Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Vain Search for Pastoral Utopia

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!”  Luke 13:34 NKJV

“You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears!  You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you.  Which of the prophets did your fathers not prosecute?  And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.”  St. Stephen, Acts 7:51-53 NKJV

The gift of prophecy is the ability to speak God’s word to others, or more appropriately to be open for God to speak God’s word through us. Prophets do not predict the future (emphasis mine), but offer insight and perspective on current conditions and how things might turn out if changes aren’t made. Prophets are incisive, clear, and often controversial, communicators. Prophets see things that others often don’t, and they have the courage to “tell it like it ought to be”.

Not all pastors are prophets, and not all prophets are pastors.  One of the most deeply disturbing results of my own spiritual gifts assessments upon entering pastoral ministry has been the indication that “prophecy” is consistent among my primary spiritual gifts.  When I received these results in the beginning I went to my own pastor at the time to help me clarify exactly what this meant since I knew perfectly well I could not (and still cannot!) foresee or predict with certainly what will happen in the future.  At that point I was clueless as to the real meaning of this gift.  This many years later I may be more uncertain than before!

It should be understood I was not only beginning my pastoral journey into licensed ministry, I was also a “journeyman” disciple – at best.  I grew up in the Church (Roman Catholic) and, like many cradle Christians, I had (and still have, I must admit) definitive ideas and strong opinions about denominational doctrine.  To describe myself as a “Bible-believing” Christian, however, would have been a stretch.  I had, at best, a vague understanding of what is actually in the Bible.  Up to that point, this limited knowledge seemed adequate.  It was not until my pastor (same guy) asked me to lead a Bible study when I began to take the written Word more seriously, to look more carefully, and to contemplate more deeply and openly and quietly.  Make no mistake: I was no teacher.  I was a facilitator of the class discussions.

Back to the idea of “prophecy” as a spiritual gift or a necessary pastoral attribute.  My pastor had suggested that whatever one happens to be good at or enjoys doing may be an indication of a spiritual gift.  After years of discernment, however, that somewhat narrow and shallow observation seems inadequate.  Some attributes of prophets may indicate, according to that pastor’s concepts, that prophets enjoy stepping on toes and get a perverse delight from tightening the screws on people who do not agree with that “prophet’s” ideas about the Bible, sin, the Church, and the Divine Relationship we ultimately desire. 

To be good at it, however, can be perceived as more a character flaw than a genuine gift of the Spirit.  “Telling it like it is” is often necessary, but many who boldly (and often, proudly) claim this particular attribute only seem to enjoy speaking without any filters.  It is much easier to simply say aloud what one is thinking without considering the feelings and sensitivities of others.  In other words, it may be taken as license to simply be a jerk.

Having the courage to “tell it like it ought to be”, as per our United Methodist understanding of this particular spiritual gift, comes closer to describing the work of the prophets of old, “those who foretold the coming of the Just One”, as St. Stephen pointed out.  More than to tell of “the coming of the Just One”, however, the prophets were sent with messages to Israel and to Judah that were not as hopeful as the Promise of the coming Messiah.  What makes the prophets so hard to read now – and surely made them as hard to listen to then – were the darker and more foreboding messages of doom and destruction if the people who “have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it” did not soon repent and turn to The Lord.  For their faithfulness, many prophets lost their lives.

As has been so often observed, we are much more inclined to embrace the “promises” of the Gospel than we are to even acknowledge the “demands” of the Divine Law.  To that end we are quick to quote St. Paul, “You are not under law” (Romans 6:14).  It is an accurate quote of what is written, of course, but it is a betrayal of the overall context.  In embracing the “promises” of the Gospel, we stop reading Romans at that point.  We’ve not gotten all we need, but we have heard all we care to hear.

We deny or decline the “demands” of the Law when we no further read, “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?  Certainly not!  Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?” (Romans 6:15-16)

A pastor who is not a prophet may more likely quote and stop at verse 14, and oversee phenomenal church growth.  A prophet, on the other hand, will not allow the context to be robbed of its fullness because the prophet knows the people who hear an incomplete message will themselves be incomplete and ill-equipped “for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17).  People will not stand in line to hear that.

It seems to me, then, that a pastor’s vain search (and a governing body’s demand) for ministerial utopia – seeking the perfect church in which things always go the way they should go or the way we wish they would go, with lots of baptisms and professions of faith and growing attendance and membership – may be denying a reality as certain as the inherent discomfort of the prophet’s life and task.  And this discomfort is profound because a faithful prophet can be assured of the many in the church – professed Christians! - who will turn on that prophet and work diligently to that prophet’s demise.  The prophet may not be “stoned” with rocks, but the pain often endured is no less hurtful not only to the prophet but to the Church as well. 

How can it not feel like a personal attack?  When a prophet faithfully preaches the Word and takes no short-cuts and pulls no punches, the arguments and slander and innuendo will be entirely personal because those who choose to attack cannot attack with the Word itself.  I have been so slandered on social media for quoting the Bible and teaching United Methodist and Catholic doctrine for “not knowing what he’s talking about”.  And this by a marginal Christian at best who simply did not get his or her way in a particular demand.  How is it not personal indeed!

Yet the prophet should be mindful of Samuel’s faithfulness and The Lord’s assurance that the people of The Lord, the very people “who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it”; these same people “have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them … however, you shall solemnly forewarn them and show them the behavior of the king [or the favored sin] who will reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:7, 9)

So The Lord had not promised Samuel a successful ministry – at least, not successful in how we currently measure success.  Rather The Lord assured Samuel that his pastoral life was going to be filled with conflict and confrontation – some of the very things many who leave pastoral ministry cite as key to their decisions to leave.  There will certainly be some who appreciate the Word in its fullness; but those who refuse to be held accountable will become the prophets’ greatest enemies – and gleefully so!

I have struggled and continue to struggle with my own “calling”.  My governing body has marks and measures of “vitality”, measures of church growth.  To say that I am not hitting those marks is an understatement, so I have questioned my calling to that very end.  Since I am not growing a church by the numbers, I must be doing something wrong.  There are some notable and very successful United Methodist pastors who are helping to grow churches by leaps and bounds, and every book these clergy publish are touted and received as virtual “scripture”.  After all, if these have found success in such ways, why can’t everyone else?

I don’t mean to be unfair to anyone who has measurable success.  I actually envy them.  I’m sure they have their own battles to fight, but their numbers indicate some measure of success, some sort of payoff for their trouble.  Maybe all the blood they have lost and the bruises they have endured have paid off when they get to baptize so many and receive so many new members. 

Yet I have also come to understand this cannot be what will happen with every church in every demographic.  As the prophets faced, as the apostles faced, as the “Just One” Himself faced, some folks just do not want to hear it.  Even if they are “shown the behavior of the king [or sin] who will reign over them”, they will still feel perfectly justified in going their own way – especially in America, the land of unencumbered rights (meaning, all the promises but none of the demands).  

I am not at all sure of what the future holds for me and for the ministry to which I am called, and this may be precisely the point of a ministry solely devoted to The Word.  Though I would not be so bold as to believe I always get it right and that those who reject me are indeed rejecting The Lord, but there is much to be said about a willingness to hold others accountable to The Word that does indeed demand one’s life but, in turn, promises Christ’s life.  And as wonderful as this is with “joy unspeakable” to those who turn to The Lord, the task of making this Eternal Truth known will be filled with days of less-than-joy … and many other things probably best left unspoken.

No comments: