Fair warning. This is likely to be a longer post.
Recently, a pastor shared a vlog (video blog) of himself and another pastor, where they said, "If you come to either one of our churches, you're going to hear one thing and one thing only: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No Republicans, No Democrats, no gun control. Just that you are loved by God."
I happen to know one of these pastors. I happen to believe wholeheartedly that this brother is trying to remain faithful to his ordination vows and to our Lutheran tradition. Yet, just like any family, sometimes siblings disagree in the church. I deeply disagree with this approach, at least as far as I understand the post to mean that preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ means we must avoid hot button topics like gun control, current events like politics, or controversial issues like racial prejudice.
A few caveats are important. First, preaching the Gospel doesn't mean telling someone what party or candidate to vote for in the next election. Not only is that illegal, but it's coercive. The Gospel is a promise of freedom in Christ, not a yoking to worldly powers. Nor is the Gospel a list of demands to make us righteous.. The Gospel reminds us we're under no obligation to earn our holiness because God embraces as us holy through Jesus. Finally, I agree wholeheartedly that our primary responsibility as pastors is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that God loves us.
Now, to the disagreement. What I want to say, fundamentally, is this: that we're loved by God means something for how we live in the world. A proclamation of the Gospel ought to ask what that love of God means for our lives in the political realm, not telling us how to vote but encouraging us to live abundant life we've received in our political activity. A proclamation of the Gospel ought to ask what the love of God means for us in a nation with nearly unparalleled gun violence and how that love of God relates to a constitutional right to own firearms. A proclamation of the Gospel ought to ask what the love of God means in a nation built upon the enslavement of people of color, and one that still fails to fully include people of color.
In light of that Gospel, the abundant life we're given by God entails a new way of seeing creation and living in the world. Part of preaching the Gospel, then, means we ought to ask: What does the Gospel say to the realities in the world? To the current political sphere? To racism? To the intersection of guns and violence? That, in love for us, god frees us from sin's bondage in Jesus Christ isn't an abstract concept. The Gospel isn't an isolated event. The Gospel of Jesus Christ applies to our entire lives, to the entire world in which we live.
At times, this means that the Gospel of Jesus Christ will say something directly to various situations in our world, to Democrats and Republicans, about guns and about freedom, about sexuality and about money, about any and every thing. Sometimes, this may include an affirmation of certain principles, for instance, within the political sphere. But this does not mean the Gospel is confined to or held within one party. Any apparent affirmation of a given position is actually a recognition that the Gospel is enfleshed once again in our world. It's an admission that the Spirit of God is at work through us, and quite often, despite us. At other times, and most likely much more often, this will include a confrontation of positions. But this does not mean the Gospel is wholly against any or all political groups. Any apparent dispute highlights that the Gospel cannot be fully contained or expressed within any worldly institution, but instead constantly calls us to reform in the image of the God who became one of us.
The point is, we don't preach a disembodied Gospel. At least, we shouldn't. Preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preaching the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. Preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ means speaking truth to power, whether that position is conservative and liberal, whether that power relies on firearms or a constitution, whether that power lies in how we use our wallets or how we use our bodies.
So, my appeal to preachers out there is this: Always preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In this, affirm that people are loved by God. As you do that, don't ever forget to lift up how that Gospel works in the world. Point to where the Gospel is at work in the midst of the joys and tragedies faced by the people loved by God. Reveal to where the Gospel aligns with and disrupts the debates and deliberations that affect the people loved by God. At times, the Gospel is offensive, because it forces us to see that the love of God given for all of us confronts us with people that we may not want to love. If we refuse to enflesh the Gospel as we preach, we're not preaching the God of the incarnation.
With this as my second Christmas season as a pastor, two things are becoming evident.
(1) This is like no other season, no other holiday, no other festival in the church year. There's something about the combination of all the factors that makes this incredibly unique.
The changing weather systems meet the vast level of cultural participation in the holiday head on, creating a perfect storm of physical and relational reminders that Christmas is on it's way. Of course, the way that our society celebrates Christmas often skews the Biblical and theological intent of the holiday, but even so, Wal-Mart doesn't sell decorations for Christ the King Sunday. Target doesn't peddle gifts for All Saints. Combine that with the growing chill outside, and you've got a definite marker that change is upon us.
