7+ Years In, Preaching Anew

More than 7 years into ordained ministry, and 19 years since I first entered seminary, I have renewed my practice of preaching – both delivering and preparing the sermon.

I had always preached with a manuscript

Most of these manuscripts were not paragraph’d pages looking as if they belonged in a book, but a more free-form movement of phrases written not for reading but for speaking. I took pride in my words, in the development of my argument, and in the construction of these manuscripts that helped me to speak, I thought, naturally.

My process for writing manuscript sermons usually involved a reading Scripture, perhaps a commentary or two, and reflection, all geared toward finding that thread, that hook, that angle for my sermon. I would then spend hours sitting at my computer and writing the manuscript, usually over two or three sittings. With my thread for that Scripture set, I would work in a more-or-less straight line fashion from start to finish. Most of my sermon-prep time was spent on that manuscript, on that thread that got the ball rolling, on one particular insight into the text.

Army chaplaincy changed my preaching

7+ years into my ordained ministry, and many more years into my experience as a preacher (I preached several times/year prior to ordination), I went to my final phase of training at the US Army Chaplain Center and School for my Basic Officer Leaders Course as a Chaplain in the Indiana Army National Guard. In addition to preaching for classroom assignments, I was given the opportunity to preach for a Holy Thursday service during our class five-day capstone field experience.

2016-03-22 11.10.08While at the Chaplain school, where I heard from experienced chaplains and had the opportunity to preach in a variety of training settings, it became clear to me that preaching to a very small group of Soldiers huddled around a Humvee in the field required a different method. For one, my computer-based writing process was all but impossible in the field. But more, delivering a polished manuscript sermon for a small group of Soldiers in the field who are experiencing the fatigue of training – or deployment – seemed to miss the mark. A manuscript designed for pulpit preaching wouldn’t work for such a setting.

I heard fellow students – mostly from traditions fairly distinct from my Lutheran church – preach. I found myself jealous as many of them proclaimed effortlessly without notes. I learned that the context of military preaching may require impromptu “Word of the Day” messages, or unexpected words of comfort spoken at a moment’s notice to a group of battle buddies grieving a fallen Soldier. No manuscripts for these settings, either.

Given these experiences and insights I committed to leave the manuscript behind – in my military ministry setting, but also in my civilian ministry. I had considered this years ago, wondering if the altars and pulpits in our churches served, unwittingly perhaps, as barriers between people and pastor. Making this decision to set aside the manuscript resonated with my earlier concerns about the relationships between worship leaders and the congregation of worshipers.

To be sure, the first few times trying this manuscript-less preaching in my civilian ministry were rough. My baseline for sermon preparation was still the manuscript, and I was trying to replicate my manuscript-writing process for my manuscript-less sermon. What resulted were very detailed, almost manuscript-like, notes prepared on my computer. As I tried to pare back my manuscript, I found myself almost vomitously uneasy just prior to preaching.

Journaling as sermon preparation

2016-07-30 23.36.39But then I bought a notebook and a good mechanical pencil and began journaling the Sunday texts by hand. I first write the text in the notebook, leading me to give more attention to each word than I ever did by simply reading the text. After writing the Scripture in my notebook, I simply write. Disconnected phrases. Questions. Insights gained from reading commentaries or other Scripture. Parallels to my life, to my congregation’s life, to my community and country. Connections to music or film or television. Anything. There is no structure yet. There is no thread I’m trying to weave. Just reflections and thoughts and questions. I do this for several days.

By Friday or Saturday I pull together a rough outline, prepare some slides to accompany my preaching (using Canva), and write a “Good News Statement” that concisely defines the point I’m trying to make, the Good News I’m trying to proclaim. Some or even much of what I had journaled in the past few days ultimately gets set aside.

It is not until Sunday morning that I actually rehearse. I’ll run through the sermon 2-5 times on Sunday morning before worship, focusing especially on my opening, transitions, images, and conclusion. Very little new material makes its way into my sermon at this point, but sometimes that happens.

