Vestments, Part 4

Last year, I wrote three posts musing on the meaning of vestments and clerical shirts. If you feel like reading them either for the first time or once again, they are here, here, and here.

When a conflict or disagreement arises in ministry, I often say to myself, "this is not about that," meaning that whatever the stated surface-level issue is, it's not the deeper issue that an individual or entire church is wrestling with. Instead it's only a tiny part of the story or, more likely, a distraction from the real issue. Those posts were certainly meant to wrestle with why I as a pastor wear what I wear in my position, but the deeper issue that I only touched on had more to do with my sense of call. If I am an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, charged with certain responsibilities among a community of ministers but also to embody a particular role in the world, how might I best "dress the part," as it were?

The clothing issue became a specific aspect of the larger question. But it's a good one to tackle.

If pastors, as many do, wear robes, albs, stoles, and/or clerical shirts, then they are embodying a certain theology of the pastoral office. These items of clothing communicate formality, and show the pastor to be clearly set apart for particular functions within the community. When wearing such things, there is no mistaking who the officiant is.

If pastors, as many do, wear suits and ties for worship, they are embodying a different theology of the office, though I'd argue still a more formal one. You may or may not be able to pick the pastor out of the crowd until s/he steps up front to lead worship, but there is still a communicated respect for the role: even though these traditions reject certain views of pastor and church (or at least those specifically related to dress...there are certainly pastors who command a great deal of authority and power while not wearing robes and collars), it is still important for the pastor to dress more formally as part of his/her role.

And if pastors, as an increasing number do, wear jeans or other much more casual styles, they are embodying yet another theology of the office, that being one meant to identify much more closely with the people s/he is serving or to otherwise appeal to people seeking a church that has rejected formality, which is seen as stuffy, boring, or too strict by those seeking such a community. The downside is that, unless said pastor leads a large church and has his or her face plastered all over church literature, s/he may be the last person in the room a visitor would guess is the pastor. At least a portion of that, perhaps, is intentional. The pastor is "down with the peeps," as a fellow blogger and pastor has phrased it.

Now, these are simplified definitions and there is room for pushing back and arguing for nuance (a pastor can be informal in other ways while wearing a robe, a pastor can act formally in jeans, etc.). However, my basic point is that each of these dress styles is meant to communicate and incarnate certain things in relationship to the pastoral office. I offer them in brief so that I can comment on them without getting too tied up in hair-splitting, so I hope you won't miss the forest for the trees.

I've been wearing clerical collars in worship and sometimes to hospitals for nearly a year now. You can see from those other posts how much I weighed the decision to do so. It was just a few months after I began wearing them that I had a conversation about my wearing a collar with a church member, during which she made the comment, "It took you a while to grow into it." I don't think she meant the collar itself, but the idea behind it: its symbolism of the office and its authority. The collar was to her representative of a more full acceptance of the role that she'd been able to observe but to which I'd been mostly oblivious.

As mentioned in previous installments, I was inching the other direction right before making the decision to wear clericals. I wanted to be the "down with the peeps" guy, the guy who's accessible to the tattooed punk who comes in off the street looking for Jesus. I, as many other pastors have, decided that I wanted to be the hipster pastor in jeans who's all, "What up, bro?" Like I said, there are ways to do that in clericals. There are ways to do that without being the 40-year-old pastor preaching in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt.

I've come to a point since donning the collar where I don't feel the need to try so hard in that sense. It's probably part of a larger moment for me, but I don't have the felt need to pretend that I'm still in my 20s. I want to mature in my sense of call and my sense of self, one outward expression of which is my manner of dress. I love jeans and hoodies, but I've decided to show a little more professionalism and self-respect during my work hours. This, I think, translates to those who come to see me. A mentor once told me the story of visiting someone in the hospital while wearing a tie, during which the patient said, "It showed me that you take me seriously."

As for accessibility? I think of other people who wear uniforms: doctors, nurses, police officers. There are ways that they relate to people they come in contact with while still respecting and honoring their white coat, scrubs, or badge. Pastors can do this, too. My favorite example is Nadia Bolz-Weber, who dons clericals and robes but whose personality is certainly not the stuffy, straight-laced sort that one might assume with such attire. Does the tattooed punk need me to dress a certain way, or more to approach him a certain way, welcome him, take him seriously? I've had my experiences with dressed-down religious folk who probably wouldn't. The clothes don't always make the person in that sense.

