Saturday, May 28, 2016

Holy Splendor

We sat for hours in the bright sunshine, one of the first truly sunny days this spring.  Not a cloud in the sky, pale blue, warm and getting warmer, a beautiful day.  We were sitting on folding chairs set up the night before in a quadrangle of academic buildings and the library, neatly ordered rows fitting in between the sweeping curved concrete pathways.  There were suits and fancy dresses with hats, there were t-shirts and cut-offs, children and old folks, water bottles and programs become fans.  And joy.  Lots and lots of joy.  Some of the joy was mixed with relief, some was tinged with anxiety over an uncertain future, but even there the joy would not be denied.  We were proud to be sitting in those seats.  Proud of the ones we were waiting for. Proud that we had journeyed this far, taken this step, ready to embrace a future with hope.

There was chatter and laughter, greetings and introductions, the buzz of hundreds of people gathered for a common purpose, a single focus.  The orchestra was playing, mostly ignored until the familiar notes began to sound.  How Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance became associated with graduations, I don’t really know, but I can’t imagine anything else.  (The baccalaureate service had as processional music “I’m on Top of the World” by Imagine Dragons!  Now that was fun.)  

The faculty appeared, bedecked in their multicolored academic regalia, some accentuated by headgear that wouldn’t have passed muster in the institutions of high learning conferring their degrees, but now adding to the festive moment.  Then they came, some five hundred plus of them, the graduates, the 2016 class of DePauw University, beaming with a light that they couldn’t contain, and didn’t want to.  After speeches and awarding of honorary degrees, they began.  Name after name, one black robed scholar after another strode across the stage to the accompaniment of hoots and hollers and the applause of proud parents and siblings and friends.  Again I found myself wishing I wasn’t a W, having to wait until the end almost (not, however, Zupanic, thankfully) Then it was our turn, his name was read - correctly, I might add - and he strode across the expanse to receive the official document representing four years of knowledge and many thousands of dollars, and an exit visa into a different life.  A new and exciting but somewhat terrifying life in an increasingly complicated world.  Can he possibly be prepared, equipped with everything he needs for what might be next?  And who will walk with him, who will carry him to the next stage and the next journey and the next?  

I sat there in the holy splendor of that day and wondered who was in charge.  There was a time when I thought it was me, or us, La Donna and I have been a partnership from the beginning.  She does the important stuff - like paying the bills and making the plans and filling in the forms.  I ask the questions, ponder the meanings, worry a lot.  But now, as he strode across that stage I realized I have even less control than I used to think I had.  So, who is in charge?

Psalm 96  O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth. 2 Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. 3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. 4 For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. 5 For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens. 6 Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. 7 Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. 8 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts. 9 Worship the LORD in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth. 10 Say among the nations, "The LORD is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity." 11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; 12 let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy 13 before the LORD; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.

The collection of Psalms in what we call the Old Testament is arranged into different books, and is sometimes called the ‘Hymnbook of the Second Temple.”  Psalm 96 comes from the fourth book, which include most of what are understood to be enthronement psalms.  Some believe that these psalms were written to commemorate the occasion of a new king taking the throne.  And that while the celebration was about the person invested with this authority and the pledging of the nation to be obedient to the king, the psalms themselves were not about the king, but about God.  If you read any of the enthronement psalms you won’t find a celebration of a human king, but the joy of declaring God as ruler of all of life.  

Which then causes some scholars to say that this was never about a human king, even with the understanding that the king is God’s representative on earth, in the nation of Israel.  Instead, they argue, these psalms were used on a regular, perhaps yearly, celebration of the authority of God.  In the ordering of the Christian year, the church thought it important to signal the ultimate authority of God, and the God in Christ.  So, the last Sunday of the Christian year is called Christ the King Sunday.  The enthronement celebration was like that, a celebration, a reminder that God is in charge.

Book four of the psalter, some argue, represents the exilic period of the people of God.  Driven from their homes, the people of God sought to live their lives cut of from the land God blessed with Presence.  There are many stories from this period of history, some more positive than others.  But in all of them there is this deep sense of longing for home, of the need to belong, to believe that they had not been abandoned by the call who created them and called them to be a nation, holy and righteous.  They needed the answer to that same question that gripped me as I sat in the sun of my son’s graduation from college: Who’s in charge?

Psalm 96 has no shadow of doubt.  Sing to the Lord a new song.  Newness often brings anxiety, but if we see newness as part of God’s plan, then we can indeed sing with joy, knowing that God is in charge.  And sing out loud, psalm 96 says, loud enough for the nations to hear, loud enough for the neighbors to hear.  We are called to live out loud, not keep behind closed doors, not declare that faith is personal matter.  Or rather acknowledge that it is personal, but personal in a way that it influences everything we say or think or do.  Every invitation we make or accept, every encounter, every relationship, every breath we take is influenced by our allegiance to the one who sits on the throne of our lives, the throne of all creation.

We are asked to pay attention in the courts of the Lord.  To see the joyful obedience given the king by the creation itself.  Hear the applause for God in the roar of the sea, watch the celebration of God’s presence in the dancing of the trees in the wind, in the glory of the sunrise and colors of the sunset.  He are called to be alive to God’s presence in the working out of the activity of the lives all around us.

