Performing the Scriptures: Mark’s Gospel

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A couple years ago, when last the lectionary was in Mark I stumbled upon some Youtube videos of people doing dramatic performances of Mark’s gospel in its entirety.  At the time, I thought, “This is something I could do” and put it on the back burner of my brain until January 1st of this year when I decided to go ahead and memorize Mark and perform it dramatically for Tenebrae Friday.

I went about the arduous task of memorizing Mark passage by passage.  As I did I came clever audience interaction bits and props.  As I memorized it out loud I rehearsed various ways of saying every single sentence.  Some I tried sad and then happy and then sarcastic to see which I felt worked best and also conveyed the tone that I thought Mark used.

The performance was last Friday night and, though I am relieved to be done with Mark’s gospel, I am also grateful for the amount of wisdom and knowledge I gained over the last several months.  So it is my pleasure here to share with you some of those insights I have learned during this journey:

  1. I am more convinced than ever that Mark’s gospel was meant to be spoken and performed, not read.  The high amount of intense action verbs make this obvious.  The heavens do not open.  They are TORN open.  People do not kneel.  They fall down at his feet.  Nobody “asks” anything, (well, except the boring bad guys).  Instead, they plead or beg.  These verbs lend themselves to broad hand and arm gestures and overly dramatic facial expressions, making this a very fun gospel to read out loud.  You can almost imagine an elderly Peter performing this for a younger Mark and then a young Mark in turn performing it for his younger disciples.
  2. Sarcasm and irony permeate this text.  I am going to write a follow up post in the next day or two about my favorite bits of humor in Mark but moments of irony carry the gospel along.  The scene with the legion of demons and the large herd of pigs is hilarious, making its sad ending very poignant.  Jesus’ use of the prophet Isaiah and the commands of Moses to insult the Pharisees and teachers of the law is brilliant and funny.  And who can forget Jesus getting mad at a fig tree when it didn’t have figs in the middle of Spring!  I will talk more about the humor later but it sure made Mark fun to memorize and perform.
  3. Mark’s over-use of the word “immediately” is not what a lot of people try to make of it.  The word “immediately” appears over 15 times in Mark, more than one a chapter.  Other “hurry” words like “just then,” “as soon as,” “at once” and the like appear just as often.  Therefore, some argue that Jesus in Mark is in a hurry and doesn’t slow down.  I don’t think that is true.  The word “immediately” very rarely describes Jesus.  Instead it comes up most often during miracles.  When Jesus speaks immediately the leprosy leaves, the bleeding stops and the demon flees.  The word doesn’t convey a Jesus in a hurry.  It conveys the darkness and evil of our world in a hurry to get of Jesus’ way.
  4. Right around chapter 7 the entire tone of the gospel changes.  Somewhere in chapter 7, the hurry words disappear.  The strong action verbs get a little bit weaker.  The humor fades.  Chapters 8-10 were the hardest to memorize because they weren’t as dramatic or fun.  But these are the chapters which focus heavily on the demand for followers of Jesus to live humble and sacrificial lives.  It is as if Mark used the humor, intensity and hurry to get your attention but once he had it, he slowed things way down so that you could really hear the core message of the book which is.  .  .
  5. HUMILITY.  This guy Jesus has all the power in the world but doesn’t want people to talk about it.  The person Mark labels in the very first verse as the “Son of God” comes from middle of nowhere Nazareth and hangs out in forgotten Galilee for 2/3rds of the Gospel.  He then hurries back out to Galilee right after the Resurrection.  This popular teacher spends his time running away from crowds and hiding in houses.  He demands both demons and those healed to keep their mouths shut about him and in chapter 9 he is transfigured and then immediately tells the eyewitnesses not to go blabbing.  In chapter 8, right around the time the tone changes, he begins to teach that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected.  Then he starts talking about how he didn’t come to be served but to serve.  He begins teaching his disciples to do the same thing.  The first will be last.  The one who wants to be great will be the slave of all.  Those who wish to enter the kingdom of heaven must do so with one eye, one hand, one foot and with the posture of a little child.  Then the rich man goes away sad because he has great wealth.  But blind Bartimaus is filled with joy because he just wanted to see.  And in the parable of the sower some receive the word but because of the deceitfulness of wealth and the desire for other things, the word is choked and they are unfruitful.  Mark has much to teach us about the path of salvation and he illustrates it to us as the path of sacrificial humility.  This climaxes at the Resurrection scene.  Many commentators have pointed out that it is a young man dressed in white who gets to proclaim the resurrection news in the empty tomb.  There was another young man in white you fled naked and in shame at the arrest.  It is quite probable that Mark did this on purpose to illustrate that those of us who humble ourselves completely, leaving everything, even our clothes, in order to follow Jesus will receive so much more from God!

Oh that we would learn that lesson and learn it well and join Bartimaus and the young man in white on the road to the cross and then to the empty tomb!

3 of a Pastor’s Great Fears. . .Ranked!

