Exodus 3: “Out of the Desert, Into the Fire”

Desmond Tutu once said, “I’m not optimistic, no.  I’m quite different.  I’m hopeful.  I’m a prisoner of hope.”  These words rattled in my head as I heard the devastating news this week.  My heart ached as I asked my black brothers and sisters, “What shall we say?”  My heart ached for my friends who know all too well the deadly sting of racism and the violence that comes with it.  My heart ached for people I respect and love who wear a badge and serve their community as officers.  I cried over a world and a nation that nurtures hate and exercises violence against their neighbors.  I tell ya: “I’m not optimistic, no.  I’m quite different.  I’m hopeful.  I’m a prisoner of hope.”  And, that is the reason I preach today.


The sun beat down on the top of his aging head.  The spindly shrub did little to provide shade.  The sun was always unrelenting in the desert.  Moses sat at the base of the mountain; some called it Horeb, some called it Sinai, still others called it the mountain of God.  He sat watching his father-in-law’s sheep graze, much as he had for the past forty years.

His desert life, a hard life, was far removed from the luxury he had known before coming to the desert… escaping to the wilderness.  The sandy hills were barren compared to the lush, fertile soil of the Nile.  The life of the shepherd hardly compared to life as a prince.

Moses had grown up in Pharaoh’s house, although it was pretty obvious early on that he wasn’t Egyptian.  He was a Hebrew – a people enslaved to Pharaoh.  Yet, somehow, Pharaoh’s daughter had taken him in and raised him as her own.  He enjoyed the finest in dining, education, clothing, housing, and sport.  He had power and authority.  His face was recognized anywhere he went.  Heads would bow and nod to show him honor.  But, here in the desert, sheep were the only subjects over which he ruled… and they didn’t seem too impressed by his previous status as a prince.

Moses recalled walking the streets of Egypt, admiring the splendor and wealth of the nation.  Egypt was growing, expanding, swelling ever more powerful.  Life seemed great.  There was so much to enjoy, so much to see, so much to do.

But, over time, Moses began to look more closely, to observe beneath the surface of Egypt’s beauty and power.  He looked past their military strength, their economic prowess, their political power, their social and economic domination.  Moses saw massive construction projects being built by those who lived in the tent cities in the poorest parts of town outside the walls.  He saw the thin, emaciated brown bodies that serving food to rich, fat rulers.  Egypt’s entire society was built on the backs of sun-kissed bodies.  For four hundred years Egypt crushed those bodies and ground them into dust, while Pharaoh and the rest of the Egyptian power-holders profited and prospered – all at the expense of those expendable, sun-kissed bodies.

For four hundred years, Egypt used, abused, and discarded brown bodies in service to economic, political, and Egyptian societal gain.  Four hundred years of injustice visited upon the Hebrews.  Four hundred years of oppression.  Four hundred years of groaning under the whip of Pharaoh.  Four hundred years of resentment building up pressure that might explode.  Four hundred years of Pharaoh building a system that capitalized on the oppression of others.

We might imagine that this is all in the past, by-gone history, water under the bridge.  But, it’s sad to say, Pharaoh is ever so much alive and kicking.  Violence against brown and black bodies has been happening for more than four hundred years in these lands we call home.

We have benefitted from the labor of brown and black bodies.  We have been made more comfortable by brown and black bodies.  We have raised ourselves up on the backs of brown and black bodies.  And, we continue to utilize oppression the world around to maintain our power and privilege over those same bodies.  For well over four hundred years we have enjoyed the well-being of Pharaoh and Egypt, while others languished under our whips.  For over four hundred years anger has festered and violence has been the only way we know to diffuse the growing tensions… But, there is no lasting peace won by the sword.

Moses shook his head, remembering his failure, his inability to change anything.  It was a problem too big to tackle.  It was overwhelming.  He couldn’t overcome the odds.  All of his power had been exhausted in trying to change the system… and he failed.  He had resigned himself to accept that things are the way they are and that nothing would ever change.  Egypt was too powerful.  The desert was a place to hide from the world’s problems, like an ostrich with its head in the sand.

He recalled his anger at the whip masters.  His fist balled up and his jaw clenched as he saw the brutality visited upon the slashed backs hunched over in agony.  His body shook as the rage threatened to swallow him up.  That’s why he was in the desert – he had allowed his rage to consume him.

