April 6, 2020

Entrusted With The Remains: A Prayer For The Church Of The Present

Sitting about a foot away from me, next to my desk, is a green suitcase containing 22 small notebooks, each one full of pages of handwritten notes. The notes are my childhood pastor’s sermon notes; notes spanning more than 30 years of ministry and many different churches. They were given to me as a gift, to do with as I choose.

In the closet at the end of the hall is a box of ancient reel-to-reel tapes. The tapes contain approximately ten years worth of sermons preaching through the Bible, Genesis to Revelation, by a Baptist pastor almost 50 years ago. The sermons were preached by the founding pastor of a church I served in the early 80’s, and were given to me as a gift.

I cannot read the sermon notes. They are written in an almost unreadable, highly personal scrawl, with so many abbreviations, symbols and little codes known only to my pastor, that there is no hope of ever deciphering them. Though hours of labor and prayer poured into those notes, and the sermons that came from them communicated well, the notes do not communicate any more. Even if I could read them, I doubt that I would be able to make much of the heart of those messages. My pastor’s sermons were born out of an experience that really couldn’t be translated into clean, transferable outlines to be imitated. Like Pascal, these notes are evidence of the “fire;” they are the record of the Spirit’s stirring on the waters of his heart, mind and emotions. They will never live again.

The tape recordings are from a man who was well known in Kentucky among Baptists. He was a man who was known as an author, a polemicist and debater as much as he was known as a pastor. He expended vast amounts of energy preaching and writing against Roman Catholicism in our community and liberalism among Baptists. He wrote books and promoted a view of Baptist history called “Landmarkism” that traced the roots of Southern Baptists back to John the Baptist.

Those tapes will be full of this sort of preaching. As a document of anti-Catholic, fundamentalist sentiment among Southern Baptists in the 50’s, it might be interesting to someone, but not to me. There is nothing here for me. I am not a young fundamentalist seeking to delve into the glories of the great battles of the past.

I have been entrusted with these homiletic remains of these two preachers, and I have been wondering for months- years- what to do with them. Both men are dead. No one wants these remains. Their day of usefulness has come…and gone.

I don’t believe in the effacacy of relics, but I do understand what our Catholic brothers and sisters are doing holding on to the finger of Saint Catherine. This is as close as you can get to a person who was, you believe, somehow, a bit closer to God than you. It is the same attachment people have to old schools and their golden age of education, and to old home places, with their images of family. Nostalgia is not a sin, or idolatry, but is it where God wants us to live? Is the reverence we ought to pay to the past ever a distraction from the reality of God in the present?

I have no attachment to these relics of the Baptist preachers who came before me. Regularly, I make a note in some “to do” list that I will burn them both when the weather is a bit less dry. That may shock someone as ungrateful, but I believe the authors would not be offended at all.

My Student Government Association students have adopted a slogan for this year: “Leave Something Behind.” I like it very much. It looks beyond ourselves to those who come after us, and asks how our work today can benefit someone else later on. It invites us to see our lives as part of a great chain of people working and serving, and not just as self-centered moments in a self-centered universe. To see the present moment as full of possibilities that are uniquely your own is wise. To seek to live faithfully in that present moment is a true expression of faith. To spend that present moment in the museum of the past is to misunderstand the work of the Spirit in the past.

These two preachers both left something behind. They left churches. One is thriving and growing beyond anyone’s expectation, but is doing so precisely because the church has deserted the kind of narrow, anti-Catholic tone that marked its early years. The other church had it prosperous years, and now is in decline and difficulty in the inner city, but its influence, fruit and children are everywhere in our community. The historical influence of the church outweighs its present struggles.

Both were churches where the Word was sounded forth, where the mission of evangelism was primary and the duty of Christians to be salt and light was taken seriously. In their own ways, these men created churches that honored Christ, the Bible and the Gospel. But the church must answer Christ again and again in the present. One church has done so, and it’s founder might not be pleased. The other has sought to live more in that past, and found itself dying in the present.

These churches both revere their pastors, but the one that lives has left the past as the past. The other has sought to make the past into the present.

