The Poetry of Obedience – Psalm 119:1-8

You’re blessed when you stay on course,
walking steadily on the road revealed by God.
You’re blessed when you follow [God’s] directions,
doing your best to find [God].
That’s right—you don’t go off on your own;
you walk straight along the road [God] set.
You, God, prescribed the right way to live;
now you expect us to live it.
Oh, that my steps might be steady,
keeping to the course you set;
Then I’d never have any regrets
in comparing my life with your counsel.
I thank you for speaking straight from your heart;
I learn the pattern of your righteous ways.
I’m going to do what you tell me to do;
don’t ever walk off and leave me. (Psalm 119:1-8, MSG)

 

Obedience isn’t typically associated with poetry.  We think of obedience in terms of laws, rules, and strict observance of a moral code.  We think about punishment and reward.  It tends to be a very rigid concept, sometimes based in fear of consequences.  Much of this way of thinking about obedience has deep roots in the Middle Ages in the Church.  God was viewed as the Great Judge, Jesus a defense attorney, and Satan the prosecution.  This is also the soil from which we get much of the penal substitution theory of atonement – which says, God had to punish sin and chose to inflict that punishment, death, upon Jesus.  It is a very violent view of God that incites fear in us to “toe the line.”

This framework tends to keep obedience as a response to our fear of God’s retribution.  Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” have tingled our imaginations of a God waiting in the rafters for us to break the rules and jump down to confront and destroy us – unless we somehow quickly repent and make ourselves better.  For many Christians, this may be an oversimplification of Jesus’ work and our responsibility.  And, it is!  But, this reflects the traditions that I was often surrounded by and understood Christianity to be about!  Somehow I knew God loved me, but the fear of God’s punishment hung like a dark cloud over my head.  And, it became more complicated as I witnessed many doing what was “wrong” and yet their lives seemed to continue unimpeded by God’s wrath.  It was confusing and eventually unsustainable.  I stopped seeing any need for the Church or my participation in it.  Ultimately, that has been to my loss.

I had reduced obedience to a mathematical equation.  Do good = get good.  Do bad = get bad.  It was this algebraic formula that ruled my relationship with God.  If I performed X, I would receive Y.  “Y” could be anything from God’s love or presence to God acting in a precise way in my life because of my prayers.  The irony and sad reality of this moral formula of faith is that the equation never balanced in my favor – I was always too sinful, not committed enough, undeserving, lacking knowledge, etc.  The scales of morality always suggested that there was no possibility in gaining God’s favor, becoming faithful enough, or being obedient to the necessary degree.  In other words, the mathematical equation was useless and so was the Church that had offered me that kind of faith.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story.  I found those in the Church that imagined obedience was more like poetry than prose.  Poetry is expansive, imaginative, playful, honest, and a work of love.  Prose makes everything seem settled, rigid, matter-of-fact.  But, poetry teases the imagination by plunging into the mystery without the need to control it.  That was the hardest thing to learn (and remains the hardest thing to change) – obedience is not about control.  Poetry invites wonder, awe, praise, thanksgiving, and lament.  Prose, on the other hand, often reduces life to principles, formulas, and equations.

Psalm 119 invites us into the poetry of obedience.  It is an acrostic poem, meaning that each stanza begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  It is the longest poem within the Psalms and it is all about obedience to Torah, to being instructed in God’s way of living in the world.  It is comprehensive (from “A to Z”) and yet it is not reductive.  It imagines God’s instruction to be a way of life, not simply a list of rules to follow.  It is an invitation to bask in the wonder of God’s commands that bless and sustain life – not as a formula, but as hope-filled promise.

The first stanza of the poem is filled with verbs that beg for obedience to be engaged as ongoing journey.  We seek, we learn, we walk, we observe diligently, we praise, we fix our eyes, we keep God’s decrees.  And for those that enter into this life-giving way, there is blessing.  It is the blessing that is found in walking whole-heartedly before the Lord as those who have been re-created and made new, whose shame has been clothed.  This encounter with God gives way to poetry and praise that imagines obedience as a posture and response of thanksgiving to God’s faithfulness.  Obedience is not rigid, but must be appropriate for each new situation that flows out of our prayerful walk with God.  It is the kind of obedience which leads to humility rather than self-righteous self-promotion.  It is the posture of prayer that seeks to know God more deeply today than yesterday and does fail to glorify God through the entirety of our lives – yes, even our failures.

