Sunday, January 31, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

Today's Dylan song is Most of the Time. Great song. And its on the soundtrack from my favorite movie, High Fidelity. And it reminds me that we can never be who we want to be all of the time. All of us are stiff-arming things about us we wish we could avoid, ignoring the persistent, gnawing hole, pretending that some things just don't matter, that we're beyond all of that. And most of the time we can. But some of the time...

Most of the time
I'm clear focused all around
Most of the time
I can keep both feet on the ground
I can follow the path
I can read the sign
Stay right with it when the road unwinds
I can handle whatever
I stumble upon
I don't even notice she's gone
Most of the time.

Most of the time it's well understood
Most of the time I wouldn't change it if I could
I can make it all match up
I can hold my own
I can deal with the situation right down to the bone
I can survive and I can endure
And I don't even think about her
Most of the time.

Most of the time my head is on straight
Most of the time I'm strong enough not to hate
I don't build up illusion 'til it makes me sick
I ain't afraid of confusion no matter how thick
I can smile in the face of mankind
Don't even remember what her lips felt like on mine
Most of the time.

Most of the time she ain't even in my mind
I wouldn't know her if I saw her
She's that far behind
Most of the time I can even be sure
If she was ever with me
Or if I was ever with her
Most of the time I'm halfway content

Most of the time I know exactly where it went
I don't cheat on myself I don't run and hide
Hide from the feelings that are buried inside
I don't compromise and I don't pretend
I don't even care if I ever see her again
Most of the time.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Missional Worship, 2

Missional worship would recover the public dimension of Christianity. What does that mean?

First, let's notice the very public words that the earliest Christians used to define their relationship with the larger culture. Gospel is not a religious term. They could have found plenty of religious terms with an insider orientation to name what it is they offer to the world. But they chose a public word, good news, which suggests a universalism. The same is true for ecclesia, "church." This is not a private affair, but a public gathering. It suggests perhaps that the earliest Christians saw themselves as an alternative polis creating a new public space, one open to Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. The earliest Christians imagined their life as public and open to all.

I like to associate public-ness with the image of a priesthood of believers. This means more than just that Christians serve as priests for one another. In fact, the term is consistently used in Scripture to define the relationship between the people of God and the world. What does a priesthood do? It stands between parties. The church in worship stands between God and the world. It offers on behalf of all the world what is due God. The church, in this sense, worships in proxy for all who will eventually bow and kneel. And the church, in its public witness before God, represents the conditions of creaturely existence to God. Priestly worship includes lament and complaint, supplication and confession. As a priesthood, we represent the cries of all creation to God.

But we also represent the blessings of God to the world. In worship we enact God's good intentions toward his creation. The church extends to the world the offer of participation in the life of God--forgiveness of sins, healing, sharing of goods, peaceful community, words of blessing, the Word of God.

The church's worship is public because the relationship between God and the world is the primary concern of a priesthood of believers. The world is always in view and is the primary horizon of worship for God's chosen people. Worship is not first for the benefit of the individual, but for the sake of the world. It is not simply for the sake of its members, but for the sake of the stranger.

Don't overreact here. The individual does benefit from worship. We are the world as well. It surely benefits us to hear that our sins are forgiven, etc. We enact these realities, however, in the presence of and for the sake of the world.

I'm always looking these days to see what a particular worship service is aiming for. And in most congregations I attend, it is hard to imagine an outside world, except perhaps as a menace from which we are finding temporary escape. Often there are no windows in the worship area. We sit in theater seats and drink from individual cups. The focus of the sermon is typically about our personal walk with God. Many of our services are more like a private family gathering than an ecclesia. (We have modern understandings of the family, which are far more private and intimate than biblical understandings).

A missional impulse framed by a robust notion of a priesthood of believers would, in my opinion, make a much more dramatic difference in our worship than what style of music we use.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Missional Worship

One of the things I kind of like about the Missional Church conversation is that it hasn't added fuel to the "worship wars." The missional church literature doesn't seem to care if you use power point, sit on sofas, or have someone painting while the sermon is happening. Nothing against these things, per se. But the missional church literature has not been that interested in worship forms, styles, etc.

There may be several reasons for this. First, many of the missional writers are mainliners who take a certain liturgical shape for granted. They don't invent worship every Sunday like those of us in the free churches. Second, and I think more significantly, missional is interested in culture around a different set of issues than other renewal impulses. Missional begins with a question of social location--where does the church find its place after-Christendom? How should the church interpret its liminal status? This is a different question than the one asked, for instance, by the emerging church crowd. They begin with issues related to postmodernity. What counts for knowledge? And how do we relate to the things we experience? These questions lend themselves more immediately to worship, particularly worship aesthetics.

