Meeting and Being Met by God

Two people meet one another on the sidewalk. Their eyes meet. Will they greet one another, encounter one another, or only pass by silently?

One person extends her hand, the other responds. They shake hands, embrace.

“How are you getting along?” he asks.

“Fine,” she responds. “And you?”

The handshake, the embrace, the traditional words of meeting are a ritual that enables us to meet one another. Without the ritual, without the familiar, predictable pattern, we might not risk the meeting. We would not know how to come into the presence of another. The ritual helps us overcome the distance between the distance between us. It ends the separation.

The church also has a pattern of familiar words and actions whereby we are enabled to meet both other people and God. You might think of our Sunday morning worship pattern as a drama, a drama of meeting. On Sunday we follow a script–a pattern of words and actions that begins, moves from one act to another, and then comes to a conclusion.

Who are the actors in this drama of worship? The minister, the choir, the organist or pianist, and the ushers? This makes the congregation the audience. Is that the way it ought to be? No. The congregation are actors in this divine-human drama. We are not to come on Sunday morning as if we were going to a movie or play, as if we were coming to passively watch the stars act their parts. We are there to join together in prayer and song. We are the actors rather than the audience.

Our worship leaders, like your minister, choir, organist, and ushers, are to help us worship, not to worship for us. They are there to invite us to sing, to cue us when it is time to kneel or pray or speak, to lead us so that we can all join together with one heart and voice in the praise of God. When we experience Sunday worship as a time to walk in, flop down in our seat, and passively watch someone else meet God, we have not experience the fullness of Christian worship.
Why do we have a set pattern for our worship services? Why do we often print an order of worship in our bulletin that you follow on Sunday morning? Why does your church usually worship in much the same way every Sunday? Because it is easier to gather for worship if we have some predictable pattern, some familiar pattern that brings us together.

If you sing a solo, you can “do your own thing.” You can sing in your own style and temp. But if you are in a choir, if you want to make music with more than one voice, you must get together. Everyone follows the same set of notes, sings the same words. Private, solitary meetings with God have their place. But congregational worship, usually Sunday mornings, is a group time, it is a time for meeting, gathering in the body of Christ, joining together with one voice and coming before God.

To that end, we sing hymns together because it is fun to join our voices in shouts of praise. We pray together because our deepest needs and highest joys are generally those we share with others and so we now join with others in sharing those needs and joys with God. We listen to God’s Word together because the gospel is not simply addressed to us as solitary individuals but as the body of Christ. We respond to the Word by saying a creed because our beliefs are not simply the private thoughts of our hearts but are nurtured, corrected, expanded, challenged, and supported in fellowship with other Christians in the church. This is why we generally find it helpful to have a pattern for our Sunday worship–so we can get it all together.

You hear your voice, raised with others in the congregation, singing the hymn. Now, you feel that a veil has been thrown back. You see what you were unable to glimpse in your work-a-day, Monday through Saturday world. It is as if heaven comes very close to you and a new, wondrous world has been opened to you. You are able to say with your wondering ancestor Jacob, when heaven’s ladder was lowered to within his reach, “Surely the Lord is in the place, and I did not know it.” (Gen. 28:16).

So much of the time in church is spent using words like “should,” and “ought,” and “must.” Sunday, we keep a burden of greater responsibility on your shoulders, the day when we gather and the preacher tells us what we ought to do.

The “service” that we offer to God, but worship is also the service that renders to us. While we are busy praising God, God is responding to us. Faith is a gift, not our achievement. As we are praising God, we are being formed into God’s people. We are practicing the presence of God in way that, as God becomes more apparent to us on Sunday; God is surely more available to us on Monday.

Why do we do it? We do it because we are in love. The modern world teaches us to ask, of every event and relationship, “Now what good will this do me?” The modern world teaches us to make ourselves the center of the world. We have no more important project than ourselves.

Christian worship is counter-cultural to all this. We do it, not primarily to “get something out of it,” but to give something to it. We do it because we are in love.

Try this example. You are walking hand-in-hand in the park on a beautiful spring day. At some point, you lean over and kiss the one with whom you are in love.

