Twenty Years Ago Today

Twenty years ago today, I had an epiphany during Communion. Here is how I describe it in my book Table Talk:


February 7, 1999. Some dates you never forget. I preached from Revelation 3:20, that verse about Jesus knocking on the door of the church, wanting to come in and sup with us, a Eucharistic reference if ever there was one. I hadn’t always read it that way. Many of the Baptists I knew preferred to interpret the passage as Jesus wanting to be invited into our hearts, so that we might be saved. As far as I recall, no one ever wondered why it was a church’s door he was knocking on, or that maybe instead of our hearts, the food reference there was literal.

My sermon was called “Table for Two,” and while I emphasized the personal nature of communing with God, I didn’t do justice to the corporate nature of worship at all. (The New Testament is almost always more interested in the plural form of you; the singular not so much. “Y’all” is the Texas form of Greek.) I would probably give my sermon that day a B, maybe B+ if grading on the curve. But what the Spirit of God did with that sermon, and with that meal, deserved an A+. It was almost beyond words.

But only “almost,” because I have tried for years to describe what unfolded, except the problem with epiphanies is that words rarely do them justice. “You had to be there” describes most visions. But here goes: Since worshipers were to come forward and receive by intinction, and since we had four servers at two stations up front, after saying the words of institution (“On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus took bread….”) and inviting the people to the feast, all that remained for me to do that day was stand there looking ministerial, whatever that means.

I stood behind the table inscribed with those words about remembering Jesus, and the people started filing forward. As they did, I had a vision. Not the blurry eyes kind; more the clear eyes kind that probably had everything to do with my knowing what many of them were going through. There was Bill, the retired minister on the left side in the back pew whose wife had passed away recently. This might have even been his first Communion since her passing, and so Bill limped forward on his bad knee. There was the single mother with two kids whose husband had repeatedly cheated on her and they had divorced. She was back in church, she and her children. On and on the list went, people facing the prospects of a job loss, a malignant diagnosis, all manner of little hells. There in that little church in Arkansas,I saw broken people coming to eat broken bread and be made whole again.

“Go in peace,” I said as the service concluded. Only instead of going, more people than usual flocked forward to say how moving the service had been, beyond anything they had experienced in church in a long time. Normally I might have said, “Well, thank you. The worship team puts a lot of effort into our services. I’m glad you found it meaningful.” After all, my mom taught me to be gracious when someone pays you a compliment. But this was not my doing—and of course it never is—so instead I just mumbled, “I know. That was amazing, wasn’t it?” So many of us had been stirred by something beyond us.

As I drove away, I thought, This is what we are supposed to do every week.Now when I use the word this, I mean the eating of the Jesus meal, not necessarily the emotional fireworks. I wasn’t so naïve as to imagine that every Sunday wouldproducegoose bumps as I dipped bread in the cup, even if I longed for such an experience. I knew then, and realize more so all these years later, meals feed us even when we aren’t all that stirred by them. That’s true for lasagna and salad, as well as bread and wine. Do you remember what you had for lunch two weeks ago last Tuesday? Do you remember anything special about the last time you had Communion, or the one before that? But meals feed us even when we go through the motions, because in many ways the motions go through us.


Hard to believe it’s been twenty years ago. Looking back, I give thanks to God for the journey I’ve been on ever since, the road to Emmaus, you might call it.


Pulpit and Pew (installment 30)

Twice in the last couple of weeks I was in Starbucks, the modern-day coffee shop that some people call my office away from the office, only to discover characters from the ancient biblical texts. I’m not referring to someone daring to dress up like Simon Peter or Mary the mother of Jesus for Halloween (although I did think someone should have dressed up like Martin Luther on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation).

No, on two separate occasions I sipped my hot tea while seated next to persons who reminded me of incidents in the pages of the New Testament. The first such encounter was with the rich ruler in the 18th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. (He’s usually referred to as the “rich, young ruler” but that’s combining the various accounts in the first three Gospels).