In the love song of obedience, we find a God that is not waiting to smite us when we fail, like a boy with a magnifying glass over an anthill.  Rather, we find God has already pioneered the pathway of faithfulness, the highway of holiness through Jesus – who is the very poem of God’s life in the world.  God does not ask of us that which God is not willing to also do.  In fact, Jesus’ life of love is one deeply marked by obedience – a love song that is his life-song.  As followers of Jesus, we are called to harmonize with Jesus by allowing our lives to also become a love song, a poem.

Bill Mounce, a noted New Testament language scholar, writes, “Paul tells the Ephesians that ‘we are his workmanship (ποιημα), created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them’ (ESV).”  We are God’s poiema, workmanship, which is where we get our word “poem.”  We are God’s poem.  Like an artist, God sings a love song to the world through us, through our faithful obedience.  It is a song of beauty.  It is a song of redemption.  It is a song that turns ashes into beauty, mourning into gladness, and despair into hope.

Parents nurturing their children is God’s poetry.  Grandparents caring for their grandchildren is God’s poetry. Handling adversity with grace is God’s poetry being sung to the world steeped in anxiety and despair.  Living in generous and neighborly ways reflects God’s poetry.  Lives that reflect the beauty of God’s love, mercy, and justice are lives of poetic obedience offered back to God and to the world.  Such lives invite awe and wonder at the glory and beauty of such a God living in and through us.

“Let My Life Song Sing to You”

Empty hands held high

Such small sacrifice

If not joined with my life

I sing in vain tonight

May the words I say

And the things I do

Make my lifesong sing

Bring a smile to You

CHORUS:

Let my lifesong sing to You

Let my lifesong sing to You

I want to sign Your name to the end of this day

Knowing that my heart was true

Let my lifesong sing to You

Lord I give my life

A living sacrifice

To reach a world in need

To be Your hands and feet

So may the words I say

And the things I do

Make my lifesong sing

Bring a smile to You

CHORUS:
Let my lifesong sing to You

Let my lifesong sing to You

I want to sign Your name to the end of this day

Knowing that my heart was true

Let my lifesong sing to You

Hallelujah

Hallelujah

Let my lifesong sing to You

 

The Myth of Progress and an Invitation to Fail

There is an overwhelming and pervasive sense of anxiety in our society.  Of course, it hasn’t merely trickled into the Church; the waters have rushed through our doors.  There are many reasons for the anxiety.  A great resource for reading about some of those reasons for anxiety in our culture is Walter Brueggemann’s Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.  As I have reflected on my cultural context and the intersection with the Church in America, there is a strand woven through the very fabric of our lives which compounds our anxiety: the myth of perpetual progress.  (Incidentally, though not insignificantly, this myth leads to violent practices, like “evangelistic” movements called Crusades which utilize manipulation and coercive techniques).

There are many reasons for the propagation of this myth, especially because it appeared to be true for so many years in our borders.  The proliferation of technology and medical science and so many other useful tools painted a picture of prosperity that would continually rise to new levels.  Economic growth, particularly after WWII, seemed on a constant upward trajectory (setbacks were always believed to be temporary).  The Enlightenment’s ethos promised that everything would evolve to higher degrees of rationality, creativeness, wealth, power, and success.  And, as such, such success could be measured and monitored.  If progress seemed impeded, it wasn’t because perpetual progress was in question.  Rather, it was time to change leadership or fix this or that problem which prohibited further expansion and development.  But, fundamentally, the idea and myth of perpetual progress remains unquestioned and unchallenged.

