Friday, April 30, 2010

Master's in Missional Leadership

I usually don't use my blog as a place to hock my wares, so to speak. But I direct a graduate degree in Missional Leadership at Rochester College. We begin with the assumption that the best place to learn missional leadership is in your existing context. This degree doesn't extract you from that learning environment for the four walls of a classroom in Rochester, Michigan, but delivers the learning to you in a variety of ways, including online courses.

We are recruiting our cohort for this Fall and I am in the nose counting phase so that I can assign scholarship dollars. We still have spots available, however, and this is a shout out for all of you hoping to become more effective leaders for congregations in mission. If you want more info, you might visit our Ning site,, and check out the older blogs which have a lot of info about the degree.

I will also be at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures this year and we will be having a Rochester College luncheon on Friday. I will be speaking on the challenges of ministry in a missional era. If you're planning to be there, come and find us.

Regardless of your own personal interest, I appreciate your willingness to help me spread the word about the degree.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

Joni Mitchell was interviewed recently and had some unkind things to say about Dylan. To wit.

"Bob is not authentic at all. He's a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I."


I'm not a Dylan can do no wrong kind of guy. I write about Dylan, not because I think he's the greatest, but because he's interesting and provides the occasion for commentary on so many different topics.

One of those topics is identity and self. Who is Bob Dylan? Is he the real deal, or a fiction? Is that really the way he sings, or was this simply the stylings of an opportunist? Is he a prophet of conscience or a social chameleon, trying on positions like socks? Joni's not the first one to take the side of "fake" in the great Dylan debate.

These ways of framing the discussion, however, miss the point for me. There's not one of us who don't live in relation to some narrative, some account of ourselves, that is a selective telling. This is a complex enterprise, especially at the level of authorship. We are co-authors of that narrative, but make no mistake, all of us author an account of ourselves that we in turn perform.

It's possible to play a role that doesn't correspond at all to the facts on the ground, and thereby to betray trust in others who depend on our authentic performance. And to the extent that authenticity has to do with the capacity to integrate more and more details of our life, the good and the bad, it is possible to label a performance inauthentic that radically compartmentalizes, etc. But Dylan has been doing this long enough now in relation to others that this is who he is. This isn't Miley Cyrus being Hannah Montana. The former Robert Zimmerman is Bob Dylan.

But beyond all that, why would Joni Mitchell feel the need to say something like this? Even if she believed it, why would she say it? It is so un-generous. And that's a big deal to me, especially from someone like Mitchell who has enough accolades of her own to be generous with others without any fear of diminishment.

This is not a defense of Dylan. Maybe Mitchell is right. Maybe he killed her cat at some point and this is evening the score. Maybe we all need to be protected from Dylan's pernicious fiction. She's merely being a thoughtful public servant. And maybe this need is so great that she is willing to take the hit for appearing petty and mean-spirited so that we might all be better. Perhaps.

This is the thing for me. Having just turned 50, I am thinking a lot about who I want to be at 60 and 70. And I want to be generous. While I want to be discerning and insightful, I want to make sure that I'm making room even in the categories I choose as interpretative lenses. I want to honor the miracle of the ordinary, that people make meaning out of the simplest things and even out of poorest performances. I want to be better when I'm older.

I'm afraid I couldn't tell a very convincing narrative that this is who I've been to this point. But I've seen it in others. I know what generous of spirit looks like. And I think I'm beginning to see how that might be me as well.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Preaching Imagination, Acts 2

My sermon in eleven days (gasp) is finding a certain form, some momentum of its own. It has begun to write itself. Things are coming together. Images are overlapping. Focus is emerging.

This state of affairs is one reason I resist those notions of preaching that begin with guiding statements. The focus of this sermon is... The function of this sermon is... In my experience, those things come with the process, somewhere in the middle or toward the end. Sometimes, alas, not at all.

I'm beginning to like this sermon. That doesn't always happen. My liking it doesn't guarantee a good sermon, but it certainly influences my energy and sense of anticipation.

