My Worst Sermon

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I must begin today with a disclaimer.  A few of my congregants regularly read this blog and might be surprised at my upcoming honesty.  However, I am only admitting what they all ready know.  In addition, my last blog post was about personal repentance.  I am still convicted by it, so thought I should be a bit confessional.  So here goes:

Sunday’s sermon went very poorly.

In fact, it was the worst sermon one can preach, not because it wasn’t any good but because it was almost good.  It wasn’t one of those sermons I worked really hard on only to have it fall flat.  It wasn’t an okay sermon that just couldn’t transcend the realm of greatness.  It wasn’t one of those that no matter how hard I worked I just couldn’t polish it in time.  Neither was it a great sermon ruined by delivery.  It wasn’t a somber sermon ruined by too much energy or an energetic sermon ruined by a melancholy day.  I have preached all of those sermons too many times and while they are unpleasant, I always find it easy to move on from them.

But Sunday’s sermon was a different kind of lousy.  As I preached, I suddenly realized that if I had just gone over the manuscript two or three more times (which only takes about an hour) it would have been good.  It just needed more preparation.  To make it worse, last week was a light ministry week which means I had a lot of hours to make it great.  And I wasted them on other things.

Then Sunday morning happened, which was a very pleasant morning all in all except that I had a sore throat and a nasty headache and I tried to do an experiment where I put communion in the middle of the service and we had an Advent monologue, candle and music special that made everything go wonky.  This was in addition to the million other little things that happen on a Sunday morning and right after worship my family and I piled into our car to drive four hours to be at another church’s Christmas party so that we could share our vision for the Salt Lake area.

So by the time I began my sermon, my brain was everywhere but in the sanctuary.  I found I had completely forgotten the basic movements of the sermon.  I had last practiced it Thursday, despite having time both Friday and Saturday to review it.  Halfway through the sermon, I lost complete track of what pictures were on the Powerpoint reel and what they had to do with Malachi 3.  I went back and forth several times trying to remember why I had put the pictures where I did.  On top of that, I had no energy and a hoarse voice and a very distracted mind that just couldn’t put a coherent thought together.

I did not pull the sermon off.  It started out okay.  My clever intro got a few laughs and engaged a few people.  At that point, I thought, “maybe this sermon isn’t as bad as I thought it was.”  Then I transitioned to the exegesis, a transition that involved fumbling around with the remote trying to get the right picture to pop up on the screen, and everybody was gone.  It went downhill from there.

At 11:45, after several misspeaks and stutters and Powerpoint mishaps, finding I had no energy left and that my voice sounded like a snake swallowed a frog, I finally said, “Let me tie this all together for you.”  I told them my thesis statement and closed.  I saw relief flood the faces of my congregants.

But it wasn’t over.  As a fitting nail in the coffin of the day, I played a completely random Youtube clip that was tonally inconsistent with the mood of the morning.  I stood back up to see the perplexed faces of my congregation, went ahead and prayed the benediction and let them go.

I know full well that the sore throat and lack of energy could not have been avoided.  In fact, without them I might have gotten away with the lousy sermon preparation that had happened earlier in the week, when I had all the energy and all the time in the world.  However they exposed a deeper crack that had all ready taken place.

Everything else could have been avoided.  I had plenty of time on Friday to go over to the church and run through the sermon two or three times to memorize the pictures.  I had time Monday through Thursday to really wrestle with Malachi 3 and tie it into my metaphor.  I just chose not to use it, instead wasting time on other activities that have nothing to do with the church.

In fact, in this light, I think the sore throat was God’s grace to me.  As much as it punctuated the all ready failed effort, it was a good wake up call that I am not always going to be able to pull off a miracle save after a lazy week.

But a new week lies ahead, a week full of opportunity to dig deep into the Scriptures, think creatively and critically about the world we live in and invite the congregation into that thinking with a well prepared, engaging talk that opens up God’s kingdom of possibilities.  Very little of that happened last week, but God has given me a new week to try again.

After all, the best part of the preacher’s life (and also the worst part) is that no matter how great or awful one Sunday morning goes, you always have 51 more looking at you in the next year.  You have no time to dwell, only time to move forward.

On that note, after the lousy sermon, before I fled the building in disgrace, one of my parishioners grabbed my hand and shook it.  He is a statesmen in every sense of the word and very good at raining compliments down on people who need them.  He said, “You know why I respect you, Pastor?  Even when everything comes off the rails, when your Powerpoint gets all screwy and you don’t feel good, you still see it through.  That is not easy and I appreciate it!”

“Thank you” I said.

 

Monday Morning Repentance

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I was reading a magazine article with a group of pastors awhile back.  The article was about Sunday morning critics who used the car ride home to complain about everything they didn’t like about the worship service.

After we read that line, this group of pastors admitted to each other that we were the worst Sunday morning critics.  In fact, chances are, if you used the Sunday lunch to gossip about your pastor, your pastor was at some other restaurant being 10 times more critical of themselves.

You see what happens is that a pastor accomplishes more in 5 hours on a Sunday morning than you accomplish in a 40 hour work week.  Most Sundays, we survive at a level of chaos only known to E.R. surgeons.  It is a wild ride of emotions, little crises and small performances.  It takes a huge amount of adrenaline to get through those 5 hours and the best pastors are always on their guard, painstakingly choosing every word, carefully forcing themselves to convey meaningful body language at all times and trying desperately to connect with people who may need a reminder that their pastor cares for them.

