For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘worship

David J. Lose, Preaching at the Crossroads: How the World–and Our Preaching–is Changing, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013, 112 pp.

Preaching-at-the-CrossroadsI have been a huge fan of David Lose’s regular column, Dear Working Preacher, for many years. It feels like he is writing a personalized letter to me, as a preacher sitting with the text in my community, urging me on and starting a productive conversation about how to bring the good news to my congregation. (Karoline Lewis has been writing for the last several months, perhaps due to a sabbatical, and she is also excellent.)

I was hoping for that same conversational style and collaborative tone in his reflections about the craft of preaching itself, and I found it. I have been pondering for the last several years (with many others) whether preaching itself is in danger, or how preaching must change and adapt to changing circumstances. I was eager to engage Lose as a wise conversation partner on that topic, and this book did just that.

Lose identifies three primary forces at work in our context that have major implications for preaching: postmodernism, secularism and pluralism. He devotes two chapters to each–one explaining how that epistemological reality impacts preachers and listeners, and another exploring strategies to respond in our sermon writing and delivery. One of the things I appreciated most, from the start, was his commentary on the last 50 years of “fixes” for preaching. There has been movement after movement that labels preaching as “broken,” and proposes a way to fix it–moving from lecture to narrative, moving from pulpit authority to conversational style, moving from verbal communication only to the use of images on a screen. He quotes theologian Joseph Sittler in his insistence that preaching can’t be fixed: “‘Of course preaching is in trouble. Whence did we ever manufacture the assumption it was ever to be anything but trouble’ if it is to be relevant to a changing world and faithful to the troubling gospel of Jesus Christ?” (3)

In the section on postmodernism, he identifies the core problem of preaching in a postmodern context as the constant skepticism and crisis of legitimacy. How can we claim to speak truth in a world that doubts all claims of truth? He replaces the modern equation of truth with provability with a faithful claim of truth modeled on confession. Legitimacy then proceeds not from provability, but from the integrity of the confession itself–from the confessor’s honesty and from the confession’s connection to lived experience. In practice, he proposes reinvigorating Sachkritik, or “content criticism,” where interpreters “understand discrete passages of Scripture in relation to the core testimony of the biblical witness.” (36) This makes room for both an hermeneutic of suspicion and a hermeneutic of trust, and invites engagement from listeners in a conversation.

Our primary question when approaching a passage is not “Where did it come from?” or “What did it mean?” but rather “What might it do to the community that gathers around it when next heard?” This postmodern focus on the ability of language not just to say something but to do something has important implications for preaching. (42)

Preaching, from this point of view, is meant to be provocative, eliciting conversation and questions, faith or disbelief, but always striving to make a claim worth responding to. (45)

Moving on to the reality of secularism, Lose identifies the primary problem with our secular culture as a crisis of hope. With the death of transcendence, “we, both inside the church and out, have lost hope–hope that there is something more than meets the eye, hope that some values exist beyond those we can construct, hope that our actions and lives are rooted in a larger framework of meaning.” (52) Our response as preachers, Lose argues, must be to draw people into the Christian story of resurrection hope, helping them to see their lives and vocations as part of a larger and more meaningful narrative.

If we can imagine the purpose of Sunday is not simply to have an encounter with God, but rather to have the encounter clarify our vision and increase our ability to see God in all dimensions of our lives, then we may also experience the centrifugal force of being propelled from worship on Sunday to lives of meaning, purpose, and faith in the world throughout the week. (77)

That is a tall order, to be sure, but it is indeed what we ought to strive for in our preaching and worship experiences.

The final theme Lose identifies is pluralism, specifically “digital pluralism,” a world in which multiple and competing realities are immediately available for easy access via digital means. (87) Our congregations no longer dwell securely in the biblical narrative worldview. They may get a glimpse of it for an hour on Sundays, but the rest of their lives is dominated by other metanarratives, like consumer capitalism or fearful nationalism.

Increasingly, if often unconsciously, we find ourselves offering interpretations of a narrative that few in the congregation know well enough to be able even to appreciate our interpretations, let alone apply them to life outside the congregation’s walls. Such effort can feel like swimming upstream: it is cold and exhausting, and it yields little progress. (101)

This gives voice to one of my deep apprehensions and frustrations with preaching these days. I get people to step into this worldview for one hour every week. Even if they are convinced and convicted by it, Fox News and CNN and the world of advertisement gets them for the other 167 hours of every week. I can be persuasive that the biblical narrative matters, that it impacts their persons and politics, but I can’t do it in isolation.

Lose urges us to move our congregations toward not just biblical literacy, but biblical fluency, “the ability to think–without thinking–in the target language.” In order to do this, we need to not just teach the biblical narrative, but engage people in a participatory way in contemplating how the story impacts their lives, so that they can do what we preachers do–interpret scripture for themselves. He urges participatory practices, visitation to parishioner’s workplaces, and online conversations to this end.

Preaching at the Crossroads sets forth a high standard and an enormous amount of work to do. Yet I end the book feeling both challenged and encouraged, as I always do when I read Lose’s work. I also feel much less alone. It is not just me and my preaching that are struggling with these issues–it is all of us who weekly strive to deliver the good news to those who come into our sanctuaries. I recommend this book to all who care about that endeavor.

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6:00 a.m. — Groan in response to alarm. Curse  decision to offer ashes at local coffee shop at 7:00 a.m. Check Facebook from phone in bed.

6:05 a.m. — Six year old comes to snuggle. Grumble again at early morning coffee shop idea. Leave warm bed and stumble to shower.

6:45 a.m. — Arrive at church. Gather ashes, prayer cards, bible. Try to read Joel 2 to center myself for the day. Apply ashes to my own forehead, mumbling under my breath about dust. Check mirror to make sure my ashes look right. Make handmade sign that says “Free Ashes.” Throw it away. Make a new sign that says “Ashes to Go.” I still don’t like it, but can’t think of anything better.

7:00 a.m. — Arrive at coffee shop. Introduce myself to barrista, who is expecting me. Order caffeine. More grumbling. Regret the decision to do this public ashing. Feel foolish. Convinced no one will come. Certain I will sit alone and awkward with a smudgy forehead all morning. Take a picture and post to Facebook reminding people to come.

Posted to Facebook: "Here at the coffee shop with ashes and prayers. Stop by, won't you?"

Posted to Facebook: “Here at the coffee shop with ashes and prayers. Stop by, won’t you?”

7:10 a.m. — Two people arrive separately, seeking ashes. They have awakened early and left home in the dark to make this time for holiness. When I offer them the prayer card and mark the ashy cross on their foreheads, we all well with tears. I decide that even if no one else comes, this was worth it.

8:00 a.m. — Wonder if those two folks will be the only ones I see all day. Regret and grumbling and foolish feelings creep back in. Decide ashes-to-go is a dumb fad I will never do again. Justify my doubts with Jesus’ instructions about fasting in private. Feel self-righteous thinking that sacramental moments belong in the context of worship, not in five-minute coffee shop encounters. Read Barbara Brown Taylor’s Speaking of Sin for my Lenten preparation.

8:30 a.m. — Two older men occupy the table next to me. One tries to start a conversation, and mishears me, thinking I said, “answers” instead of “ashes.” He tells me he doesn’t have any questions. I clarify, and he reminisces about receiving ashes as a Catholic school boy. I offer him the opportunity again, but he declines. Still, it restores my sense of purpose.

8:45 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. — Eight more people come, in ones and twos, seeking prayer and ashes. Some are from my church or our Disciples partner, some people I know from the community. All are nervous, just like me, but I act cool. Every time, our eyes fill with tears as I impose the ashes on their forehead with these words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. Return to God with all your heart, for God is merciful and compassionate, full of forgiveness.” When the moment ends, they seem overwhelmed by the experience, and scurry away quickly. I conclude that the ashes are so powerful they do not need a full hour of worship to support them. A few moments in the coffee shop does just fine.

9:30 a.m. — My Disciples clergy colleague arrives to start her shift. I am disappointed that she is 30 minutes early, because I do not want to share, much less leave. I offer her ashes as well, and we visit awhile. We change the sign to “Ashes for Anyone.”

