by Lawton Posey
Mr. Posey is minister of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Charleston, West Virginia.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 16, 1979, pp. 555-557. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
The concern Niebuhr raised about the conflict between priestly and prophetic roles is never fully resolved in any given time. Niebuhr reminds us of the necessity of living in this world, in the tension between it and the “other world,” inescapably related to the ethical and social problems of the time.
It is now 50 years since Reinhold Niebuhr published his little book Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. Certainly it is one of his lesser works, but its influence may have been as great as that of his Gifford Lectures, published 14 years later; for of all his writings, Learns has had the widest reading. It is a short book. By Niebuhr’s own estimate, it bore the marks of immaturity; he was but 23 when he began recording his observations on parish life. In an introduction to a 1956 reprint edition he remarked:
The notes are primarily a record of the experiences of a young minister, and they will have interest primarily to other young ministers . . .
I regret the immaturity with which I approached the problems and tasks of the ministry but I do not regret the years devoted to the parish.
Despite the uneven quality of his writing, and some self-consciousness evident in the latter part of the book, marked as it is by Niebuhr’s awareness that the entries were destined for publication, there is a refreshing, contemporary quality to Leaves. It has staying power; today it provides high-quality reflections for the occupiers of uncomfortable pulpits, for those engaged in the rewarding and frustrating occupation of the pastoral ministry.
Called recently to a new parish in a small city, I took some time to reflect on the quality of my go years of ministry. Some of my thinking was stimulated and informed by a rereading of Niebuhr’s early effort. I found in this slim volume insights that resonate with my own pastoral struggles. Leaves was written during the days of Detroit’s great industrial expansion, and Niebuhr was pastor of a rapidly growing church; my own experience in rural, small-town and semi-suburban congregations has been markedly different. Nonetheless, Niebuhr’s notebook seems to speak directly to my focal concerns in ministry.
Granted that present circumstances are different from those of World War I and the following decade, ministry today is also practiced in a time characterized by great unrest, by the specter of armed conflict, and by the tremendous problems of the poor, the aging, the emotionally disturbed. The religious questions are the same as in that earlier era. The church is still uttering its profundities and its platitudes to small audiences, and ministers — well, they are hardly wielding the sharpened sword of the Lord these days. Despite the passage of 50 years, only the faces and the names have altered. The individual and collective sins and associated guilt of the people of God remain unchanged.
The later theological and political writings of Reinhold Niebuhr have overshadowed Leaves, and rightly so. Even such extensive works as the Gifford Lectures have been found wanting by the present generation of theological students, who may be put off by the dogmatic flavor of them, preferring works less overtly theistic and christological. The current influence of both Leaves and The Nature and Destiny of Man seems diminished by the ascendancy of modern scientific and political thought, but such overshadowing may be for the moment only. Perhaps students 50 years from now will dust off copies of Niebuhr’s works, read them, and find as I did in the late 50s a gold mine of creative and caustic commentary. Niebuhr would, of course, understand that nothing he wrote had eternal value; his cautions that we should be sparing in handing out bouquets are found on virtually every page of his writings, along with his affirmation of such old-fashioned doctrines as original sin and the transcendence of God.
However, in this 50th anniversary year of the original publication of Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, I want to mark three entries which I believe reflect concerns common to all ministers. The first has to do with the minister’s frustration in going about the daily round. What to do? How much time to spend?
I am glad there are only eighteen families in the church. I have been visiting the members for six weeks and haven’t seen all of them yet. Usually I walk past a house two or three times before I summon the courage to go in. . . . Usually after I have made a call I find some good excuse to quit for the afternoon [p. 3].
The problem of setting pastoral priorities, of keeping spiritually alive while ministering to the needs of people, is much greater than seminary presidents and professors of pastoral theology ever reveal to their fledgling students. How hard it is for a pastor to establish any kind of meaningful relationship with a congregation. Whether in Niebuhr’s Detroit or in the places where I have done what I perceived to be ministry, the problems and opportunities rest uneasily upon structures of time, skill and energy.
I suspect that Niebuhr soon met the challenge of pastoral priorities, and visiting may have become easier for him. Bethel Church certainly grew far larger than its i8 original families. I wonder, though, whether the same problem of budgeting time and the vexing difficulty of developing intimacy with people remained long after he had attained personal success as a teacher, as a trenchant writer, and as a preacher to the cultured despisers of religion.
All I know is that even with a wealth of practical experience and with some professional skills, I still find it hard to order my time so as to visit the homes of the people I am called to serve.
