book review: tamed cynic

Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic by Reinhold Niebuhr (Living Age Books, 1957, reprint of 1929 edition); link to the 1990 Westminster/John Knox, hardback edition – http://tinyurl.com/6bvwae

Quotes
“… [this] book … was prompted by the experiences of a young minister serving his first … [church] in the growing city of Detroit. … Ministry is in no easy position; for it is committed to the espousal of ideals which are in direct conflict with the dominant interests and prejudices of contemporary civilization. … Inevitably a compromise must be made, or is made, between the rigor of the ideal and the necessities of the day. … [often the challenge is to minister with] honest but short-sighted men [who seek] to preserve the excellencies of another day long after they have ceased to have relevancy for the problems of our own day. … It is dangerous to entertain great moral ideals without attempting to realize them in life, it is even more perilous to proclaim them in abstract terms without bringing them into juxtaposition with the specific social and moral issues of the day. … a minister is bound to be a statesman as much as a prophet, dealing with situations as well as principles. In specific situations, actions must be judged not only in terms of absolute standards but in consideration of available resources in the lives of those whom the minister leads. … I make no apology for being critical of what I love. No one wants a love which is  based upon illusions …” (pp.7,12,13,15,17)
“I make no apology for being critical of what I love. No one wants a love which is based upon illusions.” (p.18)
“There is something ludicrous about a callow young fool like myself standing up to preach a sermon to these good folks. I talk wisely about life, and know little about life’s problems. … ‘Let no one despise thy youth,’ said Paul to Timothy; but I doubt whether that advice stopped any of the old saints from wagging their heads. … It is easier to speak sagely from the pulpit than to act wisely in the detailed tasks of the parish.” (p.19,20)
“Now that I have preached about a dozen sermons I find I am repeating myself. A different text simply means a different pretext for saying the same thing over again.” … I don’t know if I can ever accustom myself to the task of bring light and inspiration in regular weekly installments.” (p.22)
“How in the world can you reconcile the inevitability of Sunday and its tasks with the moods and caprices of the soul? The prophet only speaks when he is inspired. The parish preacher must speak whether he is inspired or not.” (p.23)
“I may find something worth saying in time and escape the fate of being a mere talker. At any rate, I swear I will never aspire to be a preacher of pretty sermons. I’ll keep them rough just to escape the    temptation of degenerating into an elocutionist.” (p.27)
“As a preacher you must conserve other interests besides truth. It is your business to deal circumspectly with the whole religious inheritance lest the virtues which are involved in the older traditions perish through your iconoclasm. That is a formidable task and a harassing one; for one can never be quite sure where pedagogical caution ends and dishonesty begins.” (p.29)
“It isn’t easy to mix the business of preaching with the business of making a living and maintain your honesty and self-respect.” (p.31)
“I see no way of making the Christian fellowship unique by any series of tests which precede admission. The only possibility lies in a winnowing process through the instrumentality of the preaching and teaching function of the church. Let them come in without great difficulty, but make it difficult for them to stay in. The trouble with this plan is that it is always easy to load up your membership with very immature Christians who will finally set the standard and make it impossible to preach and teach the gospel in its full implications.” (p.39)
“I am really beginning to like the ministry. … it gives you a splendid opportunity to have all kinds of contacts with people in relationships in which they are at their best. You do get tired of human pettiness at times. But there is nevertheless something quite glorious about folks. That is particularly true when you find them bearing sorrow with real patience.” (pp.45-46)
“The problem of the freedom of the pulpit is a real one. But I am convinced that the simplest way to get liberty is to take it. The liberty to speak on all vital questions of the day without qualifying the message in a half dozen ways adds sufficient interest to the otherwise tidy sermon to attract two listeners for every one who is lost by having some pet prejudice disarranged.” (pp.47-48)