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Okay, before we begin, I know you know all the Bible verses about things like anxiety and worry and fear.  I know them too and I have most of them memorized and remind myself of them daily.  But knowing them and feeling them are two very different things.  So here I sit as a Christian pastor who is seminary trained, holiness sanctified, and a Bible loving preacher and I am telling you that memorizing Bible verse about anxiety doesn’t get rid of anxiety.  It turns out quoting those verses to anxious people doesn’t help that much either but I’ll save that blog post for another day!

The whole anxiety thing is really bad when you are a pastor.  I don’t know if you know this but the statistics are in and most churches are in a very precarious spot.  They are one bad conflict or one untimely rich person’s death away from closing.  Anxiety and fear seem to just come with that.

But acknowledging your fears for what they are does help.  And as I have prayed through my fears and tried to cope with them I have realized there are three great fears I have, at least when it comes to my relationship with my congregation.  I have listed them below in descending order of how much anxiety they cause me.

3.  Everybody in my church will one day come to hate me.  I live every day in fear that I am going to do something incredibly dumb that will cause everybody to turn on me.  I have family members and friends who have lived through this scenario and I still cry for them.  It is such a nightmare, especially for their families.  It is so hard for a spouse to have to terminate close friendships because their loved one was fired.  I worry greatly about what such a day would do to my wife and my children.    With that said, I don’t lose much sleep over this possibility because if my whole church comes to hate me, the solution will be brilliantly simple.  .  .painful.  .  .but simple.  I will just resign.  Then the church will be able to go on and I will have given a great gift to another pastor who gets to be the white knight on a handsome stead who gallops into that situation to clean up the mess.

2.  Everybody in my church will love me.  I like being liked.  I freely admit that.  I probably like being liked more than most people.  I have the personality of a suitor, desperate to woo people to my good graces.  But I know all too well the liabilities of that personality.  They are not that you will fail to woo everybody.  The liabilities come when you succeed in wooing everybody.  I live everyday in constant fear of having too much political power.  I worry about what might happen on the day I blindly lead my blind fan club into a death trap.  I have never been universally liked (thank God!) but I have come close and it was close enough to know what massive harm I really could do with a group of, well, groupies.  It was scary enough that I actually did resign.  The fallout of that resignation was really rough.  I had abandoned my fan club and caused separation anxiety both in them and me.  I never want to have to do that again.  But I look at myself in the mirror quite often and remind myself that I will if I must.

But now for the true nightmare scenario, the one that makes me tremble and keeps me up at night.  .  .

1.  Half of my church will hate me and the other half will adore me.  I know of pastors who have been in these situations and their churches barely survived.  The worst thing a pastor can become is a divisive figure, one who unwittingly pits one group against another just by being themselves.  These situations are so tragic and so hard to fix that I hope I never find myself in one.  I hope my leadership is never so horrible that a church splits because of me.  As Jesus once said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25)  And I could not stand to walk away from the shredded remains of a divided church.   And yet it happens all the time.  At those moments only a very, very wise and prayerful District Superintendant, or denominational leader, can bring about any good.

Well, what do you know, a blog post about fear had a sentiment about hope up there.  And maybe that is how we conquer our fears, by recognizing the hope therein.

So during my anxious days and sleepless nights, I do hope that my leadership is just adequate enough to not shut down a church.  To hope for any more than that would be pride.  To hope for anything less would be disaster.

 

An Advent Monologue for Lectionary Year C

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As I am preparing for our four Advent worship services, I have gone searching for proper monologues for the more drama inclined in my church to perform.

I have found precious few resources online.  What I have found are either incredibly cheesy or more Christmas than Advent.  And I was unable to find anything tethered to the lectionary, particularly the prophets whom I use to lead us to Jesus.

So I sat down yesterday after a long Sunday that ended a long weekend and put this little number together, thinking I would share it with all of you worship planners for your services.  This is to introduce the candle of hope on the first Sunday.  Enjoy!

(From the last century B.C. in a land called Israel under occupation from the Roman rule.)

My people are an oppressed people.  Our once great kingdom lays in ruins and has for hundreds of years.  Our once great leaders are gone.  In their place stand tyrants and sell outs.  Our tax collectors collect much and our employers give little.  We are waiting for freedom.

My people are a storied people.  We tell tales of men toppling colonnades and floods wiping away the corrupt.  Our prophets lived in the bellys of whales and the caves of mountains.  Our kings killed giants and built great cities with palaces and temples.  Our women conquered warriors with tent poles and gave birth to heroes even in old age.  Our God tore down cities to make a home for us.  Our God split open both seas and rivers, struck the corrupt dead on their feet, sent plagues upon our enemies and rained food from heaven down upon us along with water from a rock!  We are waiting for God.