I'm thankful that I've become more comfortable in my own skin regarding my call. It's not that I wasn't before, but that I wrestled really for a couple years about accessibility and how to best express my calling in outward ways. I can't hide in a collar. Instead, I can only claim who God wants me to be. I choose to claim it, to act my age, and perhaps most importantly to live into my ordination: to be set aside for certain things but to do those things in a way that invites rather than alienates.

Pop Culture Roundup

So after months of picking it up, putting it down, reading a chapter and then not touching it for a week or more, I finally finished This Odd and Wondrous Calling. This is what happens when I no longer have 7-9 hours every weekend just to read while rocking Coffeeson during his naps. I wasn't too excited to read it at first, as I felt oversaturated by ministry books at that point, but by the time I finished it I was glad to have taken the time.

We watched Thor the other week, starring Chris Hemsworth as the title character, banished to Earth after being deemed too hot-headed and arrogant to succeed his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as king of their realm. He spends some time as a human and hanging out with a few scientists, including love interest Natalie Portman. Eventually it is revealed that Thor's brother Loki is up to no good, and the other warriors from his realm need to help get him out of exile. Then, of course you have to stick around after the credits for yet another scene teasing the upcoming Avengers movie. This film was as visually stunning as any I can recall watching recently, and it had a nice balance of drama, action, and laughs. Those behind this long-term Avengers-related planning have been doing their jobs well: they haven't been skimping or rushing anything, instead electing to make each of these installments very high quality. We just need to watch Captain America now and we'll be all set for this summer.

We also watched Breaking Dawn, Part 1 because Coffeewife bought it the day it came out on DVD and made me watch it. Edward and Bella get married, they go off on their honeymoon, Bella gets pregnant, everybody freaks out. The movie becomes a pro-life/pro-choice debate through arguments over Bella's health and ability to handle a vampiric pregnancy. I'll give it to them that the movies seem to improve in direction and style. It doesn't make up for some of the acting and Bella's continued love-bubble tunnel vision. There were some good laughs as well, none of them by the main characters. Par for the course.

WWE Elimination Chamber was this past weekend, featuring two matches that give the pay-per-view its name. In said matches, six guys enter a big round steel cage structure. Four are locked in pods while the other two start the match, then in regular intervals another guy is randomly selected to exit his pod. You're eliminated by pin or submission. Clear enough? Okay. The other big deal about these matches is that they're world title matches: the two World Champions defend their belts in these things. Both made it through, but we pretty well knew who they're going to be facing at Wrestlemania that night anyway. Predictably, John Cena won his match against Kane as well.

We've been watching most episodes of the new season of NY Ink, where Ami has new or continuous headaches in the form of one of his workers wanting to be an apprentice and the continued presence of a fired employee even though he's at another shop. It looks like this will be the last season of the show, as Ami indicates in a preview for the final episode that he wants to go back to Miami. The show had enough drama injected into it that it was in danger of becoming LA Ink, but I don't think it ever got to that level of ridiculousness. It's too bad the show is ending already, but better that it ends now before hitting such a level.

We watched part of the Grammy awards. I only really watch for the performances, as the awards themselves have been a complete joke for some time now. I especially wanted to see Adele, who rocked it in her return performance since her throat surgery. Here, see for yourself:


Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. The Road to Easter officially begins, although I always include Transfiguration Sunday in that as well. I think that view is steeped in tradition somehow, but I'm currently too lazy to look it up. I use the reasoning that when most of us in the congregation next see each other, the season will already be four days old, so my sermon usually has an anticipatory flavor to it. Which it did.

The season is shaping up to be a good one activity-wise. We of course will gather tomorrow evening for worship including imposition of ashes. We will gather on subsequent Wednesday evenings for soup and discussions about the church calendar, a subject my church nerd self loves to think about and plan accordingly. My hope is that we have some good conversation about how it helps us live out the Christian story throughout the year. We'll see. Honestly, attendance the past year or two has been a little discouraging. I wonder if it's time for a different format.

As far as taking anything on, giving something up, observing any kind of discipline at all...I dunno. My attempts the past few years have not gone well. My thought is that I've already got this covered through my current journey through the Ignatian Exercises. On top of that, I may go very basic and give something up. I could do with less snack food or something, I'm sure.

