Archive for the ‘words’ Category

A few posts ago, I commented, “Preaching naively believes that preaching can help” this troubled world. What I mean by this is that preaching, the act of speaking to an audience who will likely soon forget what was said, on the face, appears to be fairly anemic, but the preacher believes it is not. Jesus seems to think that preaching does something that nothing else can do. As His cousin, John, sits in prison, Jesus chooses not to visit or set John free. Rather, Jesus preaches. And it’s important to pay attention to exactly what Jesus preaches.

In Mark, as Jesus begins His public ministry, the apostle tells us that Jesus announces, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” Again, each word here could produce a book in it’s own right, but I want to highlight a few things that I think are generally important for preacher’s (and listeners) to keep in mind as we examine how preaching can help.

  1. “The Time is fulfilled.” Jesus is announcing a present reality. This reality is associated with both His presence and person, as well as heralding an eschatological vision. Therefore, the faithful do not simply await a future occurrence, but a reality that is being inaugurated. For the preacher, this means drawing the ears of the listener to God’s activity in the world today, rather than merely encouraging them to hang onto earth until we enjoy pie-in-the-sky. Weekly preaching needs immediacy! In short, the end has begun; we are caught between the now and the not yet.
  2. “The Kingdom of God has come near.” Christ announces a new system of both politics and living. We are invited, then, to live within this kingdom and assuage the narrow-mindedness of American left/right political polarities –or any other political system, for that matter – to see a vision of the kingdom of God. This is true of all systems or philosophies that cultures may offer. The kingdom of God upends all other kingdoms – American, financial, scientific, theological or personal. The preacher then must be certain not to loan the preaching event to alternative kingdoms; to spare the pulpit of his or her personal feeling about “Proposition Whatever” and call both all people – those with whom he or she aggress and/or disagrees with – to participation in the only governing that matters – God’s.
  3. “Repent and believe the good news.” After having told us that the kingdom of God was near, the Lord now instructs us regarding what to do about it. First, says Jesus, “repent,” literally to “change your mind.” He means to tell us to abandon alternative kingdoms, philosophies, politics, and epistemologies and believe the good news, which is, in short, Jesus Himself and not a theological system (Calvinism, Restoration, Methodism, etc…). Though many would like to reduce “the good news” only to the Passion narrative, this alone cannot be true, since Jesus is calling people to the good news BEFORE the Passion events. In large, Jesus proclaims that salvation hope can be found in Him; that there is a path back to wholeness for those who repent. Every pronouncement concerning God, then, should announce the good news. It matters little to beat up people about our estrangement from the Creator without a vocalization of the way back to God.

These 3 moves shape the fundamental message of Jesus’ ministry. You will notice here that Jesus’ preaching – both here and other places – lack the kinds of specifics and steps that contemporary preaching has devolved into. Jesus’ preaching is about a particular vision of the world. It is not nuggets, principles, helpful hints, or good advice. Those who reduce preaching to sound bites cut against the grain of how Jesus preached.  Sound bites, we should now have learned from the political world, don’t change the world. Preaching should aim for more.

To be continued…

Dr. Joel C. Hunter gets it right on conflict resolution:

As we continue to examine preaching and the preaching imagination, let’s turn again to Mark’s announcement in Mark 1: “…after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news (1.14-15 NRSV).” Previously we took a brief look at what it means that Jesus’ proclamation occurred, “after John was arrested,” but the next statement is equally as thought-provoking. It is a statement about location and speech; “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news….”

I note here that Jesus began his teaching in a place of His own choosing, but more importantly, He began His preaching to an audience of His choosing. I have noticed that a great deal of contemporary preaching is aimed at people and populations that are not present in the room. I once had a mentor tell me about a 25-year standing men’s prayer group. Early on the group decided to talk only about themselves. At no time were they permitted to talk extensively about their wives, work or children. The rule: Don’t talk about people who aren’t in the room. Another way of saying this is “take responsibility for you own stuff.” It is a move to end the deflection and obfuscation that all too frequently occurs within groups. While keeping the world outside of church building ever-present and a pressing concern of our worship, I’m arguing that the preaching event should address the people in the room.

Preaching should announce the good news with which the present hearers must deal. Too much preaching talks about “those people,” the people that “aren’t us.”  I recently heard a TV preacher railing against federal, “activist” judges. I immediately wondered: How many federal judges are members in his congregation? In the end, preaching that launches attacks or feigns “concern” for people not in the room is largely useless and oftentimes far more reveals the self-righteousness of the preacher and the perceived “goodness” of the congregants than announcing the good news of Jesus.  Unfortunately, this move contributes to the divisions and distance between those inside the church and those not yet inside; adding to human nature’s “us-versus-them” tendency.