He was walking through the streets of Egypt one day when he saw an Egyptian dressed in blue, wearing a badge of authority, using a club to beat and batter one of the Hebrews.  Moses didn’t even think, he jumped on top of the Egyptian officer and beat him until the man lay motionless on the ground in a heap.  The man’s head was bleeding and Moses realized the man was dead.  Without ceremony, Moses buried the man in an unmarked grave and swore the Hebrew man to secrecy.

But, Moses’ secret leaked out.  He learned that his sins were live-tweeted online and broadcast on the local news.  Social media blew up and Moses knew his time was short before Pharaoh would kill him.  So, he ran.  He ran away into the desert.  And forty years passed, but the pain and disappointment never faded, they only grew deeper.  Moses had tried to change things but the system was too big.  Moses thought violence was the answer, but that caused him to lose his influence and sent him into exile.  What is to be done when the broken system is so powerful and seemingly impervious to our protests and our call for change?

Do you recall why Israel became slaves?  Pharaoh was trying to deal with Egypt’s illegal immigrant problem.  Israel, in Pharaoh’s eyes, was a huge liability.  They were becoming numerous – quite a voting bloc to contend with if another nation decided to attack Egypt.  The final solution?  Put a burden so heavy on their shoulders that it would break their back.  Kill their children.  Kill their future.

Much like Pharaoh, we don’t mind turning our eyes away while others are used and abused.  We don’t mind being blissfully ignorant of our nation’s oppressive practices, especially if we benefit from the arrangement.  We love living in a nation of political prominence, economic excellence, technological transcendence, societal “superiority.”  We rarely think about the devastating impact we are having on other nations to maintain our escalating hunger for more wealth and comfort.  We sing about those things as if it is God’s very blessing upon us… when in reality, we have grabbed those things like Pharaoh by building our power and privilege on a mound of black and brown bodies.  And, standing in the pile of those bones, we rejoice with pride at the work we claim our hands have made.  But, in turn, we ignore the hands held open asking to receive a small pittance from the table of our comfort – primarily because those hands look so different from our hands, because they might take away some of what we claim as our God-given birthright.

Moses, like the sniper that killed five Dallas police officers, took matters into his own hands.  He was filled with rage at the injustice of the system and killed an Egyptian officer.  The denial of justice in society created a ticking time bomb that erupted in violence and death.  Unlike Moses, Micah Johnson learned too late that violence only births violence, it does not create justice.  Micah decided to live by the gun and he died by the bomb.  Violence did not solve the problem, but only escalated the violence.  Violence in Dallas tore apart six families, destroyed six lives, and still nothing has changed.  We are just as divided and just as violent.  Even if we don’t use weapons for violence, often times our words are weaponized for violent means.  We use our words just as effectively as guns to kill and wound.  Violence will continue to spill out into our communities until we deal with our society’s injustice toward black and brown bodies.  Violence will continue to spill over into our communities until we forsake our thirst for violence and violent retribution.

Something caught the corner of Moses’ eye.  A shrub nearby seemed to have caught fire.  God, it was hot out here.  He sat watching the shrub burn… and burn… and burn.  Yet, as Moses watched the shrub he noticed that nothing really changed.  The shrub remained the same size and shape.  No ash gathered at the base.  In fact, the shrub looked amazingly unharmed.  He stood and walked toward the strange bonfire: “I’ve got to check this out, why isn’t this bush torched?”

God was watching, waiting.  When Moses started moving toward the bush, God called to him, “Hey, Moses!”

Moses replied, “Hey, it’s me!”

God said, “Stop dead in your tracks! Take off your shoes, this ain’t no regular dirt.  This ground is different because it’s set apart, holy.  Allow me to introduce Myself: My name is I’M GONNA BE WHO I’M GONNA BE.  I AM the God of your family, the God of your people all the way back to Abraham.”

Moses dropped to the ground and buried his face in the sand.  He was deathly afraid to catch a glimpse of God.

God continued: “I’ve been taking notes on my people in Egypt, their cries are like a megaphone blaring out their suffering under their slave-masters.  I have experienced their pain and suffering.  Now, I’m jumping into the fray to pull them out of this pit and to bring them to a better living space.  You better believe Israel’s tears and wailing have caught my ear and my eyes have spied Egypt’s violent and hateful treatment of them.  And, guess what!?  You, Moses, are going to be the person that rescues Israel for Me from Egypt.

