Preaching

I believe I mentioned (a few posts ago) that I’ve been reflecting on and re-thinking my perspective on preaching… wondering why and how and in what way I believe it should be done.  I remember listening to my father preach during my growing-up years. I connected with his style. He is passionate about exegesis and about teaching both theology and praxis, mapping out what the author and The Author are doing in a passage so that we can grasp it and live into that truth. He’s an academic and an intellectual (little wonder I connected with his style, eh? 🙂 ).

Over the years, I have heard many other preachers as well, both men and women.  I’ve heard the three-point preachers (this is what it means, go and do this in your life, ultra-practical), the soap-box preachers (every topic is political in nature, they’ve got the answer to every current controversy), the scare-tactic preachers (who either want to scare you into heaven or out of hell or out of your current sin), and the the feel-good preachers (God loves you no matter what, you don’t need to change a thing).  I’m obviously over-generalizing these categories… and to be honest, each one of these stereo-types has its strength. There is reason to be scared. There is reason to feel very safe and secure in God’s Love. Christian faith IS political, and scripture IS of course practical to our lives.

I am struggling, though, to figure out who I am as a preacher. I am partly all of these things: an intellectual, a political activist, practical, passionate, compassionate… and on top of being this strange mix of things, I also have a growing conviction that when we as preachers do the practical application FOR our listeners, we can actually make lazy disciples. Lord knows, we don’t need any more of these. Every person should be doing their own application, because the application will be unique to each of them in their own personal context.  So bottom line– I cannot hear myself preaching as any of those aforementioned preachers, and not exactly like any of the preachers I have had the privilege of hearing over the course of my life (those some of those have connected very closely with me and my style). I want to be uniquely me when I preach. I simply haven’t figured out how to do that yet.

Beyond the question of ‘how do I, Kris Anne, preach’ is another more general struggle. I am having my doubts about how preaching for 30-40 minutes is helpful to the Body of Christ. No one listens for that long (I believe studies have shown that the longest anyone can listen is about 10-15 minutes). So why do we keep going on for another 15-20? I know it is vitally important to teach scripture. I recognize the role that scripture plays in shaping the people of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit. I love working with scripture and delving into it WITH people! And that is exactly the problem. Preaching isn’t done in conversation… it’s the preacher talking about what they think, what they believe, what they alone hear the text saying. It’s a very narrow perspective, though I’m sure they hear a message from God that is important and truthful. I know I’m called. I know I’m gifted… as of yet, I’m just not comfortable with that kind of monologue. Part of it may be that I just need practice, but another part of it is that I do not believe preaching a 30-40 minute sermon from behind a podium, in front of a gathered congregation in the pew, is what preaching was in the Old or New Testaments.

My pastor and mentor at Highland Park Community Church gave me a book on Sunday. I started reading it immediately, because my next sermon is coming up at the end of October (yikes!). The book Jayne gave me is called Countdown to Sunday: a daily guide for those who dare to preach by Chris Erdman. I am devouring it (almost literally! … I have to give this copy back to her, though, so I am trying to refrain). Erdman talks about the life and ministry of pastors, and doing preaching “on the run.” This does not mean short-cutting the study. He believes in hardcore exegesis! What it does mean is that the old-school pastor’s schedule (spend the entire morning in study and sermon-prep, spend your afternoons and evenings with people) does not apply. Study of scripture is sprinkled throughout the pastor’s life; meditation on what you’ve studied is done in the car, by the bedside, during the meetings.  I haven’t finished the book yet, but I also gather that “preaching on the run” is done without a manuscript, or even extensive notes.  The information and the scripture have marinated inside the preacher all week, as she has lived and worked among the people– thus, when she gets up there in front of her people to preach, all the things that she needs to include, to fill out and support her BIG IDEA, come naturally forth.  Not to say that no planning has been done… her big idea (or main point) is firmly fixed. She knows where she’s going. What she allows to be born in her in that moment, is HOW to get there. That part is not planned ahead of time.

I’m playing around with this idea. Is this the kind of preacher I am? …not sure yet. So far it feels right, though. Totally scary, but right.  As I often do, I offer some quotes from the book, in closing. Let me know what you think.

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“The truth is costly. It is not safe. It runs up against the powers of death that would sooner have us cocooned inside safe, gated communities or behind safe, gated sermons that comfort people and assure them that their desire to live long, wealthy, and healthy lives is just what the gospel wants them to have– all the while living lives locked inside a banal existence, terrified by death, and supporting anything and anyone that will promise to keep us safe… The prophets rarely said what the powers wanted them to say; instead they dropped their masks, opened a vein and bled for God… and blood heals, in more ways than one” (p. 21-22).

“I am free to live in the moment, with the sense of God with me and me with God. I am free to trust in the truth of God and therefore free to preach more humanly. To be me. To celebrate the creative Word. To utter these words with wild abandonment to their own power. To trust that my fragile words have a creative power that is not my own. All God asks is that I speak lovingly, daringly, and as truthfully as possible, dropping my masks, opening a vein, and bleeding” (p. 26).

