Monday, December 9, 2013

Clerics, Relics, and Relish

Today is the first day in our 49th week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures this week are:

  •  Esther 7-10; Rev 3
  •  Ezra 7-10; Rev 4; Psalm 97
  •  Nehemiah 1-3; Rev 5;
  •  Neh 4-6; Rev 6; Ps 98
  •  Neh 7-9; Rev 7; Ps 140

What's the difference between clerics and relics?

A little relish.

Rev. Ben Bruner--much younger than he was when I knew him
When I was a teenager in Hanover County, Virginia, our church went through the transition of my pastor's resignation.  Not long thereafter, we began the search for a new minister.  Between those two permanent ministers, the Rev. Dr. Ben Bruner served as our interim pastor.  When I first saw the stooped old man in his mid-seventies, I said to myself, "Now here's a relic from the past!"  Bald on top, he compensated by growing his hair long in the back.  I had never before seen an old man who let his hair fall like a waterfall over his collar.  And there was another odd thing about this old clergyman.  He wore a cloak!  Yes--a cloak that mad him look like a vestige from the 1880s instead of the 1980s when I knew him.  He looked more like Ebenezer Scrooge than anyone else I can think of.  I thought this this ancient relic could have nothing relevant to say to my generation.

Oh, but I was wrong!  This old cleric had relish!  Not the kind that comes in a jar and that you put on your hot dog.  Ben (Dr. Bruner wanted us teenagers to call him Ben) preached with such energy and vitality that it astonished all of us.  You could tell that he relished God's Word, and felt an urgency to share it with others.  The stories that he told from the pulpit weren't tired old tales that he had rehashed from decades before.  They were new, they were current, they were real.  As I sat listening to him in the pew, Ben engaged me, and made the Bible come alive.

The older I get (I'm in my early 40s, if you want to know), the more I think of old Ben Bruner.  Because one day I'm going to be a stooped old preacher.  And I've seen too many stooped old clergy who have lost their relish.  Perhaps they have borne the burdens of their congregation for so long that they have become worn out by care.  Or, maybe they have met too much resistance in the churches to the life-changing Word of God--and so have caved in to the tendency to preach safe sermons that don't challenge anyone.  You can hear them drone on at funeral services, giving the same tired eulogies they've given for generations--without feeling and without passion. They have lost their relish, and so have become irrelevant.  

If our clergy are like that, it's no wonder that American churches have become tired, saggy, wrinkled, stooped over, and gray.  And I'm not talking about people's aging bodies.  We've lost our relish!  Our zeal, our vitality, our love of what we're doing and the One we're doing it for.

In the first couple of chapters in the book of Revelation, Jesus has some important messages for churches.  Today's church could learn a lot from the words that God spoke to those congregations.  Jesus says...

...You have abandoned the love you had at first. 
(Revelation 2:4b ESV)

...I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.  Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. 
(Revelation 3:1b-3 ESV)

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
(Revelation 3:15 ESV)

Jesus' words to these churches reminds us that we can't afford to lose our first love.  How broken is the heart of Christ when we slip into lukewarm complacency, when we who have a reputation for being alive are actually spiritually dead!  How tragic when congregations that ought to be concerned for the lost instead turn inward so that they can meet their own needs!  Who can you point to as the reason for this decline? 

First, you can point a finger at the clerics who have become relics because they've lost their relish.  They no loner communicate a vibrant relationship with a living Jesus, so their teachings become stale religion rather than something that's going to make people want to know God.  They get so caught up in the day to day work of the church that it simply becomes a religious exercise.  But it's not their fault, entirely, either.

I've known a lot of older pastors (or, I should say, clergy who have been in ministry a long time) who walked with hunched shoulders because they've been beaten down by the church.  Time and time again they have stuck their necks out with some new vision, only to get their heads chopped off by status quo Christians.  They've been manacled by manipulative members, and defrocked within their own hearts by those who show them no respect.  It's been said that the church is the only army in the world that shoots it own wounded.  A lot of pastors have lost their relish because of the way they've been treated by the church.

Fortunately, Jesus gives some other words to the church--words of encouragement and hope.

I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. 
 (Revelation 2:3 ESV)

Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 
(Revelation 3:10b ESV)

Only hold fast what you have until I come. 
(Revelation 3:25 ESV)

The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.
(Revelation 4:5 ESV)

I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name... I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.  The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God.
(Revelation 4:8, 11-12a ESV)

I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.  Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.  Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.  The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.  
(Revelation 4:18-21 ESV)

When I was fifteen I said to myself, "When I'm old, I want to be like Ben Bruner."  At the time, I had no idea that I was headed for the pastorate.  Now, I can say, "I want to be an old pastor like Ben."  I want to keep my relish for Jesus, my zest for life, and my zeal for ministry.  I pray that pastors everywhere might say along with Jesus that zeal for the Lord's house has consumed them.  I pray that churches everywhere might wake up, warm up, and wise up to the fact that if they are going to lead people to Jesus, they must be alive congregations, full of the Spirit and the life of Christ.

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