10:15 a.m. — Play Transformers on the coffee shop floor with a four-year-old, while his mother claims a moment of silent prayer with my colleague.

10:20 a.m. — Prepare to leave, when a couple arrives that I am due to marry on Saturday. At our final premarital conversation the night before, I urged them to find ways to pray together. I stay to place the ashes on their foreheads, thinking of the promises they will make, to love one another until they are dust.

10:30 a.m. — Return to the office.  The Altar Guild is busily transforming from Epiphany white to Lenten purple. Set up for the evening service–copying liturgy, writing a welcome, digging out bowls for ashes, setting out communion ware.

Setting up for evening worship.

Setting up for evening worship.

11:30 a.m. — Do work unrelated to Ash Wednesday. Feel like I’m missing out. Grateful for texts from the coffee shop reporting on visitors.

12:30 p.m. — Return to the coffee shop, 30 minutes early, for lunch. Enjoy a relaxed, unhurried, joyful conversation about church and ministry with two colleagues. No one else comes seeking ashes, but we linger for over an hour.

2:12 p.m. — Return to the office again. Check Facebook and return a few calls. Notice that my ashes look as fresh as they did this morning. Make a lame attempt to accomplish things on my to-do list. Decide to finish Barbara Brown Taylor instead.

4:15 p.m. — Go to three stores to find a loaf of bread for evening communion. A sketchy guy is selling Blow Pops to raise money for “the kids at church.” He sees my forehead and calls out, “You may have given up sweets for Lent, but you didn’t give up giving, did you?” Contemplate what wearing my faith on my forehead demands as a response–not just to him, but to everyone who sees me today.

4:55 p.m. — Pick up my son at after school care, and find out he needs to bring Valentine cookies for a party tomorrow. Go home and fix him PB&J for dinner.

5:05 p.m. — My best friend since childhood, also a pastor, calls to share a holy moment from her Ash Wednesday visits in the hospital. We exchange stories about the power of the ashes, and lose our chance for dinner before evening services. No regrets.

6:03 p.m. —  Arrive back at church. Manage the hustle and bustle of a joint worship service with merged choirs, unfamiliar rituals, sound checks, elder questions and all the other quirky details. Wonder, as always, if we will manage to pull things off smoothly.

6:59 p.m. — Realize we have no ushers. Grab a church member and ask them to organize some people to collect the offering.

7:00 p.m. — Service begins,  on time. It’s a miracle.

7:18 p.m. — As the people come to receive the ashes, the exhaustion catches up to me, and I am overcome with emotion.  I can barely contain the tears as I make the blackened crosses on their foreheads. I choke on “to dust you shall return,” for the older woman who might not be here next year, the soldier about to be deployed, the three-month-old sister of my Transformer playmate. I can barely get out the words of repentance and mercy to the man in a world full of trouble, the rebellious teen, the saint of the church.

7:46 p.m. — Look out over the congregation and choir during the sermon, and think how ridiculous we look with our heads smeared with ashes. Reminds me of some crazy underground cult. Is this really the face to show the world in the local coffeehouse? Apparently it is.

7:56 p.m. — Worry the service is going too long. Realize there is nothing I can do.

8:03 p.m. — Break the bread at the table. Taste the sweetness, and no longer feel hungry.

8:21 p.m. — Recruit sound guy/elder to count offering money.

8:34 p.m. — Sound guy/elder/money counter realizes he never got his ashes because he was in the back room. Fetch the bowl from my office, the same bowl I poured before sunrise. We stand alone in the office. I mark the ashes upon his forehead, and my eyes fill with tears. So do his.

8:36 p.m. — Everyone is ready to go, but the guest preacher’s keys are missing. Search commences.

9:01 p.m. –Lost keys finally found, we all depart. Nearby grocery is now closed, but I still need Valentine’s cookies for my son’s party.

The quest for something like this.

The quest for something like this.