“Preaching for me invariably falls flat, is too much work, and fails to be honest and free when I am too self-conscious– when I’m worried and anxious about the task of preparing the text and hosting it among the people, when I’m worried and anxious about how I am doing and if I’m right enough or good enough or relevant enough. After many years at it and among various congregations, preaching is at its best in me precisely when I am LEAST self-conscious, when I am absorbed in the moment, when I care as little as I possibly can about how I’m coming across to the congregation; when I am engaged, present, absorbed in or actually inhabiting the text as if lost in rapt attentiveness and adoration” (p. 32).

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O God, please reveal to me who I am as preacher. Teach me how to faithfully “host” the text among your people. Teach me how to inhabit the text in the moment of preaching… and to truly see the people who are seated before me in that moment. Help me to bleed.  Amen.

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Values and Errors

I often go to ABC News’ website to catch up on headlines and stories throughout the day. I noticed today that there was a story concerning some products being sold by a conservative political group, spoofing Barack Obama. The product was offensive on quite a few levels, although the product itself made me laugh: Obama Waffles: change you can taste. Now who wouldn’t laugh at that?? It’s clever and mostly harmless.  Except for this– On the waffle box, Obama is pictured with a turban on his head and the box says something about ‘turning toward Mecca.’  Whether or not you buy into Obama’s version of Christianity, these aspects of the product are highly offensive and not based in fact at all.  In addition, the graphics also contained strong allusions to ‘Aunt Jemima,’ which plays on images of slavery and black kitchen help. Please. Totally un-called for.

You can find the waffle product here: http://obamawaffles.com/pages/indexPALIN.html  (look for the depiction of Obama with a turban on the top flap… the Mecca reference is also there, but you may not be able to read it due to such small print)

I sighed and thought to myself, “Well, … Republicans and Democrats alike have done their fair share of dirty ads and funny cartoons. Whether it’s age-ism, sexism or racism, it’s offensive, but I’m not surprised.” But then I saw that one of the co-sponsors of the event where this particular product was being sold, was James Dobson’s organization Focus on the Family. My stomach turned.

Now Dobson has made no secret of the fact that he does not appreciate Obama’s perspective on Christian faith or politics. That is his right. I have no problem with that (although a friend of mine raised the ethical question of a non-profit religious organization declaring support for one particular candidate… should they lose their tax-exempt status? I don’t know.)  But to co-sponsor an event where this particular product is being sold?? That makes my blood boil. Now, before I jumped too far into my outrage, I began scouring the internet for any record of an official apology. I realize that there are probably scores of vendors at these types of rallies, and I’m sure Dobson’s people could not and did not vet each one.  I was hoping that Dobson would have the class and character to recognize the depth of this error, take responsibility for it and apologize for any offense. I went to Focus on the Family’s official site. Nothing. I went to Citizenlink, their political arm’s website. Nothing. I Googled “Value Voters Summit,” where I found an apology from the other co-sponsor… but nothing from Dobson or Focus on the Family. Nothing.

I am disappointed, and I am angry. To think that this product, this piece of trash, was connected to a Christian organization makes me want to vomit.  Dobson and his organization have claimed to serve Jesus Christ, and they obviously have a huge influence on Christian evangelicals in America. Dobson has claimed the spiritual authority to teach people how to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. He has taken on a huge amount of leadership. And while he doesn’t support Obama or what Obama stands for, he has got to recognize that this was wrong and extremely un-Christian… yes, I said it, un-Christian.

Though this story has been around for more than a week, he should, right now, apologize and ask forgiveness. Dobson needs to take responsibility for what goes on at events that his organization sponsors; and when something so offensive is connected with his name, I would think he would want to make it clear that he does not endorse nor does he support such things.  And, quite frankly, the fact that he has not acknoweldged this error in judgment, concerns me greatly.  What does that say about him and his organization? It is one thing to dislike a candidate’s position on the issues or his/her beliefs, it is quite another thing to lie about their background and make allusions to something as horrible as slavery. A great test of the character of a leader is how they handle moments of error. So far, Dobson is not passing this test, at least in my book.

A Revolutionary Revolution

I have been reading NT Wrigth’s THE CHALLENGE OF JESUS, and it has been both exciting and a little scary. Exciting because he affirms much of the world-view that I grew up with in the Mennonite tradition of Christian faith (a tradition that says the warfare we wage is not earthly or militaristic, but rather spiritual and won through love).  It has been scary because, based on his study of the first-century world of Jesus, Wright challenges our basic understandings of the Gospels.

Here are a few examples:

“Jesus attitude toward the Temple was not ‘this institution needs reforming,’ nor ‘the wrong people are running this place,’ nor yet ‘piety can function elsewhere too.’ His deepest belief regarding the Temple was eschatological: the time had come for God to judge the entire institution” (p. 64).

“During his Galilean ministry, Jesus acted and spoke as if he was in some sense called to do and be what the Temple was and did” (p. 65).

“Jesus healings, which formed a central and vital part of his whole symbolic praxis, are not to be seen, as some of the early fathers supposed, as ‘evidence of his divinity.’ Nor were his healings simply evidence of his compassion for those in physical need, though of course they were that as well. No: the healings were the symbolic expression of Jesus’ reconstitution of Israel” (p. 68).

