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On Being a Minister this Week

Scott in pulpit

I need to write a sermon, and I'm struggling with that.  Even yesterday, though the prospect seemed daunting, I felt up to it.  Not so much today.  Today I'm feeling inconsolable sadness and exceeding fear.  This is not who I normally am.  Even in the face of great difficulties, I am often the strong, positive, hopeful one.  That's one reason I'm good at my job.  Today I feel inadequate.

One reason is because of the sadness and fear of others.  Because I'm a pastor and normally a reasonable, thoughtful, and hopeful person, people are coming to me with their grief and horror.  Always we pastors carry the feelings of those who come to us.  Sometimes that burden gets to be quite heavy.  This is one of those weeks. 

My planned third reflection was to talk about ministry.  So, I'm going to do that, but this post is a little different than what I would have written yesterday.

A colleague said to me, "I don't understand how anyone could listen to any sermon I've ever preached and vote for Donald Trump.  I feel like a failure."

I must confess that I feel something similar.

In the mid-Aughts when the majority of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq, almost every major faith group in America opposed it.  At the time I read one article which explored this fact and was troubled by it.  The author concluded that faith groups had ceased to be moral influences upon congregants.  This was a scary thought.

The major faiths in Nebraska, and particularly the Roman Catholic Church which is the largest and politically most powerful of denominations, supported the repeal of the death penalty here.  When the returns came in the other day that two-thirds of Nebraskans voted for the death penalty, I was again disheartened on this very point--the church is supposed to be a place where we find ethical guidance.  Our denomination never tells people what to do, but you do hope for some moral suasion, particularly on fundamental issues.

The election of Trump suggests the defeat of the church as a moral influence in American culture.  Why?  Because so many of the things he has said and done are antithetical to basic moral teachings.  We proclaim personal sacrifice and generosity instead of greed.  We teach compassion and hospitality to strangers and victims of violence and oppression.  We try to help the poor, the sick, and the abused.  We pray for peace.  We teach the virtues.  These are not "liberal" Christian teachings, these are common teachings across the theological spectrum.

So, what appears to have defeated (at least for a moment) the moral influence of faith in our society is not left-wing secularism but an extreme right-wing populist nativism.  One good result may be that now we progressives can finally communicate clearly how faith, family, and virtue are our values?

Yesterday morning I feared for the church.  I was worried that its vitality would decline.  But then there were signs of encouragement.  The social workers who came to lunch in order to be uplifted in prayer on a day of uncertainty.  The atheist who showed up here and wanted to talk because he felt drawn to the church in the midst of his confusion and fear.  The people who were walking the labyrinth last evening praying.  The young woman who hasn't been to church in a long time but reached out this morning because the election has evoked the trauma of her sexual assault and she needs pastoral care.

Yes, we are often our best when we are working counter to the culture, so maybe we will have years of vitality ahead as we become a place where people come to deal with their confusion and find the encouragement to work toward the goals of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

But, I'm going to find it difficult to preach, knowing, as my colleague pointed out, that some have listened to my words about compassion, inclusion, generosity, peace, and justice and somehow drew the conclusion to vote for a candidate who I believe is antithetical to the core values of my faith.


Last Puritans: An Excerpt

From the conclusion:

As this book has shown, American Congregationalists have used their past in many different ways over the last two centuries: The Pilgrim story has been a source of unity, a reason for debate, and an occasion for moral instruction and corporate pride.  It has inspired serious thought and study, and it has created a yearning for common rituals and greater organizational sophistication.  History has served as entertainment and reason for travel, the subject of imaginative plays and tableaux and pageants.  To be sure, Congregationalists regularly misinterpreted and often trivialized their Pilgrim ancestors or at times used them to belittle their Baptist, Presbyterian, and Unitarian cousins.  More important in the long run, however, is what history helped Congregationalists to avoid.  At key points, as we have seen, it allowed them to stand aside from the competition to be the most "biblical" of all Protestants; it directed their passions toward tolerance and larger Christian unity rather than maintaining the purity of their theological system.  These choices brought their own set of problems, of course, and in the end contributed to the denomination's ongoing debate about its core identity.  But all told, the Congregationalists' story suggests that twentieth-century Protestant liberalism is much more than a one-dimensional tale of religious indifference or feckless decision making--though those elements are certainly present, as, of course, they are for everyone.  It is also, in the end, about paths not taken.  It is about people who learned to live with ambiguities, who chose to believe without demanding certainties. 