9:07 p.m. — Stop at Walgreens for cookies. Store is packed with people shopping for last-minute Valentine gifts. There are no Valentine’s cookies. Grumble. Settle for Oreos. Decide it’s lame, but I’m too tired to drive across town to Kroger.

9:28 p.m. — Realize Dollar General is open and on the way, and decide to try again. There are Valentine’s cookies just inside the door. Waiting in line to pay, the clerk asks, “What’s with the smudgy cross? I’ve been seeing people with it all day.” I tell her it’s Ash Wednesday, and she knows what that means. The other clerk asks, “Do you have to go to church to get those?” I respond by telling him that I was giving them out at the coffeehouse this morning, for people just like them who had to work. I regret that I do not have ashes in my car to offer them.

9:34 p.m. — Arrive home. Kick off shoes, change clothes. Head to the bathroom to wash my face. Stare in the mirror at the ashes one more time, and repeat to myself, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Return to the Lord with all your heart, for the Lord is merciful and compassionate, full of forgiveness.” Wash my face in warm water, cleaning off the ashes, the day’s grime, layers of makeup. Remember the cleansing waters of baptism, and make an invisible cross with water on my forehead, where the ashes used to be. Smile, and watch my eyes fill with tears again.

9:53 p.m. — Fix dinner, eat, watch TV.  Exhausted, but unwilling to let go of the day.

10:59 p.m. —  Decide to write this diary. I want to remind myself why it’s worth it to wake up before sunrise again next year. I want to tell myself to go sit in the coffee shop again. I want to remember to carry ashes in my car all day, to offer to sketchy guys selling Blow Pops and late night store clerks. I want to remember I am foolish dust, and God loves me.

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10

The apostle Paul writes with some dizzying logic sometimes, doesn’t he? He calls those of us who follow Christ “ambassadors of reconciliation,” but then he goes on to leave a trail of irreconcilable contradictions about how we reconcilers are seen in the world. “We are treated with honor and dishonor, verbal abuse and good evaluation. We were seen as fake and real, unknown and well known, as dying, but look, we are alive. We were punished but not killed, going through pain but always happy, poor but making many rich, as having nothing but owning everything.” Contradictions upon contradictions. This list is more like a seesaw or a tennis match than my vision of what it means to be an “ambassador of reconciliation.”

Reconciliation, in my mind, means making things go together smoothly, even though they might naturally conflict. The dictionary agrees with me that to reconcile is to “make two apparently conflicting things compatible or consistent with one another.” Paul doesn’t seem to reconcile any of those things—he just holds them up and says, “We’re both! Dying and alive, honored and dishonored, fake and real, known and unknown. We’re both!”

This holding together of tensions, this being “both-and,” is very much what I think we are supposed to remember every year on Ash Wednesday.

Butterflyfish is a bluegrass band writing faith-inspired children’s music, led by my friend Elizabeth Myer-Boulton and her husband Matt, who is the new president of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Matthew has written a song that I think speaks to this “both-and” tension. It’s basically a little parable, and it’s called “Great and Small.” The words go like this:

Deep down here inside my pocket there’s a little piece of paper
Take it out and read it when I’m feeling out of shape, or
To keep my fears at bay
It says you are great

Deep down in my other pocket there’s another piece of paper
Take it out and read it when I’m getting into shape, or
When I’m walking tall
It says you are small.

‘Cause you are great and small, you are tiny and tall
Remember through it all, you are great and small.

Isn’t it true? Don’t we all just need to be reminded sometimes that we are indeed great? When we are frightened or discouraged or rejected or vulnerable or powerless, we need to be reminded of the power we have as one person to change the world in love. We are great. And don’t we all just need to be reminded sometimes that we are indeed so very small? When we are self-centered or narrow-minded, ego-driven or unrelenting, unforgiving or ungracious, we need to be reminded that in the vast universe and the long arc of history, we are small.