Moses was probably ecstatic to hear that after four hundred years, God was going to deliver Israel.  I can imagine tears of joy streaming down his face.  Then, like a deer in the headlights: “’Scuse me, You’re sending who?  I hate to throw a wrench in Your machine, God, but I’m nobody.  I’m not powerful anymore.  I’ve got no juice.  I don’t have the same swag I used to.  I don’t have that kind of influence.  I’m a criminal on the run, marked to be shot on sight.  Maybe You need to find somebody else for Your dirty work.”

God told Moses, “Stop sweating! I’m going with you. That’s how you’ll know I sent you.  And when you’re done freeing Israel, bring them back to this mountain to celebrate with Me.”

Moses wasn’t done giving excuses yet.  “Well, God, what do You expect me to tell everyone when they ask who sent me?  When they ask me the Name of the One I’m representing, what should I tell them?”

If God had eyebrows, they would’ve been raised: “Look, ‘I’m Gonna Be Who I’m Gonna Be.’  Tell ‘em ‘I’m Gonna Be Who I’m Gonna Be’ sent ya.  Tell Israel, ‘Gonna Be,’ the God of your family and people since Abraham sent ya to them!”

God didn’t stop there: “Go, get the people together, grab all of the leaders and tell them: ‘Gonna Be,’ the God of this family since the time of Abraham showed up and told me: ‘I reviewed the video footage of what’s happening to you in Egypt.  I’m busting you outta there and taking y’all to a place with plenty of good things for everyone.  They’ll feel what you’re saying, Moses.  Then, take Israel’s leaders with you and go on up to talk with President of Egypt, Pharaoh.  Tell Pharaoh, ‘God showed up.  Let us go out to the wilderness to celebrate with God.’”

(Pause)  God takes note of the marginalized and oppressed.  Their suffering is engraved in the palm of God’s hand.  Their cry pierces God’s heart like a spear jabbed in the ribs.  Their spilled blood runs down like red rivers down God’s thorn-pricked brow.  God knows the suffering of the destitute and dispossessed; the down-and-out and the downtrodden; the denigrated and the denied.  God knows their suffering as God’s own suffering.

And God wanted Moses to know it, too.  Sure, it was a bush on fire – nothing particularly special about that.  But, that fiery bush erupted in images of bodies lying cold on the pavement.  And God stood right in the middle of that fire so that the bush wasn’t consumed.  When God is present in the midst of the fire, even when the heat is most intense, God can preserve a dried up branch from being consumed.

God catches Moses’ attention with the fiery bush.  God draws Moses’ vision to the fires that seek to destroy God’s Creation, God’s people.  Moses begins to observe and pay attention to the flames of oppression, the flames that destroy community.  And, in seeing the fiery climate that threatens a vulnerable community, Moses’ heart is ignited by God’s Spirit to move.  Moses’ move toward the flaming bush is a step toward God.  But, God isn’t interested in just one step: “Take off your shoes, Moses, because I’m going to need both of your feet for this job.”

The news over this past year may be our burning bush.  Ferguson.  Baltimore.  Orlando.  Baton Rouge.  Charleston.  St. Paul.  Dallas.  God may be trying to get us to recognize our addiction to violence.  God may be opening our eyes to the deep-seated racism still entrenched within us and within our society.  God may be calling our attention to the fire-storm of hatred that leads to violence against others and the ambivalence which permits it to continue unchecked.

In recognizing, instead of ignoring, the fires that threaten to consume us all, we take one step toward God, but God says, “Now, I need both feet.  I’m sending you to represent me and to set my people free.  Free from violence.  Free from hatred.  Free from the denial of our responsibility for these problems.  Free from ignoring our responsibility to change our way of life.  Now, I need both feet, not just one foot… You’re standing on holy ground.  Quit hanging your head in the desert, avoiding the problems of Egypt.  Get in the game – the flames won’t consume you, I’m going with you!”

