Thursday, March 29, 2007
I still remember one particular morning when there was a visitor in the African American church I was serving. As she left, she commented "I enjoyed your story this morning." I know she meant it as a compliment. But I also knew that especially in the Black Church tradition, the question before every preacher is always "is there a Word from the Lord this morning?" She was also telling me that while I may have shared a nice story, it had not been a Word from the Lord for her. It had been a story, not a sermon. And she was right.
As I continued to work through preparing sermons and trying to be open to God giving me the ability to preach better, I began to feel better about my preaching. I have always had a heart for sermons that are down to earth, because I remember well what it is like to be a new comer in church and how important it is for preaching to be accessible.
The next major marker in my preaching history came in 1999. It also happened in the Black Church tradition. I was to be a part of a Martin Luther King, Jr. worship celebration. The pastor of the host church had been given free reign by most other clergy to just plug us in anywhere and we would be glad to serve. I expected to read Scripture or pray or something along those lines. Imagine my surprise when I walked in and saw in the order of worship that each clergy person was invited to give "remarks." For a preacher in this tradition, that meant preaching. (The host pastor was being respectful of each clergy person gathered.)
I prayed hard. I asked God to give me something to say. Such things have a way of getting longer with each person's remarks, and I was in the middle of the line up. I still don't remember what it is that the Spirit gave me to say. But I do remember that Scripture as well as stories from my devotional book flowed through my mind and out of my mouth. We, the gathered community, connected with each other and with the Spirit in a powerful way.
After that worship service, I came to this conclusion: if God can do that on a moments notice, then surely God can enable me to preach from an outline and not from a written manuscript. So I began taking more risks. On this journey, God has taken me from a nervous, manuscript reading preacher to an outline/very little notes preacher. On the way, I have discovered that the connection among the gathered community and the Holy Spirit feels more palpable.
I know that preaching in a way that feels conversational helps open us more deeply to what God has to say. I also know that God is able to accomplish such things.
So here is what I am wondering: do sermons in conversational style connect more deeply because there is an underlying assumption about authenticity? That if a sermon just "flows out of a person" it somehow communicates, subconsciously I think, that the preacher really believes/experiences what is being preached?
I ask this not because I think only preachers who don't use a manuscript have something authentic to communicate. That is patently false- when I used a manuscript I desperately wanted to share well from my heart. But I do think the medium of sermon delivery communicates in conjunction with the sermon itself.
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
It never ceases to amaze me how God can draw us to aspects of a passage we had never noticed in the past. Today we read the passion story in Luke 22-23, in preparation for Palm/Passion Sunday. None of us had remembered that Jesus was visited by angel in the Garden of the Gethsemane as he prayed for the Father to take this cup from him (Luke 22:43). It appears only in Luke, we discovered. Interesting that even after the angel strengthens Jesus, he prays even harder for the cup to pass from him!
We talked about the meaning of the crucifixion in our own experiences. I shared about my experience of the stations of the cross, with all of the kneeling, standing, and genuflecting, making me realize it was literally the least I could do in response to Jesus' death for me.
Another member shared about her experience of having to be willing to go to the cross, to be willing to bear the cross of suffering, and discovering in the midst of suffering the true depth of joy and assurance that flows from such an experience.
This has me thinking about suffering. I don't spend enough time reflecting on Christ's suffering. When I was first coming to faith over a decade ago, I was not at all comfortable with the idea of Christ suffering for me. But as I have grown in my experiences, I am discovering the comfort that comes from knowing that suffering is part of the journey, and it is redeemed by God in Christ. It is in truth unavoidable, and strangely, a tremendous blessing. For it is in suffering that we draw nearer to Christ, and discover the depth, strength, and peace of God's presence.
We continued the conversation talking about how common it is for people to draw closer to Christ in hard times. When things are going "well" by our definition, we are far less likely to rely on him alone. It is when things are beyond our control that we are most likely to trust and pray the hardest.
The phrase "downward mobility" came to mind. Nowhere does Jesus encourage his followers to try to accumulate wealth, move up to a bigger home, buy nice cars, and generally try to live the American Dream. There are plenty of times Jesus says things like encouraging his followers to give all they have to the poor, spend time with the poor, and take nothing but the clothes on their backs when going out in Jesus' name.
I think that voluntary suffering (downward mobility) can bring us close to Christ in much the same way that involuntary suffering can. I even think that perhaps those who don't choose the way of voluntary suffering are more likely to experience involuntary suffering as radically life altering crisis....not necessarily because God is "sending them suffering" but because any amount of suffering that comes into a life bent upon avoiding it feels radically life altering. When we choose the way of suffering, which is always a part of the way of following Jesus, we discover the grace that supports and sustains all of life.