Then comes the levels of preparation in the liturgy, in the sanctuary, and in the congregation. I'm finding that Advent, while a more joyful season than Lent, brings its own set of burdens. Illnesses seem to appear more regularly, whether common colds due to the weather, depression due to the lack of light, or just the trials of the aged getting more and more difficult. A level of unspoken expectations arise as well. How we decorate certain things, what hymns we sing, and when we hold the services brings joy to some and grief to others. Add to that the complexity of the Advent and Christmas services, and you've got a matrix unlike any other in the church year.
Yet, this isn't a complaint. Out of this forge we grow stronger as a church, an iron sharpened and cleansed of impurities. In this season, unlike any other, we meet our Maker in a manger. These preparations, expectations, illnesses and all sorts of other factors push us toward Bethlehem where we, however briefly, find ourselves in awe that God loves us much more than we could ever comprehend.
(2) Pastors and church staff don't experience it in the same way. I say this as someone who wasn't always on staff at a church. There's something about the responsibility of that season falling squarely on our shoulders that changes how the season affects us.
Of course, no two pastors are the same, but I'm finding for me that this means that I don't find the same level of comfort at Christmas. Instead, a heightened awareness comes. Sometimes, this appears in questions: "Are all the candles ready for when we sing Silent Night in the dark? Who will show up? Have we visited all of our sick and homebound members?" Sometimes it appears in behaviors, like my deep need to continue my workout routine or a more frequent habit of eating out because cooking just isn't going to happen on many of these days. Most often, though, this sense of awareness is the simple and constant realization that I'm not God.
That's the most liberating part of this season for me. No matter how hard we try this season, something will go wrong. I'm not justifying a sloppy service or poor pastoral care, because in fact I think we've made some excellent strides this year in both of those arenas. Rather, I've found that no matter how much preparation and delegation we do, something will go wrong. An unexpected need will arise. An unknown factor will appear.
Fortunately for us, fortunately for me, an unexpected child arrives on Christmas Eve, once unknown but now known to all of us. In Jesus Christ, God comes and accomplishes all that we cannot. The Lord is with us, which frees me to continue my vocation as an imperfect person and imperfect pastor, but growing every day in the image of the God that we find in Bethlehem.
Now, back to preparing for Christmas. In this season that is unlike any other, I hope that you experience the fullness of God, the joy of Jesus' birth, and the work of the Spirit in the ways that you need it most.
This first appeared on the blog at www.clcradford.org.
One of the great joys of a pastor is when personal passions meet ministry opportunities. This happens for me in a number of areas here at CLC. The ability to contribute to the music ministry along with Michelle, Maggie, and Nick always brings a smile to my face. The opportunity to preach and preside in worship, to help facilitate interactions between God and those in attendance, fills my heart each week.
Campus ministry, though, gives me perhaps the most excitement. The blessings I received from campus pastors and professors while in college inspired me to bring the same kind of presence to college students throughout my time as a pastor. So far, we've approached this through Highlander Lutherans via small groups, retreats, and inclusion in the worship life of CLC.
A new opportunity arose in the past month. I've accepted an offer to join the Adjunct Faculty at New River Community College to teach religion courses, beginning with an online course in world religions this spring. It's hard to describe the joy I feel at this opportunity, but here's my best effort.
The most difficult part of my own vocational discernment (which is a theological way of saying deciding what God was calling me to do with my life) arose as I felt a deep call to the ministry of the church and the ministry of the academy. More simply, I felt drawn both to serve as a pastor and to pursue a doctorate and become a professor. With the advice of mentors and friends, I decided to pursue ordination right after my time at Duke Divinity School and hoped that I'd one day return to the academy.
Yet, every step along the ordination process brought academic service to the church into the conversation, not at the exclusion of pastoral roles, but alongside them. To paraphrase one mentor, the role of a pastor is Christian formation, and education in the classroom provides a profound opportunity for growth in the image of God.