Ah, so that’s what brought a tear to my eye as I applauded my son on his achievement, it was the blessing of the hand of God.  His academic finery robe and cords, hat and tassel, was not just a celebration of what he had accomplished, but how God had blessed and guided and kept company along the way.  The holy splendor that surrounded us was less of our making and more of the awareness that God is in charge, thankfully.

Here on this Memorial weekend, we honor those who gave their lives for this nation, but it is God we worship in holy splendor. Hoping that as a people we can sing the new song with joy.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

"Y'all Means All" - Day Four at the Festival of Homiletics, Atlanta Georgia, 2016

Festival Reflections

“Y’All means All”
Day Four

A great way to end the last full day of the Festival.  It was a concert/storytelling event by the folk singer John McCutcheon.  He came out playing the banjo, but also picked up the guitar, played the piano, the hammered dulcimer and the auto harp, and managed to make them all sound amazing. He played with Pete Seeger, sang in lots of famous places (including Franke Park? ) He sang a song about his mom calling them all in to dinner, he had passel of brothers and sisters.  One line goes “there was plenty for all, though we didn’t have a lot.”  Sounds like home.  Another song was about his grandma, who was from the south, and said y’all a lot.  But told them “Y’all means all.” 

A lot of his songs were about unity, about family, about home.  That’s what spoke to me.  Maybe because tomorrow I make the long drive home, and because I’m missing folks at home.  Maybe because this is a big week in my family’s life together: Maddie turned 21, and Rhys graduates from DePauw on Sunday. Change is all around, I’m feeling unsettled about what might be next, I must confess.  And yet I celebrate who we are becoming.  Really, I do.  Even while I miss home.  The home I found. The home we made in each other and with more.

The songs were about a larger unity with a smaller metaphor, the world as family, the planet as home.  McCutcheon told a story about playing a concert in Canada and discovering afterward that someone broke into his dressing room and stole a computer and phone and watch. He called his 80 year old dad in the middle of the night who said, Son, it’s just stuff.  Yeah, but, he argued, it’s not about the stuff. It’s a betrayal of the community we created during the concert, he pouted.

I know that pout. The community we are creating is being shaken.  By all sorts of things it seems.  But Dr. David Lose has a theory that seems plausible to me.  His argument is that our losses are not the result of busyness or lack of interest, it’s not because we aren’t entertaining enough or utilizing the right technology. No, Lose argues, the problem is we don’t know our story anymore. And the world is ready to provide a selection of stories to compete with ours.  And here’s the rub, they are telling their stories better than we are telling ours.  Stories define us, shape us, help us connect with others, tel us what we really believe and move us into action.  We’ve become obsessed with facts, when what the world needs is story. We are, according to Lose, no longer homo sapiens - people of wisdom (in terms of information), we are homo narrans - people of story. 

The problem is we’ve gotten lazy in telling our story.  We assumed that everyone knew our story, God’s story, the story of God with God’s people, and for us Christians, the story of Christ in God’s story. We assumed everyone knows, but they don’t.  We don’t.  We’ve forgotten our own story.  We’re like the people of God in Second Kings chapter twenty-two, when the boy King Josiah reigned.  They were cleaning out the temple and someone found the scrolls of the Word of God.  When the King read them he was astonished, they had all forgotten.  Can you imagine?  Passover had not been celebrated for years because they forgot. They wept when they discovered what they had forgotten, what they had lost.  They didn’t know who they really were.  

But they got another chance.  They remembered.  They retold.  They recaptured their identity.  I felt convicted by this.  I am considered something of an expert on preaching in our conference.  Yet I had to ask how I was doing in telling the story.  No, in teaching the story.  Making sure those in our care learn this story.  Like many in our church, I worry whether my children, who are already good people, will make good decisions, will treat people well, will do their job, will be adults worthy of praise.  But will the church be a part of their lives? That’s the question that haunts me.  As I know it does many others.  We have to be better in telling the story. We have to tell a better story than the world tells.

Before Lose’s lecture, Dr. Karoline Lewis spoke on empowered preaching. And though she used different words, she said the same thing that Lose said.  We have to know our story.  For Lewis she had some specific “keys” for this empowerment.  They were all about knowing.  Know the bible, know your theology, know your body, know your leadership, and know your voice. It is in this knowing that we can claim our story.  But knowing means more than just having information, it means being able to be in dialog with, to unpack and examine, to look at influences and nuances.  It means knowing that we are important, but also part of something much bigger than ourselves.  Community, family, home.  Y’all means all.

The morning began with worship and David Lose preaching to us from Genesis 32, Jacob wrestling a man at the ford of Jabbok. This story, he argued is about identity.  Names were important in this story.  The name he had and the name he was given. The name that had defined him was Jacob, which means the usurper, or even the trickster.  It was a name that spoke of the edgy life that he lived.  And the man, who Jacob knew was the Lord, asked for his name it was like asking for a confession.  Who are you at your worst?  Who are you in your brokenness, in your selfishness, in your scheming and your plotting, in your manipulating and treachery, in your frustrations and hatred.  What’s your name, says the Lord, who are you?  

