This morning I received an interesting email, sent to the email address found on the KC website. It was from someone whose name I didn't recognize, and it asked, "Is there a hell beyond this life, and is anyone actually going there, and if so, why?"
Wow. Those are really big questions, and its pretty amazing to me that anyone would suppose I would have an answer to them. So my first reaction was to feel humbled. What an awesome thing to be in a position to speak or write about those questions, and to have my answers be given some kind of authority becuase of my position.
And shortly thereafter I began to feel annoyed. I was pretty sure, after all, that the person who asked the question wasn't really looking to me for insight. Rather, I was pretty sure the questions were asked for the purpose of engaging me in a debate for the purpose of proving that he was right and I was wrong. And in the end, conversations like that are really not the way I like to spend my time.
So, I wrote back and suggested that since I can't speak for God, I can't give answers to those questions. I can speculate, but in the end, what's the point of arguing about my speculations versus anyone else's? Well, that response led my correspondent to ask: "Isn't that precisely what a pastor is called to do? Who is it you speak for from the pulpit week after week, if not God? Are you just speaking for yourself? And if so, what sort of "ministry" is that?"
Despite it's irksome tone, I think that's a pretty good question. Each Sunday as I begin to preach I say a prayer based on Psalm 19, "May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts together, be acceptable to you O Lord, for you are our strength and our redeemer." I love that prayer because it helps me to remember that everyone in the room is working with me as I preach, but that in the end, what happens will happen because of God. My prayer is that somehow, in the midst of all my words and all our thoughts, the Word of God will be spoken and received. But I would never, ever suggest that when I open my mouth to speak, I'm speaking for God.
I do know that I am called to stand in for Jesus at times--when I invite people to his table at communion, for example, or when I sit at someone's bedside in the hospital and hold their hand. In those moments, I know its "not about me", but about the one in whose name I act. We often talk at KC about being instruments of God, or being put to use by God in the world, often in ways we don't expect.
So, I imagine there are even times when the words I speak are used by God to teach or console or inspire. But also know that a lot of what I say is colored by my biases, my particular life experiences, my place in the world. I would never suggest I could untangle true insight from the stuff that mixed in.
Luckily, I have found that I don't have to. My job--my calling--as a preacher, as a pastor, is just to show up to God with as much honesty as I possibly can, to listen as well as I can, and to witness out of the relationship with God that results as simply and clearly as possible.