So, my learning from Scripture today is that I am going to work on treasuring my suffering, real and perceived, as an opportunity to draw nearer to Christ, and to trust.
Thursday, March 22, 2007
As we went through the Stations of the Cross Liturgy, standing, genuflecting, standing, kneeling, standing, changing direction of standing, and starting the process over again, I came to this realization: Roman Catholics must have great thigh muscles! That, and they have a deeper appreciation for the role of suffering in daily life...all of the genuflecting and kneeling honestly got me thinking about this being the very very least I could in response to Jesus death on the cross.
The second realization came I stood to read Scripture and then preach: I don't know how to appropriately read Gospel lessons in a Catholic church. I know in that setting it involves crossing myself with the congregation, and that other things are involved. That is all I know. So when I turned to the gospel and this suddenly dawned on me, I turned to the deacon and congregation and said "I know there is an appropriate way to read the gospel in the Roman Catholic tradition with which I am unfamiliar. I'm sorry." The deacon waved his hand as a way of saying "don't worry about it" and I led us in the Gospel as I always do: asking people to honor Christ by standing for the reading and closing with "this is the Word of the Lord" to which all reply "Thanks be to God."
That night, I preached using insights and reflections from Barbara Brown Taylor's book Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation. I really like this book. I have picked it up more than once. It talks of sin as being language of hope, for in confession we claim both our own responsibility for the sin and confess our hopefulness that between us and the Spirit there is forgiveness and the possibility for real change. This is at the heart of being transformed by God.
She also talks about the process being confession of sin, pardon/forgiveness, penance, and restoration to community. After the confession and pardon, we do penance, which is our ancient way of "making things right." Brown Taylor argues that penance was an abused concept at the time of the Reformation, but that it was thrown out as a baby with the bathwater when Protestants abandoned the idea. (I enjoyed laughing with folks about a United Methodist pastor preaching in a Catholic church about penance.) So penance is doing things like going back and apologizing for hurtful words, or going back to weed a garden you stole vegetables from, or going out into ministry among the poor if the sin is avoiding God's most precious ones (the poor). Penance is about concrete action to make things right again, not guilt. It as after this has been done that there is the possibility of restoration to community.
She also writes that guilt is the price we are willing to pay in order avoid any actual changes. I think she is so right. She makes the claim that there is a belief within many of us who think "if I just feel guilty enough about doing it, I can keep doing it and keep being forgiven for it." But without penance, a change of behavior, God cannot restore and reconcile us to God and to others. We are cut off from our source of life and remain trapped in our sin.
Finally, my last insight from worship came when, after worship, one man said to me "you don't hear many people apologize these days. Hardly ever hear a person say I'm sorry." It took me several moments to realize he must have been referring to my comment preceding the gospel lesson, apologizing for my lack of familiarity with their tradition. What this reminded me of was something I learned in the first church in which I was appointed. I followed a pastor who did not make any mistakes. The effect on that community of faith when I would say "I'm sorry" was amazing. It was my first year as a pastor on my own. I made LOTS of mistakes. But saying "I'm sorry, please forgive me" followed by earnest attempts to make things right knit us together in amazing ways.
(Maybe this only works in communities of faith, but I have fantasies about what it would like if instead of saying things like "mistake were made," our political leaders would take this learning about the power of actually apologizing to heart....I honestly think it could be transformative. But then again, I believe some pretty incredible stuff, like the resurrection for example...)
Saturday, March 17, 2007
We gathered with hundreds of others at New York Ave. Presbyterian to worship in simulcast with the thousands at the National Cathedral. The worship was outstanding. One of the first speakers was Celeste Zappala, a United Methodist from FirstUMC Germantown (outside of Philadelphia). Her eldest son Sherwood was a member of the PA Guard, and he was killed in Iraq in 2004 protecting those who were searching for non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Her description of opening the door to a decorated soldier the night she was notified of Sherwood's death was heart rending. I can imagine myself collapsing and screaming as she did. She spoke of her son's vocation as a social worker, his love for his wife and his young son, and how proud she had always been to be his mother. More than 3200 U.S. soldiers have died in this war; Sherwood was among the first 1,000.
She spoke of her faith, and she said something that settled deep in my heart. "O God, war is a failure to love you enough." I came away from the night more deeply convicted that peace is not the easy way out; it is the far more difficult path. It means loving God deeply, strongly, passionately enough to love even our enemies. It means loving God so much that we are willing to see God's image in the face of each person. To consider violence to be not a solution but a sin requires deep, deep love and trust of our Lord.
Christians have two (orthodox) options when it comes to war. They are pacifism and just war theory. Pacifism was the only option for Christians in the first three centuries of Christianity. Jesus' commands to love enemies was taken quite literally, and still is today by many Christians. St. Augustine developed just war theory as the Roman Empire fell. I previously blogged about just war; you may click here to read about these Christian criteria for going to war.
