Author Archives: timgombis

Pastors and Image Maintenance

I’m working on a project related to Paul’s pastoral aims and strategies. In a few places, he has some things to say about the dynamics of image-maintenance (e.g., 2 Cor. 12:5-6). I’ve been reflecting a bit lately on the pressures of image-maintenance and how they affect pastors.

I’m thinking of dynamics like the following:

  • An (over-)sensitivity to controlling how one is perceived, or how others think about oneself.
  • Attempts and efforts to manage others’ perception.
  • The pressure to display no uncertainty at all about the rightness of one’s cause, one’s course of action, or certain decisions.
  • Pastors feeling that they can’t be vulnerable. They can’t show any weakness.
  • Authenticity is not an option, or perhaps one’s “authenticity” is one that is conjured up when performing for an audience – an inauthentic authenticity.
  • The fear of disappointing people who have expectations about the sort of experience they’re expecting at church.

The source of these pressures is the need to keep people happy. And, if we’re honest, the pressure to keep money rolling in, and to keep people attending – to keep the numbers up. And in a consumer culture, the consumer / customer demands can be overwhelming and yet their desires for experiences are paramount. All of these work together to put pressure on pastors to be certain kinds of people.

Now, it’s easy to see these dynamics in celebrity pastors – pastors of mega-churches, or those who lead large para-church ministries or organizations. But I’m more interested in how these pressures and dynamics affect average pastors.

In what ways do pressures distort and corrupt your motivations in ministry? Do they distort your home life? Is there a radical disconnect between the person others perceive at church and the person your spouse and children encounter at home? Do you feel that vulnerability and openness is a threat?

Pastors, what other pressures do you face? I’m thinking especially of pressures that relate to maintaining an image. And what sort of image do you feel pressure to project?

 

 


On Not Advancing the Kingdom

John Goldingay has some very interesting things to say in his book, Do We Need the New Testament? In several places he repeats the notion that neither Israel nor the church were called to advance or bring in or implement the kingdom of God.

There is no direct link between seeking to restrain injustice in society and the implementing of God’s reign. Implementing God’s reign is fortunately God’s business. We have noted that the New Testament does not talk about human beings furthering or spreading or building up or working for God’s reign (p. 47).

An uncomfortable truth about the Holy Spirit is that we cannot control its coming and operation, as we cannot bring in or further or work for God’s reign. . . Our relationship with God is not contractual, so that we could fulfill the right conditions and it would have the desired results, as if our relationship with God resembled putting coins in a vending machine (p. 60).

Unfortunately, Goldingay doesn’t elaborate much on this notion, for it surely runs against the grain of much Christian rhetoric about advancing the kingdom or working for a kingdom agenda.

In our Gospel of Mark course from a weeks ago, we lingered over Jesus’ words about receiving the kingdom.

Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them (10:15-16).

We were struck since most of us are used to language of advancing or furthering or even entering. But Jesus speaks of receiving it.

What sort of language do you most associate with the kingdom of God – receiving or advancing? And what is intended by each of these? What do we typically mean by advancing it, and what might Jesus mean by receiving it?


Hijacking Biblical Rhetoric for Political Causes

My review of John Coffey’s excellent book, Exodus and Liberation, can be found at reformation21.

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Coffey’s work is a brilliant and very well-written exploration of the use of biblical rhetoric connected to the Exodus events and how such language can be manipulated and employed in political contexts. And as of today, Amazon is selling it for $2.56 in hardcover! Here are the review’s concluding paragraphs:

Coffey’s work foregrounds a few serious problems with the use of biblical rhetoric in political discourse. First, throughout the book Coffey details the confusion of Christian freedom and political freedom. The proclamation of spiritual freedom and the employment of the Exodus narrative was so effective that it could not remain within neatly proscribed religious boundaries. Luther and Calvin faced this problem, as did the Puritan preaching that fueled the American Revolution. Even though America was intentionally founded as a secular nation, the Exodus narrative played a profound role in firing imaginations and giving shape to hopes for self-determination.

Second, and closely related to the foregoing point, the use of biblical rhetoric can easily be manipulated to presume divine endorsement for an earthly political agenda. One can easily point to the use of biblical rhetoric by both the North and South in the American Civil War. Coffey’s work details this point time and again.

