Archive for April, 2012

posted by Amy on Apr 28

Preaching is part of the “work of the people,” the liturgy. It is an event in time. The sermon event is not simply what the preacher says, but how he or she speaks, looks, sounds, moves, pauses, and modulates his or her voice. Technique matters, but it can’t make up for insufficient preparation, or superficial thinking. The preacher’s attention to sermon preparation and sermon delivery serves the whole congregation. The sermon is particular to the specific congregation—that part of the body of Christ that congregates in that specific place, and what is said and how it is said must relate to the situation at hand. But it must also speak to and for all God’s people and advance the missio Dei.

I think sermons have to be biblical. They have to be about God. And they have to achieve St. Augustine’s objectives of teaching, delighting and persuading. But what should they teach, and how should they delight and persuade? They should teach about the Bible and the Gospel. They should model how one wrestles with the text, interrogates the modern situation, and names God’s action in the world and in human lives. The sermon articulates the Word in concert with, and as part of, the worship service. Christian worship forms Christian consciousness, faith, language and worldview.

Sermons should teach that, unlike some kinds of scripture, the Christian Bible is unabashedly human-handled, ambiguous, troubling, challenging and layered; that it is inspired by God and tells how God keeps inviting humans to be in a loving, covenant relationship with God and with one another. That God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, even on our best days, but that God wants us to understand the message and to believe that the law is for our good, not harm. That the Bible is worth studying, contemplating, discussing, and arguing about. It’s even worth memorizing. But that it originated in an ancient, patriarchal Bronze-age culture whose languages, customs, worldview, scientific understanding and politics were radically different from ours. There’s no such thing as biblical literalism, because language does not exist apart from culture and experience. The preacher has to translate and interpret, and must do that prayerfully and responsibly.

All communication is translation to some extent. I make assumptions when I speak and when I listen. My hearer or conversation partner does too. The roots of human communication are preverbal, prehistoric, precognitive. We constantly scan our environment and interpret, categorize, respond, or tune out. Learning is a communal activity. So is delight. So is persuasion. Narrative is how we think and communicate. The only question is whether we’ll do it with integrity or do it lazily, sloppily, thoughtlessly and superficially.

The sermon should preach Jesus, the best example we have of what God is like, and that if we listen to what he said, and pay attention to what he did, it all only makes sense if he was the Son of God, as his friends thought. Jesus told us God loves us and wants us to love each other, even our enemies. This is a God we did not make up, because we’re not like that. God wants us to release the captives, forgive debts, consider the lilies of the field, and pray in private. We don’t do any of that. But Advent keeps coming and we keep being reminded that evil, greed, sickness, death, hunger, poverty and inhumanity will not have the last word. Christmas will come, and unto us is born this day a savior. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. This is either true, or we are idiots to keep saying it. But if it isn’t true then there’s no reason to hope, and we can’t live without hope. Besides, everywhere we look we see hope blooming if we look closely enough. We see life asserting itself. We see love winning. God is making all things new.

When we climb up into the pulpit and pray, “Holy Spirit come,” we’d better be ready to experience the presence of God. People come to church for a lot of reasons, but ultimately that’s the only one that makes sense. Otherwise they’d just go to the mall, or to a self-help seminar. The preacher’s job is to prepare the way for divine encounter, for herself and her congregation.

 

posted by Amy on Apr 28

She says there are only two prayers:
“Thank you, thank you, thank you”
And “help me, help me, help me.”
The psalmist says help comes from God,
But God works through people.

When I close my eyes and summon them
I see the God-bearers in my life
And feel their love,
God’s love
enveloping me,
enlivening me,
sustaining me,
sustaining the world.

They have names and faces and stories of their own
But for me they’re also the face, voice, hands of God.
The grandmother who always had time for me,
who always made me feel capable and worthy.
The babies I conceived and birthed and suckled
whose warm little bodies once curled against me,
trusting me completely.
The little girl with the broken, battered spirit
who didn’t trust me at all
sent by the God with whom all things really are possible.
The lover who showed up at such an inconvenient time
and showed me
how to be fully present,
how to love with nothing held back,
and then how to let go but never stop loving.

Loving, letting go.
Cherishing, learning, being present.
Treasuring, remembering, reminding.
Opening my hands, my arms, my heart;
Surrendering control
Then learning there’s no need for it.

