Today in Sabbatical News

A day both lazy and productive, as I finished one book by a Reformed evangelical--Smith's Imagining the Kingdom--read from start to finish a book by an 11th century Muslim scholar--al-Ghazali's Deliverance from Error--and began a work of Greek Orthodox theology--John ZizioulasBeing as Communion--which has given me an intellectual orgasm just in the opening pages.

Besides all that reading I enjoyed my morning walk, cooking breakfast for my family, doing laundry, picking up around the house, getting my hair cut, and going to lunch with some clergy friends.

I also, after finishing Smith's book, worked on reimagining First Central's worship design and planning process, a task I set myself while attending Marcia McFee's Worship Design Studio in April.

So, a pretty full day.

Tomorrow I hope to begin writing a philosophy book I intend to model on my classroom lectures at Creighton.

Yesterday, by the way, I did write a short story.  A month or so ago I saw a news article about radioactive boars ravaging the countryside around Fukushima and sent it to my friend Marty Peercy with the comment that I'd enjoy seeing Don DeLillo's take.  Marty suggested that a few of us use the news story as a writing prompt and assemble the short stories for an anthology published by Literati Press. While walking at Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge yesterday, my story idea came to me and I wrote the first draft when I returned home.

Deliverance from Error

Al-Ghazali's Path to Sufism: His Deliverance from Error (al-Munqidh min al-Dalal)Al-Ghazali's Path to Sufism: His Deliverance from Error by أبو حامد الغزالي - Al-Ghazali
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have referenced al-Ghazali in my teaching of Descartes, as al-Ghazali also experiences an existential crisis of doubt in his search for certainty--six centuries before Descartes. I had wanted to read the full original work as prelude to a philosophy writing project I intend to begin while on my sabbatical.

This is a spiritual and intellectual memoir as the 11th century thinker records his own deliverance from error as he explores various intellectual traditions and settles upon the Sufi as the way to truth. al-Ghazali represents a rejection of the rational, philosophical approach embraced by other Muslim thinkers such as Ibn Sina and later Ibn Rushd, but al-Ghazali's is not a knee-jerk, uninformed reaction. He is well educated and delivers a compelling presentation of the limits of reason and the need for a way beyond reason in the life of faith.

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Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship WorksImagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James K.A. Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Smith continues his cultural liturgies project by exploring how worship works. First, he develops a view of the body based upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty in order to emphasize that worship must work upon the body (a kinaesthetics) and by working upon the body it shapes the imagination (a poetics). In other words, aesthetics is essential for the character-formation that occurs in worship. But aesthetics directed toward action. Secular and sacred liturgies both work this way and so the book ends with some encouragement to those who design and lead Christian worship to take all of these concerns to heart.

The only negative comment I have on the book is that it can be repetitive, but I think Smith has chosen that in order to reinforce his points, particularly for an evangelical audience for whom he is encouraging an embrace of traditional liturgy.

Smith is an engaging writer, bring a wide breadth of reading and experience (David Foster Wallace novels and Wendell Berry essays and the film The Rise of the Planet of the Apes) to bear upon these rich philosophical topics.

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My Antonia

My Ántonia My Ántonia by Willa Cather
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Though I had read some Willa Cather well before the opportunity to move to Nebraska presented itself to us, and though I've been consistently reading Nebraska literature since we've moved here (Neihardt, Sandoz, Aldrich, Kooser, etc.), I had in fact never read My Antonia. I decided that was one thing I'd settle during the sabbatical.

But, I have to say, I didn't care for the book as much as I did O Pioneers (and I still think Death Comes for the Archbishop to be her greatest novel). Cather beautifully describes the plains and life upon it, but this particular time I wasn't as captivated by either her characters or her narrative structure for the book.

