A small update

Hi everyone–

Not being on social media this year, I have no idea who (if anyone) will read this. I think I have subscribers, however… so maybe it’ll be you guys.

ANYWAY. If you’re reading this, here’s a little update from me.

My year long break from social media has been really joyful. I didn’t realize how much my mind and heart were dissipated by the perpetual noise of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and all the rest. I did think when I first ventured out into these unknown waters that I would miss the interaction with people and perhaps start to feel lonely. That has decidedly not been the case. I’ve found that I have more time for really genuine, face to face relationships, and that those people on social media who really want to keep up with me are more than capable of doing so. It’s been a year of settled, genuine connection. I’ve been grateful for that.

In addition, I’ve found myself praying for the world better, “cleaner” even. What I mean is this. Instead of hearing about what is going on in the world through the filter of social media and all of the attendant noise (and antagonism), and then having to pray through that noise, my new habit is to head to the BBC every couple days, get a sense of the flow of global events, tracking with the big stories as much as I can, and pray. It’s making prayer for the world fun again. I’ve loved that.

I’ve also, as you know, been trying to do some writing this year. There are folks out there who are eager to work with me, and I’m really grateful for that. I’ve found favor on that front.

All the same, the writing itself has been a bit of a struggle–finding my voice more than anything. I’ve cooking on and playing around with a few ideas–all of which I think are good and worthy–but more and more I find myself thinking that perhaps the topic is not so important as the process of achieving a sense of who I am as a writer through the writing itself (whatever the topic), and how that flows out of who God has made me to be to this point.

In any event–if you’re reading this, say a prayer for me over that. I think writing is something that God has called me to. I’m patiently trying to find my groove in it.

That’s all for now. The family is doing well. Bloom is thriving. Life is good. Thanks as always for your prayers… and lemme know if you’re in Denver and wanna hang.

Grace,

Andrew

The Year Ahead

Hi friends–

I’m sitting in the study in my parents’ house on a gorgeous Wisconsin December afternoon (rare but real). The snow is glistening, the sun is shining, the house is quiet, and I’m doing some thinking and planning for the upcoming year.

2016 will mark my 10th year in full time vocational ministry. It has been quite an odyssey since leaving seminary in the summer of 2006. I couldn’t have guessed any of it. I have learned and matured and grown and been challenged in ways I could never have anticipated. What God has done over those 10 years… my goodness. It has filled our hearts with delight. We’ve taken some lumps (everyone does), we’ve got a few bruises and battle scars (everyone has them), but we’re here. We’re standing. We have energy in our hearts for the future. And that’s nothing to sneeze at. It could easily have been otherwise. I’m proud of that. And grateful. So very grateful.

I know that not everyone is this way, but I’m a huge sucker for moments that mark. For “time-keeping.” To me, paying attention to the “signs that mark the days and seasons and months and years” (Genesis 1) is how we orient ourselves. How we know what we should be doing. How we ensure our efforts are in concert with the hum of the universe.

So I mark time. “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” could be something of a life verse for me. When significant milestones roll around, I get quiet. I listen. I try to pay attention to the brooding of the Spirit over my soul.

As I stand here at this milestone–10 years–I am keenly aware of a deep need I feel to draw back a bit and reflect in more depth on who I am, how I’m wired, and what my presence and energy count for. Not just for the church I am privileged to serve. But for the world.

I don’t want to waste my efforts. I don’t want a minute of the next ten years to fall to ground in vain. I want to run with a greater sense of purpose, and clarity. So I’m pulling back. I’m going to listen. Harder. Better. I’m going to deepen my obedience.

This past summer I felt the Lord leading me to engage the discipline of retreat with a new intensity. So I took monthly retreats up to the mountains for solitude, reflection, and prayer.

Retreat is a funny thing. You get that quiet, that attentive, and all of a sudden you start realizing just how empty most of the sound we make is. And not only that, you start realizing how much our lives are dictated and shaped not by the Word that gave birth to the worlds, but by empty chatter. Our speech, you may recall, was given to us to name and enable (you might say “to bind and loose”). Often, maybe mostly, we use our speech in ways that oppress and confuse. Our tongue ensnares us. And others. Human words need to be disciplined by the Word himself if they are to be what the Creator intended them to be.

On one of my retreats this fall, the thought hit me that it would do my soul, my LIFE, a lot of good if I pulled away from social media for a year. Exit that noisy world in order to anchor more fully in the Voice that is resounding at the center of the life the Lord has given me.

At first the idea gave me a lot of energy. Then it scared the crap out of me. Then I started talking about it with people to see if I could get clarity. Back and forth I would go between energy and fear, and of course questioning my motives (which do I constantly). Is this a desperate plea for attention (it might be…ha)? Will people feel judged by what I am doing (they might…but I’m not really in control of that)? What about the voice/platform that God has given me for others (it will probably be there when I get back…right?)? Is it right to walk away from that (it might…or might not…)?

All the (vexing) questions…

The truth is that there is a long and venerable tradition in Christianity of ordinary people who were hungry for the voice of God pulling back in order to listen. No one needs permission to engage that tradition. If the desire is there, one is free to follow it. And that’s what I’m doing.

So part of my pulling back to listen is that I’m signing off of social media this year. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. I’ll go at least a year (2016) and then evaluate after that. It’s important to say that there’s no broad-brush judgment entailed in this. The world has benefited greatly from the immediacy that social media has given us. But I think we’ve all felt the peril of it–each of us in different ways. I’m doing this for me. And when I re-engage, I’m trusting that I’ll do it differently because I will BE different. This is about transformation. The transformation that happens when we attune ourselves more deeply to God.

I should hasten to add that I’ll still be BLOGGING. (I just won’t have the platform to “share” it on…so we’ll see what happens with that…haha.) So this site will stay live, and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to write more given the channeling of energy that a social media cleanse is likely to produce. You can keep up with me here at the blog, and also over at the Bloom website where you can listen to all the Bloom talks. And of course you can always email me at andrew.arndt@gmail.com to say hey, talk shop, or have me come and speak at your church (which I’d love to do!).

While I’m away, I’d love it if you’d take the time to pray for me. A few things, specifically:

  1. As this moment represents a real marker for me vocationally, I feel now more than ever the tug to publish. Pray for clarity for me as I walk down that road.
  2. For the same reason, I feel the time is right to start planning for more education. I think the Lord has blessed me with a good head for higher learning, and that learning has always had a profound and almost immediate impact on my work. I’ve delayed getting back into school for far too long. Pray likewise for clarity there.
  3. I also feel the need to clarify in greater detail who I am as a leader, how I’m wired, and how and where my leadership presence should be put to the best use at Bloom. I have some plans for walking down this path of discernment, and am hoping to emerge from this year with my meter set on my pastoral leadership for the next stretch run.

And of course, you can always pray for me and the family–depth and joy and fullness and all of that. We’ll take all we can get :).

So that’s that. I’ll shut those few accounts down tomorrow and we’ll get started.

I want you to know that I take the voice you’ve given me seriously, and am so deeply appreciative for all y’alls support and encouragement to me here at the blog over the years. Please know that I consider myself a pastor to you, even if from afar and in this very limited way. Don’t hesitate to let me know how I can be a help to you.

At the end of one year, and the beginning of another, as always,

Grace to you,

Andrew

10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons: Lesson 10–The End of the Matter

 

The writer of Ecclesiastes said, “The end of a matter is better than its beginning” (7:8). He might have also added something about how of the making of blogs there is no end :). (I actually toyed with the idea of continuing this series… there really is a lot to say… but alas, I think it’s time to move on).

I want to end by talking yet one more time about the heart of the preacher as it pertains to his (or her!) task. Ecclesiastes says it as well as anyone:

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (12:13-14)

One of the things I frequently tell people is that I can think of no task on planet earth as taxing on every conceivable level as preaching is. Even when it’s working well, and you find yourself in that beautiful zone of grace where sense that you are laboring with Jesus in the light yoke, it still takes a toll. To preach well, you cannot be on autopilot. Ever. Preaching well requires that you live at the “cutting edge”, as it were, of your abilities: your ability to reason theologically, to think biblically, to understand congregational process and tailor your sermons to aid it in the right directions… not to mention your own walk with God. Much is asked of you, and if you add into all of this the criticism you are likely to receive, it can leave you feeling vulnerable and exposed, which can take a powerful toll on you over time.

