For The Someday Book

Archive for February 2010

I just learned about the traditional celebration of Holi in India. Where has this festival been my whole life?

I have a lifelong obsession with colors. I can’t describe it, except to say that I feel a spiritual and almost physical connection to the colors of the world. I crave color, need it, inhale its presence like the air I breathe and feel its absence as suffocation. More and brighter is always better. My desk is covered with colored folders, I only write in brightly-colored ink, I drape my body in colored scarves, I decorate my house in the brightest and most vibrant tones I can find.

And now I have learned that in India there is a festival dedicated to the celebration of color.

Holi arrives as winter is holding on to its last gasp and spring is breaking through, at the end of February and beginning of March. This year it falls on Monday, March 1. It is a celebration of life, of love, of the triumph of good over evil. (Unfortunately, there is a story of the burning of a disloyal woman in its mythological background, which does taint it. Why must religion always build holiness on the broken bodies and believed betrayals of women?)

The people celebrate by buying or making large quantities of

powdered or liquid paints, and running through the streets throwing colors all over one another. Everyone, regardless of race, caste, class, sex, age or wealth participates in the melee. At the end of the celebration, every body and building is smeared with hues of purple, red, orange, green and blue, and the signs of class and race are covered over in bright colors.

Just looking at the pictures is a feast for the eyes. My vision of heaven would look a lot like that amazing mess of colors. I want to go there some day, to celebrate an orgy of color in the streets.

Preaching, by Fred B. Craddock, Abingdon Press, 1985.

Craddock Stories, by Fred B. Craddock, edited by Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, Chalice Press, 2001.

I decided I had not spent nearly enough time with preaching icon Fred Craddock. When I went to seminary in the late 1990’s, Craddock’s inductive, narrative preaching still reigned supreme, but he was no longer the lone voice for this conversational style. We read bits and pieces of his work scattered among others, but I had never read his classic textbook, Preaching. There are two reasons for taking it up now: 1) After a decade of preaching myself, I felt the need for a refresher course and new perspective on this weekly endeavor; and 2) I recently purchased the volume Craddock Stories, which is just what it sounds like—a collection of the preaching stories that make Fred Craddock such a legend.

In spite of being one of those people who only dives into one book at a time, I decided to read these two simultaneously. I would read some portion of the textbook, then spend time reading story after story drawing out the practices he described. When I didn’t have the energy to plow through the textbook, I just enjoyed the stories as they were. I highly recommend this strategy to anyone. If I had it to do over again, I would add a collection of Craddock’s full sermons to the mix. Each one enriched and completed the other, for an immersion in Craddockisms for awhile.

To be honest, I don’t think I could have ever read either volume in its entirety if I wasn’t already a practicing preacher. It is a perfect example of “just in time training” for me. As a seminarian, I craved a preaching textbook. I did not have the foggiest idea how  to write a sermon. I had heard quite a few, but I didn’t know how the preacher ever came up with something to say and how to say it. I wanted someone to give me step-by-step instructions. No one ever did.

There is something about preaching that requires you to dive right in, and pray for patience on the part of the congregations that must endure. Any preacher’s first attempts at sermonizing are halting, stilted and unformed. God bless those congregations that give preachers pulpit space for formation! Craddock offers a wonderful synopsis of a step-by-step process, but I would not have understood it if I was not already a working preacher. Sermon-writing process is something that cannot be taught. It may be encouraged and mentored, but it develops in its own way for each preacher.

What I loved most about Preaching was the attention to the experience of the congregation. At every turn, Craddock reminds the preacher that she is not building an idea, or a manuscript, or a concept–the preacher is an artist, creating an encounter and an experience with the biblical text. In reading Craddock Stories, I experienced that encounter and the emotions that accompany it. In reading Preaching, I contemplated how to create that encounter for others.

I read the entire volume of Craddock Stories, several hundred, and did not once think, “I can use that in my sermon on…” It would have been like lying, or plagiarism, even with proper citations. My voice is my own–immersing myself in Craddock’s voice only strengthened my desire to cultivate my unique style. I was also intrigued to notice that Craddock’s amazing tales were not as amazing as I always thought they were. I thought he was blessed to pull a wealth of stories from some exotic childhood and wild ministry experiences. When I read through the compendium, however, I realized that his stories were not so special after all. I have a lifetime full of stories just as good as his are. What makes his so powerful is that they are so authentic, and so intimately and thoughtfully connected to the Gospel he is preaching. I have all the experiences and stories I need from my own life to do just that. In reading Preaching, I believe he would be delighted for someone to realize his stories are not great because they are great stories–but because they are ordinary stories, which enables them to connect the Gospel to ordinary people like us.

Fred Craddock is still a preaching icon, and will remain so. I don’t know if I would recommend reading Preaching to any seminarians, but it is a treasure trove for a working preacher or a just-starting-out preacher, especially when accompanied by Craddock Stories and Craddock sermons.