Coffey’s wide-ranging and meticulously-researched book ought to be carefully considered by American Christian leaders, teachers, and preachers in an age when distinct Christian sub-groups presume that Christian identity demands loyalty to this or that political party, organization, or group, whether on the political left or right. It is all too easy for God’s cause to be conflated with an earthly cause, or for a politician to hijack biblical language for political gain. Exodus and Liberation would help Christians develop a keen awareness of the power of biblical rhetoric and the dangers associated with its alliance to any earthly cause.


Is the New Testament Necessary?

When we discuss the over-arching biblical storyline in class, I regularly tell my students that God’s creation of Israel and his gift to them of Torah was meant to be the solution to the problem of human sin and it should have worked. Of course, this sparks lively discussion about the place of Jesus in the story, the presumed absence of the Holy Spirit in the OT and his presumed inhabitation of believers after Jesus’ ascension, the sacrificial system as merely a “shadow” of the reality, and a host of other inherited assumptions.

Many Christians tend to see what we call “the Old Testament” as crude, inherently ineffective and deficient, and probably best left neglected. And Israel’s deity, while we’re sure there are some hints of grace here and there, is mostly a vindictive, finger-wagging, error-noting, over-reacting God of wrath.

Now, many of these misconceptions can be dispelled by simply reading Israel’s Scriptures, and that’s a great place to start. But I’m very happy to see John Goldingay’s new work, Do We Need the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself.

Goldingay

He tackles in readable prose many of the issues that afflict popular Christian imagination about the relation of Israel’s Scriptures to the church’s faith.

The First Testament story is not merely the history of our distant spiritual ancestors, a history of a period so different from ours that it hardly relates to our life now that the end of the ages has come. It is the history of a people like us in a position not so different from ours. Our pretense that things are otherwise puts us into potentially fatal jeopardy (p. 17).

This looks like the ideal book to which to point people who are wondering how to relate the two parts of Christian Scripture to one another, and how the first can be read as something more than a preface to the main work.


Michael Gorman on Justice in Paul

I’ve encountered resistance from Christians in speaking about Paul’s conception of churches as communities of justice. I think that fears of a “social gospel” have made many readers of Paul’s texts blind to the sorts of social behaviors and intentionally-cultivated community dynamics to which Paul calls his churches.

Gorman

In his new book, Becoming the Gospel, which I’m having a difficult time putting down, Michael Gorman addresses this crucial aspect of Paul’s vision:

The theme of justice has become increasingly central to my interpretation of Paul. Some readers, however, become nervous when they hear “justice” language associated with the apostle Paul. They fear that he is being turned into an advocate of nonpersonal, nonspiritual, progressive, or “liberal” theology that detracts from Paul’s true intentions. …[S]uch fears are misplaced. Paul’s theology and spirituality are a legitimate and substantive continuation of the prophetic ministry and message of the Hebrew prophets and of Jesus. This does not make him “unspiritual” – or anything else one might fear – but rather interprets him properly as fully and covenantally spiritual: passionate about love of God and love of neighbor, filled with the Spirit of justice who filled Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and Jesus. But Paul expresses this Spirit-filled prophetic reality in new ways in light of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, cruciformity and justice are inseparable from each other. The same can be said of peacemaking and reconciliation, which are related in the Bible (and specifically in Paul) not only to justice but also to love – all components of the Bible’s grand vision of shalom. These interrelated practices constitute the several sides, so to speak, of one coin, the missional identity of those who are in Christ (p. 9, n. 21).


Mark’s Disquieting Ending

I’ve just finished Donald Juel’s lovely little book, A Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted. He argues that Mark’s implied audience(s) are those that have grown complacent and comfortable. This accounts for Mark’s disturbing ending:

The surprise ending of the Gospel is intended for the implied audience. Its impact does not easily fit the image of an implied audience desperate and in need of comfort. The conclusion offers little comfort. The impact of the ending has more to do with expectations of satisfaction and control. Readers have been treated as insiders throughout the story, learning what none of the characters can know. It is not difficult to imagine an ending to the story that would reinforce that experience, providing readers with a sense of closure and satisfaction at the expense of the disciples. Yet the empty tomb and the silent women do not provide such satisfaction for those who have been led to expect such an ending, and the events do not leave resolution of the story in the hands of readers. There is something disquieting about that lack of control—a disquiet that usually drives interpreters to get what they need from the story by means of cunning or violence.

