Christmas Reminder from Dr. Gardner Taylor

This is the glory and pain of my work as preacher, never more so than today.  There is much that I see and know about Jesus Christ, but I cannot say it.  One feels sometimes, with Robertson Nicoll, that “the desire to explain [the atonement] Christ may go too far.  The reality of Jesus Christ is much more readily understood than many explanations.  Its onlyness is the main thing.”  Every preacher must feel sometimes like the woman who said, “I understand who Jesus Christ is and what he does for me.  I understand it well until some one ask me to explain it.”  Well, the preacher’s job is to explain and proclaim Jesus Christ, and it is too big a subject for any human lips to speak.  So!  This sermon will be a failure, but may it be a godly failure and give honor to the Lord who calls it forth…

…Now I would want to fasten this morning upon those two titles joined together: Jesus Christ.  Here is what all of our preaching is about: Jesus Christ.  Here is what all of our believing is all about: Jesus Christ.  Here is what all of our community work is about: Jesus Christ.  What we do in the projects and enterprises we have undertaken here, unmatched in scope and versatility by any voluntary group of black people in the history of this city, is all done not as something aside from, separate from, but as a result of Jesus Christ and our relationship to him.  I want to talk about him this morning and see how in him we are blessed.  “Thou shalt call his name Jesus” (Matthew 1:21).  That was the signal at the birth of our Lord that we have in him a reality.  A man, a person.

Now, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of Jesus as man, person, one of us, “a man for others,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer called him.  The Heidelberg New Testament Professor, Gunther Bornkamm, stresses that in the Gospels we have an emphasis upon the person of Jesus.  The writers stress the authority of his words, what he said, and the authority of his deeds, what he did.  Ours is not a misty, thin, airy faith, no pious fantasy without living reality.  I wish that people would some day understand that.  Ours is an earthy faith, not something way out somewhere from the reality we know.  If people understood that they might see Christian people in a different light rather than the muddle-headed, thick-witted notion passing for shrewdness which assumes that when you see a Christian you see a dunce, that to be tender-hearted one must be soft-headed.  Stupid!

Our Lord lived here.

A small portion of Dr. Taylor’s message, “Jesus Christ,” preached March 20, 1977.

The Supreme Public Event #3

For these dark Lenten days, a few words from Rev. Gardner C. Taylor’s sermon, “Gethsemane: The Place of Victory.”

Before we mount up to the place of victory in prayer, let us complete the human equation.  The Master retreats, and when he returns, his friends on whom he counted and whom he asked to stand sentry for a while, had failed him.  Maybe he wanted to have this last little time to get ready and needed to be protected from sudden appearance and surprise attack by his enemies, who were already making their way through the chill night to arrest the Savior of the world.

At any rate, I seem to hear an almost unutterable sorrow rising like a hurt cry up out of the depths of the soul of our Lord.  “What, could you not watch with me one hour?”  Was that too much to ask?  He had comforted them and strengthened them and guided them, and now in his hour of need they failed.  Let that question pass quietly among us on this Lenten Sunday morning.  Let the presence of this preacher be wiped out, let this voice be lost in another.

Hear your Lord ask you: “Was it too much to ask you to watch with me one hour?  Did I ask too much when I asked that you be regular in worship one day a week?  Do I go too far in saying, “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.’  Is it too much that I ask you to show a little kindess to my little ones, to those who are old and tired, to those who are sick and in pain, to those who are alone in prison?”  “Look,” he says now to us, “look at these nail marks.  They are there for you.  Do I ask too much?”  In that piteous cry of our Lord I hear a word from the sixty-ninth psalm, “Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none” (Psalm 69:20).

The secret victory, the gathering of his soul into a unity of purpose which would have its dramatic triumph on Calvary was not found in the garden because of friends, for people will fail us in a trying hour.  He went back again and knelt and talked it over with God.  He confesses, my dear Savior showing himself tempted as we are, that he does not want to be humiliated and shamed and spat upon and scorned and pushed and shoved.  He did not want the excruciating physical pain and shrank from spiritual abandonment and traveling some far stretches of God-emptiness never before encountered by the sons of men.  He pleads, listen!  The Son of God, the Son of Man pleads, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”  So!  It is natural for us not to want to face great trials and hard tribulations.  We have a right to ask God to spare us, please, daunting sorrows and bitter trials.  And then, as we listen, not once but three times he reaches his hand and heart out toward God asking for willingness in his own soul to be ready for whatever God wants.  “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”

God heard and answered.  The victory was won right there.  Friends slept, but God neither slumbers nor sleeps.  Men may have failed, but God did not.  Luke says that Jesus prayed in an agony of desperate pleading until sweat like drops of blood fell from his brow.  God got him ready…

The Supreme Public Event #2

For these dark Lenten days, a few words from Rev. Gardner C. Taylor’s sermon, “Gethsemane: The Place of Victory.”

