Archive for November, 2010

A while ago, I began a conversation about how congregant could help their preacher preach better. You can read about those here and here. Today I’d like to turn our attention to how congregations can get the most out of a sermon.

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A sermon, like any form of communication, can go in one ear and out the other. Worse still, a sermon can find hospitality in the head and hostility in the heart. Many of us struggle with the weekly homily, but we don’t want to. We struggle with how to apply it, how to remember it, how to live it out, and make sense of it in a world wherein we hear so many messages all the time. So I thought I’d offer 5 Strategies to “Getting” the Sermon.

1. Dwell In The Word. If Sunday morning is the first time you’ve read the sermon text, much of what the preacher says will be lost on you. It’s cold. You haven’t had time to allow the scriptures to seep into your skin. At Redwood Church, we provide the entire congregation the sermon text(s) and a brief synopsis of the sermon every Thursday via e-mail. This allows the willing to read the text(s), get a feel for where the sermon is headed and allows God to work the mystery of His presence in a hearer’s heart before Sunday. Peeking at the text ahead of time gets you back into story – it’s probably been a long time since you’ve read about Judah and Tamar, my subject for this week – refresh your memory.

2. Take Your Own Notes. Our congregation provides notes for every one in attendance. These are largely useless! Why? Because these notes are limited to what I think is most important in the text and are typically subject heading. Don’t check your brains at the narthex. Surprise, surprise; God may have something distinct in mind for you. Each scripture passage is deep, rich and meaningful, only so much can be covered in 20-minutes, um, I mean 40 minutes. 🙂

3. Bring Your Own Bible. We provide Bible for new Christians and visitors, but for old hands, there’s nothing as good as thumbing through your Bible, making notes in it, highlighting meaningful texts and moving insights. My Bible is a kind of journal of my with-God life. When a teacher or preacher says something important or I gain a new insight, I jot it down inside the text and it serves me for the rest of my life. Not only that, by using my own Bible – and not being dependent on the screen – I learn the text and memorize where things are. It’s a way of taking responsibility for my own attention to God’s Word.

4. Listen Again.With modern technology, sermons don’t expire at noon on Sunday. Anyone in the world can download my sermons and listen to them as many times as they’d like. (This isn’t just about my sermons. I, too, listen to sermons each week from other pastors. I don’t just listen once. There’s too much in any given homily to get it all the first time.) If you do this, sooner or later you’ll get a feel for your preacher; how they walk through a text; what’s important to them, etc….This will help you glean more.

5. Ask, Prod, and Seek. Guess what? You’re preacher won’t be offended if you need further guidance or have questions about something. They’ll probably be shocked!! Though they may point you in the direction of a book with a fuller treatment of the issues, your minister wants you to “get it.” Here’s a crazy idea; ask your preacher to point you in the direction of the resources they use. Next week, you may be ahead of them!

Well, there you have it, 5 quick hitters to help you get more out of the “kerygmatic event.” Hope that helps.

Christmas at St. Francis’ House

Posted: November 29, 2010 in Uncategorized

This is a reprint of a post I wrote several years ago. It has been updated since its original posting. Each Advent I read and re-post it here. It is my favorite piece, of all the things I’ve ever written. It continues to challenge me every Advent.

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A friend of mine was walking through his neighborhood a few weeks before Christmas years ago. Living in Houston it never gets too cold so walks in December aren’t unusual. Anyway, as he approached one house, he noticed the Nativity in the front yard. Everything was in its place; shepherds, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and manger. Only inside the manger was the baby Jesus wearing a Santa Claus hat; fur-lined, red, and with that cool looking white ball thingy at the top. My friend points out that that’s the problem with Christmas – many of us cannot see the difference between who Jesus was, what He taught and did, and the unhinged, consumeristic fervor of America’s most gluttonous season.

It requires us to ask: What should we be thinking and doing at Christmas?

Before a renaissance in my own thinking over the last 10 years, Christmas was essentially about getting the stuff that I wanted, the presents under the tree.  A good Christmas meant I got what I wanted and the sweet potato pie was tasty.  It had nothing to do with Jesus.  In my religious tradition we simply did not celebrate Christmas as a religious event.

It was purely secular!

I remember asking my sixth grade Sunday school teacher, Larry, why we didn’t celebrate Christmas and Easter, and why we paid absolutely no attention to the Christian calendar.  No Pentecost! No Advent! Nothing!  Larry told me that no one knew the exact dates of those events so to celebrate them on the dates proposed was outside what we knew from the Bible.  That’s true, I suppose.  However, I also knew that my grandmother, as a black woman born shortly after the turn of the 20th century in Mississippi, had no birth certificate and no one could remember her exact birth date, but she still got older each year and we still acknowledged her life. I applaud Larry and the church of my youth for being concerned about what the Scriptures say, but at the end of the day it taught me that Christmas was about the same thing that Fisher-Price and Mattel wanted Christmas to be about: The stuff!