My people are a corrupt people.  We had the eternal decrees of our righteous God in our possession.  We had a great and everlasting covenant with God that would guarantee our freedom and our safety.  We broke it.  Over and over again we broke it.  From our kings to our warriors to our prophets to our farmers and blacksmiths, every person from every tier of our society turned our back on our deliverer.  And we paid a steep price.  We are waiting for redemption.

My people are a promised people.  Though we sinned, though we abandoned our God, though we live in oppression and agony, we proclaim the promises of our prophets,

That a righteous branch with spring up to execute justice and righteousness in the land.

That the Lord will return to his temple and he will purify us!

When he does, the prophets say that he will rejoice over us with gladness, renew us in love and exult over us with loud shouting!

And He will stand there and feed us so that we will rest secure and be children of peace.

We are waiting for the Lord to enter his holy temple again.

My people are a waiting people.  Day after day we carry on in our sordid state.  Day after day we cry out tears, tell our stories, remember our past greatness and long for our God.  Day after day we long for a different story, a new chapter, a glorious homecoming.

And day after day we are let down as we wonder how long our God will tarry, how long until He comes back to his Holy Temple.

We are a hoping people so today I light this candle, the candle of hope.

An Ode For October’s End

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October is such a regal month, its golden leaves the color of kings, its early snow crowning the mountain tops with glory.

His sports are festivities for royal olympiads, the days beginning with chilly morning country races, giving way to sun warmed football fights and finishing with a cold evening’s sacred baseball.

His dark, declining days lend themselves to the strategizing of kings who take the candle lit evenings to debate with friends and foes about the items of diplomacy and economy.

October’s apples, too, are fruit fit for throne rooms, jonagolds the jesters, honeycrisps the princes and pink ladies for princesses, of course.  They are surrounded by Braeburns, Jonathans, Ambrosia ‘s and Idared’s, willing and suitable servants and advisers.

Pumpkins too are for royals feasts along with all the other squash kinds.  They are the produce of the domain, a splendor even before consumed, their yield bountiful enough to feed armies.

But October the King’s crown jewel, his reigning attribute, his most prized accomplishment is November, his queen.

There she sits by him, teasing the Pink Lady and smiling at her Honeycrisp as she enjoys the splendor of festivities, rolling her eyes at the advice and aid of His Majesty’s Royal braeburns while feasting on the prized squash.

The air about her is more delicate and deliberative.  Her darker days increase her stature and her more constant chill lends herself to those in aid.  She exudes more grace and gratitude as her train gives way to holy-days.

The King is dead, long live the Queen!

My First Foray Into Performing the Scriptures: The Sermon on the Mount

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There is a neat trend hitting modern day Christianity where clever interpreters and actors memorize and perform a large portion of Scripture in an engaging way.  You can watch some of these live performances on Youtube.  When done well, they are quite engaging.

A few weeks ago I decided to give this a try with the Sermon on the Mount.  I memorized it and performed a dramatic reenactment of it for my congregation, complete with Powerpoint slides and props for the kids.

I would love to take a week and write a whole book of posts about this experience but I am way too busy and all ready a day behind because yesterday I was in bed with the stomach flu.

However, here are a few things I learned/gained from memorizing and performing the Sermon on the Mount.

First, I learned way more memorizing it than I did studying it.  Last year I spent a few months preaching through the Sermon on the Mount.  I read a few books, looked up a lot of Greek words, realized some Old Testament connections and poured over the structure.  All that was really useful.  However, I learned more memorizing it out loud.  I saw things I would never read in a book.  These were things like subtle transitions, rhetorical devices, tonal changes and sarcasm.

Second, you make 1,000 more interpretive decisions reciting a text than you do preaching it.  When I preach I try to focus on explaining just one or two interpretative moves from the text.  However, when I spent 15 minutes reciting the Sermon on the Mount, I found I made and conveyed over 1,000 interpretive moves.  When does Jesus raise his voice and lower it?  When is Jesus standing or sitting?  What props did Jesus have handy?  Was there a snake in the distance he pointed to?  Did he have a loaf of bread in hand?  When did Jesus’ voice convey sarcasm?  When did it convey compassion?  When was Jesus being ironic?  When was he being solemn?  Then there is the wonderful ending to the sermon when Jesus says the house fell with a crash!  Do you yell “crash!” or whisper it?  What do you do after you say, “crash?”  Do you get up and leave?  Do you issue a call to follow Jesus?  Do you add an “amen” or a “so be it?”  This brings me to.  .  .

Third, I had to work my tail off not to add words.  I do believe the Sermon on the Mount has an internal structure that made sense to 1st century Jews.  I think that structure is something like:

Describing the World as God Has Made It (5:1-5:20)

Commandments for Living Well in God’s World (5:21-7:6)

Various Metaphors Imploring You To Live Well (7:7-8:1)

With that in mind, there are still some really awkward transitions.  I had no idea what to do with the transition from “do not worry” to “do not judge” or from “salt and light” to “I have not come to abolish the law.”  So I found myself adding “and’s” and “but’s” and “oh’s” to help the audience out a bit.  I felt really uncomfortable doing that, like I was adding to “God’s Infallible Word!”  Still, I didn’t know how not to do it.  After all, that is what I would do in any other sermon or even in blog posts.

Fourth, when Jesus says, “if your right hand is causing you to sin, chop it off” he is definitely talking about masturbation.  I read that in a book over a year ago and didn’t believe it.  But after memorizing it in the context of looking lustfully after a woman and after learning a little bit more about those addicted to pornography.  .  .yeah that is exactly what Jesus was talking about.  This brings me to,

Fifth, parts of this sermon are quite mean.  Everybody loves the poetry of the “do not worry” passage but when read out loud it comes off rather insulting.  “Don’t worry about food and clothes!  The pagans run after those things!”  “Who of you by worrying can add one single hour to your life?!”  In another part, Jesus says that anybody who makes promises is evil, taunting them with, “you can’t make one hair on your head white or black!”  Then there are the obvious ones like, “Be perfect!” or “Your righteousness must surpass the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law!” or “Any man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery!”  It is hard to say this stuff out loud and not sound like a jerk, especially when your congregation is full of guilty addicts, remarried divorcees and gray haired worriers!  Still I should add that my personal favorite is, “if you then, though are evil, know how to give good gifts.  .  .”  Wait, did he just call his entire audience evil?  Yes, yes Jesus did.

Sixth, there are softer parts too.  The aside about settling matters quickly before your adversary takes you to court is just Jesus giving us some good, loving advice.  Out loud, it almost sounds fatherly.  The question, “are you not much more valuable than sparrows?” is full of compassion.  The beatitudes are beautiful.  There are lovely assurances of God’s provision in statements like, “your father knows what you need before you ask” and “ask and you will receive.  Seek and you will find.”

It turns out these are not just descriptions of God but invitations to express our holiness in the way that God does.  The unseen God insists our “acts of righteousness” remain unseen.  The God who forgives sins insists we forgive sinners.  The God who shows mercy insists we be merciful and yes, the God who is perfect insists we be perfect as well.

In closing, this was a very worthwhile practice for me.  My congregation also seemed enjoy it, and not just because I offered a kid a loaf of bread, only to actually throw a rock at him.

Therefore I will definitely do it again, but maybe next time with one of the minor prophets.  That will fill up a sanctuary, only to empty it out just as quickly!

Blessings on your weeks!  May they be full of God’s provision and protection.

There’s a Blog in There Somewhere

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I was out running the other day and thinking of a great many things.  First among them was the reality that I haven’t posted a blog of substance in quite some time.  Beyond that, I haven’t consistently posted anything since May.

As evidence, the pane on the right of my Facebook feed has informed me that my blog’s Facebook page has reached and engaged zero people in the last week.  Because of some residual guilt leftover from my upbringing as a conservative Evangelical, it is tempting to read that as zero people engaged and reached for Jesus, which further would mean people are going to hell because I am not a good enough blogger.  .  .or Christian.

Of course none of that is true and I only point it out for humor’s sake.  However, my Timehop App is also reminding me that it has been one full year since I moved this blog over from Blogspot, chose the wonderfully simple palate from the free themes menu and decided to double down on being a blogger.

When I made that move last summer my working thesis was simple and open ended, I wanted this page to be a window into my grace filled life as a small church pastor.  Because this thesis was incredibly broad so to have been my topics.

I have written movie, song, TV show and book reviews, all with the hope of illustrating how God speaks grace to me through the various media I engage.

I have written several devotionals meant to provide a lens through which I see God and God’s creation.

I have engaged somewhat academically with various facets from my everyday ministry experience, writing about video games, fundamentalism, a preacher’s commitments and more.

I have also written a few posts on particular facets from ministry, like pastoral counseling, putting together sermons, choosing books to read and the like.

Then last Spring I became involved with a major debate in my denomination, hoping to provide wisdom and insight from my perspective and all with the hopes of helping God’s church become better.  In the end, I am not sure we solved the world’s problems but, man, we complained about them a lot.

And finally I have written humorous notes that are just as much about grace as they are about nothing, as sometimes God’s grace comes to us through the ability to laugh at things like towns named “Paradise” that are the ugliest place you ever saw and signs on the interstate that are either bragging or warning about road fatalities.  I am still not sure which.

Some of my posts have been read by 5 people.  Others have been read by hundreds.  One or two hit the thousands.  And some have only been read by mom and one other person whose identity I do not know but who has clicked “like” on almost every post.  Thank you, random person, by the way.  Some of my posts I have wanted anybody and everybody to read, some have been limited to my own congregation with the rest of you eavesdropping.  Still others, I have written and hoped no one from my church read it.  In that vein, I have posted some of the links to several Facebook groups and Twitter handles.  Others I have not advertised at all and been relieved when only my mom read them.

Some people have followed me on Twitter due to this blog and others have even followed it at wordpress.com.  Some have shared the link on their social media pages.  Others have stumbled on this due to random google searches.  Many have given great compliments, and some have added helpful corrections.

Where do I possibly go next?

Well, as I said, last week I was out running and thinking about all of this.  At the same time I was thinking about my sermon for Sunday and how this sermon was unique in that I had over researched it and had so much to say that the sermon could have lasted an hour.  The painful part of this preparation, but a needed step, was the huge amount of cropping I did to get the sermon at a manageable length and with a coherent structure.  There is a blog post in there that I will someday write.

Then I was thinking about some minor conflicts that have happened in my ministry and family over the last few weeks.  Like most conflicts, these were wonderfully entertaining and quite funny and also full of grace.  I would chronicle them here, except for my huge doubts that the other members also saw these conflicts as entertaining, funny and full of grace.  So I refrain.

Then I thought about bigger topics that I really want to spend time writing about.  Since Easter I have been putting together a post about “Feasting and Fasting” and how there are times for both.  But that is an Easter post and Pentecost came and went and now it is untimely.  So tune in next April for that instant classic!

I was also thinking about the major amount of hospital visits I made in June and how that helped me reconnect with a core value of my ministry.  I hate hospitals and yet when I am there on mission, they are buildings full of grace.  There is a wonderful blog there.

Then I started thinking about how I plan to put together a six week Bible study on evangelism in September.  I was thinking about how I would structure this study, what books I would use and what real life examples I would insist we engage.  Then I started thinking about my own half thought out philosophy of evangelism and how passionate I am about it.  And how I should start by writing a blog about it, just to help satiate my passion so  I didn’t overwhelm my poor students in the Fall.

Then I remembered that a friend had forwarded me a copy of his new book, a wonderful little theology primer entitled, “Theology of Luck” and how he gave it to me under the promise that I would write a post about it to get all of you to buy it.  But I haven’t decided what I want to write about it yet, so I am stalling.

Then there are a few massive political battles being waged right now that everybody else is blogging about.  It feels like I should be too except for that age old question about whether or not I would jump off a bridge if all my friends were.  Still, Romans 1 has been a great source of consternation in a few of these debates.  I, of course, am convinced everybody is reading it wrong.  Wouldn’t it be nice to put together a post about how everybody is wrong and convince them I am right.  I may or may not do that.

There is also the temptation to write a post about what I really think about SuperPacs in relationship to God’s command to refrain from gossip and slander.  That one is more likely because nobody is really all that passionate about SuperPacs and I could get away with it.

Then I thought about grocery shopping and how I get so lost and overwhelmed every time I enter a grocery store and how my wife gives me these long, unorganized lists that make me run laps around the store until I ask for help.  There has to be a sermon in there somewhere (and a blog post!)

Then there is that new video game I am playing that is not only fun but full of moments of challenge and grace.  I should review it when I get to the end of it.

Then I thought about how much I just thought about.  I was only twenty minutes into my run and I had that much on my mind.  That helped me remember a post I have wanted to write for some time about how God gives me grace through running and how running is an indispensable ministry practice.  That would be a good post.

Regardless of all of that, if you think my personality is exhausting, just try being me.  Rumor has it some people just have one voice inside their heads while others have two voices in perpetual dialog.  I have 40, 40 wonderful and necessary voices all singing a gorgeous harmony about video games, music, grocery stores, politics, theology, ministry and above all, grace.

Most people would go insane thinking as fast as I do but God keeps me sane.  God keeps me humble.  God keeps my feet planted to the ground and my heart and soul on mission.  It is true, that I am passionate about a great many things and I express that passion in a great many ways.  Yet as this blog begins year 2, I find I am still the most passionate about this incredible God who is faithful and just and who always gives to all of us overwhelming measures of abounding, awesome and amazing grace.

Somebody should write a song about that.  I don’t know anything about music but if you stay tuned until next summer, I will keep telling you all about this grace that goes before.

See y’all next time!

Count Your Words

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We now interrupt your regularly scheduled blog posts to bring you something random about word counts.  .  .

Or not so random.

It is no secret that I have read more discussions online the last month than the sum of all discussions before it.  The topics I have been reading and discussing have demanded such attention.  These are important conversations and deserve careful dialog.

However, as I have engaged in these fierce conversations I have noticed hours were wasted on reading superfluous words.  These words were not necessarily angry or hostile.  They were just unnecessary.

Several people publicly posted emails they had sent to College Trustees.  These emails were so long it would take ten minutes to read one of them.  While I perused them I realized there was no need for 3/4s of the words.  I would bet most of the trustees didn’t read past the first paragraph.

I have also read a fair share of blogs that did not exercise the same caution.  I gave up about halfway through, not because the post was long but because it meandered carelessly so that any conclusion was lost in useless stories and prepositional phrases threatening run-on sentences.

Then there are those pesky comments that take up the length of my screen.  Some commenters end up posting four comments in a row, thereby filling four whole screen lengths.  After reading the first comment I quickly realized the person did not know what they were saying, or at least were not saying it very well.

It reminded me of the advice of a seminary professor who said, “If you don’t have it clear and concise on paper, you don’t have it clear in your head.”

It also reminds me of a great Proverb a friend posted.  It is Proverbs 10:19, “In the multitude of words sin is not absent; But he that holds his tongue is wise.”

Now I know not every person who comments online (or even runs a blog) has taken a writing class but I want to make a law requiring them too.  It is in writing classes that you learn your first drafts are complete crap (see Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”).  The only way to overcome your lousy first draft is to write a second draft.

In the 1st draft you just write everything you think down on paper.  Then, contrary to popular belief, you do not hit send or enter or post.  Instead you go back through what you wrote and delete everything that does not add to your conclusion.  I do this (albeit imperfectly) when I write emails, sermons, blog posts and when I comment on Facebook.  I usually end up deleting a good half of the words I wrote, although sometimes it is closer to 75%.

But doing that is not enough for me.  I also have set important guidelines for word counts.  If it is an email I only use 100 words.  A quick-thought blog like this one, is 800 words.  A more heady post is 1200.  A sermon is five pages single spaced.

This is the only way to guarantee my conclusions are not lost amid a myriad of words.  And it is a great way to exercise humility.  It is also the best way to show respect to your readers and conversation partners.

So I would recommend others do the same, if only so that I can keep up with our important debates in half the time!

After all, brevity is better and for the record this post was 582 words.

A Blessing For Small Town America

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For the last 32 months I have been a pastor in a Northwest, logging town of 1700 people.  There are small towns and then there is where I live, which is dinky.

I have loved every minute of living here.  I have loved the scenery, the people, the identity, the community.  Just this morning towards the end of my run I ran into one of my congregants downtown.  All the small business owners know who I am.  Likewise, I am well known at the schools.

Moreover, this is one of the most laid back places in America.  There is a libertarian attitude to the whole town that is quite jarring at first but quite endearing over time.  In fact, I have often said the best thing about Elgin is also the worst thing about Elgin.  It is that you can get away with murder here.  That is great news, unless you are being murdered and, by metaphor, I have been murdered a few times.

But last September I sensed God was calling me elsewhere.  In early January I was officially called by a small congregation in a suburb of Salt Lake City, UT where 80,000 people live.  It is the exact opposite of Elgin.

I am quite certain God has called me to this new venture. .  However, living in a tiny town has been a lot like going to summer camp and this is Friday, the day everybody goes home.

So before I change that byline on your left from “A Small Town Pastor’s Thoughts About Grace” to “A Small Church Pastor’s Thoughts About Grace” I thought I would take a moment to try to articulate my love for this place.

I have known for a few months this day was coming so I have had time to think long and hard about what this post would be.  A month ago I read a wonderful chapter in Barbara Brown Taylor’s book “An Altar In The World.”  The chapter was about the practice of blessing others.  It got me thinking that the best way to properly describe and honor the town I am leaving would be to pronounce the Lord’s blessing upon it.

So here goes:

God Bless Elgin, OR, its people, its businesses, it organizations and its churches.

May the Lord richly bless the citizens both young and old

Bless those who live in the town and those who live in the fields around,

Bless those who just moved here, whether young and broke or old and retired.

Bless those who were born here and will never leave and bless those whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents have invested heavily in this town’s prosperity.

Bless those who just arrived.  May their love for this place be greater than my own.

Bless those are poor and live in trailers.  May they find acceptance, wholeness and meaningful work.

Bless those who farm the land on each side.  May the heavens bring them rain in its season and dry, sunny weather when its needed.  May their crops and fields yield enough produce to feed thousands.

Bless the lumber mill and its employees.  May their efforts to conserve the forest continue to provide lumber for many centuries to come.  May your employees find satisfaction and enjoyment in their work and may the administration administer fairly and equitably.

Bless the homeless teenagers.  May they not only find a couch to sleep on but a family to give them the warmth and comfort a couch never could.

Bless the single moms.  There are far too many.  May the Lord bring them sustainable income, blessings of wisdom, and stress free days.  May the Lord be the father their children never had.

Bless the alcoholics and drug addicts.  May they find freedom from addictions and identity in Christ.  May their testimonies cause many to give thanks to the Lord.

Bless the schools, their students, teachers, staff and administrators.  May the Lord’s wisdom prevail so that the students do not just learn data but become critical thinkers and engaged citizens.

Bless the businesses, both the start-ups and those firmly established.  May they employ many with gainful wages.  May their income be ethically earned and may their products and transactions bring joy and mirth to the community.

Bless the clubs and associations:  the quilting, the Lyons, the Opera House, the Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development, the City Council, the High School Associations, the Sports teams, and all else.  May their efforts bring unity and coherency and identity to all those who participate.

