Sunday, May 23, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

The preacher quoted Dylan today. That's what he called him. "Dylan." I moved to the edge of my seat. "Dylan got it right," he said. Finally, something interesting! What would the quote be. I was hoping for obscure, clever, ironic, because these kinds of things hold the possibility of meaning. Obvious is nearly always a disappointment, a cliche, a belly-laugh thief.

And I got obvious. Dang. Church ought to be, but seldom is, the place where you should get something other than obvious. If the world was in good shape, then God should be obvious. If not, then God has to be a surprise, something between the lines, a cure for hiccups.

I got, "You gotta serve somebody." The best thing about this song is the back-up singers. It's not that its bad, exactly. It's not bad. It's just so obvious. And it's an easy dualism. This or that. And those don't go down well with me. I like it all just a bit more complex.

Now, I didn't really expect anything different. I was shocked to hear Dylan's name at all. If I hadn't been so shocked in the first place, I would've guessed "Serve Somebody" or something old like "Blowin in the Wind." No chance it could have been, "Not Dark Yet," or "What was it You Wanted," or even something like "Highway 61 Revisited."

After my Pepperdine presentation, someone who evidently reads this blog (sorry can't remember who), expressed mock surprise that I didn't quote Dylan in my sermon. And I'm pretty sure that I never have. I don't think we have that kind of relationship. I've quoted the Rolling Stones, Heart, U2, Pink Floyd, but never Dylan.

And today's experience convinced me that no one should. The Dylan stuff that would fit in a sermon, at least most sermons, is not his best stuff. And his best stuff doesn't go with anything else. The world of a Dylan song is incommensurate with other worlds. And so is the world of a good sermon. You don't just casually shuffle those kinds of things together.

So, Dylan on a Sunday is always a good thing. But maybe not in a sermon.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Are You Calling Me a Relativist?

I was with a group of Christians in Toronto this past weekend and I introduced them to a practice called, "Dwelling in the Word." I often describe this process as group lectio divina. It is a more passive approach to Scripture that refuses to turn the text into an "object" to dissect, and treats it more like a living voice that resonates throughout the perceptive abilities of practicing communities of faith. Phew, that's a mouthful.

Dwelling in the Word is not the only way to approach Scripture. Nor is it a refutation of more "objective" strategies seated in a certain expertise or competence in history and languages. It is an augmenting, a necessary one, that allows Scripture to shape a communal consciousness.

When I introduce this to a new group, I am not surprised to be challenged by someone who thinks this is simply a practice in shared ignorance, a way of making the Scriptures mean just anything. Everyone's interpretation is just as valid as another's. In short, I am susceptible to the charge of being a relativist. Gasp!

This past week, a very thoughtful participant contrasted this approach with that advocated by Fee and Stuart in their influential book on reading Scripture. They make the strong claim that Scripture cannot mean anything other than what the author intended. This kind of approach to Scripture would frown on a practice like Dwelling in the Word. They attempt to fix meaning in terms of the original context (one that we have to reconstruct from a massive historical distance, usually with considerable conjecture) and guarantee our access to this through an exacting process. Anything else, it is implied, is playing fast and loose with the text, leaving it open to abuse.

I simply don't agree with Fee and Stuart at several places (though I do use many of the reading strategies they advocate). The Bible itself reveals that texts can mean something other than what they originally meant. Biblical writers use and reuse texts in ways that change their meaning. In some instances, the very same text quoted in two different texts can mean very, very different things in their new context. In fact, I would argue that it is precisely a text's ability to speak across times in new ways that allows us to recognize it as sacred. All texts have a dynamic range of meanings, and this might be even more true for particularly powerful texts.

I also disagree with Fee and Stuart related to their implied confidence that localizing a text in relation to the intentions of the author can produce a single meaning. In other words, methodology (in this case, historical-critical) is often not strong enough to overcome the existing commitments of the readers of Scripture. In other words, it is not only possible but likely that two interpreters using exactly the same methodology will still produce two different readings of the text, much less its context.

