Lessons from Exile

by Leeroy2Having been outside the mainstream for years, African American churches have learned valuable lessons that have given special meaning to spiritual practices and ideas. White Christians may be familiar with them in theory, but to know them from the underside, from the outside, and from the margins is an exercise in growing in new grace.

Silence is the anchor of speech

It’s easy for Christians to speak. We fill our ears, speak truths, and proclaim the gospel. We have good reason for our proclamation. But we hear less. It’s harder to be silent.

Silence is a corrective. For black and brown people, silence is a deepening, strengthening, and centering discipline. It is a discipline that was learned as black folks were taken from West African shores, unable to communicate in their native tongues, and pushed to find a way of hearing themselves, hearing their God, and, eventually, speaking about their pain.

It is learned still when life in the United States is unfair and unjust and when the rules for black and brown people are set to maintain injustice. In her book Joy Unspeakable, Barbara Holmes says that silence and contemplation bolster the interior life of a community, and ultimately sustains it.

Silence doesn’t remove the power of speech. It anchors it. The quiet is constructive because it narrows the focus on what needs to be said. It opens us to seeing what is real. It enables us to say what is wrong and, of course, what is right.

When we’re quiet, we have an opportunity to confront the pain of another. We learn to openly and realistically face our losses. We hear, reflect, and see what has set us apart from our Christian relatives.

The black church is instructed by the presence of God through other folks and notices in the silence those who are as concerned about speaking truth as we are.

I’m thankful to the folks at Leadership Journal for publishing my piece and for David Swanson’s earlier framing and partner essay. Read the full piece here.

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, 3 of 3

Raleigh greeted us with more than one hundred degrees by the time we stationed ourselves across from Dr. Taylor’s desk.  I felt myself ready to sweat from the heat, from the excitement, and from being in the man’s home.  He sat with eyes wide and clear while I thanked him for inviting us, for allowing us to come.

He had explained during our first conversation over the phone a week prior that he didn’t do interviews any longer.  I told him his conversation would be a gift to me personally–to which he interrupted to say that that was why he’d do it, to give me a gift.  I caught myself in that earlier conversation and stumbled over the delight of the man’s immense grace in that act.  I said something else about how much the magazine’s audience would gain from his experience.  I brought that up again when we sat down in person.  He nodded and welcomed us.  Then Dr. Taylor accepted my belated birthday gifts, which Dawn helped me bundle in elegant ribbons.  “Not belated,” he said.  They would be for his next birthday, which made us all smile.  “Yes,” I said, “so there just really early.”  He opened the first part of the gift, scanned it, and said that he’d look very closely at things later.  We launched into our conversation from here.

To the left is a picture Marshall took after our interview.  Dr. Taylor was kind and humble enough to stand for this photo, after, I’m sure, we exhausted him with nearly two hours of questions and dialogue.  That was at the end of our meeting.

In this post I want to reflect on a few of those things we actually discussed with Dr. Taylor.  I will resist the urge to quote him or to tie hard connections to the interview.  I want to wait for the printed version to do that.  I don’t think I’ll be “over” this conversation for decades so it’s something I plan to come back to.  That said, I am able to talk in broad strokes about my reflections of the feelings I had talking with this pastor.  I can refer to the four or five areas he discussed without going into much detail before Leadership prints the interview in a few weeks.

There were several memorable areas we covered, not necessarily in the language we used in our conversation.

