“What happens on Sunday morning is not half so important as what happens on Monday morning. In fact, what happens on Sunday morning is judged by what happens on Monday morning.”
Last week, I came across this quote from Verna Dozier, teacher and theologian and biblical scholar. She died in 2006 at the age of 88. I hadn’t thought much about her in recent years, but I was taken with the words about the Sunday-Monday connection because that’s what I try to explore in this weekly email. She said that what we did from Monday to Saturday was most important, so that we come to our Sunday experience to be refueled. In a world where people increasingly ask about the point of going to church on Sunday, this makes sense to me.
I never had the privilege of meeting Verna Dozier. I did get to hear her speak once in Washington, D.C. She wrote with such great authority that I confess I was surprised by her diminutive stature. She was about four foot nothing and when I saw her at the National Cathedral, she looked to me to be about a million years old. She climbed the steps to the pulpit in that great sacred space, a place where giants like Martin Luther King had held forth. I thought she’d be swallowed up by that enormous piece of church furniture, but she took the helm with strong witness to the mission of her life, to proclaim and teach and challenge us to realize that we are all ministers in the church (not just those who wear clerical collars), that each one of us is called to be part of the fulfillment of God’s dream for the world. She was an ardent advocate for spiritual growth. She elevated expectations, calling every member of the church to a sense of responsibility for their own spiritual journey. She spoke about equipping the saints for ministry. As an African American growing up in segregated Washington, she argued convincingly, knowingly that spiritual leaders too often ignore social justice in their focus on spirituality. She advocated contemporary discipleship, claiming that God wanted people to follow Jesus, not merely worship him. One friend wrote: “She challenged people to accept the authority they received in baptism, and to live out their faith in their homes and offices.”
One of her great contributions was to emphasize engagement with scripture. When she was in junior high, she got a Bible as a Christmas present. She read it cover to cover twice, but didn’t get much out of it. That led to her conviction that a disciplined program of study was key to understanding the Bible. Just dipping into one part or another could make you think that the Bible is just a “grim recital of do’s and don’ts, a diatribe against women, or a polemic for the status quo.” She challenged Episcopalians to go deeper. And she developed ways to approach the scriptures, specifically a way to study the Bible in small groups without clergy or biblical scholars or experts. She said you could ask three questions of any biblical text:
- What does it say? (i.e., What is going on in the story we’re reading)
- What do you think it meant to the people for whom it was written?
- What does it say to us as we read it in our own context?
I came to appreciate this method because it called for taking the scripture seriously, if not literally, an engagement which is critical for spiritual growth. And it includes the “so-what” factor, a vision of how the text informs our life of faith, not just on Sunday but Monday through Saturday as well.
I went back to read her obituary in the Washington Post. It’s a moving tribute, concluding with a brief sentence, standing in a paragraph all alone. “She had no immediate survivors.” I beg to differ. I am not alone as inheriting a deeper faith through her witness. And I’m wondering what thoughts she spurs for you as you consider your Monday through Saturday ministry.
– Jay Sidebotham
Samplings of the wisdom of Verna Dozier:
Faith always includes the possibility that we could at any given moment be wrong, and that is why it requires courage. Kingdom of God thinking calls us to risk. We always see through a glass darkly, and that is what faith is about. I will live by the best I can discern today. Tomorrow I may find out I was wrong. Since I do not live by being right, I am not destroyed by being wrong. The God revealed in Jesus whom I call the Christ is a God whose forgiveness goes ahead of me, and whose love sustains me and the whole created world.
It is important that we understand the Bible as model for how we live our lives, not as a rule book. The issue that the Bible raises is, in light of what God has done in history, what kind of response do I make in my daily life?
Back when I first started talking about ministry, it was seen as something the ordained did. Lay people had no ministry at all except as they participated in the work of the institution. If you taught in the Christian education program, you had a ministry. If you taught in the public schools, you ‘did time’ five days a week until you could get to your ministry. When I began my second career, people would say, ‘You taught school for thirty-two years; then you began your ministry.’ In my unredeemed way, I would steel myself and reply through clenched teeth, ‘No, I continued my ministry.’
The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.