Because I wanted to foster this potential future (Michelle would tell you because I'm a glutton for punishment), I began to pursue other opportunities to stay in touch with the academic community. I completed a second, research-based master's degree while finishing my required coursework for Lutheran ordination. As soon as I graduated, I began to write book reviews for Currents in Theology and Mission, an academic journal meant for pastors and practical theologians. I began to rewrite my thesis and explore the potential for publication.
Once Highlander Lutherans began to take off here in Radford, a number of people connected to Christ Lutheran asked about opportunities for service at New River Community College. NRCC's campuses bookend Radford, with one on our west in Dublin and one to the east in Christiansburg. Since our church sits right in between these campuses, it seemed that the Holy Spirit might call us to some kind of impact on the students, faculty, and staff of NRCC. An email to Graham Mitchell, who oversees religion courses at NRCC, opened us to this opportunity for further engagement.
This both connects CLC with the work of education in our community as well as enables me to further exercise a passion that's grown in me for years. I'm so thankful for the opportunity to work with the people of CLC, their deep desire to positively impact the New River Valley, and this new chance to partner with other organizations to benefit Southwest Virginia.
In an effort to streamline work for our community, my weekly writing will now appear on www.clcradfod.org, and primarily share the updates from that site from now on.
For posterity's sake, I'll also put those posts here to keep a consistent record (mostly for myself), so if you'd like to return here for those posts, please do so.
-Andrew (Friar) Tucker
As I grow older, I'm much more aware of my limits. At a recent confirmation lock-in, I realized that there's a limit to how much sleep I can get before my performance as a leader suffers. When I workout, there's a limit to the distance I can run, the time that I can ride, or the amount that I can lift. As a pastor, there's an appropriate limit of how much personal information I share with anyone in the community.
Acknowledging and respecting limits is a healthy practice. Limits help to keep relationships safe, to pave the way for a faithful vocation, and to stay in shape. When we don't recognize the limits in our lives, we often face danger. When we break the speed limit, we increase the risk of harm and death, both to ourselves and others on the road. When we share someone else's secret, we break a limit of trust that has negative relational repercussions. When we spend more money than we have, we've broken the limit of reality, and end up in debt.
Yet, sometimes the only way to grow as people is to cross limits. Whenever we cross a limit, we should do so with purpose. Think about exercise. You cross limits in order to actually extend your limit. You ride past the point of exhaustion to extend your ability to ride. You lift past your last personal record to gain strength and ability. You run further than you ever have before to find a new standard of excellence. Sometimes crossing limits is the only way to grow.
At other times, crossing limits may not help us to grow, but may still be necessary. At this point in my life, I likely can't develop new habits where I sleep less and still feel my best. But the relational commitment that losing sleep shows to young people in faith helps others to grow past their own limits, even if the next day I operate worse than a Merle zombie on The Walking Dead. Sometimes we cross limits to help show others that they're worth the risk we take. The same is true for divulging personal information as a leader. At one level, leaders remain apart from the community. As another post references, this looks like leading from ahead or behind.
But at times, leaders must lead from the center. Leaders must show vulnerability and authenticity as a member of the community, as one who faces similar struggles and shares similar joys and cries similar tears and dreams for similar futures. This doesn't mean that we break inappropriate boundaries, whether physical or emotional or spiritual. Quite the opposite, in fact. Crossing personal limits where we show our unity with the congregation can help us to more accurately define the boundaries we need to operate as a healthy community. If we never surpass these limits as leaders, I suppose that's fine. That's just not Christian leadership.
For you see, it was Jesus who crossed the limits of godliness and humanity on Christmas. It was Jesus who crossed the limit of death on Good Friday. It was Jesus who crossed the limit of the tomb on Easter Sunday. All for us. There are times where not just pastors but all Christians are called to cross the limits in our lives. Sometimes we're called to do so to grow ourselves, and sometimes we're called to do so in order to help others grow.
But the only way to do this safely is to know our limits, our needs, our abilities, and then cross them with intentionality, with purpose, with love, and with health in mind for everyone involved. So know your limits, and if you don't, learn them. Ask yourself and those close to you where the limits in your life exist, and how you might intentionally cross them in order to grow yourself and grow your community.