  1. Calling.  There were several points when Dr. Taylor looked beyond us or through us and to another place and time.  He got that way when we first talked of his call to ministry.  He told a story that he has before, about a car accident early in his life, when he was a college student.  He was moved once again at how God lured him to service.  He recalled that tragic moment with gratitude that God would spare him.  He was driving his college president’s car on errand, in Louisiana, and because of the accident was responsible for the death of a white man.  He knew again, as we sat with him, the haunting moments of waiting in that long ago court room.  I sensed his mind go back there as he looked over our shoulders and to that judge, to those lawyers, and to that witness, a white clergyman who God used to testify on his behalf.  His life would change after that.  His intentions would adjust away from the possibility of practicing law to preaching and leading in congregations.
  2. Praying.  This was another topic that brought tears to Pastor Taylor’s face.  He stroked away lines of water when he spoke of God hearing us.  He spoke of the difficulty of praying, of his own “trying to pray.”  When he talked about “praying in aridity,” I knew God was with us, not that I doubted that tangible sense of the Presence.  You’ll have to wait to see a  fuller description of that in the printed interview, though it won’t and I can’t express to you the depth of softness and comfort and ease which came as he spoke.  It was as if the God he spoke of descended in that study.  I do not put that forward lightly.  I’ve heard that done before, and my stating this memory is only to give the best language to what really was without fabrication.  It was as if our conversation was a prayer, as if the words we were speaking were less to one another and on behalf of a reading public and more in the ears of God.
  3. Preaching.  If you know two things about Gardner Taylor, one of them is that he is undoubtedly among the greatest preachers to have served God’s Church since manuscripts were recorded and since the advent of voice-capturing media.  He has been called the dean of Black preachers.  He has been labeled among the best preachers of our time by secular sources.  He is a preacher, and he has a lot to say about the work to which he dedicated his life.  At many points in that exchange I heard myself saying “Amen.”  My foot tapped.  My eyes rolled from one side of the room to another, looking to see where the rest of the congregation was, as we tracked with this preacher.  It was me, Marshall, and Gardner Taylor, but there were many others in that room, too.  He was answering questions, being interviewed, but that man was preaching in just about every response.  You can’t know the pleasure of that, but I can.  It was bliss if you like preaching.  I walked away, having come a preacher, wanting to be a preacher.  Not a better preacher, not a wiser preacher.  Just a preacher.  I walked away after redefining what it meant to preach.  I walked away hushed and hoping to maintain a gratitude for words so that I could use them in the same service of this man who clearly knew God well.  I walked away grateful and thankful to hear him articulate in intimate terms the largeness, the boldness, and the simplicity of our task.
  4. Age.  Dr. Taylor is 93 years old.  His face is toward eternity.  He told us that he “could almost feel the waters of that river lapping at his feet.”  That’s a direct quote, one of the ones I have turned over for eight days.  I’ll never forget the distant look in his eyes as he spoke about getting older.  He talked of the drawbacks of his own health.  He said things through his movements that feel like a mistreatment to mention in a blog.  He answered his daughter’s call while we were there, and said that that was what mattered to him.  He talked about his proud moments, what he missed as a pastor, where he failed, and how he was currently working with younger leaders and a few churches as they resolved particular conflicts.  His life was open to us, and I felt the real strong sense that our tools were too small when pulling from the long list of experiences of the man.  He had lived through all those decades.  Marshall asked him about his worries, couching the economic woes and all the fears that people have because of them.  Marshall said that he, Dr. Taylor, had lived through four or five similar seasons when no one thought progress would return.  Dr. Taylor said that the preacher’s role remained during those phases and moments.  I felt and feel, even while I recall this, an undeserved honor to have been in that room.  I was in his study, and in being there, he allowed me access to all those other moments in his life, moments which formulated his lived truths-turned-answers.
  5. Discipline.  He spoke of sin and temptation.  He reintroduced the words of John when he mentioned the lusts with which ministers contended.  “Are they the same or different?” I asked him with minimal introduction as he talked of sins we confront.  “They are the same,” he said.  He mentioned sexual sins and flesh and lust and pride.  He was clear and focused.  He was talking to me and to leaders like me when he spoke of humanity, of being human and real and authentic and, at the same time, holy.  He was critical of prosperity preachers.  He was unabashed in his hope that we would be generous and open and liberal with what God gave us for others.  He spoke of silence, reading Scripture, solitude, and prayer as disciplines indispensable to the pastor’s life.
I’ll let you know when the article is available at Leadership Journal.

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.