Now, if someone asks you, “Now what good does that do you? What good do you get out of it?” It would be stupid question to ask. Gestures like kissing, hugging, are the actions of lovers. We do it out of love. We do it, not “to get something out of it,” but rather to offer something to the one with whom we are in love. Christian worship is a lot like that.

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:44-47)

“This is the day which the Lord has made.” (Psalm 118:24). Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands!Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him, bless his name! – Psalm 100:1-2, 4.

William H. Willimon

Be sure to register to attend “Costly Discipleship” with The Rev. Dr. Peter Storey at Canterbury UMC, March 23, from 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m!

Worship: Acts of Love

United Methodists join with the majority of the world’s Christians in celebrating the sacraments of signs of God’s near and present love to us.

“Don’t tell me, show me,” pleads a song in My Fair Lady. To say “I love you” is to say something wonderful, but sometimes we want more than words. We communicate not only by speech but also by action. “Actions speak louder than words,” we sometimes say.

God knows this. In the Bible, God not only says, “I love you” through the words of the law, the prophets, the sermons of Jesus, and the letters of Paul; God’s love is also demonstrated.

God’s love is demonstrated through signs. “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manager” (Luke 1:12). The babe at Bethlehem is a sign that God is acting to redeem his people.

God’s love is demonstrated through symbols. At a wedding, words of love are spoken by a man and woman. Rings are also given with the explanation, “The wedding ring is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The rings become symbols to those who wear them of the covenant they have made. To the detached observer, the rings are only pieces of metal. To those who wear they, they are powerful symbols that express, in a visible and tangible way, some of the deepest and most inexpressible feelings in their lives.

A flag, a handshake, a kiss, a cross, a wedding ring–these are the symbols of love that say more than mere words can express. Jesus himself became the supreme visible and tangible symbol, which expresses and reveals God’s love for us.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,

full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory,

glory as of the only Son from the Father…And from

his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace…

No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in

the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

John 1:14-18

God’s love is demonstrated most powerfully through sacraments. Sacraments are sings and symbols:

Bread–Fitting symbol of hunger and nourishment, human needs and divine gifts.

Water–Symbol of birth, life, refreshment, death, cleanliness.

Wine–Rich and red symbol of spirit, vitality, life, blood.

Paul told the divided church at Corinth, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread?” (I Corinthians 10:17). Elsewhere, Paul spoke of baptism as if we were drowning our old lives so that we might be born to new life:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized

into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were

buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that

as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the

Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

-Romans 6:3-4

Not only objects like a loaf of bread or a cup of wine can be symbols. Actions can also convey deep meaning. A hug, a kiss, a handshake, kneeling for prayer, applause, a shout of joy–all are ways of letting actions speak louder than words in our worship of God. Sacraments are everyday objects like bread and water and everyday actions like eating and bathing, that, when done among God’s people in worship, convey our love for our God. They are means by which we express feelings too deep for words.

We not only use these objects and actions in worship to show our love for God, God also uses sacraments to show his love for us. Our Creator knows that we creatures depend on demonstrations of divine love. So God uses everyday things we can understand to show us love that defies understanding. God gives us the Christ.

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by

the prophets; but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a Son.

Hebrews 1:1-2

Jesus, at the end of his earthly ministry, gave us a powerful symbol of love–a meal of loving friends.

The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had

given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this

in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying,

“This cup is the new covenant in my blood. do this, as often as you drink it,

in remembrance of me.”

I Corinthians 11:23-35

Jesus also gave his followers a sacrament of his love to share with the rest of the world–Baptism, the sacrament of initiation into the Christian faith.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the

name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 28:19

We United Methodists observe two sacraments, two “acts of love” that Jesus gave his disciples; Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or Holy Communion). In these sacraments we taste, touch, fee, know, and experience the grace of God. We know the love of God to be a present reality in our lives.

We believe the sacraments, ordained by Christ, are symbols and pledges of

The Christian’s profession and of God’s love towards us. They are means of

grace by which God works invisibly in us, quickening, strengthening and

confirming our faith in him.

The Book of Discipline, par.68, page 634.

What do sacraments mean? Admittedly, the sacraments speak of mysteries too deep for words or mere understanding. As one person said of the Lord’s Supper, “I would rather experience it than understand it.” In another sense the meaning of the sacraments is close to the most common, everyday experiences in life.

