Seeing flowers, not weeds.
On the morning of my 33rd birthday - which begins, as one of my agnostic students so jovially intoned, my "Jesus year" - I sat on my parents back porch and looked upon the backyard of my childhood. On this particular morning, late in Spring, the field was full of flowers. Sunkissed in the morning dew and beaming yellow from the petals strewn across the green carpet, I drank in their beauty.
Why do we treat dandelions as any other weed, a nuisance to rid from our lives and our lawns? They're some of the most resilient of all flowers, thriving across climates and environments. The rapid transformation to seed shows not only a powerful purpose for furthering life, but an entirely different beauty to behold beyond the golden petals that first spring from the stem.
I blame Scotts. Roundup too. Golf courses don't help either. Really, we've bought into the narrative that grass belongs everywhere and deserves to dominate the landscape. That kind of thinking allows grass to suffocate the existence of dandelions, clover, bellflower, buttercup, and a host of other beautiful pieces of God's creation. Not only that, though, the relentless push to force grass everywhere puts grass at an unnatural disadvantage, whether among inhospitable climates or competing with better-acquainted neighbors for precious nutrients. It's not good for the grass or the dandelion. Sometimes, the best thing for grass to do is coexist alongside all the other plants, drawing on the same nutrients from the same soil to reflect their unique expressions of life. In other words, these beauties aren't weeds at all. They're just not what we expect because we've been told to want something else.
On Saturday, the day before my birthday, I led the Interfaith Baccalaureate Service as a part of Capital University's 168th Commencement. We interwove different aspects of various religious traditions, including Hebrew and Catholic scriptures, Buddhist meditation, Sufi (Muslim) prayer, Christian song, Hindu, Jewish, and Navajo blessings. We lifted up the diversity of spiritual expressions that make up who we are as Capital University (we call ourselves #CapFam because, well, we're just that close).
Capital is a historically Lutheran university that still commits to operating with "contemporary Lutheran values." Indeed, that's why they still hire a Lutheran pastor (read: me) to care for the spiritual health of our entire campus. I'm charged with caring for a Lutheran campus ministry and an ecumenically Christian weekly worship service, but I'm also called to care for the spiritual wellness of each student, faculty member, and staff person at Capital. It's admittedly a delicate balance to strike, being a committed member of a particular Christian tradition and yet supporting the spirituality of people with vastly different backgrounds and goals. Yet, that's also the joyful wonder of my role. I get to live out my discipleship as a Christian and see the wonderful ways the divine works through parters of all sorts of faiths and spiritual walks.
There are some who might see the kind of baccalaureate experience I mentioned as a grassy field full of weeds, which ignores the beauty of the individual plants and the vibrant life each organism has to offer. What I wish they could see, though, is not just the forty-five minutes or so that we spent in worship together on Saturday morning. It's the interfaith panel we hosted together with Residential and Commuter Life. It's the activity in interfaith prayer space that's just a few doors down from my office. It's the positive relationships developed between Muslims and Christians, Jews and Jains, agnostics and Hindus, practically all of which help to strengthen the faith identities of the people in question. That's why others, like me, find those interfaith experiences like a bouquet scattered across a meadow. It's in these moments when we finally refuse the ridiculous narrative that only grass deserves to exist in our pastures and instead look to all the ways that God brings life and meaning into the world.
When you see something that you don't expect, or something that you consider out of place, refrain from judgment at first. Then, ask yourself: Can you see the beauty even if it's unfamiliar? Can you see the goodness even if it's unexpected?
If nothing else, anytime you see something that blooms, change your language. See the flower, not a weed. Do the same for practitioners of other faiths. Relish the petals. Inhale the scent. Then imagine, even if just for a moment, how indescribably beautiful the world is where we all grow together in the field. Where we all belong together, even as we express our divergent beauties, because it's in our particularities that the mystery of the of the divine shines through.
Lately, my social media interactions have been full of posts about why we should or should not do Ashes to Go. But first, if you don't know what that's all about, you might ask: what's Ashes to Go?