Still, I think this hole in the missional church conversation is regrettable. First, it fails to help us see how our worship patterns over time have assumed Christendom. I spent two years worshipping with an Episcopal church in St. Paul and loved the experience. However, it was also clear to me how much of what happened assumed a particular cultural expression of the church and would tend to perpetuate the same. Worship is hardly exempt from the lingering effects of Christendom, even in the free churches.

So, where would the missional impulse take worship? I have several specific suggestions, but I want to start wider, with a bigger picture. First, the missional impulse would assume a public horizon for worship. In the churches with which I sojourn, the primary horizon is private. Worship is seen as a part of the inner life of the church and directed toward the inner life of the individual. Missional worship would assume a broader landscape. It would worship in the presence of and for the sake of the world.

Second, missional worship would integrate all of life. The gap between Sunday and Monday mornings is significant in the imagination of the typical church goer. Sunday is religious. Monday is secular. Sunday has special rules. Monday has a different set of rules. Sunday is for inspiration for living in the real world. Monday is the real world. A missional impulse would see Sunday as more than just an inspirational tune-up for Monday. It would be rehearsal for life on Monday.

Third, in keeping with this integrating impulse, missional worship would welcome the stranger. This would require that the table find its place at the center of the worship experience. This is the place of God's welcome. We don't determine the guest list. The practice of welcome around the Lord's table produces a certain kind of character. It should be a place where faith, hope, and love are put on public display.

There might very well be other, large, organizing impulses for worship that might fly under the banner "missional." But I'll start with these and see where they lead.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Preaching, the Thick and Thin of It

In recent posts, I've talked about my evolution over time related to my understanding and practice of preaching. That shift is a move away from a "bridge" theory of preaching. According to the bridge theory, we have two static objects, the text and the contemporary world, that are separated by a massive temporal gulf. The trick is to lift something universal out of the particularity of the text, walk it across the homiletical bridge, and find its dynamic equivalent in the contemporary world.

This is a tall task, and has three built-in deficits that I am trying to overcome. First, it leaves the particularity of the text behind in favor of some universal principle lifted from the text. Second, the quest for the dynamic equivalent is very difficult to calibrate. We've all had the experience of our illustrations overpowering everything else in the sermon. It's hard to measure those things out, find a term that weighs the same as another.

Which brings me to my third problem. Meaning making is far "thicker" than translating one term for another. The bridge theory is a "thin" strategy for finding meaning between two subjects. The "point" of the text, some universal meaning that transcends culture, is a thin strand around which to find shared meaning. This is not typically how we come to understand something or someone, particularly when that something is culturally distant (like the Bible).

Clifford Geertz, a significant cultural anthropologist, marveled at the capacity of humans to gain understanding of each other across massive cultural divides. For Geertz, it was impossible to escape one's own cultural trappings in order to think like a native. It was equally impossible to find universals that could be taken for granted in every culture, thus providing a basis for translating one cultural meaning straight into another cultural setting. Against these "thin" strategies, Geertz proposed "thick" description as the way most of us come to understand one another across cultures. The more thickly we describe our own context and that of the other (through empathy), the more opportunity we have for meaning making. We're not looking for a thin link, but a web of overlap between two thickly construed realities.

While this produces understanding, it also simultaneously creates a new understanding. To understand oneself through another always makes for something new, what Gadamer calls a fusion of horizons. The attempt to understand creates a new horizon of meaning. (The word is living and active...).

Brueggemann is one biblical scholar who takes Geertz (and Geertz's influence-r, Ricouer) seriously in the task of biblical interpretation. Brueggemann sees understanding occurring between two thickly contested worlds--the world of the text, and the world of the reader/listener. By rendering both thickly, Brueggemann sees the possibility for artful appropriation. Brueggemann doesn't see a text as simply making a point. A text is an exercise in power--in naming and shaping a world. And meanings in these are always contested, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. Faithful preaching takes the claims and counterclaims of both worlds (biblical and contemporary) seriously through thick description. For Brueggemann this moves preaching from a monological endeavor where all the traffic moves one way or the other, to a dialogical event where text and world are simultaneously active. (Monologue=thin, dialogue=thick).