The Lord’s supper means everything that any meal means: love, fellowship, hunger and nourishment of life, hospitality, joy. These mealtime meanings are given added significance because, at this meal, we commune with the risen Christ who joins us at our table.

Baptism means everything that water means: cleansing, birth, power, refreshment, life. These natural meanings of water are given added significance because his baptismal water is given “in the name of Jesus.”

You can think of other acts of worship beside the sacraments that are also acts of love: confirmation, a wedding, a funeral, sermons, prayers, hymns, altar calls. In all these activities, we reach out to God in love, only to find that, in love, God has been reaching out to us.

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

– Matthew 18:20

William H. Willimon

Continuing with our discussion from January at Clearbranch with Tony Campolo, please be sure to join Peter Storey, former bishop of the Methodist Church in South Africa, and me at Canterbury United Methodist Church on Saturday, March 24, from 10:00 a.m.-2:30 pm, as we continue to explore what “costly discipleship” means.
Because of Dr. Storey’s prophetic ministry in South Africa, involving prison chaplaincy to Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners on Robben Island, and three decades of preaching against the apartheid regime from his pulpit, Storey was blacklisted by the government, arrested more than once and his church tear-gassed and invaded by armed police.
Come and hear how we can be better disciples and practice prophetic ministry here in our context!

What’s the Point of Worship?

During the Season of Lent, for the next three weeks, I’ll focus my e-mail messages on worship as the central art of church.

Frankly, I just don’t get much out of the Sunday morning thing. A lot of the time, I like the music, particularly when it’s contemporary. But there is a lot that goes on Sunday morning that doesn’t do much for me. Am I supposed to feel something? I would think that being a Christian is more than sitting and listening. It is also doing. What is the good of the praying and the singing and the sitting and listening?

What is the chief end of humanity?

The proper answer from the Westminster Confession: The chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

The Christian faith is a matter of God’s offer of love in Christ and our response to that love. We respond to God’s love with our loving acts of service toward those in need in the church and in the world. And yet we respond to God’s love, not only by loving deeds of service to others, but also by simply doing the things we do for God because God is God and we are God’s children. We are called not simply to obey God but also to glorify God. Above all, we are called to enjoy God.We are called to worship.

Love is not love if it is simply a matter of obeying rules, running errands, and performing duties. Some things we do just because we enjoy being in the presence of our loved one. So we sing songs, write poetry, dance, clap our hands, share food, or simply prop up our feet and do nothing but enjoy being with one another.In these purposeless moments of sheer enjoyment, we come very close to what love is all about.

If someone asked a Christian, “What’s the purpose of your worship? Why do you gather on Sunday and sing songs, dress up, kneel, march in processions, clap your hands, shed tears, speak, eat, and listen?” We could only say, “Because we are in love.”

The most serious, most delightful business of Christians, when you get down to it is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” In other words, to worship. Whether we are glorifying and enjoying God in church in our music, sermons, baptisms, and prayers our outside of church in our social concern, witnessing, and charity, it is all for one purpose: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

I can’t put it better than in one of the most “pointless” and wonderful of the psalms, the very last psalm:

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his exceeding greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with timbrel and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
Psalm 150

Here is the heart of Christians at worship, pure praise done for the sheer enjoyment of love of a Creator is loves and is therefore beloved.

William H. Willimon

Reflection by Barbara Brown Taylor

In the past month, I’ve met with a couple hundred of you to think about “The Cross of Christ.” Our discussions have revealed the cross is at the heart of the Christian faith. Ash Wednesday, I’ll be with pastors at Huntington reflecting on Preaching the Cross. My friend, Barbara Brown Taylor provides some eloquent reflections for us on this the First Week of Lent.

Jesus was not brought down by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God’s will from their own. Temple police are always a bad sign. When chaplains start wearing guns and hanging out at the sheriff’s office, watch out. Someone is about to have no king but Caesar.