That teaching has been hard to shake!

Each year as Thanksgiving rolls around, I know that there are very few things that I need. A new pair of pants, some new shoes, maybe, but nothing alluring – no iPhones or new cars.  I tell myself that I don’t need anything, don’t want anything, and that I won’t ask for anything, but I can never keep up with my plans.  Suddenly newer things start shining, old things seem, well, old and in need of replacement.  Those things that seemed like nice hobbies to start “one day” turn into imperatives that need me to invest in them immediately.  So I end up needing, asking and wanting more. Thank goodness for Cyber Monday!

Before I know it, this time of year, this Advent season, in which the church is to anticipate the coming of Jesus into the world, this time when we are to be looking to the Heavens with expectation about the healing of the world and the healing of our broken relationships with each other, and our broken relationship with God has somehow become a dime store smash and grab to see what stuff we can make off with.

Have you ever had that experience? Am I the only one?

Recently, I was thinking about my Christmas coveting and reading about Francis of Assisi (these are not two things you should do simultaneously).  Francis was born the son of a wealthy merchant and had visions of becoming a superior fighter. After an illness, however, he began to experience deep religious feelings.  He would go off by himself to pray, wore ragged clothes and gave away money from the family business to the poor.  As you might imagine, this made his father a little – um, irritated!  His father took Francis to court and asked that the Bishop force him to give back all the money Francis had given to the poor.  Equally as irritated as his father, Francis stripped off all his clothes, hurled them toward his father and walked out of the court proclaiming that he would only now speak of his Father in Heaven.

From that point on, Francis renounced materialism.  Over time, Francis founded several mendicant – which is fancy word for “beggar” – religious orders.  Unlike other orders, Francis and his followers rejected not only individual property, but also communal and collective property.  In short, they had no stuff!  For Francis, poverty was not an end in itself but a means of aligning with Jesus, the disciples, and the gospel by direct imitation. Jesus owned nothing. Francis owned nothing.  One of Francis’ biographer/followers wrote: “While this true friend of God completely despised all worldly things, he detested money above all.  From the beginning of his conversion, he despised money particularly and encouraged his followers to flee from it always as from the devil himself. He gave his followers this observation: money and manure are equally worthy of love.”

Might we imagine spending Christmas at St. Francis’ house this year?

I wonder what this patron saint of animals and the environment who married “Lady Poverty” for the sake of the gospel, might say about “Black Friday” – the day after Thanksgiving – when Americans sleep outside department stores to get the first look at sales?  Or what might he offer to a Christian community that essentially sees and treats Jesus like Santa Claus?  Perhaps he would feel uncomfortable with the fact that American Christians, who by and large have too much stuff already, spend the season of Advent concerned about getting more stuff.

Perhaps St. Francis might tweak our practice of Christmas a little.  Maybe he would say that during Advent and Christmas, we shouldn’t focus on our riches but our poverty.  Of course, there are a lot of us who give to good causes year round, but that’s not the only kind of poverty I’m talking about.

I’m also talking about real poverty – spiritual poverty.

I’m talking about the way many Christians display no demonstrative difference in their character and speech than non-Christians.  I’m thinking about Christians who proclaim love for the powerless babe in the manger, but spend each breath of their existence trying to beg, borrow, steal and deal for more power for themselves.  I’m speaking of pastors and church leaders who have no vision for the communities they serve and no love for the sheep of their flock; looking only to the church for what they can get from them.  I’m concerned about people who are made miserable through their own self-concern. And I’m talking about those of us who fundamentally believe that something other than God will finally or ultimately make us healthy, happy and whole.  We are all so deeply, deeply poor.

And that’s why we need to visit friend Francis this year.  We need to strip it all off and look only to our Father in heaven.  If we don’t, we will continue to look around the next corner, over the next bend, and under every rock for that “thing” we think will make us whole.  Yet we will certainly not find it.

I shall return to blogging on Monday. En

Posted: November 25, 2010 in Uncategorized

I shall return to blogging on Monday. Enjoy the holiday, everyone.

In a previous post, I began a conversation regarding reading scripture (The Bible)  and the process of deconstruction. This began for Rochelle and I several years ago through a confluence of personal and professional setbacks. Our inherited hermeneutic could not handle the weight of our experiences or the misguided, though well-intended, words and actions we received from fellow Christ-followers. So, we went on a journey that changed the way we read the Bible. We weren’t trying to read the Bible differently, we were just trying to make sense of the full witness of scripture and what we were experiencing.