This, however, does not leave us to the perilous pit of relativism, of all interpretations being equal, etc. Though a text can mean different things, it can't mean anything. And some interpretations are clearly more viable than others. Moreover, certain rigorous or critical readings of Scripture can shed enormous light and prove extremely fruitful in discerning better readings. So, however, can reading in a community. My big point here is that letting go of confidence in an exacting methodology does not leave us only with relativism.

I ran across this statement by a philosopher of science (Feyerabend) that I think says it well.

"The real issue is not between people who think one view is as good as another and people who do not. It is between those who think our culture, or intuitions, cannot be supported except conversationally, and people who still hope for other sorts of support."

In other words, the only option beyond a methodological positivism is not relativism. Those bogeymen simply aren't out there. The practice of Dwelling in the Word, alongside other approaches, is a commitment to the long conversation about the dynamic meaning of Scripture by a historical community of committed readers.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Missional Worship, 4

Haven't been here for awhile. Other things got in the way. But one more post in this line of thought.

A missional impulse for worship would make clearer the connections between God, church, and world. As we've seen in worship practices like the Lord's Supper, worship enacts God's care for the world through hospitality. This rehearsal, this anticipatory dinner, is also the way Christians learn their vocation in the world. The same hospitality they receive in worship, they extend to their neighbors.

So, there is not a wide gulf between what happens in worship on Sunday and the kind of life we live on Monday. To the contrary, there is a seamlessness. The way we are in worship is precisely the life to be lived among others.

This includes the way we speak in worship. We praise God not only because praise is due him, but also to learn praiseworthy speech. We bless to learn to bless. You get the idea.

Christianity is a Word religion. God creates through his word. Jesus is a Word incarnate. The Holy Spirit provides for us the words we use with others. God creates, sustains, and transforms his world through speech. What Christians bring the world is a gospel--a speech-act, that brings new worlds into view.

It is striking to me how often speech ethics are the focus of the biblical writers. The psalmist tells us that the throats of those who oppose God are "open graves," while the righteous have the fruit of praise continuously on their lips. Ethical sections in New Testament letters are peppered with admonitions about speech. We are to put away boasting, slander, gossip, unwholesome talk, etc, and instead to speak the truth to one another in love.

I am struck in 2 Corinthians how often Paul's self-identification with the death and resurrection of Jesus is coupled with a statement about his speech. Because he has experienced the power of death and resurrection, he speaks differently. "We have behaved in the world," he writes, "with frankness and godly sincerity." Or, "we are not peddler's of God's word..., but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity." Again, "We have renounced the shameful things one hides; we refure to practice cunning or to falsify God's word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God." These statements could be multiplied. The point is, Paul's encounter with the God who raised Jesus from the dead has changed the way he speaks to others.

We learn this way of speaking in worship, or at least should. This is one thing I like about highly liturgical traditions. We speak to one another in worship. The words of Scripture are not simply the set-up for the sermon. They become the church's dialogue. We say them to one another and we respond in certain ways when we hear them spoken to us. We have blessings spoken over us and we respond in kind. We are learning to listen to one another, and speak in ways that offer life.

It is true that the significance of this is often lost on parishioners. I think this is due in part to the fact that we have thought of worship as space and time separated from the world. The world is not present to us in worship in any kind of constructive way. We are often told in worship to leave the world and its cares behind so that we can focus on God, as if God only shows up in the world when we gather to worship, as if God is uninvolved in the cares of this world.

Missional thinking would recover the public horizon of Christian worship, and in turn heighten our awareness of how the various things we do in worship form us for vocation in the world.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Dylan on a Monday

The past two Sundays have been travel days for me, so no new Dylan posts. Yesterday, I was driving back from Toronto in my boss Dodge Caravan rental hoping that no one would recognize me. I felt a little like Clark Griswold.