“… the real work of a minister is not easily gauged … Even those who value the real work of the ministry sometimes express their appreciation in rather superficial phrases. I remember when dear old ____ celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary the good toastmaster pathetically described his pastor’s successful ministry by explaining that under his leadership the congregation had ‘doubled its membership … built a parsonage, decorated the church and wiped out its debt.’ Not a word about the words of comfort the good pastor had spoken or the inspiration he had given to thirsting souls. Perhaps it is foolish to be too sensitive about these inevitable secularizations of religious values. Let us be thankful that there is no quarterly meeting in our denomination and no need of giving a district superintendent a bunch of statistics to prove that our ministry is successful.” (p.53)
“It is no easy task to build up the faith of one generation and not destroy the supports of the religion of the other.” (p.54)
“The sorriest preachers are those who preach a conventional morality while they try to be intellectually and theologically radical. Men will not make great intellectual readjustments for a gospel which does not greatly matter.” (p.60)
“I am going to try to be a disciple of Christ, rather than a mere Christian, in all human relations and experiment with the potency of trust and love much more than I have in the past.” (p.69)
“… the real clue to the tameness of a preacher is the difficulty one finds in telling unpleasant truths to people whom one has learned to love. To speak the truth in love is a difficult, and sometimes an almost impossible achievement. … It is certainly difficult to be human and honest at the same time.” (p.74)
“What we accomplish in the way of church unity ought to be accepted with humility and not hailed with pride. We are not creating. We are merely catching up with creation.” (p.90)
“I wonder if the strong sense of frustration which comes over me so frequently on Sunday evening and to which many other parsons have confessed, is merely due to physical lassitude or whether it arises from the fact that every preacher is trying to do a bigger thing than he is equal to – and fails. I have an uneasy feeling that it may be native honesty of the soul asserting itself.” (p.108)
“… it is difficult to escape bitterness when you have the eyes to see and the heart to feel what others are to blind and too callous to notice. … Cynics sometimes insinuate that you can love people only if you don’t know them too well … I have not found it so. I save myself from cynicism by knowing individual, and knowing them intimately. …” (pp.109,113)
“On the whole, people do not achieve great moral heights out of a sense of duty. You may be able to compel them to maintain certain minimum standards by stressing duty, but the highest moral and spiritual achievements depend not upon a push but upon a pull. People must be charmed into righteousness. The language of aspiration rather than that of criticism and command is the proper pulpit language.” (p.115)
“We love God by loving the best we know.” (p.141)
“… if we explore the full meaning of a gospel of love, its principles will be found to run counter to cherished prejudices. … if a gospel is preached without opposition it is simply not the gospel which resulted in the cross. It is not, in sort, the gospel of love.” (p.165)
“I wonder if anyone who needs a snappy song service can really appreciate the meaning of the cross.” (p.199)
“It is almost impossible to be sane and Christian at the same time, and on the whole I have been more sane than Christian.” (p.222)
Observations
If you own only five books on preaching and ministry, this should be one of them. If you are new to preaching and ministry and you have hardly any books at all, this should be one of them, the next one you acquire. If you know a minister just starting out, give them a copy and insist that they read it. If you are a veteran preacher and you have not read it, well then, repent, in earnest. Should your money be tight, fast a meal or two so as to get a copy, and quickly. If possible, purchase two; one for yourself and one to give away.
Make a mess of your edition: underlining here and highlighting there, bracketing this and check-marking that, dog-earring this page and tabbing that one. Memorize that choice sentence and remember a good paraphrase of that telling paragraph. For this is a classic, and for good reason; it is a perfect 10, unique among books on ministry. Stand amazed that it was first penned eight decades ago, for it reads as fresh as if its ink was yet wet and, while being the product of a great intellect and heart, it is the story of nearly preacher worth his salt.
Enough said.

