Tuesday, March 22, 2011

our hands are too full (lent 2011)

When I was in the eighth grade I was a sports fanatic; not like those members of our church who wore their light blue ties last Sunday to worship, or even, in one case, a light blue ball cap (“I am wearing it because it is raining,” he explained to me). They are just fans, right, but that is short hand for fanatic. Well as a kid I played the three sports that were common in south Georgia culture; basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring, football in the fall. We did not have year round sports. Year round sports are unnatural, but that is another story.

So, this was my experience: I loved basketball. I was tall, I was slightly coordinated. And I loved baseball, I was a pitcher, and the height worked for me. I did not love football. I like to watch it, but I simply never loved playing football.

There was one catch: my father loved football, and his friends loved football. So I played football. Every year. Fall was not as much fun as winter or spring, but I played until I reached the eighth grade and I came to a moment of clarity: I had played all of the football, in pads, that I would play in this life. Practice would begin very soon. It became a topic of conversation around the house. I thought about it all weekend. I needed to make a decision.

Finally, I came up with enough nerve or courage to deliver the news to my father. Now remember, south Georgia is a football culture. They could have filmed Friday Night Lights in my hometown. So we were together and I blurted it out: “I don’t want to play football. I love basketball. I love baseball. I don’t want to play football.” There was silence and then we talked. I remember several pieces of the conversation: Would this set a trend for me, that I would start things and not finish them? Would I lose my interest in playing other sports? Would I find myself outside of my circle of friends, who would all be playing a sport? But I had made the decision. I stopped. I gave it up.

Now you may think that is a trivial story, or a stereotypical incident peculiar to kids and sports. The experience came to me when I tried to recall my earliest memory of letting go of something. Many of us associate Lent with letting go of something, “giving up something for Lent”: chocolate or sodas, soap operas or Facebook. I did not grow up in a tradition that observed Lent, but I have come to embrace it. It always comes at a good time for me: all of the holiday parties take their toll, the flurry of beginning of the year activity, being constricted by the enclosed space of winter. None of that has anything to do with Lent, really, but it gives me a spiritual reason to evaluate my habits and my priorities.

We always begin in the season of Lent with Jesus, in the desert, where he is being tested (Matthew 4. 1-11). Last Sunday we talked about the transfiguration of Jesus, mountains and valleys, spiritual highs and emotional depletion, being exalted and humbled. We have come down from the mountain of glory into the ordinary challenges that face us all. In the Ash Wednesday meditations I connected the experience of Mardi Gras, the krewes, the parades, the masked balls and the celebrations with the austerity of these 40 days. In the gospel for Ash Wednesday, Jesus is quite critical of the hypocrites, who practice their religion for the purpose of applause, to be seen by others. And I noted that the word hypocrite has its origins in the theater of the ancient world. A hypocrite puts on a mask, appearing to be someone other than who she or he really is.

In Lent we have the opportunity to align our lives with Jesus, and this involves paying close attention to his teaching. He is always asking us to take off our masks, to believe that we are loved as we are, unconditionally. He is always asking us to come apart, with him to a lonely and quiet place where we can listen to him. There is no audible voice, but in the silence he meets us. He is always asking us to join in his mission to the last, the least and the lost; today we celebrate a remarkable example of risk-taking mission with the housing of foster children who are on the verge of becoming adults.

He is always calling us to follow him, and we have that opportunity now, over the next 40 days. 40 was an important number in the Bible….
  • Rain fell on the earth for 40 days and nights in the days of Noah
  • Moses and the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years
  • Elijah fasted on the mountain for 40 days and heard the still small voice of God
  • Jesus was tested in the wilderness for 40 days.

40 is significant; in the ancient world 40 years was roughly comparable to a generation, or a lifetime. In our own lives, I have come to think of it as the amount of time it takes to really establish a habit, to take on something constructive or give up something destructive.

Habits are the ways we orient and re-orient our lives. Through habits we intentionally set aside some things and embrace others. Maybe we let go of something, we detach, unclutter or declutter our lives, we learn how to live on less, maybe the economy forces us to take on this lifestyle, maybe our health requires it, or the aging process, or we get disenchanted with keeping up with the Joneses. And so we reset, we reboot.

