Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Changes Coming?

I guess you've probably noticed that I've slowed down a bit, posting only Adam's second annual birthday post since last Wednesday's manifesto on Christian enlightenment. I've spent most of my writing time of late editing material for my hypothetical future book or staring at the screen waiting for inspiration to come. I've finally finished reading Marcus Borg's new book on Jesus, and have almost finished with Barack Obama's new book on, well, Barack Obama, but neither of them have really provided me with too much to respond to. Both books are excellent, don't get me wrong. But Obama's book is essentially outside my field, and Borg's book is mostly a retelling of everything he's already written, only in greater depth, with a few words changed. Anyway, I've written more than enough on Borg since this blog started.

Meanwhile, I've been busy at church. I led a Forum series on the Creation Myths of Ancient Israel, but I haven't yet edited my notes for that into something that I could use here. I also finally got to preach from the "big pulpit" in the sanctuary of my church, one of the most magnificent sanctuaries in America. Standing behind that pulpit, proclaiming my interpretation of the Word of God to the racially, culturally, socially and theologically diverse congregation that gathers there every Sunday for worship, was literally awesome. A moment filled with awe.

I'm used to preaching from pulpits. Before I was appointed to my own church I was frequently a guest preacher at other churches. I have many friends in ordained ministry, and when I was a Youth Minister they would call me to fill in for them whenever they went on vacation. I was a pinch hitter of sorts. Of course, when I got a pulpit of my own, those calls stopped coming. And, after I left ministry I'm not sure that many of them knew what to think. Did my leaving the pulpit signal a desire to stop preaching altogether, or just a desire to no longer have a charge of my own? Not even I could say.

But never in my life have I preached in such a majestic place, such an architectural wonder. The space itself seems sacred, as though the artistry in the building, the aesthetics, somehow makes it a "thin place," a space where the sacred and the secular meet, if only for a moment. Standing behind that pulpit I felt what I had always imagined I would feel as a pastor, instead of the emptiness that so often filled my brief and embattled pastoral career.

I preached on I Corinthians 13. The occasion was "Youth Sunday," the day that the teenagers in the congregation lead the worship service. We have no Youth Minister. When I arrived I asked our pastor what the greatest need in the congregation was. She - knowing me from my reputation as an ex-pastor - had no idea that I spent most of my ministerial career working with teenagers, so she said, "Well, I don't know if you can help in this area, but our greatest need in in Youth Ministry." I volunteered to teach the Youth Sunday School class. It was, quite literally, the least I could do.

As a Youth Minister I loved working with teenagers, but I hated programming. As you can probably imagine, I have absolutely no idea what most people consider fun. I wasn't very good at being a teenager when I actually was one, and I have a very hard time pretending to be one no that I'm not. The farther removed I get from my teenage years the less I know about what "the kids" like to do these days. I can teach almost anyone almost anything, but I can't program to save my life.

So, I volunteered to teach, telling myself that I would finally have the freedom to do what I'm good at without having to worry about being fired for what I'm not good at. Win-win situation. I can still minister, but I don't have to take the grief that comes with the paycheck.

My role has expanded a little since I started working with these teenagers. Now, as Chair of the church's Education Team, I oversee all education ministries, including Youth. As a part of that, I got to help plan for Youth Sunday. After we picked the scripture and the topic, I started coaching the teenagers through their roles. Well, first I had to figure out what their roles were going to be. The I had to bribe them into accepting their roles. After all that, I got to coach them, to get them ready for their respective parts in the service.

I didn't intend to preach. I've preached a little since I've reclaimed my amateur status, but always in the safety of our communion service in the chapel, a small, lay led service at 8:45 Sunday mornings. My plan was for the teenagers to give the message for Youth Sunday. We poured over the text for weeks in our Sunday School class, as I gradually broke it down for them, and then taught them how to do it for themselves. Finally I gave them each a homework assignment: Pick a sentence or two from the passage, and tell me what it means to you. That would be the message on Youth Sunday.

But nerves set in. Most of them didn't want to get in front of the congregation. What would they say? How would to church respond? They weren't used to being in a position of leadership, and weren't comfortable with it. I finally agreed to provide a brief introduction, explain what we had studied in class, and then personally introduce each teenager as they shared their answer from our homework assignment. That "brief introduction" turned into more of an exegesis of the passage, and soon enough I had an actual, bonafide sermon on my hands.

So, last Sunday, before the teenagers each had their moment behind the pulpit, I had mine. Fifteen minutes of exegesis, just like it used to be. The only differences were that I was in a congregation of my choosing. A "liberal" congregation, an urban, multi-cultural congregation, that knows where I stand and accepts me as one of them. I got to preach as a lay person, one of many members of the congregation, sharing his gifts with the others. And then, like a proud parent, I got to introduce three of my students as they shared their thoughts on the passage.

I've been meaning to turn that sermon into a piece for this blog, too. But other projects keep getting in the way. When I preach I rarely write anything down. That is my gift, and my curse. I don't exactly improvise, in that I have everything planned out. A tight exegesis that sticks pretty strictly to the text. But, I chart a course in my head and follow it, allowing the specific language to come in the moment. Those of you who have heard others preach like this know that the result can often be disaster. But when I do it, it isn't. I preach the way that I write, and it works out about the same.

Consequently, there is no script for me to copy and paste here. There are only the ideas that are floating around in my head. So, to turn that sermon into a blog post I would have to recreate it in a much different environment. I would have to look at my few notes, and then stare at this computer screen, hoping that it inspires the same sort of words that a sanctuary full of some of my closest friends already inspired. I'm sure I could write something very good. But it would not be the sermon I delivered last Sunday, any more than my post on Moses and the Burning Bush was the sermon that I gave on the same topic in the chapel five days before I posted it.

