Friday, July 25, 2008

A Break in the Preaching Stuff

Okay, enough with the sermonizing stuff for a moment.

I found another writer who shares the idea of faith laughing here.

Preaching pt.5 - Assumptions

N.T. Wright warns the preacher and teacher of the Gospel to never overestimate how much people know about the Bible or the faith, and never underestimate their ability to learn.

'Nuff said.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Preaching pt. 4 - The Congregation's Imagination

I was warned in seminary about the desire to impart knowledge as if we could unscrew the top of someone's head, pour in the information, and then screw the top back on. The warning was simple, it doesn't work.

So the art, rarely science, of preaching Good News requires the preacher to invite the imagination of the congregation into the process of preaching the sermon.

Rumi, the great Sufi poet, says of how reading poetry feeds the soul, "Actually, friend, what you're eating is your own imagination." When a sermon feeds the soul, is it not the same?

If the sermon simply seeks to impart knowledge, state facts, or exhort behavior, it will typically fall flat. If, instead, the preacher can evoke some image from the imagination of the congregation, if those in the pews can find their story being woven into the story being told, if their journey is acknowledged and honored in the journeys of the sermon, then a connection is made and something new is born of their imagination.

Inspiration and imagination are intimately linked.

Insomnia stinks

I think the title of this entry speaks for itself.

No more caffeine after lunch.
No more caffeine after lunch.
No more caffeine after lunch.
No more *yawn* Zzzzzzzzzzzz.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What is Preaching pt. 3

So exploring preaching (or as I like to say, procrastinating writing the sermon for this week), on a blog called faithlaughs, means I probably need to talk about humor.

Trying to describe humor is a terrible idea. If you have to explain the joke, it isn't funny.

But I think humor is necessary for preaching. Humor does several things at once. It ties together things that normally don't go together. It interrupts the usual view of the world and turns things on their head. In the form of clowns and parody and satire, humor takes ordinary things and blows them all out of proportion, sometimes showing us what we were not able or willing to see otherwise.

Such interruptions of normal life are not incongruous with the Bible.

I Corinthians 1:26-29 - (NRSV)
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

Rome doesn't stand a chance against such holy humor.

In preaching, humor breaks the seriousness which often infects and deflects the joy of our connection with creation, one another and God. If it is done well, humor interrupts our business-as-usual thinking that lets us settle for tomorrow being much the same as today.

I am also convinced that people learn more while laughing. We tend to be more open to learning while laughing, even if what we are learning what we have gotten wrong.

How I Do That, pt. 2

As I think about preaching, a few things come to mind.

Walter Brueggemann (and you should get used to reading that name often around here) counsels preachers to "stick close to the text."

I am sure that means different things to different preachers and readers of the Bible. For me it means following internal references in the stories to other Biblical stories, letting the stories speak for themselves, not assuming everything in the Old Testament is simply there as a pedestal on which to place the New Testament, and trying to find how to connect with what the story meant to those who heard it first (an impossible, but necessary, task).

This leads me in often opposite and sometimes conflicting directions. Letting the story speak for itself can mean drawing in other stories. Letting an Old Testament story have its say about the way of God without making it only a pre-frigurement of Christ, but also always having the lens of the Gospel as the means of understanding what is going on.

So staying close to the text for me means working and breathing and living in the paradoxes of scripture. Sometimes they are dissonant chords, sometimes minor or major, sometimes they resolve, and sometimes they do not.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How Do I Do That?

I don't know how I do what I do, and that bothers me.

This may be the final polish on the plaque that declares that I am a nerd, but I want to understand things. I especially want to understand how it is that stuff works. And it seems even more important to me to know how it is that I am doing what I do.

The mystery in question is preaching.

I know why I am preaching, or at least I have palatable answers for me and for others when the question arises.

Why do I preach? In no particular order:
  1. They pay me to, and after all it is a big part of my job.
  2. I enjoy it. For someone who hated to do homework, I love having study and an oral presentation each week.
  3. As Walter Brueggemann says much better than I do, we are a narrative people, and we live by stories. (See here for Brueggemann's description of how this works.) These stories (Torah, Gospel, Law and Prophets, the stories of faith in ordinary lives) are far better than the stories of Rome, or Washington, DC, or any other empire on earth.
  4. As the Rev. Dr. Dow Egerton used to say to us in preaching class, "I love to tell the story for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest..."

But how does it work?

I read the scriptures in the lectionary for the week, and sometimes an idea hits me then.
  1. Sometimes I have two or three false starts.
  2. Some weeks I realize I am writing several different sermons and need to pick only one to preach.
  3. Some sermons start as a spark from something I read or heard or overheard or watched.
  4. Some come all at once and my fingers and the keyboard have trouble keeping up, and some are like building a small model where you have to leave it alone time and again for the glue or paint to dry, only to come back later, add a few pieces and leave it again.
  5. Some get typed up fairly quickly, and then sit to ferment for a few days, so I can come back and distill what is good out of the mix.

