Introducing our 2016 Convocation Keynote Speaker

The following article has been written by The Reverend Dr. Jason Byassee, inaugural Butler Chair of Homiletics and Biblical Hermeneutics – a reflection on his friend and colleague, The Reverend Dr. Lillian Daniel, our speaker for Convocation this year. Lillian Daniel will also be leading a workshop entitled ‘Religion without Ranting, Spirituality without Stereotypes’, sponsored by the Hugh and Helen Mogenson Fund for Church Revitalization.


You know those moments in life when disparate pieces come together? Say, at a graduation, or a wedding, or a funeral, when you find yourself introducing your great aunt to your high school friends, or your cousins to your boss? Things come together in surprising ways and you start to think the universe might be, well, connected.

It’s like that for me introducing my friend Lillian Daniel to the VST community.

Lillian and I were neighbours in Chicagoland and got to know one another’s families and ministries. She was pastoring a thriving United Church of Christ congregation in the wealthy suburb of Glen Ellyn while I was working at Christian Century. We got to know one another’s friends and contacts and found ourselves competing to find the coolest, most counter-intuitive friends just to tell the other about it (‘I met the bible church pastor here!’ ‘Oh yeah? Well I got published in Books & Culture!’). We both taught in seminaries around Chicago and challenged one another to start our book-writing careers. And then after we kept in touch with conferences where we both spoke at events (me always the undercard) in places like Princeton, Duke, New Hampshire, Guemes Island, and Grand Rapids. I’m eager to see what she’ll become now as the brand new senior minister at First Congregational UCC in Dubuque Iowa.

Now I get to introduce her here. Since we both started out Lillian has become a big deal. She’s gotten to lecture in Australia, England, and even exotic Canada. She’s preached at Riverside Church, Duke Chapel, the Festival of Homiletics, and the National Cathedral. Her book on testimony described the way UCC congregations need to reacquaint themselves with their New England Puritan tradition of inviting lay people to testify about their faith to the congregation. We ministers need not stand in the way of different parts of Christ’s body sharing the warm bread of vibrant faith with their hungry friends. Her book with Martin Copenhaver, This Odd and Wondrous Calling, responded to the rash of books dissing the local church by showing that life with an ordinary congregation of believers is so much more interesting than life with people who think just like us. And her book When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough threw down a gauntlet at the SBNR phenomenon. I love her snarky response to the chattering know-it-all on the plane who likes to patronize us religious professionals on airplanes and at parties by saying how they find God in nature or in their kid’s genius or in email forwards: “Please stop boring me.” And she offers this riposte to our mainline tendency to apologize for everything every vile person ever did in the name of Christianity: ‘I’m done apologizing for a church I don’t belong to.’

Lillian is wickedly funny (can you tell?). She’s also wise. And she’s willing to speak in devotional terms not just about God, but about Jesus. And not just about Jesus, but about Jesus’ beloved church, filled with ordinary self-important know-it-alls like us. If there is anything boring it is ourselves. And if there is anyone interesting it is the triune God who loves us unimaginably. Reading Lillian makes me want to love and serve God more.

Lillian contributed an essay to a book on Eugene Peterson that I co-edited. She said there that Peterson’s work gave her a sort of permission: she could be a writer as a pastor. She didn’t need anything more glamorous or pretentious than a pulpit to take up a pen. She didn’t need a Ph.D., an academic appointment, or to have grown a megachurch to have something to say. As a preacher she knows how to stand between God and God’s people and God’s word and offer words as a gift from one to the other. That’s all good writing it.

She’s right—and you don’t need anything more to write either, gentle reader.

I’m delighted she’ll be here for our convocation and for the followup workshop on church vitality. I’m confident your ministry will not be the same after you’ve spent some time with her. You won’t just come away saying how cool she is (though she is that). You’ll come away saying how cool God is, and how cool you are, and what a privilege this ecclesial life we share is of getting to serve God and God’s people.