God warns Moses, despite God’s presence on this journey, it’s going to be hard work.  God says, “Don’t be shocked.  I know Pharaoh isn’t going to budge and let you leave.  He won’t change his mind unless he sees something greater than himself.  And, I’m about to reach out and slap Egypt upside the head with wonders, then Pharaoh will let you go.  And you won’t leave empty handed either.  I’m going to help you leave this place with Egypt’s wealth on your wrist, and new threads on your body and kicks on your feet, both you and your kids are going to be dressed to the nines, while Egypt will be stripped buck naked.”

God warns Moses, God warns us, confronting Egypt is difficult, dangerous work.  Don’t be shocked at the resistance to changing the way our society operates.  Confronting our broken system is hard, dangerous work because not everyone wants it to change.  Some are happy to keep the present arrangement – like Pharaoh – and will even use violence to protect it.  Protesting the wicked corruption of a society that gives advantage to some through the disadvantage of others, may result in crucifixion.

But know that God has already declared victory over the powers of injustice, violence, and death.  God has announced victory over systems of oppression that maintain those systems of injustice.  God says that those society’s will one day be stripped naked, laid bare.  Their glory will be their shame.  Their pride will be their ruin.  Their violent power will be turned back on itself.  Pharaoh wouldn’t relent from his ways until he saw something greater than himself; his arrogance kept him from seeing anything greater than himself.  It led to his ruin.  Let’s not be so prideful as to think that there is nothing greater than ourselves – lest we be stripped naked and our shame laid bare for all to see.

Where do we find God in the midst of such tragedies as we have witnessed this week?  If we wonder where God is at work, we will find God right in the heart of the fires that threaten to consume.  Where lives are being torn apart, God is working to mend them.  Where people are being torn down, God is working to build up.  Where people are being destroyed, God is working to bring new life.  It may be dangerous work, but there’s riches untold in joining our hands with God’s hands, which then joins our hands with the hands of those who are oppressed and marginalized in our world.

God is taking note of the violence and the oppression in our own neighborhoods and communities.  God knows that suffering as God’s own suffering.  God has jumped into the fray.  God wants us to know that suffering as well and to jump with both feet into the fires of injustice to free God’s people.  And we will know it was God that sent us because God will go with us, preserving us through the flames unto everlasting life.  “I’m not optimistic, no.  I’m quite different.  I’m hopeful.  I’m a prisoner of hope.”


Preaching the Scales

As a child, your imagination is a curious and wonderful thing.  You can be a firefighter, a basketball player, a Rock star, a doctor, or anything else that comes to mind.  Each of those images shows success at your chosen career.  Saving a life.  Hitting the winning shot at the buzzer.  Carrying someone over your shoulder safely out of the burning building.  But, what one rarely imagines is the hard work, the patience, the years of training and learning, and the repetitive memorization of the fundamentals that allow for success in that field.

Certainly, when I have imagined myself as a preacher, it did not see hours behind a desk studying commentaries, writing page after page of notes and manuscript, polishing and editing, practice preaching and memorizing.  I saw the tip of the iceberg of “performing” the sermon but could not see the mass of work lying beneath the ocean’s surface.  I was often astounded by the preacher’s that seemed to conjure masterful sermons from out of thin air – like a magician.  There were plenty of times where the sermon, in those particular cases, were something like smoke and mirrors – dazzling but far from real.  But, in those cases where the sermon was powerful and moving, it was not always readily apparent how much disciplined work and effort went into that sermon.  It seemed effortless.

Imagine my surprise, especially when I first began preaching, to find just how unbelievably difficult it was to create sermons.  It was a struggle – like a child learning to dribble a basketball for the first time.  I hadn’t learned the fundamentals and I was a long way from mastering them.  In fact, as is often the case when learning a new skill, my desire to create something beautiful failed to match my actual sermons.  My desire still continues to outstrip my capacity to preach.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless I become satisfied and stop trying to improve and grow.

So, how does one become a proficient preacher?  Dr. Frank Thomas shared with us some of his wisdom about becoming a better preacher.  He said that preaching is like playing an instrument.  If you want to become a good musician, you have to learn the musical scales.  You have to learn the scales, the basics, the structure (like chords), so that they become ingrained in you.  The best preachers, like the best Jazz musicians, have mastered the fundamentals.