This is how I think about preaching. I want to render both text and world so thickly that new meaning emerges. I want to move past just making points and illustrating them to creating alternative worlds. For my money, it is only this kind of preaching that lives up to the qualifier "gospel."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

I spent the weekend with a group of church leaders from a congregation in Texas. At one point during the weekend, I was struck by how new my words sounded to me. I mean by that that I have a new take on things at odds with how I used to view things. It's not just a progression, one thing leading to the next in the same direction over time. This is change of course stuff. And I couldn't tell you how that happened. I didn't decide to chuck what I was doing before. I've just talked myself into someplace else over time. I'm as surprised as anyone. And at this moment I'm chalking it up to longevity. Even if you do the same thing, if you do it long enough, you'll find yourself in a different place.

The times they are a changin'.

I was thinking about that today in relation to Dylan (because both of the people who read this are kind of grumpy if I don't write something). The Newport folk festival. The Slow Train's a Coming tour (his "Christian" phase). The subsequent move away from explicit Christian material in his work. From the public's perspective, Dylan's changes have been dramatic lurches from one thing to another. And he disappointed a lot of people along the way. (It's striking to me how the Dylan devoted talk so negatively about his "Christian" phase).

But this isn't how Bob experienced things. From his perspective, he's just been doing the same thing for a long time. And even when you do the same thing, its meaning and meanings change. Everything's moving. The audience is moving. The world is moving. A person's life is moving. This is the nature of things. The times they are a-changin'. The same thing always becomes something else.

So, in light of that, a little Dylan wisdom from a 1980's interview:

The times are a-changin'. Every day. I'm trying to slow down every day, because the times may be a-changin', but they're going by awfully fast. 'When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought as a child. When I became a man, I put away childish ways.'

Monday, January 18, 2010


As I have pointed out in recent posts, I am deep into volume three of Branch's, America in the King Years. Last week I had graduate students in ministry here for an intensive course. Most of them were not yet born when King led the civil rights movement. I can't imagine that. I don't who I would be apart from those very vivid and formative memories.

I was only eight when King died, but I was a precocious political observer. I remember being crushed when I polled every member of the congregation I attended in anticipation of the general election in '68. I was crushed because Nixon carried my congregation. How could reasonable persons not see that Humphrey or even McCarthy was a better choice than Nixon? I went to a McCarthy rally at Mac Court in Eugene earlier that year, and got to ask the candidate a question from the audience about the Viet Nam war. Later, I would meet Wayne Morse, the senator from Oregon, who was the earliest and most outspoken critic of the war. I was fascinated by national politics.

So, MLK was huge for me and his death was devastating. I came from a very pro-civil rights family and those commitments made a deep impression as we lived in Eastland, Texas in 1966-67. Racial politics surrounded our family and my Father was known for crossing boundaries in a racially divided community. King's death was a cause for deep grief in our family.

So, a day that honors King is very gratifying to me. This is more than just civil rights for me. It's a practical outworking of a theology of the cross, of the power of suffering love. The truth of the Christian story rests on movements like these for me, that God's real and powerful response to the hurt and suffering of the world is not to answer violence with violence, but to absorb it in active love.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

I've been thinking a lot about rhetoric and imagination, or maybe better forms or figures of speech and imagination. And I'm making a distinction between forms designed to foreclose and those designed to disclose. A theory, for instance, is designed to foreclose. It's primary function is to explain without remainder. A theory attempts to be a complete account of things. It's design is to orient us and settle things.

Metaphor is different. It is a way of speaking about something in new terms. It is pictoral and as such is trying to push us beyond the limits of straightforward speech. It is designed to disclose, widen and enlarge our landscape of interpretation. It is not designed to explain everything, but to leave open the possibility that there might be more to be said.

For what its worth here, the NT typically avoids the theoretical. There are, for instances, no complete theories of the atonement found anywhere in Scripture. There are, in contrast, several metaphors.

OK, Dylan. Dylan is known for his live takes in the studio. He's not interested in the perfect song. In a recent interview he talks about McCartney and others who in the studio can produce the perfect song. The problem with the perfect song, for Dylan, is that it leaves you with nowhere to go. The trick in performing the perfect song is to reproduce it in exacting detail. It is a closed structure.

Dylan sees his songs as living, breathing things. The album is a performance, a starting place. No perfect songs here. It is an open structure and further performances are variations on a theme. When I heard Dylan live, songs like "Lay, Lady, Lay," "Senor," "Ballad of a Thin Man," were very different from the original recording. The same song, undeniably. But not the same song. There's no reason to bootleg a McCartney concert, but Dylan bootlegs are revelations.