Quotes

“… [this] book … was prompted by the experiences of a young minister serving his first … [church] in the growing city of Detroit. … Ministry is in no easy position; for it is committed to the espousal of ideals which are in direct conflict with the dominant interests and prejudices of ScreenShot056 (Medium)contemporary civilization. … Inevitably a compromise must be made, or is made, between the rigor of the ideal and the necessities of the day. … [often the challenge is to minister with] honest but short-sighted men [who seek] to preserve the excellencies of another day long after they have ceased to have relevancy for the problems of our own day. … It is dangerous to entertain great moral ideals without attempting to realize them in life, it is even more perilous to proclaim them in abstract terms without bringing them into juxtaposition with the specific social and moral issues of the day. … a minister is bound to be a statesman as much as a prophet, dealing with situations as well as principles. In specific situations, actions must be judged not only in terms of absolute standards but in consideration of available resources in the lives of those whom the minister leads. … I make no apology for being critical of what I love. No one wants a love which is  based upon illusions …” (pp.7,12,13,15,17)

“I make no apology for being critical of what I love. No one wants a love which is based upon illusions.” (p.18)

“There is something ludicrous about a callow young fool like myself standing up to preach a sermon to these good folks. I talk wisely about life, and know little about life’s problems. … ‘Let no one despise thy youth,’ said Paul to Timothy; but I doubt whether that advice stopped any of the old saints from wagging their heads. … It is easier to speak sagely from the pulpit than to act wisely in the detailed tasks of the parish.” (pp.19,20)

“Now that I have preached about a dozen sermons I find I am repeating myself. A different text simply means a different pretext for saying the same thing over again.” … I don’t know if I can ever accustom myself to the task of bring light and inspiration in regular weekly installments.” (p.22)

“How in the world can you reconcile the inevitability of Sunday and its tasks with the moods and caprices of the soul? The prophet only speaks when he is inspired. The parish preacher must speak whether he is inspired or not.” (p.23)

“I may find something worth saying in time and escape the fate of being a mere talker. At any rate, I swear I will never aspire to be a preacher of pretty sermons. I’ll keep them rough just to escape the temptation of degenerating into an elocutionist.” (p.27)

“As a preacher you must conserve other interests besides truth. It is your business to deal circumspectly with the whole religious inheritance lest the virtues which are involved in the older traditions perish through your iconoclasm. That is a formidable task and a harassing one; for one can never be quite sure where pedagogical caution ends and dishonesty begins.” (p.29)

“It isn’t easy to mix the business of preaching with the business of making a living and maintain your honesty and self-respect.” (p.31)

“I see no way of making the Christian fellowship unique by any series of tests which precede admission. The only possibility lies in a winnowing process through the instrumentality of the preaching and teaching function of the church. Let them come in without great difficulty, but make it difficult for them to stay in. The trouble with this plan is that it is always easy to load up your membership with very immature Christians who will finally set the standard and make it impossible to preach and teach the gospel in its full implications.” (p.39)

“I am really beginning to like the ministry. … it gives you a splendid opportunity to have all kinds of contacts with people in relationships in which they are at their best. You do get tired of human pettiness at times. But there is nevertheless something quite glorious about folks. That is particularly true when you find them bearing sorrow with real patience.” (pp.45-46)

“The problem of the freedom of the pulpit is a real one. But I am convinced that the simplest way to get liberty is to take it. The liberty to speak on all vital questions of the day without qualifying the message in a half dozen ways adds sufficient interest to the otherwise tidy sermon to attract two listeners for every one who is lost by having some pet prejudice disarranged.” (pp.47-48)

“… the real work of a minister is not easily gauged … Even those who value the real work of the ministry sometimes express their appreciation in rather superficial phrases. I remember when dear old ____ celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary the good toastmaster pathetically described his pastor’s successful ministry by explaining that under his leadership the congregation had ‘doubled its membership … built a parsonage, decorated the church and wiped out its debt.’ Not a word about the words of comfort the good pastor had spoken or the inspiration he had given to thirsting souls. Perhaps it is foolish to be too sensitive about these inevitable secularizations of religious values. Let us be thankful that there is no quarterly meeting in our denomination and no need of giving a district superintendent a bunch of statistics to prove that our ministry is successful.” (p.53)

“It is no easy task to build up the faith of one generation and not destroy the supports of the religion of the other.” (p.54)

“The sorriest preachers are those who preach a conventional morality while they try to be intellectually and theologically radical. Men will not make great intellectual readjustments for a gospel which does not greatly matter.” (p.60)

“I am going to try to be a disciple of Christ, rather than a mere Christian, in all human relations and experiment with the potency of trust and love much more than I have in the past.” (p.69)

“… the real clue to the tameness of a preacher is the difficulty one finds in telling unpleasant truths to people whom one has learned to love. To speak the truth in love is a difficult, and sometimes an almost impossible achievement. … It is certainly difficult to be human and honest at the same time.” (p.74)

