The power of preaching lies not in how well one speaks but in how well one listens, Kirby Godsey told students, faculty and staff at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology Aug. 23.
Godsey, former Mercer president, delivered the annual Founders Day address at the Atlanta seminary. In addressing the topic of “Uncharted Waters,” he offered three lifelines for theological education today.
One of those is learning to listen more than speaking.
“The power of our preaching lies in how well we listen,” he declared. “It may be a hard lesson to learn, but ministry is far more about listening than talking. Listening turns out to be the most basic form of respect that we have to give. Arrogance talks. Caring listens.”
“Arrogance talks. Caring listens.”
He paraphrased the words of the Apostle Paul from 1 Corinthians 13 with an application: “You may have the voice of angels and speak with intellectual elegance, but if you are not listening, you are simply adding noise to an already noisy world.”
An examplar of this practice, he said, was Frederick Buechner, who died the week before Godsey’s speech.
“Speaking of silence, Buechner would say to us: ‘Listen to your inner life. Taste, touch, smell your way to the holy, to the heart of God hidden within you.’ Buechner was teaching us that we are unlikely to sense the holy within us, we are unlikely to hear the cries of the brokenhearted or the murmurs of those who are drowning in their grief, unless we are silent. Listen before you preach.”
Another lifeline for pastors is to keep learning, Godsey suggested. “We had better keep learning, because ignorance is gaining on us. We are awash in ignorance.”
“We had better keep learning, because ignorance is gaining on us.”
This ignorance fuels “our mindless religious wars” and “our hateful political rhetoric,” he said. “Ignorance is not cured by the pretentious claim that we have ultimate truth in our grasp. Certainty is over-rated.”
True to his own academic training in philosophy, Godsey said: “I believe uncertainty and doubt are the growing edge of faith. Certainty is simply not a prize that religion has to offer. We do not bring to our ministry a basket full of sure answers. We bring a new way of being in the world, a new way of seeing who we are, and a radically new way of being together as human beings.”
Humans “have only been around for about 15,000 years, a mere whisper in cosmic time,” he noted. “We humans are barely in the crawling stages of becoming civilized.”
This lack of civilization shows up in humanity’s penchant for killing and even in a judicial system that favors or allows killing, he added. “There are surely times in which death is an act of mercy, but when we authorize killing as a punishment for even the most heinous crimes, it is not an act of mercy. It is retribution. It is revenge. It is barbaric behavior dressed in the clothing of justice.”
Christians also need to learn that they are not the majority view in the world, Godsey said. “We live in a world of almost 8 billion people, and only a few more than 2 billion identify themselves as Christian. If we are to navigate our way toward a better future, we should find a way of being more respectful and tolerant of other religious traditions. We want to view them at their worst, while expecting them to view us at our best. Bad religion compromises all of us, transforming hope into hatred.”
“Bad religion compromises all of us, transforming hope into hatred.”
All world religions “might be thought of as a song of the universe,” he said. “To be honest, we have no God facts. We have only God stories. Surely, there are glimpses of light that break through in other voices. Living by the light of our own faith does not require that we demean, demonize or ridicule the light by which others live.
“Our calling is to live by the light that has enlightened our souls,” he continued. “Share that light. Preach that light. Carry that light. But wisdom and respect might encourage us, at least, to be open to listen to the light by which others live. God is not our possession. Let us not be so sure that God is a Christian. God’s embrace may stretch farther than our frailty ever imagined.”
Grace at the center
Also, he advised the seminarians, “Keep grace at the center.”
“Every sermon you preach, every act of ministry you engage will be a commentary on grace,” Godsey said. “I do not mean grace as a highfalutin theological concept. I mean grace as the down-to-earth character of your presence in your own world. All ministry, indeed preaching itself, begins by becoming a bearer of grace.
“Grace is the energy of God in our lives. It is the same energy that powers the universe. It is the same energy that emanates in protons and electrons and photons. If a photon is a light particle and protons and electrons are matter particles, grace is the God particle.”
“Grace is the God particle.”
This is not a call to Pollyanna thinking or to deny the reality of evil in the world, he said. “Grace does not ignore the darkness or paint over our tragedy. Instead, grace offers a new pathway. Grace offers a new way of being together, a new way of seeing ourselves.”
He added: “Being the voice and the presence of grace is the only way your light ever breaks out of the cocoon of blind self-interest. Our ultimate calling is to live in the light of grace. Because hatred will never drive out hatred. Wars will never end wars. Violence will never overcome violence. Before it is too late, we had better listen to the gospel of grace.”
For the preacher, grace is essential, he explained. “The whole point of preaching, the whole purpose of ministry, is to embody the power of grace in somebody’s life. We are not here to tell people God loves them. We are here to love somebody.”
Grace, he declared, “comes alive on the street corner where you actually live. It means listening to somebody who believes nobody understands. It means lifting somebody up who has been beaten down and pushed aside. Grace means learning that repentance does not make forgiveness possible. Forgiveness makes repentance possible. Forgive somebody who does not deserve to be forgiven. Forgive and ask questions later. Grace means if we want to preach the gospel, we must be willing to become the gospel.”
“Grace means if we want to preach the gospel, we must be willing to become the gospel.”
He cited the life and ministry of Albert Schweitzer as one of “the great Christian voices in the 20th century.”
Although Schweitzer earned doctorates in theology, philosophy, medicine and music, he “spent most of his life not in cathedrals or towers of learning. He spent most of his life providing medical care in the small village of Lamborene, Africa. Caring for the forgotten, playing Bach on his small pump organ there in the wilderness as an act of solitude.”
Schweitzer said, “A person does not have to be an angel in order to be a saint,” Godsey reported. “My word to you this morning is that this school of theology is not in the business of creating angels. We are in the business of preparing saints, people who are willing to become instruments of grace, a brief gift of light to people who are alone and afraid of the dark.”
A radical idea 26 years ago
Godsey commended the school of theology on launching its 26th year, reminding faculty, staff and students that it “was created by a coalition of voices that would not be quieted. It was rooted, of course, in the dream of Jesse Mercer himself. Jesse Mercer was an itinerant Baptist preacher who believed that learning should precede preaching. That was a novel and, for some, a radical idea.”
Twenty-six years ago, some people “risked their academic careers to come to Mercer to create a new school. … They gathered in a modest room with a blank whiteboard and translated a dream into this place of learning. And, of course, we should not forget those first students who chose to risk their education in a school that was barely under way.”
More than anything, he said, McAfee School of Theology “is mostly a story of hopes being reignited. It represents the returning of the study of theology from denominational enclaves to a university. Those enclaves too often want thought and devotion to be compliant with doctrinal prescriptions. The ways of a university are different. This university is deeply rooted in the resolute notion of intellectual freedom. We believe that we can trust the search for truth and that religion should never be afraid of truth.”
A tribute to Dean Alan Culpepper: The man and the myth | Opinion by Brett Younger
What should it cost a denomination to control governance of a university?