And the more a pastor does on a Sunday, the worse it gets.  For pastors who teach a Sunday School class, preach more than one service, go out to lunch with congregants and lead a Sunday night group, it takes until about Tuesday morning to be even remotely recovered from that adrenaline surge.

Furthermore, if something very drastic goes wrong that morning, like a parishioner decides this is the morning to scream at you (which happens to most pastors about once or twice a year), you can pretty much write off the week.

In my life, I have found that since I have been “on” since 7am, the “off” switch usually takes the form of telling my wife everything I did wrong that morning.  You see, all Sunday morning I have been compiling my list in the back of my head about things I shouldn’t have said, body language I shouldn’t have conveyed, people I forgot to talk too, mis-communications that happened between me and others and the like.  Strangely enough, I am almost never critical of others, except when they scream at me after church.

This all lead to a new ritual in my life that I am calling, “Monday Morning Repentance.”  I did not choose this ritual nor have I even thought it all the way through.  But I do notice that when I manage to drag myself out of bed on Mondays and get to the office I usually have a list of apologies I need to make.

The list has three categories.  The first is apologies to others.  The second is apologies to myself.  The third is apologies to God.  Then my Monday morning is spent in prayer, contemplation and waiting for that proper hour (11am) to make some phone calls of apology.

It is a quite uncomfortable ritual and one that grew out of all the frustration I have with myself.  Why did I say that thing I said?   Why did I add that unnecessary point to my sermon?  Why did I forget that Powerpoint slide was in the presentation and skip over it?  In Sunday School, why did I insinuate that potato chips are as bad as alcohol?  Why can’t I ever start the service on time?   Why wasn’t I more prepared?  And why didn’t I stop and listen when that older woman started to tell me a story about her week while I was on my way to the restroom?

The answer to that last one is fairly obvious.  If I had stopped and listened, her story for next week would be about the wet pants of a young, inexperienced pastor!

These questions are probably well and good.  I pursue the perfect Sunday morning every week and every week I feel like I fall shorter and shorter of the mark.  A lot of times the mistakes are perfectly avoidable and flow out of sheer lack of self control and a lousy work ethic.  And sometimes those mistakes are unavoidable or unforeseeable.

Be that as it may, us pastors must take care that Monday Morning Repentance doesn’t replace Sunday Morning’s Grace.  After all, the church doesn’t rest on our shoulders.  The grace of God is not limited by our full bladders or by our adrenaline addled body language.  Neither is God’s grace undone by our half thought out Sunday School insinuations or our lousy sermon metaphors.

After all, this God we worship is the same God who in Scripture uses things like donkeys, dead bodies, magicians from the East and even a witch from Endor to communicate saving grace.  Even though I feel pretty beat up right now, I am sure I am more capable than three of those four things.  And you are probably more capable than all four!

So I hope that Sunday Morning’s Grace will meet you during your Monday Morning Repentance.  If today your find yourself begging God for forgiveness, making those frantic phone calls to angry congregants and trying to find the strength to forgive yourself, I hope a donkey starts talking and a valley of dry bones grow some flesh to remind you that God is greater than your lousy body language!

Blessings this week.

A Preacher’s Commitments Part 2: Using Images

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When I was in college I took a class that was all about preaching creative sermons.  The foundation of the class was the narrative preaching technique, with a bit of inductive approach sprinkled in.  But the heart of the class was the use of images.

The teacher spent hours teaching us how to use Photoshop to spruce up our sermons.  He talked us through all the copyright laws (which were not many at that point) and gave us examples of greatly illustrated sermons and lectures.

However, the one big takeaway from the class was that using media in your sermons is not something you should do halfway.  If you couldn’t do it well, don’t do it at all.  Just get up in the pulpit and use hand gestures and facial expressions.

For the first years of preaching regularly, I tried to follow that advice.  I used images sparingly with my sermons, probably about a third of the time.  I usually did it only if two qualifications were both met.  First, I had to have the time to put the slideshow together.  Second, I had to know where I was going with the pictures.  I didn’t want to do them for the sake of doing them.

But last year I read Leonard Sweet some more.  Then I considered the younger people in my congregation and how image fueled they are.  Then I found that pictures were a much better way to keep track of my sermon’s logic than notes were.  Then I thought about how image oriented and symbol fused our culture is.  After all that I consciously affirmed what I had all ready subconsciously decided, that using pictures (and using them well) was a must for every single sermon.

And that commitment has certainly paid off.  The sermons run smoother.  The audience is more engaged.  There are more avenues available for expressing humor and emotion (than just my wild arm movements and facial expression :P).  And I can keep better track of where I am in the message.

But in the spirit of using images well I to let you in on some of guidelines that govern how I use them.  I do so in the hopes that they can help illustrate (no pun intended) how useful that 8 foot tall screen in my sanctuary can be.

Layton 1

I admit, I really like ancient icons from the faith and rely heavily on them, like this slide from a sermon on Jesus’ baptism.

