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Asking the Right Questions
“The problem with us is that we’re trying to answer questions that nobody is asking!” So said my dear friend David Pfrimmer, the Principal Dean of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, in a conversation several years ago. The converse reality was simply and sadly assumed, specifically that we weren’t addressing the real questions which actually are engaging to people, that address real life challenges and issues. David was right.
I’m a newspaper junkie. I see it and I pick it up and read virtually every column inch. If there’s no paper available I simply fire one up on my computer or blackberry. Every day I read countless stories that have a particular and explicit faith and/or religious angle to them. Today the papers included stories about banning the hijab from citizenship oath takings; challenges to Canada’s polygamy laws, religious opposition to provincial sex education programmes, the faith perspectives of candidates from the Republican presidential nomination, the ministry of churches to poor and disadvantaged persons, the role of Islamist parties in a post Arab spring Africa etc. etc... I could go on for my full allotment of 600 words if pressed. And no day is different from the one previous. Religion is big news.
And then there are the questions, not of daily news, but of daily life. What is going to happen to me when I die? How do I make amends and recover after having done something terrible that I am ashamed of? How do I find meaning and purpose in a life which seems programmed to exclude the things that are really important?
Theologian Karl Barth, no doubt apocryphally, is reputed to have said that we should “read with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.” Whether he said it or not, it rings true to the spirit of Barth’s theology. Not to worry! Barth was not encouraging every preacher to act as a one man or woman At Issue Panel holding forth on subjects about which he or she had very little real knowledge or expertise. God save us from that! What he was saying is that we are created beings who live in the world and that we ought to be vigilant in seriously reflecting on contemporary events through the lens of the biblical witness.
I wonder how many of our pastors take Barth’s dictum to heart? I suspect that many preachers stick with themes that are safe and comfortable unless pressed on into more challenging territory. In that, we’re not much different from anyone else in their work. That’s just the way it is. And sadly, in the church, we preachers are seldom challenged, much less encouraged, to do so.
Some months back, the Eastern Synod Lutheran did a reader’s poll. Some of the results were quite interesting. Happily, most of the respondents were quite happy with the contents of the Bishop’s Journal. One positive respondent, however, added that caveat “whenever it isn’t devotional.” I don’t think that this reader is hostile to the role of devotional pieces in a church publication. I do think that he or she was simply expressing the desire for a meatier, less safe approach and I would agree.
Newspapers have to give somebody a reason to spend the 10, 20 or thirty minutes it takes to review their offerings. Time is tight and we all make choices. Likewise, the church needs to give people a reason to get up on Sunday morning and to spend the hour or two required to take in a Sunday morning service or the weekday enrichment event. You can argue till you’re blue in the face that it shouldn’t be such but obligation and duty are no longer the prime motivators for the folks we’re trying to reach. I suspect that a more authentic attempt to provide experiences that address real life issues and questions might better fit the bill! How might you help that to happen?
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