Simply put, in the (often self-imposed) busyness of 21st century life, fewer people make time to attend Ash Wednesday services at their local congregations. Still others, under the weight post-christendom requirements of work commitments, coaches, and families, truly can't attend their church home (or any church, for that matter) at 12PM or 7PM. Ashes to Go is a pop-up work of public theology that invites people to receive ashes on their foreheads as a sign of their repentance and the beginning of the Lenten season.
You might then wonder: that seems nice enough. What's the problem with that? Well, as someone whose graduate work is in liturgical and homiletical theology (in other words, the theories and practices of worship and preaching), there are problems to note. Most significantly, Ashes to Go can further separate us from our faith communities and seem to support the hyper-individualism of faith (a uniquely American phenomenon). Further, divorcing the ashes from the liturgy that surrounds them can make their meaning more ambiguous. Are we just feeding a consumer culture and therefore watering down the meaning of our rituals?
Some Ashes to Go events feel just like that. Come by, have a minister smear some schmutz on your face because you used to do that when you were a kid going to church with grandma, and then be on your way. But that's not the event that I do, or that many other practitioners that I know utilize. We include saying psalms and prayers together. We include active repentance of sins. We include active references to the season of Lent, as well as distribute materials that invite participants into Lenten practices. Even better, it wasn't just individuals who participated today at Capital University. We had multiple small groups come together, miniature worshipping communities of otherwise unrelated people who suddenly together began confessing and praying and seeking a sign of God's continue gift of life to the dust of our lives.
On Capital University's campus today, we also offered multiple well-attended liturgies that included imposition of ashes. This wasn't an excuse not to gather together. It was an attempt to connect with those at the edges of the worshipping community and center them, at least for a moment, in acts of public worship.
Perhaps most importantly, the public nature of these ashes invites conversations with people who aren't Christian, but are curious about the practice. Conversations with Muslims about why we do this thing, and then turned about our shared appreciation for Jesus. Conversations with non-religious socialists about how they used to like ashes, and then turned to the beauty of effective community organizing. Conversations with maintenance workers who didn't want ashes themselves but knowing that Lent was starting was important to them because a friend devoutly observed the holy season.
We need to attend to the content of our faith and our worship, and not simply sacrifice it to accommodate to the environment in which we find ourselves. We must also realize that the content of our faith can be communicated in different forms, and so new movements like Ashes to Go will be imperfect, at least for a while, as they develop their own robust liturgies and practices to ensure their continued vitality in the life of the church. Ultimately, we do Ashes to Go because it provides a public witness to the importance of faith on our campus, something that turns people away from consumer culture and tower selflessness. We do it because it provides more opportunities for connecting the Body of Christ in person rather than showing off our ashes on Instagram to those whose schedules wouldn't allow them to commemorate this entrance into a season of repentance and preparation. Increasing our capacity for and participation in faith is always worth doing, not matter how imperfect the forms might be.
"The beginning of the reign of God is the end of the reign of me." That's what I said in my sermon last week. Something I still believe to be true. Our faithful response to God's reign constitutes the Christian life.
In our faith, the work of revelation properly belongs to God. We can't force God to reveal anything to us, or anything at all. Not the Kingdom of God, not who will win the next World Cup, not the cure for cancer, nothing of minor or massive significance. We can't force God's hand.
But we can use our hands. We can, and should, respond.
That, you see, is the wonderful interplay between revelation and response. As God's creatures, we respond to God's action. As actors in God's story, we respond to God's stage directions. We're simultaneously free to act and dependent on God's action. As we come closer in the lectionary to Jesus's Transfiguration, the very precipice of Lent, we see that logic enacted in our own liturgical calendar. The Lenten season, full of our repentance and preparation for Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, is immediately preceded by the transformation of Christ before our very eyes. We may see Lent as a chronological, calendrical response to the Transfiguration.
We may also see Lent as a response to Holy Week. This touches more on kairos time, the kind of time that focuses not on sequence but on meaning, propriety, or significance. In other words, for us Lent serves as a response to Holy Week because we plan to join the disciples at the Last Supper and "do this in remembrance" of Jesus. Lent serves as a response to Holy Week because we will go to dark Gethsemane on Good Friday. We know that, on the Great Sabbath, Jesus harrows hell on that holiest of Saturdays, liberating all oppressed by sin and death, and so we respond with an entire season of Lent. Ultimately, we prepare ourselves in response to and anticipation of the Great Easter festival.