“What we accomplish in the way of church unity ought to be accepted with humility and not hailed with pride. We are not creating. We are merely catching up with creation.” (p.90)

“I wonder if the strong sense of frustration which comes over me so frequently on Sunday evening and to which many other parsons have confessed, is merely due to physical lassitude or whether it arises from the fact that every preacher is trying to do a bigger thing than he is equal to – and fails. I have an uneasy feeling that it may be native honesty of the soul asserting itself.” (p.108)

“… it is difficult to escape bitterness when you have the eyes to see and the heart to feel what others are to blind and too callous to notice. … Cynics sometimes insinuate that you can love people only if you don’t know them too well … I have not found it so. I save myself from cynicism by knowing individual, and knowing them intimately. …” (pp.109,113)

“On the whole, people do not achieve great moral heights out of a sense of duty. You may be able to compel them to maintain certain minimum standards by stressing duty, but the highest moral and spiritual achievements depend not upon a push but upon a pull. People must be charmed into righteousness. The language of aspiration rather than that of criticism and command is the proper pulpit language.” (p.115)

“We love God by loving the best we know.” (p.141)

“… if we explore the full meaning of a gospel of love, its principles will be found to run counter to cherished prejudices. … if a gospel is preached without opposition it is simply not the gospel which resulted in the cross. It is not, in sort, the gospel of love.” (p.165)

“I wonder if anyone who needs a snappy song service can really appreciate the meaning of the cross.” (p.199)

“It is almost impossible to be sane and Christian at the same time, and on the whole I have been more sane than Christian.” (p.222)

Observations

If you own only five books on preaching and ministry, this should be one of them. If you are new to preaching and ministry and you have hardly any books at all, this should be one of them, the next one you acquire. If you know a minister just starting out, give them a copy and insist that they read it. If you are a veteran preacher and you have not read it, well then, repent, in earnest. Should your money be tight, fast a meal or two so as to get a copy, and quickly. If possible, purchase two; one for yourself and one to give away.

Make a mess of your edition: underlining here and highlighting there, bracketing this and check-marking that, dog-earring this page and tabbing that one. Memorize that choice sentence and remember a good paraphrase of that telling paragraph. For this is a classic, and for good reason; it is a perfect 10, unique among books on ministry. Stand amazed that it was first penned eight decades ago, for it reads as fresh as if its ink was yet wet. While it is the product of a great intellect and open heart, it is the story of nearly preacher worth his salt.

Enough said.

WBE review day

WBE review day: No ‘new’ Bible reading for me today.
Will review what I read this past week instead
(Genesis ___-___).

Today is my WBE review day. That means no ‘new’ Bible reading for me, but lightly reviewing what I read this past week instead (Genesis 1:1-29:30).

family talk questions: emotions

Family Talk questions for Sun., Aug. 9
(same questions as last week)
1. Emotions. That’s the theme for August as I continue to preach through Jesus’ parables and some of Solomon’s proverbs on Sunday mornings. Our feelings are slippery things, aren’t they? Take pride for example; it can be an attitude, an emotion, and an action. Just defining the word “emotion” can be a task. Look up the words “emotion,” “feeling” and “sentiment” in a dictionary.
2. Randomly select and read either two or three of the parables Luke records as stories Jesus told during his journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-19:44; http://bit.ly/NaNz7) or one chapter of Proverbs 10-22 (http://bit.ly/1CApv). As you read, pay close attention to the “feelings” that “bubble up” in the text. Make a list of the various emotions that you sense conveyed in the word.
3. Recall as many as you can of the emotions recorded (or implicit) in the Gospel accounts that Jesus is said to have experienced while incarnate. Do you recall the specific setting or context of them? For example, when “Jesus wept” at Lazarus’ death, we know he felt grief.
4. What emotions have you found yourself coming to grips with the most this past week? Why?
5. Can you recall some characters mentioned in Scripture who dealt with these same emotions you have wrestled with this past week? How did they deal with them?

1. Emotions. That’s the theme for August as I continue to preach through Jesus’ parables and some of Solomon’s proverbs on Sunday mornings. Our feelings are slippery things, aren’t they? Take pride for example; it can be an attitude, an emotion, and an action. Just defining the word “emotion” can be a task. Look up the words “emotion,” “feeling” and “sentiment” in a dictionary.