There is something that I've always treasured about Lent, although the particular thing that I treasure evolves and changes from year to year. In my college years, it was the spiritual and intellectual challenge of exploration, self-evaluation, and discipline. In my seminary years it was the diversity of experiences that I had in different ministry contexts from one year to the next, and corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day made by a good friend and classmate. In more recent years, it's been the slowly lightening and warming spring days and the journey that the congregation and I take together, similar but different every time. It's the expectancy of these 40 days, the special opportunities that we share in worship and fellowship and faith formation. It's less my own discipline and more what we do as a community.

Having said goodbye to three parishioners within the past month, I've been thinking a lot about that lately. The realization that I value what we do in community, how people have been encouraging each other and looking out for each other and moving through these seasons that call attention to the sacred infused with the everyday has been at the forefront of my mind since the beginning of the year. It's what I've cherished since beginning full-time pastoral ministry, but have understood in a deeper way as of late.

Maybe that in itself is worth reflecting on this year. As I continue to discover what it means to pastor a church, what it means to get beyond the basic management stuff into those more dangerous uncharted places where relationships form and you get to know personalities and tendencies and begin to see it all differently, I see seasons and activities like Lent differently. So I think I'll ponder that over the next 40 days, and likely long beyond that.

Death and Life and In Between

I've officiated three funerals since the end of January. Actually, I've officiated four. The first was in a community a good half hour or more away because they specifically wanted a UCC pastor and the ones closer to them weren't available. The next two were the sort of "lived a good long life" funerals of church members who had, indeed, lived good long lives.

The fourth was just yesterday. I can't really say that it was a "good long life" sort, as she was only 59. Hers was a good life that included a good long fight with cancer, but arguably this life was not long enough as is often the case with that disease. As I recount my thought process when writing the eulogy, two things stick out. First, I originally wrote about "her cancer," but decided that cancer is not really ours. Instead, it is an intruder, an unwanted guest, a foreign despicable thing. So I left out the "her." Second, the longer I'm here the more regularly I break down in the middle of writing these things, and the closer I get to breaking down in the middle of giving them. That's just the nature of ministry, I think. In a way I should be thankful to have developed such relationships.

There has been something about these funerals that have brought me to a more reflective moment regarding ministry. It's nothing bad or alarming. I've just been experiencing a time of thankfulness and joy and wonder about my calling. It's not that I stopped, it's just that I'm especially mindful of these things within me right now.

I've also been reflective in this week leading up to the observance of Transfiguration Sunday. The Road to Easter, as I've personally come to call it the past few years, is about to begin again. I feel a wonder around this as well, anticipating the self-reflective time that marks this holiest season and, eventually, that most joyful celebration. I want to write more about that before Ash Wednesday. For now, I'm just sitting with the anticipation; the sense of renewal that it seems to be causing within me.

I turn 33 next week. I don't have any profound insights about that. Sometime, somewhere, I read somebody's musings on turning 33 and it being scary or significant or whatever because that's the (approximate) age of Jesus when he died. I don't feel any reservation or high honor or anything regarding that. I may have dreamed reading that little freak-out piece to begin with. It doesn't really matter. I get to spend the morning in Association meetings, and then Coffeewife is taking me to lunch. And also cake. That's fine, that's enough.

All of this is to say, I guess, that I'm thinking a lot at the moment about death and life: those of beloved congregants, my own, Jesus'. These are all kind of wrapped up together in my head and in my spirit right now. It's just been a time when I've been moved to a prayerful, joyful, even peaceful sort of silence. And I guess writing any more about it might ruin it, so I'll stop.

Owning a Moment

One of my favorite traveling memories is of the day Coffeewife and I drove into New York City with my brother and his then-fiancee. We'd taken the trip to see my grandparents in Tenafly, a short 20-mile car ride away (accounting for traffic, of course). It was early January, which in that region means freezing temperatures and the sort of wind that feels like it's going to cut right through you. We bundled up, layer upon layer, and made our way to our destination.

We parked in a nondescript parking garage, but a parking garage was not what we went to see. The sights, sounds, tastes, and smells were just a few blocks from where our van temporarily rested. It's curious, as I think back on it, how the assault on the senses grows the closer you get to the center of town. There are a few billboards and giant tarps touting the wonders of this product and that location, and then there are many, overlapping and running against each other like a great consumerist mosaic. There are little pockets of tourists and people on their way to work, and then they blanket both sides of the street, bumping and moving as a herd; if something happens while you stop for a moment, it's your own fault because clearly we're on our way.