The good news is that God doesn’t let us keep that name.  You are no longer Jacob, you are Israel the one who wrestles with God.  Just like in baptism, St. Paul tells us, we put on Christ.  We have a new name, that of Christ.  The broken self is repaired, healed in Christ.  We are made whole and brought into a family, into relationship.  Though Jacob limped from his encounter on the river bank, he also was able to reconcile with his brother, return to his family, able to go home.  Y’all means all.

This afternoon I heard the Rev. Dr. Joy Moore, a fellow United Methodist, preach to us about Contentious Conversations.  Based on Isaiah 6, which is Isaiah’s call story, where Isaiah, like Jacob, had his broken self healed so that he could be of service.  But then was given an impossible task.  Tell the story.  Teach the story, even when they won’t listen.  Proclaim the word, even when they won’t follow.  Keep telling the story.  Everywhere.  To everyone.  Y’all means all.

Then the writer Nora Gallagher spoke to us about preaching climate change.  Yeah, I know that is a contentious subject, and she admitted that too. But in the end her advice had less to do with proving or disproving climate change and more to do with living in a world in crisis.  How do we proclaim hope while also being aware of the realities around us?  How do we find good news in the midst of bad news.  Her advice?  Look harder.  Look around.  Look for help.  Y’all means all.

The string is back.  The Spirit string.  Kite string, Plumb line, it’s back, was back tonight.  As I listened to John McCutcheon sing and speak my heart was bound up, my soul was lifted up, my thoughts were tied up in going home, to those I love and those I miss so much, those without whom I am not completely whole.  That string binds us together, the Spirit makes us one.  

I probably won’t take the time to write about the last few presentations tomorrow morning.  At least not for a while.  So, this is probably the end of these reflections.  I hope they gave you a sense of the power and glory of this event for me.  And I hope it might give you a glimpse of things that are to come back at Aldersgate.  And please know that my rapture of experiencing worship at this event is not intended to be a denigration of worship back home.  It is full of the same glory and presence as what I’ve experienced here.  Part of the learning is that it is more about preparation, about expectation, about participation in the moment than anything else. I am blessed to worship with a living community of faith each and every week.  There are strings of the Spirit every time we lift our voices in praise, every time we break open the Word, every time we share the bread of life.  Every time.  From every one.  Y’all means all.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"Subversive Sage" - Day Three at the Festival of Homiletics, Atlanta Georgia, 2016

Festival Reflections

“Preacher as Subversive Sage”
Day Three

Hump day.  Never really used that term.  Maybe wall day works better.  As in I hit one.  I used to be younger.  But then, it wasn’t just me.  The opening worship had technical difficulties.  PRUMC (Peachtree Road United Methodist Church) is not a screen oriented church.  But when the Festival made the decision to go paperless, a screen was brought in.  It stands on the floor, a huge thing, but kinda blocks the edge of the chancel.  And because it sits on the floor, when we stand to sing it is hard to see the bottom of the screen through all the heads.  Not ideal.  

But this morning the computer was acting up, or the operator was dozing off, or the preacher took them by surprise and wandered off before they realized he was done, whatever!  Yeah, you could download it on your phone, and lots of people did, but it was a distraction, blunted the Spirit.

Though I loved the preacher.  Former Bishop Will Willimon, I always enjoy his preaching or teaching.  He has that southern twang, coupled with a sardonic wit that keeps you guessing ... Did he really say that?  His sermon title was “He Went His Own Way.”  The text was Jesus proclamation in the synagogue in Nazareth.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor.” You remember the story. Jesus is a hit, everyone is impressed, until He went His own way in the sermon. Reminding them that being chosen isn’t a special privilege but a call to service and hospitality even of those we call enemies. Naturally that didn’t go well, and the crown gathered Him up and went to throw Him off a cliff, but again, Jesus passed through them and went his own way.

Willimon says that Jesus has that habit.  Even when we want Him to go our way.  Even when we want to claim Him for our pet projects, our pet beliefs.  Jesus goes His own way.  And the call to us is not to invite Jesus to go with us - Jesus is my co-pilot.  Rather we are called to go with Him on His way.  Our job is to figure out what is His way, to follow Him.  

Selfishly, though, my favorite line was Willimon’s suggested response to the post sermon comment along the lines of “I didn’t get anything from your sermon today, Pastor!”  “Well,” Willimon suggests, “I don’t know why Jesus didn’t have anything to say to you today.  Sorry.” Jesus goes His own way.  Let’s go with Him.  

I couldn’t go with the last hymn, as it didn’t appear. There were snickers, and rolled eyes and people wandering out. Distractions.  Lots of distractions.

Left there and went to Buckhead Theatre for the next lecture.  Claudio Carvalhaes is a pastor who has served both in the US and Latin America.  He wanted to stretch our minds a little bit.  He spoke on metaphors for preaching.  Actually for preachers.  Who are we and what are we doing.  Many of them are ones I have used both in teaching and in my own mind.  But Claudio indeed stretched us into more images that could be fruitful.  Like, the preacher as the shaper of language and reality.  Shaper of language means that as preachers we can help people understand words in new contexts, and to understand the language of faith.  He argued that since prayer is the language of faith, without being steeped in prayer we have no understanding of faith.  We are not able to call on faith, to be faithful in our lives, to claim faith.  If, he said, we see no need for prayer, then we see no need for faith.  