This sermon will consist in four "moves." I know what each of them consists of. I don't have yet the exact language, but I know what each of the moves is doing and how they fit together. The third move is huge and I sketched it today. The inspiration hit me in the middle of a conference I am attending. I scribbled it on a scratch pad in the middle of someone's powerpoint presentation. Hopefully, they thought I was taking furious notes.

My wife, Nancy, has lovingly cautioned me about putting too much of my sermon on my blog. Like that would ruin it for both people who read my blog. And with this move, she is right. It needs to come out of the blue, be a little bit surprising.

I'm writing today only to leave some hint of an instinct I have, an issue that I have to negotiate often in preaching. And this issue has several layers. It has to do with the listener's proximity to the text and to the sermon. The first two moves that I have written about previously allow the listener some emotional distance. I am talking about someone else. Simeon, Anna, the community in Jerusalem, God. They have a certain space or distance from the sermon. I hope that they will begin to see themselves through empathy with Simeon and Anna. But I don't press that identification in the opening move. I allow them the distance of empathy without too much identification. I want them to sense longing without asking them directly to touch their own (that will come in the final move).

This third move, however, I need them to see themselves in the sermon, to place themselves in the text. And I want them to do that in a way that runs contrary to their typical ways of identifying with the story. In other words, I want them to see themselves not standing with Peter and the eleven, but with the crowd who says, "brothers, what shall we do."

This is tricky. I can't do this baldly or in a heavy-handed or moralistic kind of way. If I say it directly, they will easily wriggle away. I still need them to have the distance of observation--to talk about someone else--in such a way that they recognize themselves. And that needs to be obvious enough that they don't miss the implication. It needs to be simultaneously indirect and implicating.

One way to do this, the way I have chosen in this sermon, is to narrate the experience of the "devout Jews" in terms that are both ancient and contemporary. I will be talking about the devout Jews of the text, but my use of anachronisms will make it clear I am also talking about us. I am figuring them, but I am aimed at us. The occasion of pilgrimage, both to Passover and Pentecost, and to the Pepperdine Bible Lectures, provides the necessary overlap of figures. I hope, in ways that are both playful and poignant, to have them experience the "uh-oh" of the text.

This is hard. It requires a certain pace, a patience with the implications. It requires a parallel structuring so that the images can be interpreted easily, but not obviously. If I do this move well, everything I say in the final move has a chance. If I don't, if I'm careless or clumsy or korny or too obvious, the final move of the sermon may be clear but lack poignance.

I love this. This is one of the things about preaching that makes it challenging, rewarding, and fulfilling.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

I have spent a lot of time with Oh, Mercy these last few weeks. Today I looked for youtube versions, to hear what the songs sounded like live. There are a lot of great tunes on this cd. What Good Am I might be my favorite. And this is a pretty good quality video. So, this is today's Dylan on a Sunday.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Preaching Imagination, Acts 2

Here are today's reflections. This is the theological heart of the sermon, the next move. These are impressions, not yet sermon words, though many of these impressions will make the final cut. I'm interested in what they inspire in you, where they send you, what images and impressions they evoke.

God raised Israel's messiah from the dead. This that you see and hear is the work of God, the result of raising this Jesus from the dead, seating him at the right hand of God in glory and handing over to him the kingdom. God has made Israel's messiah, Lord of all, giving him the authority to pour out the Spirit, the effective power of the Kingdom of God.

This that you see and hear is God's keeping his promise to Abraham, that through Abraham all the nations of the earth will be blessed. It's what Mary and Zechariah sang about under the influence of the Holy Spirit,

he has shown mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our ancestor Abraham.

This is God guaranteeing the world's future through Israel's messiah. Through Jesus, who pours the Spirit out on the 12, on Peter and James and John--and Mathhias, the freshly minted apostle, completer of the 12, the newest representative of the new Israel.