Help? It’s already here
I already know what I need to know.
“It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright”
is God’s answer to prayer.

April 11, 2012

posted by Amy on Apr 27

Three times in the space of a week I’ve found myself explaining that Stage IV breast cancer is incurable and the median survival time after diagnosis is about three years. I expect to have ongoing relationships with all three of the people with whom I had those conversations. I hope we’ll keep  having conversations about all kinds of topics, not just my medical status. But one of the reasons I tell this to friends is I don’t want them to be surprised later if (or maybe I should say when) I die from this.

Knowing someone with Stage IV cancer might help you confront your own mortality and give you an incentive to seek some sort of meaning or transcendence or renewal. Heaven knows it’s done that for me, not just because of my diagnosis but also because I have joined that club no one wants to join, the fellowship of cancer “survivors.”  I have an in-person support group just for women with Stage IV cancer, and I belong to an online support group for people with my subtype of breast cancer. Since I joined the in-person group last year one of the members has died, and others have been hospitalized or had to work through treatment changes, cancer progression, and the physical disabilities that both the cancer itself and the treatments generate. Several of the online group members have died too, and one has entered hospice. Mortality is always before me.

Unless I tell you, or remind you, you’re apt to be unaware that I am walking around with a time bomb in my body. I feel and look fine. So far I have no physical impairments from the cancer or the treatment, other than a perpetually runny nose and brittle, flaky fingernails. (It’s not exactly an impairment, but my hair is very curly now too. They tell me that often happens after chemo, and it will go back to normal eventually.) So here I am, looking like got a perm, and otherwise showing no signs of the ordeal of last spring and summer, or of my new reality. I do my school work. I go to church. I talk to friends. I do all the same chores I always used to do. I have not gotten neater or more organized or less prone to procrastination. I haven’t quit biting off more than I can chew. I don’t appear to have changed.

The difference is in my attitude. I am much more mindful. I engage my senses, my imagination, and my feelings much more deeply now, no matter what I’m doing. I apply myself with much more fervor to whatever I’m doing. I am more grateful, more prayerful and much less temperamental than I used to be. I experience a childlike sense of wonder more often.

But it’s not all good. My new perspective on life has caused misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Since my diagnosis I have said and done things that were selfish and self-indulgent. I have failed to consider how what I do and say might affect others. I truly regret my moments of selfish jerkiness, and I want to do better. I’m trying to find a balance, and I have an acute sense that I may not have much time to get this all sorted out. That can make me seem standoffish. Or, more accurately, that is making me disengage at times.

I suppose someone else in my situation might become more clingy and needy, instead of more aloof. But if you know me, you can understand why I’m going in the opposite direction. What I really want to do in whatever time I have left is learn to love deeply but hold onto others lightly. I want to have intense, interesting conversations that I’m not monopolizing. I want to learn to listen sensitively and kindly. I want to share the ways I think God is working in my life and using me, but without being intrusive or crass. And I want to keep learning to live mindfully and fully, as a person-in-community with all the people who matter to me. I know I’m a living reminder of how fragile and fleeting life is. I hope I am also a reminder that every day is a new beginning, a new chance to be loving and kind and aware.

 

 

posted by Amy on Apr 6

I sent this email to a friend this morning:

It’s Good Friday. I could be in church from noon to three, but I don’t think I’ll do that. Nevertheless, it will be a solemn, prayerful day for me.

The best, most perfect human being who ever lived–God Incarnate–was judged, condemned and killed by people who just didn’t get it. He said to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He told Peter to put away the sword.

He said we are to love God and love neighbor–and everyone is our neighbor. Everyone. Everyone belongs to him, is precious to him. He said those of us who claim to follow him are the light of the world.

Stupidity, arrogance, insecurity, greed, “law and order” killed him. But they (we, operating from purely human values and understanding) didn’t have the last word. The last word is Love. The last word is forgiveness. The last word is that light is stronger than darkness, goodness is stronger than evil. Life is stronger than death.

When I sing the Good Friday hymns I always cry. But it comforts me too. God is in the suffering. Jesus knew love and loss. Jesus knew about family, friendship, festivals, the joy of life as an embodied, finite creature. He knew pain, betrayal, loneliness. He was abandoned. But he is here. He will never leave.