Even more from Claudio ... the preacher as collective artist, not to do al the art but to collect it and collect artists and give them space to create within the context of the church.  The preacher as Social Agitator, as Fire Igniter, as Signpost, as Screamer Against the Tide.  Whew, I was worn out when he finished.  At the core of all he presented was the liberation agenda.  How do we turn the world upside down, the world of haves and have nots, when we are haves?  How do we proclaim against colonialism, when we are benefactors of a colonial past and an economy that functions like colonialism?  Hard words, big questions without easy answers.

Which was the thesis of Alyce McKenzie, that the one we follow was full of hard questions without easy answers.  Her lecture was titled “The Preacher as Subversive Sage: Strategies for Wise Preaching in Foolish Times.”  Alyce is a friend, she teaches in my alma mater, Perkins School of Theology, and she is a part of the new resource team for preaching instruction that was launched out of Discipleship Ministries in Nashville.  I went with them to Rochester NY last month and Alyce was there.

Her argument is that people are distracted. She’s found a term for the preaching environment today: Continuous Partial Attention or CPA.  With cell phones and wandering minds, few are focused for the long haul, they aren’t willing to by into the meta-narrative of faith.  So, Alyce turns to wisdom literature and says we need to think of proverbs and proverbial language.  

The culture is, she argues, distracted, story suspicious, but scene loving and wisdom hungry.  The popularity of youtube says people want scenes, snippets of advice and suggestions.  WE live in an age with a pile of information, but a paucity of wisdom.  And what defines wisdom?  Wisdom is the answer to the question “and how will you live today?”  Alyce told the story of Leontine Kelley, the first African American woman elected bishop in the United Methodist Church.  When Bishop Kelley was a little girl a woman appeared at the door and instead of the usual aren’t you cute kind of comment, the visitor said “and who do you plan to be?  You must be somebody.”  Kelley said she never forgot that question, it drove her throughout her life.  The questioner on her porch that day was Mary McLeod Bethune.

Wisdom is about who are we going to be, in a world of distractions.  I want to be a subversive sage.

Thought sage isn’t on my list of names today.  I missed a few lectures because I misread a map, trying to find a place to buy a late birthday present for my daughter and ended up walking through a hot Atlanta afternoon until I was almost ready to collapse.  I did get the item, but am still feeling the effects.  I think I’ll go lie down for a while.  Not feeling very sage-like right now, subversive or otherwise.  Ow.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

“Sanctioned Island of Misfit Toys” - Day Two at the Festival of Homiletics, Atlanta Georgia, 2016

Festival Reflections

Day Two

I made my way back to the church for the morning worship.  I must confess it is disconcerting to not have a bulletin, but it was an ecological decision.  We were told 4 trees were saved by not printing the multiple thousands of bulletins throughout the week that the Festival required.  Instead they were projected on a screen or you could download them from the Festival app.  Makes sense, but still ... I found my seat and settled in.  

Cell phones in worship, boon or bane to seizing the experience?  Discuss.  OK, I understand it’s a unique setting and famous preachers and such, but come on. Can we put them away and just worship together?  Ahem.  Moving on....

I felt a presence as the music began, again I was transported, lifted into an attitude of worship that is hard to find when leading.  The string was back. I took hold of it this morning. But it didn’t feel quite the same.  Instead of the gentle lifting of the kite in flight in the wind, this one felt taut.  It was grounded and vibrated like I had plucked the low E string on a upright bass, the thrum filled my head.  I looked up and saw the preacher and then understood. Walter Brueggemann, the irascible Old Testament scholar who manages to look like a prophet even as he preached from them.  “Advantage McEnroe” was the sermon title. It wasn’t really about tennis, but about advantage.  Who has it and who doesn’t, who are the advantaged, the privileged and who are the disadvantaged, the marginalized.  And how does call, does chosenness lead to advantage even when we don’t want it to.  In fact, Brueggemann went so far as to suggest that it is the loss of advantage that leads to anger ... in the OT and today.  And that one way to hear “Make America great again” is restore the advantage that is being lost.  Has been lost.  Do you realize, he pointed out, that soon there will be no majority race in this country, we will be a collection of minorities.  As Leonard Pitts pointed out last night, if you’re used to being Gladys Knight, it can be disconcerting to discover you’re now a Pip.  Your best choice in that scenario is to choose to harmonize.  But will we?

Preaching from Isaiah 45 and Acts 10, Brueggemann points to Acts 10:34 “Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality.’”    It wasn’t easy for Peter, it won’t be easy for us, for any of us.  Even with the best will in the world.  Now I knew what the string morphed into today. Amos’s plumb line. Today was a harder day, as our presuppositions were challenged.  Presuppositions as a white male, as a preacher, as one who was called - chosen.  Did I measure up as a follower of Christ.  Can I stand with Peter and believe God shows no partiality?  Even as our General Conference is meeting in Oregon with much conversation about who is in and who is out.  It was a sobering act of worship to say the least.  Brueggemann came back to his title at the end and said “You remember how every time McEnroe lost his advantage he threw a tantrum.  It did not serve him well.

