Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Let’s not take religion too seriously

In my work as a contributing editor for our regional church newspaper, I get all sorts of communications. Most recently came one from a college student in east Tennessee, saying that God had placed it on his heart “to reveal to the churches everywhere that the sure way forward for the gospel was for every congregation to embrace rock music.”

Ah, if all the world could be 18! But there is a tyranny of the present, for if one is to be truly contemporary, then one has to be contemporary. Even yesterday won’t do. And what of Jesus Himself? He goes back a long, long way. Some of His ideas may seem outdated and some of his teachings “old hat.” Dressing up Jesus in brand new clothes is an old game, and I am long enough in the tooth to remember the 1960s when church services were supposed to be “relevant.”

Another letter came from a Mississippi woman, upset over campus ministers and what she perceived they are teaching the young. Her problems with the church: “aborsion” (that was her spelling) and “set pay for teachers.” I was reminded of a remark by a minister who’d just come back from helping a Delta church to arbitrate a vicious split over their minister’s having had an affair with a choir member — some were willing to overlook this because he was “such a good preacher.” The minister confided, “Thank goodness the squabble wasn’t over something really divisive, such as what color to paint the fellowship hall.”

I know a congregation at some distance from here that was once pastored by a man who was the happiest creature God ever made. Not superficial, but just glad to be alive. His comings and goings made everyone else glad. Now the minister there is full of gloom. The issues of his concern are serious, but he seems convinced that there is no way out. Strange for a preacher of the gospel, I think. But it is sad, also, to see how his people reflect the pessimism. That once-happy and thriving church is now a shadow of its former self.

Sometimes we preachers get a rather inflated sense of our own importance — imparting and interpreting the oracles of God. Sometimes one is tempted to think of oneself as the oracle. I got my comeuppance this week, placing a telephone order to an office supply firm in northern Illinois. As I was giving my list to the customer service representative, she interrupted, giggling, and said, “I am so sorry, but you sound just like Forrest Gump!” I let the matter pass, but did confide to a friend that her remark had struck me oddly. My friend e-mailed me back and said, “I had never thought about it, but you do sound like Forrest Gump. Get over it!”

It reminded me of another Illinois woman who — on the occasion of my first sermon before a big Sunday morning congregation — unctuously offered me the name of a speech therapist “who could help you get rid of that Southern accent.”

The other day I found in my front door one of those religious tracts that warn in direst terms of the punishment that is to come to the depraved. Noting that none of my neighbors had similar tracts in their front doors, I wondered why I had been singled out for such evangelistic ardor. Later, I learned that one of my dearest friends had sneaked it over for me, just to see what I would do. I wondered what those who passionately believe what tracts like this teach would think about all these goings on!

Humor is truly the enemy for those prone to take religion too seriously. Fortunately, I find revealed in the Bible a much kinder God than some people are able to trust. Surely God bears with creatures in their frailty and foibles. For if God loves only the good, the smart and the wise, then heaven is going to have lots of unpopulated spaces. It was Alfred North Whitehead, the English philosopher and mathematician who said, “I have always noticed that deeply and truly religious persons are fond of a joke, and I am suspicious of those who aren’t.”

I am grateful to the same friend who brought me that tract, for years ago giving me this quote.

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