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Imagining the Kingdom, Chapter 3

Here is an excerpt is a rich summary of the content of chapter 3 of James K. A. Smith's Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works:

Our incarnate significance, our imaginative being-in-the-world, is governed by the dynamics of metaphor and narrative, poetry and story, which is precisely why liturgies are practiced poems, embodied stories, performed dramas.  Liturgies--those formative rituals of ultimacy--marshal exactly these dynamics.  Liturgies are formative because--and just to the extent that--they tap into our imaginative core.  As compressed narratives and tactile poems, the formative power of liturgies (whether secular or sacred) is bound up with their aesthetic force.  Such liturgies are pedagogies of desire that shape our love because they picture the good life for us in ways that resonate with our imaginative nature.  Over time, we are formed as a people who desire a certain telos because we have been immersed in liturgies that have captured our imagination by aesthetic means.  This isn't a matter of simply learning new ideas and content; it is a matter of tuning.  We are attuned to the world by practices that carry an embodied significance.  We are conscripted into a Story through those practices that enact and perform and embody a Story about the good life.

I would only add song to that list that includes poetry and story.

The Lure

Sitting on my porch this morning drinking coffee and reading Wordsworth I was lured to cast aside the plans for the day and go hiking in the break between the predicted thunderstorms.  I decided to have an early lunch at Harold's in Florence and then head north along the River with the idea of going to Desoto Bend, but after my roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, and lemon meringue pie as I drove through the Ponca Hills listening to the birds sing, I decided to see how Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge was faring five years after the last catastrophic flood.  'Twas the correct choice.  Or, more pertinently, I followed the proper lure for today's adventure.


After the morning's rain everything was sparkling in the newly emerged sunlight.  Through the wetland meadows there were some sounds and smells that evoked childhood memories of walking with my parents--buzzing grasshoppers and the damp evaporating from the grasses.  Soon I realized I had forgotten to bring along my bug spray.

Undeterred, I walked over four miles through meadows and newly emerging cottonwoods and old dying trees and along the banks of the Missouri River where geese were sleeping.  Today I wished I was a birder who could identify the myriad species I saw and heard.



This is what a beginning of sabbatical needed--a day in sun and fresh air with birdsong and the smells of prairie grasses.  Clearly a cliche, but rightly so.

After my hike I stopped at Zesto's for a vanilla ice cream cone dipped in chocolate.

"Spare these courts of mystery"

My daily morning poetry reading has suffered since the birth of Sebastian and the loss of my longstanding morning routine.  So, one of the funs of sabbatical will be to take back my morning routine, at least for a while (and later in the morning after he's at daycare).

So, I'm well behind in my reading of Wordsworth's Prelude.  In today's reading from the sixth section, done on the porch on this lovely, damp morning, I enjoyed these lines:

She [Nature] ceased to speak, but while St. Bruno's pines
Waved their dark tops, not silent as they waved,
And while below, along their several beds,
Murmured the sister streams of Life and Death,
Thus by conflicting passions pressed, my heart
Responded; "Honour to the patriot's zeal!
Glory and hope to new-born Liberty!
Hail to the mighty projects of the time!
Discerning sword that Justice wields, do thou
Go forth and prosper; and, ye purging fires,
Up to the loftiest towers of Pride ascend,
Fanned by the breath of angry Providence.
But oh! if Past and Future be the wings
On whose support harmoniously conjoined
Moves the great spirit of human knowledge, spare
These courts of mystery, where a step advanced
Between the portals of the shadowy rocks
Leaves far behind life's treacherous vanities,
For penitential tears and trembling hopes
Exchanged--to equalise in God's pure sight
Monarch and peasant: be the house redeemed
With its unworldly votaries, for the sake
Of conquest over sense, hourly achieved
Through faith and meditative reason, resting
Upon the word of heaven-imparted truth,
Calmly triumphant; and for humbler claim
Of that imaginative impulse sent
From these majestic floods, yon shining cliffs,
The untransmuted shapes of many worlds,
Cerulean ether's pure inhabitants,
These forests unapproachable by death,
That shall endure as long as man endures,
To think, to hope, to worship, and to feel,
To struggle, to be lost within himself
In trepidation, from the blank abyss
To look with bodily eyes, and be consoled."

Now, to reclaim my morning walk!