I have great compassion on preachers that feel run down from the task. It is not easy. In the early years of Bloom, I used to come home from our gatherings (we met and still meet in the evenings on Sundays), eat some dinner, and then fall asleep early watching TV (I would be SO exhausted)… only to be startled awake by a welter of confusing thoughts and emotions in the middle of the night–thoughts and emotions that usually kept me up most of the rest of the night. I would analyze and fret about literally everything there was to analyze and fret about:

Why did that story not work the way I wanted it to?

Is that real resistance I feel whenever I talk about that particular subject, or only imaginary?

Why were there fewer people at church this week than last?

Could other people tell that I was having a socially awkward night, or did I hide it pretty well?

How in the world did I forget that guy’s name when he shook my hand again!

And on and on and on.

I’ve often told people that I’m still charismatic enough to believe in “spiritual warfare”, and I personally NEVER experience that warfare as strongly as I do leading up to and coming out of messages. It’s like the Enemy is intent upon spoiling my life at exactly the place where my agency is designed to most specifically and powerfully touch the world (imagine that). Mostly he does this by trying to make me feel like I’m a miserable failure, or a fake.

I’ve gotten good over the years at identifying the voice of the Accuser in my head. My goodness, though, he is subtle. More often than not he will use my self-reflecting ways against me to make me feel like my efforts are futile and that I’m letting the world down. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve even gotten sincere (and often long-winded) compliments from people in gratitude for my ministry and had the voice of the Accuser immediately chime in, “Yes, yes… but they’re probably hiding some criticism and disappointment with you somewhere in their hearts.” It can be debilitating.

Here’s the deal (last lesson): You will not survive this unless you learn to put yourself completely and totally in the hands of God.

You need to run, literally RUN, for the Strong Tower. When you get there, stay. Don’t let anything move you.

Back to Ecclesiastes. After waxing eloquent for twelve chapters on the futility of life under the sun, the writer boils the “whole duty of mankind” into this summary statement: “fear God and keep his commandments.” And why? Because “God will bring every deed into judgment.”

GOD is the center and the summary for the writer of Ecclesiastes. GOD will bring every deed into judgment. GOD will weigh out the motives of our heart. GOD will disclose the full meaning of our lives. GOD. GOD. GOD. He is the “hard core” of the universe. Everything else is vapor. Fluff. Chaff.

I personally find that very comforting. When I let my heart sink deep into the universe of meaning created by the writer of Ecclesiastes on that point, I am lead inexorably to these words by the Apostle Paul. Listen to what he says of his own ministry in 1 Corinthians 4:

Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.” (vv1-4)

“I do not even judge myself.” When you believe, at bottom, that the most truthful account of your life can only be made by God, it is liberating. People’s judgments of you do not, cannot, matter. And neither do your own judgments of yourself matter. For you cannot see what your life and your preaching are doing. You cannot fully weigh out your motives. You cannot know all that is happening. And your attempts to assess it all… to suss it out… as good-hearted as they are, they are futile. When you learn to cast yourself at the Mercy, you find freedom. Freedom to live and love and preach with joy. For the one who knows your motives most fully (the good and the bad) and therefore is best positioned to judge you is also the one who loves you most deeply, and has called you to keep discharging the trust committed to you.

Over the years, that insight has had a way of lightening the load powerfully for me. Andrew is not on trial in his own preaching. Knowing that, I can stand up, give what I have been given, and walk away. Where I fail, I fail. (Good thing it didn’t all depend on me.) Where I succeed, I succeed. (But I know that any success is owed to the grace at work in me.) It is not about me. I am loved and called to the task and loved and invited to rest and loved and provoked to take the easy yoke and loved and loved and loved and loved… right in the middle of it all.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from his Tegel prison cell, perhaps captured it best:

Who am I? They often tell me

I stepped from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a Squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me

I used to speak to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As thought it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

Equably, smilingly, proudly,

like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,

Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

Tossing in expectations of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

That is really the heart of it. We preachers, as disciples before all things, belong to God. So in the midst of our task, we entrust ourselves to God’s knowledge, his judgment, his mercy. We are freed from the excessive scrutiny that threatens to undermine the joy we take in our calling. Judged and forgiven at the cross of Christ, we are liberated to serve without fear.

I hope that you know this, preacher. I hope that you know that the Lord loves you and has called you. I hope you know that his love is more fundamental than what people say about you. I hope you know that his love and calling of you are more fundamental than your judgments against yourself. I hope you know that you are welcome, each and every time you preach, to abandon yourself to the Mercy, knowing that you are not on trial, knowing that the only trial that ever mattered was the one in which the Son of God, in whom your life is caught up, was judged by men and vindicated with a triumphal shout by God. Forever you stand in light of the Father’s acclamation, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” In us, as we are in Him, the Father is well-pleased.

This understanding should give you the ability to be patient with yourself. You’re going to succeed some. You’re also going to fail some. In it all, you are going to grow in grace. And as you do, the light of eternity will shine brighter and brighter through your words. The kingdom will shimmer through not just your speech, but your life, for this knowledge of the Father’s being well-pleased with you will move from being some pseudo-juridical bit of theological content to the very tenor of your being. You will learn to live out of this knowledge. You will walk on the water of the Father’s impossible love for you.

And you will inspire others to do the same.

Grace to you, preachers. Keep living in the Mercy. Hope you’ve enjoyed these posts.

Andrew

10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons: Lesson 9–Speak to The Perennial Concerns

(NOTE: This post is part of a series of posts I’ve been doing talking about the art and craft of preaching on this, the 10th anniversary of my own preaching ministry… hope you’ve enjoyed!)

One of the things that I did not (could not) sufficiently appreciate about preaching when I began 10 years ago was how it related to the general life of the congregation over time. I can very clearly recall the more or less two-dimensional picture I had in my mind of that relationship: there is the content I have in my head about a whole variety of topics, and there is this group of people that demand that someone share compelling content with them week in and week out. The preacher’s job is to keep coming up with that compelling content.

The result of this highly simplistic notion of preaching was that (to borrow an image from Henri Nouwen) I saw myself as a person with a backpack full of neat stuff that people might find interesting: theological concepts, biblical knowledge, opinions about this and that, and some clever stories. My task was to find a way to share what was in that backpack with the crowd that gathered each week. (God forbid that I should ever run out!) The practical outcome of conducting my preaching ministry this way was that the sermon space consisted of a never-ending carousel of topics seemingly chosen somewhat at random: spiritual disciplines, the sermon on the mount, ecclesiastes, community, liturgy, etc etc.

I could hardly be faulted, I suppose, for so conducting my preaching ministry. This, after all, is what most churches and most preachers do. Of course many of them have created pretty sophisticated approaches for making sure the “diet” of their congregation is balanced over time, and they should be lauded for this. The problem was, it didn’t work for me.

Actually, I might correct myself there. If what we’re judging the preacher by is what I outlined above (his or her ability to consistently come up with compelling content), then in point of fact it did work for me. It’s just that I’m not sure it was the right approach, since it rested on what I think is a more or less faulty understanding of what congregational life in fact is.

And with that, here’s lesson 9–Get comfortable claiming and speaking to the perennial and central issues and needs for the people of God.

Despite all of our rhetoric about being “missional” and “non-consumeristic” and “non-performance-driven” and all of that, we still had set up our congregation’s life to basically consume good messages every week. The pressure could at times be crushing. “Ok, we just talked about prayer. What if we did an Old Testament book? I could do some things in the pulpit I’ve never really done before… freshen things up a bit.” It’s no wonder that after a few years of preaching every week, I found myself pretty burned out.

One of the things that time in the pulpit has afforded me is the ability to see the texture of people’s lives, and then to perceive with more clarity what role the gathering of the congregation plays in those lives. The way I see it now is something like this: this particular people that I have the privilege of pastoring have been living their lives “out there”, in the world where in truth most of the action is. The Spirit of God is at work there. There are other forces at work, too. For the most part, they find themselves caught up in the push and pull between the Spirit of God and the powers of this age, in the struggle between life and death.

