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...
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