Imagining the Kingdom: Part I

In this second volume of the planned three of Cultural Liturgies, Smith is developing a liturgical anthropology--his term--"human beings [are] 'liturgical animals,' creatures who can't not worship and who are fundamentally formed by worship practices."  Part One explores a Philosophy of Action based upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu that is critical of the intellectualist tradition rooted in Descartes.  Again, I felt that James and Whitehead could contribute to Smith's project. 

Here is a good summary statement: "an adequate liturgics must assume a kinaesthetics and a poetics, precisely because liturgies are compresses, performed narratives that recruit the imagination through the body."

Or, more simply, "Ritual is the way we (learn to) believe with our bodies."

I appreciated a discussion of how teaching a child how to sit and behave at the table is  also "unconsciously absorbing a social imaginary, a picture of social order, a vision of the good life."

Finding a Rhythm

Time to begin finding a rhythm for this sabbatical.

Last Friday evening I returned from Atlanta and the Festival of Homiletics, needing a break from preaching and social justice issues.  When Sebastian awoke from a nap and saw me he screamed an angry, confused scream.  Only when I held him did he finally feel comforted--I was really home.

The weekend involved graduation parties, resting, recovering, and doing laundry.  Sunday morning I performed a graveside service for the father of a congregant.  'Twas strange to drive past my own church twice that morning suited up and carrying a Bible to go elsewhere and perform a sacred rite.  A funeral brunch occupied the mid-day, making Sunday feel not to unlike a normal Sunday (sacramental afternoon nap included).

This morning I had a dentist appointment (two fillings) and have a phone appointment at 11 a.m. with a once-child from a previous congregation to discuss some philosophical issues.  In between I've mowed the lawn.  Today, then will be taken up with some routine chores.

Only 4 of the eleven sabbatical weeks will I be gone.  Seven of those I'll be here, and I don't want them consumed with routine chores, so I'll need a find a rhythm for reading, writing, and accomplishing some of the projects and tasks I've set myself.  Blogging from the front porch, as I await my call, is pretty cool.

Last night's Game of Thrones was the best of the season and contained the most moving death of the series.

Today after reading more in James K. A. Smith's Imagining the Kingdom and then sitting in the dentist's chair watching the television commercials with little sound, I was struck by all the ways the commercials were shaping desire precisely as Smith discusses.  I ponder the ways I've been shaped by and also shaped to resist such enticements and temptations and also ponder if I'm doing as well by my child.  I think so, so far.

Hip-Hop & the Church

I was intrigued by this passage from Otis Moss, III's Blue Note Preaching:

Now remember that Hip-Hop is the first cultural creation that does not explicitly come out of the church. . . .  Hip-Hop is standing outside of the church looking in the window because no one is raising questions about poverty and deindustrialized urban landscapes . . . .   Young people become the Griot to be able to speak prophetically when preachers said, "We will not speak."

Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World

Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul WorldBlue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World by Otis Moss III
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Otis Moss, III was lecturing at this week's Festival of Homiletics he encouraged all of us to study preaching from traditions that are not our own. I had already picked up this book of his, based upon his Lyman Beecher lectures. I like reading the books from Beecher lectures.

Also interesting in this volume are four sermons, including two delivered after key moments in the Michael Brown saga, which give insight into his moving and successful homiletic style.

There are some techniques I will borrow from.

He talks about preachers as "artists and academics, weaving together poetry and pragmatic wisdom for daily living." He declares, "We are called to place a word in people" and then emphasizes how words and sounds are the craft of the preacher. One thing I like about his lecturing and writing is this emphasis upon the artistry and upon the sound and not simply upon structuring a written text. He also says that you must be authentically you and deliver the words God has given you through your imagination. So, for instance, he resists those who encourage him to slow down in his preaching, for it is not authentically him.

He urges us to preach with a Blues sensibility, addressing directly what he calls the "Blue Note" moments of people's lives.