This is a story that can happen anywhere at anytime, and we are as likely to be the perpetrators as the victims. I doubt that many of us will end up playing Annas, Caiaphas or Pilate, however. They may have been the ones who gave Jesus the death sentence, but a large part of him had already died before they ever got to him–the part Judas killed off, then Peter, then all those who fled. Those are the roles with our names on them–not the enemies but the friends.

Whenever someone famous gets in trouble, that is one of the first things the press focuses on. What do his friends do? Do they support him or do they tell reporters that, unfortunately, they had seen trouble coming for some time? One of the worst things a friend can say is what Peter said. We weren’t friends, exactly. Acquaintances might be a better word. Actually, we just worked together. For the same company, I mean. Not together, just near each other. My desk was near his. I really don’t know him at all.

No one knows what Judas said. In John’s Gospel he does not say a word, but where he stands says it all. After he has led some 200 Roman soldiers and the temple police to the secret garden where Jesus is praying, Judas stands with the militia. Even when Jesus comes forward to identify himself, Judas does not budge. He is on the side with the weapons and the handcuffs, and he intends to stay there.

Or maybe it was not his own safety that motivated him. Maybe he just fell out of love with Jesus. That happens sometimes. One day you think someone is wonderful and the next day he says or does something that makes you think twice. He reminds you of the difference between the two of you and you start hating him for that–for the difference–enough to begin thinking of some way to hurt him back.

I remember being at a retreat once where the leader asked us to think of someone who represented Christ in our lives. When it came tie to share our answers, one woman stood up and said, “I had to think hard about that one. I kept thinking, Who is it that told me the truth about myself so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it?” According to John, Jesus died because he told the truth to everyone he met. He was the truth, a perfect mirror in which people saw themselves in God’s own light.

What happened then goes on happening now. In the presence of his integrity, our own pretense is exposed. In the presence of his constancy, our cowardice is brought to light.

Barbara Brown Taylor, “Truth to Tell,” from “The Perfect Mirror,” copyright 1998 Christian Century Foundation., 89-92.

TAKE THOU AUTHORITY

“Take thou authority to preach the Word….” These were the words under which many of us were ordained into the pastoral ministry. The issue of pastoral authority is a troubling one for many of us. Here are some thoughts, in a recent book on pastoral leadership, that are instructive for us pastors.

The Reverend John McFadden describes how the difference between worldly power and spiritual authority was revealed to him in the life of the church. The context was his working relationship with his Wisconsin Conference minister (our low-church equivalent of a bishop) in the United Church of Christ. John penned these words at the occasion of the Reverend Fred Trost’s retirement and publicly feted him with these warm pearls of insight.

It was the Budget Committee. Fred greeted everyone warmly, prayed earnestly, and outlined the difficult issues associated with balancing a budget in a year where funds were tight. Then, in a cordial but firm tone of voice, he identified the items in the proposed budget that were not open to discussion or debate!

Having been trained in Puritan self-control, I succeeded in choking back my outrage. Who does this man think he is? What is the point in serving on a committee of the Conference if the Conference Minister makes unilateral decisions? The word “arrogant” was one of the more printable I assigned to him, and I determined to maintain a certain distance. I am certain that for the next year or two he saw me as cool and aloof. The Great Facilitator had met Herr Pastor Trost, and the distance between the two appeared to be unbridgeable.

I can now look back and chuckle at how badly I misunderstood Fred and his motives in that early encounter. What I then perceived as arrogance I now appreciate as conviction; what I then heard as “this cannot be debated!” I now know was “let us debate this with real passion!” I was so deeply schooled in the ways of power that I failed to recognize genuine authority when I encountered it.

Fred Trost stands first among the mentors who have taught me that the integrity of the pastoral vocation grows from daring to claim the spiritual authority vested in us by the church. True spiritual authority begins only when we reject the sinful temptation to embrace the ways of power. Power is self-centered and self-serving; its clarion cry is “my will be done!” Power is measured in dollars, in clout, in control. It is brokered by fear and intimidation. Its goal is always to win and, in winning, to create losers. Power builds fiefdoms and empires. Power always believes in its own wisdom, its own strength, its own purpose. Power answers to nothing beyond itself, not even to God.