1) Use text very sparingly.  So far in this post I have avoided using the word PowerPoint, even though that is the program I use to put the pictures into a slideshow.  PowerPoint implies bullet points and I do not use bullet points very much, though there are exceptions.  Instead I focus heavily on pictures and memes.  I do put Bible verses on the screen once or twice a sermon but other than that I rely mostly on pictures.  The point isn’t to give people things to write down.  It is to give them a visual example of something my words are illustrating.

Singing The Easter Song All Wrong

During Easter this year this was my standard “transition” slide, minus the title of course.

2) For a 20 minute sermon 8-10 pictures will do.  When I first started using pictures, I thought I needed a new picture for every thought or a new image every 30 seconds.  This was manic.  Now, I only use pictures I think help keep the message afloat.  This might mean a picture of an empty tomb is on the screen for five minutes while I exegete the Resurrection passage.  It also might mean I have a standard “background” slide that I alternate back to during transitions.  Whatever the strategy, you don’t need 40 pictures for a 20 minute message.

3) Practice, practice, practice.  The biggest nuisance about putting pictures with your sermons is that you have to practice your sermons 10x more.  And you cannot practice them sitting at your desk.  You have to actually practice in the sanctuary, behind the pulpit, with the projector on.  (Though most times I cheat and just put my laptop in the front pew.)  Practice is invaluable for so many reasons.  It helps you feel out the flow of your sermon and the pictures.  It helps you find out which pictures were superfluous.  But most importantly it creates subconscious connections in your brain so that when you see the picture, you instinctively what to say.

Proverbs Slide

From a sermon on Proverbs. I shudder at the horror!

4) The pictures need to look professional.  Probably the biggest mistake I have consistently made is that I slap together lousy slides using Microsoft’s crude image cropping and color altering.  The result is a chaotic, disgusting slide like the one to your right.  The real failure was the times I used bullet points and couldn’t find a background for them so I just used black on white.  Ironically switching that to white text with a black background was all I needed for a professional spin.  I have repented of that recently when I realized I would rather search through pages and pages of Google images, using multiple search terms to find the one picture that says what I want it too than work just as hard to put together a dumb looking slide.

antique roadshow slide

I put this joke up last Sunday but barely referred to it. I let it speak for itself while I was explaining the idea of finding antiques you didn’t know where valuable.

5) The pictures are one piece of the whole, not the centerpiece.  I get it, we all like pictures.  We are crazy addicted to them because since the first time mom and dad let us watch the television, we have seen literally tens of thousands of them a day.  Still, throwing a bunch of clever pictures together is not an excuse for shallow Biblical study and incoherent content.  This is why I always do the slideshow last in my prep, well last before I go to the practice stage.  First comes exegesis.  Second comes content.  Third comes a clever metaphor or story that helps package the content.  Then come the pictures to add depth to the metaphor, content and exegesis.

In closing, I am not entirely sure using pictures badly is worse than not using them at all.  I am trying to rethink that as I continue to experiment with how to visually support my content.  For one, I think failure to try is not the same as trying and failing.

So try to use pictures and see where they get you and what you might learn!

The Nazarenes and Strengthsfinders: The Gospel According to Gallup

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Hello Everyone.

As are so many Nazarene leaders these days I want to begin with an apology that is in no way an apology at all.  I am sorry I have not been able to post anything for the last few days.  I have actually had a life and a local ministry context that needed my attention and so have not had time.

When I do have a spare moment, I have been piecing together a post about our big tent in the church.  I want it to be a really well written piece about getting along despite our differences and a call back to charity.  But it has not yet come together.

However, in the interests of biding time and frantically trying to keep your interest, Monday night’s NNU Alumni Q&A (that was more Q than A) with David Alexander introduced a fascinating wrinkle into the ongoing discussion about Nazarene identity.  As a sort of defense, he listed off his top 5 strengths according to Gallup’s Strengthsfinder’s Inventory.

This wrinkle, like most wrinkles in sheets or blankets, is caused by something much more concrete and sinister lying underneath and something that has bugged me for many years.  We in the Church of the Nazarene seem to be cultivating an unhealthy relationship with the Gallup organization, particularly through their Strengthsfinders Inventory.

Now, it would be inappropriate to leave out that I was on staff at a church that did not exercise caution when it came to Gallup’s Strengthsfinders.  The church let Gallup’s message replace the cross as its main proclamation to the world.

Perhaps most disappointing was regularly my senior pastor, whom I otherwise love and respect, would climb into the pulpit, hold up one of Gallup’s books, open it and read a passage.  This was in a worship service where no Scripture was otherwise read. Then he would exegete the Strengthfinders book for the congregation.  Whenever any book other than Scripture is exegeted from the pulpit, I get super nervous.

This is the word of Gallup. Thanks be to Gallup most high!

So I readily acknowledge that my beginning with Gallup left a really bad taste in my mouth, one I have not yet washed down (as evidenced by my snarky caption above).  In humility, I admit that isn’t how others are using Strengthsfinders and some have found a great and healthy way to refer to it.  Yet my weary journey with it has led me to deep and critical thinking which in turn has led to some questions and concerns.

The doctrine (or as I call it “gospel”) of Strengthsfinders rests on a few key principles:

The 1st and most foundational principle is that people should play to their strengths as much as possible while only managing their weaknesses.  A subset of this is that you manage your weaknesses by surrounding yourself with those who have different strengths.

2nd: There are only 34 strengths.

3rd: Those strengths are grouped into four categories that further help define your personality.

