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On Preaching, Part 3

Oh hey, and we’re done!  If you’ve been cowering somewhere in a corner, waiting for this meta- preaching blog series to end, hooray!  Almost there!

Part 1 is here.  Part 2 is here.

5. It’s alive.

There is an ongoing debate over whether manuscripts are evil, or whether the pulpit confines the Spirit, and roaming down on the floor is the only way to go.  Those are primarily cosmetic, I think.

The important thing to bear in mind is that any good sermon happens as a chemistry experiment between you, the Spirit, the moment and place in time where you are preaching, and the people who hear it.  Remove or change one of those elements, and it won’t work.

So you have to go into sermon-prep paying attention to ALL those elements.  Not just the ones that seem obvious.

You can’t get so caught up in the intricacies of the text that you forget that the people you’re talking to have to pay bills and go to school and work the next morning.  And you can’t get so involved in the grind of daily life that you forget to listen to the text, and the whisper of God.

Your job, as preacher, is to let the elements interact.  How does the text speak to people with jobs, to people who have retired?  To people whose spouse has just died, or whose parent has just died?  To people who have just had a baby or gotten married?  To people who have just started at a new school and don’t know anyone, or whose biggest problem is learning fractions?

And how does the text speak to the whole gathered community, in this moment in time?  How does this text sound different today, than it did three years ago?

At every point, while reading, while thinking, while writing, and while speaking, you need to leave room for the Spirit.  On a practical level, this means that, regardless of whether you use a full manuscript, notes, outline or memorize it, you need to know your sermon well enough that you can be watching your congregation at least 80% of the time.  It’s in this watching that the chemistry happens–you’ll know when you need to add something, change something, get louder or softer, in order to keep your audience with you.  And it frees you up if you realize halfway through that you need to go in a slightly different direction than you’d planned.

In this way, good preaching is like good liturgy (perhaps good anything)—you should prepare so much in advance that everyone watching assumes that you aren’t trying at all.

6. All you need is love.

I really love preaching.  For one thing, I don’t mind public speaking. Not everyone shares this affinity, which I understand.  (A priest I knew once told me he still took blood pressure medication before he preached, to help with nerves.  He’s a bishop now.)

But more importantly, preaching is an opportunity to talk about something that matters with people you care about each week.  That comes from love.

You need to love the people you preach to, or at least, be able to access God’s love for them (if you don’t know them).  And you need to love the message you’re telling them, or at least what it will do for your common life.

You can’t give a good sermon out of anger*, or disinterest, or annoyance, or disappointment, or anything else, really. Good sermons come out of being fired up with excitement about how much you like these people, and how much you want to tell them this ONE GREAT THING you’ve discovered.  As a preacher, you’re like a kid who worked all day on a finger painting, and all you want to do is show your mom when she comes to pick you up.

That level of excitement.

And that comes only from love.

And once you find that, you’ll be an unstoppable, utterly awesome, preacher.

*I should clarify that: anger, in general, isn’t bad.  Anger at injustice has led to some incredible sermons.  But it’s always rooted back in profound love for the people you’re serving.  Not at them.  There’s a big difference.

On preaching, Part 1

A few weeks ago, a friend from Arizona wrote and asked me if I’d come up with some do’s and don’ts of preaching for a seminarian. “Something short, off the top of your head,” he urged.

My friend is a wonderful person, but I have never not had multiple opinions on anything. So coming up with a Buzzfeed-worthy listsicle on preaching wasn’t in the cards.

What I tried to do, instead, was to think about what made sermons compelling to me, and what I’ve learned in the short time I’ve been preaching.

Here’s what I came up with.

It is long, so this will be broken up into three posts, over three days.

On Preaching:
I have lots of thoughts about preaching, because I have lots of thoughts about pretty much everything. But I’ll do my hardest to contain myself, and put them into some sort of understandable format.