This fellow was having lunch with someone who apparently was a mentor of sorts, someone who had followed his career for many years. And nearly every sentence out of this young man’s life was about him, his career, the night class he’s taking toward his MBA, his gifts with certain software at work that no one else has a clue about, etc. I kept wishing I had a recording of it, to let him play it back, see if he caught the way his life is wrapped up in himself and his work. I could also hear the pleading in his mentor’s voice to find some kind of balance. In the Gospels, Jesus tells the man to sell everything and follow him. That story ends with the guy walking away. Sounds familiar.

The second occasion was an encounter with a demon-possessed man. To be clear, demon possession in the New Testament is nothing like that featured in the movie The Exorcist, head spinning, vomiting blood, and so forth. As Fred Craddock used to say, in the New Testament demon possession is never about morals, but always about illness. The ancients believed that illness, mental or otherwise, was caused by demons.

This gentleman in Starbucks was in his early 60s, I would guess, sipping on his coffee, and talking non-stop into one of those earpiece phones about a whole host of topics: the London financial index, trades that needed to be considered, upcoming meetings, politics, you name it. It was annoying, and I was about to move to another area until I discovered he had no such earpiece and was talking aloud to no one. A few other folks noticed it, and it’s hard to describe how sad it was. Eventually he was back in the Reagan era, talking politics in the 80s. For more than an hour, he would pause while “listening,” then reply with his own observations.

I once preached a sermon called “Reading the Bible in Starbucks,” which apparently is a pretty good idea. Give it a try and see what happens. This much I know, Jesus will be there too.

Pulpit and Pew (installment 29)

I was only a kid in the late 60s when two black US Olympians, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their fists during the national anthem rather than placing hand on heart. That piece of history feels less past tense these days in light of NFL athletes protesting on game day during the Star-Spangled Banner. Apart from the particulars of racism and patriotism, it seems to me there is also the problem with a shortage of discourse. The advent of Twitter hasn’t helped. What I mean is that if an athlete stands, those who are watching have no attending script, no interpretation of that person’s actions. Does that linebacker love America? Feel unfairly treated as a black person? Have respect for the flag and our troops? Despise police brutality? You get the idea.

And the same thing applies to the fan in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, or wherever, who has boycotted the games this season. Is she/he a racist? Does she/he think American’s laws discriminate unfairly against minorities? Or that such a position is a load of crap? Does she/he think that freedom of speech extends to kneeling during the national anthem?

After traveling out of the country on numerous occasions over the years, I realize how much I truly love these United States where I was born. I love the food, the music, the geography, the people, everything. Well, not quite everything because that love does not extend to our darkest moments, like the burning of women suspected as witches in the colonies, or states’ rights to enslave people as a way to make a plantation economy function. Not for a minute. All of which means that if I were an athlete wanting to protest racism in our country, kneeling might help but not with in showing my love. And if I placed my hand on my heart, people could assume my love of country but know nothing of my disgust with rampant racism.

Personally, the great preacher and protester of the 20th century, William Sloane Coffin, put it best. He said there are three kinds of patriots, only one of them commendable. There are those who love without criticism and those who criticize without any measure of love. The ideal, claimed Coffin, is to have a lover’s quarrel with one’s country. Too bad that won’t fit on a bumper sticker.

Pulpit and Pew (Installment 28)

My wife and I recently enjoyed several days in Dallas, visiting our good friends Joy and Elliott Gonzalez. Let’s be honest, besides time with them, it was all about the food. I’ll spare you the details so you don’t spoil your dinner. One evening after dinner and before visiting this amazing place that features homemade pies, we walked around this cool part of town called Bishop Arts District. There were lots of boutique shops, including one specializing in men’s hats. Not ball caps and such, but nice men’s hats, fedoras and straw ones in particular. Elliott and I ducked inside while our wives watched through the window. I felt like a clown as the owner had me try on a sporty number. That feeling was confirmed by the wives as well. Then the shop owner blew me away with a comment we would repeat amongst ourselves the rest of the trip, albeit mostly as a private joke. “It’s all about the confidence.” The owner promised us it only looks foolish on those lacking the confidence to pull it off. I thought he was pulling my leg, but now I realize the truth of his observation, because no matter how much ridicule I endure for wearing brightly colored socks these days, I never flinch. I feel confident in bright orange socks, but not so much with men’s hats.