There's just no way around this: the war in Iraq does not meet any orthodox Christian standard for going to war.
So now, more than 3200 U.S. soldiers are dead, and there is no way to estimate how many Iraqi's have died, but the numbers we heard last night were between 500,000-600,000 people. We heard stories from an Iraqi nun, and readings from others in Iraq about going to morgue's to identify loved ones. We heard about how there is hardly a family in Iraq who has not lost someone, if not a family member, a close friend.
I kept thinking about how ridiculous it is that I can choose whether or not to be aware of the death, horror, and destruction that is being wrought with my tax dollars. I try to imagine living and ministering in a context in which every person I know is grieving the death of someone they love; in which every person knows child(ren) who have died because of this awful war. It is heart wrenching beyond words.
The depth of my sorrow for the loss of life on all sides seems beyond expression. The depth of my anger with my government for failing us so miserably, and allowing this killing to happen in my name brings me more shame than I can bear.
Which is why the the phrase "United by the Cross to the End the War" held such meaning for me. I know that Jesus is bearing all of the sorrow, anger, and shame. Words from Scripture like "perfect love casts out fear" settled into my spirit. The passage from Romans 5:1-5 was quoted by Rev. Powell Jackson:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.I follow One so committed to love and peace, that he chose to die on a cross rather than lead his people into violence. His followers believed that as Messiah, he was the one to finally free them from foreign domination. They expected Jesus to lead a great armed resistance to the Romans. But that was not God's path. God's path was to be so loving, so vulnerable, so unwilling to use violence, that Jesus died on a criminal's cross... and it is from the Cross of Christ that hope, love, and redemption flow. "United by the Cross to End the War."
This is the only source of my hope. I have no hope that our government is going to act anytime soon. I have no hope that violence and terror are going to end because of the policies of my government or anybody else's. But I do have hope and faith in Christ.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
All of this means one thing for certain: Spring is coming. I can go almost entirely without mayonnaise through winter. I don't necessarily eat much of it in the fall either. (The exceptions would be a church dinners.) When I do eat sandwiches, it is very often without mayo.
But in salads....well that is where the mayo gets heavy. I find that salads like potato, broccoli, macaroni, pasta, etc., etc., etc., are really spring and summer dishes.
Everyone has their own indicators that Spring is coming. Mine can be measured by a mayonnaise jar.
Saturday, March 10, 2007
My daughter continues to amaze me. At age four, she remains a natural rule follower. Being devious, sneaky, or otherwise circumventing the rules seldom occurs to her. If it does, it is almost always because another child has given her an idea.
Case in point: she is transitioning from nap time to rest time. The rule has been that on rest days, she has to spend an hour in her bed, doing quiet activities like looking at books, playing with stuffed animals, etc. If she feels tired, she'll go ahead and lie down for a nap. Afterward, she'll say "I was going to take rest time, but my body told me it wanted it a nap, so I went to sleep."
Today, she was having a hard time deciding what to bring into her bed, and she was looking longingly at her doll house. I told her she could play quietly in her room. With shock she said "I can be out of my bed?!?"
Getting out of bed had not even entered her mind as a possibility. If it had been me, I think I would have snuck out of bed and played with the dollhouse long ago. I remember being in elementary school and sneaking a flashlight into bed so I could continue reading my books.. and sitting on the foot of the stairs long after bed time, listening to the television my parents were watching.
God has blessed me with a child who teaches me about having a covenant written on her heart. (and she takes after my husband...)
Thursday, March 01, 2007
As we were driving home, Megan was talking about something she had read. Ben Franklin or some similar great thinker and inventor had an unusual sleep pattern. He would sleep in small stretches. For naps, he would deliberately sleep with an open book in his hands, and when he would fall deeply asleep, it would fall off of his lap, and wake him. The dreams he thus remembered using this method were the source of much of his inspiration.
We laughed about this might be interesting to try, but also the waste of a good nap.
Since my immune system has been fighting something this week, I was wiped out by the time we got home. I went home to take a nap.
You guessed it- I awoke in the middle of my nap with the perfect idea: the way to end worrying. It was a beautiful plan. It had four parts...it involved small groups. I sat up in bed thinking, "I should write this down! ....but then I would awake from this great nap!" As you can guess, sleep won the day.
But then I had a dream that I really did write it all down. The plan was even better in this dream. Then I awoke again, realized what was going on, and still did not get up. I had forgotten that I had a pen and paper by my bedside.
So, the world will have to go on worrying, I guess. The memory that it was so enormously clever it just might work, had four parts, and involved small groups is all that is left in my memory (despite assurances to myself that I would remember it all when I awoke...after all, who could forget such an amazing idea?)
Looks like I missed the opportunity of a lifetime to provide a solution. But I had a great nap.