Word-Spirit2. Randomly select and read either two or three of the parables Luke records as stories Jesus told during his journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-19:44; http://bit.ly/NaNz7) or one chapter from Proverbs 10-22 (http://bit.ly/1CApv). As you read, pay close attention to the “feelings” that “bubble up” in the text. Make a list of the various emotions that you sense conveyed in the words.

3. Recall as many as you can of the emotions recorded (or implicit) in the Gospel accounts that Jesus is said to have experienced while in the flesh. Do you recall the specific setting or context of them? For example, when “Jesus wept” at Lazarus’ death, we know he felt grief.

4. What emotions have you found yourself coming to grips with the most this past week? Why?

5. Can you recall some characters mentioned in Scripture who dealt with these same emotions you have wrestled with this past week? How did they deal with them?

stenotopic: something God is not

Last Sunday I started out on a one-year road trip through my Bible (aka: WBE). A number of other folks have piled into the car with me. I’m glad to have ya’ along! I suspect we’re all noticing different things all along the way. Some of them are sights we’ve never seen before, some are things we’ve noticed, but have forgotten about, and sights quite familiar. There certainly is a lot to take in no matter where you look as we drive through Scripture. But, of course, a lot of what we’re seeing largely depends on what we’re looking for in the first place, right?

So what is it you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of anyway?

As for me, I’m looking for God. Now that certainly sounds like a cliché doesn’t it? Or something a preacher would say, right? But, I’m serious; very serious. I just don’t know how else to say it; I’m looking for God on this trip. All sorts of things come into view as I look through the windshield and cast a sideways glance here and there, but in it all I have an eye out for God. And when I make it to the end of this journey, I want to have a more well-rounded picture of him in my head and I want to know him a bit better in my heart.

We’re two dozen chapters down Genesis road now and more clearly than ever before, it has struck me that this highway is largely about what God is not. No, there have been precious few signs along the way that spell out in just a few words what God is not. It hasn’t been written in the crops or spelled out in the rocks on the hills. But it is the message I’m continually seeing as I see the lay of the land change and evolve along the way. That is, that’s what stands out to me in the narrative flow of events across the chapters of Genesis.

I know you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve taken a road trip you’ve surely encountered a sign or two that had on it the name of a road or town that you’d never read or heard of before. Perhaps you even had a hard time just trying to figure out how to pronounce it. Chickasha. Gotebo. Sjolander. Kisatchie. Well, here’s a sign I’ve seen several times now on my trip through Genesis: God is not stenotopic.

Stenotopic. Say what? I looked it up. I even stopped and asked a local how to pronounce it. And after they wiped the smile from their face and I got past the inevitable “You’re not from around here, are you?” remark, here’s what I got. “Stenotopic means you’re only able to adapt to a small range of environmental conditions.”

Well now, if there’s anything this road through Genesis has been so far it’s this – it’s been different! We’ve been through gardens and desserts, mountains and valleys, pastures and seas, big cities and little burgs, and more. We’ve seen a lot; a whole lot of “different.”

And through it all, God has remained. He’s still the same, but he’s adapted to whatever situation we find ourselves in along the way. He was present at the start. Paradise turned south and he stayed on the trip with us anyway. The road nearly completely played out and virtually all the occupants of the car were at each others’ throat. Still, he didn’t get out of the car and walk home. The whole lay of the land changed and a brand route got laid out. He’s good to go. We started jostling each other a bit, fussing and fighting, playing tricks on each other and being selfish. He put up with us. Tough stuff of all sorts came up along the way, some of our own making and some beyond our control. And yet, he’s stays on the trip. Whenever we’ve known what we’re doing and even when we’ve taken many a wrong turn, he hasn’t ditched us, though we’ve deserved it more than once.

I really like this God. He rolls with the punches. He finishes what he starts. He doesn’t jettison things when they don’t immediately go his way. He’s adaptable, all the while calling us to be like him, straight and steady. He’s not stenotopic.

I’m glad I learned that word. I’m starting to feel a bit more like a local; a bit more at home with this God who wants me to call anyplace with him “home.” I think I know him a bit better.

I wonder what’s around the next bend?