1. The pulpit is powerful.

This isn’t a do or don’t, so much as a rule that undergirds the rest.
When you step up to preach, you assume a lot of authority—whether ordained or not—by virtue of the fact that you are speaking within the liturgy, and as Episcopalians, it would take no less than the return of Jesus Himself for a congregant to stand up and contradict you openly. (And even then, I’m pretty sure the Altar Guild would consider it very bad form.) You have so many minutes to speak to your people about your common life and what God is up to and those people aren’t going anywhere. It’s the very definition of a captive audience (You are quite literally preaching to the choir) and what’s more, the vast majority of that audience will put, at least, some stock in what you’re saying.
It’s both a golden opportunity to say something important and life-affirming, and a huge risk to say something hurtful and alienating if you aren’t careful. So never underestimate the power of the pulpit, for good or for ill.

That being said…

2. Don’t lie from the pulpit.

Don’t EVER lie from the pulpit.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but I’m amazed at how often I hear people do it, and mostly unintentionally. Things like saying “When Matthew wrote this story…” (anyone who’s taken EFM knows that’s not how it went down), or glossing over textual contradictions. (I about walked out of church once in college when I heard a lay reader declare that this was “a lesson from Deuteronomy, which was written by Moses.” Gah.)
But there’s another layer to this, too—don’t feel the need to ‘prettify’ the Bible. Don’t smooth away the parts of the parables that make no sense, don’t try to pretend that the Johannine Jesus is more comprehensible than he is, don’t ignore the violence and the awful gender politics and the excuses for slavery that runs through the Bible.
Don’t lie by omission.
If you don’t directly address the ugly parts of the Bible, and the parts that don’t make sense, then people are left to either adopt whatever interpretation they hear, or just continue in a vague fog of Biblical misunderstanding left over from the 1930s. Neither one have served us well. You’re the preacher. It’s your job to expound and confront that text. Sometimes your job will be hard, but that doesn’t mean you get to avoid it. If there are no good answers, say that. If it’s a hard story, say that.
The more you can confront and name the discomfort in the safety of the liturgy, the more your people can confront and name the discomfort in the wider world.

Knit Theology

Because my current ministry lacks a building, the local Episcopal church has generously allowed me to use a desk in a corner of their office bullpen.  I keep their deacon/office administrator company while I tend to my various college-ministry-office tasks, and she holds down the fort. It’s a good arrangement.  knitting

Last week, a young boy, “Zach”,* stopped by on his weekly rounds to pick up our recycling.  He is around 10 years old, and comes by every week to pick up our glass for us, for pocket money.  He doesn’t go to church, but our deacon has been working on him long and hard about this matter for over a year now.
This week, he stopped in the office with his mom, because he came to the conclusion that his father would greatly appreciate a hand-knitted washcloth for Christmas, and he was just the person to provide him with one.  Accordingly, he stopped in to procure knitting instructions from our deacon, “Beth”.
Beth whipped out the needles and yarn, and got right to it.  I scooted over on my chair to observe, since I am great at knitting, but bad at teaching it.  Within 15 minutes, Zach had a serviceable beginning to a washcloth, and was fixated on the second row, like it held the secret to Mideast peace.  “Now, Zach,” said Beth, “you really should come to our youth group here next week.  I think you’d like it.”
Zach was undissuaded from the knitting. “Why would I want to do that?” he replied calmly. “I’m not a Christian”  He announced this in a matter-of-fact, descriptive tone, like he had told us that he did not care for broccoli, or that magenta clashed with orange.  Facts were facts, ma’am.  Neither good, nor bad.
I found this fascinating. “Huh. So, what do you think makes a person a Christian, Zach?”
With this, he dropped the knitting, swiveled in his chair, and stared at me, jaw dropped. “Well, I don’t know.  Lots of things! But I’m not one.”
 After some more gentle pressing, he started to list things he did not believe in: God was not stuck in the sky on a throne.  God was not an old white man with a beard.  God did not control us all like puppets.
He was surprised when Beth and I agreed with him on these points, but not slowed down.  Once he got going, he was on a roll–a 30 minute roll.  Why, if Jesus died on a cross, did we now all wear crosses around our necks as the sign of Jesus?  Why, if God gave us free will, did God insist that we worship him, and “not just let us sit on a beach in Miami all the time?” (That made me laugh out loud.)
To the last, I admitted that it remained a deep mystery, but for me, personally, I worshipped God because I actually like God.  Chances are, if I didn’t love God so much, I would ignore God a lot more.  But, moreover, I show God my affection by trying to live the way Jesus lived, and by trying to love the people around me as much as God did.  Zach pondered this concept for a while, knitting industriously.
 “Well,” he finally said, “I’ll probably come to the youth group thing.  So long as I can ask more questions.”
We assured him that would be fine.  In fact, I told him that would be awesome, since his questions were among the best I had heard.  I meant it.
I don’t know what would happen, if we all took to the streets, sat on corners, and offered to teach whatever it was that we knew best to passers-by: be it knitting, cooking, basketball, singing, or hopscotch.  I don’t know what would happened if we went, offered what we had, and then listened to what people had to say about God.
But I have a feeling it would be amazing.
*I’ve changed the names, to allow for the possibility that other people don’t enjoy being featured on the internet as much as I do.