4th: You cannot change your strengths no matter how hard you try.  Your personality is set in stone.

5th: The best way to help yourself is to pay a tithe (er, um, donation, er, um, purchase) to Gallup so that you can take a test that tells you your top 5 of 34 strengths.  For those reaching super Gallup-saintdom you can even hire a Gallup clergy person, er, Strengths coach to help you help yourself even more.

With that basic framework in mind (and I admit I am summarizing the loads of Gallup books I have read and heard sermons about) I have great concerns about Strengthsfinders as it relates to our doctrine and polity.

First, I think it is quite naive to assume all of humanity can be summarized in 34 categories.  Humans are way more complex than that.  After all, when I fell in love with my wife I did not fall in love with an order of strengths but a complicated and complex human being who has shades of moods and layers of depth.  I am the same way.  You are too.  I am not a jumble of 34 categories roughly ordered.  I am a full, complete and complex human being and the only way to get to know me is to do life with me over the course of years.  I am not a woo, ideator, inputter, communicative and positive ENFP.

More than that, our church, particularly us Wesleyans, have always argued that the best way to know ourselves is to find ourselves in Christ using the means of grace.  If you want to know yourself and all your strengths and weaknesses, an inventory will not do it.  Instead it is much better to pray, fast, worship, give and serve.

Second, I really struggle with any narrative that says you cannot change.  I know Gallup insists they are talking about personality, not sinfulness, but still the Nazarene doctrine is built on the concept that God can change you and the real sciences have shown over and over again that you are changing whether you like it or not.  I think we need to be cautious and critical of doctrines and gospels that claim we can’t and won’t change.

Third, and perhaps most importantly for me, is that the church’s main proclamation is about the weakness of a cross.  Paul says in 1st Corinthians 12 that the power of God is made perfect in weakness and that when we are weak, then we are strong.  I believe Paul arrives at that conclusion because Paul understands the cross.  He is arguing from a logic he articulates in Philippians 2, that though Christ was in very nature God, he emptied himself and became nothing and humbled himself to death.  Biblically, postures of weakness glorify Christ, not postures of playing to your strengths.

This leads to a rabbit trail about the nature of American corporate greed with its gospel that only those who produce get the glory.  In that world Gallup really is good news because if you just pay your tithe and buy their book and take their test you can produce more for your church.  But the church is not a community of production.  We are a community of worship and of service.  In our church only those who take postures of weakness are guaranteed glory.

I feel like maybe one of the reasons our leaders are failing us so badly right now is because they have gotten caught up in the gospels according to Wall Street and Gallup.  They are trying to manipulate their personalities to produce things for God instead of falling on their knees in weakness and crying out, “I need you.  I need you.  Every hour I need you.”

But I digress.  .  .

With those things in mind, I am in no way saying we need to throw everything out that Gallup tries to offer us.  In fact the one thing personality inventories do is create a common vocabulary for people to understand each other and themselves.  Doing so aids understanding, creates unity, contributes to cooperation and leads to love.

But hopefully I have at least convinced you to keep Gallup in the boardroom and out of the pulpit.  After all, no doctrine or book or decree or gospel should share space with the Holy Scriptures of our Living God. 😛

Stay tuned for more as I have time!

Easter Follow-Up: Why Holy Week Services Are Better Than Easter Pageants

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Well Holy Week is over and Easter has begun!

Although I find myself with a lot of energy today, I am completely unable to focus on even menial tasks.  I went to my phone several times to call people in my church and every time forgot who I needed to call right as the contacts loaded (which takes .07 seconds).

I sat in front of my computer for an hour thinking about my sermon before I got to my very first sentence, which read, “I want you to close your eyes and think back to the last time.  .  .” Yes, I know that is not even a complete sentence.

But things have got better since then, so good in fact, that I am able to post this blog.  Normally I would wax poetic but Holy Week is the time for poetry.  The Monday after Easter is the time for as little work as possible, which means today I am giving you a fun list.

But this list has a point.  You see, last week I led my congregation through the movements of Holy Week using the traditional Maundy Thursday, Tenebrae Friday, Easter Sunrise schedule.

As I was thinking, praying and planning these amazing times, Facebook pictures reminded me that other churches (considerably larger churches) don’t do the special services.  They do pageants.

You probably know what I am talking about:  live donkeys, live palms, live disciples, automated live thunder and live lightning, real life crosses and an ironically not “live” but paper mached tombstone, and a tall, bearded white guy pretending to be Jesus getting crucified.  They usually charge money to see them, but don’t worry they discount the matinees.

Haha, I love live donkeys!

I am not against these at all.  In fact, I acted in one when I was a kid.  My dad was a palm seller and I was a kid that got driven out of the temple with a whip.  Yes, I understand the irony now.

Still, I like the Holy Week services better than the pageants.  So here is my list: Reasons Why Holy Week Services Are Better Than Easter Pageants!

1) The Holy Week Services Are Shorter

I like long worship services.  I do.  There is something to say for that.  I even like long movies and long pageants.  There is probably even something to say about acting out the same story six times in 4 days.

However, I love more that the Holy Week services are short and different from each other.  The short, sweet and powerful moments of Maundy Thursday and Tenebrae Friday remind me that drawing people into the Easter story doesn’t have to be complex.