Christ has never required a perfect church or a perfect ministry. He has condescended to use the fallibly faithful, the distracted and the those whose zeal was not always entirely born of Christ. He has never asked us to revere the ministers of the past, but to learn from them for our own time. To honor a faithful man of God is to serve and proclaim Christ in the present; to see where his life was pointing, and to serve and know that One who is the same yesterday, today and forever- but who invites us to live fully in the present.

I look at these sermons that have been left behind, and I realize each one would pass judgement on the men who wrote them. These are not relics of a better, purer Christianity. These are the visible tracks of fellow strugglers, fellow failures, fellow pilgrims.

There are hundreds of tapes of my sermons in my office. Should God call me to himself, my family would be left with these relics of my ministry. So I’ll tell them now: Keep one to remember my voice, but destroy them all.

Look to Christ. Look to scripture. Look forward, not back. Listen to God in your own time and place, not how he spoke in another. Let the Spirit of the Lord create his people in the present, and do not be nostalgic for what he did “back in the day.”

Our fascination with the preachers of the past has its place, but I believe that those gathered home to Christ would say, “Put away our books…and hear the voice of the Spirit, and the Word of Christ for yourself. Don’t revere the relics of Prostestantism, be they books, sermons, tapes, mp3s or web sites. Open your heart to the Lord. Ask. Confess. Wait. Listen. Now”

I appreciate these tokens of the past, but before this year ends, I will destroy them, and I have no doubt the original owners will be pleased.

Some of you are aware that, several years ago, I gave away the vast majority of my Thomas Merton collection. The fact is that I was living in Merton more than I was following Merton’s Christ. I had become a Merton hobbyist more than a fellow pilgrim with Merton. God showed this to me, and I parted with my beloved Merton journals and books. I have not been sorry. My appetite for the Lord of the present is whetted with the experience of Christians in the past, but my own soul must be sustained by the God who meets me in the present, in the shape and contours of my own life experience, not someone elses.

I would be the last person in the world to advocate a Christianity unanchored from its past. Think of the immense good done by rereading Spurgeon or hearing Athanasius in his own words. Christianity’s present often seems dim; its past, more glorious and faithful. But God’s Spirit animates his church in the present, not to contemplate itself and its history, but to act out its part in the divine drama in the present moment. We are the 144,000 standing in the present, sealed by the Spirit, arrayed for battle…now. We are called to do all we do for Christ now. God save us from being “fans” of great Christians of the past at the expense of plain service, worship and joy in the present.

“O Lord, let your Spirit blow across the hearts and minds of preachers, musicians, artists, writers, poets, story tellers, journalists, playwrights, painters, sculptors, teachers, professors and anyone else who stands to show “Jesus For Our Time.” May the voices of those who have gone before be joined with the voices and creativity of those who stand as Christ’s church today. May our respect for the past be an inspiration for the present, and never a replacement for faithful stewardship of the gifts the Spirit yearns to manifest today. May the young people in our congregations feel the mentoring encouragement of your people, and may your people value the contemporary gifts of your children. Help us to gratefully receive the past as a gift and a guide for a present and future full of the goodness and joy of God. Through Him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forevermore, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Countless legions of the faithful
Crossing every generation
Hand and to shoulder in an unbroken line
Lead us to this Sabbath morning
We humbly count ourselves among them
To seek and find the face of Jesus in our time

Though an imperfect congregation
Full of folly and of doubt
We presume to ask our questions
And we wrestle with their finding out
We break the bread and pass the cup
And try to bear each other up
To live the mystery of Jesus in our time

Oh, Jesus, oh Jesus — Jesus in our time (2 times)

There are those who are among us
Who belive they are not worthy
We offer you the Word of life
We bid you come and dine
Upon the mercy we have tasted
And the love given so freely
Come take your place at table now
With Jesus in our time

And as He promised so we proclaim
He will be among us as we gather in His name
To heal the broken hearted
To ease our troubled minds
We want to know you – to follow You
Jesus in our time

“Jesus In Our Time” by Bob Bennett

Comments

  1. Are Jesus and Nostalgia mutually compatible?

  2. That’s a really interesting conversation starter 🙂

    What is on my mind here is the difference between sacred history- which I think is an aspect of the unity of the church, the oneness and catholicity of the church- and nostalgia, captivity by the past, idolatry of the past, etc.

