In the blogosphere, a person can write something I don’t agree with. I think to myself ‘I don’t agree because of xyz’. I can leave a comment, but mostly I just take what I take and move on. There is no obligation, on behalf of the writer or the reader, to agree. When I do agree, and I value the contribution a person has made, I can click ‘like’ to express my appreciation.
The pulpit is not the same.
The pulpit comes with responsibilities, a duty to one’s listener. My primary role as a speaker is to teach people about Christ, to share with them that which God, in His mercy, has shared with me.
If I preach and I say something which I know is contentious or causes division or that people have different opinions about, especially if they’re strongly-held opinions, I need to be very careful. You know what I mean: gender roles, the age of the Earth, predestination, the beliefs of different denominations, divorce, gay marriage, etc., etc. (you can fill in the blanks of those I have left out – although it is interesting to note that this list has changed throughout church history and changes according to one’s culture). These are all things which Christians – loving, good, honest people – can have very strong, and very differing views about… so maybe, as a preacher, I should think very carefully before I speak.
Maybe I should establish that the listeners are in agreement with me before I begin, rather than assuming that they must be. After all, if I assume wrongly and make sweeping statements about what ‘we’ believe [about the contentious issue], I will only come across as ignorant, or worse, arrogant.
If I don’t know that my listeners are in agreement, yet I still feel this is what I need to speak about, I must have a strong, well-researched, knowledgeable rationale for why I am saying what I am saying. I need to be able to present what I have to say in a thorough and even manner. I need to question myself and examine my motives:
Am I am standing here to elevate myself?
No? Examine myself again. Still no? Even so, unless I believe this issue is something that is causing problems for people, and I feel ‘led’ to preach on the subject, it may be that this is a matter best left for discussion, maybe within small groups or the like, because the pulpit is not for point-scoring. That way, we can let people come to their own conclusions in a loving, measured and respect-filled environment. If I believe a brother or sister in Christ is wrong, I can state my reasoning gently, with humility.
It comes down to this: is a life imitating Christ focused on being right or doing right? Is my ‘rightness’ more important than being considerate and kind? When being right is more important than doing right, does this elevate Christ?
Let me explain further. The different denominations will of course have certain beliefs which have given rise to their existence. If I was in a Roman Catholic church I would not be surprised by ideas of transubstantiation, or the celibacy of priests, I would accept that this is part of RC tradition. If I was in a Baptist church and someone spoke about adult immersion baptism, or the reasons why they don’t baptise infants, I would accept that this is part of Baptist tradition. If I’m in a Quaker meeting, I’m not going to demand the whereabouts of the pastor. The same goes for all the other variations within the different denominations. Let’s say, for the sake of the point I’m making, that there will be some things which are ‘taken as read’. What the speaker must not do is add to that list and make assumptions on behalf of the listener. There is nothing more annoying, not to say angering, than being told what to think, or told what I think!
In particular, please don’t use the pulpit as a place to state that what someone else believes [about said contentious issue] is ridiculous, especially when you follow it up with a so-full-of-holes-it-wouldn’t-catch-a-cat reasoning which a listener could turn right around upon you, tying you up with your own logic (just sayin’). But they don’t. Because they respect your position as the preacher.
The pulpit is a position of authority, and of power. As such it is a position of great trust. Don’t abuse it.
Especially, especially – and I really can’t emphasise the ESPECIALLY enough – especially don’t tell someone who is sitting right in front of you, and going through a living hell*** of which, by the grace of God, you know absolutely nothing – not one little thing – especially DON’T make trite, blasé statements such as “you must forgive because Jesus forgave you at least as much, you know”. Saying this might instill a desire in said long-suffering individual to slap you round your chubby cheeks. Which is not a good reaction to a preacher, really. All things considered. And not what you were intending to inspire when you took the microphone (I’d imagine).
When I was a teenager, I made the disclosure to other teenagers of the sexual abuse I had suffered. In reaction to my disclosure, I recall hearing “you must forgive because God forgave you and you have hurt God just the same”. As an adult, I can forgive them their lack of empathy. They were only kids. But the underlying, unspoken message at the time was that the burden was mine. The responsibility was somehow my own. This actually perpetuates abuse, rather than stopping it, because it leads the abused individual to believe it’s a God-sanctioned affirmation that the abuse is somehow their fault. My fault…?
This is obscene.
When you have much to forgive, when you have suffered, and suffered, and suffered, as the deliberate act(s) of another human being(s) who viewed you, who treated you, as less-than-human, as an object, as an insect to be toyed with and tortured and trampled… when the person who perpetrated these crimes shows no remorse – what then?
Suffering is a paradox. If you allow God in, suffering can be the means of earning, of learning, some beautiful, painful truths. Here is one:
Forgiveness is an act of grace.
Let me say it again. It is so powerful a statement that it needs to be repeated and repeated:
Forgiveness is an act of grace. It comes from God. It cannot come from my will, but from His alone. When I who have suffered far more than I ever have, or could, inflict, when I recognise that forgiveness is not my burden to bear – I am set free. It’s a paradox (there’s lots of those in life with Christ). Forgiveness sets me free, not my persecutor. When they are ready to repent, God’s forgiveness will also set them free. This is why Christ tells us to forgive, and to pray for our enemies (He doesn’t say you won’t have any).
Corrie Ten Boom was imprisoned in a concentration camp during WWII for hiding Jewish people from the Nazis. She later wrote a book called ‘I’m Still Learning to Forgive’. You can read an extract here. Years later, when her former captor approached her and asked her forgiveness, God gave her the grace to do this beautiful, Christ-instilled act. But, as she says, she couldn’t have done it on her own.
Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might,
Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest!
Sanctus (from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals)
May the glory always be yours, Lord. When I am weak, then I am strong. Only by grace. Hallelujah.
***An update to our situation: I am waiting to know whether the CPS will proceed with a prosecution of the one who abused me as a child. Concurrently, the ex-husband – a convicted paedophile on the sex offenders register and banned from contact with children; violent, coercive and manipulative towards me throughout the years of marriage to the point that it never really was a marriage – yes, him. He has somehow found the money to hire a solicitor and seek, through the courts, ‘contact’ with ‘his children’.
This means we will probably have to find £3000+ to pay for a good solicitor. I am reliving trauma, experiencing nightmares, etc. The very idea is making me ill. How can the law even allow the possibility that my children could be exposed to this evil, manipulative individual (I hesitate to use the word ‘person’)? How can such an individual be allowed to make us all dance to his evil little tune? Isn’t the law supposed to protect people? In the words of Dickens: the law is an ass!
When this is all over, I will seek to get the law changed. Will you stand with me?