"Good order" isn't often a concern in campus ministry. We're more consumed with creativity and experimentation, responding contextually rather than dogmatically. However, we mustn't underestimate the importance of the good order of these things, with God's action always first. Our actions aren't meaningless; rather, they're imbued with meaning through the activity of God. Our work isn't worthless; rather, it's made worthy by the one who worked us into existence from the dust of the earth. When we see our living as a response to God's life, that's the beginning of the reign of God in our lives, and the end of the reign of me. That order matters not because it demeans us, but rather because it give us the perspective of meaning through the eyes of Jesus, the one who sacrificed all that we might live abundant life. We'll never love ourselves or the world with the fullness of God unless we allow the Kingdom of God to reign first in our lives. That's why revelation precedes response.
Receiving God and Believing Victims (or, Why Reformation is Impossible Without Receiving Revelation)
This week our emphasis in our Re+Forming Faith series was Receiving God. If you want to hear a part of that conversation, you can listen to my sermon be clicking this link or downloading the file at the end of the document.
Reformation is impossible without revelation. This is a true statement, at least theologically. Reformation in our tradition means something like a purposeful transformation toward God's desire. But how can we reform toward God if God hasn't revealed to us who God is, how God acts, what God desires? Before we reform into God's image and likeness, we must receive an image of God, a likeness of God.
For us, and indeed for all creation, Jesus is that fundamental image, that incomparable likeness. Jesus, of course, was a victim of violence at the hands of the state and the will of the people. A victim of death because, ultimately, people didn't believe what he came to say about himself, about God, or about the sinful nature of humanity.
Today, still too many within the church don't believe victims of sexual assault who come forward to speak of their traumas and identify the perpetrators. We don't believe what they say about themselves. We don't believe that God's on the side of the oppressed or marginalized enough to trust the voices of those oppressed and marginalized by the aggression of those in power. We don't believe what these victims say about the sinful nature of humanity and how it has so profoundly affected them. When we don't receive these victims with integrity, how can we ever expect to reform the world into a place that's safe for women and femmes? Or, for that matter, a safe place for other victims that we don't believe: people of color and migrants, people with disabilities and the LGBTQ community and a whole host of others that interpret reality to us, only to be turned away rather than received.
One of the scriptures that just won't let me go is when Jesus says, "When you did (or did not) do something for one of the least of these, you did(n't) do it for me." Because, and here's the rub, to do something for someone, you must first receive them and believe what they say to be true. When, how, and whether we receive someone in our midst - someone insignificant to the world order, someone powerless accusing those with power, someone in need of assets under our care - relates intimately to when, how, or whether we receive God.*
My undergraduate philosophy professors now ring loudly in my ears: “That’s not a necessary or sufficient cause.” Indeed, treating people poorly doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll ignore God’s presence or activity in our lives. However, that same philosophy department emphasized the growth of virtues in the formation of habits. In other words, the more we practice the good life, the more the good life becomes natural to our existence.
More fundamentally, though, as images of God, victims reporting crimes against their bodies deserve to be believed on account of their God-given integrity, not simply because believing them might help us to more faithfully engage with God. People, and God, aren’t means to an end. They’re ends in themselves.
“You did(n’t) do it for me.” God so closely identifies with disadvantaged people that disavowing the needs, the words, the requests, the testimonies of those that come to us constitutes a denial of God’s very self. It’s impossible to help someone in need of we do not believe and receive them. It’s impossible to reform in God’s image if we refuse to believe and receive God’s good news.
We at Capital University are together on a journey of reforming, evolving faith. Before we reform, we must receive God’s revelation. Before we act, God acts. In the world, in our every day life, this means that if we want the world to change, then we must receive the messages that will change the status quo, that will upend the seats of power, that will accomplish true justice in God’s image and for God’s images.