The Last Puritans

The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the PastThe Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past by Margaret Bendroth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not a history of Congregationalism but a history of how the Congregationalists have used their history, particularly the Pilgrim story. She focuses on grassroots history, more likely to quote anniversary sermons and the letters of lay people than denominational reports. Plus she has a wonderful dry wit. I would recommend this both to people who enjoy church history and to the general reader of history for an appreciation of how history has been used in American life.

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Church History

I'm reading Margaret Bendroth's The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past which explores how Congregationalists have used their understandings of history to shape their identity and mission.  Here's an interesting paragraph from the second chapter:

    In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, and after considerable struggle and conflict, Congregationalists made the Pilgrim fathers their own.  This meant, first of all, wresting the memory from their denominational competitors, their Unitarian and Presbyterian cousins.  But it also meant something more: as Congregationalists took ownership of the Pilgrim story, local memories preserved in small church communities would begin to reside within a much longer past, populated by men and women who were, in a strict sense, outsiders to the inner circle of memory.  The individual historic events recorded in local Congregational churches began to join together into extended episodes, taking on grander meaning as they did.  Building this larger narrative was a complicated task, but the result was powerful: the more consciously Congregationalists rooted themselves in the past, the more they were able to contemplate their future.

I resonate with that final sentence.  It's one reason I've been so outspoken in sharing the stories of First Central's past--they help to explore our current mission.


The Kind of Help a Minister Can Offer

I liked these paragraph's near the end of Henri Nouwen's The Wounded Healer:

We get an idea of the kind of help a minister may offer.  Ministers are not doctors whose primary task is to take away pain.  Rather, they deepen the pain to a level where it can be shared.  When people come with their loneliness to ministers, they can only expect that their loneliness will be understood and felt, so that they no longer have to run away from it but can accept it as an expression of the basic human condition. . . . 

Perhaps the main task of the minister is to prevent people from suffering for the wrong reasons. . . .

Therefore ministry is a very confrontational service.

Also,

A Christian community is therefore a healing community, not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision.


"Welcome Home"

St. John's

I had never attended an Orthodox worship service before this morning.  Since I've been reading much Orthodox theology during my sabbatical, I figured I should attend a service.  My friends Michael Heller and John Greise went with me to St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church, which is atop the hill just to the east of our house.

When we arrived the Matins was still underway and very few people were in the congregation.  One woman came over to the pew we had selected.  We weren't sitting, because you stand through most of the service.  She greeted us and asked what had brought us there that day.  I told her I was the Senior Minister of the First Central Congregational Church and was on sabbatical this summer, attending other churches in town.  She said, "Well, then, welcome home."

Beautiful words also rich with meaning that the Greek Orthodox are the ancient apostolic and universal church.

She then gave us pointers on the service (including that the cross above the iconostasis when lit indicated the times to stand).  She also brought us some further reading material. She was quite hospitable--any congregation would be pleased with such a member to welcome guests.  She also chatted about members of my church she knows.

The Divine Liturgy is not very participatory, though if you were Greek and grew up in the tradition, it would be easier, though most members did not follow along, even on the parts for the people.  The service was in both Greek and English and was at times difficult to follow (and I do know ancient Greek).  Much of the service is performed by the priest in the sanctuary facing away from the congregation and uttering prayers that one cannot hear, though they are printed in the worship book.

I must confess that I was underwhelmed by the service.  I had expected to be lost in the mystery of the Divine Liturgy, but that was not the case.

We went for a Greek lunch following worship.


Pride Parade

This morning Sebastian participated in his first Pride Parade (last year he was so little and it was so very hot).  Our family walked with First Central.  Here are some photos.