This ideology of progress has increasingly become one of the dominant ideologies in the American church.  I constantly see it expressed in my denomination’s polity, but I know that isn’t particularly unique to our denomination either.  There is continuous pressure to grow, to expand, like ecclesiastical colonialism reaching toward an obscure Manifest Destiny we call “evangelism” – or, more honestly, cultural assimilation.  If the negative connotation of assimilation seems too strong, consider the methods of most church planting/ church growth models.  The “target audience” is typically monolithic – young, urban professionals with young families, which can support the ministry with their disposable income.  Everything within the worship service is then geared to appeal to this group’s interests and desires.  Progress and consumerism (both dependent upon numbers and percentages) are conjoined twins, particularly because “progress” has been reduced to an individual’s capacity to choose what suits their desires (this plagues most any age group in our culture).

But, the church in America and other Western countries has had to wrestle with diminishing incomes, sliding attendance, fewer volunteers, and a culture that continues to encroach on the times that were previously reserved for churches.  In other words, we are beginning to see the myth of progress, not only in the culture, within the Church be exposed as an untenable promise.  Deny it as strongly as we might, the reality, and its attendant anxiety, is palpable.

Of course, this does not mean that the myth of perpetual progress has died.  Too many are in denial for it to have died so easily.  Instead, we merely redouble our efforts at marketability, business acuity, and technological reproduction.  In other words, we seek any methodology, technology, or technique that will give us an edge to once again regain our ascendancy within the culture and our particular community.  This effort is undergirded by a particularly acidic theology of chosenness and exceptionalism (both within the culture and the Church, which tend to horribly mix into civil religion).  By the way, this same mentality leads to Israel’s Exile and Jerusalem’s destruction, yet the Church follows suit as if it is immune to such judgment.  The idea of exceptionalism and chosenness is not that we are simply set apart by God but, furthermore, that we are ordained by God and can thus never fail – perpetual progress.  It is the belief that God is always interested in our expansionistic success and has blessed the whole affair (i.e., imperialism).  We revel in resurrection, but neglect crucifixion as a distinct possibility when following Jesus – even as an institution.  Resurrection without crucifixion is merely the prosperity gospel, which lacks any family resemblance to Jesus.

The most insidious aspect to the myth of perpetual progress within the Church is the fallout experienced by pastors and local churches.  In fact, they feel this acutely and it often causes distress and tension within the pastoral-congregational relationship.  It is easy for the church or the pastor to become a taskmaster pushing for limitless progress or a return to the glory days of cultural ascendancy.  Despair characterizes our gatherings when we don’t measure up to the ideal of progress.  So, we make excuses or dismiss our “failure,” putting a positive spin on it (not unlike media spin-doctors).  To use contemporary language, we employ “alternative facts” in our reporting to paint an overall picture of health, no matter how much we may have to twist the truth of reality.  Denial concerning the myth of progress gives way to despair when we don’t “measure up” and we are left disillusioned about faithfully fulfilling our calling.  Likewise, significant theological issues, such as salvation or sanctification or discipleship, are reduced to a  paltry reality which can be numerically captured on paper.  Thus, because we sought to measure it in one moment, salvation became a singular moment, rather than an unfolding reality into which we are continuously invited to participate.  It is an anemic Christianity which has replaced discipleship with “showing up” (see Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship).

But, if we allow the myth of progress to be broken open and give ourselves permission to move past our denials which struggle (even with good intentions) to recapture an imagined glorious bygone day, we may find ourselves engaging a future of God’s new possibilities.  But, again, this is no guarantee of success, no imagined exceptionalism that insulates us from failure.  But, it is possible that the spectacular failures in which we endeavor may yet find God miraculously and surprisingly working through them, and us, in ways we yet to imagine.  In fact, we would be given permission to “fail” and to fail gloriously, to risk much and trust God for the “results.”

It is the kind of failure which is present in a dying church in a dying town, and yet proclaims hope.  To preach Good News in communities  that will never make national headlines and yet to see this as the most important work in which we might engage.  To imagine that the smallest acts of kindness and compassion unleash seismic shifts in the lives of those for whom we care.  To imagine that greatness is in serving.  To believe that death may be a new beginning.  To pray that even small mustard seeds of faith can uproot the grandest mountains in our path.  To imagine that the greatest metrics can never be measured and that the smallest, weakest, seemingly insignificant people, places and practices are quite possibly those upon which God smiles and blesses.  Maybe… just maybe… the vital work of the Church can be re-energized for the mission of God, not by playing the myth of progress game, by painting a compelling vision of God’s Kingdom unleashed in our midst, a costly discipleship, inspiring us to greater acts of love – regardless of the outcome.  I see many pastors, ministers, and laity, often in obscure corners of the world, leading unafraid from underneath. They take the slow & tedious road of faithful discipleship that lacks the star power of conferences or the glory of large crowds.  But, their work is every bit as vital and beautiful and important as the “success stories” of those fast growing, cutting edge churches.  And, perhaps, we can confess that “growth” does not translate into success, especially if it looks more like corporate takeover than actual evangelism.

To put a point on my argument, I am reminded of the story of Jonathan in 1 Samuel 14.  A massive Philistine horde stands ready to descend on Saul’s men, save for a ravine between the two encampments.  Jonathan and his armor bearer sneak off and move toward the enemy.  Jonathan suggests showing themselves to the enemy and awaiting their response, either come up or stay where they are.  If told to come up, this will be a sign that God has given Jonathan and the armor bearer the victory.  Two men outmatched and yet willing to risk greatly despite an uncertain future and outcome.  Jonathan affirms as much: “Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf.”  Jonathan does not presume success in his endeavor, the future is obscure from his sight, yet he acts in hope-filled expectation that God is at work.  Jonathan does not display certainty of “God will act,” but the trusting confidence that exclaims the not-so-presumptuous “perhaps.”  The myth of perpetual progress cannot imagine the “perhaps,” but ever only the idolatrous certitude of progress, prosperity, and power.

 

 

Turned Right-side Up

 

There is fear that is not fear

There is faith that is not faith

There is hope that is not Hope

There is peace that is not Peace

There is success that is not Success

There is failure that is not Failure

 

There is presence that is not Presence

There is absence that is not Absence

There is victory that is not Victory

There is defeat that is not Defeat

 

There is life that is not Life

There is death that is not Death

 

For our eyes see but do not see

Our ears hear but do not hear

Our minds behold and yet do not comprehend

The Kingdom has turned everything right-side up

Babel’s Allure (A Poem)

Towers rise to pierce the sky

Build taller, build more

Look, how grand the work of our hands

Build taller, build more

The Sky is the no limit; we dare not restrain

Until at last, bright shines our name

Build taller, build more

The foundation cracks; our words become babble

The tower turns to dust and rubble; we become scattered rabble

Build taller, build more – the seductive call

No matter its promise, brings ruin to all

God’s Promise on a Precipice

Pastors tend to live between the world of idealism and reality. Perhaps the majority of theologians (both academic and otherwise) live within this liminal space as well. It is this thin margin between envisioning what might be and observing the reality of the facts on the ground. Most of the time they don’t align. Inevitably, this creates a kind of dissonance within us as we strive toward the future we sense can happen and the hurdles that seem to impede the possibility of arriving at that place of hope. This might be easily dismissed if it is only the pastor or theologian’s vision of the future. However, there are times where the hope moves beyond mere idealism, rising out of a life of study, prayer, and discernment of the Kingdom-shape in which God is molding a community. The tension between the now and not-yet is sharpened when God is the One shaping the vision.

Of course, there are plenty of situations we can point to where “leaders” have claimed to know what God wants and it later came to light that God probably didn’t have much to do with the vision in the first place. There have been plenty of abuses of power in this regard. While not dismissing the possibility of abuses of leadership, I want to focus on those particular moments where the vision really is from God and the leader(s) is in alignment with what God desires. In those moments of seeing what can be and what God desires while facing the reality that we aren’t there yet can spiral into an abyss of defeat, demoralization, and despair. This is especially true when there is strong opposition to the vision from others. Sometimes that opposition comes from outside pressures on the Church, sometimes from within the Church. By leaders I don’t mean ministers exclusively. Ministers can sometimes be the biggest opposition to God’s vision. After all, we’re finite creatures with limited perspective, too. Regardless of the source, these barriers to the new future can create deeper tension within the leaders and communities vying for that future.

Sometimes those barriers to God’s new future are minimal and easily scaled. However, there are times where the opposition is fueled by fear and selfishness. What might have been an easy hurdle begins to look more like an impenetrable fortress, a Berlin wall of refusal to move or budge toward God’s future. Then, there are those that actively pursue counter action. Not only do they dig their heels in, they begin to tug in the complete opposite direction. It may be from good intentions, but it can be devastating to a community. Although it may be frustrating when people are hesitant to walk with you toward a new future, it is absolutely painful when there is intentional, perhaps malicious, energy aimed at working against you. Again, it is easy to despair of seeing God’s new future come to fruition.

The reception of God’s promised hope for a new future brings about energy and joy in those that receive it. It is exciting to imagine the possibilities. But, without fail, God’s promises always find themselves threatened, teetering on the edge of the precipice of failure. God promised Abraham that he would be a great nation and a blessing to all nations. Problem: Abraham and Sarah are old and barren. God’s promise doesn’t seem so sure when Sarah is 90 and Abraham looks like he’s about to kick the bucket. God’s covenant-promises to Abraham’s family appear doomed when Esau trades his inheritance for some “red stuff” to his manipulative brother. Jacob has to run into hiding for being a deceptive cut-throat. So much for God’s promise to bless others through this family that doesn’t even get along. Further down the line, God’s covenant-promise is again threatened when Abraham’s descendants find themselves in the land of Pharaoh making bricks as slaves. Pharaoh tries to extinguish their family tree by killing off their young boys. You can’t be a numerous people if you are enslaved and then killed. The stories continue over and over again. God’s promise is constantly under threat of extinction. Barrenness, infidelity, murder, foolishness, idolatry, destruction, death, exile, and crucifixion attempt to derail God’s promises from finding their fulfillment. Yet, in each moment where God’s promises edge close to disaster, even certain doom, God manages to bring about those same promises, despite the incredible opposition to God’s new future, both from God’s people and from the others.

When God’s promises appear to hang by one finger on the edge of a cliff with jagged rocks below, our reaction is to wonder if it’s even possible. The writing is on the wall and we can’t conceive of any way forward. We are at the end of our creative and motivational capacity. The temptation is to focus so intently on the things that threaten God’s new future that we cease to focus on the God that has promised that new future. Perhaps I’m more egotistical than most and so I think I should be able to accomplish the task at hand. When I fail my attitude sinks because I see the divide between where we should be and where we are and my inability to span the gap. It’s quite possible that those are the very moments where I have become the biggest barrier to God’s new future because I am consumed with what now appears to be the impossibilities of God’s promised future. It’s impossible, therefore, why try?  Or, the future is dependent on me, so force the issue. Both culminate in similar experience. I find myself sitting on the sidelines soaking my hurts in the cynicism of despondency. The subtle shift of hoping in God’s promise to a prideful hope in our own capabilities inevitably falls short and concludes in hopelessness.

 

Advent brings us right into the frustration and conflict.  It thrusts us right into the middle of  our hopelessness and our closed off futures.  We are confronted with our fears and failures.  Advent reminds us that God accomplishes God’s promises in God’s time – in the fullness of time.  Like a pregnancy, you can’t rush the gestational time required to give birth to new life.  As such, we are called to enter into the waiting – that necessary space where we learn to trust, hope, and act in abiding faithfulness – not because of our capabilities to enact a new future but because of God’s promises.  And, like the stories where God’s promises always appeared on the verge of disaster, we are brought into the canonical (read scriptural) imagination which says God accomplishes that which God promises from the beginning.  As Zechariah 9:12 states, “Come back to the place of safety, all you prisoners who still have hope! I promise this very day that I will repay two blessings for each of your troubles.”  When vision and reality are separated by a chasm, remember the One who has bound us in hope and return to that firm foundation.