This is my favorite passage in all of American literature—and probably world literature, excluding scripture:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing, until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams locked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. They then act and do things accordingly.

These are the opening lines of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

If you’ve never read this book, please do. It’s my favorite novel of all time, and one of the few books I read over and over again. I was reminded of it again last night after enjoying the American Masters episode about Zora Neale Hurston on PBS.

What I love about this passage is the proclamation that “the dream is the truth.” What a holy pronouncement! My images of the dream come mostly from scripture:

  • “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2)
  • “you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58)
  • “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away” (Luke 1, Mary’s Magnificat)
  • “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a flowing stream” (Amos 5)
  • “Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21)

But I also think of images from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning if its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal.”

Whatever image we set out as the dream, that is the truth, says Zora. Now act and do accordingly. It reminds me of the old saying among radicals, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If the dream is justice, live justice. If the dream is equality, live with all as equal brothers and sisters. If the dream is peace, live peace. If the dream is an end to poverty, live your life against poverty. Because that is the Truth.

In Christianity, we use the term “Word,” capital “W”, to refer to God, with the understanding that God’s word, God’s speech, is so powerful that it is Word, an entity unto itself with a force that can call worlds into being and bring flesh to life and animate the world. I think we could contemplate Word as synonymous with Truth, as Zora Neale Hurston uses it. The dream is the Truth–the promise of God is the Word of God. It is a force that can and will make things happen. The dream is not some fuzzy notion, hardly visible at the edge of sleep. Nor is it a hastily-scribbled IOU for the future. The dream is the truth—hard and fast, secure and tangible, as real as mud.

We who know this act and do things accordingly.

The weather has finally gotten a bit warmer, and B was enjoying the opportunity to wear a new hoodie he received for Christmas rather than his bulky winter jacket. It’s a darling Osh Kosh red and blue plaid, with small jersey-style numbers at the breast pocket. On the way home from preschool, however, he raised some concern.

B: Why does my jacket have numbers on it?

Me: I don’t know.

B: Maybe I’m in a race.

Me: You think you’re in a race?

B: Maybe I’m in a jacket race!

Me: I think they just put the numbers on there to make it look cool. Do you think it makes you look cool?

B: (with a tone of incredulity that I would ask such a ridiculous question) No.

B was playing fire trucks with J this morning. This usually involves crashing a car, followed by the shout of “Oh no! I’m on fire!” Then the fire trucks drive over, raise ladders, rescue people and put out the fire.

This was played over and over several times, until J decided to take some initiative. First he crashed the car, then shouted, “Oh no! I’m on fire! Come and help me!”

To which B replied, “That’s interesting.”

J’s fire truck had to put out his own fire.

Ash Wednesday is so intimate it almost makes me uncomfortable. A handshake, a hug, a pat on the back—that is as close as I get to touching the people in my congregation on a regular basis. Except on Ash Wednesday.

They line up in front of me, and one at a time step forward so that we are face-to-face, close enough to feel each others’ breath. We look at one another in the eye, a little bit uncomfortable with this proximity and with the ritual we are about to perform.

Dipping a blackened thumb into a pile of ashes, I brush back the bangs from their forehead, a gesture usually reserved for lovers and mothers. I notice their faces in a new way—sweaty or dry, wrinkled or smooth, powdered or naked. I touch their skin with the ashes and make the sign of the cross on their forehead. We look into one anothers’ eyes, and in this moment of trust and intimacy, I remind them they are going to die. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Somehow, in the intimacy of that moment and the grace of worship, this pronouncement does not provoke fear. Always, we smile at one another in recognition. What a relief, these ashes! Our finitude is received as a gift. We will not endure this life’s suffering forever.  The weight of the world does not rest on our shoulders, for we are only dust.  The breath of God, which gave us life from the dust, will handle the burden of eternity. We can let go of our worry about forever and simply serve one another today.

My eyes do brim with tears from time to time, as I darken the forehead of some innocent young child whom I wish to protect from the reality of death, or the elderly woman who knows that reality is close at hand. But they are not tears of anguish or anxiety–they are the tears that come when you touch holiness, and know you have been blessed.

When we remember we are dust, we also remember that we are made of the breath of God. The touch is intimate, and it is holy.

This was the first year B was old enough to participate in a Valentine’s Day card exchange at school. We didn’t hype the “getting” part, but we just talked about how much fun it would be to choose valentines to give to all his friends at school. On Monday, we went to the store and spent a half-hour browsing through the vast array of choices. It’s amazing how many kinds of kids’ valentines fill the shelves these days. Finally, it came down to Bob the Builder or Tonka trucks. To no one’s surprise, the trucks won the day, and we purchased enough for everyone in his class, plus the teachers.

Thursday night, we opened the box and looked over all the valentines. I tore the sheets along the perforation and B scribbled some colors across the “to-from” section. I wrote his name, folded, sealed and stuck a lollipop inside. Friday morning, he was very excited to have something to give to all his friends, and proudly told me, “I think my friends are going to like these valentines. I think they will be excited. I’m glad to give them to all my friends.”

