Preaching when parched
Doing ministry means walking through times of darkness and dryness. During seasons of spiritual desolation, what can a church leader offer the congregation? And is there any personal encouragement to be found in these "parched places"?
Sometimes the most comforting voice to hear during thin times is someone who has been there. Gardner Taylor is a man who has been there.
The Rev. Dr. Taylor served the congregation of the historic Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, New York, for 42 years until his retirement in 1990. His legacy beyond the pulpit includes civil rights activism, more than 2,000 archived sermons, preaching at President Bill Clinton's pre-inaugural festivities, and helping to found the Progressive National Baptist Convention along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Taylor is seen as one of the most influential homileticians of the 20th century, and was dubbed by Time magazine as "dean of the nation's black preachers." He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000, to recognize his outstanding contributions to American society.
But this career was not without struggle. During his ministry, Taylor experienced fierce opposition, discouragement, temptation, and grief. Now a man of 93, he has watched many of his friends die, he lost his beloved wife of 55 years in a tragic accident, and he has experienced the gradual withering effects of his own aging process.
Leadership Journal's Marshall Shelley and Chicago pastor Michael Washington met with Dr. Taylor at his home in Raleigh, North Carolina, to explore his seasoned perspective on doing ministry in the middle of a personal wilderness.
As you look back on your personal journey, were there times of particular dryness? Did you ever have wilderness experiences?
Many. I have known a great deal of solitude. My religious experience has been primarily the Lord's pursuit of me, and I've been elusive sometimes. Sometimes he's trapped me. It hasn't always been pleasant. There are ways I would have run better if I could have.
I've come now to the place where I'm attending funerals for the last of my contemporaries. I can almost feel the water of the river lapping at my feet even now.
I've gone through periods of dryness, and they were very exacting, very costly. But in those arid times I still had to do my work, my preparation to preach. I found that I preached not only out of the fullness of the Lord, but I preached also out of the aridity, out of the emptiness.
Tell us what you mean by preaching "out of the aridity."
Sometimes there are arid stretches where God does not seem real. Our Lord expressed it supremely at Calvary: "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"
Over and over again, I've experienced that. But if my preaching in those times has had any attractiveness, it has been because people have heard me express what many of them were going through. Often with pain, I might add.
Is preaching out of aridity different from preaching your doubts?
Oh yes. Very different.
How do you preach from aridity without betraying the gospel? Or, perhaps, preach the gospel without betraying the reality of the aridity?
One cannot preach the gospel faithfully without including a certain alienation. If you did, it wouldn't be true to life, because there is alienation in life. We experience it. And the people, who are in church worshiping and listening, are themselves experiencing alienation.
The preacher's job, at least in part, is to give utterance to what is going on in them. The preacher is a sounding board for their experiences, with the addition of the Word of God.
Have you found yourself drawn to certain passages in the Bible to preach with authenticity while in the wilderness?
Yes, indeed. Of course there are the experiences of our Lord. That indignation, the awful cry from Calvary: "My God." It's unimaginable. And if it happened to him, who are we to expect any different?
There's also the passage where Paul says that "no one stood with me." We all go through that kind of time, but I don't think we have ever attempted to assess the loneliness this man Paul must have felt.
"Demas has forsaken me." Despair. That's just one example.
In the Scriptures, I've found a word speaking to almost every experience.
Talk about the seasons of prayer. Does prayer look different in a time of aridity than it does in a time of blessing?
Yes. It looks like nothing. One feels sometimes that he or she is talking day after day in emptiness. But almost always, those seasons are preparation for flood time. Though it tarries, it will surely come.
What is produced in the human soul during dry times that can't be produced during "flood" times?
The feeling of need. The feelings of lack, of inadequacy, of insufficiency. Loneliness. I believe these things are for our good. I believe that dry times are preparation for the flood time. For if winter comes then spring is surely on its way. Our richest spiritual experiences follow those times of aridity.
Since you've been through so many of these seasons, how would you counsel pastors who are experiencing these things?
Well, I think these times are cause for concern. They may indicate a certain unfaithfulness on the part of the person. Of an unbecoming and unnecessary doubt in the Lord. I think that calls for a certain remorse and sorrow.
But sometimes a season of dryness isn't linked directly to unfaithfulness.
One passes through those times and yet feels that he or she ought not to be passing through them. We feel that rain always ought to be on the way, springtime forever.