*I don't talk at length about the likelihood of false reporting because, as the research suggests, false reporting is incredibly unlikely, and even the numbers we have (between 2% and 7%) are likely inflated. It does not enter the conversation for me, not because it is impossible, but because it is so incredibly rare that to treat reporters with skepticism is simply dishonest about the nature of reporting assaults and unfair to victims who have been treated with unfounded distrust.
Of equal importance is a lack of discussion about presumed innocence of the accused. This commitment, to believe victims, is based in incarnation theology and not constitutional theory. I will not recenter the conversation on alleged perpetrators when the story belongs in the hands and the voice of those who report.
Reforming, Evolving People
This semester, the guiding theme for Embrace Ministries is “Re+Forming Faith.” Over the past year, Lutherans have been awash in the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation. Concerts, educational events, celebrations, commemorations, and yes, even lamentations marked the 500 years since Luther produced the 95 Theses (whether they were actually nailed to a door is disputed). This historical focus provided an invaluable grounding in our theological heritage and enlightened many outside the tradition to why Luther’s movement to reform the church eventually changed the entire world.
Yet, as the drivers of our lives, we cannot leave our focus in the rearview mirror. We must look forward, to the car we drive and the road ahead. So, springing from that history, it’s now time to attend to the present and future of the church. From within the reformation traditions, God’s Spirit calms us to be an actively reforming church. Karl Barth popularized the phrase ecclesia reformata semoer reformanda - the church, reformed and reforming - as a clarion call to this posture of expectant formation. What does it mean for us at Capital University that we're "Re+Forming Faith"? It means that God calls us to be reforming, evolving people.
The form of the verbs, the -ing at the end of reform and evolve, suggests both activity and purpose. Our identity as church isn’t static. You're likely not shocked to hear that we're not perfect, and imperfection always leaves room for growth into what we're supposed to be. God's church, at our best, is dynamic as we continue to grow in God’s image. Transformation ought to be the personal and communal norms of Christianity.
The “R” in Re+Forming, which unsurprisingly stands for reform, implies purposeful change. It’s not just random, but instead is change with a goal in mind. Luther wanted to recenter the heart of Christianity: we experience salvation by God’s grace, through faith, apart from works of the law. His reforms intended (sometimes accomplished, at other times most certainly not) to lift up this centrality belief about God and about our being as Christians, which would then reform our own home lives, political behaviors, work activity, and theological action.
The “E,” evolution, borrows from more recent reforms in science. Evolution here simply means growing in the capacity for life to thrive. The logic behind the theory of evolution is just that: the species that adapt and live more abundant life because of that adaptation do more than just survive; they thrive. An evolving faith looks to the purpose of reform and uses the metric of God's abundant life as the plumb line of our evolution. There's at least one problem with the evolution we've observed in nature, however. Namely, it focuses only on the individuals thriving and the survival of the species. In faith, we're called to the kind of transformation that helps all creatures thrive, that promotes abundant life for all creation.
How do we practice that kind of faith? That's the focus of our entire semester. You can follow along here on this blog for more reflections throughout the semester. If you're in the Columbus area, come check out Capital Worship Wednesdays at 10:05AM or Candlelight Worship on Thursdays at 9:09PM, both in the Kerns Religious Life Center. We'll also focus on this at our Monday Mindfulness and Meditation event, a time for interfaith devotion, each Monday at 12:30PM. Use the comments or social media for reflections on where you see a need for evolving or reforming in the church or in your own spiritual life.
Until we meet again, may you find the abundant life God's opened to you.
December 31st, 2017
When someone goes to the gym, there's a confluence of expectations. There's a purpose (to work out), a goal (to increase health, strength, or ability in some way), and an expectation (to be challenged, whether by the workout itself or by a trainer guiding the workout).
We should carry those same things - purpose, goals, and expectation of challenge - into worship with us. How often do you hear yourself say, "I didn't get anything out of worship today," but you didn't put anything into worship either? I can't walk into the gym, sit there for an hour while I watch others lift weights, perform yoga, and spin their hearts out, and then leave expecting that I should reap the benefits of those activities. Even if I go and do all those things without effort or intent, I can't really expect much benefit to come from the activities. Only when we undertake things with purpose, goals, and expectation of challenge do we "get something" out of worship.
