|How you discern and present the Word for Today|
January 1, 2002
"Will someone I know get sick, and maybe die? I don't know. I don't know if the administration will make sense or create confusion. I don't know if anthrax will be replaced by something else. I don't know if more buildings will be attacked. I don't know if the terrorists have some other plans, something worse—I don't know. … And what's worse, I've come to believe that this is the way life is going to be. Not knowing is the new normal."
CNN anchor Aaron Brown opened an October newscast with that summary of his feelings about the anthrax threat and the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. He spoke for us all.
To that frustration, the pastor has the added duty to assuage fears and to preach with certainty about what we know for sure. That's not easy these days, when there's so much we don't know for sure.
How do we preach in times like these? Here, three pastors help us sort through the issues.
Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.
Will Willimon, dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
And first, an interview with James A. Forbes, senior minister of the historic Riverside Church on Manhattan's upper West side. On the tourists' maps as one of the inspiring sites to visit in the city, Riverside Church has seen an influx of worshipers, too, since the attacks.
Do you think your congregation will ever return to normal after the World Trade Center disaster?
James A. Forbes: Healing will take a long time. Flashes of normalcy last only a few days. Survivors still struggle with guilt: "Why did I survive? Why didn't my colleagues?" The national response, economic turns, and war effort are still unfolding, so we've been unable to find closure.
Here in New York we're still asking "Which bridge can I cross? Which flight is safe? Which letters should I open?" My goodness, it's premature to anticipate returning to normal. I suspect we are moving toward a new and different normal.
How does that "new normalcy" affect you as a preacher?
In minor crises, the preacher can extract himself emotionally and allow others to express grief and fear and doubt while he remains strong. In this case, we cannot extract ourselves from the general malaise. We are a part of it, and it affects our spirits, too.
I've found myself torn in different directions. My church has an historical emphasis on peace, but we can't enjoy peace without honoring the blood our soldiers shed for it. I've struggled between my pastoral care role and offering a prophetic voice. I've thought, So I've preached some sermons to comfort and assure people it's going to be all right. Is it time to question what the Spirit is trying to say to us?
Uncertain where the Spirit was leading and what emphasis to take, I wrote myself a prayer. It stabilized my response to the different impulses that were coming to me as I tried to look at the crisis. Every day I sing:
Holy Spirit, lead me, guide me,
as I move throughout this day;
may your promptings deep inside me
show me what to do and say.
In the power of your presence,
strength and courage will increase.
In the wisdom of your guidance
is the path that leads to peace.
I need to be anchored in my faith, tethered to the Spirit.
Are you saying that a preacher's first responsibility is to tend to his own soul?
The preacher's responsibility is to be as fit an instrument of the Spirit as he or she can possibly be. We need to take care of ourselves emotionally, spiritually, and physically so that we can sustain our leadership capacity for our people.
How do you know when to preach from a pastoral heart, and when it's time for a prophetic voice?
I want to avoid contrasting prophetic and pastoral roles. There are people grieving. There are people who struggle to find the courage to go outside or look for another job. They come to Riverside asking, "Is there any word from the Lord?" They're looking for both comfort and direction.
They ask, "What is Riverside's stance on this war? What about Islam? What is our attitude toward economic repair?" Repeating our traditional ideological stances on violence and suffering is not the same as a word from the Lord. People expect answers.
I've had to delve into the Word for a fresh perspective on what needs to be said now. The safest approach is to let the Word raise both questions and answers. The Word is both pastoral and prophetic.
How have you discovered fresh perspective in Scripture recently?
Every Scripture I've read since September 11 feels new. Almost any text I preach requires me to reapply it to this new reality.
Take the Twenty-third Psalm: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." If I ride a train with strangers now, could that be the valley of the shadow of death? Or If I go to my mailbox and wonder about anthrax, is that the valley?
It's easy to say, "I shall fear no evil," but everybody in America is a little scared.
"Let not your hearts be troubled" sounds appropriate, but then you continue, "You believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions. I'm going to prepare a place for you."
Are those words available to different faiths? Or do they only apply to those who have affirmed their faith in Jesus Christ? I deal with those questions every day now. I've had to minister at interfaith services. The memorial service at Shea Stadium is one example. Each time I ask, "What Scriptures do I read? Do I pray it in Jesus' name?"
How do you preach to people who are looking for answers but are of different faiths?
The first thing I've said is that there are certain promises that are said directly to those who have affirmed Christ as Lord. I call them insider promises.
But I've also encouraged people to draw from the faith in which they are nourished, whether Hindu or Buddhist or Christian. "If your faith has given you strength in your hours of peril, then draw from it." I also say, "Find strength in your own faith or else I'm going to challenge you to see what Jesus Christ has done for you." But that's only after I ask them to honor their own faith and see if it ministers to their needs.
Meanwhile, within the Church, we have to call people beyond nominal Christianity. Don't just be Christian in name; be deeply Christian. Just because your mother took you to Sunday school, that's not enough. You need to know God for yourself.
Is now a ripe time for evangelism?
I would ask people to think twice before they exploit the present moment for increasing Christian membership roles. I think the Spirit may have a broader mission than that.
God is spiritually revitalizing America, but not just Christianity. I believe the Spirit is calling the nation—Jews, Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists—to stir up the spiritual values at the center of faith so that people will not be shallow in their response to these difficult days.
My evangelical friends might rather I speak about winning the world for Christ right now. But I think strengthening our Christian witness while also encouraging our co-religionists of other traditions will increase understanding, respect, and tolerance. It will strengthen the character of our nation.
The issues we are facing are not just Christian issues. We need to work with people of different faith traditions and draw from our collective wisdom rather than to simply use these times to proselytize.
How do you keep the message of Christ distinct while being sensitive to the other faiths?
By bringing integrity to Christian worship, teaching, and action. We don't have the luxury of separating our attitude toward others from the values we print in our catechism.
If I am a Christian, the way I know it's real is that my love is not simply self-regarding. It is not a love only for Christians or for those who might soon become Christians. It's got to be love for all the world.
How do you effect that in your preaching?
I used to say, "If you're going to carry water for the Spirit, some of it ought to slosh on you." So it's got to begin with me. I must enflesh, as best I can, the gospel I preach.
I remember when I was preaching about South African apartheid. I was confronting people on enriching ourselves at the expense of the poor. Then I looked at my gold ring. South Africa was a leading gold producer. I got the impulse to no longer wear gold that's benefiting the apartheid system. I happened to be preaching at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Manhattan. So I took the ring off and left it there.
Later, a woman from Littleton, Colorado introduced me on Sunday morning by taking off her diamond and gold wedding band and saying, "Listen!" When I finished preaching, the congregation recognized the intensity of our commitment and joined the struggle for freedom in South Africa.
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison he came to Riverside to thank us personally.
I want to stir people who are freed in Christ to help free others. My preaching may not produce immediate, visible results, but preparation for action is action. My mission is to preach in such a way that the love of Christ will recruit us to partner with God in the ministry of personal and social transformation. That's what I'm always looking for.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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