This theme continued in Brueggemann’s lecture at 11am titled “Choosing against our Chosenness.”  Chosenness, he argues leads to entitlement, which leads to exclusion (who is in, who is allowed in, who we can legitimately hate), which leads to extraction of wealth (accept those who are useful for us even as we put them down with our economic oppression), which leads to violence (bomb them until the desert glows, go after their wives and children). 

Then Brueggemann dropped the biggest bomb of the morning.  “The Church continues to be a wounding institution, of which the perpetrators don’t even realize.”  But those we wound certainly do, those we exclude certainly do.  The string dangled near as he spoke.  

The problem, he argued, is that the bible often supports our chosenness.  But that is not the only message.  There is the Acts 10 passion mentioned earlier, but other words, even in the prophets, Old and New Testaments that point to a different reality.  An inclusive reality.  His conclusions were two: Absolute chosenness is at an end, and the pastoral task of the church is to guide people through the process of the end of exceptionalism.  Our tools?  Lament, the psalms are full of them, and the certainty of God’s grace.  That last did my Wesleyan heart good.

But the string dangled near.  After lunch with a colleague from Indiana, I listened to Antony Bailey preach from Revelation, which he called (with tongue firmly in cheek) the favorite book of the mainline church.  His title was “But This I Have Against You” based on the Letter to the Laodicean Church, the only one of the seven letters in the first part of Revelation that has nothing good to say, only warning, only condemnation.  Their fault?  They relied on themselves to the exclusion even of God.  They were lukewarm and Christ wanted to spit them out of his mouth.  Ouch.  Christ is against this idea of self-sufficiency.  Against those who rely on their wealth to solve their problems.  Against us.  

But Bailey, who comes from Barbados and serves in Ottawa, Canada, told us that maybe we can listen deeper to this word.  The letter to the Laodicean Church is the one that includes the warning “Behold I stand at the door and knock!”  Warning?  Or invitation.  Maybe he wants to come in and eat with us, to sit next to us, right up against us.  Against us.  Maybe, Bailey argued, Christ wants to dance.

Dance we did this evening, as Peachtree Road United Methodist Church was taken over by the choir and musicians and preacher from Ebeneeer Baptist Church.  The gospel was sung and preached with passion and power.  And the plumb line.  Yeah, it was still there.  Dr Raphael Warnock from Ebeneezer preached on “When Prophets Collide with Profits.”  The text was again from Acts, this time chapter 16, the slave girl with a spirit of divination who was healed by Paul.  But her owners didn’t see this as good news as their money-maker was now broken.

Warnock told us to preach to power, to challenge the status quo and to recognize that the interests of the empire often conflict with the interests of the kingdom of God and that empire won’t take that lying down.  But that story ends with an earthquake.  Paul and Silas are in jail singing hymns at midnight and the earthquake shakes them loose.  God does the best work in the darkness, Warnock argued. And that our job is to sing, God will do the shaking.  Our job is to proclaim, God will do the shaking.  The Holy Spirit comes to set us free to clash, to collide even despite the risk.  The plumb line measures, and one end is the weight of judgement, but the other end is still the Spirit of grace, the kite aloft in the wind.
Interspersed between these hard words were two other presentations that lifted my Spirits more than they weighed me down.  Maybe the design of the day?  In between Brueggemann’s sermon and lecture, Anna Carter Florence came back with a lecture titled “Five Things Poetry Can Do for Prophetic Preaching.”  Because you’re getting weary of all these words (Maddie’s frequent complaint - “Too many words, Daddy, too many words), I’ll give you the over all thing.  Poetry can help us look at the world differently. To describe, even the difficult, can be healing.  To give new perspectives, to engender intimacy, new interpretations of reality.  Preaching should be about finding ways to name the Christ among us, even hidden in the mundane busyness of the world around us.  To use the text as a lens through which we see our today, not just the bible’s yesterday.  My favorite parts were the conversation of the power of metaphor to enlighten and trouble at the same time, and the story of the Russian poet who defied a censure and lived among her community and gave them hope by helping them see reality.  I came away feeling lighter and wondering which poets I might turn to when I get home.

The other different moment came from Pastor Bruce Reyes-Chow, a Filipino-Chinese pastor from California who planted a church built around the concept of conversation.  His lecture was titled “The Desire, Discipline, and Disruption of Conversational Preaching.”  A very organized approach that presented the possibilities, the pitfalls and the practices of this unique approach to preaching. I took copious notes and look forward to taking them back home and working to take Genesis to the next level.  We created Genesis with the idea of interaction, but Reyes-Chow showed me new ways to envision this happening.  

But here’s the thing, he also gave me ideas for Heartbeat.  Not to turn it into something it isn’t and shouldn’t be, but to bring a new spirit and new joy into worship.  That’s the power of this event.  Yes, I am here for me.  For me to be inspired and lifted up, reconnected to the Spirit that is always with me.  For me to be challenged with a theological kick in the pants that hopefully get me back motivated to fulfill my calling as a preacher.  But it is also for Aldersgate.  Sometimes with good ideas I might be able to utilize, and sometimes just to bring a new enthusiasm for the task of the whole community of faith.  

