Colliding Truths: Living with Paradox

Posted by on Apr 8, 2016 in Blog | 3 comments

Back in 2006 I published an article Colliding Truths: Embracing Paradox in Ministry in the British journal Ministry Today. Ten years later, I think that most of the points remain relevant, so here, with just a few minor changes and updates, is that essay. While the focus is on how pastors deal with colliding truths and paradox, I think that the relevance is far wider than for those who are pastors, and am sure that with just a little imagination you will be able to transfer the insights to your setting.

I can still remember him saying it. It seemed mildly amusing at the time. “And the ninth beatitude is ‘blessed are the balanced for they are right.’”

I thought it clever enough to repeat on a few occasions. It only struck me a few years ago how exegetically outrageous it is to attribute a desire for balance to the Sermon on the Mount. After all, what’s balanced about loving your enemies, turning the other cheek or being perfect? And anyway, was Jesus really crucified for holding a blandly balanced view of life?

It made me question if sometimes an unacknowledged value that drives ministry is a desire for balance. If it is, what an elusive quest for pastors! While we readily acknowledge that the “what is truth?” question has no easy answer, a comparable retort can be given to the “what is balance?” enquiry.

By 21st century terms there was no balance in the early missionary movement. Those who left departed knowing that their average life expectancy after departure had reduced to a mere two years. I’m not sure what it’s like in other parts of the world, but here in Australia if we sent people out with that awareness, we would be sued for failing in our “duty of care” toward staff. Likewise, were the early Christians balanced when they accepted martyrdom rather than make a token affirmation of Caesar as Lord? I guess the answer depends in part on whether they, like Stephen at his stoning, saw heaven opened and had faces that glowed like angels.

While lofty sacrifice is the stuff that gets the pulse racing while preaching on Sundays, we still have to find a way to live through the other six days of the week. Balance seems highly desirable on most Tuesdays and Wednesdays!

Perhaps we could resist the lure of balance by boldly proclaiming the church as a counter cultural institution. Should we not march to the sound of a different drummer? Alternatively, we’ll swim upstream while others complacently go with the flow. If the world embraces materialism, we’ll insist that our pastors remain poor, if entertainment is a worldly driver, we’ll ensure our sermons are duller than ever! Isn’t this what it means to heed the Romans 12 instruction to be transformed by the renewing of our minds?

Actually, no! In our determination to be counter cultural we simply allow the world to set the agenda for the church, albeit in reverse order (anything you do, we’ll do the opposite!) Closer to the Biblical mandate is a commitment to an eschatological orientation. Ultimate reality, rather than the fad of the present, is a surer guide for our ethical decisions, and can help us to answer the “how then should we live?” question. To pray “Your Kingdom come on earth as in heaven” is a pledge to allow the “not yet” of ultimate reality to shape our everyday decisions. This is what Grenz[1] and Pannenberg argue for when they urge us to adopt eschatological realism as our ethical arbiter.

I’ve no doubt that Grenz and Pannenberg are right, but deciding how the contours of ultimate reality should impact our decision making in the present is usually easier to mandate than to implement. Perhaps a more modest agenda would help us to understand why so many decisions in ministry seem complex and ambiguous. I’ve found the concept of embracing paradox, or colliding truths, to be liberating. Rather than trying to find (or reject) a middle path of balance we are often called to live with the legitimacy of various perspectives and options. Maloney talks of the journey of moving from an “or” to an “and” style of leadership.[2]

Articulating some common colliding truths can be helpful.[3]

There is the truth that the church must be a welcoming and inclusive community but that sometimes collides with the truth that the church must be an exclusive community clearly marked by high moral and ethical standards. No, the “Exclusive Brethren” aren’t right, but then nor are they entirely wrong! Jesus’ “Come to me all you who are weary” sometimes collides with “you are the salt of the earth”. There was a time when a divorced person in the congregation was a rarity. Now people who have first hand experience of the pain of failed relationships fill leadership teams. One of my most sobering moments in ministry was when I foolishly re-preached a sermon on abortion that had served me well in the 1980s. The response 30 years later was confusingly different. Mid way through the sermon I caught the pain in a congregant’s eyes, and suddenly realised that this time I was preaching to people who had a painfully intimate familiarity with the topic. I mumbled my way to a confused ending…

The muddled and broken experiences of the believing community speak well of our usually successful transition to being a welcoming and embracing community. Elsewhere I have written of the pros and cons of the missional journey from “behave, believe, belong” to “belong, believe, behave”.[4] There is no easy sidestep to the dilemma of weak and struggling people having to find a way to model the victory available through Christ. Paul as usual was right; we hold this treasure in jars of clay.[5]

Moving on… How about when the simple truth that people matter, collides with the truth that the church as an institution also matters? Usually no problem, but what about when the faithful pianist who was good enough when your church was tiny is not good enough now that your church has grown and auditions all its musicians? And of course our churches should be family friendly, but must that extend to having a toddler wail through the sermon? I can remember chatting to a youth pastor who was fired from his post because though he had been successful in growing the youth group from 40 to 150, it was considered that he would not be able to take it to the next growth target of 400. During his unemployment, his marriage fell apart. However, the replacement youth pastor did indeed get the group to grow to 400. Who was right in this troubling scenario?