    The point has been well made- and I’ve made it- that the teachers of the church are there for all of us in every age, but I’m convinced there is a kind of “virus” in Christianity that is so uncomfortable with the present (and there is a lot to be uncomfortable with) that we wind up DESPISING OUR “DAY.” We wind up despising our own lives and looking backward far too much.

  3. Actually, my situation is the reverse of yours. I have requested the sermon notes of my currently retired pastor when he dies. He has spent his life studying and sermonizing on the Gospels. He notes each time he comes to the passage in the liturgical cycle, he does a fresh study from translation to application. They were almost always unique yet traditional at the same time. He is and was a gifted pastor.

    Maybe I just hope some of that genius will transfer over. Maybe it will be my most precious memory of him. But in any case, I will treasure those notes (and grieve mightily when I receive them).

  4. Michael, in the comment section, you write “I’m convinced there is a kind of “virus” in Christianity that is so uncomfortable with the present (and there is a lot to be uncomfortable with) that we wind up DESPISING OUR “DAY.” We wind up despising our own lives and looking backward far too much.”

    I certainly agree it’s possible (even likely) that one can become submerged in past Christian writers or theologians to the point of unhealthy veneration (i.e., Merton). But my read on why many do this has nothing to do with nostalgia and/or despising our times. Rather, I think many are driven to the writers of our past (Edwards, Spurgeon, Puritans, Augustine, etc.) because they long for the present to be better than it is. I don’t think such people are uncomfortable with the present day as much as they are BROKEN for it.

    I understand your point here: “… my own soul must be sustained by the God who meets me in the present, in the shape and contours of my own life experience, not someone elses.” Good thoughts …

  5. This is a tough issue to discuss, so let me be more explicit.

    I think Tim Keller is the shizzle. And the reason is that he preaches and pastors to a contemporary New York audience. He does not spend his time rehashing the theological disputes of other eras. He does not preach to the concerns of a century ago. He does not go to the pulpit planning to quote 5 Reformed Big Daddies to prove his point.

    IOWs, the sermon is shaped by the text, and by the contemporary situation. I BELIEVE THOSE ARE TWO OF THE PRIMARY ARENAS IN WHICH THE HS WORKS. (The third being the preacher’s own life.) Making the text contemporary is important. Addressing the people in front of you is important.

    Do you realize that thousands of reformed preachers and teachers go to the pulpit to do their 24th sermon in a series on Limited atonement? That Reformed Preachers often preach theology right out of the systematic with no application? That saying “Spurgeon said X” is considered “good preaching” in a lot of these quarters?

    It is ironic that all the books Reformed preachers buy of preaching by other reformed preachers may wind up making them worse preachers.

    I can say without hesitation that the Lectionary preaching I read among mainline preachers CONSISTENTLY takes the text more seriously for a CONTEMPORARY audience in the pews in front of them than most reformed preachers take the text they are expounding to their congregation.

    Good reformed preaching is born in the contemporary experience of preacher, text and congregation. Read Eugene Peterson and Robert Capon on preaching. And if we read the greats of the past, let them be preachers to their own day…not ours.

  6. A friend sent me a link this morning to your blog article which quotes my song “Jesus in Our Time”. Thanks so much for your insights and for giving the song a little more extended life beyond my own modest reach. Best regards, Bob Bennett

  7. Michael:

    It’s funny that you posted this article when you did.
    It ties in with the sermon delivered in our church
    yesterday.

    This sermon was on the life giving power of God’s word.
    One of the things were were asked to think about was the
    following:

    “Do you regard what others say about the word of
    God more highly than we regard the word of God
    itself?”

    The Lord works in mysterious ways.

  8. I can relate to your post in how the reverence for the past discoveries are held up as elite knowledge that I, the “unintelligent” cannot . I have spent years reading the Bible and have a firm grasp of it, as it pertains to my life and how it’s changed me. I am so sad that that is not valid for some circles, who have so much to offer me, but by their disinterest in my experiential knowledge, keep me from crossing the threshold in order to learn from them. I think the word is arrogance. What I know, what you know is a gift to be shared. Not a relic to guard, defend or bolster one’s pride. Let us not use our knowledge as a wall, but rather as a door.