Sunday, September 30, 2012

Stillness (1)

I shared an interesting conversation yesterday after I had spoken at a Men's Breakfast meeting.  I was given the theme of' Connecting with God and (among other things) mentioned the need for stillness.  That Moses pitched a tent a long way from the camp to be still with God (Exod. 33:7), and that Jesus often withdrew from his disciples to pray (such as Matt. 14:23). Deliberate withdrawal from people, busyness, noise, and activity in order to be still and know God (Psalm 46:8).

This man said to me: 'That word about stillness really got to me.  I realized I am never still.  All my life I am on the move, busily doing things.  Honestly, I am never still.'   His frankness really got through to me.  It's all very well talking about it. How often have I taken time out to be so quiet that I can hear the silence, and within that deep quiet hear the voice of God?  When was the last time?

I had quoted some provocative words of Pascal: 'All the evils of life have fallen upon us because men will not sit alone quietly in a room.'   What trouble we make for ourselves by hurry and noise.  But, when it comes to prayer how difficult we make it for God's relationship with us when we miss out on stillness.  How can God get through to us in deeper ways unless we are in deeper places?  Noise and activity allow only shallowness.

I felt rebuked.  So later that day I made time to go to the arboretum nearby, and walk off past other walkers in the Fall sunshine.  In the far distance on a slight rise, backed by trees and overlooking some prairie grass there was a park bench. I reached it and sat motionless.  All around leaves were turning into yellows and reds, rustling in the breeze.  Birdsong piped beautifully nearby and in the distance.  True, there was a rumble from the expressway a mile away but that only served to emphasize the stillness.  I stayed there for a time. I recognized two things.  Positively,  I experienced a genuine quietening of head and heart with a measure of openness to God in the beauty and quietness.  Negatively, I realized how poor I am at being still.  I really didn't stay more than a few minutes.  I know I shall have to be more intentional about making time to be still and silent.

Perhaps you are well-disciplined in the art of stillness.  Please share your experiences.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Black and White

Last week was a first for me.  I completed an exhilarating teaching week - a Doctor of Ministry intensive (well named) with a group of 11 pastors.  This was nothing new.  However, this time 10 of them were African-Americans.   Ages ranged from upper 20's to upper 60's; from Washington DC to Texas with Chicago in the middle; denominational spread covered historic mainstream - Lutheran, AME - through Baptist, to Pentecostal and a church plant.  Church sizes were similarly spread over a wide spectrum.  I guess years of preaching experience added together amounted to several hundred years!
I have yet to see their evaluations but I can share my first reflections.
  • It is sobering to be in a minority of two.  To realize that nearly everyone else has a common culture and distinctive preaching history which markedly contrasts with the white-dominated settings of my daily life. Occasionally, I made statements that were met by amused reactions that while this might be so in the white church it did not hold true in their own.  Talk about the levels of pastor's authority, or about focusing on the cross to the neglect of the resurrection (too often common in the white church) revealed how different it is for them.  Even more, when they shared their  urban stories and experiences of oppression,  I felt miles apart. Why was it sobering? - because to be in the minority is how most of these, my new friends, feel in my world, most of the time.
  • Yet, my overwhelming experience in the week was of utter acceptance by the group with the strongest expressions of affirmation and involvement.  When I opened the course with Scripture I was immediately enveloped by echoing 'Amens', 'Thank you Lord' ,'Oh, my Lord", as they leaned forward intently not missing a word.  That responsiveness never let  up. What a difference it makes when others express themselves so clearly and enthusiastically!   One set book involved a lively dialog between E.K. Bailey and Warren Wiersbe (Black and White).  Wiersbe admits how much white preachers have to learn from the holistic ministry of black pastors.  Oh yes! As the other white (Lutheran) pastor put it -'We lived that dialog this week!' 
  • The wonder of expressive faith.  Yes, the sheer contagion of unashamed witness is wonderful.  When each student preached in class the levels of engagement were off the charts.  I commented once to the famous black preacher Robert Smith (of Beeson Seminary) about how frozen and mute many white congregations are. "But I know there are feelings inside you white folks even if you don't show it", he said.   Yet, what a difference if we could show more emotion?
As you can tell, I was so grateful for my immersion into such a warm, lively, gracious group where I learned so much.  Privilege is an over-used word but it's right for this past week.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Ordination Challenge

I have just returned to the US in time to preach at a particularly interesting ordination service for the Rev (new today!) Caleb Smith, at Christ Community Church, Wheaton.  It was interesting because, as adviser to Caleb over his years at Northern Seminary, I had an especially close hands-on relationship which helped lead to his call to this small community church.  It is wonderful to see a gifted young pastor (with an equally gifted wife) so fully committed to this extraordinarily multi-cultural fellowship.

I warned him that I had been recently grabbed by a text and story in John 3:22-36  that I had never preached on before, and that I was going to prepare a new sermon.  When John the Baptist is provoked by his disciples' telling him that Jesus is now more important than him (everyone is going to Jesus!) John resists any small-minded response out of bruised pride.  Rather he states an extraordinary principle: "He must become greater and I must become less" (verse 33).

My message to Caleb was: "You are important, but not that important!" as I engaged with some of the ways in which by practical worship, robust faith and bold witness he could be sustained in a relationship, giving more glory to Christ.  Afterwards someone said to me: 'You know that challenge that "you are not that important" should really be given to all the members of the church'. Yes, sadly, too often Christians do assert self-importance and obscure Christ and his kingdom.  Actually, this summer I have heard of two local churches where members' strong personalities so asserted agendas, likes and dislikes that they destroyed fellowship unity.  Oh what damage is done when we forget the One who is really important.  Yes,  I think this theme has wider application than just at an ordination service!

At one point I mentioned some advice from E. Stanley Jones that I jotted down in my prayer journal many years ago. He listed some guidelines for Christian leadership which, I think, keep us from inflated self-importance:
- Be willing to take criticism yourself
- Be on guard that you do not become petty
- Be willing to give way in small things that do not involve principles
- Refuse to look for slight regarding yourself
- Keep the power of laughing at yourself
- Keep up the prayer life and underneath keep a surrendered heart.
It's been good to be reminded.   Do you agree?