A community with some unique realities, some almost indefinable qualities.  Reyes-Chow described the process of rethinking preaching as one of expanding our ecclesiology, our understanding of church.  He was the one who came up with my favorite metaphor of the day, the one I used in the title.  By including the congregation in the act of preaching, we are acknowledging who they are in a new way.  They become, he says, a Sanctioned Island of Misfit Toys.  

The best description of the church I’ve heard in a long time.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Woodstock for Preachers - Opening Day at the Festival of Homiletics, Atlanta Georgia, 2016

Day One

After a long journey from Fort Wayne, I arrived in Atlanta (North Buckhead for the purists) in time to register and relax for an hour or so before the opening worship and lecture.  The journey was made a little easier with the company of a friend and fellow preacher, the Rev. Greg Enstrom, pastor of First Wayne UMC downtown Fort Wayne.  The hours flew by as we discussed our churches and General Conference and the Festival, listened to recordings of old Joke Shows from the Prairie Home Companion and half of the musical Hamilton.  Before you know it, here we are.

I always wonder halfway down why I come year after year, it’s a long journey, a pretty big expense and inconvenient scheduling (almost always means I miss Maddie’s birthday - though we celebrated with her and Joe (don’t ask) yesterday) and I miss being home. I’m tired from driving or navigating air travel and somewhere along the line I wonder why I keep coming. Then I go to opening worship and I remember.

I love the Atlanta venue because it is based out of Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, the closest to a cathedral that we have, I think. An amazing facility and gracious hosts and the constant reminder that here in the buckle of the bible belt the church is not only still hanging on, but vibrant and alive, at least for now. 

I found a place in the sanctuary, toward the back, cause I’m a United Methodist, and waited for worship to begin. There were the usual welcomes and announcements, the official count (around 1,200 preachers (which is way too many preachers for one place - I try to keep my distance because of the warping of the space-time continuum) and then a pause while the organist and brass ensemble got into place (yes, the brass ensemble).  And then worship began.

It was Easter again, after some glorious prelude music we began with Wesley’s “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” - six verses of it, brass and organ and bells and a choir that processed.  And kept on processing.  And kept on processing.  A bit slow, I must say, but majestic, glorious. “Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!”  I found it hard to breathe for a moment as we sang, 1,200 preachers who got to experience a festival worship celebration we didn’t have to plan!  “Once he died our souls to save, Alleluia! Where’s thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia!”  I found tears filling my eyes as I realized how much death, of too many kinds had occupied my soul, pushing out life.  And still the choir processed, white robed, candle bearing, cross proceeding, down the magnificent aisle that must cause bride’s knees to wobble.  “Hail the Lord of earth and heaven, Alleluia!”  I couldn’t sing, just listened holding my breath.  No, holding on to the Spirit that filled us, filled me, like a kid with a helium balloon, or flying a kite that threatened to take us up into the winds along with it.  “King of glory, soul of bliss, Alleluia!  Everlasting life is this, Alleluia!” Yes, that’s it, a taste of everlasting life, filling the room, filling my hungry soul.  “Thee to know, thy power to prove, Alleluia!  Thus to sing, and thus to love, Alleluia!”  Why can’t worship be like this every week?  Why can’t we enter into the moment, with joy and anticipation, sitting on the edge of our seats, leaning in, wanting more?  I wondered if I was letting my congregation down, my people down, by not bringing them to this kind of experience, this kind of lifting.  I felt inadequate somehow to the task I have too often taken for granted.  But the kite kept tugging, lifting, raising.  I finally found my voice again at the end, the choir had assembled into the loft, the chancel was full of robed preachers and liturgists and the Atlanta Brassworks blowing for all their worth.  “Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia! Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!” We soared, 1,200 voices and hearts, 1,200 egos used to center stage and now content to sit in a middle back pew holding on to the kite string, we soared, we rose.  “Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!  Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!”  Ah, yes, the cross, the grave, we are so full of that, aware of that.  But the skies, Charles Wesley told us, don’t forget the skies.  Alleluia!

The opening song was over and still we soared.  Christ is risen, we were reminded, Christ is risen indeed.  Then the Gloria Patri, and we stumbled a bit on that.  Too many versions, too many traditions we weren’t together, the kites sagged and dove, but we pulled together, got on the same rhythm and same notes - well more or less, and we continued to soar.

We were prayed for, we prayed together using the words we had taught and led week after week, now we followed. Then the choir sang over us “The Gradual” it was called, “This is the day that the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad therein.  O give thanks to the Lord, for he is gracious and his mercy endureth forever.”  I was like melted butter poured over us, like warm oil soothing our souls, they sang and we soared.  Then we sang again, and there was another procession, the bible, no the Bible came down the aisle surrounded by bells and candles and the processional cross.  A cantor led us in Alleluias, then the preacher read the Word, from the floor at the head of the aisle, so that she disappeared and there was only her voice, only the Word ringing out the familiar words of John chapter twenty, when Mary came to the tomb, weeping and Peter and John had a footrace and then ducked in the empty tomb and ran back home, while Mary stayed with new worries to weep about, until the gardener became her Lord and the whole world changed.  Then we Alleluia-ed again and sat down.  And I didn’t even realize I had been standing all that time, because I was held up by the kite string I was clinging to.