Now, that's not because we're the primary performers in worship; in fact, we're not. God is the one who shows up in conversation with our prayers, in inspiration for our songs, in presence through Word and Sacrament. Yet, like any relationship, we can't expect to reap the full benefits of God's selflessness unless we're also investing in God and the experience of engaging with God.
I'm currently at the Lutheran Student Movement National Gathering, where our theme is "The Dis/Comforting God." Micah 6:8 provides the foundation for this theme, where God's comfort for God's people comes through expectation of commitment to justice, mercy, and humility. God's comfort to some is a discomfort to others, but that doesn't make it any less divine. It's uncomfortable for me as a straight, white, cisgendered man to center the voices of others because I'm so used to the privilege of having my voice (and voices much like mine) at the center of the conversation. Yet, the discomfort in committing to that inclusive reality doesn't make it less holy. Through the commitment, and even through the resulting discomfort, God offers comfort in a fashion that's entirely alien to my expectations and often precisely what I didn't know that I needed.
We should enter each worship opportunity with the same intentionality. Coming as a spectator in the gym isn't discomforting. Even doing the same workout in the same place with the same vigor each time won't lead to significant growth. But when you have a purpose, united with a goal and the expectation that you'll be challenged, you're willing to try new exercises, take new classes, increase you reps, change your speed, alter your weight, or use time differently, which will certainly lead to different results.
When we come into worship, expecting only to be comfortable, we're not open to the transformation God offers. But when you come with a purpose (to worship God), guided by a goal (to grow in God's image) and informed by the expectation that fulfilling this purpose and achieving this goal will challenge and change you, then you'll invest in the prayers, the songs, the sermon, the readings, the sacraments, and the rituals in ways that shape and reshape your life. The fullness of God isn't found in comfort, but in the discomfort where we're challenged to become more like God, more full of the Spirit, more reflective of the face of Christ. This takes a full engagement of the worship opportunity. Come to be discomforted and see what you get out of worship. Come to be discomforted and feel how you're spiritually fed.
Of course, this shouldn't stop with worship. This commitment to the challenge of transformation should permeate our entire lives as people of faith. We can begin in worship and see how that practice infuses the rest of our week as well.
So, on this last day of 2017, consider what kind of future you want as a child of God. What's your purpose? What are your goals? How might God challenge you to bring about more divine life in you? Rather than a resolution in 2018, seek the challenge of resurrection that can only be accomplished by God. That's the kind of abundant life available to us in God through Christ. Don't settle for anything less.
We Need Mother God
“Sixty five? Sixty five!”
I rarely find occasion to pray more fervently than I do when I’m at the BMV. Between my own social anxiety and the palpable frustration of the others waiting on a clerk to call their number - “Sixty six? No Sixty six? Sixty seven, then!” - I know I need God here. As I began to pray, I said something that I've rarely said in my life, but something I intend to say much more in the years of ministry and personal piety to come: Mother God...
Recently, I heard Dr. Christena Cleveland speak to the importance of how we imagine God and the metaphors that we use when we pray, especially for those of us who believe God placed the divine image in humanity and that the divine chose to become human in Jesus. The average human person is a woman of color in the Global south. Even so, our prayer language remains dominated by male names (Father) and pronouns (him/his). We need Mother God.
“Sixty eight!” The tension of people being called like cattle, like sheep led to the slaughter, only adds to the density of this Saturday morning.
Now, before you lose your collective gourds about referring to God with feminine language, remember a few things about scripture. The first depiction of divinity in the Hebrew Bible is of God giving birth to all creation. Through waters. That’s a graphically obvious reference to motherhood. All throughout the Bible, we find images of a divine mother, gathering Her chicks and comforting Her children. Of course, from within an ancient patriarchal culture, many more metaphors in scripture use masculine imagery. Yet, even in that matrix, God’s motherhood remains a core metaphor. God's maternal nature is essential to God's identity.