Authority is temporarily entrusted to our stewardship by that which is greater than we are and to which we are accountable. Spiritual authority must answer to scripture, to tradition, and to the living community of the church, from which it never stands apart or above. Spiritual authority grows from the humility born of knowing we are creatures, utterly beholden to our Creator. As such, we can never possess absolute certainty that our thoughts are wise, our actions righteous, so the authority invested in us must often be discharged in fear and trembling.

Yet, paradoxically, spiritual authority also grows from the confidence born of knowing that where our wisdom and righteousness end, God’s begin, and that through the actions of the Holy Spirit these frail, earthen vessels may convey deeper truth and work greater deeds than our own limited abilities would permit. Spiritual authority acts most boldly when it first prays most humbly; it speaks with the greatest strength when it first listens most carefully. Spiritual authority seeks to empty itself of the conceit of possessing its own wisdom, so that it may say not “my will be done,” but “Thy will be done.”

True spiritual authority may reside in either a Great Facilitator or a Herr Pastor. It often leads us to a place somewhere between the two. When a Great Facilitator understands the truth of spiritual authority, he or she seeks to help the saints discern the prompting of the Hoy Spirit in their discussion and debate. The goal is not to build consensus or resolve an issue by taking a vote. Rather, it is to discover together how the living Spirit is working and speaking through the gathered community of the church.

When a Herr Pastor understands the truth of spiritual authority, that person spends years in coming to know the saints of the church deeply, grieving with them in times of pain and loss, celebrating with them in their joys and new beginnings, until the pastor can no longer say with certainty where his or her own life ends and the life of the congregation begins. When the line between “I” and “we” becomes sufficiently blurred, Herr Pastor can speak with a clear, authoritative voice that is no longer tainted by the presumption of personal power.

Both the Great Facilitator and Herr Pastor must return frequently to the sources of their spiritual authority. They must study God’s word in Holy Scripture, preferably in fellowship with other Christians. They must pray, both in the stillness of their own hearts, and in settings of Christian community. They must read the thoughts of saints who preceded them, so they can dialogue with the wisdom of the ages. They must worship God frequently, so that they never forget who they are, and whose they are. They must immerse themselves in Christian theology until it becomes second nature to experience the world through God’s eyes, rather than their own.

— From Who Are You to Say? Establishing Pastoral Authority in Matters of Faith, by Dale Rosenberger, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2005, pp. 87-89

Keeping Work In Its Place

George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community of Scotland, said that he took the job of cleaning the community’s toilets so, “I will not be tempted to preach irrelevant sermons on ‘the dignity of all labor.'”

I haven’t preached many sermons on the subject of work.

When I do preach on work, I will tell them that I believe that the fabled “Protestant work ethic” is a decidedly mixed inheritance for the church. Martin Luther attacked medieval monasticism by dignifying all work as divinely ordained. You don’t have to become a nun to serve God. Even the lowest servant cleaning floors in the rich man’s house mops to the glory of God. God did not simply create the world and quit. God keeps creating and invites us, in even the humblest work, to join in God’s continuing creativity.

Luther’s thought on work is not so much a glorification of our human work, but rather a celebration of the work of God. When Luther uses “vocation” he uses it more to refer to tasks like marriage and family than to jobs. Our vocation is not work but worship.

Sometime ago, I saw a book for Christian students. It began, “How can you serve Christ on campus?” Answer. “First by studying hard. You are called to be a student. You have gifts and graces from God for study. You are not studying just for yourself, but for what you can eventually give to others through your study. Now, study!”

That sounds like “vocation.”

Unfortunately, the “Protestant work ethic” tended to elevate even the meanest job to the status of divinely ordained, so that today, when we say “vocation,” we mostly mean “job.”

Sometimes the “Protestant work ethic” defended the indefensible. If you’re in a demeaning, degrading job, it is because God put you there, therefore, don’t strive to better your condition. Such thought was a powerful hindrance to revolutionary thought and action.

Today, most people can expect seven job-changes in their lifetime. Many of these will be forced upon them by external economic factors. How can these multiple changes, forced upon the worker from the outside, be called aspects of divine vocation?