The traffic does not control the movement of downtown New York. The people do. This is a fact. If the light is green but there's a wall of pedestrians blocking your path, what are you really gonna do? Honk? Good luck with that.

When you reach Times Square, there is no movie or TV show or picture that can truly capture what you find there. The screens and lights streaming headlines and stock values from one side and demanding that you drink this soda on the other flash for stories and stories high above you. The steady hum of cars and buses, occasionally augmented by someone who thinks his horn is going to part that wall of people, is a constant low rumble against the eardrums. The smells? Don't think about those too much.

I ate a hot dog that day on the edge of Central Park. How many episodes of The Sopranos had I seen featuring this place? How many times had I watched Venkman, Stanz, and Egon deal with the movie's centerpiece haunted apartment complex against this backdrop? And yet those were two-dimensional images that didn't include how this hot dog tasted, the puree of cultures around me, how tall the buildings really are up close.

I didn't take any pictures that day. I probably should have, but I didn't. Instead, I remember that hot dog, for some reason the key memory that unlocks everything else for me. Even if I did have pictures, you wouldn't see the people and buildings the way I saw them. You wouldn't hear the constant noisy bustle. You wouldn't be able to smell or taste the hot dog or feel the cool January wind chapping against your cheeks.

That moment was its own entity, its own experience. I could show you pictures if I took any, these artifacts that I can hold in my hand and give to you and then take back, but they wouldn't be the moment itself.

I have a "collector's personality." I like collecting physical items. I grew up in an age when cassette tapes were a huge part of the music business but CDs were just beginning to take over. Even in my elementary years, I was proud of my tape collection, and as I grew older I became equally as proud of my CD collection. I would look at them lining my shelves and randomly rearrange them according to genre, then alphabetically, and even chronologically according to when I bought them. I once considered going the "autobiographical" route a la High Fidelity, but such a task seemed too daunting.

Nevertheless, I loved looking at these physical items, marveling at the massive quantity, lazily flipping through them and trying to decide which to play; which fit my mood at a given moment.

This musical love has translated to the digital age, though it is a different kind of pride, I think. I scroll down through my iTunes list and feel a pride similar to when I used to look at those stacks of CDs, but I admit that it's different. Other than my iPod, I have no physical thing to marvel at. With tapes and CDs, I had mounds of physical representatives of my musical collection. I owned these representatives, I could point to them and have guests gaze at their spines. With newer technology, I have a list, which is okay, but it's not the same.

But the physical item is not the song itself, is it? For as long as these stacks sit in rows and for as long as the titles and artists grace my list, they remain stacks and lists. They indicate the musical options available to me, but only one song plays at a time, and for only as long as that song lasts.

When I actually choose to play something, that's when the song truly does what it's meant to do. Whether the gut-busting drums of a heavier, driving tune or the wandering piano of something slower and more pensive, the song begins and then it ends, and it only truly exists while it plays. It bends airwaves for a few minutes, evoking particular emotions, and then it declares itself finished and I am once again left with an album or a computer screen, a souvenir of the experience itself. I can try to describe how a song made me feel and I can tell you that I own a device containing the means to play it, but only when it actually plays does the experience of a song even become possible. I can play it for you, hoping that you'll find the same meaning in it that I did, but there's no guarantee. You may grate at something I find profound, you may instantly love what it took me a few weeks to grow into, you may suggest an alternative that you argue is superior.

Pictures and stories. Potential or passed moments miraculously contained in plastic. People claim that they own these things. They fight in court over who has the rights to artistic depiction and expression and how much credit and payment they should receive. But nobody owns a reaction. Nobody owns the tears of joy or sadness that something evokes. Nobody owns a life altered. Nobody owns the moment itself, nor its remaining imperfect memory.

We do this with God, of course. Sure, we don't usually use the language of ownership, but words and actions betray us. There are so many who feel the need to defend God from others: non-believers, culture, other belief systems. We keep Bibles, crosses, churches, and other trinkets big and small close by. They are reminders for us, but they may also provide this sense of having a claim on things: this is MY faith's book, MY faith's symbol, MY faith's building. My faith and my God is encompassed by this physical thing that I can show you, read to you, share with you, invite you to. And how easily we confuse these items with what is beyond them; what they point to. How easily we mistake our synthetic reminders for the divine experience itself. Some try to start fights over which physical artifact is worthy of some normative, elevated status.

