Richard Lischer

Walking unhampered – and strangely – among the golden lampstands

Last Sunday, Andrew Stock and more than half (around 100) of the Brisbane Destiny Church [whose website has been pulled offline] walked out of church. This is nothing exceptional in itself, not least of all, it would seem, in less sensible denominations. And not a few have interpreted this action as a sign of courage and integrity, applauding Stock as one who at least has ‘the guts to stand up to the Tamaki machine’. Among the many things that I find most disturbing about this story, however, is today’s report that ‘new pastors have [already] been appointed to run Brisbane’s Destiny Church’ (an outcrop of Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church in New Zealand).

Is this a sign of a ministry which has failed to foster maturity among the members of God’s flock which remain? And/or is this yet another example that bolsters the claim that one of the markers of a cult is an unwillingness – or inability – to be ‘community’ without a ‘dynamic’ personality at the helm, one who has ‘strong leadership qualities and the ability to cast vision’? Possibly, though I’m in no position to really know.

Contrast Destiny’s pastoral search model with something I posted a while back from Richard Lischer about Lutherans:

‘Lutherans fill their vacancies more deliberately than any of the churches in Christendom. Vacant congregations go months without thinking about choosing a new leader, and pastors, once they have received a call, may sit on it for additional months before hatching a decision. The time isn’t used for negotiating more favorable terms; it is simply filled with prayer and dormancy. The President-elect of the United States names a Cabinet faster than the smallest Lutheran congregation picks a pastor, because Lutherans consider the latter process far more important. All is left to prayer and the brooding of the Spirit, and everyone knows the Spirit always works slowly’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, 220.

Perhaps it’s a good time to recall some of PT Forsyth’s advice on ‘How To Help Your Minister’.

Either way, it seems that the sovereign Lord still walks unhampered – and strangely – among the golden lampstands …

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part IX, On Lutherans

We’ll make this the final post on Lischer’s, Open Secrets. Fittingly, it’s on Lutherans:

‘Lutherans fill their vacancies more deliberately than any of the churches in Christendom. Vacant congregations go months without thinking about choosing a new leader, and pastors, once they have received a call, may sit on it for additional months before hatching a decision. The time isn’t used for negotiating more favorable terms; it is simply filled with prayer and dormancy. The President-elect of the United States names a Cabinet faster than the smallest Lutheran congregation picks a pastor, because Lutherans consider the latter process far more important. All is left to prayer and the brooding of the Spirit, and everyone knows the Spirit always works slowly’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, 220.

Here’s a list of the earlier posts:

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part VIII, On Abortion

‘The Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade meant that country girls like Leeta or Teri or others like them, who found themselves “in trouble,” would have the option of privatizing their problem by removing the stigma of an unwanted pregnancy from the eyes of the congregation. It wouldn’t be necessary for the community to promise to help raise the child. The church would not have the opportunity to offer the hospitality of Jesus to a scared teenager and her family. Nor would it have a chance to fail to do so, as it had sometimes done in the past. No one would know. It was none of the community’s business’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, 208–9.

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part VII, On the Church Calendar

‘The Protestant church was already in the process of discarding the named Sundays of Lent and Easter even as we blessed and planted the seeds. Now they bear the evocative names “The First Sunday in Lent,” “the Second Sunday in Lent,” and so on. The fourth Sunday in Lent was once named Laetare, which means “rejoice.” It was known in the church as Refreshment Sunday. On this Sunday rose paraments replaced the traditional purple of Lent, and, psychologically and spiritually, we breathed a little easier. The color rose seemed to say, There’s light at the end of the tunnel. Even at the dead center of Lent, Christ is risen.

The Protestant church got rid of Laetare as well as Rogate and many of the other days for reasons I have never fully understood. It created a bland church calendar and liturgies du jour in the image of people who have been abstracted from place and history, who have no feel for the symbols and no memory of the stories. They live, work, and worship in climate-controlled buildings. They have largely adopted a digitalized language. Their daily routines override the natural rhythms and longings of life.

I can only say that the Latin words were not too much for my high school dropouts. The simple outline of church history didn’t overtax their imaginations. The liturgy and church year made sense to the farmers in New Cana, for who better than a farmer understands the circularities of life? The church year had a rhythm, and so did their lives.

