LATEST PODCAST. Preachers are like manure. When you spread us out, we can do a lot of good. But when you pile us up all together it can be almost unbearable. On a preachers tour to Israel I found out why.
Reframing to Blessings
When I first began to preach as a pastor it was in small churches in Central Texas. They were mostly blue collar and working folks, farmers, retired people who had moved out from the city, an assortment of people who end up in a church together by virtue of geography.
As I was just beginning my ministry, I desperately read books about how to preach and how to be an administrator and how to do all of this and that. But I particularly remember one preaching book that encouraged me to try to turn my main point into a positive affirmation. This became central in my life, even if I didn’t always do it well.
Having trained academically, I had a disposition toward thorough analysis and preface. It meant that I could spend a long time, and in those early sermons I surely did on those poor people, explaining why it was I was going to tell them what I was going to tell them. That usually meant 8 or 10 reasons why the world was going to hell and why they needed the one good thing I was going to slip in right before the final hymn. Only later did I learn to move more consistently to the affirmations of the gospel. people don’t need nearly as much analysis as we are inclined to give.
I find that to be generally true, though, these days. If you look at the Twitter feeds of sports teams, you would believe that every coach is an absolute disaster every player incompetent and no team having any idea what they were doing. We are heavy on criticism and analysis and a little short on blessing. It is a difficult exercise to begin to turn your negativity into affirmation. It goes against the grain of so much of our brokenness.
I preached plenty of sermons that were heavier on analysis and what needs to be fixed. But the best ones were always the ones that moved to the extraordinary good news of hope and transformation. The latter were what Jesus brought to the world, as has every other great religious leader who has ever lived and for that matter the best people in our lives. They have the capacity to take something that can be cast in the negative and turn it into an fresh affirmation. There is a place, an important one, for analysis and criticism. We need to evaluate and reconsider. But one of the great failings of our time is the predominance of the negative. Too much is centered around what’s wrong with the other person or those people or this or that bogeyman created by our collective fears.
Dr Samuel Proctor was a wonderful African American preacher, educator, theologian and scholar. He honored me by contributing a chapter to a book that I helped edit once. He once said of a contemporary, “Well, his “whereases” are pretty good but his “therefores” are a little weak.” It’s the therefores that finally make the difference.
You always remember when someone has forcefully taken familiar and empty concepts and words and recast what had seemed a dark and empty time into something surprisingly filled with hope. This is the genius of authentic leadership and authentic servanthood.
“Reframing” refers to taking something and recasting it so it can be seen afresh. In pastoral conversations, it can convey great power to respond to some statement of despair with, “Of course, another way to look at this…” and to see a light go on in the eyes. Blessing has great power. It is not denial, and it is not romanticized optimism. Blessing comes from Truth. It is an ultimate statement of “the way it is,” beyond our filters and negative predispositions.
Someone once said to me, “It can help to begin to use new words, to state things differently, when we are trying to change.” So, this might be a powerful spiritual practice. Take your dread, fear or hopeless assumption and begin to speak of it anew. Invite a larger perspective, one that allows for blessing, not curses, to be the final word for you.
Wobbling On the High Wire
Holy Week has always been special for me as a Christian and pastor. Frankly, in the church year it always meant more to me than Christmas, though I adore Christmas for the deep cultural sense of family, baby Jesus and joy.
Holy Week is not the same tone. It is juxtaposed with an equally perilous spiritual history, Passover, when the Hebrew people were delivered by God from slavery and oppression, but not without great anxiety and fear. For Christians, it is a somber week that strips away, day after day, one human pretension of pride after another until all that is left is Jesus, alone in prayer while his closest companions slump wearily into sleep nearby. I don’t fault them—I identify with them. They are most like me. They are overwrought, afraid, wary, unsure of themselves.
The week ends in death and tragedy, the annihilation of every hope they had entertained. They were enveloped by a tidal wave of despair washing three years of growing excitement away with the words, “It is finished.” But it is ever so real to human experience. Not all of life, of course, but there are moments when everything is dashed to pieces and you wobble on the high wire. Most Christian kitschy art and movies rush to the resurrection, much like our tendency at a funeral to skip the empty space in our souls and offer glib denial and quick tours of heaven. There is little real drama, because you already know everyone will dance around and be excited shortly.
So that is my special week. But it is personal. Fifty years ago, liturgically (it was a week later than this year), I sat in the choir loft on Sunday night at Crestview Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio during a communion service. That evening we observed it in complete silence, an odd prelude to an important reality for me in years to come, and in that stillness, I had an experience of such forceful clarity that altered my life. I went before the church the next Sunday to announce that I believed God had called me into ministry.
Every year, when I walk this week with Jesus, I revisit that strange moment. I have agonized through the years to keep peeling it back to understand it better. I have, like the disciples, slumbered too much and been thickheaded about what is going on at important moments. You cannot do this work without a sense of genuine calling. And you cannot do this work faithfully without a real sense of self-questioning along the way. It is a window through which I have looked out at everything all these years.
Now, in retirement for a month, I find myself there again, asking, “What is my calling now?” It feels as new and uncertain as age sixteen again, a reminder to me that life is never “set.” There is a simple call for us who are Christians, “Follow me,” and a vast web of reflection that asks, “What does that mean? For me? For now? For this time?” And I am grateful that a mysterious Benevolence seems to dwell among us, not seeming to give up on us, and offering something extraordinary around the next corner, even when it is utterly unmarked and full of uncertainty.
Morning coffee comes to our cells,
We are not in jail, we are monks of the pandemic
“Go to your cell. It will teach you everything.”
This time can teach us, too.
We can go to Good Friday here.
By three o’clock, the world shaken,
The darkness a shadow across our souls,
the failures and oblivion of us all fully revealed and judged.
By three o’clock, the thieves will have died, too.
The crowd dispersed, the disciples disheartened,
His mother and the Beloved Disciple,
Having to keep their distance, wait to receive His body.
All will descend into silence.
Even Easter will begin with a graveyard disruption
A woman alone
And disciples hiding behind locked doors.
We can do this.
The Invitation to Serve
Sermon preached on Sunday, March 29, 2020 at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. You can view the recorded version here.
NRS Luke 9: 44 “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” 45 But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying. 46 An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. 47 But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, 48 and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”
This is the final message in my series on “Better Reasons to Believe” and it is this: “because we are invited to serve.” That sounds strange, I admit. “The chance to sacrifice what I want so someone else can have it” doesn’t top most people’s lists of what matters the most.
The poor lieutenant governor of Texas this past week, in a moment of bravery, said, “We grandparents need to risk sacrificing our lives for the economic futures of our grandchildren, even if we die.” The firestorm was predictable. Whatever his intentions, a lot of people said, “After you, sir.”
But how do we sacrifice in this moment of global pandemic? And will that be enough? It’s a real question. But not a new one.
This Bible story happened in the aftermath of the confession at Caesarea Philippi, when
Peter acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah, and then followed the Transfiguration, when three of the disciples went with Jesus to the top of the mountain and saw a vision of Jesus radiant with the glory of God and a mysterious voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved son”
After this astounding spiritual experience, though, they went back down the mountain and the next day everything started to go wrong. First, the disciples, giddy with their calling to go forth try to help, try to help a poor child who suffered from convulsions and the father came to Jesus, saying in essence, “Your disciples tried, but they couldn’t help.” Continue reading The Invitation to Serve