On the upside, it had a sirius satellite radio and I stumbled across the Theme Time radio show by none other than Bob Dylan. I knew of the show, but not having a sirius radio, had never heard it. Dylan has produced 100 episodes to great reviews, though it appears Theme Time's run is over.

I heard two episodes, and they were great. The first episode featured songs, stories, quips, and non-sequitors around the theme "fruit." He told fruit stories and played songs about fruit. Everything from Strawberry Fields Forever to The Banana Boat Song. Some of the tracks were obscure, other well-known. Dylan told the back story on many of the songs. And he had a running gag through the show on which fruit was #1; bananas according to Dylan. The second show featured songs about roads, avenues, lanes, boulevards, etc. It featured everything from Dylan reading Scripture after the song "Straight Street," to telling stories about route 66, to playing Green Day's Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

It was funny and witty and interesting. And you could tell Dylan was having great fun doing it. Dylan's narration is not conversational. It's poetry or schtick or whimsy or something. It's definitely performance. He's in a rhythm. The phrasing is as important as the words. This is different than his conversational tone in interviews, for instance. This is the same voice that lines out the phrase, "how does it feel?"

The place where I laughed the hardest was when Dylan volunteered his voice for a car's navigation system, and he gave an example of what that would sound like. Can you imagine having Dylan tell you when to turn right.

So, this is performance art for Dylan. This is different that VH1's story teller series where we get up close with the performers. Still, even in this performance, you come away with a greater sense of what Dylan is about. The different medium reveals another edge to his creativity, and you get a different sense about how his mind works, how things come together for him. The little allusions he drops along the way, the kind of details he's interested in, the kind of songs he knows about--all of it provides a thick enough backdrop that meanings and resonances become more clear with respect to his other work. This despite the fact that Dylan never intentionally gives us much of himself directly.

Those of you who follow me around a bit know that I'm fully invested in this notion of understanding. How do we come to understand one another and the world around us? Thick description. Understanding does not come only through science given over totally to critical methodologies. Understanding comes through use, through layers of experience, through the fruitfulness of prior assumptions, and through the encounter with new horizons.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Lucinda Williams on a Sunday

These days, I'm particularly interested in persons who are on top of their game past the age of 50. Not sure why. Really, I have no clue.

But that rules out all professional athletes. Favre won't be playing in nine years. Fred Couples had a nice Masters a few weeks ago, but no one thought he could actually win. I'm sure there's a Latin American baseball player who is really 63 years old, but his birth certificate says 38, so that really doesn't help me.

I know there are ceo's and such on top of their game past 50. But I'm hoping to be on top of my game without wearing soft pants and a tie. (Um, not that this about me).

Which leaves me with musicians. The field here is thinning. All the big hair bands of the 80's are turning 50 these days and there's nothing appealing about a White Snake or Poison reunion tour. It's hard enough to watch the Who at the Super Bowl.

But there's nothing embarrassing about Lucinda Williams these days. She's tough and tender (though always through a sneer), a rocker and a balladeer. Her voice isn't pretty, so age isn't an issue. But her voice is piercing and what age it shows adds weight to her performance. And you get a sense that at this point in her life, she's not recording music for anyone but herself. And that kind of freedom can often times translate into authenticity and range.

So today, I've been writing while listening to Lucinda Williams', Little Honey. It's her latest and its a ride. There's country and punk and rock and ballads. There's a tune with Elvis Costello, a perfect pairing (wish it was a better song). It was great creative companionship.

