A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

On the Difficulty of Preaching the Prophetic Word

The past couple of weeks I have been re-reading a few pages when I get a chance (here and there) of a book Reinhold Niebuhr wrote as a young pastor, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. It has been years since I pondered its pages, but it is by far my favorite work of Niebuhr. Earlier today I read the following:
I am not surprised that most prophets are itinerants. Critics of the church think we preachers are afraid to tell the truth because we are economically dependent upon the people of our church. There is something in that, but it does not quite get to the root of the matter. I certainly could easily enough get more money than I am securing now, and yet I catch myself weighing my words and gauging their possible effect upon this and that person. I think the real clue to the tameness of a preacher is the difficulty one finds in telling unpleasant truths to people whom one has learned to love.
My purpose in this post is not to ask what kind of preaching is prophetic. I am not even sure that most preachers can given an intelligible answer to that question because for most, prophetic preaching is nothing more than the promotion of the political platform of the DNC or the RNC with a thin veneer of Scripture thrown in for support.

Nevertheless, Niebuhr speaks the truth when it comes to the difficulty of speaking the truth, because while the truth must be spoken it must be spoken carefully, but not be so qualified that the force of the truth is lost in domesticated nuance. To speak the truth is necessary but serious business. In speaking the truth we should not be afraid to spare individuals their feelings, but neither should we trample all over them with sloppy and unsophisticated rhetorical verbiage that seeks more to score points then to consider and persuade. Even further, the prophetic word should not be offered as the final word, but a word that fosters and furthers the discussion necessary for the church itself to be a prophetic witness, and allow for the laity to speak prophetically to the clergy. Pastors are not the only prophets God has called.

There indeed seems to be a reason why most biblical prophets tended to come from nowhere and then go away  to nowhere when the word was dutifully delivered. It should also be noted that the earliest Christians referred to their traveling evangelists as prophets (Didache 11). But for those of us stationed as pastors of a flock, we still find that we must be prophetic even if we prefer not to be. And it can be so difficult to speak the truth to people we have come to love and respect greatly... because in knowing them... we experience personally the cracked image of God in each and every one of them.... In other words, we come to realize that they are just like us. It may be necessary, but it is also dangerous for sinners to speak the prophetic word to fellow sinners.

Those called to speak, "Thus saith the Lord," also need to heed those words as well.

And that too can be difficult.


Daniel said...

An interesting post. I think you are correct that much of the "prophetic" preaching to the church is politically colored. This might be unavoidable considering that we live in a society in which religious views are allowed in political discourse (and vice versa). My religious views do affect my political discussions and decisions.

Where I have difficulty is in the intertwining of politics and the pulpit. It seems that we need to acknowledge our own struggles and progress in controversial areas. I think we also need to explain our exegesis to the congregation as to why our perspective is correct.

You are correct that where the OT prophets differ from the pastor is the OT prophet often leaves after his jeremiad. The pastor gets to stay around and deal with the consequences. I need to read the Pastorals again.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Daniel, I do think the language of the "prophetic" has been too tainted by nation state politics. Perhaps we are better assisted in our context of simply talking about speaking the truth.