Being so caught up can be in various measures perplexing, invigorating, confounding, and inspiring. In any given week, there is a good chance that there will be both incredible highs, and incredible lows. They will have the opportunity to witness God powerfully at work saving and delivering and healing not only their own lives, but the lives of the people around them. At the same time, they will also have ample opportunity to witness the gut-wrenching pain of the world. Some of that pain they will experience personally. They will be betrayed, hurt, disappointed, and let down by others. Some of the pain they will cause through their own rebellion and shortcomings. There will be failure and frustration even as there will also be triumph and celebration. They will most likely wander into our gathering on Sunday a bit disoriented, to say the least. What is it that they need? What do ANY of us really, REALLY need?

What I am learning now is that the corporate gathering of the people of God has an incredibly important role as it relates to the disorientation I’ve described. Namely, we gather to be reminded who and Whose we are, to see the world once again with baptized eyes, to encounter Christ the Lord, to experience the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and to be sent, blessed and strengthened, back into the lives that God has given us to live. Our worship, and our preaching with it, is part of how we say to this family gathered in front of us, “Your whole life belongs here, in the presence of God; for you are his. Open your life to Jesus Christ again. See the world under his reign again. Let him claim you. Let him call you into his life and purpose. He can be trusted. Trust him now.”

I’m more aware now than I have ever been that when a person, for instance, finds out that their parent has been diagnosed with cancer, the very last thing they need is to wander into a worship gathering and listen to a preacher wax on for the better part of an hour on how to be a better employee (though that is important, and we need to work hard to develop spaces and places where issues like that can be addressed–and in reality, a good preaching ministry will find ways to speak to things like being a good employee in elegant and subtle and powerful ways, without distracting from the central task of the pulpit). They need, rather, to be reminded that God is good. That Jesus is real. That the Spirit is at work. They need to hear once again the good news, the “gospel” about how in Christ Jesus the Triune God has come and taken all of the pain and hurt and confusion and brokenness of the world up into himself, and overcome it with his limitless life, such that Resurrection (not Death) is revealed now the defining dynamic of the universe. They need to know that this gracious God, revealed in Christ Jesus, and made “immediate” to us by the Holy Spirit can be trusted. That (to use Dallas Willard’s poignant phrasing) he is competent to handle all the things that matter most to us. That if we’ll enter into deep relationship with him through prayer and worship and obedience, our lives will be healed and dignified beyond all reckoning… that we’ll find ourselves made able, for instance, to forgive our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to share our possessions with the poor and with the needy in our congregational family. We’ll find strength to keep hoping beyond hope for the world to come to the knowledge and love of Jesus. We’ll discover resources to keep going even and perhaps especially when it seems like God is absent or not working, for faith beyond our senses will grow in us. They need to know that “the kingdom of God” is not a far off concept, but a reality now that can be entered into and lived out of at any point. That God is for them and not against them.

10 years ago, even five years ago, I might have taught a series on prayer and then thought when it was over, “Well, now that I’ve taught on prayer, I’ll have to leave that aside for awhile.” Now, I can’t teach on it enough. And actually, what I’m finding is that as I attune myself to my central job, which is to proclaim the gospel each week to this gathered people, all of the big, recurring themes find their way rather elegantly and effortlessly into my messages… Because the truth is that at the end of the day, wherever you drop down in the narrative of Scripture, it is going to call you…

To cast yourself at the Mercy

To commune with God in prayer

To live faithfully in community

To love your enemies

To reach out to your neighbors in love

To open yourself to the Holy Spirit

To forgive your enemies and those who have hurt you

And so on and so forth…

You have to, you just have to keep hammering away at this stuff, approaching it from a variety of angles and through whatever texts you are preaching on (once again, this is why the lectionary has become an invaluable resource to me: I can just drop down into the Gospel narrative, get a feel for its movements and edges, and then based on what I sense happening in the community, can call this people back to ruthless trust in and joyful obedience to the peculiar God made known in this peculiar text), because the life of the people of God depends on it.

Preaching, I have found, descends into so much trivia when we neglect this. Sermons becomes places where we do a lot of theological and rhetorical gymnastics to impress people. The people of God are often impressed under such circumstances, but also starved… Behind what I am calling for here is a need to continually discern the form of the Church’s life and then preach in such a way that the people of God are constantly called into it, to live faithfully in it. I remember being so impressed listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, talk about his pastoral concern for the global Anglican communion to a group of pastors not too long ago. With some 90 million people under his care, he spoke with great emotion of things like the need to help people pray, to teach them to be reconcilers in a world riddled with strife, and to reach out their hands in love, drawing those who don’t know Christ into a fellowship with the Triune God. I remember thinking, “Yes! Those are my concerns too!”

But they are MY concerns precisely because they are the PERENNIAL concerns of the global Church–whether Catholic, Protestant, or other. As servants of the church, I am not sure that we preachers are living up to our calling by conducting preaching ministries that roam far and wide across every conceivable theological or personal-interest landscape. I think that in the main what we must do is preach to those perennial concerns. If we’ll do that, we’ll create rich environments where our local churches can rise in faithfulness to God. This also is one of the reasons that teaching/preaching pastors MUST be deeply involved in the lives of people. The further the teaching ministry of the church floats away from actual people, the more arcane and irrelevant it will be.

Now I am not saying that we can’t or shouldn’t stop here and there to address specific issues. It’s just that when we do, we ought to make sure they are THE issues that the whole people of God need to be hearing about. (This is one of the reasons why I’ve never done, for instance, a series on parenting or the family at Bloom–how in the world does that help the single person live more faithfully to Jesus? How does that address the whole people of God? Maybe there’s a way and I’m just not seeing it… 🙂 ) I want to make sure that our whole congregation is nourished and strengthened each week at the Table, and I see my preaching as a function of that Table.

Christ Jesus is made manifest in history and is calling people to trust him with their whole lives. This will be the healing of the world. Are we preaching to THAT, or to something else?

That is what I’m always asking myself.

Love to hear your thoughts and questions.

Grace,

Andrew

10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons: Lesson 8–The Confluence of Journeys

(NOTE: This post is part of a series of posts I’ve been doing over the past few months reflecting on what I’ve learned over the course of 10 years of preaching… hope you’ve enjoyed them!)

If you do all of the things I’ve recommended in the previous posts, chances are you’re going to have the beginnings of a preaching ministry that has some potency. This potency will be due on the one hand to the clarity, precision, and focus of your content. It will be due, on the other hand, to the quality of earthiness and authenticity you bring to the table each week–a disciple relating to other disciples the challenge and promise of following Jesus.

This “earthiness”, as I have called it, is an indispensable element to your ministry among the people of God. No one benefits from having a preacher whose stoic presence each week makes one wonder whether or not they personally have been touched by this stuff. We are not called to stand up and simply recite the lines of our favorite systematic theology or biblical commentary. The Word is living. For disciples of Jesus, as that Word lives and moves and shapes us, it will (or should, anyway) be evident to those watching our lives–and no one’s life in the community is more on display than the preacher’s. Our transparency about that process has a powerful function in the lives of the people we minister to–among other things, it gives them permission to themselves be a people “under construction”, as it were, yet-to-be-finished masterpieces under the wise governance of the life-giving Spirit of God. All of this is at it should be.

Nevertheless, as anyone who has grappled with the call to preach for any length of time knows, this call to earthiness, authenticity, and transparency about our own process carries with it a hidden peril. A friend of mine, in describing why he, for a time, was stepping back from pulpit ministry, stated it like this:

I can’t quite separate what God is doing with me personally and what He is speaking to us as a congregation. I feel like I’m shedding a bunch of theological misconceptions and stuff I’ve just believed as believe-ism as opposed to a grounded faith. I guess you’d call it a sort of deconstruction simultaneous with a reconstruction…but [I realize] then that might be quite jarring for a communityIs there no difference between the personal journey of the preacher and the communal journey?

That right there, the question of the relationship between the personal journey of the preacher and the communal journey, is precisely the peril I am talking about–the peril of the preacher’s own “self” being insufficiently differentiated from that of the congregation, with the result that the communal journey and the personal journey of the preacher are one and the same.

This can happen on two fronts:

The Theological. From my where I stand, it seems that this struggle has been most pronounced in recent years among those feeling the Spirit’s call for them to emerge from the extremely narrow, sectarian, and often fundamentalist or conservative ways of thinking in which their faith was reared and into the breadth of the faith of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”, as the Creed declares. The struggle here is very real, as we begin to come to grips with alternative vantage points from within orthodoxy–vantage points that challenge our own prejudices and assumptions–we long for the congregation to experience the same beautiful disequilibrium that we are experiencing, knowing its power to bring about transformation.