A second area of resonance is with Niebuhr’s description of having relearned, or learned for the first time, the core of the faith from the people he was sent to preach to.
The way Mrs. ________ bears her pains and awaits her ultimate and certain dissolution with childlike faith and inner serenity is an achievement which philosopher, might well envy. I declare that there is a quality in the lives of unschooled people, if they have made good use of the school of life and pain, which wins my admiration much more than anything you can find in effete circles [p. 189].
He realized that his parishioner was probably to some extent deluded by her fundamentalism, but his comment reflects on the lack of moral fiber of many of faith’s more sophisticated exponents. He frankly admired what he perceived to be her pioneering and profound faith: She thanks me for praying with her, and imagines I am doing her a favor to come to see her. But I really come for selfish reasons — because I leave that home with a more radiant faith of my own” (p.189).
Here again, I find consolation in the area of pastoral care and its companion — pastoral faith. I am still struggling particularly with the use of prayer in visiting the sick. How, I ask myself, can I use this valuable resource without being manipulative, or without preaching my theories through pious utterance? Niebuhr found one secret: the value of his people’s own faith. He may have despised the simple catechism of his German congregation, just as we “moderns” take offense at the minimalistic theology of many of the folk who inhabit our standard-brand churches, but he knew also that they had a great deal to teach the young pastor by virtue of having surveyed the land “across the river” and having dared to cross the chilly waters of Jordan with a sense of divine protection.
It is the parish, said Niebuhr, that is the true school of the prophets. People involved in the comprehensive seminary programs of our own time may take exception to this notion, but the bald truth is that it takes an immersion, a second baptism, in the life of the congregation to give the pastor the combination of tenderness and toughness needed to survive its rigors. There are many Mrs. _____ among us. They have much to teach us doting disciples of the academic theologians, many of whom have little recent contact with the sights and smells of the assembled people of God.
The third resonance has to do with worship and preaching. Niebuhr’s commentary on worship in the Church of England comes to us fresh across the gap of 50 years:
We began the day with a visit to the York minister and ended it with a dinner at the Rountree cocoa works. Some of the men thought there was more spirituality in the discussion of the ethical problems of modern industry in which we engaged in Rountree’s than in the communion service we heard so atrociously read in the minister [p. 55].
After a nod in the direction of a moderate amount of ceremony and of the need for an architecture that witnesses to the presence of the Divine, Niebuhr continues: “Without an adequate sermon no clue is given to the moral purpose at the heart of the mystery, and reverence remains without ethical content (p. 55)
When I first read these words, I wondered whether people seeking the presence of God, a prophetic word and a priestly blessing find in the place where I stand to preach the Word the same emptiness that Niebuhr found in Yorkminster. Are silly pastors still speaking in well-modulated tones about a fire which was aglow sometime in a glorious past, but which is today a collection of embers growing cold and soon to be scattered? In other, more biblical words, is there a Word from the Lord today? Is there a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole?
Having come into the ministry in the years between two bloody conflicts, I find that my constant question has been the one about the Word from the Lord. Niebuhr spoke out of his own conviction and his own doubt to that part of the world which would listen to his impassioned prose. No one could have accused him of lacking a clear and certain tone. Some of the notes may have been misplaced, off-pitch, or unduly accented, but never was the sound of his clarion muffled by lack of force.
Was his voice simply that of another dogmatism amid the rampant but insecurely grounded certainties of his own time? Would he not have answered that any dogmatic certainty is but a dim projection of an ultimate truth, and that all of our “truths” are only artistic elaborations, accentuations, embellishments of a Truth greater than our visions?
Though the concern Niebuhr raised about worship is never fully resolved in any time (nor is the conflict between priestly and prophetic roles), he reminds us of the necessity of living in this world, in the tension between it and the “other world,” inescapably related to the ethical and social problems of the time.
Fifty years have passed — five decades of major advances in humanity’s ability to enhance life and also to snuff life out swiftly, slowly or horribly. But the passage of 50 years has not diminished the message Reinhold Niebuhr addressed to the young ministers who he felt might read his diary in the midst of their busy days. His words are a testimony to faith’s fragile but necessary character: “There has never been a time when I have not been really happy in the relationships of the parish ministry. The church can really be a community of love and give one new confidence in the efficacy of the principles of brotherhood outside the family relations” (p. 197).
Perhaps this testimony can stand as a light in the shadowy places of the parish, where most of us are to spread our lives. And perhaps his more somber reflections may cast useful shadows within the glare of some of the false and deceiving lights by which we live.