George Harrison invited Dylan to perform with him at the benefit, Concert for Bangledesh. Dylan was concerned about playing an arena and Harrison didn't know if Dylan would show up the night of the concert. Worse, Harrison didn't know that the songs they rehearsed would be played the same way they were rehearsed. And sure enough, when Dylan appeared, he played the same song they had rehearsed in a completely different time signature. Open structure. Not foreclosure, but disclosure.

Life requires both. But Ricouer and others have demonstrated that metaphor is fundamental to our making sense of things. I admit, I'm much more interested in pushing beyond the boundaries then I am drawing them.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Spoon on a Sunday

The NYTimes has a feature article on Spoon today on the eve of the release of their new CD, "Transference." Of course I had to read it since Spoon has become one of my favorite bands in the last 2-3 years. And to my delight, Spoon front man Britt Daniel referenced Dylan when commenting on the band's recent choice of recorded music after they leave the stage--the Star Spangled Banner followed by AC/DC's Back in Black. Why this combo? Because Dylan once left the stage in London to the playing of "God Bless the Queen."

"I always thought it was cool to play something very official afterward," said Daniel. And Spoon is cool. As the story in the Times suggests, "(Daniel's) classic vision of what is cool has guided the band since its inception." This, it seems is the band's musical classification. Are they indie, are the post-punk, are they rock and roll? They're cool.

As band member Eric Harvey tells it, Daniel insisted that none of the band members sport beards, beards just not being cool. Harvey points out that it was soon the thing for all the other bands to have beards. Not Spoon. "So, we can say the Spoon is not beard-rock." Whatever they are, they are cool.

The thing about cool is that you can't try to be cool. You have to be cool. And the other thing about cool is that you can't quantify it. It is what it is.

Daniel says the new CD is the one that sounds most like Spoon yet, which means I'll be buying it. "It's the spooniest," which is now an adjective I am committed to using if I can figure out how to be cool doing it.

I wrote in my top ten cd's of the decade list that listening to Spoon just made me feel cooler. It makes me feel like I'd look good in cigarette-leg pants and a button down shirt, which is probably an indication of how far I have to go. Cool is a tall order. Truth is, I spend most of my life feeling gangly and awkward. I know I'm cooler than some of my readers here, but these are people who read blogs about preaching and theology.

I'm content to do cool by "transference," to let others fill out that necessary aesthetic in life. I don't resent cool even if I can't live there. Part of the good news is beauty, and cool is part of that category. And cool doesn't judge. It doesn't have to.

But cool has its shortcomings. It attracts, but it doesn't embrace. And salvation is ultimately about embrace. I'm glad Jesus never said, "Blessed are the cool, for they shall inherit eternal life."

PS. Daniel is associated with two of the coolest places to live in the US. The band is from Austin, but Daniel currently lives in Portland.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Preaching Imagination, 3

OK, so I wrote tomorrow's sermon this morning. It's a guest gig and with a particular assignment. And the nature of the sermon, the expectations of the moment, have pushed me away from the things I talked about in the last post. I start with the recital of a text, but follow it with a big honking story, a large structure, a big old freaking funnel. Guidelines, instincts, not laws. FWIW.

I've talked a lot about the primacy of the text in shaping the imaginative landscape of the sermon. And most of my habits in concrete sermon preparation are related to the "world" of the text. Let me explain this a bit. Paul Ricouer talks about different worlds related to texts. There is a world behind the text--the world that produced the text full of historical and cultural meanings and a concrete occasion out of which the text emerged.

There is the world before the text. This is the world of meaning made between the text and the listener. This world is the primary world for Ricouer. Once a text becomes fixed in writing, it becomes independent of the world that produced it. Meaning happens in front of the text regardless of the intention of the original author, according to Ricouer. I take Ricouer's point here, though I am more optimistic about the lingering impact of authorial intention. I happen to think, however, that our best window into authorial intention doesn't come from reconstructing the exact historical circumstance, most of which is lost to us, but through attending to Ricouer's third world--the world of the text.

A text has a certain stubbornness to it. It can't mean anything. It can mean things never intended by the author, but its range of meanings are limited to an extent by the actual words and movement of the text. The text does something. It doesn't just lie there waiting for us to read whatever meanings we want into the text. It works on us. It zigs when we would zag. It has its own weather system. We can read in this world thinly, letting bare impressions give permission to take the sermon in whatever direction we care to. Or we can read thickly in the world imagined by the text.

