Thursday, May 19, 2011

Woodstock for Preachers - final notes

After a week of hearing some amazing preachers and musicians, participating in a wide variety of worship, sharing stories with colleagues and gathering materials to bring back home, a few final notes:

Barbara Lundblad, preaching professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, offered a rich menu of options for thinking about Ordinary Time – that time between Pentecost and Advent. It does not really need to be so ordinary, she said, offering great opportunities to explore the stories and themes that really define the realities of every day life for Christians in some ways even more than the big feasts do.

Brian McClaren took us on a journey of spiritual development, from simplistic to complex, from perplexed to harmonious. And then he led us to scripture texts and spiritual practices that allow us to sink into each of those stages.

Diana Butler Bass offered a provocative look at “Christianity After Religion” (which happens to be the title of her next book that will be out next February). The key idea from her two-hour presentation – belief, behavior and belonging are the ways people enact religion and those are all in flux. We are creating the new future.

And since the end of the world is coming on Saturday, musician Nate Houge suggested we had all made a wise decision to spend our continuing ed money early in the year this year.

Actually, I think it was a good idea even if the sun rises again on Sunday.

Falling, dying and then what?

Death was in the air as Barbara Brown Taylor talked at the opening session of the Festival of Homiletics last Monday.

The death of a grain of wheat in the ground.

The death of a man on a cross.

The death we fear in our own lives.

The death of churches as we once knew them.

“It’s hard to preach the Gospel to people who are scared to death of dying,” Taylor said. She’s a noted author, teacher, preacher.

She talked of how people come to pastors looking for the Jesus who can give them a pass on “the full catastrophe.” Then they meet the Jesus who said “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

That’s not a message calculated to increase church membership, Brown noted.

And then pastors themselves start focusing on a message that will bring to people to their church. But then, Brown added, “it’s hard to preach self-preservation is the presence of the cross.”

This led to her key observation: “No one is much interested in learning to fall. We all want to rise.”

So then maybe we learn how to find salvation in the falling.

She talked of being at the bedside of someone dying. Death is very literal in this case. And yet as the family gathers around, stories are shared, good-byes are said, hands are held in prayer, touches are exchanged, there is life emerging from the death.

She talked of a family devastated by the falling economy. No more meals out, cable television gone, no trips to the movie theater. Instead, there are books read together, games played on the living room floor, meals around the kitchen table. Is it what they were used to, what they had hoped for? No. Was there high anxiety? Yes. And was new life emerging out of the falling? Yes.

“There are worse things than falling on the ground that can happen to a grain of wheat,” she suggested. The grain of wheat dies and gives birth. Jesus knew about bread. Jesus knew about life.

Death was in the air. And so was life.

Trust this, Brown suggested. When you are falling, “God will know what to do with you next.”

Or as Anthony Bailey said as he thanked Brown for her words, “We are all waiting to fall into the waiting arms of God.”

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Speak boldly, listen deeply

For Walter Brueggemann, the message was one of speaking boldly the things preachers often feel they cannot say.

For Krista Tippett, the message was one of listening more carefully, more deeply, to those who may disagree with us.

Both are vital messages to people engaged in the very public role of preaching in the nations’ congregations. They came in very different voices at the Festival of Homiletics this week in Minneapolis.

Brueggemann looks like what I imagine a Hebrew prophet would look like – tall, white hair (what hair there is), grumbly voice, piercing eyes. But he also has a sense of humor not often associated with those prophets. And he has a resume as a scripture scholar and professor that includes more than 50 books.

And as befits someone who looks and sounds like a prophet, today he used the story of Jeremiah, that dour profit of Israel, as his model for what happens to preachers when they are unable to speak hard truths. It tears at their guts, he said.

Or perhaps George Carlin and his seven words that could not be said on broadcast television should be the model, he suggested.

“George Carlin is not the last one who has a list of the unsayable,” Brueggemann said. “There is, for instance … you.”

It’s hard for today’s preachers to say that the war is stupid, that capitalism has failed in its excessive greed, that oil spill is a measure of Western technological hubris, that we have forfeited our democracy to a secret government protecting the wealthy. They can’t say that parents racing to get their kids to soccer practice and dance lessons will never win the rat race or that we can’t welcome the immigrant.

“It takes so much energy to remember what not to say,” noted Brueggemann. “What we cannot say (echoing Carlin) is that the body is fragile and smelly and cannot be otherwise. What we cannot say is that our body politic has the smell of death about it.”

OK, that’s harsh. And Brueggemann was quick to note that as a tenured professor, he has a lot more latitude to be harsh than the average pastor in the pulpit – what he called “such a dangerous place as you are every week.”

Then again, Brueggemann suggested, “you will get your self back in telling the truth before the authorities.”

Tippett is a soft-spoken radio host whose public radio program, “On Being” (formerly “Speaking of Faith”), explored people’s beliefs in a thoughtful, respectful way. And she is fascinated by how that kind of listening can lead not to agreement but at least to a deeper respect across ideological and theological lines.

“Listening is part of truth telling,” she said, reflecting on what Brueggemann had said. But it sure has a different feel to it.

She quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and martyr during the rise and fall of Nazism who said, “Christians are talking when they should be listening.” She noted that in the American political landscape in recent years, Christians have not been famous listeners.” (And those doing the speaking don’t have quite the same views as Brueggemann.)

So in an era when the pace of change has forced fundamental questions about life and relationships and authority and faith to the forefront, Christians have centuries of resources to draw on – but that requires asking questions with deep meaning and listening with sincere interest to the variety of answers.

“There is something redemptive and life giving that comes from asking better questions,” Tippett said, with the experience of one who has asked questions for years. The task for preachers, she said, is to “help people live the questions until they can be answered in their fullness.”

She talked about her conversation with Frances Kissling, the woman who for many years led Catholics for Choice. Now in retirement, Kissling is working on creating new relationships with her political opposites.

Two key questions Kissling asks:
What can I see that is good in the position of the other?
What troubles me in my own position?

This is not to reach agreement, Tippett noted. It is to understand better what the other – and you – believe. And a task for the church is to create the safe spaces where those kinds of conversations can take place. It goes back to that old Christian practice of hospitality.

Speak boldly, said Brueggemann, even about things you think you are forbidden from saying. Listen deeply, said Tippett, even to those you disagree with sharply. For both, a care with words and an honesty of spirit, a vulnerability of self and a tending to the soul are critical.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Gospel shouts and the blues

Notes from the Festival of Homiletics this week in Minneapolis.

The blues notes from pianist Kwasi Kena were still echoing in the room when Rev. Otis Moss III strode to the pulpit. He’s the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and one of the most dynamic young African-American voices of our era.

The scripture text he read was a bit obscure – a passage from the Jewish prophet Ezra about the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. A new generation of Levites – special temple workers – were appointed to oversee the construction. When the foundation was done, priests in their vestments and the Levites with cymbals sang songs of praise and gave thanks to God. But, wrote Ezra, the older generation “who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.”

Or as Otis Moss said, “they could not distinguish between the Gospel shout and the blues moment.”

He talked about the role of the blues in Africa-American culture, whether in music or food or comedy, where ‘joy is always married to sorrow.” He talked about the “blue note” – waking from addiction lying in your own vomit, the son returning from two tours in Iraq only to be murdered on the streets of Chicago.

“If you want to learn to worship, you must learn how to weep,” Moss said. “If you want to get to the joy of Easter Sunday, you’d better deal with the pain of Good Friday.”

Moss knows how to play with words, to create rhymes and construct words to keep his audience engaged and laughing. But he kept coming back to the notion that God is a God who knows the blues. If we are true to our history as human beings, we too have to include the blues in our Gospel songs.

World, church, sanity, insanity

Notes from the Festival of Homiletics this week in Minneapolis.

At first, it sounded like they had very divergent views on the “world” versus the “sacred,” these two preaching superstars.

Tom Long, a Presbyterian who teaches at Candler Seminary in Atlanta, talked about the tensions between sanity and insanity, how those who think they are sane may in fact be part of the demonic insanity of the world.

Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopalian who teaches at Piedmont College in Georgia, warned against pitting the “world” against the “church.” As she told the 1,700 or so preachers at others gathered here for the Festival of Homiletics, “watch your language, especially when you are talking about the world.”

Long was reflected on the story in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus driving demons from an insane man into a vast heard of sheep that plunged to their death. He talked about the “apocalyptic combat between the holy and the demonic” that runs through Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus, adding that often “it’s hard to tell the difference between the holy and the demonic.”

The religious bureaucrats of Jesus’ day, after all, “checked their DSM4s and said, yes, he’s insane all right. Not even CPE could help him.” (Acronym decoder: Diagnostic Statistical Manual and Clinical Pastoral Education)

Long talked about the 19th century composer and pianist Franz Liszt, who was a rock star in his era, then confounded people when he threw himself into a lifestyle modeled on Jesus. As he was dying, writing a piece of music that Long described as moving from frenzy to shalom, Liszt’s son-in-law, Richard Wagner, said to Liszt’s daughter, “I think you father is insane.”

Who was more insane, asked Long? The musician wrestling with the deepest questions of life or the one whose martial music and anti-Semitic writings would become favorites of Adolph Hitler?

While Long was not exactly casting the world against the sacred, BBT worried that too many preachers do just that – including an earlier version of herself. She described the transformation she went through that led to her book, An Altar in the World,” where she went beyond the church-based use of tangible items – water, bread – to the patterns of church life that led her to see the sacred in filling a cat dish with water or eating a cucumber sandwich at her desk.

Instead of pitting the world against the church, the flesh against the spirit, she wondered what happened between the creation stories of Genesis and the line in the Epistle of James that says, “whoever wishes to become a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”

What happened, she said, was Caesar. The Roman emperor defined himself as God and Jesus created a world in opposition to Caesar’s world. This was not the same as calling flesh bad. Jesus, after all was the word made flesh, the incarnate God.

BBT talked of finding the sacred in the line at the post office as a little girl kissed her wounded hand, in the chemotherapy room where she sat with her father, in the walks and touches and thirsts that fill her life.

Watch your language, she told the crowd. God is in the world.