2) They Are Ancient

A painting of the first Maundy Thursday

This year I added something new to my traditional greeting.  I reminded the congregation that what we were doing on Thursday and Friday night has been done for at least 1600 years.  More than 400 generations have commemorated the last week of Jesus through these services.  That is powerful!  Pageants, on the other hand, are only 50 or so years old.

A polaroid of an “early” Easter pageant.

3) They Happen In Real Time

The pageants don’t take people through all of Holy Week in real time.  They just do Good Friday and Easter over and over and over and over.  The Holy Week services do Holy Week in real time.  Jesus ate the Last Supper on Thursday, so we eat the Last Supper on Thursday.  Jesus was crucified on Friday so we do Tenebrae on Friday.  The women waited on Saturday so we wait on Saturday.  I love the time between the services because it reminds me that the disciples didn’t just experience a 2-3 hour ordeal (with intermission to buy candy) but they had time in that week to process, to despair, to mourn, to be confused, to wonder and to be filled with hope.

Holy Saturday always hits me the hardest.  I live in the tension of Tenebrae and Sunrise for a whole day, struggling with the things the disciples struggled with before the new day dawns.  In an Easter pageant, all that would happen between Tenebrae and Resurrection is that I would buy more popcorn during intermission.

4) They Are Easy and Cheap

There are more people in this picture than go to my church! And the set probably cost double our annual budget!

Okay, the Holy Week services are not easy.  I spent hours and hours planning them last week and my worship team was exhausted by the end of the week.  With that said, most pageants take thousands of dollars and at least fifty people to pull off.  They take months of planning and loads of prep work.  Last week, I did Holy Week with 4 music leaders and 2 pastors.  And we spent less than $50 dollars.

Plus you have to have a gigantic sanctuary or stadium to pull them off, which brings me to my next point.  .  .

5) Small Churches Can Do Holy Week Services

Man, live donkeys are so much fun! Look at all those body parts!

Let’s face it, pageants are new events that happened alongside the phenomena of the Mega Church.  Small churches don’t have the people or the energy or the time or the money to pour into a pageant.  But the Holy Week services are just as powerful (if not more so) and can help breathe esteem into your small, struggling church.  Even though the pageants are fun (I mean, who doesn’t like watching a live donkey walk down your church’s center aisle? with its hock knees and hoofed feet and fetlock ankles?) you can draw people into the presence of the crucified Lord using only bread, grape juice and a few candles.  This brings me to the next.  .  .

6) People Don’t Have to Pretend To Be Jesus

How Jesus Asked Us to Tell The Easter Story

When my church did an Easter pageant growing up, there was always this awkward thing that happened when you couldn’t find someone to play Jesus.  For all of our faults, we really love Jesus and respect Jesus and don’t want to pretend to be Jesus.  So it is really hard to find someone willing to fall on the, “I Want To Be Jesus For Easter” sword.  In strong contrast, during the Holy Week services, Jesus is remembered in the bread and the cup, which is how Jesus asked us to remember him.

During Tenebrae we represent Jesus using candles instead of a live person.  It is just less awkward.  All it takes to draw people into the Easter story are some bread, some juice (or wine), some candles, some songs, a great worship planner and the faithful congregation.

And that seems to have something to do with what Easter is all about!  The cross and resurrection mean we don’t have to bribe God with live donkeys.  We just need to break some bread, drink some juice, read some Scripture and sing some songs.

Well now I am suddenly preaching!  So let me go work on the sermon while I am still in the preaching mode!

May God Bless Your Post Easter Monday!

Good Friday Reflection: What Kind of God?

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When my wife and I were still dating, I was visiting her parents for Thanksgiving.  There I found a book called “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel.  It looked interesting enough, so I read it and was blown away by it.  It is still one of my favorite books.

Towards the beginning, Yann writes about a young Hindu boy named Pi wandering into a Catholic Cathedral and searching the paintings for a depiction of the Catholic God.

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He sees a painting of women crying and angels hovering overhead and a dove.  He studies it awhile, trying to figure out which one of these creatures is “The God.”  Then his eyes rest on the crucifix and slowly it dawns on him, “This is their God.”

Little Pi finds that idea both horrific and magnetic.  Pi tells us, “If the Son is to die, it cannot be fake.  If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the farce of Christ.  The death of the Son must be real.  And Father Martin assured me it was.  But once a dead God, always a dead God, even when resurrected.  The Son must always have the taste of death forever in His mouth.  The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God our Father.” (Life of Pi, 68)

This poetic paragraph captures the harrowing irony at the heart of our faith, that our God died.  Whatever it means to die (whether going to hell, Hades, nonexistence, becoming a ghost, separation, etc) our God experienced.  And by going all the way to death and descending all the way to where dead souls go, God redeemed all death and all life.

That experience of death is now integral to the Trinity.  God dying was not a tangent theology in our faith.  It was not a fun little story to tell our kids every Spring.  Nor was it a silly business transaction that was soon forgotten amidst all the other heavenly business.  Instead, it was a world altering, earth shattering event.  It forever changed the way we relate to God and the way we relate to each other and even the rest of Creation.

But the irony goes deeper than that.  Our God didn’t just die.  We killed him.  One of the great ironies of the Christian proclamation is that the Creator of the entire universe lived among us.  He walked where we walk and talked like we talk.  But He did it all in the right way.  He lived a perfect, sinless, authentic life.  .  .and we killed him.