It has been and continues to be a painful (at times) and beautiful quest.

The primary reason for the pain is that the pursuit of the God of scripture has often lead us to starkly different conclusions about who God is than the prefabricated views we were fed as children. A friend of mine, who has now come to read the Biblical text differently than he was taught, once said: “I wish my pursuit of Jesus did not put me at odds with the very people who taught me to pursue Jesus in the first place.” He lovingly meant that the process of deconstructing and rebuilding your approach to the Bible is difficult to understand by those who have chosen to ignore or abandon the process of deconstruction. For many in the church deconstruction and reconstruction can causes discord and consternation. Counterintuitively, the deconstructive process actually strengthens, beautifies and animates our faith to greater levels. The process is known as the “hermeneutical circle.”

French philosopher Paul Rocouer described the process like this.

The starting point is the First Naivete:

Here we accept the words and symbols of our text as truth without question. You’ve probably heard, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it…” or something like that. Platitudes like this have an air of faithfulness to them, but ultimately it’s both weak and inconsistent. It’s weak because it’s childish (which is different than childlike); accepting on face value whatever you’re told because an authority told you. It’s also weak because no one – ABSOLUTELY NO ONE – lives their life that way. On the major questions of life we do research, we ask questions, and go beneath the surface. The banality of flippant words concerning scripture – if actually believed and practiced – depicts Christians as people who do more investigation into buying a new car or computer than their Holy Book. When something is important, we probe it. To say we accept the Bible without question may make us sound faithful to scripture, but more accurately it reveals that we don’t care much about our sacred text. In essence we are saying that the Bible is not worth our time, attention and focused effort.

To say, “God said it, etc….” is not only weak, but inconsistent. As I highlighted in the previous post, none of us practice all the commands, injunctions and inferences in the Bible – that is, unless you’re practicing exchanging a Holy Kiss and measuring Christian maturity by speech ethics, as James, the brother of Jesus, does. All this simply means that faithful Bible readers cannot remain in the First Naivete. They cannot, if for no other reason than there is less faithfulness there than we imagine.

The second stage Ricouer proffers is the Critical Phase:

In this phase, the reader begins to question the text and embrace the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” During this phase, the reader questions everything. This is the tough part! Is Genesis 1-12 literal? For that matter are Job and Daniel? How do we justify the differences between archeology and the conquest of Canaan? On that note, how do we feel about God-commanded genocide in order to enter the Promised Land? And what about Documentary Hypothesis Theory and the Synoptic Problem? These questions and many others like them are the reason (1) so many in the church shelter inside the First Naivete, (2) formulate a disdain for science and history, (3) recoil from the world into Christian sub-culture, and hosts of other activities. In this phase, the easiest thing to do is give up and the streets are filled with people who have done just that. But the folks who make it through the critical phase emerge better for it.

The third and final stage for Ricouer is the Second Naivete:

At this stage, the reader does not abandon his or her questions and criticism, but s/he sees the text anew. We accept the Bible – and more importantly, Jesus – as Truth, even through the questions. Here the text isn’t true like the War of 1812 is true, but the text is true because it tells the truth. For instance, in the First Naivete, everything must be literally true because…well, it just has to be. But in the 2nd Naivete, the Bible tells us the truth. The truth about who we are, whose we are and what life is about. If all you get from scripture is a Holy Timeline of Events, you’ve missed the point! The story of the Good Samaritan isn’t true because you can check the police report from the road to Jerusalem from Jericho or hold the check-in slip from the motel; it is true because it tells the truth about who God is and what God calls us to do.

This is the second naivete. And for me, it is a much richer place to be.

I read a lot. I don’t even get to read everything that I want.  At this very moment, I have 633 articles waiting review on Google Reader and I just cleared it out 5 minutes ago. I am in the midst of 4 great books, and am constantly reading and reviewing books, reading articles for blogs, reading for teaching, to better my leadership and sermon preparation. Certainly, most people don’t need to read this much – and if statistics are true, most people don’t. A major reason reading frustrates many of us is because there are certain skills to reading that no one teaches us. This is not an indictment of others or an elevation of myself, it just means that speakers, teachers, leaders and opinion-makers must read and stay information-current to do what they do well.

Occasionally, I’m asked about my reading habits, so here they are.