This longing for the congregation is well and good; it is part and parcel, I would argue, of the pastoral task–the task of bringing the people of God out of their enclaves and into the shared faith of the global Church. The problems start to occur when we either (a) fail to appreciate the length of time it may take most of the folks in our congregation to catch up to what we’ve seen, (b) fail to appreciate the reality of the traditions and structures we’re laboring within, thus dishonoring the “house” in an attempt to help people, (c) begin to obsess over our own newest pet doctrine or issue within Christianity, thus imbalancing the congregation’s “diet” as it were, and finally (d) in our zeal foolishly lead our congregations to swap one ideology for another.

One of the worst mistakes I ever made as a preacher was preaching a sermon on the call to make peace to a more or less conservative, Bible-belt church I was serving at in Oklahoma. At the time, I had been reading a lot of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, and was really grappling with the biblical and theological case for nonviolence. That journey was so very real and fresh for me, that I felt compelled in this message to say something about it. I wanted to challenge the congregation to see that even if the case for absolute nonviolence was a contested one in the Church (as it is), even so, the call of Christ to make peace, to absorb blows rather than inflict them, and to forgive our enemies, was so very powerful that it must continually challenge our fear and hatred of “the other”, leading us to become a prophetic voice in a world so massively torn and conflicted.

A good impulse, no doubt. The problem, among other things, was my total lack of pastoral sensitivity. Instead of simply laying the richness of the call of Christ to each one of us at the feet of the congregation, I foolishly abstracted that call into the ideology of nonviolence, and then proceeded to lay that at the feet of the congregation (a congregation, I should note, full of veterans and families of veterans). Why did I do that? Because I was personally wrestling with nonviolence and decided to use the pulpit as an opportunity to work it out. Bad move. The brew ha ha that ensued over the next few days told the tale, and even though I was tempted at the time to simply write off those whom I had offended, the truth is that they were helping me straighten out my course as a preacher–I am not tasked with lobbing abstractions at people and trying to get them to adopt those abstractions as their own. I am called to help each one hear and respond to the call of Jesus in their own lives. If I personally am wrestling with lofty ideas like “pacifism”, I had better make sure that if that journey makes its appearance in the pulpit, it is positioned as a journey and handled with great care–something that in my youthful zeal I did not do.

The “Existential”. I call it this because I really can’t think of what else to call it. What I’m talking about here is the depth of pain and anguish that you are going through in your personal life. It may be you wrestling through offense. It may be frustrations within your family or circle of friends. It may be your feelings of doubt or lack of faith in God. It may be you beginning to come to grips with how your having been abused as a child or a teenager is influencing your behavior and choices, and starting to slough it off. It could be any number of things.

I want to say here again that this impulse–to share your journey with the congregation, even and perhaps especially this existential one–is well and good, as it demonstrates the reality of how you personally are being confront with the reality of the liberating Spirit of God and are being transformed from glory to glory. Even so, there are pitfalls. One is the undue burden that is placed upon the congregation when it is put in a position where week in and week out it must act as your sounding board for dealing with all your issues. Another is what happens to your soul as a preacher when (what should be) the secret things of your life are constantly on display for all to see.

I can speak from deep experience on this point as well. For the first several years of my time at Bloom, I was so committed to authenticity in the pulpit that I far too often used my own “stuff” to illustrate or deepen a point I was trying to make. It tended to feel good when I did it, and I know that the congregation appreciated the honesty. What I did not realize, however, was the impact it would have on me over time. I vividly remember waking up one Monday morning and realizing that I was burnt out, in large part because over the years I had given away all the precious things God had given to me in secret, mostly because I wanted my sermons to be good (by my standard). Many of those precious things–insights, stories, journal entries, etc–I know fell on the soft soil of people’s hearts and helped them. Perhaps an equal measure, however, were simply consumed and discarded by people who were not in a position to really appreciate them. My beautiful things, trampled and tossed out like common rubbish.

This should not be. Whatever our journey, whether theological or existential, our commitment to authenticity should also likewise be chastened by a humility, by a self-differentiated relationship with the congregation, and by a certain reticence about giving away the things that should be held in the secrecy of our communion with God and the wisdom of trusted, intimate community. Let me give you a handful of things that are helping right now with respect to the above…

  1. Keep the general good of the people of God in mind. Do they need to hear about this lofty theological concept right now? Are there more patient and careful way to open up their thinking? Is this sermon going to satisfy my desire to “be prophetic” and say something edgy, or will it genuinely help them live more faithfully tomorrow morning? Don’t use your sermon to work out your unfinished theological business. Do that in conversation with friends, or on your blog, or in your noggin. Put it in front of the people of God when it can be genuinely helpful to them and when you can talk about it without being antagonistic or forcing them to adopt new ideologies, and not before.
  2. Once again, shorten your messages! On both the theological and the existential sides of this conversation, the longer your messages are, the more prone you will be to say something you should not say, to become undisciplined in the pulpit. “Where words are many, sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise” is advice not sufficiently appreciated or adhered to by preachers. If you’ll limit yourself to a narrower window of time, you’ll find that you simply won’t have the opportunity to either to lob clunky theologies at people or to bare the bits of your soul that ought not be bared. Limitations are a good and beautiful thing. Apply them liberally, and everyone will benefit.
  3. In that same vein, I have found over the years that preaching through the lectionary is an immense help. Too many pulpits (and therefore too many churches) are driven along by the preacher’s newest theological obsession or existential crisis. The lovely thing about the lectionary is its power (not an absolute power, mind you–clever lectionary preachers will find ways around it) to bracket out our ideology by focusing us week in and week out on Christ as he has been revealed in space and time, the wandering and universally compelling Galilean prophet. “Read these texts,” the Church bellows at us, “and finish with this Gospel. Invite people to know and love and yield their lives to Christ. Then sit down and shut up.” Give it a try. You may like it.
  4. Remember that the congregation is not your therapist and the sermon is not therapy. It may have therapeutic qualities from time to time, but the moment you feel that you cannot do without baring this or that piece of your journey to the congregation, or the moment you start to feel like nothing in your heart is private anymore, you’ve got problems. Don’t put that on them, in the same way that while you want to be honest with your teenagers about your struggles, if you and your spouse are having trouble with your love life, you’ll keep it private from them, for the excellent reason that they are not positioned to be a help to you, and the mis-positioning of them by you will only confuse and frustrate and draw them into anxieties they have no business holding. There is no substitute for healthy process. I AM IMPLORING YOU–If your faith is failing, if your marriage is hurting, if some wound from the past is all of a sudden starting to leak its poison into your life… GO SEE SOMEONE. Work it out in the wisdom of community and the secrecy of prayer. And perhaps one day, when the moment is right, you’ll be able to tell about it without skewing the relationship between you and the congregation. Perhaps. But don’t assume it. Some things are simply not for public consumption.

Hope all that helps. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Peace,

Andrew

10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons: Lesson 7–Less is More

(NOTE: this post is part of a series of posts I’m doing reflecting on the task and calling of preaching on this, the 10th anniversary of my own preaching ministry… hope you’ve enjoyed them so far!)

In the last post I contended that one of the most basic practical tasks of the preacher is knowing your stuff, and knowing it well. That is, a good deal of the work during the week of preparation is not just coming up with great content but also seeking to understand, and understand deeply, the manifold connections between the various bits of content, so that you have a more or less “global” sense of how your first story is related to your last story, how that quote you’re going to read from at around minute 8 ties into that bit of Pauline theology you want to expound before you make your final invitation, how the statistic you mined aids and abets your gentle critique of pop culture later on in the message, and so on and so forth. There are as many ways of doing this as there are preachers, I suppose, so the critical thing is developing your own method.

