Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Prophets and Evangelicals

As I was driving to the church yesterday after posting my reflections on the one-year anniversary of my oath as an army officer, I was a little worried. I am trying not to be so “out front” when something going on in the military community annoys me. I know that one of the reasons that I get that way is because I grew up in the military, both as a child and as a young man. I am returning to it in part because I owe much of who I am today to that community.

Now, I’m not specifically concerned about that post, but about my tendency towards the prophetic voice and what that could mean for my military career… the tendency to see something and feel called to speak out about it, from the highest mountaintop I can find… be it physical or electronic.

I said recently that the reason I have a blog is so I don’t burden the email inboxes of my friends with unrequested prophetic rantings and reflections upon life, the universe, and everything…

When I stepped out of the pulpit of my most recent sermon, the first words out of my mouth to my supervising minister were “Well, not my best work…” She looked at me kinda funny, and asked me why I thought that? The response from the congregation to that sermon (Living Monkey Mind) has been wonderful, and she thought it did what a sermon was supposed to do. Yet I stepped out of the pulpit wondering if I should pick up a copy of the Chicago Tribune want ads and look for a new vocation on my way home.

As I have gone back and reread it, I think I have picked up a little bit on why. It is a less prophetic sermon than I usually write. It is more pastorally focused, about finding ways to become spiritually deeper in our lives, and less focused on addressing some issue of injustice or about witnessing the pain in the world. Just as I preached a sermon two months ago about the need for such spiritual deepening in activist work, I see that same preference for the prophetic over the pastoral in myself.

There is not a single sermon I have ever preached that has not in some ways also been speaking to myself, to my own rough and growing edges. I’m finally learning to see that. In that awareness I think lies the hope of Unitarian Universalism.

It strikes me that we Unitarian Universalists are in danger of the same mono-focus blindspot that many Evangelicals and Baptists face, but with a slightly different focus. One of the criticisms that I have of many Evangelicals comes from their name… the focusing on Evangelism, on sharing the gospel and converting others to the faith, at the expense of many of the other aspects of ministry, such as pastoral care, social justice, community leadership, theological depth, and personal spiritual development.

Though the word “Evangelism” might as well be a curse word to many Unitarian Universalists (though it’s becoming less so), I fear we may have our own mono-focus centered around sharing our prophetic voice. While we may not be comfortable knocking on someone’s door on Saturday morning to tell them about Jesus (or Buddha, or even Emerson, for that matter) I’m sure I could find a few dedicated UU’s in every congregation willing to knock on those same doors at the same hour to spread literature about Global Warming, or about the Genocide in Darfur, or (dare I say it) carefully worded pamphlets about whom it might be good to vote for…

While we may not be willing to put a pulpit in the local park and preach about the fires of hell, I myself have thought about getting a megaphone and standing outside a Death Penalty trial in Texas.

I’m sure there will be many who think I am making a false association here… but how false is it? The intent is different, and certainly our UU focus on addressing issues here and now in this world (not the next) is different… but the desire in each is the same, Salvation. Evangelicals work for the salvation of individual souls, and UU’s work for the salvation of the world, of this world, here and now.

Now my opinion on which work I am called to is obvious… I am a UU after all. But I think it is important that we see that we may not be as different from our Evangelical brothers and sisters as we like to think. In seeing that, perhaps we can take ownership of this tendency in our liberal religious movement, and perhaps we can find a better balance in our lives and ministries than many of the Evangelicals in my experience have found.

Frank Herbert said “The first step in avoiding a trap is knowing of its existence.”

Perhaps we can also realize that we will be more effective as Prophets (rather than activists) if we are also grounded pastorally, spiritually, communally, and theologically. Perhaps I can learn to preach a sermon that is pastorally focused and not feel that I had somehow shirked my responsibility to the world.

And perhaps, just perhaps, that realization of this tendency in ourselves can inspire compassion in us the next time our doorbell rings on Saturday morning with someone wanting desperately to share Jesus with us…

Yours in Faith,


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