And then I preach. I preach perhaps with a few notes in front of me, but also perhaps with nothing in hand at all. I preach with that outline and projected slides guiding me, and days of journaling, reflecting, wrestling, praying supporting my proclamation. I have a comfort level with the entire passage that I never had in my earlier manuscript method, which too early in the process narrowed my message down to a single thread or angle that perhaps wasn’t ultimately fruitful. And, free from the precision of a manuscript, I am able to add last-minute insights or images, perhaps that were noted only as I greeted people on their way into worship 20 minutes before I begin preaching. Again, my comfort with the Scripture text and the outlined movement of my message allow me to make such adjustments on the fly.

I have received very positive feedback since making the switch. “Pastor, your sermons without notes are 20 times better than when you use notes,” one church member said to me recently. The feedback is consistent – I’m more natural, “myself.” In this way, I’m more effective as a preacher, which is the goal. 

For any who have made their way through this post, I hope that perhaps my experience can be helpful for you if you’re working on renewing your practice of preaching. Or, I hope that my example might help any clergy considering reserve component chaplaincy to see just one of the many ways in which the military ministry can positively impact your civilian ministry.

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Running as an Easter Spiritual Disicpline

La_Pieta_Santa_Maria_della_Vita_Niccolo_del_Arca_1462

Mary Magdalene running to tell the disciples that the tomb was empty Niccolò dell’Arca | 1462-63 | Painted terra cotta | Bologna, Italy

If running doesn’t yet have a feast day on the church year calendar, Easter should be the Feast Day of Running.

The Easter account tells of running – running to and from the tomb – in three of the four Gospels.

Matthew 28:8 “So [Mary Magdalene and the other Mary] left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

Luke 24:12 “But Peter got up and ran to the tomb, stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”

John 20:2-4 “So [Mary Magdalene] ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.”

This Easter morning I will head out for a run at dawn, the time of day that Scripture says the women first went to the tomb.

With the women I will run.

With Peter and the other disciple I will run.

With fear and amazement and great joy I will run, for the Lord is risen. Alleluia!

The Lord has given us renewed reason to run the race set before us. To run with love. To run knowing that death is not the end of the story. To run knowing that an empty grave, new life, resurrection, and the Kingdom of God lies before us.

Run the race of hope and promise. Run the resurrection. For this is why we run. This is the Feast of Running.

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Settling In

I’ll admit to a rush of emotions as we turn the calendar today to March 1.

As of today, we will have lived in our current home longer than we’ve lived anywhere else in our 13+ year marriage – 2 years, 7 months, 1 day … and counting.

Tali on the lawn of our married student housing apartment, Princeton Theological Seminary

Tali on the lawn of our married student housing apartment, Princeton Theological Seminary

We’ve moved quite a bit in our 13+ years of marriage. Philadelphia. Princeton, NJ. Doylestown, PA. Fairfax, VA. Arlington, VA. Saint Paul, MN. And now Carmel, IN.

Some of the moves felt temporary – such as the married student housing apartment at Princeton Theological Seminary, our rented townhouse in Fairfax near my internship site, or even when we moved to towns where we were called as Associate Pastors (when you’re called to a congregation as an Associate Pastor, as my wife and I each were in our first congregations, there’s a sense that longevity isn’t necessarily in the cards).

Yet even in these temporary places, great things happened. We brought our first child home to that apartment in Princeton, our second child home to Doylestown townhouse, and our third child came home to that townhouse underneath the approach to Dulles in Fairfax, VA. While we lived in Arlington, my wife was awarded her PhD and I was ordained.

Our townhouse in Doylestown, PA.

Our townhouse in Doylestown, PA.

Great things can happen in temporary places.