Dr. Thomas suggests that most of the time sermons are bad because of their structure.  Sermons, he goes on, can be fixed or made better by fixing the structure – in other words, in being intentional about the fundamentals of communication.  There are a number of structures that can be utilized for sermons.  Dr. Thomas suggests picking one (four pages, Lowry’s loop, homiletical moves, etc.) and mastering that technique.  That doesn’t mean that you can’t use other structures.  But, it does mean that you gain a certain kind of freedom by  mastering that structure.  And, here, is the definition of a master: “One who has made all of the mistakes and has learned how to make adjustments.”

Being a master preacher does not mean that you do not make mistakes, but that you are learning from your mistakes.  When you recognize that something wasn’t working in a sermon, it’s best to go back and check out the structure.  Start with the fundamentals.  Was there a better way to organize the sermon?  Was it all connected?  Was there a cohesive flow?  In other words, find a structure that fits you and become proficient at the fundamentals of that particular structure.  Don’t be afraid of mistakes, but learn from them.  And, if the sermon just seems to be falling flat, go back and look at the overall structure.  Don’t stop imagining the beauty of a finished sermon, but don’t think it’s possible (at least consistently) to preach at a high level without doing the disciplined, diligent work of mastering the fundamentals.

Preaching for a Change

I am currently working on a Doctor of Ministry degree in Preaching through the Association of Chicago Theological Schools.  I am deeply passionate about preaching as a medium for communicating the Gospel.  Preaching isn’t the only means for communicating, but it has been an important part of the Church’s life.  As such, it is good practice to reflect on what we are doing as we preach.  I do not pretend to be an expert, but write this as an opportunity for me to further reflect on what I am learning and offer it to others for their own reflection.

I have been preaching now on a somewhat consistent basis for nearly a decade.  The bags under my eyes are probably in part from several “Saturday night specials” and the stress of trying to say an appropriate word to the community of faith in the preaching moment.  It has become less stressful in some ways over time.  The consistency of my preaching has improved.  But, there were still moments when I preached a sermon that proved deeply meaningful one Sunday only to be followed up the next week with something resembling a soggy firecracker.  Even after I became acquainted with various methods for preaching a sermon, it wasn’t always helpful.

It has helped me to learn about two different frameworks in a sermon.  The first framework is the structure of the sermon, which can take a variety of forms: Preaching as Celebration, Deductive, Inductive, Lowry’s Loop, Buttrick’s Homiletical Moves, etc.).  These were different ways of structure the content of a sermon.  There are many wonderful and helpful tips you can learn from a variety of these methods.  But, for me, there was still something missing.  This is where the second level of structuring illuminated my confusion and consistency in preaching.  The emotive and cognitive flow, which sounds self-evident, was something that I did not always shape well and which left sermons flatter than a Dr. Pepper that’s been sitting open for two days.  Not only did I need to structure my content; I needed to structure it to honor the emotive-cognitive arch was connects with the “intuitive” core of a person and community.  This is the double meaning of the title for this post.  Despite being inconsistent in the past, let’s become more consistent now.  And, let’s preach in a way that opens people toward a response for transformation.  Let’s preach “for a change.”

The Enlightenment was a period that was primarily focused on the cerebral comprehension of a text (i.e., scripture or any other work).  The Historical Critical method for understanding a text was the primary means utilized for getting at what a text meant.  In other words, the text held one meaning and it was the author’s original meaning, which could only be mined and understood if we were able to uncover all of the historical, factual contexts of that particular scripture.  In no way do I want to demean many of the wonderful discoveries about the historical world of scripture that emerged from that quest.

But, as Fred Craddock and many others pointed out, this created a homiletical (preaching) method that focused on an audience’s head but often left their heart disengaged.  As such, the audience could mentally assent or “believe” in a “fact” about scripture, but their lives were sometimes unaffected by these “beliefs.”  There was a disconnect created in the person through this focus on preaching as teaching for mental comprehension and assent.

So, how do we join head and heart?  Dr. Frank Thomas offers a helpful way of approaching both head and heart, cognitive and emotive, in the sermon.  His framework, which I will call the emotive/cognitive arch of a sermon, helps keep these two pieces together throughout the sermon.  Thomas points out that the emotive and the cognitive parts of ourselves cannot truly be separated.  When the emotive is in the “driver’s seat,” the cognitive is in the “back seat” asking if this experiential part of the sermon is connected to the rest of the sermon.  Vice versa, when the cognitive is leading, the emotive is asking how this connects to our lives.  It is helpful to keep in mind that both are at work; it’s just a matter of which is in focus at any given moment.

