The Importance of Words in Creating a World of Faith

By Willimon, Rev. William H. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 6, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Importance of Words in Creating a World of Faith


Willimon, Rev. William H., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The Rev. Lloyd Ogilvie, United States Senate chaplain:

At a church I know, there is a saying on the wall that faces anyone who preached in that church on Sunday. And these are the words: "I preach as a dying man, to dying men and women, as if never to preach again."

The speaker of this luncheon brings that intensity to the pulpit. . . . He is dean of the Duke University Chapel and has been a pastor of churches in the South. He graduated from Yale Divinity School and has his doctorate from Emory University. . . . He is the author of 33 books, and the one I like best is "What Is Right About the Church."

The Rev. William H. Willimon:

Thank you. More than once I've been told by groups I've addressed that they "tried to get Lloyd Ogilvie, but he's unavailable. So we thought of you."

The common theme that I got from our panel is that preaching is important. It's worth giving our best energies to. One difficulty of preaching is that it requires so many different gifts. Most of the work you do on preaching is invisible.

A couple years ago I issued a report on student life at Duke, and I was interviewed by the newspaper and they said, "What do you intend to do with this report?" And I said, "Nothing - just I've reported." And the news reporter said, "This is nothing but just a bunch of words." And I said: "Well, that's the business I'm in. I'm just a preacher and we preach. And so that's all I'm going to do." And the newspaper said, "Well, you don't have a program or any plan?" And I said: "Wait a minute. What's a newspaper? It's just a bunch of words, too. You don't have any program or plan."

We're now learning that the whole world is just a bunch of words. Of course, Genesis says that there is no world without words, that when God speaks, things come into being. . . . Walter Bruggeman said to us preachers, "You preachers are world makers." And if you will not let God use you to create the world, then all you can do is service the old one. And that's no fun.

When you think about the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, word always precedes world, and Israel is spoken into being: "You were no people, but when God speaks and calls forth, suddenly there is a people." In stories we heard on the panel we saw the difficulty of that, but also the glory, the nobility of that.

You can see this in the eyes of a little child as you turn the pages of a picture book, and you can see the expression in the child's eyes when the child says: "Dog! That's a dog! Dog!" And the life the child has the moment the world is recognizable and predictable. . . .

As one of our panelists was quibbling with our theme today, I guess I will continue that quibbling and say, when we talk about speaking the Christian Gospel, speaking the Jewish message, we are not speaking into a vacuum. When we think of speaking into a secular culture, it's not like we're speaking into nothing. We're speaking into something. And that accounts for why when you speak, there's often conflict.

When you throw your voice into Washington, D.C., it's not like there's a tabula rasa, some vacuum awaiting some word. You are throwing your voice already into a bubbling, competing marketplace that is full of alternative ways of describing what is going on in the world.

You take a child into Toys `R' Us, and you will not need to instruct that child on what to do. Greed comes quite naturally. If that greed is so pervasive in this culture, it starts to look natural. But maybe not because we are born that way - unless you're a Calvinist and you do believe we were born that way. It's because of the story that is taught in this culture.

If you take a child, on the other hand, into a synagogue or church, the child will experience disorientation, dislocation, discordance.

Why? I think it is because of the story that is being told in the culture. …

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