The surprise, the irony, work differently if directed at insiders whose problem is indifference or a tired lack of perception about the way things are. It may serve as a warning, as Paul’s reminders do in the opening chapters of his first letter to the Corinthians. The features of his message that initially moved that Corinthians from darkness to light, identifying the change that came at their conversion, now serve to illumine their Christian piety, which turns out to have much in common with their pagan past.

Viewing the audience as tired or indifferent is appropriate to the present situation of most Christians, weary of waiting, tempted to believe that the master of the house will never return, increasingly comfortable in a world capable of hiding from the truth, unaware of how easily the authority of the gospel is exchanged for ordinary power.

Careful attention to the implied audience in Mark’s story of Jesus may serve to remove barriers to a fruitful hearing of the Gospel for those whose problem is not persecution as much as the inability to be surprised by the God who is both more dangerous and more promising than they can have imagined (pp. 145-46).


Jesus Expects Disciples to Inhabit the Kingdom

I indicated yesterday that I’ve been puzzling over Mark 4:35-41 lately. Mark doesn’t indicate what the disciples should have done, so we can’t say with certainty. From the larger context, however, it appears that Jesus was expecting them to calm the storm themselves.

If this sounds outrageous, keep in mind that to this point Jesus has been announcing the kingdom of God, declaring that the reign of God has invaded the realm dominated by Satan and demonic powers. This invading and emerging realm is bringing with it the healing of creation and of humanity. God’s original commission to humanity was to exercise rule and dominion over creation, overseeing its flourishing and managing its life-giving and humanity-sustaining capacities.

Humanity has failed to rule creation for the glory of God, but this is precisely what Jesus has been doing in his ministry. Yes, he is God himself, but he is also the true human. He is overseeing the spread of God’s rule of shalom wherever he goes, freeing people from demons and sickness and calling everyone to enter the life-giving kingdom of God. And he has called the disciples to be “with him,” to partner with him in spreading God’s rule and calling others to enter it.

Rembrandt

Rembrandt, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Storm_on_the_Sea_of_Galilee)

 

A clear instance of Jesus expecting his disciples to do the impossible comes in Mark 6. The miracle in which Jesus fed five thousand people with a few fish and loaves was supposed to be done by the disciples. Jesus challenges them in Mark 6:37 to feed the many thousands who have come to hear him.

And he is right to expect that his disciples could perform such a feat since they had just returned from a months-long mission during which they themselves cast out many demons and healed many who were sick (v. 12). Because they are with Jesus, they have access to the miracle-working power of the kingdom of God. They have seen it in action and Jesus here expects them to live into the fullness of it.

The disciples, like the rest of us, have well-worn patterns of responding to crises from within the realm of darkness and (self-)destruction, responses of fear and of failing to live into the reality of the kingdom. One of these responses to get out of the way and hope and pray that God will act. But God asserts his sovereign rule through humans whom he invites to embody his benevolent and life-giving rule through new creation oriented patterns of life. Mark narrates here how Jesus expects his disciples to begin to embody God’s rule by drawing on the power available to them.

 


Why Does Jesus Rebuke His Disciples?

Mark 4:35-41 is a fascinating passage. And, like many episodes in this Gospel, some aspects of it are head-scratchingly mystifying.

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

Why does Jesus rebuke his disciples? It seems that they recognize clearly that they’re in trouble and that Jesus is the one who can do something about it. They call on him for help and he rescues them. But why does he then rebuke them? Didn’t they do what they should have? Didn’t they call on him to save them? From one perspective, it seems that he should have commended them!

Is it because they speak to him disrespectfully and sarcastically? I can see how some people might think this, especially since the question may imply that Jesus doesn’t care about their fate. But that seems to be a notion that stems from a post-Victorian conception of Christian piety in which politeness and placidity are supreme virtues. The psalmists and prophets of Israel are anything but polite and the disciples’ speech reflects how Scripture often portrays people wrestling with God, often in agitated fashion, as in Psalm 44:23-24:

Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?

Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.

Why do you hide your face

and forget our misery and oppression?

Does Jesus rebuke them merely for being afraid? Would he rather they be confident in some way as the boat continues to take on water, eventually sinking?

So, why does he rebuke them and what else did he expect them to do?


Preachers Behaving Like Brian Williams

Brian Williams has been in some trouble over the last few weeks for taking liberties with his experiences while on reporting assignments. He admitted that he exaggerated claims about being fired upon while in a helicopter in Iraq and NBC News suspended him for six months. The substance of objections to allowing Williams to remain in his post with NBC News is that he has lost credibility. If he is willing to embellish his personal narrative, can he be a trusted figure when delivering the news?

While considering this, a related question struck me: How should Christians regard pastors and preachers who embellish their personal narratives in sermons?

This phenomenon isn’t rare. When I was in college, I heard a speaker in chapel relate a very interesting anecdote about an interchange in a pre-marital counseling session. About a month later, another preacher used the very same anecdote with reference to himself! It struck me as very odd, but I didn’t give it much thought. A few years later, while on a ministry staff, someone shared an account about another pastor. A friend of mine sarcastically exclaimed, “hey, what a great story! Next time I preach I’m going to use that about myself!” We all laughed because we recognized that pastors did this sort of thing.

I can recall another time when a pastor I admired spoke of a situation that I had first-hand knowledge of, and I knew that it didn’t take place the way he reported it. But it served his rhetorical purpose from the pulpit. One final example: A small controversy erupted about eight years ago on our college campus regarding a chapel speaker. He preached an entire message from someone else’s online sermon, using even the same illustrations and personal anecdotes from the original as if they were his own.

Because so many sermons and preaching resources can be found online, I’m confident that such accounts could be multiplied many times over.

It seems to me that because credibility and integrity are so crucial for ministers, Christians ought to have serious objections when preachers embellish their personal narratives in sermons. Such embellishment is deceit. It’s a way of improving one’s image in the eyes of others, attempting to appear more virtuous.

Not only is this deceitful, it often leaves listeners deflated and discouraged. When pastors portray their lives as godlier than the average Christian, they make following Jesus something inaccessible to others. This mischaracterizes discipleship, making it something that only our pastor, the spiritual superhero, can do. The rest of us are stuck being second-class Christians, since our lives aren’t filled with such interesting and dramatic episodes of spiritual courage.

And this dynamic breeds inauthenticity. Pastors who portray themselves as above the fray and holier than the rest must maintain that image. They can’t risk being vulnerable and honest about their ordinary lives and mundane struggles. They can no longer afford to portray themselves as fairly average, their days filled with mostly unremarkable moments and sometimes awkward episodes. And the rest of us won’t be honest about our struggles, either, since we’re busy hiding how short we fall of the (supposedly) high standard set by the pastor and his manufactured anecdotes.

Discussions of what Brian Williams has done rightly include notions of credibility and integrity. This is also a good opportunity for pastors and preachers to reflect on how they can maintain integrity in reporting about their own lives.


Brooks on Rigorous Forgiveness

There are many interesting angles on the “scandal” involving Brian Williams of NBC News. But David Brooks took the opportunity to reflect on the character of forgiveness. It’s an excellent discussion. He notes that genuine forgiveness has nothing to do with sentiment. It faces down hard and harsh realities:

Forgiveness is often spoken of in sentimental terms — as gushy absolution for everything, regardless of right or wrong. But many writers — ranging from Hannah Arendt and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to modern figures like Jeffrie Murphy and L. Gregory Jones — have tried to think hard about rigorous forgiveness, which balances accountability with compassion.

His conclusion:

But the larger question is how we build community in the face of scandal. Do we exile the offender or heal the relationship? Would you rather become the sort of person who excludes, or one who offers tough but healing love?

I would add that forgiveness and reconciliation may involve strenuous efforts, but they are necessary to free both perpetrator and victim from enslaving guilt, desires for revenge, and the soul-corrupting bitterness of grudges.


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