This is more than asking what particular words mean. This is to ask,"what is this text trying to do?" This is a question of power. It is a question of rhetoric, not just literary device. This text has an interest. What is it interested in doing? And the next question is immediately, "what interests are being denied here?"

Take for instance, Genesis 1. This text is doing something, and it doesn't appear to be setting forth an exacting scientific account of the world we live in. It's giving us a sense that the good order we live in and count on is the product of God's word. And to say this is to say that creation is not the product of violence, of warring forces, gods and demi-gods, but of God's good intentions for all the created order. This is the world imagined by the text. And I want to read as thickly as I can in that world.

But there's another thick reading that makes for a good sermon. The sermon is after all, not simply a reading of the text. The sermon is God's word today. The sermon is part of the ecology of God's continuing word. It is supposed to say something about what God's word might be for this moment. So, there needs to be a thick reading of this moment as well. That requires a disciplined life as well.

So, a few commitments I have along these lines.

I read the NYTimes every day as a spiritual practice. I read it knowing full well its interests beyond simply reporting the news. This is part of what makes it valuable. It takes a stance in relation to the world--often one I appreciate, often one I resist. But beyond stance, it leads me into lives beyond my own. I pray for empathy. And I look for what drives people. What interests predominate our world of action?

I try to keep a biography going at all times, for many of the same reasons. I don't want my life to be the only one the sermon passes through. I've read biographies of Mandela, John Adams, Hannah Arendt, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, the UN commander in Rwanda, Emily Dickinson, the list could go on. I rarely quote in my sermons from any of these sources. (I'm not sure I've ever quoted Dylan in a sermon). This is part of rending the world thickly. I'm not mining for illustrations. I'm trying to figure out what people think they are up to.

I listen to music. I do this because this is the place where our poets show up today. What is the world imagined by Springsteen? by Dylan? by Green Day? I also watch movies and read the occasional novel. These are the places where "worlds" are constructed, where interests appear. Here's the deal. Most of the people who listen to sermons have more allegiance to the world imagined by Avatar than they do the world imagined in Exodus. I'm not looking for straw men to beat down. I want the partnership of others who are imagining worlds so that one I invite others into on Sunday is thickly construed, not a cliche, a real conversation about what it is we are up to in God's world.

And I journal. I carry with me a moleskine nearly everywhere I go and I take notes. Writing, composing, observing, is so important in developing a voice. And voice is the most powerful part of the sermon from the point of view of the preacher. Voice is the place of authenticity and conviction. Voice is more than style. Voice is embodiment. I want to hear a preacher's voice, not their artistic productions.

Next time, a hermeneutics of thickness.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hope in what Cannot Be Seen

"In hope we are saved. Now if we hope for what we see, that is not hope. But if hope for what we do not see, we wait for it patiently. And in this way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness..."

I've been reading this week the third volume in Taylor Branch's series, America in the King Years. This volume begins in 1965 with the events surrounding the civil rights march from Selma to Brimingham. The characters are larger than life. MLK, LBJ, Hoover, Wallace. But the supporting players are just as amazing to me. James Bevell, John Lewis, John Doar, Bill Moyers, James Katzenbach. It's simply a stunning story.

The first attempt to march out of Selma occurred on my 5th birthday. It was an ugly scene as local law enforcement used tear gas and night sticks on pacifist marchers. I know that this sounds kind of silly, but the fact that this started on my birthday made it somehow more impacting. I've though a lot about how my life has intersected with history, or more accurately, how my life has just gone on while momentous things were happening around me. What would it be life to be a part of something so courageous and ... righteous.

I've been struck by many things in the story. The pictures of LBJ are stunning to me. He was a mercurial figure, shackled by depression and self-doubt, but full of political smarts and rare courage at times. His legacy in Viet Nam is certainly tragic, but his resolve with regard to civil rights is awe inspiring in places. I'm particularly struck by the power of his speeches. LBJ said it before he believed it. He talked himself into brave places through his public rhetoric. Bill Moyers and others deserve a lot of credit here. They gave him language larger than his legislative agenda or the politically possible.

Which leads me to my second observation. The civil rights leaders, like King, believed in things they could not see. They were constantly conflicted internally. They stumbled into successful strategies and failed in many of their endeavors. The only thing they clung to, for the most part, was their commitment to non-violence. And this was a spiritual commitment for most of them. It's easy to criticize religion for its historical abuses. It's one of the biggest obstacles to belief for me in many ways. But this is one of those places where there should be some credit.