My Texas experience got me to thinking about preaching, and the need for confidence. And it’s not just beginning preachers who often quake in their ministerial robes early on Sunday mornings. All preachers know what it is to wonder every week what they’ve gotten themselves into, proclaiming the gospel Sunday after Sunday, daring to say something akin to, “Thus says the Lord.” Not many of us would claim our words should be equated with God’s, but we do believe (or should anyway) that God uses our words. Still, we’re scared sometimes, maybe most times.

If you Google the word “confidence,” one of the primary definitions that pops up reads, “a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.” Wrong! That might be one definition, but it’s not a theological one in the least. The Latin from which the term comes means “with faith.” And as Christians know full-well, our confidence is in God, not ourselves. Moses wasn’t called by God for his training with Toastmasters, and the same for those women commissioned at an empty tomb on the first Easter. They didn’t tell the heavenly messenger, “Oh, no problem sharing the gospel. We had a speech class in junior college and it’s not that hard.” Wrong!

For preachers, whatever confidence we have comes from remembering God’s call upon our lives. Yes, we will work our buns off Monday through Saturday on the way to Sunday’s pulpit; but it is God’s promise to be with us that grants us a measure of confidence, even enthusiasm. That last word, by the way, comes from the Greek, meaning “in God.” May it be so.

Pulpit and Pew (Installment 27)

The title of this series of articles refers of course to the two pieces of furniture most often associated with preaching, the pulpit where preachers stand and the pews where people sit. Nowadays, that’s not always the case since some ministers prefer music stands and some congregants plop down in folding chairs or theatre-style seating. Still, you get the point.

In my Intro to Worship course, I describe the final paper as an Applied Ecclesiology project. I’ve just finished grading a big stack of them. Lord, have mercy. The name of the paper is a fancy way of helping them articulate the practical implications (thus, the Applied part) of their understanding of what it means to worship and do church on Sundays (thus, Ecclesiology, as in the doctrine of the church). Among the many things I ask, I invite them to imagine how the furniture might be arranged if they had their druthers. Be creative, I tell them. For instance, I’ve always fantasized about a church where the aisle leading into the sanctuary is a kind of bridge passing over a pool of baptismal waters. It wouldn’t just be hip and different, but would remind us that we all come into Christ’s church through the waters of baptism.

Of course, churches have more furniture than pulpit and pew. In addition to these two pieces (as well as the waters of baptism), there is also the table, a very important piece of furniture in traditions like ours that eat Communion every Sunday. Here’s where it gets tricky though, the arrangement of table and pulpit. In some of our sanctuaries, the table is central, with pulpit and lectern positioned on the sides, what’s called a “split chancel.” In this pattern, the table becomes more focal. In other sanctuaries the pulpit and table are both in the middle, the latter a step or two below the elevated pulpit. There are pluses and minuses with both patterns. In the split chancel, preaching could be seen as relegated to the edge. With the other pattern—influenced most clearly by the Protestant Reformation—the pulpit may be central, but the table is clearly below it, and in more ways than one. What to do?

I don’t know what you think of my baptismal entryway, but here’s my fantasy when it comes to pulpit and table. What if the table were central, and probably a round one for its egalitarian symbolism, and what if that were the place from which sermons were also given? That’s what the Jews do at Passover, and it is what Jesus did at the so-called Last Supper and all the other meal gatherings with his friends. That’s what we do at our tables at home, too. It’s where we gather to eat, but also to tell stories.

Like I said, I don’t know what you think about my idea. At the very least, it’s something to think about, and thankfully it doesn’t have to be graded.

Pulpit and Pew (Installment 26)

My eighth grade English teacher was a wonderful woman named Mrs. Tolbert, who not only kept on me about tucking in my shirt and buttoning my sleeves (I must have been a very sloppy teenager), but who kept on all of us about prepositions. Mrs. Tolbert said they shouldn’t be dangled but should be tucked in properly like the tail of my shirts. For those who don’t recall the precise definition of a dangled preposition, it’s the forbidden practice of ending a sentence with one. In other words, it’s not proper English to inquire, “Where are you at?”