Some people think that the season of Lent and the ashes of Ash Wednesday are all about reminding us that we are small. After all, we are about to put ashes and dust on our foreheads, and repeat the phrase, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” For some, remembering we are dust is about remembering all the ways we’ve acted like dirt, and try again to act like the spirit of God. While repentance is a good thing, and confessing our sins and receiving God’s forgiving grace is an important part of remembering that we are small, these dusty ashes upon your foreheads are not about calling you a dirtbag. They are about reminding you that you are a human being, created by God from the dust the earth. In Genesis 2, God created human beings by scooping up the rich, dark soil, adamah in Hebrew, and (whoosh) blowing life into it. You are of the earth. You are made of the stuff of this world. Like everything else in this world, you will live and you will die this one precious life, in this one fragile body, and then that lifeless body will return again to dust. Among all other creatures and lives, surrounded by all the dirt of the earth, each one of us is one tiny speck in the vast universe. We are so very small.

Photo by Inger Ekrem, Riksförbundet Svensk Trädgård.

But that’s not all. Whenever we remember we are dust, whenever we remember that we are adamah, made of clay, we also have to remember what else we are made of. What other ingredient, apart from the earth, comprises humanity at the dawn of creation? (Whoosh) The breath of God. You are dirt and to dirt you shall return, but you are also the breath of God, and to God you shall return. Inside of you dwells the spark of the Almighty God, the power of God’s spirit animates your life. You are filled with the power to love, to give, to serve, to rejoice, to overcome, to hope, to be transformed. Even more, you can transform the world around you by your work and your love, your witness and your welcome, your peace-making and your graciousness. The eternal breath of God breathes in you. You are great.

Every Ash Wednesday, we remember what it is to be human, to be made from dust and the breath of God. The opposing contradictions of great and small, known and unknown, clarity and mystery, life and death—they all are reconciled in each and every human life. We are indeed ambassadors of reconciliation. When our lives reflect our true nature, we are simultaneously reflecting the transient beauty of the world and the eternal beauty of God.

Great and small. Dust of the earth and the very breath of God. You are both, insists Paul. You are both, says the author of Genesis. That’s what it means to be human—to be both great and small, and equal measure of dust and divinity.

As we enter this Lenten journey toward Easter, we are invited to remember who we are. Where in your life do you need to remember you are small? How is God reassuring you that you are not God, that the world does not rest upon your shoulders, that all this will come to an end and you are not in control? Where in your life do you need to embrace your greatness? How is God calling you to do big things in the name of love, to transform the world with grace and hope right where you are?

We have for you tonight, in addition to the ashes for your forehead, and a taste of the bread of life and cup of salvation at the table, a couple of pieces of paper for your pocket. Can you guess what they say? One for each pocket. You are great. You are small. I invite you to carry them with you as the season progresses, as a reminder that in you, in your oh-so-human-life, lies their reconciliation. The great and the small, the dust and the divinity, in you—an ambassador of reconciliation. Thanks be to God.

This sermon was originally offered at the joint Ash Wednesday service with my congregation and the local Disciples of Christ church in town, February 22, 2012. You can download the song “Great and Small” at Butterflyfish’s website, www.butterflyfishband.com.

This Sunday was part of Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, and I wanted to be sure to attend a service that marked the occasion. I decided to worship on Sunday morning at a well-respected African-American megachurch that has a satellite campus in our town. I have developed a nice collegial relationship with one of the pastors there, and the worship and preaching are always stellar.

This time, however, the transcendent moment came from a choir anthem, sung by a magnificent choir that was at least 75 voices strong. The anthem was called “Manifest.” Although online sources credit T.D. Jakes, whose church choir made a famous recording of it, the piece was written by Jonathan Nelson and John Paul McGee. The version by Jakes’ The Potter’s House Choir is below (there is preaching at the beginning, skip ahead to 2:25 to hear the music), but you can listen to Nelson’s more mellow recording here. The rendition I heard was far more free-form, as the soloist and choir leader led each other and followed the movement of the Spirit as they repeated certain refrains, took the crowd to a crescendo and let each section of the anthem go on as long as it needed to.

I wavered for the first two verses about whether I would be drawn into the song or not.

Pregnant possibilities now birth anew,
travailing to obtain it for it must come to pass.
I decree it, declare it, and call it in the Spirit
to become what God’s designed me to be.
Your future, your promises shall be fulfilled,
yes, you shall obtain it for it must come to pass.