The emotive-cognitive arch has a helpful pattern for helping hearers engage in the sermon and move to a point of celebration.  The emotive-cognitive arch has an alternating pattern which has three positions: emotive over cognitive, cognitive over emotive, emotive over cognitive.  This is the three-fold pattern of the emotive-cognitive arch, which can be utilized within a number of homiletical methods (Lowry’s Loop, Craddock’s Inductive method, 3 Points and a Poem, Four Pages, etc.).  Let’s think about why this pattern is important for experiential preaching.

First, we begin with the emotive in the driver’s seat.  There are a number of ways this can be done to create emotive connection (i.e., a story, a familiar song, poetry, a joke, a physical demonstration, etc.).  The emotive connects with personal, communal experience, which creates identification and interest in the sermon itself.  If this happens, then the hearers are more open to following the preacher through the rest of the sermon.  Although the emotive is driving, the cognitive is acting like a GPS for the sermon.  Does this story connect with the rest of the sermon?  Is this going somewhere?  Does this story have a bunch of fluff?  Is this an appropriate analogy or metaphor?  Is this theologically coherent?  The cognitive shapes the emotive element, but the emotive identification at the beginning is important for the hearers.

Second, the sermon shifts to the cognitive, with the emotive helping in the background.  Here, the cognitive element is the opportunity to do some of the teaching, educating, exegetical pieces that are often necessary to comprehend the text.  This is where things like tradition, theology, philosophy might come to bear on a particular text.  But, in case we might get to “heady,” the emotive is walking alongside us asking us to make these concepts connect with our lives.  Images are the emotive vehicles of language.  As such, we can couch the theological, exegetical, historical, philosophical elements of the sermon in images that continue to allow the congregation to connect with the cognitive content.  However, images can help us keep from over-explaining.  If we have to over-explain something, it might suggest that we aren’t familiar enough with a particular topic.

Finally, the sermon switches back to the emotive as the front-runner.  This is the move toward celebration as we have resolved the complication (topic for another day) in the text/sermon.  Again, just because we are using the emotive, that does not neglect the cognitive piece.  The cognitive is still asking if the emotive elements are connected to what came before.  Is it connected with the text?  Is it connected with the situation, complication, and resolution in the sermon?  Does the celebration make too large of a leap for people to follow?  The emotive at this final part of the sermon allows us to move the cognitive part of the sermon toward the heart, engaging the whole person.

Dr. Thomas concludes that utilizing both the cognitive and the emotive in a sermon allows the congregation’s intuition, the place of core beliefs and behavior, to be changed.  The congregation has the opportunity to respond positively or negatively to a sermon (in other words, this isn’t emotional manipulation).  But, by combining both the emotive and the cognitive, it calls for some kind of response.  And, it also provides the opportunity for change.

One final note.  This post doesn’t mention the work of the Spirit in the sermon.  And, if we aren’t careful, we might conclude that the sermon doesn’t need the work of the Spirit.  That is far from true.  The Spirit should be a companion in the process of preparation, preaching, and participation.  But, for this particular post, I wanted us to diligently think through methods of how we structure sermons so that we might lessen the barriers that we mistakenly create when constructing and delivering a sermon.  And, I believe that preaching which engages the experiential center of people’s lives, both the cognitive and emotive elements, has a greater possibility of becoming deeply rooted in the lives of our congregations.


Reflection on Preaching: Through the Lens of Decoded by Jay-Z

I was a freshman in high school when I first heard Jay-Z’s music.  My earliest impression of his music came in the form of the song “It’s a Hard Knock Life.”  It is a playful tune that conjures the image of Orphan Annie describing the difficult life without parents, living as an orphan, and trying to survive without any supportive social network.  Alone and forgotten.  Jay-Z tapped into a cultural image of another culture and then applied that image to the struggle of African Americans living in violent and depressed areas of America.  Somehow, although I had never experienced living in such a situation, I identified with the pain and struggle of living on the margins, trying to survive, trying to escape the cycles of poverty and violence.  That was the power of Jay-Z’s imagery and imagination that crossed over socio-economic and racial divides.  I was drawn into his world and identified, in some small way, with his struggle.

