Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Preaching When Times are Tight
By David R. Stokes
During the waning days of The Great War (1914-1918), David Lloyd George remarked, “when the chariot of humanity gets stuck, nothing will lift it out of the mud better than great preaching that goes to the heart.” As a young boy in Wales, he had grown up in a family that included several preachers; so the ways of the pulpit certainly informed and influenced the only Welshman to ever serve as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He was a man known for his eloquent oratory and inherited from his father the idea of preaching as “thoughts that breathe and words that burn.”
Much has been written over the years about how preaching can aid, inform, inspire, and comfort the multitudes when times are tough. When war clouds loom on the horizon, or when hurricane Katrina-like natural disasters strike a community or nation, the person in the pulpit generally gets the chance to speak to larger, and more attentive, crowds.
Being entrusted with sacred truth, and having a burning desire to speak about matters of great spiritual value, persuading people to focus on such transcendent themes becomes a particular challenge when people are hurting financially. But before we quietly complain that people tend to overlook great moral issues when faced with economic challenges, maybe we had better step back and consider how tight times can become a critical moment for the preacher.
It is simply a fact that Americans will generally see economic issues as more important that just about everything else. In 1992, when then-Governor Bill Clinton was running for the presidency, the campaign war-room in Little Rock, Arkansas had a mantra on the wall: “It’s the economy, stupid.” This was designed to be a reminder that they needed to keep pocketbook issues on the front burner during their run for the White House.
And it worked. It usually does. The leader who promises a rosier economic future, or who is perceived to have a better plan to fix things, always wins over someone who minimizes money matters to talk about other issues.
Consider Prohibition in the 1920s. For decades, a great moral crusade leading to the unprecedented step of amending the constitution to reflect a particular position on a behavioral issue was trumpeted from pulpits across the land. I am not arguing here the merits or demerits of Prohibition as public policy, or the issue of abstinence from alcohol (or not) as a standard. I am simply using it as an example of how a moral/values issue promoted by preachers (and a cast of others) can ultimately unravel because of a tanking economy.
Prohibition was the law of the land while the twenties roared. Prosperity didn’t have to be around the corner because it was in most living rooms. But when the crash came in 1929, and as the nation and the world descended into the abyss of depression and deprivation, it wasn’t long before the noble experiment ceased to arouse much interest.
The failed economy beat Prohibition, because – like it or not – in America money stuff trumps just about everything.
So what is a preacher to do? Well, in a sense, if you can’t beat them, join them. This is not an argument for watering down value-driven preaching, but rather it is simply a reminder that even preachers can’t ignore an elephant in the room – especially if the big beast is plastered with dollar signs.
What happens when all the wells seem to be running dry?
Certainly, when times are tight, and when people are looking for answers, preachers must first avoid a powerful pitfall. We must be careful to avoid the arrogance and excess of demagoguery. We must not play the blame game and look for scapegoats. Our message is not about a particular theory of economics, from Adam Smith, to Karl Marx, to Milton Friedman, rather it is about truth that transcends systems and systemic failure.
Do you know the name of the most popular preacher during the dark days of the Great Depression? He was a man listened to by millions every week. He became for a brief time so powerful that even the president of the United States feared him. He was so popular on the radio that it was said that if you walked down the street on a summer day, you could hear his complete broadcast through every opened window, without missing barely a word.
His name was Charles Edward Coughlin.
Coughlin was a Catholic priest, overseeing a local parish in Royal Oak, Michigan. He was a hard working and fiercely ambitious clergyman, who guided the growth of his church, the Shrine of the Little Flower, during the late 1920s, while experimenting with the then-new medium of radio.
By the 1930s, and as the Great Depression was strangling the life out of the nation itself, he had transformed himself into the voice of the disaffected. During a decade when cultural circumstances were ripe for exploitation by charismatic leaders who offered simplistic answers, Father Coughlin became an incendiary force in the nation. And he did so by becoming a notorious, though highly effective, demagogue – someone who exploited the fears that Franklin Roosevelt himself had been trying to calm since uttering the phrase “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
The priest was a poisonous preacher.
Father Coughlin used his pulpit, both in his church and via the radio, to foster a spirit of anger, hatred, and divisiveness. And he was very effective, but it was clearly a monumental abuse of preaching itself. The messenger became the message. That is a grave sin in light of what Paul said about not preaching “ourselves.”
