Writings by Cole Huffman

You Can't Say That in Church

In his book Tortured Wonders, Rodney Clapp suggests that Christianity as popularly practiced (and preached, I would add) is often too dualistic and “spiritual” to help us actually detangle earthiness from worldliness. To the overly pietistic everything is worldly, including embodiedness. The reason this is problematic is it sprouts a mealy kind of Christian Gnosticism that chokes out the good news—good news for all people, as the Christmas angel put it. 

Paul uses a very earthy word in Philippians 3 to frame his transformation in Christ—skubalon. Major English renderings are decorous and go with “rubbish” or “refuse” in translation. It’s not grammatically or theologically precise to suggest skubalon was a profanity, but it wasn’t exactly a “clean” word either. In Philippians 3 Paul essentially says he was constipated in self-righteousness and his encounter with Christ’s righteousness was in force a bowel evacuation. 

I recently used a skubalon-ish word in a sermon—“turd”—and it made it for a crappy Sunday for some. I think I remember checking with his son years ago to make sure it isn’t an urban legend, but one of our most celebrated church members and elders, Dr. Chubby Andrews, now with the Lord, years ago came to the aid of a youth minister at First Evan, and memorably. The youth minister, teaching on skubalon from Philippians 3:8, used a mild defecation crudity (something like “pile of poop”) to make Paul’s idea understandable to the kids, and it got back to some parents who weren’t happy about it. A meeting was called to air frustrations with the youth minister. The meeting ended when Chubby stood to say the discussion they were having was “bulls***,” that they should leave the young man alone, and then—in one of the best flashes of rebuke-insight ever—told the parents most of them were so concerned to get their kids saved they wouldn’t let them get lost. I miss Chubby around here these days.   

The crudity in my sermon wasn’t to bait anyone or some kind of pulpit swagger. It was a demonstration of apologetics, or to put it as old Andrew Bonar did with reference to Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s preaching: “He knew how to take from the Egyptians’ plunder and make it serve Christ.” I quoted a well-known anti-theist, Bill Maher, and turned his metaphor back on him. I realized some would find it offensive—Maher is offensive. But I also realized I would lose a measure of “real time” credibility with others if I tried to convey Maher’s point and not use Maher’s word, but hemmed and hawed around it. 

Such are the choice dilemmas preaching to a multi-generational congregation. The younger want a certain cultural panache in the pulpit because they’re navigating a society they know the evangelicalism of their parents no longer speaks to. The older want a certain kind of tell-me-something-I-don’t-already-know exegetical panache, culture be damned. These are generalizations. There are exceptions. In my mid-40s I’m right between the younger and the older. In short, I don’t have the luxury of preaching to one generation or the other. I preach the same sermon to the kids and their parents and their grandparents. 

Our humanity connects us to a material world, and humanity is earthy. In the Old Testament law there’s a lot of distinguishing between holy and common, including excrement regulations (Deut. 23). Those regulations were not rejections of embodiment—people do have bowel movements. The people of Israel had to learn to set parameters and make distinctions because God is a distinguishing God. When the covenant community blurred the distinctions it was the job of covenant enforcers, the prophets, to speak directly to it. When they did it was sometimes crude. To a man who once challenged me that an adultery reference I made in a sermon was “inappropriate in the pulpit of First Evan” (I was teaching through Hosea at the time), I had to ask, “Would reading Ezekiel 16 or Ezekiel 23 be inappropriate in the pulpit of First Evan?” What do we really have in mind when we say we embrace the whole counsel of God? 

The reason the Maher reference in my latest sermon is controversial is not just because a word choice offended. Underneath that it’s about vision. Many don’t see our sanctuary as public space but private space, and pleasant familial space for themselves at that. An offense in the pulpit is therefore equal to saying the same thing in their living room. They want a nice Sunday, safe for the whole family. I better deliver. Occasionally I say things in messages to get our congregation to think but also to untame preaching. One can be reckless in that, yes. But I’m not up there giving soliloquies to confirm everyone’s presets. 

On balance I don’t think the objections to my latest sermon are reflective of holiness/commonness distinctions. If it were the tone of emails and complaints to our elders would be in a different spirit. It’s more reflective of convention. It’s like how once, dining in the home of some friends, lovely people, someone at the table, sharing a humorous story about their dog, used the phrase “took a dump” in reference to the dog. I heard our hostess actually gasp. 

Reflecting on Luke 2 this time of year, the first smell to hit Jesus’ human nostrils was not the Downy scent of his swaddling clothes but manure. He was born in a barn, after all. The home of my upbringing wasn’t overly couth but manners were taught and expected. (As Merle Haggard put it, “Mama Tried.”) I appreciate the ethics of etiquette and have tried to pass on to my own children a considerate regard for polite company, living as we do now in an increasingly coarsening society. I mean when people in the South feel the need to remark how refreshing it is to hear “sir” and “ma’am” from your kids…. 

Manners are in service to honor. One of my pastor-friends observes that younger generations are losing the ability to honor not just older people but their own peers too, and I think that’s right. So for some in our church on the morning of December 7, my repeating an anti-theist’s crudity in the pulpit felt dishonoring to them. I get that. Some went to elders and complained, some wrote to me. No one spoke to me face-to-face about it, which makes me wonder if I’ve conducted myself in some way that makes me unapproachable. I don’t think so but in the swirl of anonymous “these folks are mad” it does make me wonder. I answered the few emails I got about it without self-defensiveness, with apologies and request for forgiveness. One replied to grant the forgiveness I sought. 

For the hundreds of Sundays I’m heard appreciatively I’m grateful. The one Sunday I’m not does not a career make or break, I know. I heard from more people who said they appreciated the sermon. One couple mentioned having guests with them, new Christians, who were glad to hear a sermon that culturally and exegetically made them think. But for those I offended, like a quarterback leaving the field after a turnover, I get another set of downs, and, like last night's enchilada, this too shall pass. 

Did I mention how much I miss Chubby?

Posted by Cole Huffman at 10:21 AM
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