We can't control how people experience these things, as much as many try. Words and melodies and events occur in times and places for people who bring with them all their relationships and history and personality. And maybe they receive and maybe they resist and maybe they want a little more or a little less, but that moment where a human's complexity bumps up against some expression of Big Truth, the reaction and the result is for that person only, in that moment only. It may be important to process and explain and clarify and hang onto a relic afterward, but it's damn near impossible to replicate perfectly for someone else. We try, of course, and trying may lead to something like it or it may lead to cheap imitation, fanatical coercion, or rote foolishness.

The moment itself only exists as it happens to each of us. We can write about it, speak about it, show pictures of it, play something that triggered it, but you really had to be there, in my spot, with my history, having my experience. But since you weren't, all I have are my shelves and lists, and my feeble attempts to explain.

Pop Culture Roundup

We watched Everything Must Go this week, starring Will Ferrell as a guy whose struggles with alcoholism cost him his job. He comes home to find his stuff strewn all over the front lawn and the locks on the house changed, with his wife nowhere to be found. After a few days, he decides to just have a big yard sale. Included in this are interactions with various neighbors who help look after him. Ferrell's character eventually sums up the embarrassing aspect of his troubles by saying, "My problems are here on the lawn for the world to see while the rest of you can hide in your houses." Ferrell already showed that he has dramatic chops in Stranger Than Fiction, but he does well here again, even though the movie is a bit too understated at times.

We also watched Abduction, starring OMG TAYLOR LAUTNER~! as Nathan, a kid who discovers that the people who raised him aren't his real parents. Unfortunately for him, that discovery involves the CIA, rogue foreign agents, and lots of guns and explosions. The movie doesn't pretend to be more than it is: a brainless action flick. It's a simple plot with suspect acting from the lead character, which given the role doesn't necessarily matter. Lautner is well-suited for it at this point in his career since he's still rocking his Twilight abs and he's not exactly ready to tackle Shakespeare. The supporting cast inexplicably includes the likes of Alfred Molina, Sigourney Weaver, Maria Bello, and Jason Isaacs, who all at least seem to be having a fun time.

The WWE Royal Rumble happened a few weeks ago, officially beginning the Road to Wrestlemania (my favorite time of year, wrestling-wise). The match itself, which features 30 guys entering every few minutes each, was won by Sheamus, which I thought was a surprise. The past few years there have only been a handful of believable potential winners and Sheamus was on that short list, but I was expecting Randy Orton or Chris Jericho. Then the next night on Monday Night RAW, The Undertaker returned to challenge Triple H to what will be their third Wrestlemania match, and Jericho began having it out with CM Punk. With all that plus Rock/Cena, this is already shaping up to be a good Wrestlemania.

We watched the Super Bowl this past Sunday. While the game itself was a pretty good one (props to Michigan's own Mario Manningham for his brilliant catch that helped the Giants win), there were some good commercials as well. The quality in general seemed down this year, but there were still a few that I thought were great. Here are probably my three favorites. Oddly, they're all for car companies.

Hyundai's "All for One:"

Volkswagen's "The Dog Strikes Back:"

Chrysler's "Halftime in America:"

Ten Ways Theatre Prepared Me for Ministry

I was heavily involved in theatre in high school and college. Jan's post about being a cheerleader inspired me to write this. Here are ten things I learned in theatre that prepared me to be a pastor.

1. Get to know your role and play it well.

2. No matter what size the part, you're all in this together.

3. Bad reviews and performances happen.

4. You're not above correction or further training.

5. Even though sometimes you think or wish otherwise, you're not the Director.

6. Practice, practice, practice.

7. Don't overdo it.

8. Don't half-ass it.

9. Know when and how to enter and exit a scene.

10. Sometimes, you just have to improvise.

God's Feminine Side

During my third and final year of seminary, I was student pastor of a large UCC church just down the street from the school. Out of my entire seminary career, it was the only contextual education experience where, stereotypically, the seminarian was given everything that nobody else on staff wanted to do: I coordinated the senior high ministry, I organized the Thanksgiving Day service (producing this wonderful memory), and I preached on two Sundays that nobody else wanted, namely Scout Sunday and Mother's Day.