“Sixty nine? Seventy?” People have started to leave because they’re fed up with waiting, all without comfort. We need Mother God in these places because, well, from where else would our help come from? More than that, though, in the Christian tradition we've been inundated with almost exclusively male images for God. We've seen Jesus's exclusive use of paternal language in a paternalistic culture to become determinative for our conceptions of God. We've ignored the profoundly feminine activity of God depicted in scripture and in our larger tradition. "Seventy one!" We need Mother God to honor the fullness of God's identity through her interactions with all creation.
"Seventy two!" By now, I've noticed with intention that it's two women who are shouting these names, to a room full of mostly women. Mothers and daughters, caught in the dehumanizing assembly line of getting the proper titles for our vehicles. It's one of the nicer BMVs in which I've ever sat, but the marble countertops and chandelier lighting don't create warmth, not the way that a mother's touch does.
Mother God also honors the image of God present within women and femmes across all time and space. The exploitation of women is made easier when the feminine is seen as further from God than the masculine. God's neither male or female, or better both male and female, or more accurately, the fullness of the gender spectrum is within God's identity. That's something that's theologically embraced across most traditions throughout history, but not practiced in most churches, past or present. We need Mother God to see the intimate connections between God and all those who identify as feminine. Which, of course, includes God, and all the women and femmes who've been marginalized through our masculinization of God.
"Seventy three!" I'm next and so my prayer turns toward an end. Then, I committed to myself and to God, the same commitment that I'm now making publicly. From now on, into the fullness of 2018, I'll be using feminine names, pronouns, and metaphors for God in my prayer life and my writing. We need Mother God and God begins to meet that need through our language, our willingness to admit the feminine qualities at God's core. That looks like many things, but likely begins with: Our Mother in heaven, holy is your name.
"Seventy four!" I approach the woman at the counter, and in a way that I haven't before, I see the image of God in her. That's God's work. Mother God's work.
Preaching is Training Day
Training Day premiered during my sophomore year at Orrville High School. Mashing up Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in a police drama struck the right chord with this budding pubescent demographic. Action, purpose, the kid from White Fang and everyone's favorite actor from Pulp Fiction coalesced in ways that enticed our teenage sensibilities. Of course, the content - the violence, the language, the drugs, the concepts of grey areas in justice - were all beyond us as an audience, but like Hawke's character, we became apprentices to a caricatured version of LA.
Preaching is Training Day every Sunday for the church. Instead of an overemphasized version of Orange County's flaws, however, we're trained in the otherworldly language of the church. Two of my church history professors, Warren Smith and Sujin Pak, spoke of the importance of learning the language of our faith. For Dr. Smith, the language of the early Christian fathers and mothers held great importance because those words, found especially in creeds, revealed the agreed upon theological foundations of the faith. For Dr. Pak, the language of the Reformation showed us how Christians wrestled withe tradition while meeting the unforeseen realities of a brave new world. In both instances, the language they used, which still forms the ways we think about God, faith, church, mission, discipleship, and creation, still matters. In one sense, preaching should train us with the language of our forebears.
In quite another, though, preaching trains us in the language of scripture, and especially the scriptures that don't fit nicely on bumper stickers and memes. Sermons properly arise from a preacher's personal wrestling with the Bible, and that struggle ought to compel the congregation into their own engagement with God in God's written word. Some might here argue that we should use a single translation of the Bible so we can have a singular memory of certain verses. After all, do we walk through the valley of the shadow of death or the darkest valley in Psalm 23? However, that's not at all what I believe is important about learning biblical language. Rather, learning the content of the Bible gives us the language to make sense of the world in which we live. However you translate Psalm 23, we hear a promise of a God who walks with us through times of anxiety, fear, and tragedy. We hear of a God who feeds and feasts us even in the face of enemies. That language, in whatever variations, now give us powerful words to speak to church communities facing tragedies like our recent natural disasters of hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes in the Northern and Western Hemisphere.
While the movie sensationalized the violence of city life, preaching should train congregations in honesty. Honesty about the challenges we face and the triumphs we experience. Honesty about the sins that plague us and the forgiveness that saves us. Honesty about the difficulty of living God's justice in our world and the resolute commitment that God has for justice anyway. This is honesty about God, about us, about creation, about all things.