Jesus, pouring out the Spirit in Jerusalem, the city of David, Zion, God's holy mountain--not in Rome or Alexandria or Abilene or Searcy. Jerusalem. (more here)

And this has happened in the presence of devout Jews--devout Jews from every nation under heaven. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, oh my! God has placed devout Jews, people like Simeon and Anna in every corner of the globe, so that through Israel and the announcement of Israel's messiah, every nation on earth will be blessed.

This is God keeping this improbable story alive. This is God keeping faithfulness, breathing life in a story left for dead, raising it up, bringing it back to life, time and time again.

And here in a decisive way, in a way that leaves no doubt. In Israel's worst moment, putting to death God's annointed, the one attested by God through signs, deeds, wonders, in this lowest moment, God's greatest affirmation. He raised Israel's messiah from the dead and enthroned him forever, securing once and for all Israel's central role in the promise of God for all the world. Once and for all consoling Israel, redeeming Jerusalem, and through this, saving all nations.

This is the day that Simeon and Anna longed for, a line drawn by the Holy Spirit directly from their hearts to Pentecost. This is God's emphatic "yes" to all human longing for more, for fuller, for poured out, for extravagant mercy, for life without the threat of death, for the great and glorious day of the Lord.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Preaching Imagination, Acts 2

So, here are the rough, initial stabs at the opening of a sermon. There are places where the language needs to be fuller, where I am still looking for images. Maybe you can help.

Recite the text.

The word of the Lord.

And as far as words of the Lord go, not too shabby. If texts are mountains, this is a Himalaya no matter how you measure it. And fortunately for us, this is one of our texts. It’s the text, after all, that we list on our birth certificate in Churches of Christ. It says on the cornerstone, “This building erected 1954, this church established 33 AD.” Acts 2. It’s our text. We are, proudly and for good reason, Acts 2 Christians.

I saw you mouthing the words when we got to verse 38. Brothers, what shall we do. Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized”…and some other stuff…"and 3,000 were added that day to the church.”

So great. Doesn’t that make you want more? Create some longing for a day like that, for some Pentecost? Gotta get me some Pentecost.

Repent and be baptized. These words are so central to this chapter. What else is there to do in the wake of the appearing of the great and glorious day of the Lord? Repent. Which is different than, “Be your best self now!” This is “turn!” A new world has arrived, one spinning in a different direction that the world afforded us by other Lords. There’s simply no way to continue in the same direction and welcome this new world. Repent.

And make no mistake about it, the appearing of a new world is what this day is all about. These men aren’t drunk. This is God’s word through the prophet Joel come to life. The great and glorious day of the Lord. The pouring out of power from on high—the same power that raised Jesus from the dead poured out on sons and daughters, young and old, slaves both male and female (in case you missed it). And with it a new dispensation of speech. A day when the gospel becomes the universal language of the whole world, when everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

And this day has lived in the hearts of some for a long time. Lived in their hearts like an ache. Like a key change. Like … (help me here)

People like Simeon, whose old, watery eyes were looking for the consolation of Israel. It was revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would see God’s anointed one—the one who would end their long humiliation at the hands of other powers, and bring Israel back to the center of God’s redemptive purposes for all nations. Listen to him. You can hear the weight of his longing, “My eyes have seen your salvation! A light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory to your people Israel.”

Or Simeon’s counterpart Anna. A prophet, Luke calls her, of great age, living in the temple, praising God and preaching to anyone who will listen about the redemption of Jerusalem. 84 years of anticipation for the day when Jerusalem would rise above every hill and become the mountain of the Lord’s instruction for the nations. Her eyes creased with the wrinkles of a life spent fasting and praying night and day out of a hunger to sing with full throat, “Zion, o glorious Zion!”

Simeon and Anna, filled with the Holy Spirit, living, breathing billboards for the future, forerunners of Pentecost, a prophesying son and daughter, harbingers of a new day, desire set deep in their hearts for more, for more—a new day bursting with all the promise of God.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Dylan (Jakob) on a Saturday

Traveling tomorrow, so a little note before I go on Jakob Dylan's new cd, Women and Country. I haven't quite absorbed it yet, but so far I like it, and I think better than his previous solo album, Seeing Things. That's already saying something.