Creeping in the background, I could see the images of the prosperity gospel, which I think is a twisted, evil distortion of the gospel of sacrifice and service. However, I loved the idea of pregnant possibilities, and the call to become everything God has designed us to be. In the context of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and death, I remembered something I heard about the power and importance of the black church. (There’s probably a famous quote to this effect from a famous preacher, but I don’t remember it.) All week long, out in the world, black people are despised and filled with the lie that they are worthless. On Sunday morning, the church tells them the real truth: that they are holy and whole and loved and powerful. Worship gives the community strength and healing to face the world knowing the truth of who they are. I decided to go with this message, and let myself be moved by the power of the song. In the end, “moved” doesn’t even begin to describe my experience.

The choir began repeating the same refrain: “I decree it, declare it, and call it in the Spirit/to become what God’s designed me to be.” They built it up to a crescendo, and a young woman took the microphone and began to sing out above them, increasing the intensity. Together, she and the choir were not simply singing a song anymore—their words were acting like the Word, the Word that calls worlds into being, the Word whose utterances are entities in themselves, the Word whose voice is power and light and hope incarnate. As they sang “I decree it, declare it,” I could see the bodies and souls of the choir members taking on the design that God had for each of them, becoming wholly a vehicle of God’s praise. As we in the congregation stood and joined them, their decree and declaration took hold of us as well, calling down the Spirit to shape us into God’s design for our lives, so that we too could become vessels of God’s glory.

The culminating moment came when the choir began to repeat the title word: “manifest.” Over and over, with power and might, with chords and discords, with prayer and supplication they sang out: “Manifest!” At first, it was a pleading prayer to the Holy One, urging the Divine to come into our midst, to manifest among us. I recalled the Isaiah passage from the first Sunday of Advent: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (Isaiah 64:1) With the voices, I ached for God to manifest in our presence, a theophany. Their pleading grew bolder, and it was like they were issuing a command to the Almighty’s own self. Like a petulant child: “Get down here right now! Manifest!”

As the intensity grew, something in me shifted, and I realized it was a command—but not to the Almighty. The anthem was a command to ourselves. Manifest! Manifest God! Right here, right now. Manifest God in your life. Manifest God in your words and your deeds. Manifest God in your own body. Get rid of all that baggage and those useless pursuits. Become what God has designed you to be. Manifest!

The soloist continued, but her words were lost on me. All I heard was the choir proclaiming the Word: Manifest! The song reached its climax and began to wind down, turning quiet and introspective in the repeated refrain: “become what God designed you to be.” It was then that I realized that the song was itself a manifestation. By their song, the choir had actually made manifest the presence of the Spirit in our midst. Then they had manifest that Spirit in us, sweeping the congregation into the Spirit’s work. We heard the truth that we are loved by God, and called by God to love others. The power of the music became the power of God. The Word was again made flesh, manifest in that hour of worship in voices and bodies lifted in praise and turned toward what God designed us to be. Thanks be to God.

Birthday Sunday


“Mom, what about Birthday Sunday? When they do all the January birthdays? It’s my turn. I’m a January birthday.”

Sunday morning was the first time (except for six weeks of maternity leave) I’ve ever been in the same town as my congregation and not been with them for worship. It’s also the first time B has ever been away from church, with the exception of attending the church of my childhood when we are home in Virginia. We were getting ready to visit a neighboring congregation, but he didn’t understand why we couldn’t go to our church, to see his friends and be a part of the family he loves. Truth be told, I was having a hard time with it myself.

Separating from my church, now that I am here in the same town, is harder than I anticipated. While I didn’t miss all the business, meetings, sermon writing, prep work, and early-morning scurry to get ready for worship, I desperately missed being there with them. I didn’t want to lead, I just wanted to come and sit in the pew and worship there. They are my home, my church, my Christian family. Going to a strange, new church is hard. You don’t know what to expect, if there will be a connection to God or others, if you will know any of the songs, if you’ll find the theology abhorrent or just feel terribly out of place.  Yet part of sabbatical means being away, and there was no way for me to visit with them without being their pastor—which means being drawn into the pastoral care needs, business decisions, administrative matters and everything else that is church work. So I knew why I needed to stay away, even though I miss them.