It is a strange and unruly thing to do something week after week, and to be told I do it fairly well, and still have no clue how it is done.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Three Movies about the Self

In short order, the Mrs. and I saw three movies about the same thing, more or less. Penelope, Wanted, and Kung-Fu Panda all three deal with becoming who one really is.

The first, Penelope, is the story of a curse woman, born with the snout of a pig, to pay for the sins of a previous generation. Only when one of her own kind loves her til death do they part will the curse be lifted. It is a well told tale with many classic elements of a fable, done right.

The second, Wanted, is eye candy of the violent sort. It has several commendable qualities, and I wanted to like it. But it relies too heavily on the myth of redemptive violence to set things right for my taste.

Kung-Fu Panda is a joyful romp of an animated movie. The voice casting is brilliant, the animation incomparable, the humor, action and comedy well timed and well done.

So I can clearly recommend the first and the last highly. The middle one not so much.

All three have clear statements about what it means to be oneself in a world that so wants people to be the conglomeration of other's opinions and what we assume about ourselves.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Bucket Ride

I don't have a bucket list, but I did get a bucket ride. Yesterday, I officiated at the funeral of a long-time and influential former Fire Chief of our little town. He brought our local fire department out of the age of ladders and gaggers and into the age of aerial and snorkel trucks and proper self contained breathing apparatus.

It was a very moving service, with gifts of remembrance from family members, including his son, who succeeded him as chief. Members of fire departments from about a dozen or so communities in our county came in to take part in the funeral detail. This was my first time with the traditions of the fire department for a funeral, and it is as tight-knit a community as I have ever met. The final alarm for the chief was one of the most moving moments I have ever experienced in a funeral service.

The trip to the cemetery was another first for me and for the department as well. A well-built, handmade platform rig was placed just behind the bucket of the snorkel truck. The casket was placed on it, and strapped down for the ride. I rode in the bucket with one of the sons, also a firefighter, in a procession that led past the fire station, where the bell was rung 50 times, once for each year of the man's service to the department.

Resquiat in Pacem

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Joy of Worship

As usual, Frederick Buechner says it so better than I do:

Phrases like Worship Service and Service of Worship are tautologies.* To worship God means to serve him. Basically there are two ways to do it. One way is to do things for him that he needs to have done - run errands for him, carry messages for him, fight on his side, feed his lambs, and so on. The other way is to do things for him that you need to do - sing songs for him, create beautiful things for him, give things up for him, tell him what’s on your mind and in your heart, in general rejoice in him and make a fool of yourself for him the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love.

A Quaker Meeting, a Pontifical High Mass, the Family Service at First Presbyterian, a Holy Roller Happening - unless there is an element of joy and foolishness in the proceedings, the time would be better spent doing something useful. (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, pp. 97-98)

All I can add is amen.

*Yeah, I had to look up tautology, too. It means an unnecessary repetition, where two different words meaning the same thing are used together.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Wow, you look.....

This past weekend was my *cough mumble* year high school reunion. Friday night was bowling, which meant that the gregarious could congregate, and the shy could focus on the pins, and everyone seemed to have a good time. There was a whole lot of catching up, lots of "Oh my goodness, how are you?" in the fine southern tradition. Surprisingly there was not a whole lot of posturing or "how successful I am" stuff that I hear plagues some reunions. Maybe it has been enough years that we are all pretty comfortable in our skins. Maybe we actually grew up.

One person said that I looked so much the same he would have recognized me on the street. I'm still not sure if that is a good thing or not.

Saturday morning the Mrs. and I begged off the official events and went to a small gathering of one of the groups I hung out with, where there was coffee and fresh, homemade cinnamon rolls. They were flaky, with just enough cinnamon, some with raisins, some with craisins, some with orange glaze, some with chopped almonds, some with...

Well, you get the idea. I would hate to insult the cook, so I sampled a lot of them.

That night was the main gathering. The music was all from our senior year. The food was fabulous. But what was really cool was seeing the people and finding out what was going in their lives.

I lost count of the number of attorneys from our class, serving in every capacity from legal aid to federal prosecutor. There were teachers, from 3rd grade to high school to college, in the class.

When we recognized the attendees that have served or are serving in the military, about a dozen came forward, and another half dozen names got called out for those who are deployed elsewhere or otherwise unable to make it.

They called forward all the clergy from our class, and since I used a picture of me in the collar on the website, they knew I was one. There were about a half dozen total.

The best part was reconnecting with people I haven't seen in *cough mumble* years. Some look different. Some are just the same. Now we just need to follow through with our promises to keep in touch more often.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

So what have you been up to....

Coming off a fabulous family reunion, now I am getting ready for this coming weekend and a high school reunion. A few of these folks I have seen just about every year since graduation. Some I have caught up with occasionally. Most I haven't seen at all over the past *mumble cough* years. One classmate I met again because her parents joined the church I serve, only three states away from where we all were those many years ago. Cue the puppets for that "Small World" song.

