Longform

The Faithless

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More than that, Lithgow could handle the oratory. For Charles Combs is a skilled speaker, a very skilled speaker.

(Through the church's lawyer, Anne Tiffen, Combs declined an interview. In a written statement, Tiffen defended Combs' "extraordinary pastoral experiences" and noted that the pastor is not even considering offering his resignation. She also notes some arguments about worship that took place before Combs' arrival at the cathedral: Pastor Combs, she wrote, "accepted this call so that he could unify and shepherd a hurting flock.")

The good charismatic churches today have mastered the art of the sermon in ways that most old mainline pastors can only dream of. Go to, say, a Lutheran church, and you get a guy in a robe hunched over a pulpit, intoning the age-old Lutheran formula: a jokey anecdote — just one jokey anecdote, of course — then an intellectual examination of how man has fallen short of God's law, followed by a reminder that we've been saved by grace. There's no sizzle, and little attempt at modern applicability.

But at a church like Valley Cathedral, the seating is in the round, so the pastor, wearing a suit and a clip-on mic, almost seems to be wading into his audience. He's got a PowerPoint presentation, and he's integrating the Bible, a touch of pop culture, and whatever he's been reading.

In his sermon December 3, Combs managed to tie in the Old Testament story of Joseph, an anecdote about a pro athlete, the lessons of German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and a newspaper story he'd happened on about a man born without arms.

The overall effect is Tony Robbins-does-religion, not fire-and-brimstone.

Combs starts with a question: "What do we do until God comes through with what He says He's going to do?" As it turns out, there are four steps to getting there. And the conclusion is that God wants us to succeed, He's there to bless us, we just have to stick with His plan until He can bring it to fruition.

It's no "Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God," that's for sure — and one reason Combs' actions in the past four months are so jarring.

Clearly, Valley Cathedral is a church that wants new members, yet it's throwing out some of its most devoted old ones. It's a church that preaches forgiveness and blessing and prosperity, but it's acted as if there can be no second chance for the fallen — and no question just who the fallen are.

Naturally, they're the ones who've opposed the pastor.

Combs' message on Sunday, December 3, is a good example: Even as he preaches that God is going to bless His people, there's a clear indication that "His people" doesn't mean "everybody."

The text is Jeremiah 29, as the Old Testament prophet tells the Israelites how to live during exile. Plant gardens, Jeremiah says, have children, and build a new life.

Then the prophet segues into what's become an oft-quoted message of hope:

"For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. . . . I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you . . ."

In Combs' hands, the verses also contain a warning.

Do not listen, he tells his congregation, to faithless people.

"Have you ever been around people who just zap your faith?" he asks. "You were working for the Lord, teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir, then someone pulled the plug on you. What happened?"

There is a pause, a Lithgow-ian pause. Anyone who's paid attention to what's been happening at Valley Cathedral has some idea what the pastor is talking about.

"They were faithless. FAITH-less," he concludes. "Say it with me. 'Faithless.'" (They agree: "Faithless.")

In other words, the people in attendance are on their way to "a future and a hope." As for those who've departed — well, they're faithless.

This seems to be Charles Combs' implicit doctrine: If you stick it out here, you're ultimately in for a blessing. Leave, or criticize the pastor, and you've revealed a fatal character flaw.

But it's not hard to imagine the verse being given another application. After all, Jeremiah is talking to people in exile. A pastor in a different situation could presume that the members who were forced out of Valley Cathedral are the ones who are supposed to plant gardens, have babies — and wait for their triumphant return.

Combs' words are meant as an exhortation. But, whether he likes it or not, they could apply to either side of the conflict at Valley Cathedral.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske