Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas - To make God come alive

I stumbled upon this gem of quote by Alexander Schmemann that I have to pass on, even if it’s Christmas morning. No one’s up yet, anyways. Here’s the quote:

"The child in that distant Bethlehem cave has no desire that we fear him; he enters our hearts not by frightening us, by proving his power and authority, but by love alone. He is given to us as a child, and only as children can we in turn love him and give ourselves to him. The world is ruled by authority and power, by fear and domination. The child God liberates us from that. All he desires from us is our love, freely given and joyful; all he desires is that we give him our heart. And we give it to a defenseless, endlessly trusting child."

I’ve often wondered how God can make Himself known to His creation without forcing anyone to believe in Him. I’m that last person in the world that wants to be told what to believe. And yet, I sit here, a lifelong Christian because of my parents and others along the way who helped me stay faithful? Why? Why didn’t I abandon it along the way as childish? I think it’s because the people in the church that I knew understood Christmas and the revelation of God in this tiny baby.

One of my favorite Christmas hymns is “Hark the Herold Angels Sing.” It’s friggin’ brilliant, both lyrically and musically (as far as hymns go, at least). There’s a line that goes like this: “Veiled in flesh that godhead see, Hail the incarnate deity.” It loses impact, of course, when it’s detached from the verse and music, but it’s still good. I think we read these lines and immediate imagine grownup Jesus walking around the dusty roads of the middle east, and maybe even grownup Jesus on the cross. But this verse is not just sung about grownup Jesus, but for baby Jesus as well.

The incarnate deity in this 6 lb 8oz little body (that’s just a guess. I honestly don’t know the precise specs on the kid).

If first impressions are everything, then this Schememann quote reminds me that God’s first impression in the flesh was not His lambasting judgment on our sinfulness. And actually, that’s never been anything God has been about, even in the Old Testament, despite some really tough passages where it seems like God is royally pissed off. It’s still not WHAT He is ABOUT. Catch my drift? Really, God’s not mad at us.

This quote reminds me that God’s first impression in the flesh is helplessness, an urgent appeal to humanity to take care of Him, tend Him, and nurture Him into the world. God comes and says unless you feed me I will die. It seems God has made it so that something is at stake in how we handle Him. It would seem, then, that even those who do not believe in God but love their kids understand Christmas on a very deep and visceral level. And I imagine that their hatred for God is not God’s fault but His church’s fault.

The church that forgets Christmas is the church the judges harshly and fiercely the sins of others.

The church that remembers Christmas remembers that we, like Mary, have been called to “birth” God into the world and those of us with kids, or who know kids, understand that the only way to make a baby come alive is to keep it warm, feed, and dry, and then to look deeply into its eyes and make stupid goofy faces at it until it smiles.

The church that does this is a credible church, for as von Balthasar so poignantly puts its, “Love alone it credible.”

And now my family is up, so, Peace!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Preaching as Performance Art

I got into a conversation today about preaching – the goal of preaching, the various styles of it, and practitioners of it. And it got me thinking about an article that I once read by Clayton Schmidt called “Preaching is Performance Art.”

He says we have all heard preachers who “employ an artificial set of communication skills divorced from ordinary human life. These preachers assume that the purpose of the exegesis they learned in seminary is to spring-load sermons with technical data that will impress and subdue listeners. Or they spend all their time working on what to say and no time at all on how to say it.”

These kinds of preachers, Schmidt says, tempt us NOT to go to church.

The opposite of this is also a problem, people who deliver in order to draw attention to themselves and not God –

“The wannabe comedian,

the preacher obsessed with cultural awareness,

the narrator that strings together poignant but pointless stories,

the media maestro who spends hours mastering digital techniques and only minutes on the message,

the preacher with an affected pulpit tone,

the awkward speaker who has plenty to say but no confidence in delivery,

the masterful presenter whose message is a string of banalities,

the preacher who becomes convinced that personal experience and ‘life message’ are more interesting than the gospel.”

Schmidt ask, “How can preachers present the gospel to their listeners without getting in the way?” His suggestion is to redeem a dirty work. “Preaching,” he says, “is performance.” Preaching is textual exegesis, contextual analysis, and creative writing, but “performance lies at the heart of proclamation.”

“When preaching is done masterfully, the preacher almost disappears.” The preacher isn’t showcasing his mad skills as a communicator for the sake of the notoriety, nor is the preacher performing for the sake of entertainment. When it comes to preaching, performance must point beyond itself or it does not achieve its goal.

So how does this happen?

Most importantly, the preacher must internalize his words. “If the preacher writes a meaningful word in the study, the next step is to turn that ink (or those computer pixels) into blood in the pulpit. The blood courses through the entire person of the one called upon to be that moment’s incorporation of the Word of God.” Words must be delivered from within. If they are merely being lifted up off the page in the moment with no thoughtfulness as to how they might be heard in the moment then the magnitude of the spoken word is in jeopardy.

Performance takes practice, it takes a great deal on intention and thoughtfulness to think about what you want to say and then say it in such a way that touches that hearts and minds of those who hear it, but not for the sake of merely experiencing a good performance. In fact, no one wants to merely experience a good performance. People want to be moved and preaching that takes performance seriously has the power to do.

What have I missed here? Does this cause any problems for you

Thursday, December 22, 2011

When we say "God"

It's hard out here for a pastor. The tendency towards professional expertise in our cutlure has formed pastors into the kinds of people who separate leadership, spiritual formation, social justice, evangelism, and education (so that we actually know something about the Christian tradition, the bible, and theology) from one another. Go to any church and pastors will embody one of these things more than the others. My problem is that I think that's okay. I think pastoring looks like all of this in a variety of different forms. The Spirit gives different gifts to different people, which means that every pastor has a different mix of what these things look like, which makes for very kinds of pastors.

It doesn't justify that a pastor who is better at leadership should not also read theology or know something about prayer. The problem comes when people push towards one of these aspects as more important than the other. To me, these are the ingredient (and there are probably more) that God uses to shape and form different kinds of pastors for different kinds of work in the world.

We need the leadership pastor that can organize and streamline processes. We need the wise sage who is really good spiritual formation, who knows how to ask the kinds of questions that melt away the resistance. We need the justice oriented person who reads newspaper and listens to politicians and knows when the city council is meeting and organize rallies and protests and shelters. We need deep readers of the faith who know the bible, tradition, and theology. We need these people!

And we need them (me, us) to work together!

But is there a way to bring it all together?

An article by Stanley Hauerwas seems to help me here. In the article he is talking about what it means to be a theologian, but I don't separate very much being a "pastor" from being a "theologian" and vice versa. I think the end is same for both, it just comes in different ways (again, the spirit gives gifts). What Hauerwas says about being a theologian I want to also say about being a pastor:

"It is important to ask some to do nothing with their lives but to think about what we say when we say 'God.'"

What do ya think?

UPDATE: Click here to read the article.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

rob bell's "last" sermon

Rob Bell gave his final words at Mars Hill this past Sunday. In an uncharacteristic fashion he read a letter he had composed - in the form of an epistle - rather than his normal extemporaneous style. At the close of this chapter in Bell's life, as well as our experience of him as a pastor, I'm wondering what other people's experience of Rob Bell as been. Do you love him, hate him, nothing him, or anything in between? What drew you to him? His preaching? His books? His tours? Or something else? What were your concerns with him? Bell has been really influential so I'm just curious how far that stretched and what it was exactly. Even for those who were really critical of him, that so many people use him as a reference point means that he was influential (whether you like it or not). So, anyways ... what do you think?????

Click here to read his final sermon. But you should really go find the podcast and hear it live.

(By the way, I say it's his "last" sermon because no one can just give it up like that. Who we kiddin'. Especially when you're that good at talking in public. Say what you want about his theology but he is a good talker.)