I didn't really get the big deal about Scout Sunday, but I did understand the bother with Mother's Day. There is a certain contingent that perhaps expects or prefers the gushing, wine-and-roses sort of sermon about wonderful mothers and motherhood on that particular day, but to go full bore with this tact easily leaves out those with bad relationships with their mothers, those who are unable to be mothers, those grieving their mothers, mothers grieving children, and so on. So let's give it to the seminarian and let him deal with it.

I ended up giving a sermon about God as parent, trying to stay pretty neutral about the whole thing. I celebrated how God acts as parent for us, watching over us and encouraging us. I did my best to avoid pronouns and favoring God as Father or Mother in particular and probably at least implied that God is beyond male and female designations even as they are helpful to understanding who God is and what God is like. I was pretty pleased with how it turned out, to be honest.

As I received people in the greeting line afterward, an elderly lady came up and shook my hand, but her handshake was such that she wanted me to lean down so that she could say something. I obliged, and was subjected to a 30-second half-whispered rant right in my ear about how God is male and should be addressed as Father, after which she promptly stormed out of the narthex.

Obviously, I'd struck a nerve that morning. There has long been a debate in my denomination, the United Church of Christ, about which gender-specific pronouns to use for God, if any. Our most recent hymnal caused one such stir, and a recent change to our Constitution and By-Laws caused another. And if you talk to the right people in my congregation, you can still hear all about a former pastor addressing God as Mother Hen during a prayer, and this happened two decades ago. These serve as examples of just how heated the debate over God's gender can get, and how important it is to people that God be addressed in certain ways.

What's really at stake in this debate? It really depends on who you talk to. For some, it's a matter of staying true to a Biblical image of God and, more generally, staying true to a correct interpretation of the Bible. Those who insist upon God's maleness will point to Jesus addressing God as Father, among other instances, to show that this is a position scripturally tested and approved, so why are you arguing otherwise? This may inevitably lead to a more general argument about correct scriptural interpretation: if you don't address God in male terms, as the Bible clearly does, then what else don't you believe about the Bible?

In truth, God is sometimes depicted as having more feminine characteristics in the Bible. I offer a brief quote from the post I link above:
But in addition to masculine imagery there are many feminine images as well, such as mother (Isaiah 42:14, Numbers 11:12, Isaiah 46:3-4), seamstress (Nehemiah 9:21), and hen (Matthew 23:37), among many others.
Yes, there really was Biblical precedent for that former pastor to address God as Mother Hen. Whether I personally would have chosen to do that in this context is another matter. Regardless, there come instances in scripture where God is more the tender nurturer, the concerned gatherer of offspring, or the one crying out in labor while birthing a people. The first two, it is worth mentioning, can be done by fathers, but certainly not the third.

Besides that Biblical imagery, aren't there times when we need God to be more the nurturer, comforter, gatherer, birther? There are churches and ministries that thrive on emphasizing God as warrior, king, MMA fighter (don't get me started), but there come times when we need God as more of a gentle encouraging presence in our lives, healing and assuring and embracing. This is why at times the prophets and others chose the imagery they did. At times Israel needed God to go to war for them, and at times they needed God to speak comforting and reassuring words. In times of grief or despair, do we really need God-as-warrior telling us to suck it up, or do we need God-as-comforter helping us to recover? The Biblical writers had no problem recognizing when each was needed, so many modern Christians would do well to explore the diverse images for God that address our diverse needs.

There really is nothing to be afraid of regarding God's feminine side. After all, God created humanity, both male and female, in God's image (Genesis 1:27). There is plenty of room to consider how men and women are both created in God's image, and how in turn God's image is embodied in each. God exhibits traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics in human experience recorded in scripture, throughout the theological writings of the church, and in modern movements, and so we would do well to celebrate them all rather than emphasize some and downplay others. The latter actually limits God, while the former more fully recognizes how we may experience God and how God is present and active in the world.

Vintage CC: The Preaching Rut

I've been thinking about this post from August 2010 lately. There are, I think, a lot of factors that cause a preaching rut, which these may or may not address. Nevertheless, I've found them helpful and felt like re-presenting them. In this post I mention being nearly finished with my second tour through the lectionary, and now I'm nearly halfway through my third. So yeah, these things (and others I haven't thought of) are worth keeping in mind.

Not too long ago, Scott wrote about a preaching quandry he's been dealing with, one facet of which is whether he uses his experiences as a father too often for sermon illustrations. While I try to be very conscious about generally avoiding illustrations about my family, I can certainly relate to the basic issue: getting stuck in a preaching rut.