Jesus would have used a Mac

Here is a thing I have noticed:

When I run into a problem with my computer, (download a file that won’t open, an application stops working, etc) I do the following: Google the problem, see if someone else has a similar problem, see if there’s a easy/free fix, and try things until something works.  Sometimes this leads to me taking apart the DVD player to follow a YouTube instructional video on fixing the thing, but most of the time, it leads to me feeling all manner of triumphant over a box of circuits and wires.  “You shall not master me, technology!”  I shout inwardly. (Occasionally outwardly. I take great pride in my victories.)
Here is what my parents do when they notice a problem:
They call me.  (They also read this blog.  Hi Mom, Dad!  Love ya’ll!)
They call me, concerned that the beeping, or the flashing, or the current unable-to-open file situation they are encountering will DESTROY EVERYTHING THEY HOLD DEAR. Every new message from the computer system signals an emergency, or approaching apocalypse.  Technology cannot be trusted.  When I went home for Christmas last year, I discovered that my parents hadn’t run a Windows system update or a antivirus update on their computer in over 5 years.  “I don’t trust those pop-up messages,” said my mother.  “They worry me and I don’t know what they mean, so I just ignore them so nothing goes wrong.” As a result, of course, their computer was now barely functioning.  (I point out here that around the holidays, sites like Gawker and The Awl run articles about how to surreptitiously update your parents’ browser, etc, without throwing them into a panic, or overloading them with information.  This is not a situation unique to my house.)
I raise this issue, not because one reaction is better than another, but because it points towards something else I’ve noticed–as used as we’ve gotten to calling the advances in technology “tools”, that we can put down and pick up, they are, just as much, an entire culture.  And as a culture, this new world of technology has affected everything: our expectations, our world views, how we interact with each other, and each part, really, of how we live.  I hasten to add that this has happened before–Walter Ong wrote a fabulous (and short!) book called Orality and Literacy examining how the advent of written language profoundly changed the way humans think and process the world around us.  As people had access to more and more information, and as the access to that information became more permanent than someone’s memory, the way they thought, and the way they saw the world, changed.
Again, the changes, as Ong points out, were neither all good nor bad.  They just were.  As more information became accessible, thought patterns shifted from the concrete to the abstract.  The repetition that was necessary to aid in memory gave way to complex language construction.  It’s the difference between the Gospel of Mark’s limited vocabulary and the sweeping of the Gospel of John. One’s oral, one’s not.  Both are beautiful and profound, but they were written for different audiences to do different things.
I have witnessed a lot of fear recently about the rise of technology, and the effect it is having on our Church.  On the one hand, I’ve observed anxiety about whether emerging technologies will be ‘good for us or bad for us’.  On the other hand, I’ve heard the concern that as the upcoming generations bring new technologies into the church, people will be excluded, and the Church will become a more exclusive place.
Look, the ship has sailed, mes amis.  Emerging technology is already here.  And this culture, like every culture before it, is both good and bad.  American culture has always been both good and bad.  First century Palestinian culture was both good and bad.  It is our job as faithful, committed Jesus-following people to sort out the good from the bad.  What parts of this culture serve God’s purposes?  What parts of this culture are life-giving to us and our fellow creatures?  What parts seek to destroy the creation of God?  These are questions we have to ask again and again, in this and every generation.  We can go back and forth as we wish about the answers.  But it is criminally unfaithful to give up on the questions because we are afraid to do the work.
God does not give us a vote as to which culture we are immersed in.  But God, by virtue of the Incarnation, shows up in all cultures, all contexts, in one way or another.  Even this one, with its many gadgets.  Our job, as faithful people, is to figure out the culture enough to find the divine fingerprints in it.