While Protestantism, in its attempt to honor all work as a vocation from God, may have contributed to some of the abuses of capitalism, the Christian and the Jewish faiths also bear within a prophetic critique of work. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, humanity is graciously invited by God to work. God creates a garden, then invites the woman and the man to tend the garden. Yet Genesis also admits that work, gracious gift of God, can also be a curse, when abused and used in sinful ways. Adam and Eve are cursed by hard work when they’re kicked out of God’s garden.

We have no record that Jesus ever worked or urged anyone else to do so. The “call” of Jesus appears to be a call to ordinary people like fishermen and tax collectors to leave their careers and to follow him on his travels about Galilee.

Thus, while work may be a good gift of God, our present structures of work are not divinely ordained. Work, like any human endeavor — sex, money, art — may be tainted with human sin. For some, that sin will take the form of idolatry, in which we give honor and energy to our jobs which should be reserved for God.

I think that we pastors ought to be cautious about claiming too much for work. Most of work’s rewards are most mundane. For one thing, most of our friends are somehow related with our work. One of the most dehumanizing aspects of unemployment is the loneliness of the unemployed.

Also, from a Christian perspective, your work has value because it contributes, not to your well being, but to someone else’s. As a mechanic said to me recently, “People need me more than they need a brain surgeon. When I put somebody’s car back on the road, they’re grateful and I’m happy.” Work is a major way we discover our dependency on one another, our connectedness in a wide web of other persons’ work.

For another thing, most of us work for the mundane, but utterly necessary need to earn a living. Our work puts bread on the table. Rather than debate which forms of work contribute to our personhood and which do not, we ought to focus on which work fairly compensates a worker and which work doesn’t. We ought to admit that most of us work for pay. While we are working for pay, we can achieve many other noble human values. But none of those noble values should deter us from the most basic value that all ought to have work and that all ought to be justly compensated for their work.A fair, living wage is more to the point than our high-sounding theological platitudes.

We are right to seek meaningful work, since work is a major task given by God to humanity. We are right to criticize our present structures of work, expecting them to be sinful and in need of reform in various ways. Our work, suggests our faith, is source of great joy, also of much pain. Making a life is more significant than making a living.

William H. Willimon

I hope you will join me at the “Growing Healthy Churches” Event with Dr. Paul Borden on February 9 and 10.

For God’s Sake Say It!

When I was courting The Rev. Carl Parker’s daughter (who eventually became my wife, Patsy) Mr. Parker was serving as a District Superintendent in the Marion District of the Methodist Church. I was nervous. I wanted to make a good impression. I was considering entering seminary in the fall, and I wanted the approval of this preacher’s family.

Because a District Superintendent does not serve one congregation, but supervises those preachers in the district, Mr. Parker spent many Sundays in the pew rather than in the pulpit, a situation that he detested.

That particular Sunday, the preacher was a master of ambiguity and equivocation. Mr. Parker squirmed in his pew as the preacher carefully qualified just about every statement made in the sermon. Mr. Parker withdrew his large railroad watch from his pocket at five-minute intervals throughout the sermon, the watch that had been given to him by some thankful congregation of the past. He would gaze at his watch, shake his head, thrust it back into his pocket and groan slightly. The poor preacher continued to flail away, thrashing at his subject, rather than delivering it.

“We need to be more committed to Christ…but not to the point of fanaticism, not to the point of neglect of our other important responsibilities.

“We need to have a greater dedication to the work of the church. Now I don’t mean that the church is the only significant organization of which you are a member. Most of us have obligations to various community groups….” And on, and on. Every five minutes, with some ceremony, Mr. Parker withdrew his gold railroad watch from his pocket, opened it, looked at it, remained surprised that so little time had been used, closed it, and slapped it back in his pocket with regret.

After service, all of us in the District Superintendent’s party brushed right past Mr. Milk Toast with barely a word of greeting. Mr. Parker led us down the sidewalk back to the District parsonage, like ducks in a row. He went right through the front door and charged up the stairs. Pausing midway, he whirled around, shaking a finger at me and thundering, “Young man, if God should be calling you into the pastoral ministry, and if you should ever be given a church by the bishop, and if God ever gives you a word to say, for God’s sake would you say it!”

Mainline Protestantism seems to be suffering from a failure of theological nerve. Our trumpets suffer from our uncertain sound. The bland leading the bland.