  1. Read Widely – As a minister I read both academic theology and popular level material, but more than that, it’s important to remain current on leadership, marketing, communications, technology, etc…. Plus, good leaders read works from multiple perspectives. Never become locked in to one particular human perspective. Think big. Think broad.
  2. Know When to Stop – Not every book deserves to be finished. 80% of the content is in 20% of the book. Because publishers generally think people won’t buy shorter books, most books have “filler” – a good bit of it, in fact. Skip it! Read and incorporate the important parts. Keep the rest for reference.
  3. Read “How To Read A Book” – I was required to read this book in graduate school. In it, Charles Van Dooren (yes, the Charles Van Dooren who cheated on “21” as was chronicled in the movie “Quiz Show) teaches you how to understand how books are written and how to read them to follow the author’s “argument.” You’re missing out on your reading if you don’t know how to read. Reading actually isn’t natural.
  4. Force Yourself – Reading is a discipline. When you’re working through a book, make yourself complete a certain # of pages every day. You’ll be amazed at how you start to tear through books at, say, 50 pages/ day. I know people who exercise their bodies for hours a day, but never exercise their mind. Reading is exercise for your mind and heart.
  5. Use Google Reader – RSS feeds are incredible. In 10 minutes you can keep up with a great deal of what’s happening in the world and in your particular interest. This is when blogs and finding good bloggers matters.

My guess is that by incorporating these 5 simple exercisess, you will enjoy and increase your reading. Remember, reading engages the heart and mind while leading us to new places in thought and deed. My hope is that you would become a lover of ideas and that those ideas would change the world.

Last night, I began teaching a new class I’m calling The Dangerous Word. Essentially we’re examining how we read scripture. It’s obvious – given the 1,000’s of Christian denominations – that people and ecclesiological traditions read the Bible differently. What’s less obvious – and this applies to all groups – is that “we” have a particular way of reading scripture. What’s more, “our” way of reading is largely culturally-conditioned and has it’s own beauty and blind spots. Texts that are crucial to one person or group are oftentimes marginalized or flat-out ignored by others.

To go even farther, some traditions can find themselves honoring and privileging one half of a sentence and ignoring the second part of the same sentence. For instance, the church of my childhood demanded that “Church of Christ” was the only proper name for a church because it was the only one mentioned in the New Testament (Romans 16.16). Yet, in those same churches, no one – and I mean NO ONE – ever exchanged a “Holy kiss” though that is also in Romans 16.16. As Scot McKnight has pointed out in his great book, The Blue Parakeet, “every one of us adopts and (at the same time) adapts the Bible to our culture.”

In preparing my class I was once again reminded how difficult it is to peel back our present constructs in an attempt to build a better and more constructive one. Like many theology students, the death of our “first naivete” and the introduction of  the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” can be oft-putting. People, including myself, are resistant to the process of deconstruction.

For one, deconstruction is hard. In the process we have to examine our preconceptions and offer the lamb of our philosophical and theological constructs up for sacrifice. Only truth-seekers can truly do this. Those who desire to use their version of truth or partial truth reject the process out-right. There’s simply too much at stake – namely power. In order to get to the heart of truth one must be willing to clear the debris of partial truth, idols and comforting platitudes.

Second, the deconstructive process puts our past on the line. We are who we are because of our history. Even our painful experiences shape us. Since most of us like ourselves we protect our history. How disorienting it is to willingly engage a process that critiques both our current belief system and past beliefs…especially for leaders. We’ve given advice and walked through life with other people, offering the seeds of a belief system throughout the process. We bring into question the good we have done if we allow ourselves to questions the beliefs that gave rise to those good works. For Christians, this should be mitigated by belief that God is working through us and it was never about us in the first place.

Third, it’s easy to believe that if we don’t recognize or acknowledge something, it’s not really there. For instance, if we never talk about translation issues, hermeneutics, the role of genres, etc…then they don’t exist. Questions regarding the function of Genesis 1-12, Job, Daniel or Revelation aren’t easy to wade through, yet we need to nevertheless.

Fortunately, the struggle is worth the pain. Why? Simply put: Truth!

I don’t know anyone who deeply wants to live with an ill-concieved or false worldview. We don’t reject deconstruction because we desire falsehood, we reject it because it’s painful. Yet, it is Jesus who assures us that the truth will set us free. Therefore, when we examine the scriptures, we are seek nothing less than truth. The best Bible readers – both laity and clergy – seek truth with the fundamental belief that whatever else we sacrifice on our journey to truth is worth sacrificing.

Is Religion Necessary

Posted: November 10, 2010 in Uncategorized

Tim Keller – quickly becoming one of my favorite Christian thinkers – gives a thought-provoking presentation and Q & A at Google. Thought you might enjoy.