And now school is about to start. I'm looking forward to my classes - I can't wait to get started. But I also know that going back to seminary will take me from this blog. I'm just hoping that it won't keep me from working on the book. Reality is setting in. This blog is running out of steam. Soon I may be just another infrequent blogger who posts from time to time merely to relieve some misplaced guilt.


The congregation's response to my sermon rocked me. It isn't just shameless arrogance when I say that I was and am a very good preacher. I can deliver a sermon with wit, depth, poetry and power. Even my biggest enemies have always acknowledge that - it was perhaps their biggest reason for opposing me. I remember at my only pastoral appointment, one Sunday after church, hearing a visitor exclaim to her friend that the church was lucky to have such an excellent preacher. The friend, one of my strongest opponents in the church, grumbled, "Well, he talks good, anyway."

If I were ineffectual then there would never have been any reason to oppose me. I would have opposed myself, discrediting my theology with ineptitude. Oddly, by being competent at my job, a decent person, and an excellent thinker, writer, and public speaker, I created more enemies, more opponents in my congregation, than ineptitude ever could have.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not being egomaniacal. My former church didn't hate me because I could preach. But their hatred, and their opposition, carried a sense of urgency because of it. They had a fear that if they didn't oppose me as vehemently as they could, I just might lead the entire church astray, seducing them with my eloquent words and heretical theology.

But, having climbed back into the pulpit again, if only for a Sunday, I found myself accepted, loved, and encouraged. Most people who found me after the service encouraged me to rethink my calling. "God isn't done with you," they said. "You should do that for a living," they said.

My plan in going back to school is to try to carve out a living as a theologian, as a teacher and a writer. My goal is also to transform the church from the inside, as a layperson who models the commitment to ministry that God calls all of us to, and not just some professional class of Christians we call the clergy. Yet, after giving a sermon last week, and after listening to the congregation respond to what I had to say, I have to wonder, even if only a very little bit, if I'm not running away from my calling. I have to wonder, even if only a little bit, if I'm not scarred and scared, and looking for anything to do except what I might be best at.

Oh, well... time will tell. Back to work on the book before I hop in bed. I just tucked Adam in, and, and my head is more full of sleep than "lofty" thoughts. And once again I'm rambling...


crystal said...

Maybe you could have your sermons recorded and later transcribed if you want them on paper.

It sounds like preaching is your "bliss" :-)

Amy said...

I think you can find that same sense of thrill and excitement you love from preaching in the context of delivering a lecture (and, much more frequently!) I do think you are on the right track; as a religious academic, you will have opportunities to share and speak on theological issues over the length of your career. You will, indeed, be preaching.

However, as you yourself have pointed out before, parish ministry is much more than preaching, and (from what I've heard) it was those other aspects that led to your conflict as much as your theology (demonstrated in characteristics like the social anxiety you recently shared with your readers.)

As I said before, I think you're on the right track. You'll make a marvelous professor and writer some day. I can't wait to explore that territory with you as your classmate in another week!

Sandalstraps said...


Excellent idea on recording and transcribing. One of the many, many reasons why I need an editor.

And yes, preaching is my "bliss," but not my only bliss.


I suspect you are right. Sami said as much last night when I mentioned my doubts to her, shortly after typing them out here. (Perhaps I should have done that in the opposite order...) And, much as I love preaching both in the chapel (once a month or so) or in the sanctuary, I think I love leading the Wednesday Evening Forum series more. There, whenever I schedule myself as the speaker, I have a whole hour to develop a topic, which leads not only to more depth, but also more interaction. It is a poor speaker indeed who speaks for an hour consecutively without breaking for questions, comments, discussion, etc. I love the instant feedback, the give and take, that comes from the teaching format.

I think I was better at the pastoring aspect of ministry than I gave myself credit for in the immediate aftermath of my ministerial career. I still have ongoing relationships with many of the teenagers that I served as a Youth Minister, and most of the objections I heard as a pastor had less to do with job performance and more to do with theology.

But whether I was good, bad, or most likely somewhere in between on the relational aspects of ministry, you are right in asserting that they go against my anxiety disorder. Sometimes I have the hardest time simply placing a phone call, especially when things get stressful, and pastoral ministry is nothing if it isn't stressful.

I remarked to Sami - who didn't get to hear me preach because she leads the children's ministry, which takes her out of the sanctuary for most of the worship service - that for as much as I loved preaching at Fourth Ave UMC this past Sunday:

1.) There is, as best as I can tell, only one Fourth Ave,

2.) They/we already have an excellent pastor, and

3.) I sure wouldn't want her job.

Sandalstraps said...

By the way, I forgot to mention in my post the other drag on my writing time. My church's lay leader and I are preparing a new Forum series, Marching Toward Equality: Issues in Race, Culture, Education, and Economics. This is one of the most important projects I have ever been a part of - an attempt to open up dialogue on race relations and social issues in our multi-cultural church.

Our lay leader, a black woman, thinks that many white people would love to be a part of a dialogue on race relations, but aren't sure how their participation would be recieved by the black community. So, she and I are working together to provide a safe format for such a dialogue in our church, at an event that has a generally white audience. We hope to both:

1.) Get more black members of our church to participate in the Forum series, and

2.) Get many of the white people who do participate in the Forum series to openly dialogue on issues related to race relations.

I may or may not be able to share more about this later, as I have to find a way to balance my need to share ideas that (hopefully) work with my need to keep this particular event private and safe.

But, preparation for this has taken a great deal of writing time as well.

jeff said...

Hey i just wanted to thank you for your post. ive been reading your blog occasionally and find your writing engaging. I too am a scarred and scared former minister who lost too many political battles. i struggle often with the idea of returning to what i was best at and what i loved, i push that aside for my daily life of putting food on the table.