Even as preaching trains us in holy language, it should not train us in sterile language. We should remember that words like "shit" appear in the Bible (Phillipians 3:8). Rather, preaching should train us in honest language. Words of lament and righteous anger should appear in the pulpit alongside words of thanksgiving and hope. Preaching is ultimately the comingling of the language of God's Kingdom with today's vernacular speech. Too much Kingdom language and all we'll hear is a foreign tongue. Too much familiar language and there's nothing that sets a sermon apart.
Perhaps most importantly, like Denzel in Training Day, preachers are complicated characters. While we're proclaiming the Gospel of grace and exhorting God's people to saintly life, we stand before these people as sinners. We're held to a higher standard and yet know our own faults too deeply, too intimately. We're enacting God's grace before the eyes of God's people: sinners made saints leading congregations full of sinners made saints. Any preaching that doesn't acknowledge the fallibility of the preacher isn't Christian preaching. Any preaching that elevates the preacher to a pedestal breaks the second commandment (idolatry) and obscures the ultimate content of the sermon: God's very self. We're not to point to ourselves. We're to point through ourselves to the God about whom we speak, in whom we live and move and have our being, for whom we preach.
If you're coming to church, then, don't just look for a "good message." Look to be trained. Give the sermon your close attention and listen for how God is calling you to shape your life as a disciple of Jesus.
One of the reasons that many people want to create worship experiences without preaching is because we live in a society "dominated by words." That concept first appeared to me in Jonny Baker's Curating Worship, a book that argues we should design worship events to include many more modes of engagement that preaching, speaking, song, and the limited amount of visual art and nonverbal music that appear in many churches.
Baker's not wrong that words have taken an overwhelming precedence in our society. Jay Gamelin, a Lutheran pastor and speaker, talks about how the modern world, up to the verge of the 21st century, was a "tell me" culture. Education, knowledge, even belief itself were supposedly founded upon what we were told.
However, as Jay points out, we've turned toward a "show me" culture, where people have become less bound to words and more enchanted by images. The rise of picture- and video-based social media offer a small example. That Facebook, where people go into multi-paragraph diatribes, is losing ground to Twitter, where your commentary is limited to 140 characters, and Instagram, based entirely upon photographic media. Of course, that's why Facebook bought Instagram, to ensure a stake in the next evolution of social technology. With this all being true, it's even more understandable why people seek to suppress preaching. We're weary of words.
We're also likely weary of words because words have been so often used to hurt, especially words from self-identified Christians. Sometimes they're painful because of the hate couched in religiosity, like we see from Westboro Baptist. At other times they're hurtful because they're false promises, like we find in the Prosperity Gospel. Perhaps most often, though, it's the ugliness of sin that we see in even the best of of Christians. Our hypocritical behavior might be magnified by stories like The Handmaid's Tale, but the presence of sin covered in Christian frosting is no less insidious for us and the culture around us.
So why preach, even still? We use our words to talk about our God because our God is a word, and in fact, The Word, that created all good that exists. Our words are limited and often feeble when compared to God's unlimited goodness, but through our words, we connect to God's Word. Of course, words aren't the only way we connect to God's Word, but they're a unique way that we connect with God. Many creatures (rocks, soybeans, water) have no language at all, while other creatures communicate within their species to a certain extent, though in typically less complicated version than humans. Words, it seems, are connected with the evolutionary progress of our brains as a species, which means we've a capacity to engage with God that likely no other creature does. We should use that capacity, and preaching is a formative way the church has done that in the past.
Words used well are the heartbeat of God's love in our lives. Of course, just because we used to do it doesn't mean that we still should. That's where we ought to take seriously the arguments of those like Jonny Baker. The barrage of verbiage we face in worship likely hits the ear of a postmodern 23 year old quite differently than it did of someone the same age in 1617. Our attention spans are shorter today than ever before and yet we're more captivated than ever with images on screens: in our houses, on our desks, in our pockets, and on our wrists. If we want to communicate the person and presence of God to our culture, we must communicate in ways that make sense. Fewer words and more paintings, more videos, more dance, more theater, more sensory stations, seems to introduce the possibility of more people engaging with God more deeply. That's a good thing.