King's concrete pictures of the future were not the result of strategic planning. There was no historical inevitability here, i.e. one event leading inexorably toward another. King's belief in the long of arc of justice was due more to the prophetic pictures of God's in-breaking future. James Bevell, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and other leaders kept hope alive, amazingly, with direct and unembarrassed appeals to Scripture. And while there were many Southern religious leaders who actively opposed the movement, the Southerners that did cross race lines were Christian. And the marchers from the Northern cities were overwhelmingly clergy. Seminary students, theology faculty, rabbis, priests and nuns marched with King and risked their lives. In fact, national support for the marchers coalesced around the beating death of a Northern clergy, James Reeb, by the KKK.

These men were not exceptional in many ways. They had feet of clay--petty jealousies, glory seeking, womanizing. There was plenty that could be seen that spoke of failure. But hope is always about what cannot be seen.

I've been influenced in many ways by Michael Welker's work on the Holy Spirit. His work is exhaustive with regard to the biblical witness. And overwhelmingly the work of the Spirit in Scripture, according to Welker, creates a new public, overcomes human disorientation, breaks down barriers despite the failing of human actors. The Spirit in Scripture is less a source of inner, personal tranquility, and more a public agent of justice and love. I have thought often of Welker's characterization as I read Branch's work.

I want some of this in my life. I don't want to only preach sermons or teach classes or write and grade papers. I want to be a part of something that hopes beyond hope.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Preaching Imagination, 2

In the movie, "A Knight's Tale," knights joust to the strains of contemporary rock and roll. Characters in medieval garb function as odd contemporaries, competing to the strains of "We will Rock You" and "Taking Care of Business." The movie does not depict an ancient setting, but neither is it contemporary. The genre of movie has created an imaginative setting in which a temporal warp allows the viewer to stand in various worlds simultaneously. Good preaching does the same thing. The genre of gospel, a dramatic turning of the ages, allows the preacher to stand in a new world, neither ancient nor of this age, but a world of the gospel's own imagination. The sermon is an intertextual web that brings into creative interplay the echoes and allusions of Scripture, the contexts of contemporary communities, and the instincts of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Under the influence of the gospel, the sermon insists on speaking, even if somewhat anachronistically, in the present tense.

I wrote these words at the conclusion of an essay on preaching for ACU Press book, Preaching Romans, 2002. It's my take on the whole issue of relevance, and it begins with an assumption about the gospel. The gospel is fundamentally the announcement of a dramatic turn of the ages. As Paul says, Christians are those "upon whom the end of the ages has fallen" (1 Cor 10). Richard Hays suggests that "Paul believes himself, along with his churches, to stand in a privileged moment in which the clutter of past texts and experiences assumes a configuration of eschatological significance" (Echoes of Scripture in Paul, 161). Paul assumes a "nearness" in Scripture, an immediacy given the inauguration of a new age initiated by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

One way to say this is that Paul doesn't read Scripture as addressed to a historically distant "them," but to an eschatologically privileged "us." Again, 1 Cor 10, "These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down for us, on whom the end of the ages has fallen." I try to think of the sermon in the same way. In the sermon, by virtue of the gospel, Romans is not a word primarily for a distant "them" that we overhear, but a word to us. My job, in other words, is to assume relevance, not to make the text relevant.

This would again make my former professors of preaching faint. We were taught to think of the sermon as a bridge that connected what the word meant to the original audience to what the word means to contemporary hearers. I understand this impulse. It keeps the text in a position of primacy before we let our current notions slip into the potion of the sermon. And I certainly value the work of historical critics who have illumined the setting of so much of Scripture. I don't want to do away with this sensibility. I want to temper it, put it within a larger theological context.

There are several deficits built into a bridge theory of the sermon. Again, the bridge assumes that the biggest thing to overcome in the sermon is a historical chasm between the world that produced the text and ours. The way to overcome this is to isolate the original intention of the author through exegetical method, distill the text into some universal point or principle, and walk the point across the bridge by way of analogy and make the point contemporary through illustration and application. I will mention just two weaknesses of this approach here (if I can restrain myself).

First, the historical gap is not the only one that stands between the reader and the text, and it may not be the most significant. Ancient preachers and theologians knew well the historical spread between them and the text, but felt that this gap paled in comparison to the spiritual one that exists between text and proclaimer. The historical-critical method when applied to preaching tends to bracket these matters or hold them only to the final, secondary matters of sermon preparation. It was never suggested to me that I approach the text with any other question than "what did this mean to the original audience." (Forget for a minute the hermeneutical nightmare associated with that question). No one ever suggested to me that lectio-divina or other readings strategies might address far more significant gaps than the historical one.

