“Speak, o Lord, as we come to you to receive the food of your holy Word…”
For the past three weeks in worship, we have sung this collective prayer for illumination as we open the scriptures together, inviting God to speak: speaking through words and Word, speaking for those who have ears to hear, speaking such that we are transformed.
As your pastor, I care deeply about the words and Word we both speak and hear together. For we all know that words matter, that language shapes us, that what we choose to say or how we say it makes a difference often in the ears of the hearer. Thus, I try hard (and fail from time to time, I know) to choose words of a sermon, prayer, blog, or conversation intentionally, carefully, with you close in mind and heart. I see your faces as I write these words to you now, holding before me your fears and longings and anxieties and hopes that you have so generously shared with me throughout our ministry together.
But even as we invite God to speak to us through words and Word each week, and even as we mortals fumble around to find ordinary words to speak into an extraordinary God in our midst, I’ve been thinking recently about how I (and, by association, all our church’s ministers) are speaking as ministers of our church in these noisy and noxious times.
Sometimes we speak for ourselves, claiming our own particular passions as individuals (not everyone is as fervent about UNC basketball as Amy or loves their afternoon coffee like David!), while recognizing that unlike other occupations, ours aren’t ones in which we easily ‘clock out’ at the end of a day’s work. We are not solely defined by our roles as First Baptist ministers, but there’s no question that they are intimately a part of our daily lives.
Each and every week, we speak with you, sharing with you as your leaders — called by God and commissioned by this church for such a time as this — how we as individual followers of Christ and ministers of the gospel are hearing the voice of God in this world.
Often we will speak about you, as I did among fellow Baptists last week, or as I do every day out and about around town. When people ask me to assign a descriptor or qualifier about what type of church we are (often using loaded words that carry a differing range of meaning to the speaker and hearer, words like ‘conservative,’ ‘moderate,’ or ‘progressive’), I generally just tell them about you, describing for my conversation partner the type of convictions I hear you sharing, the ways you allocate your resources of all kinds for God’s work of Love in the world, the questions I hear you asking, the care I see you offering, the hopes I hear you articulate for the future life of First Baptist Church.
As good Baptists who hold strong and fast to the freedom of conscience (the right and responsibility to exercise one’s conscience as so led by God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit), we as your ministers very rarely if ever claim to speak for you. Doing so belies the best of our Baptistness, and I trust you don’t want me speaking for you just as you don’t want anyone speaking for you, lest you be misrepresented in conversation.
Sometimes we speak on your behalf, which honestly becomes the trickiest type of speaking we do. To me, “speaking on behalf of someone” implies a level of consent to the content of what the speaker might say. It seems to suggest a generally agreed-upon consensus around such matters to be voiced, matters that among hundreds of smart and capable and opinionated and different folks in a rapidly-changing and polarizing culture are increasingly difficult to find.
And yet, these troubled times in which we live occasionally call for us to speak for ourselves (out of personal conviction), speak with (in conversation), and to speak on your behalf (out of shared conviction), which I offer to you today as I sometimes do — as your pastor, as a mother, and as a Christian — about the unfolding crisis on our country’s southern border, years in the making.
To say that the images we’ve seen and the voices we’ve heard recently are devastating would be but a fraction of the anguish I believe God feels. Nowhere within the God who creates us, or the Christ who redeems us, or the Spirit who sustains us, or the scripture which guides and instructs us, do I find a shred of evidence to support families ripped apart indefinitely, children held in cages, people of all ages inhumanely re-traumatized after fleeing trauma themselves.
The God in whose image we all are created, the God who reminds us that we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper, the God whose command throughout scripture is to welcome the stranger, care for the orphan, and love our neighbors, and the God in Christ who said ‘let the children come to me,’ is the same God who now takes up residence within the chain-links, in the heat, under the tents, and on the border. Would that we hear these cries as those of Jesus himself!
So too for First Baptist Church… the church who affirms our calling by Jesus “to practice bold love for God and neighbor and boundless compassion for all people,” the church who just voiced “cultivating the well-being of children” among our highest priorities for ministry and mission, the church filled with educators, social workers, caregivers, and parents of children from all over the globe… that church is the one I know grieves together this tragedy, praying fervently for the reunification of families, and raising our individual and shared voices against such grievous injustice.
Perhaps our Baptist convictions of freedom lend themselves more often than not to silence, lest we speak for each other in ways that are unacceptable, or to irrelevance, lest we speak about matters disconnected from those in our news and our feeds, our hearts and our churning insides. And yet, such an offensive violation of the gospel of Jesus Christ has prompted the theological spectrum of Christianity to speak and not be silent, to be clear and unambiguous.
Does this mean we all agree on the systemic challenges of immigration policy facing our country? Of course not. Does it mean we are all alike in our political convictions? Not a chance.
But surely, surely we can hold the space to speak among each other about matters of deep conviction within differing opinions, and listen to one another with openness, generosity, and trust. And surely, surely making clear our shared voices about God’s unconditional love for all people and our Christian mandate to act upon it remains squarely within our call as those who follow the God who so loved the world that he sent Jesus to live and love and dwell among us.
In the same way we’ve been asking God to speak to us in worship and will again this Sunday, might we too find our individual and shared voices to join in? For now more than ever, this world out our back doors and at our borders needs to hear some Good News.
From our lips to God’s ears, may it be so.
Together in the work of Love,