Bless the churches.  May their efforts to work together and sing together not overshadow their need to pray together.  May the Lord hear their prayers.  May the Lord bless and increase their members.  And may they seek the peace of this place.

Lord, bless this town.  Pour out your spirit on the rich and poor, the young and old, the hardworking and lazy, the truck drivers, millwrights, small business owners, farmers and commuters.

Bring your peace and prosperity to its people.  Bring your love and warmth and grace.  Do not withhold any blessing but richly give all good things.

Amen.

Humor On the Platform: Laughter is the Best Response

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This is my third post on using humor in ministry.  In these posts I have been trying to find and articulate the boundaries and effectiveness of humor in my many roles as pastor.  This has been difficult because “humor” is a nebulous concept and an often changing target.  Still, it is a wonderful reality in which to live because, as I have been arguing, laughing at the absurdity in the world is the best way keep it from consuming us.

This is important because I have been told that there was a day when humor wasn’t allowed within thirty feet of a Christian worship service.  But I did not grow up in that day.  Instead,I grew up in a shifting scenery of modern (or post modern, or maybe emergent and definitely missional) worship.  Many preachers tried way too hard to be funny all the time and failed miserably.  Others genuinely succeeded, having that right personality.  Others didn’t try to be funny but ended up making humorous gaffes anyway and added to the humor by being horribly embarrassed.

So when I filled my first pulpit, it was with careful measures of self condescension, humorous asides and perfectly timed (or not so perfectly timed) punchlines.  Not surprisingly, the humor in my sermons have brought me consistent praise.

Still, I struggle with how to be funny and when to be funny during my twenty minutes of fame every Sunday.  The danger is not that the joke might bomb or that your jokes might be offensive.   The danger is that the humor will be misplaced or misdirected and, in turn, misdirect the congregation.

The greatest example of misdirected humor is self condescension.  Certainly, insulting myself is the easiest way to get a few laughs and to get people to lower their guards.  So I use it a lot.  But I really struggle with why I use it.  Am I being manipulative or even honest?

Beyond that, I have found that insulting yourself for laughs is that you also insult the people who like you.  And there are those in my congregation who take it offensively because I am insulting their judgment in having me as a pastor.

To give an example, two years ago at our annual assembly gathering with the other churches, I had to give a three minute report on the state of my church.  So I got up and said, “Everything is going great” and gave examples of things that were going well.  After the examples I concluded, “So you see everything is going splendidly, except for their new Senior Pastor.  He is a young kid, right out of seminary, first pastorate, has no clue what he is doing.  He has spent the last year bumbling around town getting himself into trouble and then calling the district office at all times of day and night asking for advice and help.  Seriously, I don’t know what they were thinking hiring him!”

Everybody laughed hysterically but afterward my church’s delegates pulled me aside and said, “That was funny but you are not a lousy pastor and we are really mad you said that.  If you do it next year we will stand up right then and there and let everybody know how full of it you are!”  And though they were being slightly facetious, I still could sense the disappointment behind their voices.

So I try hard not to run myself down, especially when doing so is just a manipulative move to get people to think I am more humble than I really am.

Another dangerous area is using humor as a way of making people like you.  The truth is people enjoy being around funny people and if you make people laugh, they are probably less likely to kill you, or fire you, which would be the same thing.  However, in the pulpit, humor that scores cheap political points is misguided.  Typically these sermons are not technically sermons but stand up routines fit for comedy clubs.  They flit from joke to joke with no real point or direction.  People leave them thinking, “That was funny.  We sure like Pastor,” but their lives are not helped or changed for the better and the only reason the pastor was funny was to keep people from firing him or to give the church more money.

A third area of danger is forcing Scripture to be funny when it just isn’t.  I addressed this in part yesterday but usually these sermons rely on heavy embellishments from the biblical text in a way that violates the historical reality and the actual meaning.  They aim to make the text funnier than it is and in so doing create huge exegetical problems.

With those three danger zones in mind, there are a few incredibly useful ways to use humor in sermons.

The first is to point to the absurdity lying beneath our lives.  A common sermon structure (and one I fall back on a lot) is to describe a problem in the world, describe the problem in the Biblical text, tell the solution in the text and use that to form a solution to the problem in the world.  Humor is a great way to begin these sermons because nothing like humor helps us come to grips with the absurdity of our lives.

For example, last Sunday I preached about joy in light of the third advent candle.  I began the sermon by pointing out that I love joy because it is the only virtue you get to say you have.  But after laughing about how humble people can’t say they are humble and loving people can’t claim to be loving, I turned the joke on its head and said, “But here is the thing:  I don’t think we should let people get away with claiming they are joyful when they are not.”  It worked quite well both for capturing attention and helping people come to grips with the despair hiding beneath their fake smiles.

Another way to use humor is to highlight the awkwardness in confronting a Biblical passage that is hard to connect with.   This is not an attempt to make a Bible passage funny that isn’t.  Instead it is pointing out, in a humorous way, how detached we are from the original audience of the text.  It is laughing at the absurdity of trying to honestly read a passage written 2,000 years ago in a language we don’t understand and that nobody speaks any more.

