When silence is the only language you can speak

Photo by Samara Doole

By Joe LaGuardia

I did not preach much Sunday, September 3.   I tried, but all I was able to do was give testimony.  When we preachers have nothing to say about a biblical text, it is just best to testify.  It does not have to be scholarly or well-organized, but it does have to be true.

My week was like that: A cycle of trying and failing, of finding words to say and confronting silence instead.

I began the week excited about joining my sisters in Orlando for a few days.  It was the first time our families got together in years: Three days with nieces, nephews, and the big Mouse at Bueno Vista.

Over the weekend, however–the weekend before my vacation–I received word that one of our parishioners fell victim to cancer and passed away.  I was heartbroken for the family.  It was sudden.  The man had one son, so when I met with the family and he spoke about his father, I was reminded about the loss of my own dad.

Funerals have a way of keeping us preachers nimble.  Instead of having one sermon to write before I went to Orlando, I now had two: one for Sunday and another for the funeral, which was scheduled for the day after my return.

I did something a little different for the funeral sermon: I wrote an outline. I always write manuscripts for funerals to insure that each word is intentional, thoughtful, sensitive and concise.   But I did not want a complicated sermon.  I was co-officiating and eulogies were planned, so what more needed to be said?

With sermons out of the way, I went off to Orlando. My trip  went well except for the fact that, now, every time I get together with my sisters, there exists the lingering absence of my father who had passed four years ago this August 5th.

My sisters and I had fun.  We laughed.  There were no conflicts, but our father was missing.  We didn’t have anyone to complain to about our jobs, our finances, about one another.  My dad was good about that, he absorbed everyone’s trials and tears and hardships.

I was quiet most of the trip as a result of my melancholy.  Why was I so quiet?  I hadn’t seen my sisters in ages, there must be more to talk about.

After I returned from Orlando, I headed to the funeral for our parishioner, but another oddity happened, although I am not sure if anyone noticed: I did not finish preaching my funeral sermon.  No, really–literally!  I literally stopped short in the middle of the homily!  I blanked out and I left off the conclusion before stopping mid-sermon and calling the congregation to join me in a closing prayer.

Later that afternoon, home with Kristina, I broke.  My wife and I had a long discussion about my anxieties and stress, about missing my father, and about how my words kept failing me–on my trip, at the funeral, in expressing a cloud that followed me all week long.

Sunday morning came, and off to church I went with two services to preach.  But as I mentioned already, I did not preach.  I testified.  I did not speak of my trouble with words.  I did not confess that I blanked out during the funeral sermon.  I only told a story about trying to find joy in unexpected places and about how one person from church with whom I met the previous week (who had lost her husband three months ago) ministered to me in the midst of my own hardships this week.

This evening I continued reading a book that I can never read for long sittings.  Its one of those books where you savor a sentence or two (or a whole page if you’re lucky), and then you have to stop and pray and reflect or wipe tears to see more clearly.  Its When God is Silent by Barbara Brown Taylor, and what I read tonight resonated.  In fact, it sums up my emotions this week perfectly, although the situation is different:

I met a man last summer–a preacher–who nursed his wife until her death, at fifty-something, from cancer.  When she stopped breathing, he said, the silence in the room destroyed all language for him.  No words could get into him and none could get out. . . Months and months later, his voice is still raspy. . . He did not sound angry when he said that.  He sounded like someone who had been scorched by the living God and who knew better than to try and talk about it.”

I think that is my problem, one that Taylor sums up well.  There are times when I encounter God and I, along with many others, expect that I can put that into words.  I don’t blame anyone–that’s my vocation, after all.  But sometimes I need to know better.  Sometimes I need to stop trying so hard to talk about things that I can’t talk about.

My only regret is that I had some collateral damage along the way: A funeral sermon brought to a screeching halt, an online prayer I since deleted because it turned into a debate that was a waste of time anyway, and a Sunday sermon-testimony I hoped did not ramble on as much as I had feared.