We greatly need somebody to whom we can reach out in the hope that there will be acceptance and perhaps understanding.  If Jesus with all of his strength needed that, then we do too.  “Our lives through various scenes are drawn.”  There are dark nights of the soul, times of testing and loneliness.  We need someone to whom we can turn and hope for a little encouragement and a little cheering along the weary way.

Jesus exposed his heart to his disciple and revealed his lonely need.  Dr. Alexander Maclaren expressed the opinion that the Lord may have been the loneliest man who ever lived and loved people.  He tried so hard; they understood so little.  There was this need in him of some soul to stand close.  If that be in you, do not call it foolishness; your Lord needed that.  It was said of his very selection of these men that he chose them “that they should be with him.”  The dear Lord had so few, really.  Does he not still have so few?  One looks out upon any congregation of people and wonders how many are really with the Lord?  Does there blaze within you or me the desire to be well-pleasing to him, to hold up his arm, so to speak, in this world which hates him and always has hated him, in this world so prone to scorn his way?  Will you hear the Lord of your life and mine saying, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: Tarry ye here, stay with me and watch with me”?  Tarry and watch with me (Matthew 26:38).

Do you not understand that?  Have you never been to that place?  It is the place where we seem to have done all that we can and then find that it is not enough.  It is the place where we have spent ourselves and apparently in vain.  If only someone would just come up to us then and put out a hand or say a kind word.  “Watch with me, stand with me, sit with me a moment,” we want to say.  Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of On Death and the Dying and one of the world’s outstanding authorities on dealing with dying people, says that people who are critically sick and who are facing death may just need someone to enter their room as a human being, not claiming to have the answers.  Such a person, says Dr. Kubler-Ross, may need more than anything someone who will simply ask if there is anything the critically sick person wants done.  In other words, our greatest need in extremity is to have someone to be with us, whether or not there is anything that can be done for us.

The Supreme Public Event #1

For these dark Lenten days, a few words from Rev. Gardner C. Taylor’s sermon, “Gethsemane: The Place of Victory.”

Calvary is looked upon as the place of our Lord’s great victory, the overcoming point in the struggle for God’s supremacy and human redemption and deliverance in the earth.  Calvary, said the old preachers, was the place where God in Christ took on himself our sins before a sorrowing heaven and a sinning earth.  Calvary represents the central event in our Christian gospel, the focus of all divine history as far as the sons of men can see.  There the Lord Christ lured the powers of hell into a fatal misstep and an overreaching of their evil designs and ways.  Calvary is the supreme public event in the divine purpose.

I am suggesting this morning that that great pubic victory, that unspeakably enormous event which we call Calvary, has its source immediately in a private and solitary act in a garden called Gethsemane, where the seed, the essence of the public victory was won in a lonely, secret struggle in prayer.  The supper we now call the Lord’s Supper is just past.  That will be the last tender, serene occasion in our Lord’s life until the glories of resurrection morning.  As the disciples and their Master file out of the upper room, the last golden rays of pleasant sunshine depart from the skies of our Lord’s soul.  All beyond that is composed of gathering, deepening, threatening clouds and darkening skies, except perhaps for a bright moment in Gethsemane where Jesus prayed for strength and resolve and final commitment to the Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrow, which lay before him unto death.  In Gethsemane that prayer was answered, and the Savior moved on his appointed way.

As they leave the upper room we follow the little band, already looked upon as outlaws, as they walk slowly through the streets of Jerusalem.  Now the disciples pass likely out of the fountain gate in the east wall of the city of Jerusalem, and then across Kedron Brook they make their way.  Once among the gnarled olive trees of Gethsemane garden, the Master stops a moment and then bids three of his followers, those closest to him, the inner circle, Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, to go on a little farther into the garden.  I seem to hear in the Master’s next words a strangely tender, pathetic, almost pleading note.  He unburdens his soul a little to them.  How slow many of us are to reach out to others for fear that they will not understand or accept or appreciate our need.  How the Master must have felt that if any of these twelve, no, now reduced by one, these eleven, could sympathize with the great secret spiritual issues which confronted him, surely these three would understand.  He said to them, opening the hurt and anguish he felt in these hours, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.”

Leadership’s Interview With Gardner C. Taylor

Our interview with Dr. Gardner C. Taylor is in the Fall edition of Leadership Journal.  I reflected a few times on the conversation in July.  I imagine I’d like to revisit the experience again, in a bit, now that the Journal has printed a portion of the time we spent with this preaching hero.

