(After I wrote this, I began to think that maybe I’m talking about some ghosts from churches past that are still haunting me, as opposed to responding to a current reality I’m experiencing. Keep that in mind as you read.)
By show of hands, how many of you were offended by the poem I posted a couple of days ago, or thought it was inappropriate? You know, the funny one about Carnation Milk that ended with the wonderfully laid-back “son of a bitch”? Just curious. I thought the poem worked really well and it made me chuckle, but some of you might not feel the same way.
I don’t know what sequence of thoughts connected to come ’round to thinking about that poem, but last night I was laying in bed, thinking about that poem and then I thought, with mild panic, “I’m preaching on Sunday!” For a moment the fact that I put that poem on my blog and am also one who preaches regularly seemed incongruous, and that maybe that incongruity will get in the way of Sunday’s words. Perhaps you are someone who thinks so.
The funny thing is that I’ve posted stuff in the past which has content potentially much more offensive than the poem. But for some reason now that I’m employed by a church, I’ve become a little oversensitive. And the truth is, it’s not because I’m wondering if it’s wrong to do this or that, but because I wonder, “What will people think?”
I imagine that one great difficulty pastors face is this: acting as if they are someone who they are not–or, rather, not fully being who they are and hiding some parts that may not be seen by their community as appropriate for a Christian. I don’t have a problem with community expectations, which are natural, and I don’t have a problem with being sensitive to other people. My concern is that we often set up expectations which ultimately have nothing to do with what our community is about (in the case of the church, Jesus Christ).
I’ve been thinking about this all day. For some there is an expectation that the pastor of a church will be “different”–stand out somehow or be morally superior to the rest of the congregation (I’m not talking about myself or my church anymore–not really). The pastor isn’t one of them–he or she is not better (in an ontological sense) than anyone else, but he or she is expected to behave differently than everyone else. And I suppose to some extent that’s a reasonable expectation: someone who has the audacity to interpret the word of God to a group of people had better have the audacity to live it as well.
The problem, though, is this: I suspect that the moral expectations congregations have of their pastors and each other tend to have more to do with social convention than being biblical. Christians are expected (by some of their own) not to cuss, to avoid alcohol and tobacco, to dress a certain way, but most Christians can get away, I expect, with greed, gluttony and anger.
It’s a problem I’ve seen, growing up in the church: somewhere down the line we did the ol’ switcheroo, substituting social convention with actual moral or ethical issues. So some of us condemn drinking and smoking, dancing, bars and movies, but we are consumeristic/materialistic, ignore the poor (especially if we think they’re lazy), get angry very quickly, are unforgiving and judgmental. The list goes on.
Jesus did say that his followers are to be a light to the world, so there is unquestionably some element of “differentness” which ought to be seen. But, again, in what sense are we to be different? If we live lovingly and sacrificially as a community and in our communities, will it make a difference to anyone if we cuss or smoke or do this or that? But if we don’t cuss, don’t smoke, don’t, don’t, don’t, including don’t forgive, don’t be peaceful, don’t give, don’t sacrifice our own interests for the other, what kind of message would that send? What if we did both–held our tongues and served the community? Well, I suppose that’s good, too, as long as we aren’t living in some sense artificially–pretending to be a people we are not. Social conventions change over time and across cultures, and the church doesn’t not need to be homogenous (quite the opposite) in terms of some of these minor issues, so I don’t think that’s the important thing.
I get the sense that the church is loosening up in this respect. Maybe this is a reflection of the influx of a younger generation. Of course, with this good, other not-so-goods may come in as well. But such is the life, I guess, of sinners gathered in Jesus’ name.