Preaching can have the same impact through the use of imagery and story.  Emotive identification immerses a hearer into the story-world of the narrator/preacher.  Dr. Thomas often says that “if you go deep enough, experiences become universal.”  Jay-Z embodies that capacity to push his experiences to universal levels.  There is something basic about human experience that is accessible even when it is describing something that we have not personally experienced.  Yet, through analogy and comparison, we can find (through imagination) contact points where we can experience the isolation, pain, fear, joy, comfort, and other feelings and attitudes woven through the variety of human experiences.  Good preaching brings people into contact with those experiences in such a way that they can personally experience those situations as happening in the present to them here and now.  Experiential language, which Jay-Z masterfully weaves throughout his songs, grips us in those experiences.

Good preaching, like good art (including Hip-Hop/ Rap), must truthfully engage life and all of its experience.  Truth is not reductive but paints an honest picture, both positive and negative.  Jay-Z writes, “To tell the story of the kid with the gun without telling the story of why he has it is to tell a kind of life.  To tell the story of the pain without telling the story of the rewards – the money, the girls, the excitement – is a different kind of evasion” (p. 17).  In other words, art must paint a full picture of life’s joys and woes.  And, it must deal with the systematic and systemic framework that shapes life and lives to operate and interact in particular ways.  The analysis of life must go beyond scratching the surface of actions to digging into the cultural and social realities that undergird our actions and way of life.  We might call this the cognitive element of preaching, which allows for a kind of “objective” reflection on life in our world.  Dr. Thomas points out that emotive and cognitive elements of preaching are like dancing partners, both work together in the preaching event to engage and evoke response.

Jay-Z also talks about the way that Rap music has the potential to keep people digging into the lyrics long after the first time they hear a song.  He states, “But great rap retains mystery” (p. 54).  In other words, it doesn’t explain everything.  It employs double meanings, entendre, metaphor, and analogy to evoke, surprise, hint, tease, and bewilder.  I think preaching has a similar potential if done well.  The preaching moment isn’t meant to explain everything, but to evoke interest and connection – mystery.  It continues to challenge us long after the finals words are uttered.  It reminds me of a sermon I heard preached several years ago.  The preacher intentionally did not resolve the sermon.  He left us hanging and unsettled about the content of the sermon, leading us to be part of the resolution – even though a solution was never prescribed for us.  Mystery can have that lingering effect.

The backstory was also a powerful aspect to Decoded.  The backstory unveiled the way that the words and lyrics became possible.  It helped us not only identify with the lyrics but with the lyricist.  For instance, Jay-Z comments, “The churches really were the flakiest, whether they were storefronts or big old-school churches with vaulted ceilings and steeples.  They were kept alive with the donations of poor folks and hadn’t seen a paint job in a minute.  But more than that, they were full of fake prophets and money-snatching preachers” (p. 213).  Here, Jay-Z’s backstory to the lyrics gives us a deeper understanding that he isn’t merely saying churches have no place, but critiquing churches and pastors that prey on the poor and vulnerable and which further create systems of violence and oppression.  Rather than being part of the solution, churches are sometimes perpetrators of further systemic marginalization, which leads to practical atheism when the result is seeming silence from God.

As preachers, we must not only be aware of our own backstory (which shapes our language), we must also be aware of the backstory of our people.  What is and has shaped their words.  This is the digging deeper aspect of preaching.  It begins with listening, which is the beginning of preaching.  Preaching without listening becomes another form of violence, which runs roughshod over those that we intend to serve.

One of the things that I appreciated about this book is the rhythm of the words.  There is a sing-song beat that accompanies Hip-Hop and Rap.  Even the percussion of the words becomes another means by which to evoke emotions and experience.  The African-American tradition is particularly well-versed in this methodology.  It is something that I admire and love to incorporate in my own preaching (although, perhaps, not as well).  Preaching is rhythmic and harmonic.  There is a pace and pulse to the sermon, which the congregation joins.  “Riding a beat” is a rapper’s way of allowing words and music to create something new, an event, an experience in the present moment.  Preaching is a similar task.  Although we may have heard similar sermons before (maybe even many of the same words), we gather together to experience a new way of arranging the words and to dance together to that new arrangement.  Jay-Z was helpful in pointing out the musicality of words and their structure through which to immerse people in an experience, but also to help them reflect on life at its deepest resonance in our collective experiences.