Adventures in Postmodern Ministry: We are not Family

Last Thursday, the diocese of Arizona had another educational summit for its clergy, this one on preaching.  These summits are a chance for all the clergy in the diocese, and sometimes lay leaders in the parish as well, to receive continuing education on various topics: children and youth ministry, spiritual direction, music and liturgy, etc.  (And also see our colleagues.  An added bonus of no small worth in a diocese as big as ours.)

Our presenter covered a lot of ground, but one of the points she touched on was that the meaning of language has shifted considerably in the past few decades.  Therefore, in her preaching classes, certain words are off-limits:  sin, grace, faith, hope, etc.  She dubbed these “Teflon words” because their meanings are so loaded and expansive that anything can be thrown at them with no effect, unless the preacher specifically defines them.
I agree with this Teflon concept.  Especially for folks who came of age in a post-Christendom world, there exists no one meaning for any of these theological terms.  Just as the pleasant concept of a unified theory of systematic theology has broken down into a multitude of varied voices singing in (one hopes) harmony, each of our nice theological terms now has a variety of meanings attached to it.  ‘Sin’ can mean what your mom says when you were 5, as well as what the crazy guy on the subway is yelling about as well as what Rick Santorum is currently pontificating about.  Plus, probably whatever the preacher on South Park says it means.
Which means a couple things:  #1, the average person is confused about theology and #2, preachers had better start defining their terms, unless they want their folks to be educated by the loudest voices in the room.  (Who are liable to be Rick Santorum, and South Park.)
And, #3. Due to this varied soup of influences, words have ceased to mean what you think they mean.  And perhaps, some words should only be used in the pulpit with the utmost caution.
To this latter list of Teflon words, might I add the word “family”?
I realize that I invite the shocked gasps of many throughout the church with this suggestion, as well as the writers of almost every parish profile I have ever read, but hear me out.
I understand that we would like the church to be a family.  But I also think that what we mean by this term is: “a group of people who support and love each other unconditionally, through good times and bad, richer or poorer, etc.”  It’s an aspirational goal;  it’s what we strive to be like.
Because many of us (most of us, maybe) do not come from families that operated like this.  Many of us came from families that did not manage to pull off the unconditional love concept, and who weren’t always so supportive of everything, all the time, always.  Families can, and do, split up.  Families can, and do, hurt each other and abuse each other, and store secrets for years and years.  Aspirational goals, and Hallmark cards, aside, the reality of ‘family’ as many of us know it is not really an experience that anyone would want to import into the church.  It’s not a life-giving metaphor; it’s covered with too much baggage.
Instead, why not be explicit with our aspirations?  If we want to be a community of people who support and love each other unconditionally, then why not say that?  Why not explain that this is, in fact, what Christian community is, and lay out exactly what our vision is?   And this has never been more important than now, when there are so many competing voices, clamoring to claim what is Christian and what is not.  What if we were to step forward and say, “Hey!  Shocking as it may sound, a Christian community is determined by its ability to love and accept the newcomer and stranger, not its ability to judge more harshly than anyone else in town.  Christian communities are built on love, not the skulls of the damned.”
Our ability to communicate the Gospel has never been more important, and it helps no one if we restrain ourselves to vague terms that are comforting shibboleths to us, but hopelessly baggage-laden to others.  We need to be clear, crystal-clear, even, and forthright with our vision for a redeemed creation: words and all!

I’m still here, am not a dryer sock

The Episcopal Cafe linked to this article two days ago  with the following headline”Where have all the Young People Gone?”