“Whereas Josephus was opposed to armed revolution because he was an aristocrat with a nest to feather, Jesus was opposed to it because he saw it as, paradoxically, a way of being deeply disloyal to Israel’s God and to his purpose for Israel to be the light of the world… Jesus was offering as a counter-agenda an utterly risky way of being Israel, the way of turning the other cheek and going the second mile, the way of losing your life to gain it. This was the kingdom-invitation he was issuing” (p. 44).

Wright goes on to contend that Jesus’ parables and his symbolic actions (in the upper room, with the fig tree, etc.) were all centered around this judgment of the Temple system and Israel’s failure to fulfill her calling to be a light to the world.  The prodigal son is Israel– Jesus is re-telling the old, old stories in a revolutionary way… in a way no one could have guessed they would be retold.

In another work, Wright says, “Jesus is retelling the Israel-story in order to undermine the present way of understanding the nation’s identity. It is as though someone were to tell the story of the development of America, or of the British Empire, not as the Americans and British normally tell them, as the stories of freedom and cvilization and how they were achieved, but as stories of Promethean ambition achieving deeply ambiguous power, handling it with irresponsible self-righteousness, and facing imminent disaster as a result” (p. 179, The Praxis of a Prophet).

Why is this a little scary for me, even though my spirit resonates with much of this perspective? Because in a way, this means the Gospels weren’t meant for me… The parables weren’t told for me, the symbols weren’t given for me. I’m not the audience. Granted, they were meant for me in the sense that they say now I get to be part of the people of God (the reconstituted Israel).  However, I feel like I’ve lost something, too, if I buy into Wright’s perspective. I lose the very personal nature of the parables and the Last Supper. I lose the Pauline reading… the justification-by-faith reading.  And it saddens me, even though I do think Wright is correct.

I suppose it’s possible that the parables have two readings… the first-century reading and the Pauline reading.  I’m also beginning to believe there is another reading. May I call it the “revolutionary reading?”  If we have chosen to follow Jesus and proclaim him our Lord and King, and if he has shown us and told us how to be God’s people, how to be the light of the world– then we must live as He lived!  His revolution is one of the cross, of redemption through suffering, of victory through love and forgiveness.  His revolution calls into question the usefulness of any earthly power.  He rejected political power whenever it was offered to him.  And He won the victory through dying on the cross. American Christianity could learn a lot from a revolutionary reading of the Gospels (whether we’re Republicans, Democrats or Independents).

One more Wright quote in closing: “We do not– we dare not– simply treat the cross as the thing that saves us ‘personally,’ but which can be left behind when we get on with the job. The task of shaping our world is best understood as the redemptive task of bringing the achievement of the cross to bear on the world, and in that task the METHODS, as well as the MESSAGE, must be cross-shaped through and through” (p. 95).

May our lives be cross-shaped! May we undertake an utterly revolutionary revolution and not buy into our western notions of what a revolution is!

Heidi’s Prayer

Since Heidi was about 1 1/2 years old, we’ve always had bedtime prayers. Jon and I alternate who puts the kids to bed at night, and this past Saturday night, it was my turn.  We read a story, and I let her chat for a minute or two (this girl’s always got something to say!! I’m pretty sure she gets that from me, although Jon’s parents have commented that he used to get chatty at bedtime when he was a kid, too). So we talked about dolls and friends and school, and then I said, “Okay, let’s pray.”

Now, I always encourage her to pray, but for some reason she usually says, “No, you pray, mom.” And not just at bedtime; she’s been hesitant to pray at dinnertime, too.  I’ve wondered why… does she think she’s too little to talk to God? Is she afraid of God? Does she just not know what to say? Does she think she needs to pray “right” for God to hear her?  Or maybe it’s the out-loud thing that freaks her out. When I ask her why she doesn’t want to pray she says, “I don’t know. I just don’t want to.”  So I gladly do it, and I wait for those rare momens when she says, “Okay, mom, I’ll pray!” Well, Saturday night was one of those times! She wanted to pray out loud, and I was so glad. I could not wait to hear what she would say.

So here it is– in all its simplicity and profundity. The prayer for a four (almost five!) year old:  “And God, make the bad people good, and please, do it right now!”

In these days and weeks of amazingly confusing politics and intense national emotion… in these days of storms that have taken people’s homes and lives… in these days– the normal ones, the crazy ones, the tragic ones and stressful ones, my daughter has reminded me of God’s power to redeem people and situations. God can change hearts! He can change circumstances! And He can do it right now! I choose to have faith. Thanks, Heidi. Once again, you’ve been my teacher.

The Labyrinth

Grass, leaves, dry ground

Stones and winding path

Sun on my face, gentle breeze through my fingers

The crunch beneath my feet

Birds chirping, sirens sound four blocks away

Shoes off, bare feet on the path

Turn toward the center, down a little hill

Shady spot beckons

Keep walking, now turning away from the center

Children laugh, bees buzz, a dog barks

Back up the hill and around another bend

Now in the center, time to pause

The way back out, still winding

Sounds of life all around

But I’ve been to my center

I am still there

I’ve walked all the turns in the path

And I am ready now