He also explores what lessons we can learn from Hip-Hop to apply to preaching in a postmodern age, he specifically focuses on "the embodiment, the space, the appropriation, and the rhetorical proficiency of the person who is communicating."

A quick read, an enjoyable book, with some profound insights.

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Seize the Freedom

"I came to Atlanta to out you," Yvette Flunder preached.  "There ain't no closet prophets."

Her sermon was focused on "What is the purpose of the Pentecost story?" She found three purposes.  First, the coming of the Spirit was to get them together.  Unity remains the biggest miracle in the story.  To find unity we must overcome the sin of absolutism and the sin of authoritarianism.

Second, the coming of the Spirit was to get everybody's attention.  Something public had to be added to the private spiritual experience.

Third, to give public witness they had to learn how to exegete the hearers.  The message must be hearable by the people.

Flunder's goal was to empower us to speak the Gospel and not be confined to preaching the text.  To let the Spirit speak through us, an idea she supported from her growing up in the African-American Pentecostal tradition.  "Once the Gospel was the mouths and lives of living people, not a Book.  The Gospel is in the book; it is not the Book.  We made a mistake when we put the back cover on the Bible."

"But how do we control it? someone will ask.  We don't."

Lauren Winner spoke next.  Here's was a lecture with practical advice on how to preach prophetically.  "We want our prophetic words to be healing words."  I imagine many attendees were like me.  After days of rousing prophetic calls, we needed some more craft talk, some more advice on how to do it well.

Winner taught "Our goal is to help people see the powers that hold them captive, imagine alternatives, and engage in practices that liberate."  We should ask, "What holds my congregation in bondage?"  Help people seize the freedom they already have because Jesus has already defeated what binds them.  "Faithful prophetic preaching can be received by the congregation."

Her advice, which she admitted was in a Hegelian tension with Flunder's was to stay close to the text.  That problems arise when a preacher preaches an issue and not a text.  


While listening today I've been pondering one concrete thing and one broader issue.

The broader issue is how difficult it is becoming not to sound partisan anymore when preaching.  If you believe that the Gospel means to welcome the stranger and immigrant, to care for the creation in the midst of climate change, to stand with African-Americans against the racism and violence of our nation, to oppose war, to believe that our gun violence is out of control and must be addressed NOW, to advocate for the poor, and to work for full equality of people who are LGBT . . . then at this point and time, even if it wasn't true 15 years ago, one political party advocates for those things and one (at least as a party, not as every individual member of the party) opposes every one of those things.

The concrete issue I've been pondering is what I must do when I return to Omaha to defend trans students from the abuses of our state government and the opposition of the archdiocese.  How will I call the government and church out publicly?  What language will I use?  What actions will I take?

God the Game Changer

Grace Imathiu told a story.  Last week she was in the Ivory Coast, her first time there, and was invited to come speak to a gay group.  She said they were hidden and getting to them involved enter a maze of alley ways and locked doors.  When she arrived they said to her, "We've been watching you on YouTube.  You love the Bible.  We are terrified of the Bible.  Help us to see how you love the Bible."

Looking out over a room filled with ministers of many denominations Imathiu said, "This was difficult for me because I'm a recovering homophobe.  I grew up in Pharaoh land where they taught that marriage was only between a man and a woman."

Earlier she was unpacking how the Exodus story lay at the root of the Pentecost story and had said, "When you live in Pharaoh land you being thinking Pharaoh thoughts."

Imathiu opened her sermon by describing how the Spirit had swooped down upon the disciples.  "She did not bother taking on an anthropomorphic form.  She was Other.  Without apology."  Now, after her story about secret and terrified gay community of the Ivory Coast she said, "I can only have imagination because the Spirit swoops down."

The topic of her sermon was how to preach the Sunday before election day.  "Surely the resurrection is about God changing the game."  So, "preach in a way that gives our communities another way of living together."  Later she would pray, "May God teach us a new game."

But the close of her sermon was the most powerful moment.  "In the resurrection, I can't wait to see me in the mirror--healed and complete.  Then God will look at me and say, 'You look like me.'"

