. They lived in the valley of the eighteenth century, but their souls stood upon Pisgah; they saw the Promised Land, and all things delivered unto Christ of the Father. They had Imperial minds, but they had also holy methods. They saw the bones stirred and clothed, and men trooping from their living graves at the call of the Spirit alone. They saw races roused, rescued, civilised by the Gospel. Nay, they saw more; they saw the Church itself converted to missions, a bony Church quickened, fleshed, and marshalled anew. They saw that the Church must be reconverted if it was to survive, but they also saw that it would be reconverted, because they had the Spirit that makes the Church, and felt the first flutter of His breast. And the Church did need this reconversion. There was not among the heathen more contemptuous opposition to missions than these men met sometimes in the Church at home. When we speak of the great effect of the Church on the heathen, let us not forget the great blessing of the heathen to the Church. The receiving of them has been to the Church itself life from the dead. The Church has more faith in its own Gospel because of its proved power abroad; it is more sure of its own word, and it feels that it is not only a mighty word, a true word, but a more genial and pitiful word. The old bones live again in a humaner life. Every missionary is preaching to the Church that sent him no less than to the churches he found. When we speak of the action of grace, think also of the reaction of grace, the force of its recoil; deep calleth unto deep. The Gospel’s word to the world includes also its echo to the Church. Missions are an integral part of the Church and a source of new life to it, and the missionaries are prophets that call flesh upon our bones. To convert the heathen is to bless and serve the Church. These missionaries are not hobby-riders that the Church patronises; they are organs, agents, and deputies of the Church itself. They do not act alongside of us, but for us; they are the long arms of the Church and the limbs by which it covers the breadth of the world. The man to whom missions are a fanatic fad, and not his own concern, has yet to learn the soul of the Christian Gospel and the secret of the Church’s life …

Some members of the Church – yea, some Churches themselves – make a greater problem than even the world or the heathen does. They make us ask, “Can these bones live?” These people who go to church, who uphold their Church, who would fight for their Church, would make civil war for its privileges, who have more fight than faith in them, whose souls are exceedingly filled with contempt, and they have a name to live, but are spiritually dead, who care for their Church chiefly as partisans, or because it is a centre of social rank or of juvenile amusements – can they live? What preacher but is cast into occasional despair by that question as he looks upon many spiritual skeletons around him? What preacher has not many a time to answer with Ezekiel that they can only live by some miracle of God; he, poor son of man, has failed, and is hopeless. He is preaching, perhaps, out of duty more than inspiration; he often prophesies in obedience rather than in hope. Well, preach hope till you have hope; then preach it because you have it. “Prophesy over these bones; call out to the Spirit,” says the Lord. At the Lord’s call, if not at your own impulse, call; call with a faith of life when the sense of life is low; speak the word you are bidden, and wait for the word you feel; and then the matter is the Lord’s, and you win a new confidence in the midst of self-despair.

But it is not with bones or mummies that the preacher has chiefly to do. He comes, let us say, and lifts a vital voice. He is a man of parts and force; he collects a following, he is the centre of an interesting congregation. It looks well, comfortable; it is no skeleton crowd, it has flesh and blood. What is lacking? Perhaps the things that are not revealed to flesh and blood, the unearthly lustre in the eye, and movement in the mien, the Spirit of life. It is a congregation possibly, not a church; it is not dry, but it is not inspired; it is cultured possibly, but it is not kindled. The spirit has not come to stay, and there is not amongst them the shout of a king. So far, perhaps, it is only education, culture, that the preacher has supplied; it is mere religion, not regeneration. The bones are clothed, but not quickened; they know about sacred things, but they do not know about the Holy Ghost.

So prophesy once more, Son of man, saith the Lord. Prophesy to the Spirit of life; preach, but, still more, pray; invoke the abiding Spirit to enter these easy forms. They are less dismal than they were, but still too dull. Court for their sake the spirit and cultivate the discernment of the Spirit. Amid the many airs that fan them, amid the crowd of vivacious interests that tickle them as they pass, make the Spirit of a new life blow on them. Above every other influence woo and wait upon the Spirit. Trace and press the Spirit of God; in every providence seize the Divine grace, subdue the spirit of the age to the Spirit of Christ; set up among the critics the Judge of all the earth. Preach the Spirit which not only clothes the skeletons decently and comfortably, but set them on their feet in the Kingdom of God. Preach what cast down imaginations and high things to the obedience of Christ; proclaim that Spirit which turns mere vitality into true life, mere comfort into the mighty peace; turn your worldly skeletons, by all means, into living congregations, but, above all, turn your congregation into a living Church.