Some would argue that the observance of Rogate arose in an agricultural world and is, therefore, irrelevant to all but the 1.7 percent of Americans who still live on farms. But my congregation understood the metaphor that underlay Rogate, which is this: When we do any kind of useful work, we join the act of creation in progress and help God keep the universe humming’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, 144–5.

‘The proclamation of the word … has no functional equivalents in secular culture’

‘Most ministers were “set apart for the gospel”, as Paul says of himself … The preacher’s vocation was once a kind of circle that began and ended in the word. Whatever it was that made you a minister was aimed at its eventual public expression. The minister’s whole existence was concentrated to a point of declaration. Today, however, the circle has been broken.

Our culture devalues proclamation while elevating other associated forms of ministry such as counseling or community work …

But the proclamation of the word cannot be professionalized. It has no functional equivalents in secular culture. It cannot be camouflaged among socially useful or acceptable activities. Its passions are utterly nontransferable. The kerygmatic pitch, as Abraham Heschel said of the prophet’s voice, is usually about an octave too high for the rest of society. If you are filling out a job application, see how far it gets you to put under related skills: “I can preach”.

When ministers allow the word of God to be marginalized, they continue to speak, of course, and make generally helpful comments on a variety of issues, but they do so from no center of authority and with no heart of passion. We do our best to meet people’s needs, but without the divine word we can never know enough or be enough, because consumer need is infinite. We are simply there as members of a helping profession. We annex to our ministry the latest thinking in the social sciences and preface our proclamations with phrases like ‘modern psychology tells us,’ forgetting that the word ‘modern’ in such contexts usually indicates that what follows will be approximately one-hundred years out of date. What we lack in specialized knowledge we can only offset in time by making ourselves compulsively available to anyone in need.

I am convinced that no seminarian or candidate sets out to minister with such reduced expectations, and not everyone succumbs to this scenario, but ultimately the marginalization of the word of God fractions it into a hundred lesser duties’.

Richard Lischer, The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence (The Lyman Beecher Lectures in Preaching). (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), 22-24.

[H/T: Kim Fabricius]

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part VI, On Gossip

I recently posted on Luther and Calvin on Slander; now here’s Richard Lischer offering a different take on a similar theme – gossip:

‘The word gossip originally implied a spiritual relationship. A gossip was a sponsor at a baptism, one who spoke on behalf of the child and who would provide spiritual guidance to the child as it grew in years. A gossip was your godmother or godfather. Gossiping was speech within the community of the baptized.

For all its negative associations, gossip retains something of its salutary function in a small town … Gossip is the community’s way of conducting moral discourse and, in an oddly indirect way, of forgiving old offenses. In our town all desires were known, no secrets were hid, and every heart was an open book. Every life was gossiped by all, and all were gossips.

The continuous reworking of the community’s stories, characters, and themes served two purposes. Gossip helps soften the edges of people who are simply too accessible to one another, who irritate one another to death, but who can’t escape one another or their common history. Gossip also explains peculiarities … and tells how they came to be.

Second, our gossip was common discourse. It contributed to a moral consensus on, say, what constitutes decent farming, honorable business, tolerable preaching, or effective parenting. Gossip was our community’s continuing education … Gossip is always a painful business but, when it functions as speech in the community of the baptized, it can serve a constructive end. In my wife’s case, the sifting of stories led to grudging appreciation of a ‘peculiar” sort of prairie wife’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, 95–6, 99.

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part V, On Symbols and National Flags

First Church, Dunedin

‘It all begins with the symbols. They capture primal relations, like water and death, fire and purification, seeds and hope. The stories do not come before the symbols, but they emerge from them and bring them to life. The stories explain the symbols, and the symbols make the stories worth remembering and telling. The window in the Lumbee church said, “See, under this sign of suffering, we will accept one another as brothers and sisters.” A congregation lives most deeply by its symbol-bearing stories. They tell us who we are.

Any cultural anthropologist would have warned me not to rearrange the furniture in our church. Of course, there were no cultural anthropologists in New Cana. Had there been, they would have reminded me that the physical focus of worship symbolically “freezes” the community’s story into a sacred universe. Therefore, to shuffle the furniture in the chancel or to alter the ritual, say, by moving the flag or changing the music, is to offend against the stories and derange the universe itself.

Who knew?