While I understand that some stylesheets now allow for ending sentences with prepositions (with apologies to English teachers everywhere), it turns out those fairly insignificant parts of speech play an important role in preaching. Here’s what I mean. If you ask a preacher what she’s talking about this Sunday, that’s commonly expressed this way, “So what are you preaching on?” (Yes, I see the dangling preposition.) The “on” in this case is meant to indicate the topic. Preachers speak “on” different topics all the time. “About” would be roughly equivalent with “on.”

Another common preposition in preaching is “to,” typically indicating the congregation that the sermon is designed for. (Oops, sorry, Mrs. Tolbert. I should have said, “…the sermon for whom the sermon is designed.”) Ask a preacher about their congregation, and you will get an answer indicating the “to” part, the listeners. Closely related, but with a very different perspective is the preposition “at.” Preachers who preach “at” congregations have a different theology altogether, usually a top-down, harsh message of repentance from which they are somehow conveniently excluded themselves.

My favorite preposition in preaching is “with.” The preacher engages the biblical text and the contemporary world “with” those gathered. One way to think about preaching “with” involves triangulation. Even if you’ve never studied family systems theory, you are familiar with triangulation. I remember when our kids were little being asked one time, “Can we go to Worlds of Fun this Saturday? Mom said we could.” That’s triangulation, two (or more) against one. In preaching that sort of thing happens when the preacher and the biblical text gang up on the congregation. That’s more “at” than “with.”

But what if we reconfigured the triangle? What if the preacher and the people of the church encountered the biblical text, sometimes letting it ask us questions and other times the other way around, us questioning the text, probing it? From what I can tell reading recent literature in preaching theory and visiting lots of different churches, that kind of preaching is catching on. (Sorry, another dangling preposition.) Still, it is something to talk about. (Ugh.)

Pulpit and Pew (installment 25)

Telling time is never easy. I don’t just mean how twice a year we adjust our clocks, or even how most of us work from several calendars simultaneously—school year, shopping days until Christmas, fiscal, Hallmark, family, work, and on the list goes.

I’m thinking specifically about the rhythms whereby Christianity tells time, the Christian year. The new year begins with the first Sunday of Advent, followed by Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost, Ordinary time, and finally Christ the King Sunday, at which point it starts all over again. Whenever I mention this calendar to my students in Introduction to Worship, everyone nods in agreement as if it were the most familiar thing in the world. “Oh yeah, we know that calendar. What else are we covering today?” But then I give them a short quiz, and it turns out, they don’t know it like they thought. If that’s true for seminarians, I suspect it could be true for many congregants, perhaps a few ministers as well.

Some of the questions I ask are trivial, like “What does the word Lent mean?” The answer surprises a lot of folks, “spring.” Or “Why are the Sundays after Pentecost called ordinary?” It’s not because of the long, dry stretch that spans the summer, you know, just plain old ordinary days. Perhaps you recall in math classes how there are cardinal and ordinal ways of counting. Cardinal means “one, two, three…” But ordinal means “first, second, third…” We measure ordinary time as “the first Sunday after Pentecost,” etc. There’s no such thing as ordinary as in plain, nothing happening. Christ is always showing up, even when the doors are locked, at least as John tells it in the 20th chapter of his Gospel.

One complicating factor this time of year is the difference between the Christian calendar and the way J C Penney and other retailers count time. We know all about how many shopping days are left, so I won’t belabor that. But there’s another difficulty as well. Advent (the term means “coming”) spans the four Sundays prior to Christmas and invites us to wait for the coming of the Christ. Churches don’t always seem clear on which coming of Christ we are anticipating, first or second. Some aspects of Advent stress one, some aspects the other. Some churches are sticklers for no Christmas hymns during Advent since it’s a season of waiting for the first coming; others don’t see any harm in belting out “Joy to the World” even in mid-December, especially since the birth of Christ happened two thousand years ago now.

I won’t try to settle that dispute. What is painfully clear, however, is that living between Christ’s first and second coming means that “peace on earth” happens even now in little installments and is yet to be fulfilled to the brim. If you have doubts about that first premise, look up the December 11 episode of 60 Minutes with its amazing feature about the guerrilla fighters in Colombia where drug lords and rampant murders have given way to healing in their nation. If you have doubts about the second premise, just watch pretty much every other news story any day of the year.

Have a blessed Advent, a Merry Christmas, and Maranatha (Come, Lord Jesus)!