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)!

Pulpit and Pew (Installment 24)

“Preaching is an oral/communal act.” That’s a line I repeat on occasion in classes at the seminary and quite frequently in workshops with pastors. I usually preface it by saying, “Now I realize this is not the most profound thing you’ll ever hear about preaching, but here it is: preaching is an oral/communal act.” In other words, preachers preach aloud (thus, the term oral) and they preach to people (thus, communal). I don’t know any preachers who proclaim the gospel without talking, although there is that great line by Francis of Assisi who said to preach the gospel and if necessary, use words, thereby signaling how proclamation is more than what happens on Sundays. But in pulpits, most preachers use words. I also don’t know any preachers who preach if no one shows up. This is the very nature of preaching, aloud and with others.

While it’s not a very profound statement, perhaps the implications are. Here’s what I mean. If preaching is an oral/communal thing, why do so many of us preachers prepare alone and in silence? It used to be a fairly common practice for ministers to tell secretaries to hold their calls while they bolted their doors shut and tried to crank out a sermon. Other than in the case of emergencies, the idea was to avoid distractions. Bibles and other books were cracked open, but silence and isolation reigned supreme.

No doubt, there is value in ministers being still, resisting the urge to check emails or Facebook, disciplining themselves to meditate, pray, and study on their way toward putting a sermon together. In his book, Discovering a Sermon, Robert Dykstra maintains that while boring people on Sundays is a cardinal sin, knowing how to be bored is a virtue, sitting still as they stay at the task. That’s true. But a good number of ministers are approaching the task differently these days.

David Lose, probably best known for starting the website Working Preacher, suggests in his latest book (Preaching at the Crossroads) that preachers should consider reviving a very old practice, actually visiting parishioners at their place of work. Set up a lunch date, he suggests, and meet them at their place of employment, asking questions about what they do and how it’s going. Some of us ministers could get a good education, I’m sure, and all the while developing relationships with parishioners. Oral and communal.

I’m also familiar with any number of ministers who now hang out at coffee shops and bistros while working on their sermons. Sociologists refer to these places as “third places,” coming after home and office. In a coffee shop, and I’m in one as I write, there are minimal interruptions and yet one is surrounded by people talking to each other. Note the oral and communal aspects of that.

Years ago my son’s first job was the early shift at Panera, including Sunday mornings. On the rare Sundays when I wasn’t preaching somewhere, I would drop by around 8:30 or so when he was scheduled for a break. One week he told me to go ahead without him, he would join me in a few minutes. That’s when the thirty-something couple with two toddlers in tow plopped down next to me, the husband and wife having an argument. He kept saying things about how “it” was for the family, for the kids. She kept saying that “it” was only for him. My head was buried in the book I was reading, but my ears were open. Finally, it became clear what “it” was. He wanted to join a country club, said it would be good family time. She didn’t believe that for a minute.

After some intense exchanges, she stormed out with the girls, leaving him there. Her last words: “I’m going to church, and I’m going to pray for your soul.” Whew! I have no idea how he got home. The next time I was in Panera on a Sunday morning, I saw them again, the husband wearing a sweatshirt with the name of a country club on it. I will leave it to you the reader to interpret this incident, but it’s hard to imagine the same dynamic unfolding while a minister reads from a commentary on Romans in the confines of the church. Preacher is an oral and communal event. That’s something to ponder.

Pulpit and Pew (Installment 23)

Let’s be clear, while there are a myriad of styles of preaching these days—everything from the traditional three-point sermon to creative narratives—there seem to be only two approaches in terms of what to preach on. I don’t mean the topic of sermons; those number in the myriads as well. I mean when it comes to selecting a biblical text for the message.

If you’re a preacher, this is not a news flash. You know this. But for those who listen to sermons this could be news to you. The two approaches are lectionary and topical series. The latter one is clear enough, usually somewhere between four to six weeks of sermons focused around a theme. Sometimes it’s based on a new book on the market, maybe Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, something like that. The pastor, obviously moved by what she/he has read, feels inspired to use it as a kind of outline for the series. The preacher doesn’t copy the book, but uses it as inspiration for the series. The congregation might even be reading along during the week.

Or a series could be based on cultural trends: March Madness in college basketball inspiring a series on Jesus’ march to Jerusalem at the end of his life, a kind of madness; the race for the White House inspiring a series on running the Christian race with faithfulness, that sort of thing. Whatever kind of series, preachers have to come up with biblical texts for each Sunday.

The lectionary, on the other hand, is a scheduled list of biblical readings for each Sunday that spans a three-year cycle. The cycle is intended to mirror the three-year ministry of Jesus, and each year is devoted to one of the three synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Yes, I know, there’s a fourth Gospel. It gets treated here and there all three years.) Preachers who use the lectionary don’t search for biblical texts the way series preachers do. Instead, they face four choices each week: an OT narrative, a Psalm, a Gospel reading, and an epistle reading from the NT. (There is, by the way, a new narrative lectionary that some churches are using.)

So while there are all sorts of topics for preaching and styles to consider, these two basic approaches hold sway. When I wrote my book The Fully Alive Preacher I confessed that I have two missions in mind on this topic: introducing the lectionary to those who only preach series and helping lectionary preachers consider another way. In other words, there are strengths and weaknesses associated with each.