Seeing Things was produced by Rick Rubin, a great choice. Women and Country by T Bone Burnett, another great choice. The differences are striking even though both works fall in the acoustic/folk camp. Seeing Things is spare. Women and Country more lush. Seeing things is about Dylan's voice, not so much the songs. Women and Country is about the songs, the setting. And there's plenty of Burnett atmosphere here. The songs are great, a good fit for their settings.

The most striking thing about the setting is the presence of Neko Case's voice on backing vocals. In fact, three of the songs are performed by Dylan and Case (with a few others) on NPR's, All Music Considered. And they're great, especially Holy Rollers for Love. (

In an interview with Paste magazine, Dylan talks about the new cd and the collaborative process with Burnett. It fascinates me when artists talk about process and the meaning of their work. Dylan hasn't fallen far from the proverbial tree. It's not hard to hear Bob's own sentiments in many places. But Jakob talked about his music in one way that nailed it for me--the thing in his mixture that makes it stand out. Hope.

"I demand to put hope forward. I think there’s always been hope in my songs. Even if it was just a sliver. I wouldn’t know how to write otherwise—there’d just be too much darkness. It’d be too daunting. I think that’s the interesting stuff—I don’t overthink it, it’s music. But I do want hope in my music—when I’m talking to you or to myself, I don’t want to hear that there isn’t any hope. You talk to people all the time, you’re probably overwhelmed with how positive some people are, seeing brightness in everything. There are very few opportunities where you couldn’t find hope."

Dylan's music is clear evidence that hope isn't the same as being naive. Jakob doesn't duck the darkness. But the thing that lasts even in the darkness is hope. And so today, hope is the word.

"The world is crazy, or maybe just holy rollers for love."

Friday, April 9, 2010

Elizabeth Gilbert on Creativity

I don't surf youtube, so am unaware of many great things that are out there. So, thanks to Casey for directing me to this presentation.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

I'm a big believer in voice. That your most powerful self is the most authentic self. And I believe that voice, in this sense, is elusive, subject to various temptations of mimicry.

Which brings me back to the documentary about Dylan's music in the 80's. The 80's saw more than just Dylan's "Christian trilogy," they also saw the release of what many consider Dylan's worst efforts: e.g. Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded. Disco beats, synth effects, Don Johnson wardrobe covers. Even Dylan was susceptible to the corrosive pop pressures of America in the Reagan years.

Commentators say Dylan was lost. And they point to his performances at LiveAid and on the song "We are the World," as prime exhibits. (There's a hilarious clip on the documentary of Stevie Wonder coaching Dylan on how to sing his lines for the song. Stevie does a dead on Dylan). By the end of the 80's, with the help of Daniel Lanois, and the release of Oh, Mercy, Dylan had found his voice again. Or so the story goes.


I taught preaching for awhile. And the big thing in homiletics (the science of preaching) during this period was naming different approaches to the preaching. This is how you preach a deductive sermon. This is how you preach an inductive sermon. The emphasis was on the surface structure of the sermon. After working with young preachers, I totally scrapped distinguishing between various sermon strategies. The reason? Voice.

The "aha" moment came one afternoon when an African-American student preached an inductive sermon in class. It was well designed. Thoughtful. But it lacked life. This lack of life was more striking in an African-American student, I think, because they have such a strong preaching voice in their churches. This emphasis on a surface structure completely rubbed out this student's own voice. From that point on, I wanted my students to focus on saying something meaningful in a voice--their voice--they would discover over time in relationship to the biblical text. The student sermons got much better.

This is not true only for preaching. I think something like this is true for aspects of life that don't have to do with speaking, singing, etc. There are habits, practices, professions, that over time provide a vehicle for "voice." And I think this happens the moment when we're no longer conscious of imitation (we never escape it), but move in a practice as if its our own. That's a powerful thing.