Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Preacher as Poet

In the current issue of Christian Century, M. Craig Barnes (the senior pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church and formerly professor of ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary ) writes about an important aspect of pastoral/preaching ministry that is often neglected. 

There are many good pictures of the role of the preacher/pastor:

"Some of us are attracted to the image of the shepherd who has sacrificed alternative plans for life and is now willing to lay life down for the sake of the sheep.  Others are drawn to the notion of the pastor as priest who stands between God and the people.  Still others are attracted to the New Testament notion of the pastor being the witness of the redemptive activity of the ascended and reigning Christ.  Some pastors prefer to think of themselves as fulfilling Christ's call to be prophet, priest and king, but only to the degree that they themselves live in Christ, who alone fulfills his holy offices.  And of course, the calling to be ministers of word and sacrament can center any pastor.


But Barnes then introduces another picture of the pastor/preacher:  that of the poet.  He admits that this is not one of the primary pictures that could/should  be used for the preacher, but a legitimate one none-the-less.  In fact, Barnes  states that it is “actually impossible to be a pastor without being a poet devoted to making sense of the word of God in human lives.” 

Why a poet?

Poets see the despair and heartache as well as the beauty and miracle that lie just beneath the thin veneer of the ordinary, and they describe this in ways that are recognized not only in the mind, but more profoundly in the soul….

“Poets are devoted more to truth than to reality; they are not unaware of reality, but they never accept it at face value.  The value of reality is found only by peeling back its appearance to discover the underlying truth.  That is why poets care about the text, what is said or done, but only in order to reveal subtext, which reveals what it means.  They value the reality they see primarily as a portal that invites them into a more mysterious encounter with the truth.”

I probably am attracted to this picture not so much because of my interest in writing, communicating and the use of words (poetry is not really the point of calling the preacher a poet), but I think that it is more because of my “pastoral heart” (whatever that is!) that encourages me to help people redefine what is happening to them and to see the reality behind what appears on the surface.  

I know how useful and beneficial it is when others do that for me.

My friend David Brashler is a youth pastor over on the north side of the Columbia River from us in Vancouver, WA.  Shortly after my diagnosis of cancer, he sent me two articles:  one was his testimony (last year this time he was in a fight for his life.  While it is very complex, his bowels became obstructed because of genetic abnormalities and he was in a coma for weeks and on death’s door for longer than that).  He also sent a link to the article Don’t Waste Your Cancer by John Piper.  This was a piece with which I was unfamiliar.

In a nutshell, Piper says that you will waste your cancer if you…

  1. …do not believe it is designed for you by God.
  2. …believe it is a curse and not a gift.
  3. …seek comfort from your odds rather than from God.
  4. …refuse to think about death.
  5. …think that “beating” cancer means staying alive rather than cherishing Christ.
  6. …spend too much time reading about cancer and not enough time reading about God.
  7. …let it drive you into solitude instead of deepen your relationships with manifest affection.
  8. …grieve as those who have no hope.
  9. …treat sin as casually as before.
  10. …fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ.

While Piper could never be accused of being a poet, his article did for me what Barnes is talking about. He stripped away the technical worries about cancer (at least briefly) and helped me see my heart and the deeper fears that were there.

It is the skilled preacher who can do that for his/her people.  Barnes uses the example of a couple upset because of the music style of the new worship minister.  Barnes, however, was able to point the people to the grief they were feeling over the departure of the former music minister.  He notes that just rising up and “fixing” the “problem” of the new worship minister would have done nothing for the complaining couple. They needed to acknowledge and feel their grief before they could move on. 

Perhaps this skill is best done in the counseling office or the coffee shop than the pulpit.  Obviously, you don’t single out an individual from the pulpit.  But I do think that groups of people tell themselves lies.  Communities of faith need reality re-defined for them.  Churches need the diversions that protect them stripped away by someone who the body knows loves them, in order to look at and deal with the real issues underneath. 

Good article.  I couldn’t find a link on the web, but if you can find it at a library or borrow it from a mainline denominational preacher friend, do it. (Christian Century could never be mistaken for an evangelical broadsheet).  It is worth the effort!

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