If you read the gospels you find we mostly killed him out of envy and fear.  We were scared he might take over and depose us.  We were envious because he had more followers and could do cool magic tricks.  And so we killed him before He could do any real harm to our fragile egos.

And yet, in the killing, in the death, we accidentally crowned him King!  After all, the crown (albeit of thorns), the purple robe and the sign above his head on the cross are all typical markers of a coronation.  The trial and crucifixion, read another way, are the movements of a coronation ceremony.  So, scared that Jesus just might become King, we killed Him and in so doing, made Him King.  It is quite the irony.

And it is this irony we celebrate today.  Our God has come.  Our God has died.  We killed our God.  But in so doing we unleashed the very power of love to all creation.

Today as we join little Pi in our churches and stare up at the cross wondering, “Could this really be God?” and as we wonder at the love that held Him there, while certainly calling to mind our own sinfulness, may that almighty grace flow forth from the King who forgives, who reconciles, who redeems and who gives out eternal and abundant life!

Holy Tuesday Reflection: Hiding in the Cleft

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This year Holy Week has become a time of unmasking and revealing.  As we get closer to the cross, we begin to get a sense of what Jesus is really about.  More about God is revealed to us on the journey.

It begins on Palm Sunday when we celebrate what we want Jesus to be about.  Then slowly over the week, the truth about what Jesus is really about is revealed.  There isn’t a throne or palace at the end of the trip, but a cross.  This reality hits us like a ton of bricks on Friday.

We want a King who comes to conquer through violence or intimidation or even popular vote.  Instead Jesus conquers through vulnerability.  It is the bleeding, naked, hurting Christ that turns the world right side up.

But, Holy Week isn’t just a time when God is revealed to us, but a time when we are unmasked as well.  As I pointed out on Sunday, there is that young man in the Garden of Gethsemane who loses his robe while fleeing the guards.  He ends up naked in the night.

I am convinced that the young man is supposed to be us.  As we journey to the cross with Jesus, discovering God’s conquering vulnerability, we end up vulnerable and naked ourselves, running away in our own nights.

For this reason I find it helpful to fast during Holy Week.  After all, food is such a great covering.  A full stomach (but not TOO full) keeps us comfortable and empowers us to continue to hide the truth about ourselves from the world.  In turn, hunger brings a nasty vulnerability.  It reveals things about ourselves we would rather not know were there.  Hunger unmasks anger, grief, resentment, frustration and in so doing forces us to deal with it.

So on this Holy Tuesday, as we get nearer and nearer to Friday’s cross, may we find that we are out of places to hide.  May our food, our games, our movies, our internet, our avoidance all fade away as we run into the night.

I was thinking about such things this morning when God delivered an old hymn to my mind.

“Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.  Let the water and the blood, from your wounded side which flowed, be of sin the double cure, save from wrath and make me pure.”

There are all sorts of dangerous clefts out there that beg us to hide in them but the simple words of this simple song invite us to hide in true cleft that alone saves and makes us pure.

I love the second verse all the more,

“Could my tears forever flow, could my zeal no langour know, these for sin could not atone; Thou must save and Thou alone.  In my hand no price I bring; Simply to your cross I cling.”

As we get ever nearer to the cross, may God keep us safe from the evil around us and hide us in the true cleft.

See you all tomorrow.

Palm Sunday Reflection: Actually “Letting It Go”

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This is the first in what I hope to be a series of Holy Week reflections.  I hesitate to call them devotionals, as a devotional implies some sort of interaction with Scripture, which I am not guaranteeing.  However, as I enter into the sacred rhythm of this holy week, I want to also return this blog to its original concept, which is to find the grace going before us in the world.

Therefore, each post this week will reference some aspect of pop culture that I think aligns itself with my own reflections on each event of the Biblical Holy Week.

I also must apologize to my wider readership (i.e. my mom and that random person from Finland that keeps popping up) because these reflections are intended more for my local congregation and context.  With that said, I still I hope that all of you who click to these posts will find something valuable in my 2015 journey to the cross.

So I guess, here goes:

This morning I found myself preaching about stuff, namely the clothes, cars, dishes, toys and paraphernalia that litter our garages, yards and houses and talked about how our stuff, even the religious objects so popular these days, can get in the way of the true vulnerability that the cross requires of us.

This was an awkward topic for a Palm Sunday sermon and I had great trouble finding the courage to preach it.  I began my sermon prep with Mark 11.  I noticed we always talk about the palms, but there were coats there too.  So I wanted to comment that though they shed their cloaks on Sunday, only one person ended up naked on Friday.  I also wanted to fit in a mention of the young man who ended up naked on Thursday, in the Garden of Gethsamene.  I also thought it interesting that the only other naked people in a garden in the Bible are Adam and Eve who cover up their shame in the hopes of lying to themselves and God about what happened.

We all have fig leaves in our lives, things we throw over ourselves to lie about who we really are.  And this is why Jesus’ nakedness on Friday seems so relevant to us on Palm Sunday.  We seem to wave our palms and welcome a King we hope will give us more fig leaves but the invitation to deny yourself and take up your cross (an instrument of complete nudity and vulnerability) shatters our expectations.