And how shall you do that if your appeals to men have not been preceded by your cry to the Spirit, if your action on them is not inspired by your wrestling with God? Only then can you turn a crowd into a people, and a people into the Kingdom of God. That is the way to turn your Aceldama into the habitation of a multitude, and your multitude into a spiritual phalanx. Prophesy no more to the bones, preach no more as if it were dead worldlings you had; pray to the Spirit of God and preach to the spirit of man. Preach as to those who have begun to live and seek life. Never mind about current literature, mind the deep things of God. Preach to them great things. Let the trivial rubbish alone that occupies too much of our Church interest. It is possible to lose the soul in the effort to win souls. Dwell less upon the minor truths, dwell more upon the mighty truths which grow mightier by iteration. Take care of the spiritual pounds, and the current pence will look after themselves. Preach character by all means more than has been done, but preach it through a Gospel which takes the making of character out of your hands. Preach the Lord’s Supper more often, and the tea-meetings less, as the Church’s social centre and family hearth. Do not preach about goodness less, but about grace more. Do not preach self-denial, preach a cross that compels self-denial. Don’t mistake fervour and ardour for the Holy Ghost; do not take the flush for the blood or the blood for the life. Bring to men the Spirit, prophesy to the spirit in them; bring to them great demands – it is the demands of life that make men, is it not? Tax them, ask of them great sacrifices. We grow up as we lay down. Sacrifice before faith? No, first the sacrifice which is faith. There is no such tax on self-will as faith, no such sacrifice of our self-satisfaction as true faith, faith of the right kind, faith which is a cross as well as a trust in a cross and a resurrection, too. Trouble them, trouble them with the stir of a higher life. Living water is always troubled, it is an angel’s trace upon the pool. Leave them not at ease; do not stop with putting on the flesh that just saves them from being skeletons. Infuse the flesh with the spirit; propose a great task, a thing incredible, and keep it before them till they rise to it. Does not the spirit make demands on us which no preacher can venture to do? Does not something in our own soul as he prophesies stir us, rebuke us, exact from us more than we dare? All the movements the true prophets store escape beyond their dreams and demands’.

– from Jason A. Goroncy (ed.). Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, forthcoming.

Writing to the choir: Facebook and ‘the new scourge of writing’

Out from a brief blogging hiatus I come to draw attention to Lisa Lebduska’s recent piece – ‘The Facebook Mirror’ – and the dangers that the social media leader poses for writing and writers:

‘Facebook presents far more danger than the cultivation of lowercase first-person “i”s and emoticons :). The real threat posed by Facebook is not that it ruins writers’ ability to punctuate or encourages them to replace words with pictures. The problem with Facebook is that it nurtures one of writing teachers’ greatest foes – the teenage fantasy that writers write only to themselves and to those who are just like them.

Although Facebook is properly classified as “social software,” it is more accurately categorized as mirror-ware, a whole new kind of social that consists only of us and our self-projections. And it is that mirror, that seductive invitation to reflect us and only us back to ourselves that damns us.

On Facebook, we post pictures to represent ourselves: our best, shiniest, toothiest, happiest/sexiest ponderer/wanderer/adventurer. The fairest ones of all. Or we post some other person or object as icon. Puppy, baby, six-year old self. The poor person’s version of identity airbrushing. To deepen the portrait, we post our status, likes and dislikes – bananas, skiing, taxes – and photo albums of grand vacations, graduations and celebrations. To our walls we announce opinions, as they come. What we find good, stupid, evil, sexy.

Facebook writers expect homogeneity from their audience. All readers read the same observation, and insights in the same way, regardless of who they are, what they know, what they need to know or even what they seek. Facebook writers do not select, shape or color moments and thoughts for particular readers. They trade the pleasure of imagining the absent reader for the imagined adoring gaze of selves. And they expect their friends to “like” their posts, pictures etc. immediately, and to shower them publicly with praise.

With Facebook, we don’t need to explain why Obama should be elected or gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry or a hundred seagull photos merit viewing. If birds bore our friend Gerard, too bad. If Gerard didn’t vote for Obama or has a male partner, that’s too bad, too.

Although our Facebook friends include those we haven’t seen in years, decades, even, we can pretend that they share our experiences, our views, and our general disposition towards life. No justification, no explanation.