And then there is the old profit/ not for profit chestnut. Indeed, Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, but you’ve still got to find a way to pay the pastor! And while you want everyone to come to the church camp, someone has to settle the bill. And yes, if we go to a really cheap site, the poorest may come, but doesn’t that exclude the richest, who wouldn’t know how to climb a bunk bed! (“What? No en suite! Forget it!”)

Ah, and then there is the mission versus maintenance dilemma. Of course the church should be outwardly focused. Yes, yes and yes again, the church does exist for the benefit of its non-members. For all that, the teenage children of believers do sometimes go astray (all too often while we are busy reaching other people’s children), and in spite of what the health, wealth and prosperity crew say, believers do get sick, struggle with depression and have investments that turn sour. At such times, the mission of the church might need to turn inward for a moment (or more…)

None of this is theory. Every pastor faces a range of colliding truths. Immature pastors follow the ostrich routine and refuse to acknowledge the pain that some decisions will inevitably cause. By contrast, mature pastors…. Hmmm, that answers not so easy!

In my 35 years of marriage, my wife has taught me many things. One of the lessons that I have been slowest in learning has been that every problem doesn’t have to be solved. On more than one occasion, our marital bliss has been interrupted by Rosemary informing me that while my solution to the dilemma she was exploring was well intentioned, she hadn’t been looking for an answer. Simply knowing that someone else understood the complexity of the situation was enough.

So be it! Ministry is riddled with colliding truths. We need to be pastoral, but are also called to be prophetic. We need to focus on missional outcomes, but the process adopted in achieving them must be closely monitored. We are called to be relevant to our time, while at the same time proclaiming a timeless message.

It is possible to do the pendulum swing when working with paradox. Many do… For a while one end of the pendulum’s arc gets all the attention. You’ve probably also noted the way in which the pastor as chaplain model is being booted out in favour of the pastor as leader paradigm, as we rush to correct the overemphasis of an earlier era.

So are we back to the ninth beatitude, “Blessed are the balanced, for they are right.” Hardly! The balanced would opt for someone who was almost pastoral while not quite a leader. That mediocre mid point is less than compelling.

Seems to me that we have to embrace both ends of the pendulum swing. In that outstretched, crucifix like position, we perhaps discover a small part of what it means to travel the way of the Cross.

However, it could be that a second crucifixion is unnecessary. Another option is to heed the biblical call to community. Pendulum swings are best straddled together. While one speaks prophetically, another helps transform the wagging finger into a warm embrace; while some enthusiastically plan for the future of the church, others remember the faces of those who fill the pews, and listen carefully to their varied narratives. If respect rather than dissent can characterise the relationship between those who champion different perspectives, we could be well on our way to an exciting ride. The late Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz urged that ethics be eschatologically oriented; we are also indebted to him for the suggestion that theologians use community as the integrating motif for theology.[6] Living with colliding truths is most comfortable when we live together in community. That community assists us to move beyond balance to perspective.

Ultimately it is not about finding solutions. There is no need for us to rush to a seminar to discover 7 easy steps to avoid colliding truths. To the contrary, they are a part of growing towards Christian maturity. The collision of truths could see the creative birthing of something new… a world without easy answers… a world where we are comfortable with paradox… a world rather like the real world…

Colliding truths… like God is love… and God is just. That one led to the Cross… and in that collision is our life, and our rebirth.

 

[1] Grenz, e.g. writes: “To live ethically means to anticipate and actualize in the brokenness of the present the fellowship we will share in the new creation, the eschatological community of God.” Grenz, Stanley J. The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1997, p299.

[2] Maloney, H.N. Living with Paradox: Religious Leadership and the Genius of Double Vision. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998, pxiv.

[3] Parts of the section below are a rework of an article I wrote for The Advocate newspaper. Harris, Brian S. “Colliding Truths…” The Advocate, July 2006, 4.

[4] Harris, Brian S. “From ‘Behave, Believe, Belong’ to ‘Belong, Believe, Behave’ – a Missional Journey for the 21st Century.” In Text and Task: Scripture and Mission, ed. Michael Parsons, 204-217. Carlisle: Paternoster, 2005.

[5] 2Cor 4:7.

[6] See e.g. Grenz, Stanley J., and John R. Franke. Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

So what do you think? Any obvious colliding truths in your setting? And how are you dealing with them?

Nice chatting…

3 Comments

  1. Such an incredibly helpful, humble and (can I say it) balanced article Brian. I’ve found responding to the colliding truths in my life has forced me to accept the mysteries of life. Learning to sit within the mystery has taught me that God provides innovative answers at the right time, if I trust Him. And that has been how I’ve learned–when I didn’t trust. So good is the mercy implicit in God’s grace when I admitted I was wrong, said my sorrys, and went about things differently. Your article embodies that sense for mystery and penitence.

  2. This again reminds me of the need to live with uncertainty, as a quest for permanent balance also seems to be one for certainty in all situations! Surely we operate on the full spectrum of life’s options….. Wisdom is the necessary ingredient for decisions about where to operate at any given moment.

  3. Every ‘want to be pastor’ should read this, it won’t be long before they are getting smacked around by the pendulum swing. Thanks Brian, this voices why I wake in the middle of the night, why every sermon is a challenge, every pastoral visit demands prep and reflection and planning and for the future takes time.

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