Me: Do you think you will get any valentines?

B: No.

Me: You don’t think any of your friends will bring you a valentine?

B: No. I don’t think so.

Me: Really? No valentines at all?

B: No.

Me: Okay, we’ll have to wait and see.

The next morning, as we were rounding up the bag of valentines to take with us, I asked again:

Me: Are you excited to give valentines to all your friends?

B: Yes. I think they will like these truck valentines.

Me: Do you think you will get any valentines?

B: No. I don’t think so.

Me: Really? Well, we’ll have to see. Maybe one of your friends will bring you a valentine.

Five minutes later:

B: Maybe M.J. will bring me a valentine.

Me: You think so? Maybe. Maybe M.J. will bring you a valentine.

B: I think so. I think M.J. will bring me a valentine.

When I picked him up at the end of the day, he was so excited.

Me: Did your friends like your valentines you gave them?

B: Yes! And I got valentines too!

Me: Really? Wow! Who brought you valentines?

B: All my friends! And my teachers! And there’s candy! And a Spiderman pencil!

He was so surprised and overwhelmed by his friends’ generosity. When we got home, we sat down together and he emptied the bag one by one. He took the time to admire each card, asking me to read the corny messages and announce who had given each card to him and discuss why all the girls brought princesses and all the boys brought superheroes. He treasured each candy and sticker and pencil, and reveled in the fact that his teachers even gave him candy.

There is such a sweetness in seeing life again for the first time. These silly little pieces of paper with their colors and scribbles bore the message to B that his friends care for him, remember him and want to give to him. He was delighted not by the assortment of lollipops and candy kisses, but by the fact that “LOTS of my friends brought ME valentines!”

I’m usually at my Grinchiest around Valentine’s Day, complaining that this day is all about commercialism and capitalism and has little to do with caring, compassion and love. J and I make a big deal of NOT participating in this holiday in any way. But B’s celebration was everything Valentine’s Day should be–a surprising, delightful way to discover that someone cares for you, remembers you and wants to let you know it. A way of saying, “thank you for being my friend,” or “I love you and I delight in you.” A few $1.99 boxes of tiny colored papers was all it took.

B, closing his eyes, “Look, Mom! I’m darking my eyes! I made everything dark!”

I promise I am not making this up.

At the clergy retreat last week, we had to play those typical get-to-know-you games. My colleague who was leading the games did a nice job of handling the overwrought goofiness of it all, but I had to laugh when he started to introduce us to “I Never.” I thought everyone knew “I Never” as a drinking game.  Apparently not. He thought it was a youth group game, like Fruit Basket, where you change chairs based on shared attributes.

Anyway, stifling my laughter, I volunteered to go first, and chose to make a soap-box statement about being the youngest one in the room: “I have never written a sermon without using the internet!” It was a great game play, because almost everyone in the room would have had to take a drink, or change chairs if we had been playing the youth group version.

However, later on in the retreat, I walked by a group of older colleagues talking with one another. I overheard this whispered comment:

“That’s the one who said she gets all her sermons off the internet.”

“I know. I can’t believe she admitted that!”

“Is that even legal?”

I was just about to turn around in shock and horror to defend my honor. Using the internet for sermon preparation does not make you a plagiarist and an intellectual thief! Thankfully, one member of the little group had just a whit of clue about life in the 21st century and explained that I probably just used the internet for my research, just like they use their books. “Oh,” came the reply, “really? You think that’s what she meant? When I hear clergy talk about using stuff from the internet I just figure they are talking about taking whole sermons from other people.”

At this point, I want to turn on my heels and say, “What kind of stone-age idiot are you? I take advantage of the massive resources on the web, so you assume I must be a plagiarist preacher too lazy to do my own work?” I thought better of it and decided to just keep walking. The one clued-in colleague gave a remedial course in the power of the internets, but I swear they gave me disapproving looks for the rest of the retreat. Sometimes you just have to let it go.

I remain haunted by the level of ignorance about the digital age that their comments displayed. Not encouraging for the future of the church, and our ability to connect to the next generation.

Over the last two nights, I have read The Velveteen Rabbit to B for the first time. Much to my surprise, he loved it. He remembered where the story had left off the first night, and asked me to finish it.

After the reading, as he was climbing into bed, I was tucking him into bed with his special friend Doggy.

Me: Do you think Doggy is Real, like the Velveteen Rabbit?

B: No, he’s just a toy.

Me: The Velveteen Rabbit was a toy too, but he became Real because the boy loved him so much. You love Doggy, so do you think he could become Real?

B: (adamantly) No, he’s a toy. He’s not real. He’s a nice friend, but he’s going to stay a toy.

B has a great imagination, but very clear boundaries between real and pretend. A budding atheist, perhaps? He takes after his father that way.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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