The preacher was Anna Carter Florence, one of my very favorite preachers.  She teaches preaching here in Atlanta.  She preached us a sermon about how we don’t always recognize resurrection when it happens to us.  And how God uses the least likely to proclaim resurrection.  And how we ought to pay more attention, how we ought to stick around a little longer in the graveyard, but at the same time how we ought not cling to Christ as if we could possess Him, as if He was our personal possession and not at loose in the world, loving even those we have trouble loving.  And that maybe this week would be a good week to turn around and tell the story as if for the first time.

We proclaimed our faith, we gave an offering for the poor of Atlanta while the choir sang again and ministered to our souls, to sang the doxology, then there was the recessional. “Rejoice, the Lord is King! Your Lord and King adore; Mortals give thanks and sing and triumph evermore.”  Triumph? It was a challenge to me personally. I haven’t felt very triumphant lately.  “Lift up your heart, lift up your voice; Rejoice again I say rejoice.”  Can we?  Can I?  With so much wrong, with so much falling apart? Lift up.  I clung to my kite string and thought it might be possible.  “The Kingdom cannot fail; He rules o’er earth and heaven; the keys of earth and hell are to our Jesus given.”  Ah, not to me, but to Him.  It is not my hand that determines success or failure, but His.  All I can to is to stay faithful and hold on to my string.  “Lift up your heart, lift up your voice; Rejoice; again I say rejoice.”

A benediction was given, the winds of the Spirit blew strong and steady.  We sat for the postlude, Toccata, Symphony No. 5, by Charles-Marie Widor, a very familiar piece if not by name then by sound, but this time organ accompanied by brass, it was glorious.  

What I could hear.  See, postlude, which means get going, move out, pack up.  Preachers.  One thousand two freaking hundred preachers turned from the glory to the mundane.  The buzz began to rival the organ pipes, the guy in front of my was complaining that the scripture in the event program was different than the one in the worship bulletin. Someone else was worried that they were going to run out of the free water bottles from the Lutheran Insurance company out in the narthex, others wondered if they had the stamina for the next speaker, and on and on and on.  

I felt the string slipping from my grasp.  I frantically tried to grab it as it fluttered up and out and away.  I leaned in to hear the music over the buzz, I closed my eyes, I tuned out.  But had to sigh as it was lost.  They applauded when it ended, for music the didn’t hear as more than background to their own conversations. I wept for the loss of the moment. Then decided to hope for more.  A week lies ahead.  I’m ready.

After worship there was a jazz quintet, they started with “Come Sunday” that amazing Duke Ellington offering that is actually in the United Methodist Hymnal, but not congregation I know can sing it.  But these guys did. And did it gloriously.  Then they sang a scat version of “Now Thank We All Our God” which was amazing and fun and hinted of that Spirit yet again.

This was followed by, not a preacher, but a journalist, Leonard Pitts, who spoke on “With Apologies to the Least of These...”  He started by saying when he was invited to speak he had never heard of the Festival.  And didn’t even know what Homiletics meant.  Looked it up and said, oh, a conference of clergy.  Then he spoke out west and was chaperoned by the chaplain of the university.  When he told her he was speaking at the Festival, he said her eyes lit up like Cinderella’s castle at Disney World and she said, “that’s like Woodstock for preachers!”  Now I know, he said, now I know.

He spoke of the era of anger in which we live in this country, even though violent crime is the lowest it has been since records were kept, even though unemployment is lower than it has been in 20 years, even though the budget deficit has been steadily reduced by almost three fourths, even though our troops deployed overseas in war zones in steadily shrinking.  We are angry.  He said it is anger like the 1950's when civil rights was a hot and bloody issue.  And then anger like the 1850's when slavery was dividing the nation and about to lead us into the most devastating war this nation has ever seen.  We are facing today an emotional secession.  Dividing, hating, drawing lines, pointing fingers, calling names.

He contrasted this with the world’s reaction to the new pope, Pope Francis, who caught the attention of the celebrity world and the secular world at large.  And he said, you know what he has done to receive this wondrous amazement?  He acted like a Christian.  Pitts went on to say that too often the faith community has shown up to apologize for old prejudice.  That some of the Christian right have confessed that they were late to war on AIDs because they thought it was a disease of the gay and drug using community and that they had less compassion.  Hear that, he said, the followers of the one who said love one another as I have loved you, love the least of these, had less compassion for those who suffered.

It was a wake up call.  Like Pitts, I am tired of Christianity as defined by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, by Pat Robertson and that ilk.  Maybe that explains why so many are saying no thanks to the Christian faith.  If that’s what it is, I don’t need it, I don’t want it.  We are losing a generation who doesn’t want to be defined by what we hate.  Maybe it is time to walk with Christ.

The quintet came back and ended the evening with, Just a Closer Walk with Thee.  