I should have known not to try to remove the American flag from the chancel. To me, the national flag represented an intrusion into the sacred space of the congregation, an obvious symbol of civil religion. Theologically, the flag has no business beside the altar.

At one of our congregational “town meetings” I patiently explained that I had nothing against patriotism but that it was a short step from “God and country” to “God equals country”. These were the last hours of Vietnam and the early days of Watergate. How can Christians minister prophetically to the country, I asked, if we embrace the nation’s chief symbol and admit it into our sanctuary’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, 89–90.

I’ve blogged on this theme before too. See Aliens in the Church: A Reflection on ANZAC Day, National Flags and the Church as an Alternative Society

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part IV, On the Trinity

‘God is persons and nothing else. There is no waxy residue of divinity that is not wrapped up in these three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s who God is. God is (est) each of these three persons, but the persons are distinct from one another (non est). God is both: alone in majesty and at the same time forever radiating love through each person of the Trinity … We are only able to love each other because the Father loves the Son through the Holy Spirit. We want to be with one another as friends, lovers, and neighbors for the same reason. That’s not an argument that would appeal to most theologians, but that’s what the Trinity meant for us’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, 81.

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part III, On Homiletical Gridlock

‘Like most preachers, I grossly overestimated the importance of my part in the sermon. When I thought of preaching, I did not consider it to be a congregation’s reception of the word of God, but a speaker’s command of the Bible’s hidden meanings and applications, which were served up in a way to showcase the authority and skill of the preacher. In those days the gospel lived or died by my personal performance. My preaching was a small cloud of glory that followed me around and hung like a canopy over the pulpit whenever I occupied it. How ludicrous I must have appeared to my congregation.

In my first sermon I explained the meaning of an epiphany, not the Epiphany of God in the person of Jesus – no, that would have been too obvious – but the category of epiphanies in general. To this end, I drew at length on the depressing short stories of James Joyce in Dubliners. “Each of these stories has one thing in common,” I said. “In each the central character comes to a deeper and more disturbing understanding of himself. Nothing really happens in these stories except that in the midst of the daily routine a character is unexpectedly exposed to the predicaments of estrangement in his own life. One man realizes that his wife has never loved him. Another recognizes that he is trapped in his vocation. Another finds himself to be a hopeless failure. The human condition is full of such epiphanies …”

Before I could talk about Jesus, I apparently found it necessary to give my farmers a crash course in the angst-ridden plight of modern man. With the help of clichés from Joyce, Heidegger, Camus, and even Walker Percy, I first converted them to existential ennui so that later in the sermon I could rescue them with carefully crafted assurances of “meaning” in a meaningless world. Along the way I defiantly refuted Marx’s view of religion as an opiate that permits us to escape the hard realities of existence. It didn’t concern me that the problem of meaninglessness had not occurred to my audience or that Marx’s critique of religion rarely came up for discussion at the post office.

It’s not that I minimize the importance of the major themes of modernity. No doubt my parishioners would have understood themselves better had they opened their eyes to the intellectual context of their lives. But they did not and could not. The giants of modern thought – Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre – and the movements they unleashed, would never touch New Cana. My parishioners lived in a prison whose view was limited to the natural world and the most obvious technologies of the twentieth century. Aside from formulaic complaints about Communists, perverts, and radicals, they did not engage the modern world.

But then I did not bother to engage their world either. It did not occur to me that I needed a new education. I treated the rural life as an eccentric experience in ministry. I was a spectator once again, as I had been in college, watching a slide show of interesting scenes and odd characters. And since I was the viewer and they were the viewees, I was in control. When I preached, I always stood above my parishioners and looked down upon them.

Consequently, my sermons carried too many prerequisites to be effective. About 90 percent of my listeners had not graduated from high school; the majority of that group had not attended high school. There was no one with a four-year college degree in the church with the exception of a regular visitor named Darryl Sheets, our Lone Intellectual, who was principal of the high school in nearby Cherry Grove. Darryl regularly cornered me in long and fruitless conversations on the possible meanings of the Hebrew word for “young woman” in Isaiah 9:14 and how they all pointed to “Virgin.” But the truth is, Darryl and his wife Marvel didn’t drive all the way to Cana because of my expertise in Hebrew or the intellectual content of my sermons. Darryl was a tongue-speaking, fire-anointed charismatic who for some reason suspected that I might be one, too. It didn’t take him long to figure out he was wrong, and then we saw quite a bit less of Darryl and Marvel.

