I read a story yesterday about a campus chaplain, Dr. Randy Beckum, who was demoted for preaching about peace and the false god of patriotism during a campus chapel service. He had his role as Vice President of MidAmerica Nazarene College stripped of him because many saw his words as inflammatory, yet he retained his role as chaplain.
Perhaps one cannot be both chaplain and hold a role that needs to answer to human beings in power. In fact, I think it is impossible to satisfy both God’s calling upon our lives and the desires of the human beings around us. Any preacher understands this – if you are going to preach from the scriptures, you are going to upset people. If you are trying to actually live by what Jesus taught, most will think you are nuts or naive or both. The Gospel of Jesus Christ (grace, peace, kindness, mercy) is just too contrary to the gospel of popular culture (war, revenge, violence, materialism) for many people to stomach.
I have seen evidence of this so often in churches – lay people in leadership feeling torn apart because they want to do what is right and yet too often their vision gets clouded because they don’t want to upset anyone. I hear multitudes of pastors feeling real fear of job loss if they were to proclaim the Gospel fully rather than temper it for their own particular, comfortable setting. I’ve known many congregations who compare themselves to a “family” and wring their hands over they don’t the “family” to be disrupted over an issue or, heaven forbid, someone to leave! When the loudest voices cry that it’s better to stick to what is tried and true, when most decisions are made out of fear rather than faith, eventually God’s holy house begins to look more and more like a feeble social club rather than a place for the Living God to be made known. It might be a nice place to visit and catch up with one another, but bears little to no resemblance to Jesus’ intention for His church on earth.
I have been a pastor for sixteen years. I love the church beyond measure. I love the different-colored banners for the changing church seasons, sharing the stories that Jesus told, and singing the hymns I learned sitting next to my grandmother on a wooden pew in a little Lutheran church in Minnesota. There is nothing that makes my heart so glad as carrying on the rituals of making ashes from dried palm leaves, reading sacred scriptures as a parishioner takes her final breath, hearing children learn the Lord’s prayer, and the smell of coffee wafting from the church kitchen. The Lutheran church, everywhere, has always been my second home. Life looks beautiful to me in the glow of the stained glass and with the sound of Jesus’ words echoing in my mind.
But I’m just as guilty of creating false gods. Mine might not be patriotism or materialism, however I still like to keep God in the places I can understand God and where I can make sense of God. Others may catch glimpses of holy things in flags, earthly heroes, or an ideal of a perfect church “family” that exists only in their minds. I have caught glimpses of holy things in quiet country churches and the nostalgia of sacred music.
I guess I dream of what is impossible while I’m still here on Earth – the sacred unfettered by all that we put upon it in this world. I long for God, pure and only, not God through the eyeglasses of a particular group or faction.
All our best intentions, our righteous rites and wordy words, still only hint at the wonder and mystery of the One who made us.
So why should we be surprised when speaking about God and trying to live our lives in God often gets frustrating? We are trying to lasso the wind. We are looking out for the black dog laying on the black pavement on a pitch dark night. All is hidden from our sight – yet – the smidgen of the Holy One in each of us can’t help but keep searching for and naming God, while at the same time, the sin in us is busy pointing out the speck in one another’s eye and ignoring the log in our own.
I’m proud of Dr. Beckum for naming the false gods he has witnessed. He is called there to do just such a thing. I bet he wasn’t surprised at all about the reaction it received. We preachers know when buttons are being pushed. But God has called us to do just that. When we stop having the courage to name sin and proclaim God’s forgiveness to the repentant, it is time for us to step down from the pulpit. Until then, preachers – take heart, fight the good fight, keep on preaching.