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 condition.
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 TheChristian 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.