So, we should pray for the ability to see our resurrected selves now, and not only ourselves, but everyone else's resurrected self.

Here are my words--if you are abused, oppressed, excluded--whether black victims of American white supremacy or trans students being kicked down by schools and governments and dioceses or whomever--simply imagine that healing moment of God looking at you in your body with all that makes you you and saying "You look like me."

Yesterday afternoon we hurried . . .

Yesterday afternoon we hurried, driving through Atlanta traffic to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site.  GPS, backed-up interstates, competing navigational instructions, wrong turns.  When we finally parked there were only about twenty minutes left before the site would close for the day.  We rushed into Ebenezer Baptist Church, and suddenly I wanted to sit and cry.


The afternoon lecture at the Festival was delivered by the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III on how preachers need to learn from DJs on how to become artists and curators of the imagination.  Moss had four main points that we preachers can learn:

  1. Appreciate a variety of traditions.
  2. Birth your preaching from Blue Note moments—moments of pain, grief, and loss
  3. Internalize what is given to you so that you can improvise. Improvisation is based in preparation.
  4. Challenge the status quo.

This list fails to reveal how Moss’ lecture was filled with verbal delights.

But I didn’t have time to sit in Ebenezer Baptist Church and cry.  I grabbed a map from the information desk and hurried on down the street to see the other King sites.  I paused at his and Coretta’s tomb, and again resisted the urge to weep. 


This morning in her sermon Nora Gallagher opened with a story about being there with a friend as her friend’s husband died.  She said, “When you are in the midst of this kind of trauma, you need a very big story to contain it.”

At the King Site there is a walk formed from the shoe prints of Civil Rights heroes and icons.  Walking among those footprints, reading those names, was deeply moving, as if you too can imagine yourself caught up in the march with them, humbled and challenged by the realization.


A rose garden at the site includes poems written by children from around the world.  Here were my favourite two.



We Shall Overcome

A most glorious organ postlude of “We Shall Overcome” completed the second worship service of the day this morning.  Father Michael Renninger, Pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Richmond, Virginia, had preached on the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew under the title “Who Are Your People?” Basically, Jesus’ family were the wrong people.  Father Renninger asked, “When we look out at our congregations are they filled with the wrong people or the right people?”  Father Renninger said that it is as if God decided “I’m going to take incarnation in the middle of the mess.”  He then instructed us to “look for Christ in the messiest part of our lives.”

Last night’s worship was led by the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.  Their choir sang and their pastor, Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, preached a rousing sermon on the story of Paul and Silas healing the slave girl in Philippi (a passage I had just heard preached wonderfully on a few weeks ago).  The choice quote from his sermon was “Spiritualized narcissism masquerades as the gospel.”

Near the end of the sermon Dr. Warnock addressed a concern which must have been on many minds after hearing the many injunctions to prophetic preaching. He pointed out that Paul and Silas did the singing and God did the shaking, so we should preach what needs to be preached and not worry about what will happen as we should trust God to do the shaking.

This morning’s lecture was given by Heidi Neumark, Pastor of Trinity Lutheran of Manhattan.  She opened her sermon by saying that preaching had killed her grandparents.  Neumark learned a few years ago that her grandparents were Jewish and had been murdered in the Holocaust, which sent her on a journey to learn her family’s story.  The town in which they lived had been served in the 1930’s and 40’s by a bishop who was a National Socialist.  She read the awful words from some of his sermons.  After sketching the story, she pointed out that he and pastors like him at committed “homiletical genocide.”

Neumark’s church runs a shelter for homeless queer youth, so she drew the connections between her family history and the current church’s failure to speak up for queer youth (and others).  She said, “our church’s like long, drawn-out discussions, when lives hang in the balance.”  She advised, “if someone gets angry at what you preach and leaves your church, it is unlikely that someone will die, but people die every day for what we don’t say.” 

Our failure to speak “is a form of child sacrifice on the altar of not wanting too much conflict.”

So, the later glorious postlude of “We Shall Overcome” was a balm in Gilead.