Second, the text gets left behind in the sermon. The text too often is treated in the sermon as a historical artifact to be explained. The preacher and the listeners stand at a far distance from the text and observe it as visitors. Like zoo patrons, we plug a quarter into the machine and listen to an explanation of the text's original habitat at a safe distance. The text is trapped in the past tense. I have had students track when they feel most engaged with a sermon. It nearly always relates to direct address, present tense speech. The bridge theory of the sermon keeps the text in sepia tones, while the contemporary illustrations and stories are in vivid color. This is a crying shame given the dynamic range of much of Scripture. We're trading inspired writ for football illustrations.

OK, so I'm trying to move past a bridge theory of the sermon, and this is a theological move for me (more on this later), but for now a few implications for the sermon.

I assume relevance. This text has something to say, even in all of its strangeness (perhaps because of it), to all of us upon whom the end of the ages has fallen.

I preach as much as possible in the present tense. I prefer "Paul says..." to "Paul said to the Corinthians..." This is an instinct, not a law.

I frame the sermon with the language and images of the text, and I nearly always begin with the text. I can't tell you how many sermons I hear these days that begin with something other than the text. And because sermons, good ones at least, seek a certain symmetry, they tend to end where they begin. The illustrations dominate the imagination of the sermon.

I blend worlds as often as possible. One of my favorite comments about my preaching came from a friend who observed that there's a certain seamlessness between text and occasion. The sermon doesn't jerk you back and forth from one world to another. Narrate the text with a contemporary allusion. Talk about our world in the language and cadences of the text. Because of this instinct, I prefer echoes and allusions to full-blown stories and illustrations. I'm trying to open the imaginative landscape of the sermon, not close it down with one or two dominating images.

I know this post has likely raised as many issues as settled them. Which is the great thing about a blog. More to come.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Avett Brothers on a Monday

It takes me a few listens with most new cd's for me to know what I think. And I'm still there with the new Avett Brothers, "I and Love and You." But there are some songs that I have already added to my "Love's best" and "kink-ish" (named for Portland's KINK radio station) playlists, which are my most listened to lists.

As I listen, I sometimes think Jayhawks, sometimes Ben Folds, sometimes My Morning Jacket. The songs are about the melodies and the lyrics. And the lyrics are wonderful.

My favorite lyric is in the song "The Perfect Space."

I wanna have pride like my mother has
And not like in the Bible that turns you bad
And I wanna have friends that I can trust
That love me for the man I've become, not the man I was.

"I and Love and You" is a great song with great lyrics. It gets in your head and you find yourself singing "Brooklyn, Brooklyn, let me in..." all day long. Just a great song.

Load the car and write the note.
Grab your bag and grab your coat.
Tell the ones that need to know.
We are headed north.

One foot in and one foot back.
But it don’t pay to live like that.
So I cut the ties and I jumped the track.
For never to return.

Ahh Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in.
Are you aware the shape I’m in?
My hands they shake, my head it spins.
Ahh Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in.

When at first I learned to speak.
I used all my words to fight.
With him and her and you and me.
Ahh, but it's just a waste of time.
Yeah it’s such a waste of time.

That woman she’s got eyes that shine.
Like a pair of stolen polished dimes.
She asked to dance I said it’s fine.
I’ll see you in the morning time.
Ahh Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in.
Are you aware the shape I’m in?
My hands they shake, my head it spins.
Ahh Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in.

Three words that became hard to say.
I and Love and You.
What you were than I am today.
Look at the things I do.

Ahh Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in.
Are you aware the shape I’m in?
My hands they shake, my head it spins.
Ahh Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in.

Ahh Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in.
Are you aware the shape I’m in?
My hands they shake, my head it spins.
Ahh Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in.

Dumbed down and numbed by time and age.
Your dreams that catch the world the cage.
The highway sets the traveler's stage.
All exits look the same.

Three words that became hard to say.
I and Love and You.
I and Love and You.
I and Love and You.

So, at this point, definitely worth your iTunes dollars and maybe one that becomes a constant companion.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Preaching Imagination

Most of the time, I don't miss preaching every Sunday. Until I do it. Then I think, "Oh yeah, that's pretty great." And it is. Everything about it. The time in preparation. The routine of the week. The discipline of Sunday. The high wire of the sermon itself.

I'll admit that the time right after the sermon is the pits. I am so spent, I want to do anything rather than be with people. But the pastoral demands of ministry insist otherwise. No retreating into a dark room and some quiet music. Not just yet. And Sunday evenings nearly always bring some sort of post-partum depression. I never shave on Mondays. But this is part of the ride that makes it great.