I think this dryness though is the common fate of those who preach. I think everybody goes through it, except those people who seem always to be "on the mountain."
The key word there is "seem."
That's right. That's all I can say about it. I give them credit. But it's not been my experience at all.
When you find yourself in dry times, what do you do in terms of your own spiritual practice?
I try to pray. I'm not sure I'm going to succeed all the time, but I make the effort. Scripture and experience both keep telling me that springtime is sure to come.
So as pastors, we are seasonal creatures?
That's right. I think that nature reflects life, or life reflects nature, from seed time to harvest. Planting and weeding, cultivating. The full harvest comes, then emptiness. I don't envy people who live in perpetual sunshine. I won't say whether it's right or wrong, but it doesn't seem natural.
Have you faced different struggles during different phases of your life?
I think they're mostly the same struggles. They just get recycled. At root they are the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life. Everyone experiences them, though some people seem not to. I think though, that people who do not have these struggles miss something. They may be "innocent," but they miss something. Like that old hymn says:
Sure I must fight if I would reign;
Increase my courage, Lord.
I'll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy Word.
I sang those things in my childhood. I didn't know what the song was talking about then, but I think I know now.
Sometimes I envy people who are free of that struggle. But to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure I would want to be one of them.
What do you think God expects us to do to cultivate our spiritual life in seasons of dryness and adversity?
I think he wants us to be open and responsive. Every other part of the cultivation process is in his hands. Our chief sin in such times may be that we are not open. We allow things that are passing to seem permanent to us. This openness could mean making time to be ready for whatever input, guidance, direction, insight, whatever revelation God has for us. Our problem is being willing to wait for that.
Is there anything pastors should beware of during tough times?
We need to look out for the same things that have always existed for us. Pride. Prejudice. Idolatry and self-idolatry. On the other hand, there is also sin in self-abasement. Remember that we are the children of God.
You spoke earlier about a preacher giving utterance to what his congregation is experiencing. Tell us more.
In my pulpit, I almost always preached to them what was happening in me. I believe I have some evidence that what was happening in me was, to some extent, happening in them. I think the preacher makes a grave mistake when he or she sets himself apart, either too lofty or too low. We are to be a mixture of pride and humility. I think the best thing we can reach for is being honest with ourselves and with our people.
Some would say that the American people are currently experiencing an economic "dry spell." You've lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the stagflation of the '70's and '80's; seemingly endless economic challenges. What is your perspective on the preacher's responsibility in these times?
We're continuing on a downward economic slide. People ask: "Will it stop? If it continues, what is the meaning of it?" Nobody can know these things. But the preacher has a responsibility in the light of the gospel to give voice to them. But "this all shall pass away." The preacher has to keep that forever in focus.
We are settled here for a while, and we are called on to make the most of our temporary home. We must ask ourselves what we are doing to make the settlement more livable and the promise of the future brighter. But Jesus said our treasure is not to be in the things of earth, but the things of heaven. "For where your treasure is, there is your heart also."
All of this is involved in the preacher's responsibility. At times I have no clear answers. Nobody has clear answers.
We are in an era that has so many knotty issues. Like the question of same-sex marriage. Being honest, I'm glad I do not have to deal with these issues. That's one of the blessings of old age. The preacher's responsibility in the midst of all this is also to keep a sense of humor and to proclaim what Jesus proclaimed.
You mentioned earlier that you're attending the funerals of the last of your contemporaries. What does your stage of life contribute to your spiritual journey?
I'm 93 now, and it means that I'm literally numbering my days. I'm approaching what in my childhood we would have called my "commencement day." My stage of life means I'm aware that we all are just strangers and pilgrims. We can make this place home sometimes. Our danger is the false notion that it is home.
Tell us what you mean by "home."
All in all, life's a great experience. But by faith we believe there's a better one. It's hard to imagine what it can be like. At the point I have reached, one ponders more and more what it's like. It does not yet appear. But this we know, the Bible says, that "we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."
Those are tremendous things to wrestle with. Not too much for the human mind to ponder, but too much for it to have. I cannot picture this. The best I can do is try and understand the crude symbolism that we're given. Our home will be far richer, far finer than anything we can think of. The maker of that home is God.
Those are words to live by in any season of life.
Whatever season you're in, they are poignant.
Yes they are. Why? Because life is poignant.
Sermons by Dr. Gardner C. Taylor are available at PreachingToday.com
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