This past summer I told stories from the pulpit. To be more accurate, I moved away from the pulpit to make it clear that I was telling, not exactly stories, but what we call the “great story.” It was an attempt to put together Scripture’s tale into a coherent narrative. So over eight weeks I sat on a high stool in the middle of the chancel talking out the story.
That sounds very simple. Too simple perhaps. Don’t we know the story already? Haven’t we heard it since we were young? That’s true for some of us, but not for all. Many in our congregation were not raised in the faith. And for those who were, the story strikes a familiar but oddly strange bell. And how often have we heard it told as a piece? Lately? Indeed, for some in the church this was (to echo Marcus Borg) like hearing it again for the first time.
Because the church is constituted by the Word, called together by the great stor y, we have assumed, I think, that congregants know the story. In the average church in my part of the world, however, the only contact many persons have with the substance of the faith takes place in worship on a Sunday morning. While adult education happens, it engages a smaller number. And since the second, catechetical service has faded from even distant memory, we’re left with sixty minutes on Sunday, and that not as a classroom but as time to be engaged by God. So when are we going to hear and tell the story?
The issue is all the more pressing because we are being told a different stor y. It is the story played out in films, in histories, in politics. On the surface we could call it the American story. It is the story of the light against darkness, of a democratic-capitalist way of life against an “other” way of life. It is the story of virtue and hard work. In the well-off world of the American suburbs, it’s the story of success and achievement. But on second look, it turns out to be a deeper story, one that has competed for human hearts since the beginning. It can be seen in our myths and sagas: read the Aeneid, say, or Beowulf. David Bentley Hart, in his The Beauty of the Infinite (Eerdmans, 2003), talks of the “opposition between two narratives of infinity: one that conceives of the infinite in terms of a primordial and inevitable violence, and one that regards the infinite as originally and everlastingly beautiful” (5). The Christian story is a counter-narrative up against a ver y powerful narrative that claims our souls.
The origin of my decision to tell the story, however, took place a couple years back as I ref lected on my task as a pastor and the role of the minister in general. It likely was a moment of weariness when the demands of administration in a suburban parish began to sap my soul. Nor was I alone. Colleagues express similar moments of near-depression. What is going on?
Ministers face pressure from congregations anxious to survive. Congregational life is, at its best, a fragile thread. Strong, apparently healthy congregations can fade more quickly than we think possible. And the trends for the so-called mainline congregation don’t look good. So in their shop talk, ministers talk about congregational demands for the two “m’s”–members and money.
The pressure has become more difficult as denominations like my own have reinforced congregational anxiety by placing the growth of congregations at the heart of their purpose. The minister is now “coached” in his or her work as local entrepreneur. In fact, the minister must be coached since he wasn’t educated to be the sort of inspiring administrator who can “bloom where he’s planted.”
The bodies are falling all around as these pressures finds the weak places. It is actually killing some ministers while leaving others mortally wounded. The source of depression is not difficult to find: when asked to do a job for which one has no training or skill, a person is left to whatever resources she has to protect herself. It goes deeper when the preacher realizes that the story that has shaped him is losing to the ruling narrative. The minister loses heart.
That was the context in which I began to ask myself just what was the core of what I am to be about as a minister of Word and sacrament. I had just completed a major study of ecclesiastical office focused primarily on the thought of Dutch theologian A. A. van Ruler (1908-1970). He understood the office of minister apostolically, i.e., the minister reports the witness of the apostles. That story alone gives life to the church, and in that way the church is apostolic.
It is a strange tale. That is, it is not a story that humans could think up by themselves. It is witness to God’s actions in Israel and through Jesus. God is the actor and God’s actions can only be reported. Jesus does not conform to the shape of human expectation. The office of minister is apostolic: the minister reports the witness of the apostles. That story alone gives life to the church, and in that way the church is apostolic. It is a strange tale, not one that humans could think up by themselves. One is reminded of A lbert Schweitzer’s words at the end of his ground-breaking The Quest of the Historical Jesus: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time.” The original witnesses have long since died. Their report continues, and the vehicle is the ministry of Word. This is the counter-narrative, the strange tale that must be told. And, as Calvin taught us, God chose ministers as the human instrument by which that strange story gets told in each generation.
