Friday, November 18, 2016

the limits of subtle subversion in ministry in 2016...

One of the truths I have consciously wrestled with personally and professionally over the past three years - and clandestinely for 35 years - has to do being grounded in grace. Walter Brueggemann notes that the essence of Christian preaching is sharing a sub-version of reality with our congregations that not only challenges our addiction to the
dominant culture - and the privileges it awards to those who bow down to Cesar -- but encourages us all to boldly trust God's grace, abundance and love.  Eugene Peterson says much the same thing in his reflections on preaching noting that preachers must subversively lure people away from idolatry and into the embrace of grace. And M. Craig Barnes suggests a similar point in his brilliant Pastor as Minor Poet. What is missing from the insights of these masters, however, is the simultaneous blessing and curse that accompanies such subversive living.

Strategically I know Brueggemann et al to be right: "The preacher has on her hands a Subject (God) who is not obvious and a mode of speech that is endlessly open and demanding... that makes preaching deeply demanding in a congregations schooled in one-dimensional, techno- logical certitude. The offer of such technological certitude, however, not only misreads the text and the God of the text; it seriously distorts and misrepresents the true human scene, as every pastor knows, for the human scene is one of endless zones of contradiction and endless layers of interpretation, no one of which can ever be more than provisional.... (That is why) my thesis is that preaching is a sub-version. Preaching is never dominant version, never has been...(for) the dominant version of reality is the swoosh, Nike, 'life for winners' of a private, individualized kind who can make it in the market or in the sports arena, who live well, are self-indulgent but who never get involved in anything outside of their own success. (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World, p. 5)

The good professor posits that the calling of the preacher and pastor is to sub-vert the dominant reality that imprisons us all:  the well-to-do as well as the poor and middle class.  The blessing of this for both pastor and congregation involves building trust and sharing love in ways that help us learn to let go of our addiction to winning. It is a slow and never complete process for individuals and churches. It requires a long commitment to a discrete group of people - part of the scandal of particularity - and an even longer vision of "the moral arc of the universe that bends ever so slightly towards the good."  I have been blessed countless times by subversive living and know it is essential to ministerial longevity and honoring the movement of grace in our lives.

At the same time, however, I have experienced the starvation of my soul in service to such subversive living, too.  We all pick our battles, of course, as clergy, spouses, parents, musicians and participants in the public life of our communities. But all too often the shadow side of this long obedience robs clergy of passion and verve.  Stanley Hauwerwas puts it best when he writes that we become a "quivering mass of availability" rather than tender-hearted servants of mercy, compassion and justice.  This may be a necessary trade-off for sojourning with a community of faith, but it can also destroy our passion for serving the Lord. That is why I have come to believe that there must be another way to advance grace while preserving a measure of personal spiritual passion. It comes with a price - conflict and congregational discomfort always accompany the Cross - but honest spiritual authenticity in ministry must be claimed as a vital component to pastoral subversion lest our own unique gifts wither and shrivel on the vine. David Crosby was more blunt when he sang  let your freak flag fly!

The destination of dominant culture is "the normalcy of deathliness" writes Brueggemann. As the prophetic witness of ancient Israel makes clear - as well as the ministry of Jesus - the way of the Lord challenges death, creates community and gives voice to all who have been kept silent. Deuteronomy 10: 17-19 puts it like this:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

To which Brueggemann writes that we are given a picture of the Lord as "the strongest one in the community, running a food pantry and collecting clothing for widows and orphans, physical gestures of solidarity that concretely and intensely bind the God of all creation to the 
undocumented workers and welfare recipients. In the end, Moses says, 'Now you do it, too!'"(Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope, p. 8) The dominant understanding of Empire tells us that ALL bread must be guarded, EVERY person must be out for her or himself, and those outside of the powerful must remain SILENT. The subversive - or alternative - vision shared by God is that such self-centered fearfulness always results in death.  To move out of bondage and into the promises of grace requires nourishing and practicing alternative habits that strengthen love and document God's alternatives..

The Jewish imagination of the Old Testament is so peculiar and so particular... that it trains Jews to be odd men and women out, always at odds, always at risk, always in the presence of an empire with its insistent version of reality, always telling the boys and girls that we are different, different because we have been in the demanding presence of the Holy One, and now we must keep redeciding for a life propelled by that presence. The Jews, over time, devised signals of oddity - sabbath, kosher, 
circumcision. In parallel fashion, for like reasons, the baptismal imagination of the New Testament is so peculiar and so particular because Christians are always odd men and women come together in odd communities and congregations, always at odds, always at risk, always in the presence of large cultural empires that want to dissolve our oddity for reasons of state, always telling the girls and boys we are different because we have been with Jesus... We, like Jews, devise signals of oddity: the notice of new life, the bread of brokenness, the wine of blessedness, and the neighbor - always the neighbor - who is for us a signal of the love of God. (p. 10)

For most of my professional life I have adhered to the axiom that the way of Christian subversion is quiet and subtle - pushing at the edges and encouraging letting go - but always fitting in and working from within the status quo. At this moment in ministry, however, while I still affirm the wisdom of the quiet and subtle over and against the demanding and harsh, a more disciplined and public departure from the status quo is essential.  We must look and act odd and peculiar. The recent presidential election should make clear that communities of mercy, compassion and justice must stand in opposition to the registry of Muslims, the dismantling of health care and the normalization of hatred and mistrust. Jim Wallis of the Sojourner's Community in Washington, DC was explicit in their 10 Commitments of Resistance ( that include nourishing our inward faith, lifting up the truth in an era of lies and manipulation, rejecting White nationalism, calling out hate speech as we love our neighbors, and actively partnering with new allies to oppose the culture of rape and scapegoating refugees.  Cornel West writing in The Guardian this morning was equally clear:

For us in these times, to even have hope is too abstract, too detached, too spectatorial. Instead we must be a hope, a participant and a force for good as we face this catastrophe.

To BE hope for one another is to live openly, oddly and freely - out of any and all of our closets as best we are able to do - and risk our obsession with bourgeois niceties for bodies thirsting for mercy, compassion and justice.  Middle class churches are aching for such authenticity, too as their all too numerous deaths document. I sense this is a season for grief and emptiness on theroad towards a resurrection of oddity. .

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