My audience paid a heavy price for the gospel. The farmers had to swallow my sixties-style cocktail of existentialism and psychology before I served them anything remotely recognizable. I implicitly required them to view their world and its problems through my eyes. All I asked of them was that they pretend to be me.

The only person who appreciated my sermons was my wife, who, like me, lived from books. Tracy was completing her course work for a Ph.D. in English and, therefore, considered poetry and literary allusions to be the most natural of all forms of communication. What’s a sermon without, “Perhaps Milton said it best when he wrote …” But among the rest of the congregation my preaching produced a standoff of sensibilities: If the idea for a sermon did not come from a book, I was not interested in pursuing it. If it did not emerge from life, my parishioners were not interested in hearing about it. In a few short months we had achieved homiletical gridlock’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, pp. 73–5.

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part II, On Theological Education 2

We continue on with citations from Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, and with another on theological education:

‘The congregation and I were insignificant figures in a larger and older pattern. The church has always identified its potential leaders, indoctrinated them, and then rudely inserted them in some setting or other where they almost never belong. At seminary we brooded over the mysteries of God for four years only to turn up later as chaplains to covered-dish suppers and car washes with the youth. One part of the church goes to great expense in order to prepare a theologian for another part of the church that wants a guitar player. Like misshelved books, we are there waiting to be used, but will anyone ever find us? As partners in an arranged marriage, my congregation and I might fall madly in love, which, in this creaky old church already seemed unlikely to me, or we could accommodate ourselves to what, if we were honest, each of us knew to be a mismatch’. (pp. 48–9)

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part I, On Theological Education

As one whose vocation concerns the formation of ministers, I am for ever on the lookout for resources that assist in this task. One such book is Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery. Rather than write a review of it (Want a review? Just read the book! Repeat: Read the book! There you go), I thought I’d simply post a few of my favourite sections of it over the next week or so. It won’t and it can’t substitute for reading the book, and isolating snippets out of a novel and its narrative is frightfully problematic, but it may at least help to introduce the book to those unfamiliar with it, and, even without wider narrative-bearings, encourage some fruitful thought. So here we go:

‘Exactly why I had arrived at my first call with such a developed sense of entitlement, I’m not sure’. (p. 12)

‘I didn’t ride through eight years of education on a crisis, nor did my co-travelers in the System. We put one foot ahead of another as if following snowprints through a Wisconsin woods, but with no horizon in view. Some of us emerged from the journey open to new learning and experience, and some fancied ourselves as completed ministers of the gospel. But all of us were missing something. Our education taught us to speak the System’s language, but it did not disclose the language that “speaks us” by possessing our spirit and shaping us as human beings. It is not a question of how did we survive the voyage. Surely, at one time or another every boy in that school must have fought through a crisis as quietly as I did mine. The real question is, how did those long years open a path to ministry?

There’s a New Yorker cartoon in which a pompous-looking doctor hands a prescription to his patient and says, “Take this. It will either cure you or kill you.” I’m afraid my education was something like that. It didn’t attend to the gifts of the Spirit, such as love, joy, peace, patience, and long-suffering. It did not help me develop Jesus’ instinct for compassion toward the outsider or outrage toward injustice. Our professors didn’t invite us into the agony of race or war; they never intimated that God could grieve over the poor or that Jesus really cared about the fate of women. Perhaps it was the substructure of Greek humanism that kept us to the middle way, which caused us to overlook God’s grief and anger and the essential excesses of Christianity.

The spirituality imparted to us was the safe spirituality of structure but not of passion or abandonment. The theological categories we memorized would either stifle true spirituality for the rest of our lives or provide the skeleton for a growing and adapting organism.”We’ve given you a vocabulary,” my teachers seemed to say, “Now, what are you going to do with it?

Likewise, the enforced chapel services into which we dutifully filed morning and evening could either kill you or make you well. If you paid too much attention to the sermons of Dean Axelmann and others, you might die in the spirit. But we also sang Matins every morning, and four hundred male voices chanting the Te Deum couldn’t be wrong:

To You all angels cry aloud,
The heavens and all the powers therein.
To You cherubim and seraphim continually do cry,
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth!

Take that prescription five mornings a week for eight years, and it just might save your life’. (pp. 36–7)