It’s harder to explain it to B. After all, Sunday mornings are not work for him. He knows the beauty of church as his family. He has friends his own age, and teenage and adult friends that supervise him while I am leading worship and making the rounds at coffee hour. He looks forward to the routine of a Sunday morning—the pre-worship playtime, shaking hands during the passing of the peace, coming up for the children’s time, and getting too many cupcakes during fellowship time. He knows the rhythms of the church, both the liturgical seasons and the all-important monthly celebration of Birthday Sunday.

I tried to make up for all he is missing with the promise that, for once, we actually get to sit together in church. I reminded him of how frustrated he gets on Sunday mornings, when I am too busy to talk to him or play with him. I promised that during this special sabbatical time, I would be with him during church, the whole time, no distractions. I thought this would be poor consolation, but he seemed pleased.

When we arrived as guests at this new church, B decided without hesitation that he did not want to visit the children’s program—he wanted to sit with me the whole time. As soon as the opening song began, my eyes filled with tears. I was overcome by the power of simply receiving the gift of worship alongside my son. It felt like an immersion, like diving into healing waters. Without worrying about what comes next, focusing on my sermon, noticing who was missing or who looked like they weren’t feeling well, I could just open myself to worship. When someone came and sat in front of us, we could move over so B could still see. When everyone else stood, I could stay seated to remain at B’s height. During the sermon, I took notes and listened for the Word of God, which spoke deeply to my heart. When B got bored, I could fish out a pen and paper from the bottom of my purse. When I was moved, I could cry and not worry about holding it together to say the benediction. These small luxuries felt like tiny miracles, each small marvel to behold.

This has been a deep gift already for sabbatical, and there are quite a few Sundays left. While I expect I will still feel a pang of longing for my own church family on Sunday mornings, I am so grateful for the gift of worship. B seemed to appreciate it too, as he snuggled into my lap during the sermon and showed me the drawings he had made in the bulletin.

Also, I promised him that he could join in the February Birthday Sunday celebration when we get back, and we would sing to him with the others. Church folk, I know you’ll understand and welcome him with open arms, because you’re our family.

Provoking the Gospel: Methods to Embody Biblical Storytelling through Drama by Richard W. Swanson, Pilgrim Press, 2004, 136 pp.

I purchased this book at the UCC General Synod this summer, and I had no idea how timely and helpful it would be. During the months of August and September, I preached a sermon series entitled “Living in Tents,” focused on the Hebrew Bible stories from Genesis and Exodus, loosely staying with the cycle of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary. Rather than attempt to read a large amount of text from the Bible, I used the children’s sermon time to engage in biblical storytelling about the narratives. I called it a “story for all ages,” and took 10-15 minutes to give a good, thorough telling of the biblical story, beginning with Joseph and moving on through the death of Moses this Sunday.

I took some storytelling workshops way back in college, but I don’t really know much about the art of storytelling. Swanson’s book was a great way to engage me, as a beginner, in thinking about how to tell the scripture story in a new way, even though I did not follow his precise method (or even use the New Testament texts he highlights).

Swanson makes a case for the embodiment of the Gospel stories:

Biblical interpretation must concern itself first of all with bodies, not ideas. The characters in these stories are not symbolic ciphers; they are bodies, they are people, and their interactions take place in the physical and ethical space of the real world… In biblical stories people look each other in the eye and act. These acts sometimes heal and sometimes betray, sometimes protect and sometimes abuse. (viii)

He continues: “We need to poke these old stories, to poke them and provoke them a little. And nothing does that textual poking and provoking like public, physical performance.” (viii) This was definitely my experience in preparing to tell the story each week. Reading over the familiar stories with the intent to tell them drew my attention to the physical aspects in a new way. I had to imagine Pharoah’s stance and voice, put myself in the midst of each plague, respond to the burning bush. Learning to tell the story (instead of read it) put both me and the congregation in a different relationship to the characters in it.