Kids These Days: Reflections on Generational Conflict in the Church

Occasionally, I hear phrases bemoaning the state of the “younger” generation.  Somehow or another, they are given credit for the state of the world or the Church’s stumbling about.  They are usually castigated as lazy, unmotivated, faithless, entitled, and ungrateful persons.  Of course, this is true of persons in every generation, but it is easier to point the finger at others than to reflect critically on the ways we are responsible for the world and the state of the Church.  It also releases us from taking responsibility for the way we have discipled the next generation.  There have been books and blogs written ad nauseum about how to fix “the problem.”  I’m not saying we don’t have a lot of growing up to do still.  But, I want to point out that the issues we face in the Church concern all generations within the Church, both in culpability and responsibility.  After all, some problems we created, others we inherited.

Using blanket statements about this younger generation, often couched in negative language, has sometimes blinded us to the incredible things God is doing in and through them!  Becca and I sat at a table of Church congregants complaining about how “this younger generation doesn’t appreciate commitment in marriage.”  Granted, Becca and I hadn’t been married but for five years at this point – there’s still a long way to go.  But, we looked at each other as if to say, “Well, I guess we don’t count as taking our vows seriously in their eyes.”  I can name so many others that have undertaken those vows with utmost seriousness.  Is divorce still an issue?  Yes, definitely!  But, it hasn’t just infected the youngest generation.  In fact, what has often been modeled for them hasn’t looked like fidelity and covenant – even when the marriage hasn’t resulted in divorce!  This is an issue for the whole Church, not just a small segment.

I have actually been encouraged watching young Church members, ministers, and pastors.  Some of the work and witness that they are doing is incredible!  Some have written books, some are ministering in “unconventional” ways, some are teachers, some serve the most vulnerable and destitute in our communities (when they could be making bigger paychecks doing other kinds of work), some are using the arts to proclaim God’s glory.  There are a million ways that these young ministers, entrepreneurs, mothers and fathers, counselors, librarians, coffee-makers, and others are serving and proclaiming Good News in their communities.

One young minister in Oklahoma City has created a community garden as a means of living sustainable, healthy lives and simultaneously helping those in need.  Several people that I know (or know of) have created community through coffee ministries where they integrate themselves into a community and share the Gospel.  Some others run a weekly VBS in Section 8 apartments, while their church has created a center that is intentionally being used to help those families through education and other programs.  Incredible gifts that are being offered by those who want to make a tangible difference as the hands and feet of Christ.

This is not to raise up a younger generation as the saviors of the Church or to say that they have all the answers.  I really don’t believe that to be true.  Nor is it to say that an older generation is unfaithful and obsolete.  I have often found the contrary to be true.  Rather, it is to say that all are needed as part of the Body.  But, if we continue to look upon every new generation as a liability or with suspicion while failing to recognize them as a gift, then we might very well find generations absent from the church (by the way, Millenials were not the first generation to leave denominations or the Church over generational divides. Our parents modeled this trend for us.).  If we can’t love those represented in the Church, how much more difficult is it to love those we might identify as enemies?  But, we are often suspicious of difference and change because it creates tension in us and sometimes challenges our own assumptions (this is not a new problem).

If we are fearful of change and the resulting conflict, we will treat those who are different like a body treats an illness.  It attacks the foreign element to eradicate it.  There may be elements that are harmful to the Body that must be healed or expelled (i.e., sin), but when the Body attacks itself we call that “cancer.”  Sometimes we have lacked the patience discerning when it is a disease in the Body and when its simply difference represented in the Body (i.e., the foot or the hand or the eye).  Like the wounds of Jesus, the Body bears the marks of our wounding one another.  As Pastor Becca, my lovely wife, once stated: “It is sad when we who have had our wounds healed turn around and wound others.”

The wounding of one another is astonishing.  I think of a young pastor that I know who went on vacation with his family only to return to find that the board had voted to fire him out of the blue.  I recall a young female pastor that is a tremendous pastor and yet is dealing with “ministry PTSD” because the church treated her like an enemy because her ministry resembled something they didn’t expect (I think it resembled the Kingdom, which makes all sorts of people uncomfortable!).  I know a pastor that received death threats from his some of his congregants!  I can name too many stories where “difference” was met with disdain.  Rather than seeking conversation, clarification, and discernment together, faithful people were dismissed, demeaned and denigrated.