Some of these places had the feel that they could have been longer-term. In both Arlington, VA and in Saint Paul, we lived in church-owned homes (a parsonage and a faculty home). Even if we didn’t expect to live long-term in those houses, I certainly envisioned many years in those communities. I found myself investing emotionally, imagining my kids’ first dates or prom photos or, gasp, becoming an empty-nester with my wife in those places.

Yet the call of new opportunities kept us moving, and we went from the Philadelphia area (my family homeland for generations; my wife’s home since she was in middle school; and, where most of our extended families still live) to the DC area, where my wife went to college and with which I was already very familiar. Also, it was just a few hour drive from family and Philly food and Phillies games.

Tali and Cana on the stoop of our townhouse in Fairfax, VA.

Tali and Cana on the stoop of our townhouse in Fairfax, VA.

We loved the DC area. The energy, the political and governmental culture, the Presidential helicopters flying overhead, the church members who work in jobs they can’t tell you about, the cultural diversity, the restaurants, the Metro, the monuments, the history, the wonderful other side of a city that most Americans are told is terrible but which we saw as beautiful and filled with faithful public servants.

The move to Saint Paul was bigger – in terms of distance from family, culture shift, and climate. Still, we adjusted well to this – our fifth – move. We got used to the weather, became fans of The University of Minnesota Women’s Ice Hockey team, I loved my long runs along the Mississippi River, and we simultaneously enjoyed and scratched our heads at the way Minnesotans plow on even during crazy weather. The rule that kids had outdoor recess unless the temperature was below zero? Awesome. But then there was the day when schools were open on time 12 hours after a 14-inch snow, even though half of the teachers couldn’t get to school on time. Overkill.

Kiddos playing on the lawn of our parsonage, Arlington, VA.

Kiddos playing on the lawn of our parsonage, Arlington, VA.

After two years in the faculty home, we signed a purchase agreement on a home not far from my church on the East Side of Saint Paul. We owned snow shoes. We were eyeing cabins to rent up on a lake. I tolerated the designated hitter for the sake of cheering for the Twins. We were going to make the Saint Paul area our home for years to come.

 

A once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity came our way, and we couldn’t say “no.” So after two years in Minnesota we moved to Indiana.

On the steps of our home in Saint Paul, MN

On the steps of our home in Saint Paul, MN

We bought a house, our oldest enrolled in her fourth elementary school, we got new cell phone numbers (again), and we went about the task (again) of meeting new neighbors, finding new grocery stores, and getting acclimated to a new culture and climate (living at the far western edge of the time zone means really dark mornings and late evening summer sunsets). The kids started playing basketball (it’s a thing in Indiana) and we settled comfortably into a church family, a neighborhood teeming with children, a wonderful school system, meaningful workplaces, and a new calling for me as a Chaplain with the Indiana Army National Guard.

 

 

I give thanks to God for the people we’ve met and the places we’ve lived.

Hours after becoming homeowners. Carmel, IN.

Hours after becoming homeowners. Carmel, IN.

Never in a million years would I have imagined that we would have settled in Indiana. And while my taste buds, penchant for booing at ballgames, and my accent may betray my Philly roots, I am thrilled to be home here in Indiana. I am thrilled that we’re not up and moving again, but instead that my youngest may yet get through his all of his schooling in one school district. I am thrilled that I am serving a church where I can expect to see a generation or more grow in faith. I am thrilled to have raised my right hand and sworn an oath not only to serve our nation but also the State of Indiana.

I am thrilled to be home with my family, to have settled in, to be in a place where my kids will grow up, and where Jessicah and I will grow old. Together.

At home.Indiana_Home_Throw_Camel_1024x1024

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Holy Books and Violent Texts

“Come in and kill them. Let no one escape.”

Such is a verse found in a book sacred to billions of religious people in the world. It’s not the only text of violence in this holy book. Indeed, there’s lots of violence in it. It would be easy to read this book – isolated verses and the longer sagas – and conclude that those who consider it to be holy are radical extremists, and that their God considers violence to be just.