Someone has given this a wonderful name: a spirituality of subtraction. Not more, but less, and since we are whole persons, this has to do with all of who we are: our eating, our activity, our consumption, our pace. Fasting is a part of the Lenten experience. Many people cannot fast for medical reasons, if you are a diabetic, for example, you should ask your physician about fasting. But we can fast from technology, we can fast from shopping, we can fast from (you fill in the blank).
A spirituality of subtraction can be empowering. When we hit the pause button in our lives, we realize that we have gotten attached to some things that are not appropriate, not life-giving, not interesting to us, not helpful to others. And so it helps to sit down and go through all of that. I want to share an experience, because it may remind you of a struggle in your own life.

I was asked to be in a group. It was really an honor to be in the group. It meets in another part of the country, typically, twice a year. It does good work. The other members of the group are important people in their worlds, and you would recognize some of their names. When I was invited to be in the group, I said “yes”. I did not think about it all that hard; it seemed like a “no-brainer”.

Well, the group has been together for three or four years. The work is progressing. I have met some good people and networked with them. And I have come to a conclusion: I really need to get out of this group. I need to withdraw, to resign.

What would keep me from doing this? Well, I like the leader, I respect him, I value what he is doing. And I wonder: will people perceive me as a quitter? Will they remember that I left the group and not ask me when something important comes along again?

Then I realize that I am reliving an experience from my childhood. I am still a kid, trying to quit a sport I did not love. So my dad was quite fine with the decision, not to play football. And the committee chair was quite gracious when he received my letter.

But what was the lesson for me? A part of why we jump onto the treadmill, why we get attached to so much stuff, a part of why we are seduced by the expectations of others is that we want to please them, we want to hear their applause.

The earliest followers of Jesus went to the desert because they wanted to get away from all of that, they wanted clarity about who they were, before God. They wanted to take off their masks, and spend time with their Father who heard them in secret. This may be clear, but let us all confess that this is not easy.

The Old Testament lesson (Genesis 3. 1-7) is about a man, a woman and a snake. Many have dismissed the story long ago, because we read it literally and wonder now if there really was a snake or a garden. But in dismissing the story we miss the core truth that the rabbis wanted us to learn: the temptation for us to be "like God", to put ourselves in the place of God, to make idols of ourselves, to imagine that we have no limits. The desire to be God is the primal temptation.

For Christians, this is compounded with the idea of a "messiah complex", which creeps into the lives of men and women, especially educated, accomplished people, people like you, a messiah complex which reinforces the belief that you can do it all. That can be a powerful temptation for us.
Most of us are better at addition than subtraction.

So what does it mean to give that up? The first of the twelve steps is clear: our lives had become unmanageable. And the second: we came to believe in a higher power. We cannot do it all. The temptations of Jesus are to do it all: turn stones into bread, throw himself from the temple, preside over all the kingdoms of the world. Henri Nouwen identifies these as the temptations to be relevant, to be spectacular, to be powerful. And then he asks: can we, like Jesus, lay them down?

A spirituality of subtraction.

To lay down these temptations is to confess that there is One God, as our Jewish friends say, and we are not God, it is to trust more deeply in the One who is the creator, remembering that we are the creature. It is confess our sin, acknowledge our brokenness, admit our powerlessness and identify our limitations. It is to make a list of everything we are doing and ask ourselves, "why am I doing this?" And, yes, I am a preacher and I would say this, it is to put God first, which means also that we put our neighbor first.

Finally, most of us, or at least many of us are not motivated to change our lives until there is a crisis. It may be working for us, the desire to do it all. It may be working for us, the economy of consumption. We may be superman or superwoman. It may be working for us, the way things are going right now. If this is true, then this sermon, these scripture passages, Lent itself may just be so much background noise.

But if it is not, there is a long and deep tradition of wisdom that gives us another way. It is all about simplicity and subtraction. It is about loving what is worthy of our devotion and letting go of all that is not.

It is about a radical trust and dependence on the God who meets us in the dry and disorienting places, the desert places along our path. It is about a higher power who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, whose grace is amazing.

Augustine said it well: "God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them."

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

t.s. eliot and the meaning of lent

Life is a passage, a movement. Winter is ending, spring is upon us. The days are getting longer. The church marks this passage with seasons of Lent and Easter, seasons of death and rebirth, penance and celebration.

One of the richest resources in understanding this time of passage is T.S. Eliot (1888-1965). Eliot's life was itself a passage from skepticism to belief, from cynicism to the embrace of divine mystery. Two of his most important poems, "The Waste Land" and "Ash Wednesday", based upon Lenten themes, narrate his spiritual journey.