Multiple people who participate in our congregation live life with a mental, physical, or developmental disability, including many people who live in a longterm care facility. So when I first heard the news of the shooting in San Bernardino at the Inland Regional Center, a facility for people with developmental disabilities, my heart broke. Sources now say that the shooting occurred in an auditorium hosting an event for the county's Department of Health, with fourteen dead and seventeen wounded. No matter who was targeted by these murderers, the proliferation of violence continues to threaten the most vulnerable amongst us.
When things like this occur, I see and hear without fail posts on social media that say something like, "It's a heart problem, not a gun problem." They often quote Genesis, where Cain kills Abel with a rock. The logic is fairly simple. You don't need a gun to kill someone, so guns aren't the problem. For the first time, I think I can confidently say that they're right. A sickness of the heart continues to lead to these awful events.
You see, things like this continue to happen in our country not only because guns are readily available, and not only because some people have a sickness of sin, of hatred, of rage in their hearts that lead them to murder. This happens because, in their hearts, people in our country love guns and their rights to guns more than they love the lives of the vulnerable people in our midst. That heart problem, that we love guns more than we love people, continually permits this kind of violence upon innocent victims.
This is one of those areas where Christians are called to trust the Gospel over against the logic of our country. To paraphrase Jim Wallace, faith calls us to embrace God's politics over national political entrenchments. Make no mistake. The call to love our neighbors as ourselves directly conflicts with language of personal rights, like the right to bear arms. Jesus promises us no such rights when we're yoked with the Gospel. When our rights allow the murder of our neighbor, we have a responsibility to make sacrifices in order to preserve and protect the lives of others. This likely means restricting access to certain kinds of guns as well as increasing oversight into the purchase and ownership of guns. Guns aren't the problem. Continually loving guns in a way that fosters violence instead of loving others in a way that restricts guns is the problem.
I grew up a gun owner. I loved firing my .22 rifle. I even won a 12 gauge shotgun at the county fair (welcome to rural Ohio). Though I was never good at shooting, there's no other feeling quite like the amount of power you have when you pull the trigger on a firearm. Yet, the growing number of guns in civilian hands has not led to the preservation of life. Days like today force us to see that more guns in the hands of more people increases the risk of death of innocent people in both accidental and intentional shootings. So, when my wife and I were married, we began a gun-free home, because our rights to guns are not as important as the safety of those who may enter our home.
This personal change to choosing a gun-free home is a good start, but for our country, we cannot prevent mass shootings simply by choosing not to own guns ourselves. We must work to create a country where we actually love people more than guns, with laws that prefer the lives and safety of others to our personal rights.
Further, I'm not advocating for the complete removal of guns. Many in my family are hunters, and I love venison way too much to give that up. More seriously, too many in rural areas like the one I call home depend on guns to provide basic sustenance for their family. Though I choose not to own a gun, I don't believe that all guns of all types ought to be restricted from the public. What I'm saying is the complete commitment to guns over a commitment to the lives and safety of our neighbors is at odds with the Gospel.
Yes, this is a heart problem, but not only with terrorists, shooters, or any others responsible for such violence. It's a heart problem with those of us who continue to demand that our uninhibited right to guns, with all the risks it entails, trumps others right to life. That's loving ourselves over our neighbor, and that's not God's politic. Change is needed, not just in the hearts of our people, but in the laws of our people that allow dysfunctional hearts to take the lives of so many victims. We need reform of all of our hearts and our laws if we want to save lives from the plague of gun violence.
For deliverance from oppression, but not with violence.
For an end to war, but not through battle.
For freedom, but not through coercion.
We wait, awake.
As slumber weighs heavy on our brow, our eyes cry to see.
As exhausted our feet, they holler for life.
As strength wains, muscles scream for vibrance.
We wait, tested.
Though lonely alone, we trust in presence.
Though hunger panged, memories of manna sustain.
Though afflicted with work, sabbath calls us home.
We wait, assured.
Death speaks, but never the last word.
Division stands, but will fall.
Darkness lasts, but not forever.
For covenant faithfulness.
For loving kindness.
For peace on earth.
This is forever the greatest wait, because it is God who ends our waiting.
In a manger.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.