Module 4: When we Dwell. read. watch. reflect.practice.

read.

When we dwell in the Word… we dwell in the world. Together.

 

The sound of his shuffling feet echoed down the dark hallway and my heart skipped like a stone over water, flip-flopping up into my throat before disappearing completely under a surface of fear. I was working night shift at a group home for adults with developmental challenges. Five individuals lived there in all the brutal beauty of life. “Martin” was a man of extremes: short and strong, calm and volatile, sweet and aggressive by turns. It was at night that he became obstinate, sometimes getting out of bed at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. and shuffling down the hallway with a militant glint in his eye, on a mission to confront the night shift worker and wreak havoc. House protocol stated that we should coerce him back to his room so he could get a full night’s sleep. This rarely worked for me. To be fair, it is clearly more interesting to get up and antagonize the night worker than to lie sleeplessly in bed. I would have done the same.

                I prayed with particular fervor during that season. Martin wasn’t what you’d call violent, but he was sometimes hard to predict and when angry he could break things and hurt people. He had a steely grip and a lightning-fast slap. Once or twice I found myself sitting in my car in the house driveway five minutes before shift started, staring at the residence and praying from the pit of my stomach that he would sleep through the night.

I prayed from the Psalms, especially 91 and 46. I declared my confidence in God’s presence through Deuteronomy 31. I reminded God (sometimes with my finger pointed at the sky) that in Romans 8 he promises nothing can separate us from his love. When I felt weak I read 2 Corinthians, asking the Lord to use this ridiculous clay jar for his purposes. I prayed from 1 John 4 for a miraculous increase in love for Martin, and from James 1 for great wisdom so that I could support him well. Once in awhile I threw in a little Julian of Norwich for good measure: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”  Then I would turn off the car engine, square my shoulders with determination and enter the house. I didn’t know it then but I was imbibing scripture through prayer: one of the thousand ways God has given us to dwell in the Word.

I didn’t know it then, I say, because I would not have believed you if you told me. I would have said that I had only done what was necessary to bolster my courage, which was in short supply. When I heard Martin’s bedroom door slam at about 4:00 a.m. that morning and the sound of his shuffling feet echo down the hallway, my heart flipped up into my throat as it always did and all the scripture flew from my head. Oh Lord. He came out eyes blazing, with muscles tensed and fists clenched. “Okay,” I thought. We tried the usual methods: first redirection, then light conversation, appropriate rewards, firmness, gentleness. You name it. It didn’t work. Martin was up and he was in a mood.

Normally I would have swum in a sea of tension for the remainder of the shift but that morning something different happened. Instead of feeling the inadequacy of not getting Martin back to his bed and the anxiety of wondering how to complete my required tasks before the next shift worker came, I walked over to the window and looked out at the sky. Martin trailed after me. I felt a great peace. “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’” It was the first morning of creation all over again. A universe was coming to life in the green dark, the wheeling sky slowed down and became lighter around the edges, and we stood side by side watching all things made new.

             We watched the heavens tell the glory of God and the firmament proclaim his handiwork. Everything was pouring forth speech and declaring knowledge. We heard – we saw! – a voice go out through all the earth, to the end of the world. It did something to us, I tell you. As we watched the unfolding, I asked Martin if he knew who God was. He stared at me blankly. I told him that God had made this beautiful world in an outpouring of love and then sent his Son Jesus out of love too. I pointed to the colors in the sky as indigo disintegrated into purple, pink, and finally a lovely soft swirling orange. Flocks of sparrows were hurtling everywhere and I began to feel a strange elation.

Now, I’m not really quite sure how it happened but somehow, for some reason, we started to sing. We sang Jesus Loves Me. And as we sang, on a whim I added Martin’s name to the lyrics: “Jesus love Martin, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves Martin. Yes, Jesus loves Martin. Yes, Jesus loves Martin, the Bible tells me so.” Every time I said his name, we pointed together at his chest and he mouth quirked into a little smile. I think I had only the faintest inkling at the time that I was helping Martin dwell in the Word.

Finally we finished singing and it was time to get back to work. I looked to the window, wanting to catch one last glimpse of the coming day before going back to my tasks. But a hand gripped my arm with strong, bruising fingers. Oh Lord, not again. “What is it, Martin?” He was becoming agitated, gesturing at me. “What is it? What would you like?” Martin slowly lifted his finger and pointed at my collarbone. He poked me several times. He wanted to sing again. He wanted to sing “Jesus loves me,” with my name added in. The tears sprang to my eyes as we began: “Jesus loves Marijke, this I know. For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong. They are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves Marijke. Yes, Jesus loves Marijke. Yes, Jesus loves Marijke, the Bible tells me so.” Each time we said my name we both pointed at me and Martin’s mouth quirked. Now I had no doubt. He was helping me dwell in the Word. What grace it was that morning.

Do you know, as I look back on that experience from the distance of ten or fifteen years, I am convinced that something like a sermon happened as the sun rose. Actually, several sermons. I did not identify as a preacher at the time. I wasn’t even contemplating seminary. I was a Theater and English student. I attended church. I heard sermons, many of them good. I went to catechism class and youth group bible study. I learned from pastors and Sunday School teachers who taught me to meet with God through the Bible, creation, and Christian community. I would have laughed if you had told me I would ever preach, let alone that a volatile man with developmental challenges would preach to me. My understanding of the word “sermon” was very small. And yet preaching is exactly what I was learning to do. By saying this I do not intend to diminish the exegetical task of an ordained preacher. Really, the opposite.