On Facebook we never think outside the four walls of the self, and we need never imagine readers different from us. We expect neither argument nor curiosity nor challenge. Just a thumbs up or down.

Teachers spend years working to broaden students’ intellectual worlds beyond their own virtual backyards. We challenge them to discover ideas that come from individuals who might be very unlike them; people they would never conceive of friending, or if asked to friend would be more than likely to ignore. Or who don’t have computers.

So is Facebook truly the new scourge of writing? Maybe not. Like all tools of such ubiquity and power, Facebook must be recognized for what it is – a medium that invites carefully polished reflections of our favorite self. But writers generally write for readers other than that self. We need, then, to provide contexts that allow our students to know and consider those readers. How often do we ask students to hear, read and truly understand a viewpoint different from their own? How often do we expect them to think of someone, anyone, other than themselves? The ability to imagine a perspective other than our own – the idea of an audience consisting of curious minds rather than adoring fans – defines our most effective writers’.

While I’m not buying everything at Café Lebduska, there are some important implications here for pastors and teachers (and theo-bloggers). Too few of us, it seems, intentionally read literature which challenges profoundly our own worldview and practice and, at least in the circles most commonplace to me, seek and/or create opportunities to speak into hostile environments where swords might be sharpened by the wrestle (Eph 6.12; 1 Tim 1.18; 6.12; 2 Tim 4.7) rather than dulled by the all-too-common proclivity towards the cozy, the monotonous and the pedestrian – what Lebduska names ‘the teenage fantasy’ and what I simply call ‘the boring’. There are, of course, those who seem to go out of their way to speak only to Babylonians, and sometimes preaching to the choir, as it were, might be just that too. For what it’s worth, it seems to me that the focus for most pastors/teachers/theo-bloggers should be given to bearing witness to the for-ness rather than against-ness announced in the gospel, but there remains an against-ness which must be discerningly spoken as well. Moreover, there can be no question here that both strategies are undertaken in love for the other and for the truth. But if Ernest Hemingway is right when he says that ‘there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed’, and if the great Salvation Army preacher Samuel Logan Brengle is also right when he avers that ‘the great battles, the battles that decide our destiny and the destiny of generations yet unborn, are not fought on public platforms, but in the lonely hours of the night’, then there remains something poisonous about the Facebook ‘mirror-ware’ which threatens to undermine, at the very least, the task of the writer, and preacher.

And speaking of mirrors, it’s not as if they’re all destructive; for there is, of course, another mirror where those so called might look – namely, into the mirror of our election, Jesus Christ, who is both our friend and enemy, and who both thumbs us, our ministries and our statuses ‘up’ and ‘down’, although the later only that he made do the former (Rom 11.32).


Some encouragement for preachers

In Luke 12, Jesus tells his ‘little flock’ a number of things: He tells them (and here I’m following Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase) to not fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in their closet are in fashion. He directs them to look at the ravens, free and unfettered, to not be tied down to a job description, and to be carefree in the care of God. He commands them to be generous, to give to the poor, and to keep their shirts and lights on waiting for the master to return. To all of which Peter replied, ‘Master, are you telling this story just for us? Or is it for everybody?’ And the Master said, ‘Let me ask you: Who is the dependable manager, full of common sense, that the master puts in charge of his staff to feed them well and on time? Blessed is the person who is doing their job when the master shows up’.

In light of this Lukan text, Robert Farrar Capon (in Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus) suggests that preachers labour under three distinct requirements:

First, they are to be faithful (pistoí). They are called to believe, and they are called only to believe. They are not called to know, or to be clever, or to be proficient, or to be energetic, or to be talented, or to be well-adjusted. Their vocation is simply to be faithful waiters on the mystery of Jesus’ coming in death and resurrection. What the world needs to hear from them is not any of their ideas, bright or dim: none of those can save a single soul. Rather, it needs to hear – and above all to see – their own commitment to the ministry of waiting for, and waiting on, the only Lord who has the keys of death (Rev. 1:18).