Jesus announces a public word! No person or population is excluded and/or targeted. God’s will for the one is God’s will for all. No “us” and “them.” He is not trying to scandalize “them,” He’s scandalizing us “all.” He’s not offering freedom and hope to “us,” but freedom and hope to “all.” Therefore those within the room, should hear in the proclamation a call to make those outside the room both their destination and ally, rather than the opposition and enemy. The word is for all, entering the world through the ears of those who have already heard the word.

What if modern preaching approached its task as Jesus did, reversing the typical, “us-versus-them” orientation and called the church to deal forthrightly with her call – which is to announce “good news” to the all rather than proclaiming bad news just for the people we don’t like? Nietzsche commented, “the harm the good do is the most harmful harm.” He meant that good people, coming to believe that they possess goodness – by contrast, those who differ must be preternaturally evil – do violence because they do not consider the potential for their own evil. This, to me, is why, preaching must resist polarizing narratives that target and divide those within the ecclesia from those without. We are all, and at all times, in need of “the good news.” That, this Sunday, is what you should preach.

In the coming weeks I will celebrate my one-year anniversary as Senior Minister at Redwood Church. At the one-year mark, I am reflecting a great deal on my emerging theology of preaching.

You’re likely saying, “Sean, you’ve been in ministry for a while now, don’t you already have a theology of preaching?” The answer is “yes” and “no.” “Yes,” in that I have long-held commitments about the preaching event but “No” in that each commitment must be localized in specific communities. Therefore, fresh theology emerges in each new proclamation in each new location.  For example, commitments materialize differently in a church filled with PhD’s than it does in a church choc’ full of GED’s, or a congregation in southern Georgia than one in South Africa or even Oregon.

My commitments spring from two texts: Nehemiah 8 and Mark 1. Let’s being with the later, Mark 1. Mark announces, “…after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news (1.14-15 NRSV).” There is a great deal here to unpack, but let me unload a few key items.

First, Jesus begins His proclamations “after John was arrested.” Preaching engages the midst of reality and is frequently captured amongst life’s trials. Too many preachers – or cultural architects, soul-leaders, communicators, or whatever other new-fangled titles we’re giving ourselves these days to give people the illusion that we are not “preaching” – paint a picture of the world they wished we lived in; something on the sort of Ozzie and Harriet. In turn, the logic seems to go, a right reading of scripture and application thereof leads to a certain utopian fantasy.

Because of this kind of imagination, churches have largely become burning caldrons of the unreal – unreal being different and distinct from unrealized, mind you. “Everybody’s fine, no one sins except those heathens who never come to church, church leaders are nearly perfect, and the last thing we want to hear or say is that we are broken people or doubtful,” – these are the Rockwelian suppositions of the unreal.

These suppositions stand precisely because so much contemporary preaching does not deal with the dirt of life. Yet we don’t get that from Mark’s gospel. When Jesus comes “proclaiming the good news,” the world was in a pretty tough state. Jesus Himself suffered under an oppressive governmental system, the religious leaders had compounded the yoke of the Romans on God’s people, and His cousin, John, had been arrested with the axe of beheading dangling above him. This is real life. And with all apologies to the pimps of the prosperity gospel, Jesus does not promise that any bit of John’s suffering would be alleviated and the forerunner of God’s Christ would receive a new Bentley for his trouble. Jesus’ preaching dive-bombs into the middle of life’s complications and struggles and so should ours. Proclamation that begins and behaves as if “I’M OK, you’re OK” misses the point! All is not well.

Preaching, to be anything, presupposes that the world is in terrible tumult and trouble. At the same time, we should stand guard against the easy nihilism that could be read into this prescription. Suffice my launching preaching commitment to this: Preaching should not pretend! But here’s the good news, while the world is in trouble, preaching naïvely believes that preaching can help.

That’s where I start.

This is my review of Matthew Raley’s “The Diversity Culture,” which was posted at Viral Bloggers.

I picked up Matthew Raley’s. “The Diversity Culture” with great anticipation. Raley is a pastor in my new neck-of-the-woods, dealing with the same social, cultural and spiritual challenges that I have, and the topic – Christian engagement with others – had lots of promise. Plus, it ‘s been a busy month, and if I were to review a book this month, I wanted it to be short, which “The Diversity Culture” is. The information I received regarding the author, projected him as a political and social conservative and the church is woefully short of these kind of men and woman who are engaged in meaningful dialogue with the irreducible Other – or at least are willing to write about it!