Here are a few more verses:

406460_f520“Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”

“He said, ‘Come with me, and see my zeal for God.’ When he came to the place, he killed all who were left, until he had wiped them out, according to the word of God that he spoke to the prophet.”

“The king said to the guards and to the officers, ‘Come in and kill them; let no one escape.'”

“Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys … They burned down the city, and everything in it.”

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Did I give it away by that last one? These quotes, some slightly edited, come from the Bible that Christians around the world consider to be sacred.

Reading a people’s holy book outside of that people’s tradition of interpretation, piety, and prayer is dangerous.

I’d hate for a non-Jew or non-Christian to pick up and read the Bible on their own apart from the community of faith. Look at these verses! Read in isolation there are horrendous. Holy Books are products of living and active religions, and are interpreted within a living and active tradition and community of faith.

The Bible has all kinds of passages that are, on the surface, terrible. However, our interpretive tradition has, over the centuries and millennia, struggled to frame and make some sense out such verses. In isolation, these verses do not exemplify my faith nor the faith of billions of Christians (and Jews, for that matter).

Here are those verses from above, unedited, with citations:

Ps 137:9 “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”

2 Kings 10:16 “He said, ‘Come with me, and see my zeal for the LORD.’ So he had him ride in his chariot. When he came to Samaria, he killed all who were left to Ahab in Samaria, until he had wiped them out, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke to Elijah.”

2 Kings 10:25 “Jehu said to the guards and to the officers, ‘Come in and kill them; let no one escape.'”

Joshua 6:21, 24 “Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys … They burned down the city, and everything in it.”

Matthew 10:34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

And I could go on.

Holy texts cannot be understood apart from holy communities.

Just as I would not want a non-Christian to read these verses as if they defined my faith, let’s not read the Koran, or any other holy book, and claim we know what it means. Sacred texts belong in faithful communities, and apart from those communities they cannot be properly understood. Christians who seek to understand Islam cannot simply pick up and read a Koran in isolation, but instead must learn from the community of faith who consider that text to be sacred.

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Playing the Wall Street Victim

In her widely shared “Two Views of Pope Francis” Ms Noonan unnecessarily condescends the Pope and his economics, and regrettably plays the Wall Street victim to the Pope’s cautions about capitalism.

Reagan_with_Peggy_NoonanMs Noonan’s experience with capitalism is legitimate, from her vaunted perch as a presidential speech writer and Wall Street Journal columnist. She has lived and worked at the center of American political and economic power, and she fervently believes in the free market’s power to unleash human potential, create wealth, and contribute to the common good. Her experience is legitimate.

Cardinal_Bergoglio_argentinaBut so too is Pope Francis’ experience. He has ministered in the slums of Buenos Aires, at the tip of a continent whose politics and economics is covered with American fingerprints – political, military, and economic. He has seen the worst of capitalism’s imbalance, mixed with corruption and imperialism, and he rightfully has his concerns about capitalism – particularly its underside.

Instead of condescending the Pope as someone who, “doesn’t, actually, seem to know a lot about capitalism or markets, or even what economic freedom has given—and is giving—his own church,” Ms Noonan could perhaps consider as valid the Pope’s perspective as one who has lived on the other side of the world’s economy, and refrain from playing the victim of an otherwise powerless spokesman who speaks truth about the poor.

Please read her article (linked, below). It reflects Ms Noonan’s faith and affection for the Pope, and her deep commitment to the free market. But ultimately I find her commentary flawed in its failure to see the legitimacy of another perspective of the global economy, one deeply rooted in personal experience and in longstanding church teaching.

Peggy Noonan article pope

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If All Lives Mattered, There Wouldn’t Be #BlackLivesMatter

If All Lives Matter in our society, there wouldn’t be such disparate experiences of violence or of poverty along racial lines. Yet an examination of  crime statistics, of poverty statistics, of education statistics, of employment statistics and so forth, shows that clearly our society does not act as if All Lives Matter … or, at least, do not matter as much as other lives.