As I have reflected on these realities, there are a few areas (though this list is not exhaustive) where these tensions, dissonances, and differences have created conflict.  They revolve around questions concerning the nature of the Church, what it means to follow Jesus as a disciple, our responsibility for living as Kingdom people here and now, and our complicity with the powers that be, among other issues.  These are important and complex issues that every generation must navigate and re-articulate because every generation faces a changing world in which to contextualize the Gospel.  It is hard yet necessary work which has been going on since the beginning of the Church.

Rather than problematizing a “younger generation” and dismissing them out-of-hand, we could see the tension emerging from the changes happening around us as opportunity for discipleship and discernment together – which is a two-way street where we are all willing to learn, to grow, and to work together for the proclamation of God’s Kingdom.  I am deeply grateful for the many older pastors and parishioners who have lovingly and graciously engaged with me on the hard issues without disowning me and branding me a heretic when we disagree.  Those have been transforming relationships that continue to shape me.  And, I pray that I will be that same kind of non-anxious presence for those who come after me.  When we fail to embody this kind of posture, we move, in the words of Willie James Jennings, toward “Faith seeking understanding” to a “Faith judging intelligence.”

 

 

“Preaching Jesus as God’s Wisdom: Breaking the Denial of Death”: Preaching – III Reconciliation — Explorations in Theology

Denial is powerful. Denial is the capacity to avoid what is real and to create in its place a sub-version of reality in which to dwell. Humans are very adept at self-deception and denial. A few years ago, my step-grandpa told my mom that he would never die. He wasn’t a person that really professed […]

via “Preaching Jesus as God’s Wisdom: Breaking the Denial of Death”: Preaching – III Reconciliation — Explorations in Theology

Preaching in a Visual and Technological Age

“We are all aware that in countless courts of opinion the verdict on preaching has been rendered and the sentence passed… It is the sober opinion of many concerned Christians, some who give the sermon and some who hear it, that preaching is an anachronism.”[1] Fred Craddock penned these words in 1970, nearly 45 years ago! Yet, this statement resonates with similar sentiment concerning preaching today.

Whereas Craddock was dealing with preaching’s struggle in the shift from Modernism to Post-modernism, I believe preaching is wrestling with a slightly different aspect of that same shift. Simply put, preaching is wrestling to find its place in a technological and media-driven society.  Craddock’s dilemma has similar roots to our own preaching dilemma. He struggled to shift from deductive methods of preaching to inductive methods. Our situation is also a matter of language but resides in the culture’s sense that language no longer has any meaning or value. The problem facing preaching is like a hydra’s multiple heads connected to a common body. Perhaps in lopping off one head, others have sprouted with which we must now contend.

Where we might break from a technology’s grip on our lives, more “heads” spring up.  In the face of such seemingly overwhelming barriers to preaching, despair or surrender may appeal as logical options to choose. In such a culture, does the sermon still have a place in worship? Is preaching nothing more than an antiquated vestige of an institutional Church writhing in its own death throes?

These are legitimate questions. Craddock notes, “To explain this general reaction, perhaps one need not look for reasons profound; it may be simply that these critics have heard us preach!”[2] This may be the very thing that is most difficult to admit and the most damning. The surrounding culture stands puzzled asking us why they should listen to our preaching. What is gained or offered in such moments? I am convinced that would not remain the sentiment about preaching if it proclaimed the power of the Gospel through which the Spirit transforms lives, including the preacher’s life!

Here is where the tension manifests itself. Does fault lie with preacher or hearer? There is no simple, clear-cut answer. There are so many factors that have paved the way for where we find ourselves now. In truth, it is quite possible, if not probable, that fault lies with both preachers and hearers. We now turn to assess some of those hindrances and possible ways to navigate those choppy waters.

THE METHOD IS THE MESSAGE: METAPHOR AND EPISTEMOLOGY

Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, provides insightful commentary about entertainment and technology: “Our conversations about nature and about ourselves are conducted in whatever ‘languages’ we find it possible and convenient to employ. We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as ‘it’ is but only as our languages are. And our languages are our media  Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.”[3]

Television, computers, social media, and the internet are the modern metaphors shaping our language, and thus our culture.[4] The influence of these metaphors on the Church is easily observed by the extent of their utilization in its ministries. Few churches are not employing the methods of communication of the culture in order to reach that culture. In using these technologies we might gain something (i.e., accessibility) but we might also lose something.