Two favorites:

Honey Bee (An old rocker, with silly lyrics that sound somehow not silly when she sings them)

Oh, my little honey bee
I'm so glad you stung me
You've become my weakness
Now I've got your sweetness

Knowing (A ballad with great lyrics)

I didn't know what love meant before
I didn't know what you had waiting for me in store
I didn't know that I'd be finding out so much more
About the knowing and the knowing is all there is

About yes and yes, this is it
I didn't know

I didn't know what precious time would make
I didn't know how fragile a kiss could seem
I didn't know that finally all of dawn is trained
About the knowing and the knowing is all there is

About yes and yes, this is it
I didn't know

I didn't know I'd never look at life the same
I didn't know until I walked with you in the rain
I didn't know until I found out you felt the same
About the knowing and the knowing is all there is

About yes and yes, this is it
I didn't know

I didn't know until together we lay
I didn't know until you touched my soul that day
I didn't know that you would teach me in your own way
About the knowing and the knowing is all there is

About yes and yes, this is it
I didn't know, I didn't know, I didn't know

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Preaching Imagination, Acts 2

I am four days away from the Acts 2 sermon at the Pepperdine Bible lectures. This one has not appeared willingly. But I'm at a place now where I'm confident that its going to show up. The sermon is now writing itself. One choice leads to another. One image builds on another and forms a circle with others, both reflecting and anticipating.

I have my text memorized. I have the first two moves in draft form. The third move is sketched. And I know the basic shape and thrust of the final move. I will end the sermon with a series of refrains that ends, "but, God raised him up." The salvation offered in the text is that God still pours out his Spirit on those who unwittingly find themselves resisting his work in the world. This was true for the devout Jews in Jerusalem. It's true for us as well.

That's where we'll end. And I hope it is a cascading moment. That the momentum of the sermon launches us into the final phrasings. It's a little like ski jumping. You don't always hit the perfect place to soar, but when you do...

But before we get there, I want to bring us back to some of the themes put in play in the earlier moves. The sermon starts with the hope of Israel. I want to end going to all the world. The sermon begins with the longing of Simeon and Anna. I want to end with our longings for more. The sermon begins with our relationship in Churches of Christ with Acts 2. I want the sermon to end with the possibility of a new relationship with Acts 2.

That's a lot of plates to spin. The risk here is to be so scattered that all the energy of the sermon spills and is dissipated. But I think I have a way into the move that will allow the pieces to fall neatly together. We'll see.

Sermon endings are the hardest part of preaching for me. I much prefer the anticipation, the building, the development. I like working in commas, not periods or exclamation points. But this sermon deserves some exclamation points.

So, if you're helping me with some good sermon mojo, pray for clarity and courage.

I want to have the sermon written by Sunday evening. I will fly to Malibu on Monday, giving me all day Tuesday to rehearse. I will write a manuscript, which is not my usual practice, and I will likely take it up to the podium with me. But I plan to have the sermon orally manuscripted, which means I've said it aloud enough that I no longer need to read it. It is another way of internalizing, of conforming, of preaching from the inside out. It's not memorizing proper. But its pretty close.

The rehearsing is so important. The more I've done this, the more I realize how important my actual voice is, how important cadence and rhythm is. And I've learned how what I hear in my head is not what others hear as I preach. I'm slower than I think. I need to think constantly about energy. And its important for me to actually preach it, not just memorize it, for me to feel the sermon, to bodily anticipate the next moves.

Which brings me to one last observation. Preaching, at least for me, is a full contact sport. That is, I'm realizing how physical my preaching is. Even beyond the fact that I don't stand behind the podium (although I'm not a pacer), there is a sense in which preaching starts in your toes and involves concentrated effort, a projection of yourself for 25-30 minutes (the typical length of a lectureship sermon). And I am now 50. And while I don't think I have one foot in the grave, I know that I'm no longer the person I once was. And in particular, I have a benign essential tremor that used to only show up in my hands, but now I can feel throughout my body, especially when I'm coursing with adrenaline. And I will be coursing with adrenaline. And when its bad, my voice has a tremor and gets thin and reedy. And all of that robs me of a feeling of power, or projection, or connection, or incarnation, or something. And so, I'm anxious about that.

Thanks for those of you who have traveled through this preparation with me. I am taking several conversation partners with me into this moment.