That’s my contribution to the discourse for today. But on the subject of forgiveness, David R. Henson makes the very important point that it wasn’t Jesus who forgave the people who killed him. He asked God to do that. Noticing this allows us to avoid turning a radical belief in the power of God to right every wrong and heal every wound into a heartless and inhumane insistence that human beings must always offer their own forgiveness. I think he’s right.

 

posted by Amy on Apr 4

When I told my friend Janell that I was taking a class in evangelism, she said, “That’s a dirty word.” I said that I know it can seem that way, but it doesn’t have to be.

Janell and I were both brought up in the Methodist church. Although Methodism began as an evangelical movement, and swept through both England and the U.S. like wildfire, the suburban Methodist church of my childhood (and the rural church of hers) had become insular and static. Church was just something everybody did on Sundays.

For most of my life I associated “Evangelical” with those guys with pouffy hair on television claiming they could solve all your problems if you bought a holy hankie. Evangelism sounded like proselytizing, and that seemed impolite at best, disrespectful and even colonialist at worst.

These days, it seems that most Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants just quietly go about their business without feeling any urgency about Christian witness. But many of us have been watching our congregations shrinking. We worry about how to meet the budget. Catholics pray that young men will be called to the priesthood. United Methodists study “vital congregations” and talk about “metrics” and “accountability.” After several generations of taking for granted that things would just keep chugging along (and having that happen until birth rates started falling and the culture became more and more diverse and secular), organized religion now seems to be following a business model, complete with mergers and acquisitions, restructuring, “right-sizing,” and marketing strategies.

Here in the East, I’ve seen numerous United Methodist congregations of thirty or forty people meeting in sanctuaries that can seat 500 or more. I’ve seen little country churches (like the UCC church to which my friend Janell belongs) that are barely hanging on with a small core group of regular members but with not quite enough people to have a regular adult Sunday school class or a youth group. They see new people come and then go, and they don’t usually know why. We all have great ideas for showing the love of God to our neighbors, but we just don’t seem to have the resources to pull that off. We think it would be great if our congregations could grow–just a little bit.

But do we want people to join our churches because we can’t pay the light bill unless they do? Or do we have good news for them from God?

A lot of churches claim to cherish visitors, but fail to make them feel welcome. Maybe it’s hard for a newcomer to figure out what to do and when. Maybe the ritual seems alien (or silly, or annoying, or too loud, or too stuffy.) Maybe the “fellowship time” consists of little closed circles of people who know each other, with no one bothering to engage the newcomers.

It can seem as if pastors are really just trying to separate people from their money, and although they say it’s so they can do “God’s work,” it appears to have more to do with buying new carpet than saving either souls or bodies. A lot of churches concentrate on the entertainment value of their services, to the exclusion of anything that sets them apart from other options for Sunday morning.

What if I told you that, to me, Christianity is not about assent to certain truth claims but about a way of life as a member of God’s family? What if I told you that I’ve seen God work anyway, in some surprising ways, even (or maybe especially) with the congregations that seem to be most dysfunctional and off-track?

What if I admitted that I have no idea whether going to church is part of God’s plan for your life? I’m not that smart, or prescient. But I can tell you I didn’t think I needed or wanted it either. I didn’t even think I believed in God, but somehow God drew me in anyway. Slowly but inexorably everything changed after that: my self-understanding, my story, my mission in life.

It didn’t solve all my problems, by any means. In fact it completely messed up my life. I couldn’t keep serving only my own needs and desires. Well, I could, but I noticed how unsatisfying that was, what a dead end it was, and how bad I was at making things up as I went along.

I learned that it really is necessary to give up one’s life in order to find it. How does that sound to you? I really can’t explain it. You just have to come and see.

I always want to know what you think, but it’s especially urgent this time because I need your feedback for a class project. Say whatever comes to mind about evangelism, or answer some or all of these questions:  If you do not belong to a faith community, what would it take for you to visit one once? To come back a second time?

If you have no intention of ever darkening the door of a Christian church, can you tell me why? Is Jesus the problem, or is it Christians? Have you been abused, shamed, betrayed? Do you think it’s just silly superstition?

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