Our toddlers from church. Sebastian wishing everyone a Happy Pride.  And Michael and Sebastian in front of our decorated church bus.

2016 Pride Church Toddlers
2016 Pride Church Toddlers
2016 Pride Church Toddlers


Hoka Hey

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I stood there admiring the eagle feather that Black Elk gave to John Neihardt.  The feather had belonged to Black Elk's father.  Then I noticed that the display also included Black Elk's coup stick, which surprised and amazed me.

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I was at the Neihardt Center in Bancroft, Nebraska.  John Neihardt had been Nebraska's poet laureate, the author Black Elk Speaks, the Cycle of the West, and more.  Ever since I'd read the first six years ago I had planned to eventually get to Bancroft and the center and so part of my sabbatical is catching up on some of those things I've long planned to do.

When I read Black Elk Speaks I was struck by the power and authenticity of Black Elk's vision and have incorporated it into my own writing and preaching.  While on the Pine Ridge Reservation a few years ago, I visited Black Elk's cabin.

The great Lakota holy man had spoken his vision to Neihardt who then wrote it down and shared it with the world.  The Neihardt center is Bancroft has preserved Neihardt's writing study, a garden he designed according to the Lakota image of the sacred hoop, and encourages the furtherance of Neihardt's and Black Elk's legacies.

I was the only visitor at the center while I was there.  Amy, the director, welcomed me with "Let me turn all the lights on for you."  Then she asked if I wanted coffee.  For the next hour or so we carried on a great conversation about Neihardt and Black Elk.  She said that there are quite a few ministers who come in or call, and some are writing about Black Elk.  I had told her about my "Theology of the Plains" project.  She said, "I think quite a few people would be interested in that."

I bought a number of book I had yet read and received a free tote bag.

In the morning I had driven US-75 north from Florence through rich farm country.  After Bancroft I headed northwest to Pender, then continued east to Walthill, on the Omaha reservation and then to Winnebago on the Winnebago reservation.  The development in the latter was striking.  I toured the sculpture garden which represents the various clans of the Ho-Chunk nation.

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From Winnebago I headed south along the scenic route that is part of the Lewis & Clark Trail toward Macy, which is part of the Omaha reservation.  Three years ago our church had planted trees at the Omaha Care Senior Center as part of our denomination's Mission 4/1 Earth.  I was pleased to see that the trees are thriving.

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I stopped in Decatur for lunch at a place church member Bob Vassell had recommended, but they had quit serving lunch fifteen minutes before.  I crossed the Missouri and headed south along Interstate-29, exiting at Missouri Valley in order to visit Desoto National Wildlife Refuge.

Okay, I should have gotten there a long time ago.  But often in our early years here it was flooded or recovering from flooding.  The visitor's center contains a remarkable display.  In the 1960's a sunken steamboat, the Bertrand, was excavated and what was discovered was that the mud had preserved the cargo from 1865.  Much of that, commercial goods and the possessions of travelers, is now on beautiful display.  According to the informational cards, some items are the only surviving ones in the world.

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The refuge was beautiful on this mild, sunny day.  Birds were playing and singing.  I saw a deer while walking the trails.  I've been meaning to get there some spring during the waterfowl migrations and must resolve to do so in 2017.

Hoka Hey is Lakota for "Let's go!"


Being as Communion

Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the ChurchBeing as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church by John D. Zizioulas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Introduction and opening two chapters gave me an intellectual orgasm as they discussed a eucharistic ontology of the person, including a review of key theological developments in the Patristic era. I've long struggled with elements of this orthodox Trinitarianism, and Zizioulas gives the most profound presentation of it I've read.

From chapter three on the focus is on issues that were of less interest to me as someone rooted in the Free Church tradition--apostolic succession, catholicity, ordination, the structure of the church, ecumenical issues between the Roman and Orthodox churches. But I was convicted by his vision of a local church which should be all Christians in a place celebrating communion together, overcoming all divisions. American pluralism has quite clearly created a radically new and different experience of the Christian church.

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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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