Thursday, November 26, 2009

'So to Speak' the Word of God

Years ago now, at a gathering of Partners in Covenant Communications, Herbert Palmquist opened a wonderful window for us all on the craft and art of preaching. It all began with the humorous story of an elderly janitor in the old Lafayette, Indiana, Covenant Church, who in taking him on a tour through the facility chorused all his descriptions of settings within it with the phrase, "so to speak." Pointing to the platform area, for example, he said, "There is where the choir sings, so to speak, and there [referencing the pulpit] is where the pastor preaches, so to speak." No matter where Palmquist was led the same chorus applied--the kitchen where the ladies cooked, the bathrooms where people "relieved themselves," curtained off places where Sunday School teachers taught, a janitor's room where his tools were--every place was tied to someone who did their thing there, "so to speak."

We were all in stitches, until Palmquist artfully transitioned to what he as a preacher had come to share. With an inviting wisdom born of disciplined labor over years and an evident awareness of the mysteries that remain beyond all our efforts to proclaim God's word, he invited us to explore with him what it means "'So to Speak' the Word of God. "

David Buttrick in his classic book on Homiletic (Fortress, 1987) believes that "a sermon built on "three points and a poem" is dead: rationalistic, linear, ineffective as it was. Even today's 'biblical preaching' gives us a past-tense God of past-tense events whose past-tense truth ('original meaning') may be applied to the world, while God remains hidden within a gilt-edged book." Such preaching, Buttrick says, failed to name God in the present world. Preaching "must dare to name God in conjunction with the world of lived experience." When we "name God with the world, then biblical stories become meaningful....

"So what are we thrown back on?" asks Buttrick. "We are flung back on a confidence in the gospel, trust in the grace of God, and prayer for the Holy Spirit with us... [Preachers] have been chosen to speak God's own word. No wonder year in, year out, preaching is terror and gladness.... We speak as we live, in the mysteries of grace."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

'In the Wilderness ... Prepare the Way of the Lord'

I have heard it since childhood, and sung it in youth, and preached it over two generations. Yet at no time in my life has the call to prepare the way of the Lord seemed more urgent.

Think of some stark statistics that recently came to my attention. The average pastor currently stays in ministry 11 years, two or three pastorates at most--before abandoning the office. The same is true of marriages, which on average last no longer in America. What is happening in the soul of America? And given the exponential rate of change these days--not to mention the explosive nature of political and even religious life--what is likely to stem the flow?

I confess sometimes to feeling like Jeremiah who spoke of shedding rivers of tears over the people and conditions of his time. Why with a loving God, almighty and everywhere present, are we as God's people settling for so little, if indeed paying attention to him at all?

Why, indeed? Hear again the good news of Jesus Christ, who in coming among us to teach, suffer, die, and be raised from the dead has already established the kingdom of God among us. And to what end? Not simply to fit us for heaven someday and deliver us from this sinful earth, but to put us to work here and now as an earnest of the same kingdom yet to come in its fullness when Christ returns a second time.

N.T. Wright in his new book, Surprised by Hope, has renewed my own energies toward that end. He is clearing my cluttered mind of the problems by opening up in fresh, new perspectives the solution to them all, already given and at work. And in the process he is renewing my sense of hope.

If in Advent this year your own faith needs reviving, pick up Wright's book and let it take you as it has me on a wonderful journey through Scripture. It will supply a whole new perspective on yourself and your role in God's kingdom work. Unreal as it may seem on the surface of things, God's right hand and his holy arm have already gotten him the victory.

Surely it's time, therefore, to stop bemoaning all that is wrong with his world and engage it rather in the power of God's Spirit and Word. Our calling is not to leave this world but to love it as he did and await with great eagerness the day when his kingdom now manifest in us will become fully known in the whole world.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Get It Right!

