Why White, Middle Class Guys Like Me Struggle to Hear God

Why White, Middle Class Guys Like Me Struggle to Hear God

Many years ago I was a regular attender at the “Baptists Today” conferences, held annually in Canberra. The rather unimaginatively titled conferences were focused on social justice issues, which at that time were commonly neglected by the wider Baptist movement. I was a young pastor, eager to do justice, love mercy & walk humbly with my God (Micah 6:8). At these conferences, under the tutelage of people such as Tim Costello and Thorwald Lorenzon, I learned that if I was to theologise well on any justice issue I needed to begin by listening to those experiencing injustice. Before I could pontificate about the meaning of biblical texts that spoke of wives submitting and men leading in church and home, I needed to hear the stories of women and their experiences of life and their reading of the biblical material; before I offered my opinion on indigenous questions, I needed to sit and listen to indigenous peoples tell their stories; before I could pronounce on questions of sexuality, I needed to listen to gay, lesbian, transgender and other people with alternative sexualities, to hear their stories and their experiences.

I must confess that at first I was impatient with this. I wanted to go straight to the Scriptures and find out “what God said”. But the Baptists Today conferences taught me that there can be no shortcuts. The only way I could hear what God said was to first listen to those on the margins. When I listened to their stories I was invited to see my world very differently. I had never before reflected on the fact that I was extraordinarily privileged as a white male. How different the world looked when it was viewed through the eyes of those without the privilege I enjoyed. I discovered they were asking questions that I had never thought to ask; that they were seeing things in the Scriptures that I had never imagined; and that they were subject to discrimination and disenfranchisement that I simply didn’t see, but weighed heavily upon them and eroded their sense of human dignity.

I wonder if this is not the Achilles heel of the Western evangelical movement. In our rush to find out what God says on any given issue we under-appreciate the significance of our social location. We delude ourselves with the notion that the application of the proper exegetical and hermeneutical techniques will lead us to God’s will. I have discovered that reading the Bible is an inherently social task and that one of the key interpretive skills we need is the capacity to listen and empathise.

A month ago I wrote a post in which I asked why it was that evangelical believers were found opposing the major social justice movements of our time. Somehow, large numbers of us managed to oppose the abolition of slavery; the enfranchisement of women; civil rights for “coloured” people; interracial marriages; the liberalisation of divorce laws; the equality of women in church and marriage; and now find ourselves opposing marriage equality and fulminating about gender fluidity. The problem was not a lack of exegetical capacity. Our history is replete with scholars who sought to “carefully divide the word of truth”. The problem seems to be that those who held the reins of power within the evangelical movement lacked the ability to hear the voices of the other and, deaf to their voices, interpreted the biblical texts in ways that endorsed the existing power relations of their time and perpetuated the mythologies that supported the existing power systems.

I recall the powerful letter written by Martin Luther King when he was imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama. The leaders of the white churches had condemned this “outsider” who had interfered in their community and demanded that he withdraw in order to allow gradual change. This was part of King’s reply:

We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience …

Listening and empathy are as important to good biblical interpretation as the technical exegetical skills I learned at theological college. And perhaps even more important, is the creation of communities where decision-making, participation and leadership do not privilege one particular social group, but are inclusive of the diverse voices and experiences of our people.

The Funniest Moments I’ve Had While Preaching

Sometimes, despite our best laid plans, things can go wrong. Here are the five funniest moments I’ve had while preaching.

5. The Silly Walk
During one of my sermons while youth pastor at Caringbah Baptist everyone suddenly starts laughing. I haven’t said anything funny. I check my fly – it’s done up. Only at the end of the service do I discover that one of the particularly witty young adults has done a John Cleese style funny walk across the stage behind me. He meant no disrespect. It was just funny.

4. The Sink
I had just finished baptising someone. In Baptist churches our baptisms are by full immersion, so the Baptistry is a large tank, about the size of a small spa. It is usually filled before the service and emptied afterwards, but unbeknown to me ours has sprung a leak, so the guy looking after it pulls the plug straight away.

I have started my sermon. I’ve begun with a powerful and moving story. I pause to allow the story to sink in. Right at that moment a huge gurgling sound fills the church, the sound your bath makes when the draining water reaches a low level. It was the draining Baptistry. We wait five minutes for it to finish draining before the sound finally stops. The impact of my powerful story is lost.

3. Dr Who
We had just held a brilliant youth outreach event. Four hundred people had crammed into our church hall to watch “Bill and Ted’s Spiritual Adventure”, a very clever and riotously funny show put on by our young people. The show finished with me stepping out of a tardis dressed as Dr Who and giving a short evangelistic talk. I had worked and reworked every word and had it down to exactly four and a half minutes. I noted this in my introduction and invited the group of Twenty or so primary school kids sitting down the front to time me. Big mistake. I went for four minutes and forty five seconds. The final fifteen seconds consisted of me trying to talk over a bunch of kids animatedly pointing out that my time was up.

2. Sandcastles
I was preaching a sermon series on Ecclesiastes and telling a story about going to the beach with my kids and building sandcastles. “This is one of my daughters favourite things to do” I said, to which my six year old daughter loudly replied “No it’s not!”

1. Easter Interjections
It was a Good Friday, one of the most solemn days on the church calendar. I was preaching on the death of Christ. I had just made an important point and paused to allow it to sink in. The room was silent. And it was at that moment my pre-school age daughter turned to Sandy and in a loud voice broke the silence with “When is daddy going to stop talking?” She backed it up two days later when, during my Easter Sunday sermon, during another pause for reflection, my daughter broke the silence with “When’s the Easter Bunny coming?”