Provoking the Gospel is both a “why-to” and a “how-to” book—both making the case for biblical storytelling, and teaching the reader how to get started. Swanson’s method uses a group process, with an ensemble experimenting and engaging the story together. He incorporates theater exercises, body movement, experimentation and script-writing into his process. He encourages making mistakes, taking risks and getting it wrong along the path to provoking the surprising presence of God in these familiar Gospel stories. Each chapter contains a well-informed theoretical exploration for the “why-to,” followed by a list of exercises and steps for the “how-to.” Although I did not follow these instructions, I still found the exercises helpful in beginning the process as a solo storyteller.

Both Swanson and the process of doing storytelling in my congregation have convinced me that we should be making this a part of our worship and teaching on a regular basis. If we want an embodied, vital life of faith, we need to share with people an embodied, vital version of the Gospel. Storytelling is what God’s people have always done to share the good news. It’s what Jesus did to share his message. We need to follow their example and tell the stories over and over again in new ways.

This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers, by Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver, Eerdmans, 2009, 235 pp.

This is one of the best books I have read in a long time, and one of the best books I have ever read about the pastoral life. In the preface, the authors promise “a current book that is honest about the challenges of this vocation but still reflects the joy that can be found in it… an encouraging yet realistic book about the ministry written by someone who is still doing it.” (xiv) The chapters that follow make good on that promise.

Each chapter takes a particular experience in pastoral life (singular or recurring) and holds it up to the light, examining the specks and imperfections while simultaneously seeing the experience as a prism that reflects and refracts the light of God. They dissect everything from shaking hands at the back of the sanctuary and visiting hospital rooms to church fellowship hour and committee meetings. Without exaggerating or idealizing, Daniel and Copenhaver articulate why each of these little things matter, and describe the ways they have witnessed God’s light break through in these ordinary moments.

Sometimes, it feels as though they have pulled back the curtain to expose that we wizards behind the magic of the pulpit and pastoral presence are just ordinary, wrinkled, anxious human beings. Copenhaver’s chapter about “The Twin Imposters” of praise and criticism in ministerial life discusses the lavish praise pastors can receive for just showing up, even if we do or offer very little. Daniel’s chapter entitled, “Can We Be Friends?” takes on the challenging tension between wanting friends outside the church and wanting people to join your church. I suspect some clergy might want to avoid these kinds of revelations, but to me they only increase my respect for the work of ministry and for these two particular clergy. I admit I am even a bit jealous of their confidence and honesty—not to mention their way with words.

From the beginning, I put this book in dialogue with another account of the pastoral life: Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church. Taylor also describes the beauty and challenge of the pastoral life, but she does it with an underlying sense of frustration and incarceration that eventually causes her to leave the pastoral life altogether. I loved her writing about ministry, but did not share her conclusions. This Odd and Wondrous Calling is the antithesis of Leaving Church—Daniel and Copenhaver acknowledge the mess and the stress and then loudly declare their love for it. Daniel gives us images upon images that move and inspire, like identifying the church as “one of the last remaining homes of the no-cut audition,” (116) or seeing  “people who have no china of their own get to own the china of the church.” (27) While the whole of the book is not a response to Taylor, Copenhaver’s final chapter does take direct aim. Entitled “Staying in Church,” Copenhaver talks about Taylor’s book and concludes that pastoral life is simply a calling: “it is a good life, if you are called to it.” (234)

I am with Copenhaver and Daniel all the way. They point out that the pastoral life presents the opportunity to be better than you are, to grow in wisdom every day, to stand and witness God at work in people’s lives, and occasionally even serve as midwife to holy experiences. This book captures that life in all its complexity, sacrifice and joy. I recommend it to those considering ministry, preparing for ministry, living the pastoral life or contemplating leaving the ministry.

The authors strike a balance between honesty and awe at the pastoral life. The daily tasks of ministry are sometimes tedious, difficult, stressful or even ridiculous, but those same daily tasks draw us into close proximity with the Holy One all the time. It is a gift, a work, and most profoundly a calling.


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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