My “method” (if it can be so called) looks something like the following: As I’m looking at the text of Scripture for the week, I make sure to have a legal pad handy. I write down whatever thoughts, impressions, stories, quotes, etc., that come to mind. I mean seriously–anything. As I’m reading over the text, I’m also making use of the original languages, noticing interesting words or turns of phrase that release something of its potency. Eventually, I start playing with sentences or phrases of my own that capture this potency or release it into the congregation in clear and concise and memorable ways. I keep jotting down thoughts, impressions, stories, quotes, etc. As I get closer to preaching on Sunday, I start working the connections between the text and the things I’ve written down, a process that includes, by its very nature, whittling that pile down to its barest elements. I’m also, in the midst of this, developing something of a “narrative account” of what my sermon is going to be about. What’s the story, the flow, the movement, the journey that I’m going to take these people on? By the time Sunday rolls around, I’ve reduced the entirety of my message to a dozen or so key “elements”, arranged in a more or less logical/intuitive fashion, that frame out the journey we are going to go on.

What I’ve posted below I almost hesitate to show you at all, for fear that it will either mess up your own process or make you think I’m a total idiot (haha). So as a disclaimer here, I want to say that I’m showing you this NOT to encourage you to do it just like me but rather to illustrate the point I’m making above and set up the next lesson. Here she be:

IMG_20150920_133730560

This is my little “map” of my message from last week (a message on the call of Jesus to come into the community of faith not with an agenda to have our star rise but rather with an agenda to abandon ourselves in the service of others). All of the elements have a very “tactile” feel for me (the previous week’s talk, the Gospel reading and its central thrust, the “two ways”, captured beautifully in the John 13 and James 3 passages, etc etc.), and are arranged in a very intuitive, “narrative” way. The “story” here, if I can call it that, is about how Mark 9:30-37 speaks to our life together as a community, challenging our prejudices and fears along the way, and drawing us into a life far richer and better than the one we would have had if this text had not come along and opened up a new window of possibility for us.

The important thing I’d like you to notice here is the relative scarcity of “elements.” And this speaks to the 7th lesson:

Lesson 7: Less is Usually More. Sometimes, rarely, “more” is more. There are times that you just have a lot to say and you need to say it. That’s fine. But in the normal flow of congregational life, usually, I have found, less is more. Too many sermons have too many elements. Five great stories instead of two, eight amazing points rather than three, ten shocking statistics rather than one to ponder deeply. The result of this is the congregation is left with the horrible feeling that they were “drinking from a firehose” rather than lovingly led on a patient and deliberate journey of understanding.

The really tragic thing is that lots of preachers, particularly the inexperienced ones (although I’m aware that there are lots of experienced and wildly popular preachers who haven’t figured this out yet) take the layperson’s comment “boy I felt like I was drinking from a firehose” as a huge compliment. Self-satisfied in their ability to generate that much (often quality) content, the inexperienced preacher fails to see the disservice they do both to themselves, their listener, and the congregational as a whole by carrying that much luggage into the pulpit.

I can speak with great confidence and authority on this point because I have spent a good deal of my ministry as a preacher pummeling people with content. Hard experience has taught me that this is a disservice…

To the listener because it tends to bewilder and/or amaze rather than focus

To the congregation because it pulls the corporate liturgy out of shape by making it about a single “main attraction” rather than about the whole sweep of the people of God’s weekly ascent to Zion, a sweep that includes preaching, and much else besides: singing, confession, creed, prayer, communion, silence, etc…

To the preacher because having to generate that much content each week invariably puts excess strain on his or her creative ability (not to mention spiritual capacity)

And the truth is that it’s just not necessary.

That is, it’s not necessary if we see our messages as (as I have contended) rhetorical acts that open up a window into an alternative reality and invite the listener to taste and see that the Lord is good in all kinds of beautiful and compelling ways. It IS necessary, however, if you see your sermon as a sort of corporate theological or biblical lecture intended primarily to inform or educate. If that is your understanding, your sermons will probably need to be long and (usually) cumbersome. The problem here is that viewing people as walking heads to be educated rather than whole beings needing to hear and heed the call of Christ truncates the person and invariably leads to a preaching ministry where your listeners are loaded down each week with intellectual burdens they can hardly carry, while you yourself, even if willing, are unable to lift a finger to help them. It’s generally too much.

What makes this all really difficult is that many of our churches, built on the assumption of the long message, are training younger preachers to think of their sermons along “more is more” lines. And that’s not just evangelical churches that aim at 45 minutes of education. It’s also charismatic/pentecostal churches that aim at 45 minutes of fire-breathing prophetic harangues, and more or less “pop” evangelical churches that aim at 45 minutes of inspiration or “practical” instruction. Whatever the case, it really is a lot of talking, a good deal of it unnecessary.

Again, we must ask: what is it that we are trying to do with our messages? Stated as simply as I know how, we are trying to call people, week in and week out, to put their whole trust in Jesus. This involves BOTH stimulating the mind AND speaking to the heart. And when our preaching is good, it will do both, in a way that takes the listener by the hand and guides them into the presence of Christ, who lovingly challenges us, disturbs us, and finally heals us. (Perhaps the best compliment I ever received about my own preaching was from a lady in our congregation who said to me “What I like about your preaching is that when I listen to you, I find my intellect stretched and then all of a sudden I’m crying…I don’t know how you do that but keep it up.”)

The best way that I know of to do that is by LIMITING the amount of content you bring with you into the pulpit. This is especially tough for the young preacher, who feels like they have a lot to prove to people. I remember one friend of mine in my early years of pulpit ministry saying to me, “I love your messages, but they’re like four messages all piled into one…why don’t you just do one at a time?” He was right. Though I wouldn’t have admitted it then, my insecurity as a young preacher drove me to bring WAY too much content with me into the preaching moment. The result was that instead of leading people on a single, well-developed journey, I was leading people on three or four inadequately developed ones. It wasn’t until I started listening to preachers like Will Willimon (who does more with 17 minutes than most preachers can do with a month’s worth of 45 minute talks) that I started to see the truth of his comments and with it, another possibility for my preaching.

It takes time and patience with yourself to grow into this, and above all, I think it takes great courage to believe that the handful of “big things” you’re carrying with you into the pulpit are sufficient for the Holy Spirit to do his work. The challenge is learning to recognize the potency of the few things you do in fact hold in your hands–something that many preachers really struggle with, myself included (I still find myself preaching unnecessarily long messages here and there). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in my preparation process and knew that after expounding this or that text, I would need to tell a good story to open up its riches for contemporary life… and then somewhere along the line feelings of insecurity about that story would grip me and I would think to myself, “Golly, maybe if I had one or two more stories right there to help bolster the first one.”

What I did not realize was that as often as not, the “excess” would not only NOT bolster what came before, it would distract and fatigue. Did it actually add anything? Not usually. Far better than adding would have been subtracting and trusting the potency of what remained.

Whenever I talk about these matters with other preachers, I’m often reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s advice to his young preachers at the Finkewald seminary, where he said, in essence, “The first few minutes of your message are the most favorable…do not waste time with long introductions…get right to your content…and trust the Word!” It’s an interesting mental exercise to ponder how much of our sermon content is content we generate because we are fundamentally insecure either about our own ability or, frankly, about the power of the gospel to woo and draw and finally unmake human hardheartedness.

What I have found is that when I trust the potency of the few things I know that God has put in my hands and in my heart for the week, it creates a simplicity and clarity that would not have been available otherwise. It creates “white space” in our messages, “margin”, where the risen Christ can walk among us, tapping us on the shoulder, whispering to our hard and wayward hearts. Maybe the hardest and best thing for the preacher to do is find a way to use words to get out of the way. “He must become greater, I must become less” should be the cry of every preacher’s heart.

My guess is that most of you preachers out there don’t have trouble generating good content. You’re bright. You read a lot. You experience things. You see God at work in people’s lives. You’ve got killer stories. Where you struggle is in letting any of that stuff fall on the cutting room floor.

If that’s you, let me give you two bits of practical encouragement:

  1. Any good creative knows that an enormous amount of content is going to wind up on the floor. If you’re not ok with that, you’re really going to struggle. Keep an open hand with your stuff.
  2. By the same token, be aware that some (maybe a lot) of what winds up on that floor is really great content for some other fantastic message down the line. I can’t tell you how many times I had to take out some large chunk of a message because at the end of the day it either was too much or just didn’t fit, only to find that a month or two down the road, that “chunk” of content was exactly the engine that made another sermon go. Again, keep an open hand.

Ironically, in a blog post about brevity, I’ve waxed long. I’m interested to hear your comments or reflections.