In three more months, I will complete my second tour through the Revised Common Lectionary, the three-year cycle of suggested texts for each Sunday and holy day of the church year. I've seen these passages twice, some of them three times now. And that's not counting the ones that show up more than once over the course of one cycle. So I've been very concerned with the freshness of my preaching lately. It may have more to do with my own sense of inspiration--being inspired by the texts I have to choose from--than what the congregation notices. But I have to believe that if I'm not feeling inspired, they'll notice.

As such, I thought I'd put together a list of practices that have helped me over the years. This isn't exhaustive, and they're not foolproof for keeping preachers out of ruts forever. Not all of them may even work for everybody. But they help me, so I might as well share them:

1. Go off-lectionary sometimes. Obviously, right? If none of the suggested texts are speaking to you, pick something else. The question then becomes how one goes about choosing a text. There are a couple possibilities.

First, what's immediately around the suggested text? At times, the lectionary selects seemingly isolated passages, particularly in the prophets and wisdom literature. At other times, when it's suggesting passages from the same book over multiple Sundays, it inevitably skips over stuff. One example coming up in September is the lectionary's treatment of Luke 14. The lectionary includes Jesus' instructions about sitting in less honorable places at dinner parties, but then skips the parable of the man who ended up inviting the poor to his banquet. Maybe that parable speaks to you more than what the lectionary suggests around it.

Second, what have you been reading lately? Is there a book you've read recently related to scripture or theology that quotes a text you've really resonated with, or have thought of in a new way? Maybe that text should get some time on Sunday morning.

Finally, there are some well-known stories and passages that don't show up in the lectionary at all. Daniel and the lion's den. The three guys in the fiery furnace. Cain and Abel. Some may cringe at these examples and say, "Well, no wonder," but these were Sunday School staples, at least when I was growing up. So people may know of them from that, or from other references in the wider culture. Maybe they need a fresh reading and hearing. Caveat: some passages are more appropriate to be treated during Bible study than during worship.

2. Listen to other preachers. This is one that I don't do often enough myself, but I always find that it reaps rewards. Obviously, pastors with regular Sunday preaching duties can't run off to hear other preachers at that time of day. But there's this wonderful thing called the internet that includes something called podcasting. My go-to guy in this instance is Rob Bell, whose conversational tone and accessible references always get me inspired to prepare for the next Sunday.

Note that I said "listen," and not "read." Barbara Brown Taylor's books are great and all, but if nothing else they'll help you become a better writer, not preacher. Or, as Lauren Winner observed at the Festival of Homiletics, they'll make you feel horribly inadequate as a writer. Whichever. The point is: listen, not read.

3. Change up your delivery. Maybe both you and your congregation already know what'll be heard during the sermon: an opening illustration or joke, segue into an introduction of the text, wrap back around to explain how the opening ties into the text, application, amen. Stick with this same formula for too long, and both parties may get tired of it. If one always knows what to expect, it may be easier to tune out. Any basic preaching class probably presented at least a half dozen structural styles...maybe this next week is the week you break out one of the others instead. Or what might it be like to preach from a Biblical character's point of view?

This isn't just a structural thing; it's also a delivery thing. If you're a manuscript preacher, try speaking from an outline. If you're an outline preacher, try going with no notes at all. Since the beginning of the year, I've been back to preaching without notes after I noticed that even preaching from an outline was getting too stilted. This sort of change-up gets preachers into a more experimental mindset and keeps both parties guessing.

4. Get yourself some culture. One of the best pieces of advice that I received in seminary from one of my professors was to take in plenty of non-theological activities: movies, books, music, etc. In part, this is to help pastors divert attention from ministry. It also helps pastors remain aware of the larger culture in which s/he and his/her church is set, and this inevitably gives us something to talk about besides abstract theological concepts.

Truth be told, most of my illustrations are derived from culture at large. I used to rely on books of sermon illustrations, but after a while they seemed either canned or outright unhelpful. A family story makes it in rarely, as may some experience I've had (and never with me as the hero). I find that cultural references are the stuff that people can immediately tap into, whether I'm using them to help illustrate my point or whether I'm pushing back against them. But there's also a certain form and tact involved to keep these references from seeming desperate to be cool or outright cheesetastic like, say, this.

Like I said, this isn't exhaustive. And it may be only moderately helpful. But as one who knows what a preaching rut feels like, I thought I'd pass along what I've found helpful.