Welcome to the website of a retired United Methodist pastor! This corner of the Internet continues nearly fifty years of a weekly column in a church newsletter, on topics ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. The opinions expressed are the author's and represent no institution, although it is hoped that within these pages you will find a reflection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who, in his own borrowed words, insists that we love God with, along with all the rest of what we are, our minds. "Critical" as used in the title does not mean being nasty or grumpy; it means using intellectual faculties in the service of God. Your reactions, rebuttals, comments, and questions can be addressed to: BobHow9846@comcast.net.
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January 22, 2014 - Essays: Science and Religion
February 15, 2014 - Essays: The Pastoral Art
February 27, 2014 - Essays: A Woeful Bias in the Pulpit
Bias in the Pulpit
A Woeful Bias in the Pulpit
No, I don't mean politics. What I perceive is
an emphasis, sometimes to the exclusion of all other approaches to the Gospel,
on the pew-sitter as victim, usually of circumstances, cruel ones, but ordinary,
the kind of scrapes and tragedies to which this human flesh is all too prone.
That is, the implicit strategy of the pulpit
begins with the assumption that "man's extremity is God's opportunity." Or to
clean the phrase up to be attuned to this new age of non-sexist language: "Our
pain is heaven's gain." According to which the preacher begins with the troubled
situation in which we find ourselves... and each of us finds himself there,
right?, most of the time, that things don't seem to go right, life is on the
edge, financially and emotionally, and no one knows the trouble I've seen.
No one, that is, but Jesus.
When I stood for the first time in the pulpit
at Sunset Park Norwegian Methodist Church, Brooklyn, on Sunday, February 4, 1956, I held in
my hand a church "bulletin" prepared, but not by me, for the occasion. The
cover pictured a very tall Jesus hovering over the church with a legend beneath,
whose exact message is long-forgotten by me; but the gist of which is that
whatever your need Jesus would take care of you and supply it. It's a
beautiful sentiment. We can never hear it enough. Like the fundamentalist
campaign thirty years ago, with the insistent refrain, "Jesus Is the Answer."
That is, he is the answer to (Guy Noir's) "life's persistent questions."
And problems. Just put your hand in the hand of the Man.
Yes, the Beatitudes in the New English Bible
translation puts this blessing first: "How blest are those who know their need
of God, theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Stained glass windows in many a
church, including the one I most lately served, depict Jesus on the mountain
side beckoning, "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will
give you rest." Yes, Jesus is the Great Physician, healing all our
diseases, of the head and heart too. Yes, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, out
there in the wilderness of our lives searching until he finds me, the little
lost sheep. Yes, Jesus is the Savior... and that says it all.
In these years since I last stood in the
pulpit, "four feet above contradiction," I confess that I, now a pew sitter, get
very antsy when the preacher or prayerer trots out the familiar list of human
agonies, identifying one after another in a litany of woes. She means to
touch my heart, but he usually stirs up my frustration. The first
beatitude, however, is followed by several more, the majority of which put responsibility
on us, to make peace, to hunger and thirst for justice, to make our way through
life with humility, and to stick our necks out for Christ's sake.
That is, what I yearn for from the pulpit is
to be addressed in my strength. I may be hunched over as I walk, but it's
the consequence of eighty-two years,
not because I am shouldering the weight of the world. I have seen my share
of troubles; but, considering what I have witnessed in fifty years of pastoring
and being drawn deeply and intimately into the agonies others have faced, I
would be ashamed to complain about the way given me in this mortal life.
Sure, my time may come to walk in the valley of shadows,
but I suspect that the sheer length of my days in the sunshine of God's favor
will silence my protests there where the sun no longer shines. Maybe I'd even be
able to gather up the courage my friend Austin managed in his last months,
afflicted with a debilitating stroke and some wondered why him, to which he
responded, "Why not me?" Tell me, please,
preacher, how I should use the strength of will and heart genes and good fortune
provide. What might I be doing to show my gratitude? And don't
forget to illuminate, and maybe excoriate, my stupidity, arrogance, and
ignorance, provided you don't exempt yourself from that analysis of the human
The Great Physician also comes
to heal our blind indifference and hardheartedness toward the misery and
suffering of the multitudes in our world. The Good Shepherd also comes to
rescue the wayward sheep (like me) who don't think they are lost and rather
enjoy their lostness in the brambled vagaries of the ordinary world. The
Savior also comes to save us from the hells into which we plunge ourselves in
the name of our own righteousness, while, for bad measure, blaming it on him.
Halford Lucock, the opinionator for
Christian Century in an earlier generation, famously observed that Jesus didn't wind up on a cross
because he said, "Consider the lilies." That conclusion (the cross) to the
most worthwhile life ever lived demands another explanation. There's a
whole lot more to the Gospel of Jesus Christ than ministering to my felt needs.
And, preacher, I want to hear it.