After giving Raley a solid read, I must confess I found his work to be a mixed bag. That’s not to say that “The Diversity Culture” is a poorly written or overflowing with poor ideas. Rather, Raley and I, while sharing a desire for similar outcomes, we come at interaction with the Other in some significantly different ways.

My task here is not to argue with Raley – that would be counterproductive, not to mention out-of-school. Raley has some significantly useful points and perspectives that more Christ-followers would be wise to incorporate. Therefore, I will simple lay out what I consider to be the good, the bad and the ugly and allow you to decide.

The Good

Raley’s best work surrounds his ability to give Christians a language and process for engaging the Other. This, I know, can be discombobulating to some, especially those that view increasing diversity in America as some kind of threat. Describing the stereotypical World War II man, Raley explains that he “knows who he is.” This kind of knowing is often – and I may be reaching here myself – unsettled by cultures and epistemologies that the World War II man doesn’t understand. If that is the case, then Raley is a great place to begin.

What’s more, Raley, gives a step-by-step guide to engagement – the perfect solution for those who don’t quite know what to do. Raley offers scripture, community, and testimony as a way forward. For some this will be a great challenge and Raley gives them glimmers of hope and thoughtful ways to engage. If you know someone who wants to interact with Others, yet is too uncomfortable to do so, then Raley is a good place to start.

What’s more, Raley committed works from a Biblical perspective. He is not attempting to create conversations by distancing himself or the church from the claims of scripture. He is not even advocating that we see the Biblical text in a new way. Rather he is attempting to bridge the divide, giving Christ-followers helpful ways to move the conversation along

The Bad

But what Raley does well is also the Achilles heal of “The Diversity Culture.” Admittedly, most of these critiques involve the first half of the book, which was difficult to get through. First, while reading “The Diversity Culture” I got the distinct sense that the Other is a problem to be dealt with, not a person to be loved. The books aim seems to be this: “How do we get the irreducible Other to think and act like typical American evangelical Christians?” This fact is embedded in the book’s title. The subtle suggestion is that there is a “diversity culture” that we need to learn to reach and teach – as if (1) we are not all a part, in some degree, of the same culture and (2) that other cultures out to acquiesce to “our” culture.

Raley’s bias is exposed in his exegesis of the Samaritan woman, whom he constructs as the necessary Other to be engaged. Looking at Jesus’ interaction with the woman, Raley offers their interaction with one another as a model for the church. Here’s the problem with that model: (1) Within this interaction, Jesus is socially and politically the superior. This necessarily effects the engagement. We must ask whether or not this kind of engagement is a proper equivalent. Do we want to use an image of superiority when engaging the other? Perhaps one of Jesus’ encounters with a social equal might be better.

As Raley writes, you get hints of this superiority in his descriptions of others, such as a New York Times reader or the lady at Café Siddhartha. Raley characterizations may come off to some as flippant stereotypes that may make some readers wonder whether or not he took the irreducible Other seriously as a person. Along with this, Raley offers a popular exegesis of the Samaritan woman that simply is extra-textual. Like many before him, Raley posits that the woman was divorced by her five previous husbands, which may be true but is not actually in the text. How might the reader engage the Samaritan woman if through the devastating blows which life sometimes deals, they discover that she is a five-time widow? Sounds extreme? Maybe. But it is no more or less explicit in the text than a five-time divorcee. Oddly, I happen to know a woman who is a three-time widow. Given the disparity in ages, which occurred in the marriages of antiquity, it’s not entirely far-fetched. Perhaps Jesus’ interaction with the woman is less concerned about sin and more with compassion – but now I’m rambling. At root, however, for Raley the Other seems to be less a person and more the object of a ministry designed less to convert from darkness to light and more to assimilate. But, (and I mean this sincerely) I may be woefully misreading him.

Second, because Raley switches back-and-forth between an imagined scene in a café, his own insights and Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, his writing style seems herky-jerky, at times. Though not a major problem, there are points in which his argument is lost in transition.

It should be noted that Raley’s instincts get better as the book wears on, but it’s hard to give him an audience for that long. As a pastor desirous of conveying the message of the gospel, I respect Raley, and his desire to engage the Other in meaningful way. For that we can all be thankful.

A Life of Reading

Posted: September 24, 2009 in Bible, books, church, missional, reading, speaking, words, writing

A Million Miles

Posted: September 1, 2009 in books, church, reading, speaking, words, writing

The first 30 pages of Donald Miller’s new book, “A Million Miles In A Thousand Years.”

Later this month, Miller will be presenting at ACU Summit, as will I. I’m certain many more people will go to hear him rather than me.