It looks like a little less than half of our questions and his answers were able to be printed.  That means I walked away from that conversation with more gifts than I thought!  I have his melodious tone in my ears talking about things that can feel a little like secret wisdoms given to me and Marshall Shelley, the Journal’s editor.

Leadership hasn’t put the interview online yet.  I won’t attempt to reprint it either.  You should subscribe if you’re interested because, well, you can’t have my copy.

I will offer you two glances here from the interview.

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 world 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.

And another, after Rev. Taylor had said something about being aware that we are strangers and pilgrims, not exactly home.  Re-reading this took me back to the deep stare in his eyes as he looked beyond us.  I wondered what he saw.

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.

On My Conversation With Dr. Gardner Taylor, 2 of 3

One week ago I left home at a few minutes to five on my way to O’hare.  It was so early God was still asleep.  Imagine my surprise when I saw a white-coated resident chomping up the sidewalk, already late for something, moving too quickly to say good morning.  I got to the Green line, took it to the Blue line, seeing that a lot of people were headed places.  I grew in my shock since I can’t fathom waking up that early for anything.  I did that day, but that was an exception.

I rustled through the line toward airport security, stepping through, worried that I’d miss my flight.  I texted the editor I was to meet at the gate.  I felt myself sweating because my body knew that I’d be late.  He replied that they weren’t doing anything at the gate, that he’d meet me at K4.  I looked at my ticket.  They were a minute late beginning to board.  I scanned the snake of a line in front of me.  At least two dozen people were still paralyzed ahead.  I sighed.  I looked at my phone.  I wanted to call somebody important, somebody who could order the security to confirm that I was safe.  I had to wait.  A few minutes later my editor friend said they were boarding and he’d meet me on the plane.  In my head, I saw a very thick door closing.  I saw the keypad and the shaking head of a flight attendant apologizing or trying to.  I saw a screen listing all the flights to Raleigh and read, in my mind, that I had missed each one.

I asked a few folks if I could get in front of them.  They were saints or angels.  Really kind, they allowed me to jump ahead.  How far is K4, I asked somebody.  “Not far,” she said.  “You won’t have to run.”  I undressed, stood in a space ship with my arms out like a cross, and held my breath like I do when the nurse collects my weight.  The lady allowed me through.  I got my bags, thankful that they didn’t snatch my deodorant.  There was no time to put my shoes on, and I felt the tops of my shoes under my heels as I ran.  After starting into a jog, I thought of the woman who said I wouldn’t have to do what I was doing.  I thought about the foolishness of missing a conversation with Gardner Taylor because I took too long to put on my belt at the airport.  I ran faster, made it to the gate, and was greeted by name by a really nice woman.  For a minute, I couldn’t imagine that people could smile that early in the morning.  I had probably missed several smiles already.  I was barely awake.

It was too early to run through an airport.  It was just after seven.  The blue-uniformed lady took my wrinkled pass and the apology I gave with it.  She opened the thick door after sliding a card into the scanner.  I looked into the tunnel, took a deep breath to stop myself from huffing.  I thanked her twice.  She couldn’t know why I was so grateful.

We spent the entire flight talking–both catching up from our last meeting, talking of our families and our churches and our work, and discussing the interview.  Among the many notable things, Marshall said in that conversation was that he wanted me to conduct the interview.  He would provide the colorful commentary, but he wanted me to talk to Dr. Taylor.  I digested his words with large eyes.  This wasn’t exactly a request.  It was more of an invitation.  It would be a pleasure.

Marshall and I had a couple hours before our appointment with Dr. Taylor.  We visited Duke, walking through the University chapel and meandering through the seminary.  We poked our heads into Stanley Hauerwas’s office.  The door was open but he wasn’t there.  I snapped a picture with my phone and sent it to Winston because I knew he’d like that sort of thing.  I looked for L. Gregory Jones, and Marshall asked about Jason Byassee.  Neither was there, and we concluded that the Seminary was slow to upgrade its directories.  We ate lunch and got back to the car to head to our meeting.

When we arrived at his home, Dr. Taylor stepped up to the door and greeted us in that, now familiar, deep and penetrating song of a voice.  “Gentlemen,” he sang.  “Come in.”  He escorted us to his study, told us we were home, and to get comfortable.  Even with age crossing his back and shoulders, I could see the strength that God had given the man over the years.  He had stood in many pulpits, in churches and chapels, in seminaries and in universities, and he was here behind his desk, opening himself for our questions.

On My Conversation With Dr. Gardner Taylor, 1 of 3

I’ve been reading Leadership Journal for several years.  It’s a magazine that’s written primarily for church leaders.  Most of the articles are written by pastors and the Journal provides a massive amount of practical material for people doing ministry, particularly in the Evangelical stream.