 The article itself is fine.  The headline is troubling.
It’s a popular question to ask, nowadays, by very well-meaning people, who have very well-founded concerns that the current incarnation of the church lacks a certain diversity of ages.  This is true.  The current incarnation is a bit lopsided when it comes to life-experience.  The average Episcopalian is somewhere around the age of 58.  Everyone, by now, has seen the statistics about our drop in membership, and the rise in spirituality over religious affiliation.  So the idea that ‘kids these days’ are,  statistically speaking, more likely to be drinking coffee than acolyting, on Sunday morning is not far-fetched.
But saying, “Where have all the Young People Gone?” does not help the situation.
Because that questions assumes that All Young People Have, in fact, Gone.
Not just most Young People, but ALL the Young People.  ALL OF THEM.  EVERYWHERE.
WE HAVE LOST ALL THE YOUNG PEOPLE!!  
Like socks in the dryer, or some vast conspiracy of youth to abandon the Fair Church Episcopal.
This is, I realize, a hyperbolic assumption, but it’s also damaging.  Because, as a certified Young Person, how can I begin to speak to my beloved Church about the ways in which we can make the church more welcoming to my fellow Young People, if it seems to have trouble recognizing that I’m still here?  Or that my perspective might be important on this issue?
Dear Church, there are a few Young People here, you know.  We attend your services, we sit in the back, occasionally in the front if we’re bold.  Sometimes, we sit there quietly, and give up after a few Sundays, and sometimes, we get feisty and get ourselves elected to positions of leadership.  Sometimes, we even get ourselves ordained.
So, look.  This is a conversation we desperately need to have, because this is an issue that is real.  But the only way this will work out is if we have it with each other, not around each other.  You’re concerned about the young people? Talk to the Actual Young People.  Ask us what we need.  Ask us what would help make the church more welcoming.
This is a trick we’ve all had to learn time and again, each time we wanted to open the doors a little wider, learn how to be a little more welcoming.  How do we talk to someone, and not just about them-as-a-population?  We’re going to have to learn that trick again.
So, please.  Ask us about being young people in this church.  We will tell you.  Then we can work on it together.
Because God’s Kingdom has no dryer socks.

Orientation-ing

For the past month, Northern Arizona University has held a series of New Student Orientations: two a week, all through June.  Incoming students flood Flagstaff’s pretty little town (and tiny, overstressed roads) and make shopping at the sole Target near-impossible.  Along with their parents, guardians, and/or siblings, they tour the dorms, sign up for classes, and attend the ORIENTATION EXPO!

The ORIENTATION EXPO! occurs at 7:30 AM (yes.  AM.) outside along one of the walkways on NAU’s campus.  Each student activity signs up for a table, and the right to stand at said table, hawking their services.  Everyone from Parking Services, to the Bookstore, to Campus Crusade for Christ shows up, and hands out pamphlets and swag.

Basically, it’s running the gauntlet of brochures, overwhelming information, and candy, at an hour that no seventeen year old is functioning.  (And there’s no coffee. Did I mention that?)

NAU Canterbury has been present for the past 3 summers.  We have colorful brochures, colorful business cards, and a bobble head Jesus.  Here is our table.  (And yes, I set this up for a month, and JUST NOW realized that Canterbury is misspelled.  See what happens when I am asked to do things without benefit of caffeine?!)

Our table.

These expos are instructive.  For as much as we have been talking recently about getting out of the church building and mixing with Actual Unchurched People, this is a way to do it.

Things I have Learned:

  • Few know what ‘Episcopal’ means.
    I mean, like no one.  Almost no one has heard of it before.  But those who have, think it’s great.  The people who know what the big, scary, Greek word on the banner is, generally have positive associations with it.
  • So this is mainly about education.  Education that we, at least, aren’t frightening or abusive (and I’m using those terms intentionally.)  Education that we aren’t those ‘Christian’ voices who picket funerals, and bomb clinics, and advocate killing groups of people in the name of God.
  • This is, obviously, tough to do in 45 seconds.  So mainly, I talk about how we have meals with all our activities, we’re welcoming, and affirming, and give them our brochure.

I can’t overcome all preconceived notions about what Christianity is or is not in a 30 second conversation.  And this results sometimes in events like the young man who told me flat out that he couldn’t attend my ministry because he didn’t believe that women should speak in church.  Alrighty then.  And it becomes harder still when the majority of Christian voices on campus reinforce these ideas.

What I can do is be a friendly, nonthreatening and welcoming presence that hopefully, causes curiosity.  Maybe the new student will remember that this one time, there was this odd priest-lady who seemed nice, and it might not be so scary to take a friend along to go check that group out, one day, when everything seems awful, and hope seems really distant.  That’s worth being awake at 7:30 am.