Early yesterday in preparing for story time in Children's Church, I was writing a little bookmark I had in mind for each of the children. The idea had been brewing in my mind through the day on Saturday and on waking I knew exactly what next steps were. First, compose and save it. Second, duplicate as many as would fit on one page, which turned out to be six. Third, print as many time six as I felt were needed. Fourth, trim them all in my paper cutter. Fifth, make sure they were as uniform as possible, stick them in my shirt pocket, and get to church in time.

Simple enough, if only I get it right. I thought I had, having printed and trimmed the first set of 30. But a quick look sent be back to the beginning, for the text was not right poetically. "The kids will never know," I reasoned. But I knew, and though time was running out I decided to redo the whol;e thing. Get it right, for your own sake and the kids!

Three printing and trimmings later, it was domne, and just in time. The message was right, the printing clear, and the trim fairly uniform, Was all that important? You bet. Everything one does for the Lord and his people should be done right. It will never be perfect. Accept that. But thank God for conscience to do it right. The results follow, the essentials of the story I told the children, with the final question to them, Are You Open to God?" Just something to give their folks on going home, about which they might ask any questions on words they did not understand.

Be Open

God has done
for us all.

He made us
redeems us
sustains us.

He's coming
again to
transform us

All we need
to do is
believe that

And be open
to his work
in our hearts


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Jim Sundholm: A Prophet and Priest Among Us

As Thanksgiving approaches and we both count our blessings and reach out through Covenant World Relief to those less fortunate or in crisis, it seemed appropriate to honor the spirit and work of one among us whose whole life has been a witness to concern for and ministry among the marginalized in our world.

Jim Sundholm, most recently retired from his very effective ministry as director of Covenant World Relief and the Paul Carlson Foundation, has become over years an institution all by himself. As both a prophet and priest, whose passion has always been for urban ministry, his spirit and voice, strident when needed but never filled with himself, has earned our respect and required our response.

Listen now to the story of his life as he himself shares it in this RootedWings Interview. And as he shares, giving thanks for all those who have shaped and ministered to him, give thanks with me for his obedience to God's call and his demonstrated love for all God's people.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

'Praise with Me the God of Grace'

The moon was streaming in like a bright light through the bay window by our dining room table as I rose this morning. Many times, inspired by sunrises and sunsets, I have tried with my camera to capture them. But this morning, who knows why, it just didn't work, flash or no flash.

I was reminded of something my brother once said to me after trying in a slide show to capture the glory of the Grand Canyon. The show was pitiful but my brother was gracious and his comment memorable. "Jim," he said, smiling, "there are some things you just have to hold in your heart."

Nice as records are of the things that inspire us in life--even photographic records--they are never more than approximations of the things they are meant to capture. Why is it, then, that moved so often by God's glory we spend more time trying to capture it than just waiting before it, allowing the glory to capture us?

As in nature, so in music, that glory comes often to invade my being. Life is full of sacred reminders, meant to be absorbed, like the symmetry of text and music in an marvelous anthem by Richard Farrant, performed last Sunday afternoon by The National Lutheran Choir in a nearby Lutheran Church. with the moon shining through huge walled windows on either side of the sanctuary.

Lord, for thy tender mercy's sake, lay not our sin to our charge, but forgive that is past, and give us grace to amend our sinful lives. To decline from sin, and incline to virtue, that we may walk with a perfect heart before thee now and ever more. Amen.

I can no more capture for you with words the glory that streamed in on me in those moments than I could the Grand Canyon for my brother with that pitiful slide show. But it remains a living thing in my heart, and like the moon streaming through my window this morning that so refreshed my soul it continues to express my longing.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and .forget not all his benefits (Psalm 103:1).

Sunday, November 1, 2009

When All Is Not Well

When seasons and times
weigh heavy on mind;
When all is not well
and things are not fine;
to whom shall we go,
and where to recline?

A river there is,
the psalmist has said,
that flowing through time
can gladden the heart
by sweeping one up
and sett’ling the mind.

Recline in that now
all you in distress,
healed in those waters
one still can be blest.
Shadows are fright’ning
But light manifest.

Be calm, then, my soul,
when all else seems lean,
be carried for now
and stay in the stream,
let him guide you on
who wills to redeem.