Grace,

Andrew

10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons–Lesson 6

(NOTE: this post is part of a series of posts I’m doing reflecting on the task and calling of preaching on this, the 10th anniversary of my own preaching ministry.)

Hey friends–

Sorry it’s been a few weeks since I’ve written. It’s been a zany season.

Alright. We’ve spent several posts now talking about some of the more conceptual and formational matters related to preaching–i.e., what is preaching and what kind of persons do we need to be to live into this calling well. I’ve put forth five lessons related to those questions that 10 years of preaching on a more or less weekly basis have ingrained in me. To wit:

  • Lesson 1–Know that a sermon, whatever else it is, is a window into an alternative reality.
  • Lesson 2–Overcome the false conceptual distinction between “biblical” or “theological” truth and life itself.
  • Lesson 3–Understand that the first call of the preacher is to live in the depths with God, and then (and only then) to bring to the congregation a fresh word out of those depths.
  • Lesson 4–Cultivate the discipline of whole-life attentiveness.
  • Lesson 5–Approach preaching as a subset of the general call given to all believers to “take up the towel” on behalf of others.

It’s my belief that if you do those things, your ministry of preaching will find really firm footing–fertile soil to thrive in and produce good fruit for the kingdom. Still, there are a number of practical things that if you don’t come to grips with, you’ll find yourself repeatedly tripping over, despite all your good intentions. I want to begin to address some of those more “practical” items now. And with that, here’s the next lesson–one related both to prep and to delivery:

Lesson 6Know your stuff.

It’s taken me awhile to realize this, but at the end of the day, 8 minutes of me talking with a firm grasp of what I’m saying and where it’s all leading is FAR better than 30 minutes of me talking with an unclear and poorly refined idea of what I’m saying and having only a vague notion of where I am going. The quicker we preachers realize this–that clear and compelling ideas are better than unclear and not-very-compelling ideas, the better.

I realize that this has the potential to sound so mundane and obvious that it hardly needs to be said, but the truth is that not nearly enough preachers practice the discipline of figuring out (ahead of time, please!!) both…

  1. What they are saying, and
  2. How all the pieces of their message are related to one another, and thus to the more general goal they are trying to achieve with their message

Let’s take each of those in turn.

What are you saying?

By the end of the week, you honestly should be able to state in 15 seconds or less (maybe even in 15 words or less), to a totally non-theologically educated person, what your message is fundamentally about. What’s the core concept, moment, shift, whatever, that will be guiding the rest of your comments? Such clarity of understanding is the foundation for whatever else you will be doing in your message: every story, every quote, every statistic, every biblical reference revolves around, sits on, speaks to, or informs your elucidation of whatever the “core” of the message is. To put to use a metaphor we’ve been working with here–everything you do is part of how you “open the window” to help people see the new reality that you have seen with your own eyes and heart.

But even then, one needs to take it a step further. For at its best, preaching is not just about exchanging information, but about letting the Christ who calls out to each of us have his way in the local church. So it is not just a matter of “what am I saying?”, but also “what am I doing with what I am saying?” Preaching is a speech-act that at its best moves us in some way, shape, or form. If you do not have a clear idea of what you are saying and what you are trying to do with what you are saying, you won’t have a good message.

Additionally…

How does each piece of my message relate to the other, and to the whole?

Never say anything just for the sake of saying it, or because you thought it was neat, or because it happened to tickle your fancy during the week. Say it because it helps. Say it because it amplifies. Say it because the window gets cranked open a little wider through it. Say it because unless you say it, you will not be able to say the other things you need to say…

But FOR THE LOVE OF YOUR LISTENER… don’t say it just for the sake of saying it.

If you think this way about each of the pieces of your message, it will form in you a sensibility that will really, really help your actual delivery–namely, you’ll begin to conceive of your message less like a monologue and more like a sort of “show and tell” that revolves around a single focal point or leads the listener on a single journey of discovery. And then, whatever your method of delivery (manuscript, outline, or note-free), you’ll find yourself far more fluid, natural, and therefore also more inviting and compelling.

What really did it for me was coming to serve as the primary teaching pastor for Bloom years ago. Up to that time, I was basically a manuscript preacher for the excellent reason that that was the only method I had ever seen used with any real success. I would sit down with my Bible and Microsoft Word during the week, and start writing. When I felt good about what I had written out, I was done.

Till Sunday… when I would preach and the gaps in my own depth of understanding were exposed.

Up until I came to Bloom, for the most part I could cover over those deficiencies in understanding by virtue of preaching to a large room (big crowds are easier to preach to, IMO–and I typically preached to crowds of several hundred prior to moving to Denver) and having enough bravado and innate giftedness to think on my feet and make a bad sermon a success. Or at least not an abject failure… ha.

But when I came to this community, standing up with a 10 page manuscript and trying to preach it to a group of 60 or so 18-23 year olds exposed all my weaknesses. No longer was there a large crowd to yammer at loudly in order to cover over my deficiencies in understanding. I had to find a way to genuinely connect–head to head and heart to heart. And in order to do that, I was going to have to become much savvier BOTH in my delivery AND (far more importantly) in my preparation. It was a frustrating season–knowing that my preaching could and should be better, but unsure of how to get there.

I stumbled along for awhile trying this or that method of preparation and delivery without a lot of success, until one day it dawned on me that all genuine conversation is really an exercise in fluidly making connections between things we already know. SO, when I’m sitting across the table from you over coffee, I don’t have a manuscript in front of me to remember how precisely to tell this or that story, or even better, prompts letting me know exactly when I should tell those stories–I just have my story. It’s in my head and my heart. And when the time is right, I tell it to you and then easily and naturally make the point that I want to make. It’s not perfectly cerebral so much as it is tactile and intuitive. I can tell you about this or that thing because it is IN me, I KNOW it, and I UNDERSTAND how it relates to whatever we are talking about.

For whatever reason, I had totally ignored this in my sermon prep process. But when I started treating my messages as conversations that swirled around a single theme or focal point, intending to DO something very specific, my whole agenda during the week shifted from trying really hard to come up with clever or compelling words that I would write down on a sheet of paper, to trying really hard to know what I wanted to say and then using what was in front of me to construct an experience that drew people in. Again, when sermon prep became about “knowing” and “understanding”, sermon delivery changed from trying to remember lots and lots of words to keeping in mind what I would need during my little show and tell and how it was all related (mind-mapping became a hugely important exercise here) to get done what I needed to get done. And my sermons improved.

So I’ve been noteless for about five years now. It was one of the best moves I’ve ever made as a preacher. The point here, however, is not to inspire you to become noteless. For some of you, going noteless scares the living bejebers out of you. And that’s fine. I get it. For me it works because I’m a very tactile and visual person with a more or less photographic memory. It’s a natural system for me. You’ll find a natural system for you, too–whether that be a manuscript, an outline, notecards, or something else. Who knows.

But whatever system you use, you’d better fight hard during the week to get a clear sense of what you’re saying, what you’re doing with what you’re saying, and how each part of your message relates to the other, and to the whole. Fight for deep, intuitive understanding, and you’ll be a better preacher.

Peace.

10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons–Lesson 5: Taking the Towel

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’m doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

This past Sunday night I celebrated my 6th anniversary as the primary teaching pastor at Bloom. It’s been quite a ride. When I think back over these past six years of (almost) weekly teaching, one of the things that stands out is how completely the orientation of my heart has shifted in terms of my spiritual understanding of what I do… what my preaching means to this community and how it functions within the community.

In perfect honesty, I came into this job six years ago holding at least a partial hope that my preaching every week would launch me out into “next big deal” status in pop Christianity. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s true. And every time someone would listen to one of my messages and compare me to some bigshot preacher out there, it would only fuel the flames of vanity.

Maybe the best thing that could have ever happened to me is exactly what DID in fact happen to me. The hoped-for “next big deal” status never arrived. And I think I got something better in return: I got to learn the joy of week-in and week-out service to the people of God in the pulpit, without the distraction of having to think about what some mega-audience out there was thinking about my preaching.

One of the things that we (preachers) sometimes lose sight of is how local and specific the work of preaching is. We’re talking about lives here. Actual lives, lived before the face of God, in all their pain and joy and beauty and complexity. And the absolute BEST way to make a difference in those lives is by holding them lovingly in your heart, and then from your heart bringing a fresh word to them, FOR them specifically, based on your knowledge of who they are and your discernment of what God is saying to them.