For example, shortly after 9/11, when I shared my sermon title and text with the church where I would be preaching come Sunday, they politely told me, “We preach from the lectionary.” Period. As for series, I know a school teacher who recently said that the sermon series in her church feels more like a professional development day in the school district, nothing all that much biblical about it. Both of these examples could be extremes, but there are limitations to be sure.

Lately I’ve been pondering a third way, an old practice that seems to have gone out of fashion. The technical name is lectio continua, which is Latin for “continuous reading.” In other words, preaching through the books of the Bible. To be clear, I’m not picturing 27 weeks in Matthew or 42 weeks in Genesis. I sat through one of those for over a year when I was in college, my Bible falling open each week to the same book, and most of us in the congregation weary. We felt like the Israelites in the wilderness. No thanks.

But what if we preached four weeks of highlights from Philippians, six weeks of highlights from Exodus? In my mind, the biggest problem with lectionary and series preaching alike is how rarely the context of a passage is noted, although this is especially problematic with topical sermons with one verse from here and another from there. What if preachers helped the church see how different pieces of Scripture hold together, how those pieces interact with other books of the Bible too, which turns out to be a whole lot more nuanced than most folks imagine?

Supposedly more people can name the four Beatles correctly than the four Gospels. Ouch. If biblical illiteracy rates are as bad as some claim, perhaps a return to preaching the books of the Bible might be worth exploring.

Eating and Talking in Church, part 1

I suppose it would be easy to read this quote by Andrew McGowan about those earliest followers of Jesus while stifling a yawn: “Christians met for meals.”[i] It hardly seems a striking observation, in no way earth shattering. Except when you stop to think about it, this is startling news indeed, that when those first followers of Jesus got together for what we now call “worship” or “church,” they did so to eat. They didn’t file into wooden rows of pews or folding chairs to sit still and listen to a sermon, or the choir, or any of the things we might conjure in our minds today. McGowan’s insight is truly profound, “Christians met for meals.” Today congregations might gather for a social meal in the fellowship hall every once in a while, but this was their normal way of gathering, and the main reason. After dinner they had conversations over wine on a host of topics, including stories about their daily lives as well as stories about Jesus. In other words, a time at the table followed by a talk, which sounds like two things, except the talking took place at table too. Table talk.[ii] Today it is common for Christians to gather for a talk called sermon and a meal called Communion, but oh how things have changed.

This book looks at those early meals that Jesus’ followers ate, seeking answers to a host of questions, including things such as: What exactly was an “upper room?” We hear that term tossed about, but what does it mean? Who was invited to these gatherings? How many people were typically present? Besides bread and wine, what did they eat? How was their eating different from others in the Mediterranean world? How was it the same? How exactly did they do church together? But the questions we will explore are not just rooted in the past because ultimately we will want to think about what their dining practices might say about the way we eat and gather as church now.

* * * * * *

One Christmas break when our grown children were home for the holidays, they spent their time doing all the usual stuff: napping, playing video games, reading, watching movies, cooking, just hanging out. Whenever I could find the time, I spent my holidays reading books about ancient Greco-Roman banqueting, the kinds of meals that those earliest followers of Jesus inherited and which greatly impacted how they ate a meal in Jesus’ name. Every once in a while I would exclaim, “Oh, my God, this is so interesting. Listen to this.” They would pause whatever it was they were doing, and I would share some insight, only to be met with puzzled looks. They were not impressed with my findings. They suspected their dad was some sort of nerd.

To such a charge I plead innocent, my evidence coming in the form of another story. After our granddaughter Emma was born, we naturally made several trips to Orlando, including one fall while I was on sabbatical working on this book. One afternoon I went out to play some golf and got paired up with a couple of fellows I didn’t know, Bob and Les. About thirty minutes into the round the small talk turned to what we do for a living. The conversation went something like this:

“Yeah, we’re both retired now. What about you?”

“Me, I’m a seminary professor. I teach people preparing for ministry.”

“Really? Les and I go to a church not far from here. Seminary professor, that’s so cool.”

(This is not the essence of my defense, that they thought I was cool. The conversation continued.)

“So how come you’re not back in Kansas City teaching?”

“Oh, I’m on a research leave, working on a book about how the earliest followers of Jesus ate together and what that might mean when churches eat in remembrance of him now.”

“How churches eat, huh? You mean Communion?”

“I was just going to ask you what you call it at your church since different traditions use different names.”

“Yeah, we call it Communion. Although we don’t do it very often, every couple of months, something like that.”

“And when you do, what’s it like? How would you describe it?”

Bob thought for a moment. “How would I describe it?” Clearly the question had never occurred to him before. He looked at his buddy, both shrugging their shoulders. He said, “I don’t know, a holy time. A quiet time.”

Long pause.

Les chimed in, “Kind of like a funeral. Well, not exactly, but you get the idea. Respectful? Serious?”

I told them that sounded familiar, and then shared what I had discovered in my research, an insight that blew my mind when I first discovered it and still does. I said, “The meals of those first followers of Jesus were not the least bit like funerals, more like festive dinner parties.” And that’s when one of my new golf buddies in Florida said, “My God, that would be amazing. I can’t quite picture it, but a festive dinner party as church. That would be…different.”

[i] Andrew B. McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 19.

[ii] Some readers will recognize this as the title of a book by the sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther, a collection of sayings he shared over food and drink. What I have in mind is inspired by a much older work, Plutarch’s first century reflections on dinner parties.

(This material is part of a forthcoming book and is copyrighted by Mike Graves.)