The minister’s primary task, then, is to pass that story along as accurately and as compellingly as she can. This is tradition in its purest sense: the handing over of what has been received. This is the minister’s office; it is a task essential to the church. That is, the church cannot live without the office and consequently without those whom the church sets aside specifically (ordains) to that office.
To refocus on the nature of the office of the minister of the Word is to clarify significantly the minister’s primary role within a congregation. The minister may be about many and sundry tasks, from preparing the Sunday bulletin to visiting the sick to writing the agenda for the consistory meeting. The minister tends a congregation with souls that are breaking under the pressure of a narrative that demands their very life. All of these tasks are important but are subsumed under her primary task: to report the witness. How does the story of Israel and of Jesus reshape the life of the congregation? How does it heal broken hearts?
That is not, of course, the full ministry of the church. The church has always known that and has described its offices (and its ministries) in various ways. Reformed churches have uniquely done so with a three- (and four-) fold scheme of office. Elders and deacons have ministries that are distinct from that of the minister of Word and sacrament. It is liberating for both the minister and the church when elders and deacons assume their proper office. Liberating for the minister because he doesn’t carry the entire weight of the church’s ministry on his own shoulders. But liberating for the church as well as it receives the variety of gifts the Lord intends for it, thereby setting it loose in the context for which it is elected to serve.
Furthermore, concentration on reporting the witness accurately and compellingly provides sufficient work for the minister. The minister’s primary task is to pass the great story along as accurately and as compellingly as she can. It is a task essential to the church: the church cannot live without it and consequently without those specifically ordai
ned to the office of story-telling. To see how, let’s return to my summer project of telling the story (or, if you will, the history) over an eight-week stretch. How was I going to tell the “great story”? It would center on Jesus for sure, but how? It would mean placing him in the context of Israel’s story, but how is that story to be told? I might think that I could read the story through the lens of Jesus, but that only pushes the problem back to how it is that we receive Jesus. And now our way has become circular, because the story of Jesus itself reads him from the story of Israel.
Then, too, Israel’s story is filled with stories within stories. What choices do I make and how do I make them? If I simply told the whole story, it would be too much to hold in the mind and heart. And yet the story has to be more than what could be said in a few phrases: “God so loved the world,” true as that might be.
It turns out that I found myself in what might be called the “confessional” issue. Confessions function, among other things, as summaries of the story–to say it a bit more fancifully, as the hermeneutic through which I read Scripture. And I wonder: can we talk about “the” story at all? Or are there different ways the story can be told? More: as confessions outline the story, they speak a truth that has to be spoken. This truth counters the regnant story and so defines the very nature of the community of God itself. This people lives by grace, say, and not on the strength of its own achievement. It lives to witness that its one Lord is Jesus Christ and not any of the Caesars who have taken control of the apparatus of power.
What began as a simple story, then, evolved into something much more complex. The complexity is, however, unavoidable. As the Reformed have always maintained, it is impossible not to make choices and hence not to be confessional. We claim to be honest in articulating our confession, or the basis of our choices. So I forged ahead.
As the telling unfolded, it became evident that not only was this the story we learned in the beginning and the Word that created and sustained the community of the church. It also began to dawn that this is our story–and not only a story of what was but of what is and what is to be. We are being shaped by the story in its telling and in our hearing.
Which is, after all, how the story goes. It was the Spirit who was poured out, a Spirit poured out not only on the church but in the world, and the same Spirit who beckons us for ward into each day and each hour. The story didn’t end with the close of the book of Revelation. In fact the Bible ends: “Even so, come Lord Jesus.” It turns out that we’re in the middle of the story.
When I began our little experiment, I was concerned that the “sermon” would lack heft. It would be the text, told compellingly, I hoped, but without application. I feared that the sermon would be unfinished because it wouldn’t find traction in the lives of its listeners. Soon, however, two things began to come clear. First, the story found its application easily enough. Listeners could hear the story make its own connections, sometimes with a little help from me, but the help was not blunt. Following on that insight a second one: perhaps I (we?) have been so keen to get to the application that I have been leaving the story behind. And there is no way for ward without the story itself. Application without the story is ideology. It is to be cut off from the flesh-and-blood reality of God’s action and presence in the world. The “point” of the story is not its so-called moral. In this story the point is the life of the story itself as it creates and engages a communion of persons to the counterstory, which is, the church confesses, life itself, eternal life.