“Black Lives Matter” is a necessary mantra, no matter how imperfect those who chant this slogan. Black Americans are disproportionately the victims of violence, of an imbalanced justice system, and of all kinds of social and economic struggles, of a direct and evil legacy of slavery and of Jim Crow and of all the ways that racism has manifested itself in our society.

“Black Lives Matter” shakes us from our resignation to, and tacit acceptance of, a broken society that lets such disproportionate violence and suffering happen to one group of people … for generation upon generation.

“Black Lives Matter” reminds us that we cannot accept a society where one class, one group of people struggle so. much. more. than others. blacklivesmatter1

“Black Lives Matter” calls us on the fact that, as a society, we have conducted our affairs as if Black Lives Do Not Matter … or at least, do not matter as much as other lives (3/5ths, perhaps?).

Black Lives – lives which our society has too often disregarded and devalued – Matter. Why is such a statement so divisive? Perhaps because we don’t want to face our own racism, past and present.

“Blacks Lives Matter” says just that. Black lives matter. It does not say that other lives do not matter. It does not say that Black Lives Matter more. No. It just says that Black Lives Matter. Period. And this is a truth that our society seems to have forgotten … or perhaps never quite knew in the first place.

“Black Lives Matter” may be an imperfect movement (show me a “perfect” movement,
please). But it is an important truth. If we are to be a society of liberty and justice, a society that some claim is Christian, we will embrace a slogan that lifts up the value and dignity of those that our society has historically devalued, and we will demand liberty and justice for those to whom it has been delayed and denied.

“Black Lives Matter.” It needs to be said in a society that too often has conducted its affairs as if Black Lives Do Not Matter. Even if Especially because it is hard to hear. 

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Praying by Name for School Teachers and Staff

On Sunday my congregation prayed for the teachers and staff of our community’s schools. We prayed for them by name – over 100 of them.

I asked each student in my church to make a list of their teachers and their school staff – office staff, cafeteria staff, maintenance staff, etc.. To help them with this task, we had an online form on our website that families could use to submit names. We also had a My School Prayer Worksheet kids could download, complete, and bring to church. We also had blank forms at church that many kids filled out that morning.

The prayer took place during the Children’s Message, and also included a Blessing of the Backpacks (a “back to school” theme for the Children’s Message). I spoke briefly with the kids about the good and holy things they are doing at school, and the people whose holy work it is to care for them and help them learn.

After thanking God for all who care for our children and help them grow and learn, I read all the names that were given to me. It was a bit ridiculous, and it took some time to read the 100+ names (which I tried to do with speed yet also with dignity), but it was so worth it. Praying by name for our teachers and school staff was a powerful experience, and a very vivid reminder of all the people in our community who are committed to the care and education of our children. One member of the church commented that it was great not only to pray for her kids’ current teachers, but to pray for teachers her children had in previous years whose names were submitted by younger children in the congregation.

At the end of the prayer the congregation cheered and let out an enthusiastic applause. It may have been a cheer of relief at the end of such a long prayer … but I’m much more inclined to think that the congregation was truly joy-filled by naming in prayer so many teachers and caregivers whose vocation it is to nurture our children in learning and growth. Such people truly merit not only our prayers but also our cheers. I’m glad we did both.

11870924_10206321051079286_7337353756989982197_nAfter the Children’s Message and prayer, I spread the prayer sheets over the altar. Those names were there as I preached (yes, I preach from the altar), led the Prayers of Intercession, and as I presided at Holy Communion. It was particularly powerful for me – and I shared this observation with the congregation – to prepare to serve the food and drink of the Lord’s Supper as the names of cafeteria workers graced the altar. Holy Food. Holy People. Holy Callings.

It was a good Sunday, and an experience I’ll certainly do again in the future.

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