More or less, that was my sermon this morning.  As I rest this afternoon I can’t get away from a movie I watched recently that seemed to illustrate this well.  It is a not very well known film and only has a 6.4 on IMDB.  It stars Will Ferrell but dispenses with dorky humor and truly showcases Ferrell’s acting talent.

Everything Must Go (2010) Poster

Click for IMDB page.

The movie is “Everything Must Go.”  Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, an alcoholic who loses his job, his house and his wife in one day.

His stuff ends up on the front lawn and he would rather drink than figure out what to do with it all (though he knows he wants to keep it).  His police officer friend helps him by taking advantage of a local ordinance that allows you to keep your possessions on your front lawn as long as it is a yard sale.

Nick Halsy makes yard sale signs but has no intention of actually selling anything.  But over the course of a few days, he suddenly starts caving and selling his fig leaves object by object.

For the majority of the run time you live with a drunk who is powerless to save himself.  Yet as the more stuff he sells, the more authority he gains over his addiction.  The movie ends with a glorious scene of NIck driving past the liquor store, instead of stopping to go inside.

It is a resurrection moment in a cruciform movie.  In the depths of despair, as strangers cart off with his alarm clock, plunger, blender and household furniture, suddenly Nick becomes more alive, more fully human.  The pain in his story is palpable but the hope at the end is all the more real.

As we enter into a week that we know will end in crucifixion and as we try to hide ourselves from the fact that the next will begin in resurrection, (as ridiculous and impossible a task that is) it is fitting to come alongside the Nick Halsey’s of the world.  They are not unlike that naked man in the garden, who ended up vulnerable despite his best wishes.

And as we journey with them throughout this week, not only coming face to face with Christ crucified, but coming to face with our own naked humanity, may we find the power that drips out of Christ’s body, a power that frees us the holy life that awaits.

Hosanna in the Highest Indeed!

Conversations on Holiness

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I want to begin by apologizing.  A few weeks ago, amid the chaos and stress of moving, I managed to put up a review of the book “Renovating Holiness.”  In that review, I promised to post a follow up.  The last two weeks have been so crazy that I have not yet had time to do so until now.  So I am sorry.

However, things have calmed a bit and I have had some time to think more about holiness and its renovation.

If you recall, I described the book “Renovating Holiness” as the introduction to conversations happening all over the world.  These conversations have been going on for decades  but “Renovating Holiness” gives you everything you need to know in order to enter these conversations intelligently.

As such, I encouraged people to not only read the essays but to use them to lead conversations in Sunday School classes, book studies, worship services and the like.

So, for the sake of follow up, here are some of the more crucial conversations that Renovating Holiness addresses which I think deserve priority.  Each one will also include a suggestion for where to discuss it.

1: What does the Bible really say about holiness?

Location: Sermons (and maybe Bible Studies)

Almost every Renovating Holiness essay dealt with exegetical frustration of some kind.  As a tradition, we have not always read Scripture well and the essays outline the ways we have fallen short.

Part of the confusion certainly flows from Leviticus where both eating pork and committing adultery are impure (so I can eat pork but not cheat on my wife? or can’t do either? or now can do both? or now cheat on my wife but not eat pork?).  Another part of the confusion comes from trying to figure out just what “baptism of the Holy Spirit” means and how and where Acts illustrates it.

With that said, pulpits are a great place to give a more honest and complex reading of the Bible.  For the pastor who ventures into it, the essays on the Bible in Renovating Holiness serve as great commentaries.

2: How should we preach and teach holiness?

Location: Colleges and Seminaries

After (or rather, as) you wade through the exegetical issues, you naturally will have to figure out what metaphors, language and logic structures to use from the pulpit.  Once again there are several essays that offer much guidance and they can serve as useful tools for those training for ministry.

3: How do we live holy lives?

Location: Everywhere a Holy church gets together.

Awhile back someone in a Facebook group asked, “what are the markers for a Holy life.  How do we really see someone is holy?”  The responses all fled to the abstract, things like “pure, love, merciful, righteous, kindness, gentleness.”  Those words are all well and good but they all beg the question, “okay, what does love look like?  What does mercy look like?  What does it mean to be kind?  How do we see it?”

These questions are at the very center of the doctrine of Holiness.  We should seek to answer them whenever we get together.  Does kindness involve recycling?  Does it involve abstaining from alcohol?  Does it involve reducing your carbon footprint or paying to repair your neighbor’s huge diesel truck?  Do I give 10% or 90?  What causes do I give too?  Who do I vote for in National elections?  Do I even vote at all?  These are the practical questions we must wrestle with constantly.

In that Spirit, I would recommend we stay away from paltry descriptions like, “finds a way to recycle dirty diapers.”  Instead we should maybe point to the very concrete examples of saints who have lived among us.  In those conversations we might not say, “Holiness is recycling,” but instead, “Holiness is my prayer warrior grandma.”  “Holiness is not abstaining from or drinking alcohol.  It is my uncle who was an abusive drunk but now buys his wife flowers every week.”

4: Do we really want a new legalism?

Location: Small group Bible studies

I have noticed that younger Christians tend to be more legalistic than their Baby boomer parents.  They aren’t legalistic about things like dancing and alcohol but if you eat meat around them they will assure you of your un-sanctified state.  If you don’t recycle they will cast you out of the “holy” community and if you drive your car when you could have walked get ready for the seat of judgment!

