Preach it to me
On Monday, our professor seemed alarmed at how many of us mistook “making great speeches” for moral leadership. It’s practice, not position, he insisted. It’s in the one-on-one conversations and the small groups –not being a charismatic emotional force. Gandhi was…boring. Cesar Chavez was a terrible public speaker – but with a rhetoric of action, it worked. Charisma could just be manipulative.
But as someone who often gets invited to preach and to speak and yet wrestles with that call – this is a significant part of what moral leadership entails for me. Will I seek, search, and study a question until I can really preach it? Will I try to hide behind other ways of presenting information: “read this booklet and then let’s discuss,” or posing the question back to them because I don’t have an actual answer? Will I insist I’m just a teacher and not a preacher – just a guide for discussion – or will I be like Jacob, who will wrestle until the blessing of God comes?
I recently have been going to a Chinese evangelical church that doesn’t affirm women as Sunday service preachers – but they can do everything else: teach Sunday school, run children and youth ministries, and be the pastor’s ministry assistant. I started attending in the fall of last year, not thinking this would affect me. But subtly over time, it has. Watching an amazing male pastor preach most weeks of the year – and knowing it is the church’s stance to only permit men to preach – has slowly chipped away at my earlier confidence in my reading of scripture and doubts have crept in. Are women given the Holy Spirit and all of his gifts for the sake of building up the church – teaching and preaching? Do I have the gift of preaching, or are people just being nice to me when they tell me that I do a good job? Should I still preach if I haven’t formally finished my training – and am losing the desire to finish? I ask back from my friends all the books about this topic that I lent them in the fall, when I was sure of my position.
In the meantime, I’m slated to speak at an Indian church conference this Saturday of Holy Week. I try to dodge the bullet, and I can feel it in me. I propose guiding the group through scripture study during each 30-minute block. I propose buying these little booklets for us to read and discuss in pairs. I rationalize it by saying, “this is a tough topic. YOU need to come to answers on your own, find it in the text.” And to some extent this is true. But the age group is 12-35. (That’s a youth fellowship?!) And so the leaders tell me, “Because of our age range, we need you to be clear and directive. Preach to us in three 30-minute blocks. Teach us how to think about this topic. Tell us what you really think to direct our thinking.” I cringe. The topic is the exclusivity of Jesus Christ: is he the only way? How do we know? How do we love people of other faiths if this is true? I will have some real work to do in preparation; this strikes at the core of our faith – and I have managed to get by for some years without having to tackle this head-on.
If watching MLK Jr. deliver the “I have a dream” speech last week was deeply stirring and striking in its power—reading his sermons and speeches this week unexpectedly filled me with hope, confidence, and inspiration. This is what a sermon can be like! Resounding, confident. A clarion call in words. Personal, prophetic. Declaratory, proclamatory – unambiguous.
I don’t think all of us are called to be great speech-writers or prominent public voices, as Marshall cautioned us against believing. But some of us may be. And, more honestly, though I may not ever be great or prominent –I might be. Moral leadership in the face of my community’s uncertainty means that I must speak out and speak up for their sakes. If I accept the responsibility to enable them to achieve God’s purposes for them in the face of uncertainty, it will mean making authentic, truth-filled and carefully examined speeches to an audience whose reality I have considered. This Saturday, at least – if not for a long time. God, help me.
April 20, 2011