For all its faults (and that's a post for another day), one of the great things the Internet has done is allow for reunions to create websites, so everyone can post then and now pictures, say what we have been up to since that day of cardinal colored mortarboards flying into the air at the football field, and reconnect before we meet in person.

Some graduates are working in TV and movies, either in front of the camera or on the effects behind the scenes. Some have stayed home and have bought the family business. Others have been there and back again, with family or military or schooling or careers, or interesting combinations thereof.

Of course, I have some trepidation. High school was not the easiest time, so not all the memories have a golden tone to them. Some friends I used to hang out with every weekend I haven't seen more than twice in the interim. With the trepidation, I am also excited. Some of these people were once very dear to me. In reconnecting with some recently, I discovered that the years of adventuring elsewhere has led to some great stories, but we are mostly still the same folks we were, and the friendship resumed easily.

All of this rambling is to say that I am trying to go into the reunion with fewer expectations, letting people be who they are, just being myself, enjoying getting to see everyone again.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Shall we gather at the river....

Shall we gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river....

Over the fourth of July (Happy Birthday, America!), we had a family reunion in the hills of East Tennessee, about an hour from where I was bred and buttered, as a friend used to call it. On the fifth of July, we drove to the river, and I finally baptized some of my family. I say finally not because of trepidation or backsliding on their part, but because I haven't seen them for way too long, and so my promise to baptize them had been delayed.

Jordan river, chilly and cold;
It chills the body, not the soul....

We were an assortment of people, family all, but several different shades of skin color, lots of different ages, and even several different church backgrounds and so several different baptismal theologies. A Catholic priest friend of mine calls that kind of gathering "a dress rehearsal for heaven."

One young man was of age to make the decision for himself, and was dunked in the good Baptist tradition of his family. Three others were between the age of not using all her words to about to go into kindergarten, for whom water in the shape of the cross on the forehead was proper for their families. And the little ones didn't like the idea of getting dunked in that cold water, even though they splashed around in it afterwards. The late entry to the ceremony was a brother-in-law who is about my age (we aren't naming years, friends).

So here we were, a variegated collection in most every category, standing in a chilly mountain river or safe and dry on shore, being baptized in various ways at various ages or witnessing to their baptism.

There is a privilege to my profession in being present when the Holy Spirit shows up. There is something just right about a group of people who love each other, and who have loved each other through times both good and difficult, gathering for the blessing of children (of whatever age!). And as I walked to each one, whether they were standing on their own or carried in a parent's arms, there was something sacred about that moment.

And there was something precious about the children splashing in the water after their baptism, getting more comfortable, wading in the same water that moments before was "tooooo coooooold." My prayer for each of them is to get more comfortable in that water, to learn to splash, or to swim, or to simply float and rest in the love of God.

....Wade in the water,
God's gonna trouble the water....

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Franciscan Benediction

There is something in me that makes me research stuff when I start new projects. I am an academic at heart. I just never liked homework. So I started reading other blogs, especially those of other UCC pastors, and I ran across a great prayer shared in worship in June at Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ.

They call it a Franciscan Benediction:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejections, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen.

That's the kind of foolishness that helps faith laugh.

Why "Faithlaughs?"

So there I sat, starting my first blog, faced with the important decision: By what name will this blog be known? I was trapped between the rocks of "gotta come up with a name no one else is using" and "how do I know this will be right for my thoughts, my congregation, my future posts?"

So I typed a few possible monikers in, and found that however profound they might have been, they were taken. I came up with one that was not claimed, but was way too long for anyone to type it in if they wanted to look me up. (Maybe that would not be such a bad thing. We shall see.)

As I fretted over this strange combination of "dear diary" and "this will be seen by the world," I sat back, took a breath, and "faith laughs" came to mind. It fits. It fits my preaching, my style of leadership, my belief in the idea that seriousness can kill, and it fits my congregation.

There are so many things to laugh about. For example, when I typed the first sentence of this post, my browser underlined blog as a word it didn't recognize. That's funny.

I don't expect this to be a humor site. But I do try to come at life and scripture and ministry and most everything else sort of sideways. And I love the stories of laughter in the Bible, in my family, and in the world.

So I guess I'm stuck with the name for now. Faith laughs. I like it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Getting started

The first thing on the to do list is to finish the list...

I realize that even though I grew up with a computer in the house, back in the days of the Apple II+, with the upgrade to the startling 48k memory (all together now, "oooooooh"), and having a computer or two around me most of my life, technology and on-line communities are changing so rapidly that I feel like I am starting after the race is over. But as part of a church diving recklessly into the late 1800's, I thought it was time I started blogging. The beauty of a week's vacation coming up is that I might even figure out some things to blog about.

Or I may just sit back, relax with a new book or two, and enjoy seeing my family again.

The second thing on the to do list is pack....