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

Monday, January 22, 2007

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

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

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).

Monday, January 01, 2007

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