A little more than a month ago I recommended to a friend that he should suggest that the Journal publish an interview with Gardner C. Taylor.  My friend, David Swanson, who writes for the Journal’s blog, Out Of Ur, liked the idea and passed it to the editorial team.  He and I have fond appreciation for Dr. Taylor, for his historical significance as a pastor, and for his extreme gifts as a preacher and writer.

We were both pleasantly surprised that the editors took the idea to heart, discussed it with other folks on the magazine’s board, and agreed that it would be a great interview to try to get.  My surprise continued when David and I were asked what kinds of things we’d ask Dr. Taylor.  Of course, we chimed in, glad that our idea was being pursued.

A week or so went by when the next surprise came.  Marshall Shelley, the editor of the Journal, asked me if I’d be interested in participating in the interview, in conducting it with him.  You should know that this was no where in my atmosphere when I suggested the article to Leadership.  I have a sense of how articles are queried, how they are discussed and decided upon, and getting this opportunity was not in my field of expectation.  I was thrilled.  I told Marshall I was thrilled.  I saw mental pictures of him laughing at me because I was so thrilled.

I was at our denomination’s Annual Meeting, a day or two from being ordained when I saw Marshall’s email.  It was a great addition to that week, the thought of participating in an interview with Dr. Taylor.  My wife was happy for the same reason I was.  My denomination was ready to bestow a life-long credential for pastoral leadership while, at the same time, I was about to participate in a conversation with a man who had served churches in various ways for seventy years, who was a friend to folks like Martin King Jr. and Samuel Dewitt Proctor, who had a love for the Gospel and for the church for which Jesus died, and who spent his life as a consummate communicator.  I was looking forward to what was next.

By the way, if you’re interested in learning a bit more about Gardner Taylor, here are two interviews, one more current and one from several years back with the parent magazine of Leadership Journal, Christianity Today:

  1. Kim Lawton conducted a 2006 interview for PBS with Dr. Taylor in Raleigh.
  2. Lee Strobel conducted a 1995 interview for Christianity Today with Dr. Taylor in Brooklyn.

bell hooks on Writing and Gardner Taylor on Preaching

I’m pulling quotes from two of my favorite people, bell hooks and Dr. Gardner Calvin Taylor.  I consider preaching (or pastoring) and writing to be my two main works.  So, as I reflect on my labor, I offer you their thoughts.  First, bell hooks.

bell hooks is a writer, teacher, and lecturer, and her areas of strength and interest are the politics of race, class, and gender, sexuality and human relationships, and writing.  I suppose there are many others.  I’m drawing this quote from her book about writing, Remembered Rapture, a book every writer should have.  In this quote, professor hooks is talking about writing inside and despite the structures and strictures of the academy in the chapter, “dancing with words.”  You can see several synopses of her books at South End Press.

Writing to fulfill professional career expectations is not the same as writing that emerges as the fulfillment of a yearning to work with words when there is no clear benefit or reward, when it is the experience of writing that matters.  When writing is a desired and accepted calling, the writer is devoted, constant, and committed in a manner that is akin to monastic spiritual practice.  I am driven to write, compelled by a constant longing to choreograph, to bring words together in patterns and configurations that move the spirit.  As a writer, I seek that moment of ecstasy when I am dancing with words, moving in a circle of love so complete that like the mystical dervish who dances to be one with the Divine, I move toward the infinite.  That fulfillment can be realized whether I write poetry, a play, fiction, or critical essays.

Dr. Taylor served as Pastor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, NY for 42 years before retiring twenty years ago.  His exemplary preaching style and content is instructive, but his words about the role and task for preachers is what I’m pulling from in this post.  The quote is from the Yale University Lyman Beecher Lecture Series in 1976.  The particular lecture is “Preaching the Whole Counsel of God.”  Dr. Taylor is speaking from a passage in the book of Ezekiel where the watchman’s role is discussed.

It is the watchman’s job to watch.  Such a person is expected to scan the hills and to peer toward the valleys with the eye straining to see the rim of the horizon.  On who is chosen to watch is freed from the regular occupational responsibilities of those who select him or her to be watchman…It is the watchman’s job to see, since for this cause came he or she to the appointed lookout tower.  The watchman has been given the vantage point of an elevated position in order to see.  The watchman has, likewise, no right to claim indifference or indolence or sleepiness, for he or she is spared many of the irksome annoyances of the workaday world.  The sentry has no right to claim poor vision, since the capacity to see, to see clearly and accurately, is one of the principal requirements of a watchman…There is little place for ranting by the preacher, but there is a very large place indeed for urgency and for an earnest, honest passion.  The stakes are high!

These are two people, among too many others, who anchor me in my work.  If you like, tell us who anchors you in yours?