Holiness does have something to do with things like physical exercise and creation care.  However, these rather judgmental, bicycle riding, vegetarians pretend to hate legalism.  They loathe how legalistic their parents were and then they breathe out harsh and angry judgments in their very next breaths.  It is a little bit hypocritical.

And, not surprising, some of them wrote essays for Renovating Holiness.

I am certainly in favor of a return from “antinomianism” (a theological word for “no ethic at all”) to some sort of community covenant of conduct.  The conduct should include socially responsible practices and take into account the preservation of God’s gorgeous creation.

But as we talk about what “shalts” and “shalt nots” we commit too, I hope we can dial down our judgmental rhetoric and create an inclusive covenant that invites others in, instead of fencing them out, even if “they” are our Christian parents who drive SUVs, eat steak every night and hasn’t touched alcohol since they disinfected an open wound 10 years ago.

5: How do we move forward?

Location: Everywhere.

Recently a panel was formed to discuss the Church of the Nazarene’s stance on drinking alcohol.  It was caused in part by the complaints of Millenials about that legalistic and Biblically unsubstantiated claim from the 1950s that said alcohol contaminated the purity of the body of Christ.

The panel dealt with that concern, not by moving forward but by rewinding the clock even further to the 1890s.  The panelists reclaimed our social gospel ethic whereby we abstained for the benefit of the alcoholics among us.  We have a great historical reason for our stance on alcohol and today alcohol is still destroying many families but history is, well, history.

The problem isn’t that we stopped in the 1950s when we should have stopped in the 1890s.  The problem is that we stopped at all.  The conversations need to always be about how we move forward as a church and as a tradition, not back.  Therefore, the last section of essays in Renovating Holiness bring the book wonderfully home.

After all, by my reading of Revelation, the Holy People living in the Holy Jerusalem with our Holy God lies before us, not behind us.  Let us keep charging forward toward that city with our wonderful watch word and song, “Holiness Unto the Lord.”

A Sermon Somewhere: Towns Named Bliss That Are Less Than

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*This post is the latest in an ongoing series where I try to find sermons hiding behind life’s monotony.  .  .and fail miserably.

Yesterday I drove a 26 foot long moving truck packed with the vast majority of my life’s belongings across southern Idaho to northern Utah.

There is much theological reflection that happens during life’s transitions.  The irony of moving on Ash Wednesday was not lost on me.  The words “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” seemed a fitting summary of the junk packed U-Haul.  Also, the underlying reality of why I left one ministry assignment for another seemed particularly poignant.  I heard from God and after hearing from God there was no way to not obey though I pleaded for a different message.  Still, as I pulled out of that wonderful town in Eastern Oregon, I could not help but pray, “God please give me the love for the new congregation that you gave me for the old.”  But sustained and prayerful theological reflection soon gave way to more frivolous meanderings as the miles racked up on the odometer.

Now I grew up in Idaho and absolutely love the state.  It is a wonderful state full of mountains and lakes and rivers and hot springs and trees and all kinds of good creation.  But southern Idaho, the part along I-84, is the exception that proves the rule.  You can see the mountains in the distance, little molehills popping up on the horizon with some white still on them.  But you have to squint and focus really hard to see that.  And when you are driving a massive 26 foot long truck with your life’s possessions in it, turning your head left and squinting is not a good idea.

So you stare at the road ahead and try not to think about how brown and flat the terrain is and how straight the road ahead lies.  If John the Baptist was sent to make the paths straight, he did a fine good job in southern Idaho.

There are a few towns out there to break up the monotony, though not many.  By some historical joke people named these towns things like, “Bliss” and “Paradise” and “Eden.”

Like most devout Christians, I have a picture in my head of what Eden looks like and that picture does not include a gas station in the middle of sagebrush.  Yet there Eden, ID is, a truckstop and some sagebrush with a few singlewide trailers around it.  Bliss and Paradise are not much better off.

To be fair, I have read Well`s “The Jungle” and I know how bad city life was at the time people were immigrating out west.  I also know my fair deal about the Oregon Trail (mostly from the awesome video game) and about how bad the journey was.  So I can totally understand that after Grandma starved to death in a Chicago slum and Timmy died of cholera in southern Wyoming how a wonderful family arrived in the sagebrush of southern Idaho and were fooled into thinking, “we just found Paradise.”  Still, you think future generations would have changed the name.

Yet I suppose there is a larger statement here about the human capactity for love.  After all somewhere in the not to distant past there was a person or a family who saw that sagebrush in that desert and fell in love with it.  Nobody anywhere else would love that sagebrush so much to call it bliss, but to that family, it was.

It kind of reminds me of a wonderful verse in Job.  It is towards the end, when God is having God`s say and it is not a pleasant conversation.  God is asking Job a series of questions meant to humiliate Job and in the middle of the questioning God suddenly blurts out, “I make it rain in the desert!”  Nothing grows in the desert.  It is an absolute waste to water it.  Yet our God loves deserts and waters them anyway.

Perhaps there is a God given capacity in us humans to love deserts as well and maybe Bliss and Eden are a testimony to that.

Or maybe I just drove way too many miles yesterday and am not caffeinated enough today.  Either way, there is probably a sermon in there somewhere.