Sometimes we are scorched and it just best to let the Holy Spirit speak in the silence instead.

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It takes a village to raise a minister

By Matt Sapp

This reflection is in response to the Reverend Sapp’s move to a new pulpit at Central Baptist Church, Newnan, Georgia.

It takes a village to raise a minister. Transitions are natural times for reflection, so as I’ve packed up books and files this week to get ready to move from one church to another, I’ve been reminded of how fortunate I am to be surrounded by the people who support me. I have a pretty great village.

Books on my shelves, now in boxes, remind me of college professors whose classroom lectures changed my life–people who were passionate about the things I was passionate about and who awakened new passions within me.

I’ve packed away papers that remind me of seminary professors whose critique and editing of my writing showed careful attention to my work and encouraged me in my thinking and study.

I ran across a file from Professor Peter Rhea Jones who offered this advice on my first day of seminary: When someone offers you any chance, however small, to preach or teach, say yes if you can. I took his advice to heart and it has been invaluable.

It takes a village to raise a minister.

This week, I packed up a ministerial robe that was given to me by minister and mentor George McCune. I met him at Wieuca Road Baptist Church. He’s passed away now, but he used to take me to lunch, write me notes, and call me on the phone just to say how much he appreciated me and that he was praying for me.

Later, when I moved to Canton and doctor’s appointments brought him my way, he would call to let me know he would be in town and come by just to say hello. During my first few months at HERITAGE he and I stood alone one morning in the sanctuary and he prayed over me and for my ministry. It was holy moment.

His profound faith and deep spirituality left a mark on me. I’m proud to wear his robe.

The robe still hangs from a Muse’s hanger, which lets me know that it was ordered and altered by George Henry. I never knew Mr. Henry, but his children and grandchildren continue to be important parts of my village, and I remember them, too, every time I put my robe on.

Before Rev. McCune offered me his robe I was fortunate enough to wear the robe of Oliver Wilbanks, the late father of my mentor and former boss, Mark Wilbanks. As the associate pastor at Wieuca Road Baptist Church, Rev. Wilbanks wore that robe to marry half of Buckhead, GA in the 1970s.

To have worn the robes of great men and ministers like Rev. Wilbanks and Rev. McCune makes me feel ten feet tall and very lucky.

It takes a village to raise a minister.

It takes a village.png

As I’ve packed up my office I’ve seen gifts and notes from long-time family friends who in different ways and at different times have been great encouragers to me.

I’ve been reminded of friends from childhood, high school and college whose continued interest in my work and ministry provides a steady drip of encouragement that keeps me going.

I’ve remembered those who regularly encourage my writing and preaching by reading and listening—family members, friends, partners in ministry and fellow travelers now scattered across the globe.

It takes a village to raise a minister.

I’ve thought of all the people who have been patient with me as I found my way, who nurtured and taught me, and whose examples of leadership continue to make me a better minister.

I’ve paused to be grateful for my peers in ministry who invest in me by taking the time to listen, encourage, support and advise—and who provide a necessary outlet for laughter and commiseration!

And, I’ve thought, of course, of family. My wife and her family. My parents, my brother, my sister-in-law. Cousins and aunts and uncles.

It takes a village to raise a minster.

The one group of people I haven’t mentioned so far is my current church. There is no single group of people more important to my formation as a pastor than the people of HERITAGE Fellowship. In a thousand ways, large and small, the care and love of HERITAGE has formed me.

I can say without exaggeration that each member at HERITAGE has shaped me in a unique and specific way–so much so that to mention even one person by name would force me to mention them all.

It takes a village to raise a minister.

As I reflect on my village, I have a question for you: Who is in your village and when have you last paused to be thankful for them?

And even more importantly, how can you be a part of someone else’s village?

The most remarkable thing about the influence that so many important people have had on my life is how meaningful seemingly small gestures of encouragement have been to me.

There is no such thing as an insignificant act of kindness.