Me, I wandered out into the night wanting to grab the string again.  Maybe tomorrow.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

He Abides in You

So, I’m just back on this cold May day from a Confirmation retreat.  A group of young people had journeyed with me and our Lay Leader Heather Bleeke for the past few months through an exploration of faith and church membership.  We wrapped it all up with an overnight retreat at Epworth Forest, discussing such things as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, and the forces of wickedness and figuring out whether you were going to be the kidneys or the eyes of the church when you joined.  In addition we blew q-tips through a straw at each other, drew self-portraits on paper plates that were balanced on top of your own head while you drew, and discovered that chocolate pudding makes a great topping for ice cream and three pounds of bacon doesn’t go as far as you might think.  Everything a good confirmation experience needs to include, it seems to me.

It was a good experience, for me and I hope for them.  I’m looking forward to the ritual with laying on of hands and letting the congregation greet them with joy as they become full members of the church.  It is a time honored, well-attested process, a part of the tradition of the United Methodist Church.  But if you were to ask me whether I thought this particular group of young people is ready for the honor and responsibility of Church membership, I would have to be honest and say no.  Forgive me if that sounds harsh, but I have to be true to what I believe and what I’ve observed.  These young people are no more ready to carry the burden and the responsibility of the church on their own, they are no more ready to be the hope of the future, the salvation of the church, than ... well, than these guys:

John 14:8-17 Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." 9 Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. 15 "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

Jesus was finishing up his confirmation retreat too.  It included a few uncomfortable activities - that washing of the feet thing was really out there for a few of them; it had some interesting meal options - bread becoming flesh, wine becoming blood in some odd little ritual they were still trying to figure out.  And most of all it had some teaching that felt vaguely like cramming for finals.  And they were not always paying attention, not always following the line of thought.  We start with a head slapping moment with Philip.  Don’t you get it Philip?  Come on!  It’s perfectly clear.  

Isn’t it?  I mean we figured out that trinity thing years ago, right?  Jesus is God but also God’s Son and the Father is God, but so is the Word, which was in the beginning with God and all things were made through Him and the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, but also a reality in and of himself, (or herself?) and it is all one God  but in three persons whatever that means when we get to talking about God, but it’s all clear as crystal, that we don’t wash all that often and it has cracks and smudges and some icky stuff we can’t and don’t really want to identify.  OK, so it isn’t all that clear.  No wonder Philip didn’t get it.  Actually his was the second question.  Thomas was first.  Jesus says “you know the way”, Thomas raised his hand and said “no we don’t!”  Jesus said, “I’m the way!”  Brows furrowed all across the class.  “I’m the way, and knowing me means knowing the Father and seeing me means you’ve seen the Father.”  And this time it was Philip who kinda squinted and said “uh, we have?  Show us.”  Jesus sighed and rolled his eyes and said “lookie here!”  And pointed at his smiling face.  

See I know the look he got after that.  I know it because I got it a number of times during this confirmation process.  So often that I’m not sure I was confirming anything in them.  Oh, maybe some random ideas stuck around in the dim recesses of their minds.  Maybe something from our time together will surface at an appropriate moment and help them win a prize on Jeopardy or something like that.  But in terms of filling up their minds with theological and historical and denominational information, yeah, well, not so much. 

Thus my earlier statement that this group of confirmands are not ready to carry the load of being a member of the church - in a denomination that seeks to “make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” and a local church that is all about “Feeding Hungry People: hungry bodies, hungry minds, hungry souls” - all by themselves.  They just aren’t ready to do that.  Just like the disciples weren’t ready to carry the load of spreading the gospel of Jesus and launching the church around the world on their own.

Because no one is asking them to. This is why we do this on Pentecost Sunday.  The reminder that none of us do this on our own.  None of us carry this load on our own.  None of us are ready for this by ourselves.  The good news is that we don’t have to.  We have an advocate, we have a partner, a power source.  The Holy Spirit comes alongside, resides within and it is out of that relationship that we serve the church, that we live the gospel, that we fulfill our confirmation vows.  Not our own strength.

Here’s the other tidbit I let slip as we were finishing up.  All the teaching, and the study and reading and writing isn’t really necessary.  Helpful, and useful for longevity and for making the commitment, providing tools and direction, but in the end not necessary.  What is necessary is a willingness to be a vessel of the Spirit.  And as that, these young people are more than ready.  They’ve already shown signs of the Spirit at work within them.  And I know there is much more in store.  Frankly, I can’t wait to see what they will become in the hands of the God who calls them, and the faith they confirm this weekend.

We usually celebrate Pentecost with more fanfare, wind and fire, parties with balloons and kites.  I enjoy a good Pentecost celebration service.  But this year, instead of launching balloons, instead of flying kites, I thought it would be good for us to launch a group of young people into a rarified air of a life of belonging to Christ’s church, letting them fly but tethering them to the secure foundation of a congregation that will love them into life.  I thought it would be good to light fires of hope and possibility, and in so doing fan the flames of the rest of us, some of whom have been little more than dying embers instead of the blazing witness of faith that we are all called to be.

So come and celebrate with us.  We’re ready for the Spirit to work within us and through us.  We’re ready to be the church.  Thanks be to God.