But neither should we throw out words entirely. There will forever be nerds (like me, admittedly) who find sermons and prayers, as well as the sung and spoken portions of liturgy, compelling. More importantly, though, we must remember that our God is a God that speaks creation into being. There's a performative power with God's words, words that do what they say. If we ignore words in our worship, we're likely to forget the power of words in our lives. That heartbeat of love that we discover in God's Word brings inspiration for new life. That pulsating reminder that, even when we're alone, we have our words, tells us that we're never alone. The Word who gives us words is with us.
We should continue to preach in the "show me" culture, but we shouldn't just preach. That's the wonder of John 1:14; "The Word became flesh...". God's Word did something more than speak. God's Word came into being in history. God's Word acted to bring health to the ill, homes to the homeless, full bellies to those who hungered, forgiveness to the sinners, community to the outcasts, reconciliation to the divided. God's Word never stopped at speaking. So we ought to continue to preach as a church. This is most certainly true. But we ought to take much more seriously what comes next. If faith without works is dead, then preaching without activity is pointless. The Word of God acted on our behalf, literally enfleshed the fullness of God's sermon into the life of creation. That's the paradigm in which we preach as Christian proclaimers. Anything less doesn't belong in worship.
In a culture that's driven more by images and icons, the importance of preaching is understandably called into question. Many of my friends communicate in memes and GIFs more than even text messages. We've gone from verbal shorthand (instead of typing "are you serious," people will type type "r u srs") to culling even more langauge from our vocabulary. With every image-based communication, it seems we're all just, well, this:
If our peers so commonly communicate without words, then why should we continue to preach? What's the point of speaking words about God to God's people?
Preaching matters, not because we've always done it that way, but because with our words we connect to God's Word in a unique way. This doesn't mean that preaching always does the job better than images; in fact, the church developed icons and symbols. This doesn't mean that preaching does the job better than music; indeed, we have scores of songs of all sorts built for the life of the church. It doesn't mean preacher does the job better than service; certainly an embodied Gospel lived in our every day lives makes all the difference in our work places, our homes, our schools, our parks, our politics, and throughout our social existence.
All these things do something that preaching can't do. And the converse is also true. Preaching (and other purely primarily verbal forms of faith like prayer) does something that these different expressions of faith can't do, not on their own. Preaching, at its best, helps us to examine our faith, to critically engage the entirety of our religious experience, from ancient text to present experience to future hope. Preaching matters because it's the locus of the church's communal continuing education. We reflect on God's actions on our behalf, as well as on our actions in response to God, and then are sent to encounter God and the world in all sorts of forms beyond preaching. Preaching is not the whole experience of divine communication, but it is certainly a part.
With that in mind, the next few post will be a loosely organized series around preaching matters. Why I believe preaching still deserves a regular place in Christian worship. Features on certain preachers and what makes their preaching meaningful. Suggestions on how to engage preaching, even if it's not the best sermon you've ever heard.
One way to illustrate the importance of preaching is to imagine a relationship. Imagine you're in love with someone. They bring you flowers. They rub their shoulders. They write letters. They introduce you to their friends. They play you songs. They can speak but they don't speak. They never say, "I love you."* We're left wanting for those words, those declarations and explanations of the relationship we have. We're left hoping for exhortations and inspirations based in that love. We're left wanting for a voice, whether a whisper or a shout, to connect us with the heart of our beloved. That's why preaching is important. Preaching, at its best, communicates the love of God to the church and the world, making that love blossom and grow all the more.
Do you think preaching matters? I'd love to hear from you in the comments or via email.
*Of course, there are some people in our lives who don't have language ability. These people aren't less loving because they can't communicate. In fact, they're often better than people who can speak at showing their love with actions and behaviors! The point here is that, when we have a certain means at our disposal and don't use those means, then we're left without the fullness of possible experience. One of the people I work with at our church is nonverbal, and while she doesn't speak her love in language, she shouts it with the voice that she has. I'm thankful for that, and it's no less valid than those who use words.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.