So powerful did the pugnacious priest become that Roosevelt spent a great deal of time trying to neutralize him as a political force. Fearing that Coughlin was going to join causes with Huey Long, the would-be-American-dictator from Louisiana, he had another Catholic supporter, Joseph P. Kennedy arrange for the priest to meet with the president at his Hyde Park, New York home in September of 1935. And in an interesting twist of fate, their meeting took place in the hours just after Senator Long had been shot in Baton Rouge. FDR and the priest were together when news came through about the Kingfish’s death.
But that didn’t slow the radio priest down. He soon picked up Long’s fallen mantle and formed a coalition of the discontented to challenge FDR in 1936. It all eventually fizzled into a footnote, but his story demonstrates the potential power a preacher can wield during difficult times, if a clergyman is inclined to exploit a crisis to feather his or her own nest.
When times are tight, great care must be taken not to feed the fears of people – rather preachers should be agents of hope.
Though Coughlin’s story is probably the best-known preacher story of the Great Depression, it is by no means the only story, nor is it at all representative of much of what happened across America. Evidence abounds highlighting great spiritual movements in communities. New churches were established – others saw growth that had not been seen in years. Giving trends in churches were actually up in the 1930s over the previous decade.
And preachers rediscovered some vital themes that are very relevant to us today. They have always been part of our homiletic arsenal, but when times are tight, they should be revisited with abounding joy.
Tight times cry out for good news. And as the proverb says, such news from a distant but precious place is like “cold water to a thirsty soul.” I am talking about a renewed emphasis on Heaven and things to come. This doesn’t necessarily mean detailed discussions about the views and theories of eschatology (though this may very well be appropriate in many cases), but rather a clear and bold declamation about the ultimate outcome of the life of faith.
Jesus understood this very well. When circumstances began to distract the attention of his faithful followers, especially as they began to perceive that something bad was on the horizon, he admonished them, “Let not your heart be troubled.”
But our Lord didn’t merely offer a kind and generic “there, there” with a perfunctory pat on their backs, no – he proceeded to tell them about a place – a compelling and very real place – that he was going to prepare for them.
The fact is, when current reality begins to let us down – when times turn tough, even tight – this is a moment for us to shift the focus away from this – to that, from now – to then, from here – to there.
Our ancient spiritual ancestors, the patriarchs, understood this. They didn’t get to experience the abundant earthly blessings that had been promised, so they looked “afar off” and for “a city whose builder and maker is God.”
If emotional maturity is, according to M. Scott Peck, demonstrated largely by a capacity for deferred gratification, then spiritual maturity must involve a measure of expectant hope, or better – deferred glorification.
Whatever the immediate future holds for Americans, it is clear that we have experienced an unprecedented and unsurpassed period where our standard of living has gotten better and better. This, in fact, may now be changing. No one knows for sure. But times of prosperity and plenty tend to have a dulling effect on spiritual senses and values.
In a sense, for much of our nation the idea of a better place and future glory has failed to capture the imagination, even the attention, of so many in recent years because, well, it has been pretty good down here. But as the years of plenty possibly give way to leaner times, preachers should take the cue and dig out the old classics about Heaven and its glory.
As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s and 1970s in this country, a generation – the Baby Boomers – questioned authority and challenged assumptions. They saw their parents who had endured the Great Depression and a global war as obsolete. Many dismissed traditional values and theological concepts like Heaven. It was commonplace to hear talk of a celestial home mocked as the myth of “pie in the sky by and by.” This was a generation who had never really suffered – or seen suffering.
It is a sobering truth that we tend to only learn to appreciate Heaven and its glory when we are faced with suffering, or some present distress. We can then identify with Paul in Romans chapter eight when he spoke about the unworthiness of comparisons between future glory and present difficulty.
So as the nation slides into a possible period of suffering, preachers should be voices crying in the wilderness about a better place. Some may object that to be too Heavenly minded is to be little earthly good, but authentic believers understand what those in generations past grasped – when we set our hopes on things “above,” we can manage things here below so much better.
The writer of the book of Hebrews talks, in the twelfth chapter, about a contrast between things that can be “shaken” (read: this world, human life, created things), and “a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” In a sense, this is exactly the fault-line our nation finds itself on at this critical moment in our history.
Politicians and social leaders will promote and apply their remedies for the nation’s ills – some things will work, others will not. But the preacher must never become distracted by any of it. When the foundations are shaken, we must speak boldly about the security and serenity of Heaven and all that it means.
When times are tight, when abundance gives way to want and prosperity is left behind, preachers of righteousness have something to say. There is a place, a better place, a glorious place; a place prepared by God himself.
Or put another way, I am putting a sign on the wall in my study this year and it says: “It’s about Heaven, stupid!”