Courage to speak arises, in great part, from the conviction that God has given us something to say. I recall Leander Keck (in a debate on the most effective sermon styles) saying “When the messenger is gripped by a Message, the messenger will find the means to speak it.”

As preachers, we know the challenge, in a relativistic culture, if standing up and saying, “This news is good, this word is true.”

On one occasion Walter Brueggemann said to us, “If you are a coward by nature, don’t worry. We can still use you. You can get down behind the biblical text. You can peek out from behind the text saying, ‘I don’t know if I would say this, but I do think the text does’.” I like that image – the preacher hunkered down, taking cover behind the biblical text, speaking a word not of the preacher’s devising.

Courage to speak requires clarity about our source of authority. If we only stand in the pulpit to “share ourselves,” or to “tell my story” as some misguided recent homiletics has urged us, then the church shall end, not with a bang but in a simpering sigh after a thousand qualifications and reservations.

This Sunday, take Mr. Parker’s advice. If God gives you a word for God’s people, for God’s sake, say it!

William H. Willimon

Divine Wisdom among "Little Old Ladies"

A few years ago, a friend of mine returned from one of those National Council of Churches trips to the Soviet Union. Two weeks had made her a Soviet expert. When asked about the churches in there, her reply was, “There’s nobody left in the churches except for a few little old ladies.”

Poor, out-of-it church. Nobody left but a few little old ladies.

In the light of complete collapse of the Soviet Union, and the resurgence of the church in Russian and the former Soviet Republics, we are now better able to assess the relative importance of those few believing women. As it turned out, those women had put down their money on the right horse. While leaders of the World Council of Churches were busy having dialogue with the Communist bosses in Romania and elsewhere (the very same bosses who were making life so miserable for Christians there), the pastor of a little Romania Reformed church, probably assisted by a few “little old ladies,” was busy bringing down an empire. And as usual, no one was more surprised by all this than those of us in the church.

When will we ever learn the truth that God has chosen “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (I Corinthians 1:27-28)? I know that this passage concludes with “so that no one might boast in the presence of God” but is it OK to boast in the presence of our half-hearted church that those believing women, that faithful pastor knew a great deal more about the way the world works than all of the Pentagon strategists, White House-Kremlin planners, World Council of Churches dialoguers and most of the rest of us?

At the World Methodist Conference a few summers ago, the former Dean of Duke Divinity School was talking with a bishop from one of the Baltic republics. “How in the world were you able to keep going with so many years of hostility and persecution?” he asked the bishop.

“Well, though it was tough, we in the church always took the long view,” was his reply.

Three years ago the World Methodist Council gave Mr. Gorbachev its “Peacemaker of the Year” award. A couple of months later, he ordered the tanks into Lithuania. As far as I know, he did not return the award.

Is it possible for us to look behind the encouraging headlines coming out of the East, to take the long view, to read them sub specie aeternatis, to let ourselves be schooled by those wise, so worldly wise, little old ladies who knew something that even the CIA did not?

I quickly learned, in my first parish, that if I really wanted something done, something pushy, a bit risky, something out of the ordinary, I needed to go to the members of the Alice Davis memorial Circle of the United Methodist Women. It wasn’t that they were all over seventy and had time, it was that they were all well formed as Christians and had faith. While Nixon was pondering whether or not to go to China, they were finishing the UMW Fall Mission Study on The People’s Republic. When we all celebrated the end of the Vietnam War, they were sending letters to the people of Vietnam apologizing for our destruction of their country, putting aside a portion of their Social Security checks to contribute to the Church World Service Refugee resettlement program. When I spoke to the church about the need to do something about the plight of the homeless, three of them came forward to tell me that they work as volunteers at the Homeless Shelter so, if I were really serious, they would be happy to take me for a visit.

Sometimes, there is nobody left to be the church “except for a few little old ladies.” Thank God.

William H. Willimon

Big Church

It took until February 1965 for the Alabama voting rights movement to spread from Selma to less populated environs. Martin Luther King visited both Perry and Wilcox counties, appearing even at little Gees Bend, encouraging the tenant farmers not to give up now. In one demonstration in Perry, seven hundred students from SCLC were arrested and incarcerated like cattle in a makeshift stockade with brutal living conditions. Local organizers called Selma asking for help, specifically requesting C. T. Vivian, veteran of the struggle with Sheriff Clark. Vivian had become a giant in the movement.