And with that, we have the 5th lesson: preaching will always lose its mooring when it is divorced from the call to serve the Body of Christ in love.

By the same token, it will be all the better for being anchored in a more general pastoral call, and all the disciplines pertaining thereunto.

Paul’s words in Ephesians 4 ring true, and have a peculiar significance for the preacher:

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Note the juxtaposition of verse 29: “unwholesome” is set at the opposite end of the spectrum from whatever brings “benefit to those who listen” and builds them “up according to their needs.” A failure to walk in this total orientation to the needs of others with our speech represents “grieving the Holy Spirit.” And then of course Paul goes on to spell out in more detail in verse 31 just what this “unwholesome” speech looks like and is driven by.

Let’s be honest here for a second. A lot (maybe most) of preaching is driven along by motives that come straight from the pit of hell. Can I list some of those motives? (Disclaimer: I have been guilty of all of them… )

  • The desire to be thought well-spoken, intelligent, educated, or gifted (vanity)
  • The desire to be more like so-and-so, secretly comparing yourself to them (envy)
  • The desire to show how you are right and others are wrong (self-righteousness)
  • The desire to divide the world up into who’s right and who’s wrong (factiousness, self-righteousness)
  • The desire to become a big deal one day (vanity again…)

We could go on and on here. The point, I think, is becoming self-aware of every motive that falls short of the call to “serve one another in love”, a command which is constantly repeated throughout the New Testament, and then, aided by grace, beginning to learn to say “no.” For the truth here is that not only is preaching driven by these (and other) motives generally unhelpful (and usually bad) for the local church, it is also a heavy burden for the preacher to bear. It does damage to the preacher’s soul–that is, his (or her) whole life.

When I think back to some of my early years preaching, part of the reason that the task routinely felt heavy to me was that I was determined that basically every time I preached, I was going to “wow” people with some new insight, some bit of novel biblical or theological knowledge, some really edgy illustration, some incredible rhetorical flourish or turn of phrase. In my mind, the pulpit was my playground to work out my ideas, refine my gifts, and build a platform.

Good God. I am so sorry for that.

After years of preaching that way and finding it to be just as empty as the writer of Ecclesiastes said it would be, I know better now. I know that just to the extent that the call of Christ is a call into the community of faith, a call in which the ego goes to die; so also the call to preach is a call to die to the ego for the sake of loving and serving others.

Just so, when I lay down my ego-needs, I find myself stepping into the “light yoke” that Jesus promised, AND… I find that my preaching “hits the mark” far more routinely than it used to. I rise to preach, give voice to what I think the Spirit is saying to our community, trying to do so with the utmost simplicity and straightforwardness, and then let worship continue. I am not trying to make a name for myself. I am not trying to impress. I am not the center of our worship. I am not the main attraction.

I am a servant. With Jesus, I wash the feet of the faithful. And my unique way of “taking up the towel” for the sake of this community is with my words. The moment my preaching becomes detached from the ministry of the towel, it is an exercise in futility.

Part of what is entailed in the task of approaching preaching in this way is that we anchor ourselves as preachers more deeply in a life of prayer for our people. For it will be out of our prayer (which is a deep expression of the agape we live in with others) that our best and most helpful preaching will come.

Now, when I prepare, I am not just thinking about the text of Scripture, and all the interesting words and phrases and intertextual connections and that thing I read in so-and-so last week and so forth… as wonderful and valuable as all of that is… as much as anything else, I am reading the Scripture and also, in my heart, scanning my congregation, over whom I “pray without ceasing”, trying to let the Scripture be part of my general pastoral discernment of the Spirit’s work among us. As I sit all week with the Gospel reading, meditating on its twists and turns, I find myself naturally thinking about this situation over here, or that coffee I had over there with that person whose life is a wreck… I find myself thinking about who we are as a community, stories that I’m hearing, feedback I’m getting from people on how it’s going following Jesus. I can’t help but ponder our past and our future as a people in light of who Jesus is and what he is saying. Once again–all of life, OUR VERY CONCRETE LIFE TOGETHER–brought under the gaze of the Almighty, subjected to his scrutiny and wisdom and boundless love.

If and when I prepare this way, my preaching gains a simplicity, focus, and clarity that it would not have had otherwise… I’m not getting up to do a song and a dance… I’m not getting up to try to wow people with my intellectual ability…

Instead.

I’m drawing attention to the Scripture

I’m relating a story or a situation that came to mind as I meditated this past week

I’m wondering out loud how that touches broader issues we all face

I’m calling us to yield our lives to Jesus Christ in the midst of that

Is there more to it than that? Sure. But at its core… this is what we’re doing.

Preacher–there is a better way. Be quick to identify driving factors in your preaching that are unrelated to the more general task of washing the feet of God’s people. Then make a choice: do you want life, or do you want death?

Because everything outside of the call to die and rise with Christ Jesus in the service of God’s people is death. But to “die before we die”, as CS Lewis put it… that is life.

And your people will thank you.

10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons–Lesson 4

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’m doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

If you’ve been following this series of posts so far, one of the things you’ve noticed (and perhaps are frustrated with) is how little I’ve said about things like actual sermon prep, using good illustrations, delivery, and all the other technical stuff about preaching. Instead, I’ve tried to focus more on “big picture” philosophical issues, and within them, the issues of personal formation as a preacher that I think are central to any attempt to speak meaningfully about preaching as a task and vocation. I promise I will address some of the technical stuff (look to coming lessons 6-10 on that), but for now I want to continue to talk about the kind of life we must live if we are to not only last but thrive in this beautiful and daunting challenge of opening up windows to the kingdom for the people of God each week.

And with that, Lesson 4:

A basic discipline for the preacher is the discipline of whole-life attentiveness.

One of the things that used to baffle me when I was a kid was the sheer volume of really poignant content our pastor was able to come up with. And I’m not talking new biblical or theological content either (which is easy to come by if you’re studious enough). I’m talking about the kind of content that might, in a different time, been called “testimony”–i.e., stories and examples from his own life and the lives of people in our community that illustrated just how God was actually present and at work. That always amazed me. In fact, it sometimes made me wonder if he lived a more romantic, exciting existence than the rest of us.

Then I started grappling with my own call as a preacher. And some of the things we’ve been talking about over the last few weeks started coming into focus. And as I journeyed with God and became more deeply acquainted with what the nature of his activity looks like as it is recorded in the Scripture, my vision sharpened up. And before too long, I started seeing God everywhere, in everything.

It really didn’t matter what I was doing. I could be reading a book. I could be jogging. I could be watching a movie. I could be sitting in a counseling session with someone. I could be walking around downtown. I could be making a new friend. I could be holding one of my babies, or laughing raucously with my wife over something silly. I could be dealing with an interpersonal conflict, or weeping in prayer over some injustice in the world. It could be anything.

But in it, I would see God and Gospel and Kingdom at work, and all the nuance and subtlety of the biblical world gradually became the nuance and subtlety of my own lived existence–the drama of redemption playing out at every moment in my own life and experience.

You just have to develop eyes to see.

It takes time, though, to develop such eyes. I remember being really impressed the first time I read through Annie Dillard’s masterful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In one of her chapters she describes the experience of some of the first recipients of the newly pioneered surgery for cataracts around the turn of the 19th century. Folks that could not see at all were suddenly given the gift of sight. BUT–and here’s the interesting part–when light first flooded their eyes, they didn’t see what you and I see. Their experience of sight, as they recorded it, was that of near blinding light and shapeless color–like newborn babies, it took time for them to begin to make sense of what they were seeing. A wooden chair, for instance, may feel one way to a person that cannot see. But beholding the chair is an entirely different experience–at first glance, a nearly incommensurate experience to that of feeling the chair. Of course, eventually the two ways of perceiving become synoptic, and one experiences the world with a newfound depth and power. BUT, again… it takes time. To be able to interpret the light one sees and categorize it meaningfully requires both the strengthening of our sight and the requisite wisdom to be able to know what one is seeing.

That’s really an apt metaphor for the whole life of the disciple, which, as I contend, is what the preacher is before they are anything else. We–all of us–are like the blind man in Mark who begs Jesus to heal him. When Jesus spits in his eyes and lays hands on him, the man receives his sight, but only partially. “I see people,” he says, “they look like trees walking around” (Mk 8:24). And so once again, Jesus places his hands on the man’s eyes, and his sight was restored fully.