I have changed my perceptions of the sermon a lot in over 30 years of preaching (I preached for a little church in West Texas when I was 18). I think of it less as public speaking and more as theater. I know this would give some of my old preaching teachers a stroke. Anything that smacks of performance is to be disdained as showing off, as an improper display of the personality of the preacher. It is the text, after all, that is important, not the preacher.

And I agree with that last statement, mostly. It is God that is important in the sermon--the gospel, not just the text. But the point is taken that the sermon is not about the preacher. So, let me explain what I mean by performance.

I like to think about the entire process of the sermon as form-ation. The initial moves in preparation are all about con-form-ity. This is more than boiling the text down to an essential point that becomes the focus of the sermon, dressed with illustrations and stories. This is, instead, to know the voice of the text, its warp and woof, the way it moves. A text is a world all its own, full of movement and echoes and allusions to other texts and other worlds. It is a thickly construed reality that cannot be distilled into a point.

I was taught to prepare for a sermon with a Greek NT, a concordance, lexicon, and historical-critical commentary. And these things are still a part of my routine. But they are no longer the first, either in temporality or in imaginative priority. The first thing I do now is read the text aloud, standing. There is something about standing and saying, something physical and auditory, that begins a conformity with the text.

I encourage my students to read poetry aloud to develop preaching capacity. You can read the Michigan Driver's handbook aloud without any act of interpretation or conformity. But not poetry. And many preachers I hear simply cannot read a text aloud. I am convinced that the most engaging part of the sermon can and should be the "reading" of the text. But in most sermons, its the place where the sermon drags, where attention is placed on hold until the interesting stuff starts again.

I memorize my texts now for every sermon. I started this because my hands tremble so that I can no longer hold anything as I preach. But the discipline has transformed the sermon for me. Often, I see listeners sit forward with wonder in their eyes as if they are hearing a text for the very first time. The best way to memorize a text is to have some sense of the force and flow of it. You interpret as you memorize. It is an act of deep conformity.

Prayer, lectio divina, silence, thinking of those who will receive the word. These are all acts of conformity--ways of letting the text work on me before I set my shoulder to more active processes of interpretation (Greek NT, concordance, etc). Increasingly, I want to think of sermon preparation as a being mastered as opposed to a mastering of the text.

As I begin to move from text to sermon, I am always asking what in this text wants to perform? What is carrying the rhetorical weight of the text? This is my script. I am not an improvisational actor. In Psalm 51 for instance, there is a piling on of images. Every word for sin is used. And there are multiple verbs used for how God overcomes sin. The verbs want to perform. They want to overcome the overwhelming, heavy, "my sin is ever before me. Surely I was a sinner in my mother's womb." I want more than for the word "transgression" to be explained. I want it to perform. And I want "create in me a clean heart, O God" to sing. And in the limits of one sermon, I want as many of these actors to appear as possible.

And then I think, "how can I best perform this, given where conformity to this text has delivered me, and how can I invite others into that same kind of conformity?" I used to think of sermon strategies--deductive, inductive, narrative plot, and the like. But I don't anymore. I'm after a seamlessness between con-form and per-form, let the chips fall where they may.

In all of this personality is subsumed under the initial acts of conformity. But it is not rubbed out. There is no escaping the fact that I am delivering this sermon, that my person is both the opportunity and limitation of the word taking on flesh. Older views of preaching focused only on limitation. But the incarnation suggests that God does not reveal himself through general principles in universal situations. God's word is not some abstract idea, but a word become flesh, requiring further demonstrations in the flesh. This is still God's work, but it doesn't come apart from actual lives in space and time, including the preacher's. The task is not to rub out the preacher's personality, but to bring it into fullsome conformity.

If the processes of conformity have been attended to, then the performance should be as big as possible, as creative as possible. Conformity should kick the stuffing out of any grandstanding, uses of humor that serve only the interests of the speaker, any gratuitous stories designed to manipulate the hearer. The preacher is free to let loose.

Truth is, preaching this way requires very few devices apart from the text. I don't keep illustration files. Very few of the "moves" in my sermons involve elaborate stories or illustrations. I use humor, but I never tell a joke. There are enough actors in every text to keep the preacher plenty busy.

I know that some might think that this kind of preaching lacks a certain relevance, a word for today, stuck only in Bible times. Perhaps. But I don't think so. I have ways of thinking about that as well. Next post.