My first job in a church was as a music minister.
I loved the senior pastor I served with, as did the congregation we faced every Sunday morning. He taught me a lot about worship, preaching and how to connect with people.
One time we were at lunch, reflecting on the previous week’s service, when he made a statement that seemed benign at the time. “I love my job,” he said. “Every week, I get to stand up in front of a congregation and say beautiful things to people.”
Doesn’t sound so horrible, right? I mean, who doesn’t like to hear beautiful words? It was only over time that the issues I had with this perspective on preaching came to light.
A couple of years later, the church fell into disarray when the pastor had charges of sexual harassment levied against him. Though not the first time such charged had surfaced involving him, the congregation rallied around the pastor they loved. Amy and I, however, left the church, disheartened by the scandal.
Within another couple of years, he was accused yet again and the church fell apart. He left the ministry for a secular vocation.
The matters of sexual impropriety are obvious indicators of a sickness, one that reflects a larger disenchantment with organized religion throughout our contemporary culture. From child-abusing priests to televangelist con artists, such violations of both the office of ministry and of the trust of those we serve is easy to name. Plenty of people will name such illicit wrongdoing as the reason they have walked away from organized religion all together, though there is a problem that I would suggest is far more insidious and pervasive that is at the heart of the Church’s popular decline.
Preaching is a curious discipline. Summoning equal parts poet, philosopher, scholar, counselor and theologian, there truly is no other vocation like it. There is an opiate-like attraction of preaching. We hold not only people’s attention in our hands, but often their faith as well. It’s a position of power and influence, and the response we get from those who receive the message can be addictive, particularly if our paychecks hinge upon the receptiveness of such an audience.
We all love to witness beauty, and to hear words that convey that beauty. We love being told that, despite our circumstances, things will always get better, that everything ultimately will be all right. It’s tempting for preachers to offer such messages of superficial optimism too, as such messages evoke the kind of ego affirmation that helps us feel good about the job we’re doing.
We feel good about what we say, the congregation feels good about what they hear, and everyone leaves smiling. We return the following week to receive our next bump of feel-good assurance to help us through the next week.
The problem is that none of us believes it, including the preacher.
Yes, life is beautiful, but it is also difficult, tragic, complicated and sometimes inexplicable. Yet we come to church and hear that, despite the hard times, everything’s actually tinted with a rose hue; we just have to look a little harder. Have faith; it all will work out for the best.
Except when it doesn’t.
It’s nice to leave church smiling and feeling optimistic, but there’s a growing sense of disconnect between what is conveyed within the church walls and what happens the other 167 hours of the week. We’re told God is always there for us, yet we feel a profound sense of loss. We see rows of smiles and pleasantness on Sunday while there’s suffering just outside the door. We get the implicit — and even sometimes explicit — message that having faith is synonymous with self-assuredness, certainty and perpetual happiness, and then we struggle through the week with our doubts, our fear and tragedies.
Pastors should indeed celebrate the beauty, joy and miraculous mystery of life, but to focus on this while not tempering this with an acknowledgment of struggle, doubt and, yes, suffering, is to offer false prophecy. It is proclaiming the world as it isn’t, assuring those who seek wisdom from us that they should feel, think and act one way, while so much in the rest of the world seems to contradict this reality. Yet we continue to seek and affirm the message that offers a short-term bandage for our gaping spiritual wounds, all the while knowing at a deep level that what we’re hearing is, at best, not the whole truth, and at worst, a brazen lie.
We think we want to hear that everything will be all right, but the truth is that life is difficult.
We seek words from the pulpit that will ameliorate our doubts and fears, unwilling to acknowledge those same doubts and fears in the very one offering the words of assurance.
We seek a fear-proof faith, but reality reaffirms daily that faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are inextricably, necessarily married to one another.
We think we want answers, but what we really long for is peace. Such peace cannot be found in pithy, lovely messages or lyrically gilded praise songs that do not reflect a genuine experience of life.
We ask to hear a handful of beautiful words, but what we truly crave is for others to bear witness to our lives. Our whole lives. Not just the pleasant, cheerful parts.
The prophets of the Old Testament will, in one breath, celebrate the fullness of God’s presence, and in the next, mourn an equally profound absence. There are psalms of praise and dirges of despair. They hope, dream, doubt and suffer, all the while seeking to better understand what it means to be a divinely created, divinely inspired creature. It’s beautiful, ugly, healing, terrifying, soul-stretching, gut-wrenching work.
Just like life.