That, I think, is just how it is with us. As we journey with Jesus, he keeps placing his hands on our eyes and healing our ability to see, so that increasingly we see with eyes healed by the kingdom, in order to perceive the kingdom.

It’s not hard. But it does take time. This is probably in part what was behind E. M. Bounds’ saying that it takes 20 years to make a sermon, because it takes 20 years to make a man. As our character develops and matures in the sight of God, so also does our ability to behold the work of God in and around us. We begin to perceive it with a nuance that would have been impossible when we first started. And when we stand up to preach, again, we’re not just parroting abstractions at people. We’re speaking out of the depths, right into the depths. Because, of course, the depths are all around us, just waiting to be named.

Sometimes when I’m telling some story or giving some illustration during a message, I fret a bit that my listeners will think that my life is more charmed or interesting than it really is. I fret about it because the truth is that my life is probably, on the surface, far less charming or interesting than many of their lives. I’m a busy pastor in his 30’s with a wife and four kids. My life mostly orbits around those primary obligations, and there’s not a lot of room for superfluous intrigue. I wake up early. I work. I come home. We eat and put the kids in bed. I read some. We watch TV for awhile. We fall asleep. It’s really as hum-drum as it comes.

AND.

What I’ve discovered is that the life God has given me (and each one of us) is chock full of glory. There’s more than enough there. It is sufficient for a communion with God, a manifestation of the glory of God, that is as robust as any of the great saints and mystics ever had. That is how God has set it up.

We just have to develop eyes to see.

And the only way we do is by walking with God. Every moment, every hour, every day… until the days pass into weeks, which pass into months, which pass into years… and before long, the words of the Psalmist go from poetic rhapsody to a straightforward description of how we experience the world: “the unfailing love of YHWH fills the earth…

Probably no one I know has expressed this better than Frederick Buechner. He writes:

If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. (from Listening to Your Life, p. 2)

If you learn to do this, you’ll always have more than enough to say.

10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons–Lesson 3

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’ll be doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

When do you “prep” to preach? Probably for all but the very most charismatic among us, there is a definite time and day that you sit down each week and begin to work on your coming message (or messages, if you’re one of those annoying folks capable of planning multiple weeks and months out 😉 ). You open your Bible or pull out your computer at, say, 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and get to work. So in your mind, sermon prep began on Tuesday at 9:00 a.m. and ended whenever you stood up to deliver your message. Basically. Most of us could probably measure our “prep” time in hours–5, 10, 15, etc., and oftentimes we feel better or worse about our messages (heading into Sunday) based on how much time we invested.

But is this really the best way to think about “sermon prep”?

My experience has taught me that it is not.

We’ve talked already in parts 1 and 2 about how the preacher needs to have a clear idea of what they are doing (opening a window to the kingdom), and how they need to make sure that their focus is not on “applying the text” to our “everyday lives” but rather on making plain how the text is already a description of the one beautiful and vexing life we now live before the face of God. But how do we become preachers capable of doing this?

I know one thing–thinking of something called “sermon prep” simply as a discrete moment that happens at regular intervals in your pastoral schedule ain’t gonna get the job done.

It’s just not big enough.

A text that has always been formative for me in my own ministry has been this one, out of Ezra 6. The restoration of the city is underway, and Ezra the scribe has been sent to help with the project. The favor of God, according to the text, is clearly upon him, and the narrator puts forward this explanation as to why:

For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to practice it, and also to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel. (Ezra 6:10)

This is so fabulous to me, and brilliantly instructive. Note the order–Ezra has “set his heart” to:

  • Study” Torah (the Heb. is “seek out” Torah, which I love)
  • Practice” or “do” Torah
  • Teach” the statutes and decrees of Torah in Israel

The priority here is clearly upon Ezra’s commitment to seeking out the wisdom and purpose of Yahweh in Torah and then figuring out just how to put it into motion… how it works… what it does… how it opens up vistas of understanding… how it binds and looses the human experience… and then, and ONLY then, can he “teach Yahweh’s statutes and decrees in Israel.”

It seems to me that the first call of the preacher is to live with God, in a dynamic interface between the nuance and texture of Scripture on the one hand, and their lived experience with God on the other hand. We are explorers in the frontier of faith, guided by our sense of who God is and how his world works through a careful and continual study of Scripture… a sense which is continually tested against what we’re actually finding out on the frontier. We move back and forth, in our own lives, in our families, in our interactions with neighbors and coworkers, between text and the “context” of our lives, seeking to understand how it all works.

And then here and there, out of our own experience of God, we stand up before the people and bring a fresh word.

That means, obviously, that the preacher must be, above all things, a disciple, a learner, an apprentice in the task of following Jesus. What we bring to the people of God when we stand up to preach is not (God forbid) some clever new interpretation of a text, or some purely academic or poetic twist on truth, or some clunky abstraction that requires 10 pages of notes to talk through… but rather the fruit of a lived experience with God, rooted deeply in, tempered by, and in fact made possible through the text of Scripture, which is our “norming norm” and the prism through which we’re called to perceive the one life God has given us.

Think about it for a minute. The messages you’ve heard preached in your life that were the most powerful, the most transformative… didn’t you get the sense that those messages came out of a whole life lived with God? That this wasn’t truth newly acquired, but truth that the preacher had gotten friendly with over the years? And when you heard that message, didn’t it have a ring of depth and authenticity to it that made it so compelling?

Then ask yourself… where does that come from?

I contend that it comes primarily through an Ezra-like commitment to be a disciple first, and a teacher second.

(At least) two things will immediately start happening to you when you begin to understand your call as a preacher this way:

First, “sermon prep” will go from something that happens at discrete moments on your weekly calendar, to something that is basically happening all the time. Now of course you will likely STILL sit down at set times to do work germane to the assembly of your sermon… but when you do, you’ll no longer be entering into some activity totally alien to the normal ebb and flow of life, but rather you’ll be sitting down to reflect on what the Lord is graciously showing you as you walk with him. Of course, the text of Scripture will often challenge you here. There will be times that the “window” being opened through this or that text is one that you’ve only barely begun to put your head through… or one that scares the living crap out of you! That’s ok. Be honest about that. Your listeners will thank you.

Second, you will begin to understand in all kinds of fresh ways the “light yoke” that Jesus spoke of… as a preacher. I know a lot of preachers who live with continual anxiety about Sunday. I was one of those guys, and honestly still struggle with it from time to time. But as I’ve walked with God and clarified some of this business in my own heart, the anxiety is starting to evaporate. I’m not getting up on Sundays to do some song and dance to entertain people. I’m not getting up to try to give some elaborate explanation of a so-called “truth” that is beyond my present experience, or the experience of my congregation.

I’m getting up to try to tell them what I’ve come to know of the God who is speaking through that text, and what that might mean for us. I am free, in fact, I am encouraged to draw on my own experience in doing this, since my own experience, after all, represents the training ground in which God is working his beauty in my life. And because in my whole life I am committed to understand what it means to live in the kingdom, everything in my life is fair game for “sermon material.” There is no shortage, for I am always living with and knowing God. Anything that makes the cut on Sundays is surely “run-off”, overflow out of the abundance.

At it’s best, I’ve come to understand a sermon to be a rhetorical act that combines biblical and theological insight stitched together with the very stuff of life. And once again, if what I’m saying is accurate, then the “narrative” or “personal vignette” moments of my message are not incidental or complementary to the “real thing” of the sermon (the biblical or theological exposition), but they also are the “real thing”–living testimony to how the glory of God is actually shining through.

I’ll get into how this notion of sermon prep effects actual sermon prep and organization of content in following posts, but for now I’ll leave you with this challenge:

If you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety about preaching each week, chances are you haven’t entered into the “light yoke” of discipleship as a preacher.

You’re trying to do too much, or you’re doing it in the wrong way, or your life and your preaching are disconnected. Whatever the case, I’ve come to understand that the Abba of Jesus does not lead us into that soul-crushing, toxic anxiety that stifles generosity of soul even as it eats us alive. He wouldn’t put that on us. He’s better than that. If we’re feeling that pressure, it means somewhere we’re out of sync with him.

What’s been your experience with this? Do you resonate?