Wednesday, January 31, 2007

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

11 comments:

Keith McIlwain said...

Amen, Bishop! Wonderful advice, and greatly needed!

Pastor Astor said...

Thank you so much! This is so true, and a wonderful story!

Bill said...

As we have probably all heard in one form or another: a preacher should not speak because s/he has to say something; but, because s/he has something to say!

Or, perhaps my father-in-law had it right when he told me almost 30 years ago: Stand up. Speak up. Shut up!

Thanks for the excellent adice!

-bill
Spiritual Oasis Blog

lehall said...

AMEN!!

TN Rambler said...

Bishop, thanks for the reminder.

Elizabeth Kosorski said...

Good word Bishop!

J Hearne said...

An important story. Thanks for the thoughts.

PT2006 said...

Well said. I am happy that I have found your blog. You tell it straight, just like I need it, just like the church needs it, just like the world needs it, and more importantly, just like Jesus said it.

Kenny Payne said...

William,

I am excited to find your blog. I am in the process of reading "Conversations with Barth on Preaching" I have learned from many of your earlier works. Thanks for teaching...

Rhonda Hooks said...

As a middle aged Christian raised Methodist, I am concerned that perhaps our denomination is losing members because it is moving into politics and away from the Holy Spirit..... if you attend the large and growing "new wave" churches, you find and old wave, NOT a new one....... A true belief and adherence to the HOLY SPIRIT. Also, I believe our denomination is not trying to save the souls of the average working american who can afford their own shoes....... I,m not sure why... I worked in the county hospital here in Birmingham for 20 years....the economically poor have in large part always been in close contact with God..... and by the way, racial discrimination is not an American phenomenom....it is worldwide.... but back to the beginning..... the disciples were punished for preaching that God loved everyone and that Jesus Christ died to inherit our sin and save us from it..... I hope the methodist church gets back to the buisness of saving souls and THAT will be the thing that saves the world... not political agendas..

Glenn Kelley - ChurchMedic said...

Right On
as a lay speaker in my conference as well as heading up VineHosting.com - a ministry helping churches and conferences in the UMC system build effective online ministries - I am asked to speak to churches all the time.

Interestingly enough I generally find myself giving the message of Salvation...

I go there to talk about the WEB and why we should Evangelize... Instead I begin w/ the Message of Salvation... if I see someone in the audience who this message has hit home with - I keep it up - and let the Spirit lead me.


I have had pastors thank me - telling me - I wish I could do that...

Taking a pulse on the church body is a great thing - Telling them what God wants them to hear - is important -even if we are shy to speak the words...

we should not be hiding the MESSAGE under a bushel...

Its time to let the message shine.

Recently I had someone tell me
"Glenn - if your interested in becoming a pastor in the conference - be careful how you say things on the blog ... if you choose to get ordained... this might come back to haunt you..."

If it is God's will - for me to become an ordained member of clergy in the UM system - He will make it so...

I enjoy reading your blog - as well as knowing your allowing your pastors to Say what needs to be Said...