In "The Waste Land", Eliot invokes the prophet Ezekiel in describing modern existence: "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/Out of this stony rubbish? Son of Man/You cannot say, or guess, for you know only /A heap of broken images, where the sun beats/And the dead trees give no shelter, the cricket no relief,/And the dry stone no sound of water."

We live in a time of hopelessness, of "broken images". There is no shelter, no life -giving water.

Around us, however, are glimpses of hope. "Only/There is shadow under this red rock,/(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),/And I will show you something that is different from either/Your shadow at morning striding behind you/Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;/ I will show you fear in a handful of dust."

Lent is a confrontation with mortality, but it can also lead us into the experience of the death of Christ. A spirtuality informed by Lent insists that we wrestle with the inevitability of our own deaths, in light of the death of Christ, as we journey toward Easter.

In the midst of the wasteland, we become aware that we are on the road to Emmaus: "Who is the third who walks beside you?/ When I count, there are only you and I together/ But when I look ahead up the white road/ There is always another one walking beside you."

The experience of failure and disappointment is sometimes understood as a crisis of religious faith. In the Gospels, however, it is precisely the moment when Christ appears to the disciples. Only as we deny ourselves, only in the awareness of our human limitations, Eliot insists, are we open to the "peace that surpasses understanding."

"Ash Wednesday" illustrates Eliot's movement from a tentative faith toward a deep commitment. This journey takes place in the desert, where one is without support systems. In the desert, the mystics confronted the demonic; in the desert experiences of our lives we discover who we are before God.

The season of Lent calls us to self-examination and to a desire for God. "Ash Wednesday" closes with Eliot's prayer: "Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood/Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still/Even among these rocks,/Our peace in His will/And even among these rocks/Sister, mother/And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,/Suffer me not to be separated/And let my cry come unto Thee."

(With gratitude to Joseph Flora of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who taught a Sunday School class on T.S. Eliot when I was a Divinity Student working with United Methodist students there, and introduced me Eliot's poetry and spiritual life.)

Saturday, March 05, 2011

the process of developing a sermon

For almost twenty-eight years I have been a parish minister, and for the majority of that time preaching a sermon on Sunday has been a core part of that calling. As the joke goes, I have learned that in the life of a preacher Sundays come along with amazing regularity! I am now in my eighth year in a congregation, the longest tenure for me (I served in two different congregations for six years), and that is also relevant for preaching: while I have a file or "barrel", as preachers used to say, of sermons, I have long since sifted through that material. Everything now is new territory.

Before getting to the process of developing the sermon itself, two comments are in order. First, the longer one is a pastor to a particular group of people, the deeper and more complex the relationships. I know them better, they know me better, and all of this is for better and for worse! Ken Callahan once suggested that a long relationship shapes better communication: because the people know you, they listen more closely, and because the pastor knows the people, he or she is more in tune with what is going on in their lives (as opposed to those who speak only as guest preachers). There is a great deal of truth in this insight.

In addition, the sermon is always preached in relation not only to a particular people, but at a moment in time. For this reasons barrels of sermons have a somewhat limited shelf life. 2011 is not 2001, or 1991. I have sermons in each of those years preached in Advent, on Transfiguration Sunday and at Easter, but the world is different. There are wars, economic crises, political and cultural shifts; people are much more affected by technology and have a different perception about religion, spirituality and the church. So the subtext underneath a sermon is always in flux, and therefore requires new and creative work.

I truly enjoy the creative process of developing a sermon, and want to describe how that has become a spiritual discipline. It begins of course with prayer and humility, an openness to God and the Holy Spirit and a desire to be faithful to the life of Jesus as the pattern for what is taught. For the most part I preach from the lectionary, but as some will say, I am not enslaved to it. Were I a slave to the lectionary, however, I can think of worse forms of servitude. The common lectionary (a schedule of readings over three years that is shaped by the life of Christ) is not perfect in and of itself; remarkable passages are omitted. Still, it is a guide. I have friends who preach series of sermons, and was in a meeting recently with a technology consultant who could almost not imagine preaching in a non-series form. Yesterday's innovation can easily become tomorrow's routine.

For years I was a part of a lectionary group that met once or twice a year for several days and worked on sermons for a season of twenty weeks or so. This is an ideal that I recommend. One is able to begin to think subconciously about texts and connect them with culture and experience. For reasons having mostly to do with changes in our lives (a couple became district superintendents!) this no longer is a part of my life. I miss it and I would urge the preacher to find and form such a group. On my own I often take a day or a half-day and escape, sometimes simply to a coffee shop, and I will work on a group of five sermons out in the future. This is a similar experience, but admittedly is more introverted than extraverted. I am listening to scholars in commentaries and maybe the voices in my own head rather than other people. I do think some combination of the two is preferable.