Never underestimate your ability to change a life. Today I’m grateful for the village of people who have changed mine.

It takes a village to raise a minister.

Standing up to the Bullies

bullyBy Matt Sapp

What if Christians did a better job of standing up to bullies?

Bullies are mean. They pick on people weaker than they in order to feel powerful.  Bullies come in all shapes and sizes.

Pastors can be bullies. Politicians can be bullies. Your boss at work can be a bully. The big kid on the playground can be a bully.

We’ve all come across enough bullies in our lives — some of us may have even been bullies ourselves — to know that it takes a lot of courage to stand up to one.   And because too few people stand up to bullies, bullying is increasingly becoming an accepted style of leadership in our world and even in our churches.

Bullying, though, is decidedly not a Christ-inspired model of leadership.

THREE MODELS OF Christian LEADERSHIP: PROPHETS, PRIESTS AND KINGS

During the month of November, we’re talking about  leadership at Heritage Fellowship Church, and we’ll explore three different Christ-inspired types of leaders—prophets, priests and kings.

This Sunday, we’re starting with prophets, and one of the easiest ways to identify a prophet is to look for someone with the courage to stand up to a bully. Prophets are people who stand up to bullies.

JESUS MODELS PROPHETIC LEADERSHIP

Jesus modeled prophetic leadership in his very first sermon when he spoke out on behalf of the poor, the blind, the imprisoned and the oppressed (Luke 4).  And guess what? Before he could even finish speaking, bullies ran him out to the edge of town and tried to kill him.

As it turns out, bullies and prophets have never co-existed very well.  In fact, like in Luke 4, prophets drive bullies up the wall. If you want to smoke out a bully, bring in a prophet.

One of the problems with identifying bullies, though, is that bullies don’t call themselves bullies. A lot of times bullies actually seek to fashion themselves as prophets, but they’re just wolves in sheep’s clothing.

BULLIES ARE FALSE PROPHETS

That’s why the Bible refers to bullies as false prophets. If you want to try something fun, start replacing the words “false prophet” in scripture with the word “bully.”

So, how do you spot a bully? The surest way to spot a bully is to notice when someone is using a position of power and privilege to further denigrate and marginalize already oppressed minorities. Or, like Jesus, speak up on behalf of the marginalized and the oppressed and see who protests the most vehemently.

Bullies may claim they are being prophetic, that’s what false prophets do. But don’t be deceived. I can’t find a single place in scripture where God uses prophets to trample on the downtrodden.

Prophets do the exact opposite.

PROPHETS VS. BULLIES

Prophets are the ones on the bottom of the pile shouting up. Bullies are on the top of the pile shouting down.

Prophets speak on behalf of the forgotten, abused or otherwise oppressed. Bullies prey on them.

Prophets find us at our weakest moments and come alongside to lift us up. Bullies find us at our weakest moments and come alongside to take advantage of us.

Prophets seek to point us to the power and goodness of God. Bullies seek to convince us of their own power and goodness.

PROPHETIC LEADERSHIP TODAY

So what does prophetic leadership look like today?

Two prophetic leaders in my own larger community of faith, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), are Stephen Reeves and Steve Wells. They, along with many others in the CBF community, are calling for basic fairness and just protections for Americans who are being taken advantage of by the title pawn and payday lending industry.

You can learn more about the work they’re doing HERE. I’m proud to partner with them and support their work.

Stephen and Steve are doing all the things I’ve described prophets as doing above.

They’re shouting up from the bottom of the pile. They’re seeking to work alongside and lift up some of the most vulnerable Americans. They’re speaking out on behalf of people whom the powerful and privileged have taken advantage of. And they’re doing it all in a way that points to the power and goodness of God.

This week at HERITAGE we’ll talk about several different ways to identify prophetic leaders, and we’ll even think about how we might become prophetic leaders ourselves.

Until then, remember this starting definition of what a prophet is. A prophet is someone who stands up to a bully.