One of my funnier moments happened awhile back when I described in short detail one of Paul’s more lengthy and complex arguments.  At the end of my description I said, “It all gets quite complicated if you ask me but the conclusion he arrives at is.  .  .”  The congregation burst into laughter because I acknowledged what they were thinking and let them know I was thinking it too.  We are far removed from this type of thinking and logic.

A third way to use humor is to move beyond jokes to actions and pictures.  Humorous pictures of the text on a screen really help people relate to the story.  The Brick Testament is a great site that recreates Biblical stories using Lego’s.  Sometimes having those funny pictures behind me while I seriously address the text helps people laugh at and understand some of the weirdness in the Bible stories.

Other times I use hand motions or even invite others up to the stage to help me address the text in a humorous way.  It lightens the mood and helps people connect and relate.  An added bonus is that those invited to help won’t soon forget the Bible story.

Regardless of how you use humor in your sermons, I would invite all my preaching peers to continue to experiment with it.  I hope this post (and all my posts) are not the last word on the issue but just helpful notes that guide conversation.

I hope to write soon about humor in pastoral counseling.  Until then a farmer and a welder walk into a bar.  .  .or a church.  .  .

A Hermeneutic of Humor: Laughter’s The Best Word

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Yesterday I wrote about the absurdity hiding beneath the fragile fabric of our lives  I argued that the best way to keep it from overcoming us is to laugh.  Today I want to turn in a different direction and talk about how we read the Scriptures.

Scripture is filled with a different kind of absurdity, a quite Holy type that encourages us to laugh at ourselves as we try to get along with the God who created us.

So over the last year or so I have begun to realize that my own hermeneutical lens lands in the middle of irony, sarcasm and humor.  This does not mean I ignore every passage that does not make me laugh.  It just means I keep my eye open to the unexpected, looking for the hidden humor to show itself.

If I have learned anything from good comedians, it is that the unexpected makes us laugh.  And as Jerry Seinfield taught us, we laugh even harder when the unexpected is hiding behind the everyday events of our lives.  But we miss that humor because we are so accustomed to our lives that we don’t stop to reflect.

In the same way we are so familiar with some narratives and passages of Scripture that we don’t stop to look for what might be hiding in plain sight for us to see.  A Hermeneutic of Humor fights that tendency by keeping one’s eye out for what you do not expect.

For example, I read the Sermon on the Mount for years without realizing that in chapter 7 verse 11 Jesus calls his entire audience “evil.”  I grew up reading that passage but had enver stopped to think about how funny and interesting it is that Jesus just insults his whole audience right there in the middle of the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached.

The story of Samson is filled with all kinds of humor and irony that one would not expect.  Nowhere is this more evident than after Samson kills 1,000 Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone.  After the slaughter, Samson tells a joke.  The Hebrew is just a bunch of forms of the word donkey.  A literal English translation might be, “With a donkey, I made donkeys out of a donkey full of donkeys.”  However, the real punchline comes right after when suddenly Samson gets all emotional and collapses, begging God to kill him.  From anger to sarcasm to depression.  .  .that is a full day.

In 1st Corinthians 6 Paul is practically screaming at the Corinthians but in chapter 7 verse 1 he suddenly stops and says, “Now for the matters you asked about.”  The transition is so awkward it makes you laugh awkwardly.

The Prophet Daniel compares Babylon to a prostitute.  Most people are so accustomed to this that they miss the force of the metaphor.  The Babylonians were doing all kinds of nice things for the Jewish captives but their military was out torturing people and sacking cities and raping women.  So the force of the prostitute metaphor is that Babylon looks pretty and inviting on the street corner but I wouldn’t go taking her home or throwing good money and hormones after her.

In case you still are not sold read the Psalms and consider they sang these songs together in worship.  Some Psalms have lines like, “Appoint an evil man to replace him!” and “It is like precious oil running down Aaron’s Beard.”  Now that is quite mental image!

All of this is missed when we read Scripture in the comfort of our low expectations.  In contrast, a Hermeneutic of Humor keeps us on our toes.  It forces us to roll our eyes at Samson, laugh at Babylon and gasp in shock at Jesus.   It makes us rather uncomfortable around Paul and questions the Psalms we sing.   Most importantly, it keeps us from getting comfortable in our own jagged relationships with the Almighty.

But, like yesterday, I must offer a word of warning.  Not all of Scripture is ironic, sarcastic or humorous.  Some of it is quite sobering and when we read with an eye to the unexpected sometimes we are surprised not by humor, but by sorrow and anger and frustration.  When we open ourselves up to laughter, we might also open ourselves up to being offended or angered.

Still, there is much humor lying behind our relationships with the Almighty and sometimes I wonder if Scripture isn’t a testimony to the fact that God spends most of the time laughing at us and with us.