Within a given week, the discipline looks something like this: I have already chosen and have begun to think about the passage. The sermon has a title, but I will confess that the title, by the time the sermon is preached, is often not that relevant to what is really important. So early in the week I will jot down outlines, connect ideas, think about narratives and stories. If I find myself in a meeting that is drifting, this is a rich time to play with the concepts that are in a sermon. On many days I will meet a member of the congregation for lunch, but if that is not the case I will head out myself to a quiet restaurant, with a Bible and my notes so far, and I will do more writing.

I usually begin writing the sermon on Thursday, but I make only a little progress. I come back to it on Friday morning and my goal is to have a draft by noon. The length of a typical sermon, for me, is less than 2000 words, or 20 minutes. I find that I can say what needs to be said in this amount of time, and that in our congregation this is the point where people are still with me; any longer and the link begins to become more fragile. Not to compare myself to them, but our congregation has hosted both Will Willimon and Zan Holmes, and both preached approximately 20 minutes, or less.

On Saturday morning I generally go to the office again. It is very quiet then; I began this practice years ago when my wife would be visiting yard sales and our daughters slept until noon. I revise the first draft of the sermon, and having gotten some distance from it and slept on it helps. I ask a few questions: is it biblical? is it good news? is there humor (if this is appropriate)? is there a tangent that needs to be reined in? can anything be omitted? is there any personal experience? what i am asking the listener to do? do the transitions make sense, or are they awkward? and, a question that has entered into the equation lately, what is the "big idea" in the sermon? in this revison process I never go beyond noon.

On Sunday morning, i arrive at the church very early, and give myself at least an hour to work with the sermon. I go through it, sometimes orally and try to make it shorter and clearer. I learned this discipline from reading Robert Jacks' Just Say The Word. Jacks taught speech at Princeton Seminary and was an advocate for writing the sermon in a form that could be easily spoken, as opposed to a paragraph or an essay, which is more relevant to the classroom. The last two steps, Saturday morning and Sunday morning, help the sermon to move from 2400 words to 1900. They also help me to become familiar enough with the content to preach it, as opposed to simply reading the manuscript. I do have a manuscript in the pulpit, and friends have encouraged me to preach from an outline or without notes, but I am not there yet. It helps me to know that the manuscript is there, but I only glance at it a few times while I am preaching.

As the sermon emerges, it is not so much a linear progression as a connection of a variety of ideas, stories and images. So a sermon about the transfiguration of Jesus includes light and fire, mountains and valleys, Moses and Mt. Sinai, Elijah and Mt. Horeb, commentaries on Matthew 17, Eugene Peterson's The Jesus Way and especially his chapter on Elijah, with whom I am less familiar than I am Moses, something I heard this week about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his prayer life, my own memories of spiritual highs and lows, the movement of the liturgical year, in particular connecting Baptism of the Lord and Transfiguration (both include the affirming voice of God about Jesus) and Transfiguration and Lent, as Jesus leaves the mountain and on the way down encounters the epileptic boy. I remember reading a remarkable book entitled The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, because one of our daughters was assigned to read it in college. It is about the Hmong people and a Hmong child's experience of epilepsy, which, in their language, literally means "the spirit catches you and you fall down". These are all elements that will be in some relation to each other. Not all of them will be included in the sermon, but they are all eligible along the way.

I do enjoy reading, and I read widely. It is probably true that I watch television less than the average person, but I am paying attention there as well. I have come to believe with the late and great preacher Ernest Campbell that, for the preacher, all of life is a homiletical possibility. In January I knew that I would be preaching on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, and so I re-read Richard Lischer's The Preacher King. I had first read this classic text in 1995, when it was published, but much has changed since then (for example, I was blessed to develop a friendship with Michael Thurman, who serves Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery, and, just as importantly, our nation elected an African-American president). I learned a great deal by reading this work again; some of that did find its way into the sermon, but I benefited personally as well.

Lastly, I am aware that preachers are not always encouraged by their congregations. I know this experience very well, while also claiming the present blessing of preaching to people who are very engaged and supportive. I would simply urge you to see the work of developing the sermon as your offering to God and as a means of self-development in your own vocation. And I would imagine that there is someone out there listening, someone who is hungry for what you might say in the sermon, even if that is not obvious to you or ever voiced. I know it to be true.