C.T. was at first reluctant to go, having just been released from jail. But he stood that Sunday night in the pulpit of Zion Chapel Church Marion and fired up a packed church with his eloquence. The church was filled with determined, angry people who, angered by the arrest of their children, were determined to march from the clapboard church to the city jail. C.T. admired their bravery, but he knew that they were on a perilous course. Night marches were rare; the night belonged to the Klan, though in the Black Belt, Klansmen didn’t need sheets to cover their identity. The assumption was that even the local law enforcement officers were free to do whatever they wanted, acting upon the orders of Governor Wallace.

Enflamed by C.T. Vivian’s sermon, marchers streamed out of the little church anyway. When police chief T. O. Harris ordered them to return to the church, they knelt to pray. The police attacked. Many were assaulted, knocked to the ground, pursued through the dark streets. An NBC reporter, Richard Valeriani, was also beaten.

It was for the freedom seekers, the last straw. The rage engendered this night was the decisive prelude to the historic, massive march on Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7.

For Christians in Alabama, white and black, this is our history, our inheritance. As a relative newcomer to the church in Alabama, I believe it is important that we claim this past as power for the present. The Holy Spirit, in countless little churches all across our state worked miracles, defeated Satan, and won a new people. What a resource for the living of the Christian life, to have these living reminders among us. We’re not there yet, but in our better moments, we are on the way. And every time we take one little step against the great sin of American racism, we are moving closer to Christ. That’s but one reason why we are gathering at Clearbranch on January 6. C.T. Vivian will be there to encourage us, along with Tony Campolo. We’ve still got great work to do, and we’ve got a great place in which to do it.

Thank God for a church that keeps holding up before us what Jesus expects of us. Thank God for a church that keeps convicting us of our sin, keeps holding before us redemption. I’ve met people ho have been attracted to one of our congregations because there people are visibly dealing with this continuing American dilemma of racial justice. I’ve also met people who are no longer in our church because a congregation is avoiding or denying this sin. The church at its best is God-given free space in which to deal with and overcome our sin.

Years later, C.T. Vivian was back in Marion and looked at Zion Chapel Church again. He was stunned that the church was so small, little more than a clapboard box. Could it have been the same church that ignited such a liberating conflagration? That tiny church?

No, C.T., you are taller than you appear and that little church is a great cathedral. All of us who attempt to walk the way of Jesus in Alabama today, travel in your lengthened, encouraging shadow. Jesus fully intends to rock our world, to purge us of our sin, including the sin of racism, through preachers like C.T., through churches like Zion Chapel.This is the way this God works miracles.

William H. Willimon

I got this account of C.T. Vivian at Marion from chapter 17 of Frye Gaillard’s amazing book, Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America (The University of Alabama Press, 2004).

On Faith

“Faith is not only God’s gift but also God’s assignment.”
Conversations with Barth on Preaching (Abingdon Press, 2006)

So much of the time we think of faith as our own personal achievement. In looking to theologian Karl Barth, we are reminded that faith is always a gift from God. In addition to faith as divine gift, it is also a holy assignment for each of us. Christianity is less a club and more of a shared vocation – especially in how well we put to task the commands of God as a community of faith.

To what assignment are you called through the gift of the faith?

For more on faith from Karl Barth:

“Faith is not, therefore, a standing, but a being suspended and hanging without ground under our feet. Or conversely, in faith we abandon whatever we might otherwise regard as our standing, namely, our standing upon ourselves (including all moral and religious, even Christian standing), because in faith we see that it is a false and unreal standing, a hanging without support, a wavering and falling. We abandon it for the real standing in which we no longer stand on ourselves (on our moral and religious, or even our Christian state), and in which we obviously do not stand on our faith as such but — now at least firmly and securely — on the ground of the truth of God and therefore on the ground of the reconciliation which has taken place in Jesus Christ and is confirmed by Him to all eternity.”
Church Dogmatics, II, 1, pg. 159