Another terrible sermon, but one I’d gladly sit through again

A few weeks back I blogged about what was undoubtedly the worst sermon I have ever heard. Hot on its heels was a sermon I heard by an American woman in a regional city in northern NSW. This however was one sermon that I’d happily sit through again.

It was the early 1990’s and I was a youth pastor. Baptist Youth Ministries had brought a group of American youth pastors to Australia, teamed them up with Aussie counterparts, and sent them into regional areas to run training events for youth leaders. I was paired with two wonderful Americans, Dean and Wendy.

One Sunday night we were on the mid north coast and Wendy, a woman in her mid twenties,was given an opportunity to preach at the local Baptist church. Wendy was confident and full of personality, but in terms of content she gave a truly awful sermon. The way Wendy used the biblical text was creative to say the least! She found things in her chosen passage that I suspect no-one had ever found before and never will again.

But despite this sermon not fitting my idea of good preaching the impact was amazing. The young women of the church were abuzz, declaring it ‘”the best talk we have ever heard”. I was doubly surprised because their pastor was one of the finest preachers I know.

It seems that in this case it didn’t really matter what Wendy said. It was the fact that a vibrant young woman said it. Wendy herself was the message. Her presence communicated that young women matter, have a place in the heart of God and in the heart of the church. My friend who was the pastor there had preached that message over and over, but Wendy was a living demonstration of it.

It makes me realise that it’s not only what we communicate but who we are as we communicate it that matters. My Parkinson’s has reinforced this for me. Since my right arm has been tremoring in a pronounced way I am finding my preaching connects with people in a whole new way. It has made me vulnerable. For a long time my preaching was technically good – carefully researched, well-packaged, good story telling, thoughtful application. People described me as a “great teacher” and God used me to help people grow. But missing from my preaching was weakness and vulnerability. I communicated that I was someone who had mastery and control of both life and the text. Parkinsons has changed that. Now as I present people are engaging with me as someone with struggles and challenges, just like them. The content may be the same but the communicator isn’t and that changes the dynamic.

This makes me think we preachers need to give more attention to who we are as we preach, to expose our fragility without turning it into an episode of Dr Phil. I think it also highlights the great value in having a diverse range of people sharing in the preaching program. What would happen in our churches if we had people with disabilities, single parents, divorcees, children, not just in our congregations but in our pulpits? Maybe sermons could be shared, with the pastors, who do have technical skill in exegesis doing the exegetical stuff but inviting congregation members to do the application – how do these themes work themselves out in my life? Because if there’s one thing Wendy’s sermon taught me it’s this – the medium is as important as the message.

Possibly the worst sermon ever

When I finished pastoring at Edgeworth Baptist, Sandy, the kids and I went searching for a new church to belong to. We weren’t looking for perfection, just for somewhere we could all feel connected, where the preaching helped us make sense of life, and where there was a desire to be a positive influence for good in the world. The first and the third were relatively easy to find. I never dreamed it would be so difficult to find half decent preaching.

The first church we visited had a preacher who should have stood up and said, “I had a really difficult week so I didn’t have time to prepare a sermon”. But when it’s Father’s Day, you’re expected to have something profound to say.

This preacher had a charismatic personality and was brimming with confidence. He reported that God had woken him three times the previous night and on each occasion given him something to say. God woke him at 1am, 3am, and 6am. But apparently God was tired too because it was all gibberish. It sounded like he’d gathered a bunch of books by Steven Biddulph and James Dobson and selected random sentences, cut them out and strung them together.

The crowning moment came towards the end of the talk when the pastor halted mid sentence and said, “wait, there’s more coming through now.” It was still gibberish.

Everyone has a bad day, so we went back two more times but it was no better. The second time a different preacher was doing a men-are-from-Mars-women-from-Venus kind of thing. He basically described his own personality type, said “all men are like this”, and misquoted a few verses to back himself up. He then described his wife’s temperament and said all women are like her.

How good it was to walk into another church a few weeks later and hear great preaching by the pastor there. First, he set the passage he was exploring in context and showed how it was addressing issues of its time. Second, he explored how the themes of the text related to issues of our time. Third, he explained it all in language the average person could understand. Fourth, he did it with a sense of humility, not declaring “thus says the Lord”, but “this is what I think the Lord is saying to us. What do you think?” He invited us into the conversation.

And I reckon these things are pretty much what makes a good, solid sermon.

So does it matter? The church with the bad preaching was large and vibrant, with lots of great ministry going on. The pastor was a dynamic leader, taking the congregation forward.

I think it does matter. When we approach the Bible it can function as a mirror or a window. We all come with particular beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviours, and the tendency is to see them mirrored in the Bible, which provides  those beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviours with divine sanction. I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that’s all the congregation in the first church will ever get. They’ll do tremendous things, they’ll be aware how their values, reinforced by their reading of Scripture, contrast with “the world”, but their underlying paradigms will remain unchanged. They will apply the faith they have but that faith won’t change much, at least not as a result of the preaching.

The second preacher saw the Bible as a window. As he took us into the text it was as though we were looking on another world, and by getting inside and exploring it we began to see things in new ways. We could compare and contrast with our own world and engage in some self critique. I suspect this means the members of the second church are more likely to be changed at a deep level. And that’s why I think it matters.

Interested to hear your thoughts.

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