Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My Arrows Fly True

In medieval warfare, when archers were deployed (and especially long-range archers like the British longbows), they would often aim not at a particular enemy (as we see so often depicted in movies with soldiers armed with firearms), but at an enemy regiment en masse--the range of their bows was so great that they could still penetrate armor from hundreds of yards, far beyond the range at which they could accurately aim at individual soldiers or knights.

In a (far less grotesque) way, that is the job of the Sunday preacher: you take aim at the hearts of your congregants en masse with your sermon, hoping to pierce at least a few hearts with the truth and love that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  You cannot tailor your sermon to a particular individual--you cannot aim only at that person.  The target is everyone, and your arrows must fly true.

Especially early on, my arrows did not.  My first sermons in seminary sounded more like theological and historical lectures than moving, profound messages of God and God's love, because I selfishly wanted people to see just how hard I worked on that sermon.  Or, I would try to impress one particular person--say, my preaching professor or my senior pastor--at the expense of the rest of my audience en masse.  And I was incapable of distilling the great and grand topics I would be expounding on into the everyday life that most of us actually lead.

My aim was off.  And a lot of that was because of inexperience.  But over time, my sight was corrected, and my aim was bettered.  I am a vastly different preacher than I was in, say, 2009 or 2010, and almost certainly and enormously for the best.  My arrows fly true now.

I have many people to thank for that, including the late Fred Craddock, possibly the greatest preacher my 187-year-old denomination has ever produced, who died last week at the age of 86.

Honestly, I was originally wanting to simply write a post to thank him and honor him for the gift that he has given to me and tens of thousands of fellow believers through his words and messages.  I finally got to see him preach live at my denomination's 2011 general assembly, mere weeks after I had been ordained.  A collection of his sermons, which I read for some summer reading during my first year here at FCC, still sits on my office bookshelf.  And he was rightly regarded as a living treasure widely among my denomination to the day he died.

So Craddock had an impact on me--maybe not the biggest, but a discernible one nonetheless.  Which in turn made me sickened to see Jason Allen, a Southern Baptist minister and a seminary president out of my hometown of Kansas City taking the opportunity to "review" Craddock's seminal 1971 book, As One Without Authority, on his blog...on the day of Craddock's funeral.

A 44-year-old book, and a hatchet job of it just happens to appear on the day of the man's Christian farewell.

I won't rehash fellow Disciples blogger Christian Piatt's excellent (and far more gracious than the anger I'm feeling) response to Allen's prickishness, except to say this:

At what point did we decide that we valued doctrine more highly than people?

This is a worrying trend I have seen in Christianity, where we seem to value doctrinal and theological purity more than the people, even though, in the end, we are called to minster to our people and not to our statements of belief.  And if a seminary president is engaging so gratuitously in placing belief above respect of others and right relationship with others, I fear that this malaise now runs deep within our collective bones.

My senior pastor in California, Russ, was always telling me that youth ministry is 90 percent relational; I'd go even further and say that all of ministry is 90 percent relational.  I may possess all the truth that is worth knowing in this world, but if I cannot communicate it with love to other people, such possession of truth is meaningless.

Or, to put it another way, from a theologian much smarter than I, "If I speak in tongues of human beings or of angels but I don't have love, I'm a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal."

That would be from Paul, in the beginning of his famous "love is patient, love is kind" discourse in 1 Corinthians 13.  And despite what that passage's presence in so, so many weddings would tell you, Paul is not talking about romantic or marital love (in fact, he rather detests that sort of love, but that's another can of tuna).  The Greek word he uses here is caritas, from which we get our English word "charity."

If I am not charitable towards others, if I lack charity, I am nothing.

And charity isn't just the giving of a dollar to the person on the street corner, it is a generosity of spirit.  Something that I admit I am struggling now to extend to Jason Allen because of his cold refusal to do so to a preacher with a far greater legacy than his, on the day of that preacher's funeral.

Painfully ironic in all of this is that Allen writes all about the need to be able to speak from a place of authority in the pulpit, but here, in his online pulpit, he abuses the authority and position and status he has because he is writing not to glorify God, but to denigrate a recently deceased colleague for the sake of upholding one's own personal doctrine about preaching.

Never mind the fact that there is no comprehensive doctrine about preaching in Scripture.

Never mind the fact that doctrine itself, all doctrine, is distilled down by Christ Himself into two commandments: love God, love your neighbor.

And never mind that having right doctrine is probably utterly pointless in the end anyways; if I get to the gates of Heaven and Saint Peter hands me a list of yes/no questions about my doctrine, a scantron sheet, and a #2 pencil, I'll eat my proverbial hat.  Because everything I know about God tells me that God desires reconciliation with us first and foremost.

You blind guide, Jason Allen, you are straining out a gnat and in so doing swallowing a camel.  You may tithe dill, mint, and cumin, but you are neglecting the far weightier matters of mercy and faith.

The sheer, utter tastelessness it takes to slam a colleague's magnum opus on the day of his funeral brings disgrace to the church and to the ministry.  Whenever you go to be with God, Jason Allen, may nobody treat you and your life's work with such blatant disrespect.

Because without love, your words are nothing.  Nothing more than a clanging gong.  Your doctrine will do you no good if you cannot share it in love.

I was inexperienced and inept at one time at trying to share my doctrine in love.  I was ineffective and unable to communicate that which I knew to be true.  But over time, with training and experience and changes in my own heart, that began to change.  And I thank God that it has, because otherwise, I would be another in a long line of ineffective or worse, hateful teachers of the divine and eternal Word of Jesus Christ.

My arrows fly true now.  I am able to reach many more people with my words than I ever had years before.  And I have to thank for that a great many pastors and writers, including the late Fred Craddock.

Go with God, Dr. Craddock.  Thanks for everything.  And if my impression of you is right, you are already doing a far better job in heaven ignoring the haters than we are here on earth.

Yours in Christ,