Recently my co-pastor, Brian Keepers, gave a wonderful sermon that actually taught the congregation to preach. In it he quoted the 19th century preacher P.T. Forsyth, who said, “The one great preacher in history...is the church.  And the first business of the individual preacher is to enable the church to preach.... He [or she] is to preach to the church from the gospel so that with the church he [or she] may preach the gospel to the world.”

            Brian’s sermon reminded me of an image my preaching professor, Michael Knowles, used to hold up for our class. It is an image which continues to bring me back to my task in the pulpit. When we preach, Dr. Knowles said, we are in an amphitheater. But we are not at the center of it (as much as I might like to think I am). We sit in the audience with everyone else. To preach is to stand up in the audience and point to what God is doing at the center. And, let us join Forsyth in saying, it is to stand up and point in such a way that we show others how to stand up and point too.

What we have been learning together is that the ability to do this – to find ourselves in the audience, to stand up, and point to what God is doing at the center – requires that we dwell deeply in the Word. Lesslie Newbigin puts it in even stronger terms. He says that we are required to live in the text, which is the only position from which we and our parishioners may understand what is happening in the world around us.[2] It is also the only position from which the church can be sent out to preach the good news with their lives. Newbigin goes on to say:

If we follow these suggestions we get a picture of the Christian life as one in which we live in the biblical story as part of the community whose story it is, find in the story the clues to knowing God as his character becomes manifest in the story, and from within that indwelling try to understand and cope with the events of our time and the world about us and so carry the story forward. At the heart of the story, as the key to the whole, is the incarnation of the Word, the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In the Fourth Gospel Jesus defines for his disciples what is to be their relation to him. They are to “dwell in” him. He is not the object of their observation, but the body of which they are a part. As they “indwell” him in his body, they will both be led into fuller and fuller apprehension of the truth and also become the means through which God’s will is done in the life of the world.[3]

             When I read this, I find great hope for the preacher and for the church. Because it means that when we dwell in the Word, we are drawn with the Word in the world… and we invite our parishioners to be drawn with us. The key to this mystery is in the text itself. Isaiah tells us that the Living Word which we inhabit is constantly going out from God’s mouth into the world, and he promises it will not return empty but will accomplish what God purposes and succeed in the things for which God sent it (55:11).

I know it to be true when I remember that early morning with Martin, where two anxious and inept laypeople saw the re-creation of the world and turned to share Jesus with each other. I am convinced that we would not have been able to do this if we had not been learning from our preachers, teachers, family, friends and neighbors, that the Word is not only in a pulpit but is in fact very near to us – it is all around us! – it is in our mouths and in our hearts for us to observe and to share. Without fully understanding it, we were dwelling in a Word that was taking us out with it as it moved to accomplish God’s intent.

The implications are clear: dwelling in the word is not just a nice idea. If we want our congregation members to share the gospel with the world, it behooves us as preachers to live in the Word and to do it as wholistically, creatively and courageously as we can. This means reading, exegeting and memorizing the text, to be sure. But it also means touching the Word in creation, tasting it around the dinner table, reenacting it with gesticulating hands, conversing about it over coffee, feeling it in poetry and art and pointing to it as it turns from indigo to orange in an early morning sky. We must live in the Word – with every sense and every faculty, with every taste bud and nerve – if we are ever to preach it in such a way that our congregation members also learn to live in it and to preach it with their lives.

Sometimes the task seems overwhelming.  How am I to do it?  When I pray about this for myself and my congregation, I am reminded of a quotation by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. In her book, Gift From the Sea, Lindbergh writes about a beach retreat she took in which she learned that when one stretches out prone on the sand, “one becomes, in fact, like the element on which one lies, flattened by the sea; bare, open, empty as the beach, erased by today’s tides of all yesterday’s scribblings.”[4] We become like the element on which we lie. I can’t get it out of my head even years after reading it. Of course Lindbergh wasn’t only talking about the beach. We become like any element on which we lie.

Why we dwell, what we dwell and how we dwell converge in this: when we dwell, something significant happens to us and to everyone around us. If I’m stretched out prone on the Word of God, in all of the fantastic and surprising ways God has given me to do so, then I will be shaped more and more to become like that element. And when that element goes out into the world I go with it. I invite you to go with it. You invite me to go with it. The story is carried forward in all of our lives. And the Word of God will not return void.

 

Rev. Marijke Strong

Fellowship Reformed Church

Holland, Michigan

 

[1] Quoted in Preaching in the Witnessing Community, ed. Herman G. Stuempfle, Jr. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), p. viii.

{2] Newbigin, Lesslie, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p 98.

[3] Newbigin, Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p 99.

[4] Lindbergh, Anne Morrow, Gift From the Sea (New York: Pantheon, 1983), p 16.


watch.

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reflect.

Consider the questions below - ponder them in your mind and in your heart. Then write out your answers before meeting with your group.


As you read, how do you...

...find yourself resonating with the ideas offered in the essay?
...find yourself experiencing resistance?

practice.

How are you finding the process of indwelling a beloved text?