Second, the clergy are to be wise (phrónimoi). They are not to be fools, rich or poor, who think that salvation can come to anyone as a result of living. The world is already drowning in its efforts at life; it does not need lifeguards who swim to it carrying the barbells of their own moral and spiritual efforts. Preachers are to come honestly empty-handed to the world, because anyone who comes bearing more than the folly of the kerygma – of the preaching of the word of the cross (1 Cor. 1:21, 18) – has missed completely the foolishness (mōrón) of God that is wiser (sophōteron) than [human beings]. The wise (phrónimos) steward, therefore, is the one who knows that God has stood all known values on their heads – that, as Paul says in 1 Cor. 1:26ff., [God] has not chosen the wise, or the mighty, or the socially adept, but rather that [God] has chosen what the world considers nonsense (ta mōrá) in order to shame the wise (sophoús), and what the world considers weak (ta asthené) in order to shame the strong. The clergy are worth their salt only if they understand that God deals out salvation solely through the klutzes (ta agené) and the nobodies (ta exouthenéména) of the world-through, in short, the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead. If they think God is waiting for them to provide them with classier help, they should do everybody a favor and get out of the preaching business. Let them do less foolish work …

[And thirdly], … preachers are stewards whom the Lord has ‘set over his household servants to provide them with food at the proper time.’ After all the years the church has suffered under forceful preachers and winning orators, under compelling pulpiteers and clerical bigmouths with egos to match, how nice to hear that Jesus expects preachers in their congregations to be nothing more than faithful household cooks. Not gourmet chefs, not banquet managers, not caterers to thousands, just Gospel pot-rattlers who can turn out a decent, nourishing meal once a week. And not even a whole meal, perhaps; only the right food at the proper time. On most Sundays, maybe all it has to be is meat, pasta, and a vegetable. Not every sermon needs to be prefaced by a cocktail hour full of the homiletical equivalent of Vienna sausages and bacon-wrapped water chestnuts; nor need nourishing preaching always be dramatically concluded with a dessert of flambéed sentiment and soufléed prose. The preacher has only to deliver food, not flash; Gospel, not uplift. And the preacher’s congregational family doesn’t even have to like it. If it’s good food at the right time, they can bellyache all they want: as long as they get enough death and resurrection, some day they may even realize they’ve been well fed. (pp. 243–5).

Calvin the preacher

‘[Calvin] the preacher does not so much move forward from point to point as be borne onwards by the movement of his author’s thought. Even so, this is not a simple, uncomplicated stepping from clause to clause; for within each clause there is movement and counter-movement of one sort or another. The sermons are like rivers, moving strongly in one direction, alive with eddies and crosscurrents, now thundering in cataracts, now a calm mirror of the banks and the sky; but never still, never stagnant. Calvin’s intention (like that of the medieval theology lecturers) was to expound each passage. Usually this entailed the continuous exposition of sentence by sentence, sometimes of clause by clause. After a brief preface to remind the congregation of what the previous passage had said, and thus to set the present verses within their context, he would embark on the exposition of the sentences, usually rendering them in a slightly different (sometimes very different) form from the head text; this partly because he was translating direct as he went along, partly for the sake of clarification by paraphrasing. The exposition will consist where necessary of simple exegesis and the unravelling of any difficulties (perhaps discrepancies with other passages of Scripture, which, again like medieval lecturing, had always to be reconciled); after this he will apply the place to “our” use so that “we” may profit from it and be “edified”’.

– Thomas Henry Louis Parker, Calvin’s Preaching (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992), 132–3.

Who said it?

Mrs. Juliann Jane Tillman, Preacher of the A.M.E. Church. Engraving by P. S. Duval, after a painting by Alfred Hoffy, Philadelphia, 1844.

Time again for another ‘Who said it?’ competition. From whose mouth/pen did the following words come:

‘The Sacrament of the Word … is the distinctively Protestant Sacrament, and it invests the pulpit with the dignity, if not the solemnity which elsewhere is bestowed on the altar. Among other regrettable tendencies of the hour is the disposition to depreciate the power of the spoken word. It exists both in the pew and in the pulpit itself. I know preachers who regard their Sunday duty with a contempt (which is evident), compared with the so-called practical work with which they fill five days of the week. And we are constantly pressed with the demand for short sermons. I believe myself that short sermons are mostly themselves too long. The man whose preaching is simply tolerated has no right to preach as long as ten minutes. The man whose preaching is welcomed has no right to be always as short as twenty. We listen gladly to political speeches of an hour, and the reason is that we have an interest, amounting to a passion for the subject. Let us have enough knowledge of the subject of religion as to choose only competent men for ministers, and let it be so real and passionate to us that we can take pleasure in what our prophet or expositor has to say for an hour if he likes. I don’t hint that all sermons should be an hour long. But I do think short sermons are killing the pulpit and sending the people to the altar or the platform’.

Let’s say a Friday deadline.

Update: The answer is PT Forsyth.