For instance, technology connects us globally with intense speed. We have a constant barrage of images, stories, weather forecasts, tweets, status updates, tragedies, war, business and other news whose origin is not connected with our own context. The news continuously flashes isolated stories that lack narrative flow and connectivity. Each story is a self-contained whole, needing no further analysis.  If the news is de-contextualized, then it has no real bearing on our lives. It’s not real. It only occupies our minds for a moment and vaporizes as a new story appears to take its place.

If this is true, it is certainly concerning for a congregation’s capacity to perceive sermons as pertinent and relevant to their contexts, their lives. If a sermon is merely another de-contextualized “story” with no connection with what happens before or after it, then we quickly delete it from our memory. It has no lasting import; it is simply another news story blurb. [5] Add to this the overwhelming mass of messages available to us continuously, it is easy to see why language is flippantly dismissed as meaningless, even by those who should be language’s greatest stewards!

Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, “…to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.”[6] The language forms that we receive in our visual and technological age undoubtedly shape our manner of life, it orients us to itself. For instance, in referring to forgetting a memory in our minds, we might say, “I deleted it from my hard drive.” The language of technology has replaced the language of biology. The larger implication is that humanity’s perception of itself is centered in the computer. Obviously, this is an issue from a theological anthropology perspective.

Postman’s critique of entertainment culture deals primarily with the cognitive aspects of technology’s instruction. This does not give attention to fuller issues of our embodiment by which we are formed kinesthetically via technology and social media. These technologies order our day-to-day living. Alarms wake us up, much of our job is managed through technological gadgets, cellphones render us always available. Technology shapes us, not merely through information, through its formational practices.

We are shaped by those practices that incorporate our bodies in the metaphor’s message. James K. A. Smith writes, “Insofar as our being-in-the-world is navigated metaphorically, we can appreciate why Johnson posits a fundamental aesthetics of human understanding. Even more strongly, Johnson will argue that our higher order ‘conceptual’ thinking is nonetheless indebted to – and dependent upon – primary metaphors that are linked to the bodily basis of meaning.”[7] Technology exercises its power primarily because it integrates the whole body in its use.

Another way we might talk about the metaphor’s capacity to shape our lives is through the dual dimensions of desire and imagination. That is essentially what we mean by the kinesthetic and aesthetic arena of our creatureliness. The various metaphors that we employ, not simply the messages we hear, create a vision of what we want in life and what that looks like. It is through what we imagine the “good life” to be that our desires are pointed toward a telos. Out of this imagination and desire arises our action, our response. Thus, no metaphor is a tabula resa. Every metaphor communicates an assumption about the purpose for which we were created.

Because we are fully embodied creatures, preaching must also take this into account when seeking to shape a community of faith. Too often, our preaching has been aimed primarily at the cognitive dimension of people. That is not unimportant, merely deficient if we hope to allow preaching to be as formative as technology (which is difficult given the disproportionate time technology claims of us!). It is necessary that the language, content, and form of preaching connect with the aesthetic, kinesthetic qualities of “human being-in-the-world.”[8]

Preaching, too, is a metaphor. It shapes our collective imaginations, which further shapes our perceptions of reality. Preaching uses language, which entails a form of life. This life is then embodied in the various other practices, symbols, signs, and metaphors of Christian life. We communicate messages, but we must also be mindful of methods. The content of our preaching has not always meshed with the form of our preaching. As mentioned earlier, so much of our preaching has been geared toward the intellect. We are reduced to brains rather than fully embodied people. This neglects the powerful influence of our bodies, emotions, and senses to the Church’s detriment.

Our language, which is rooted in embodied life, cannot stop at only explaining the world but must also evoke a world. So much of our interaction with our environment comes as second nature. If, as James K. A. Smith suggests, we are creatures that engage the world in intuitive kinds of ways, not simply cognitively, then preaching must also engage this aspect of personhood in our communication. By evoking the primary experiences of a congregation, the preacher has moved into that realm of the affective. In other words, preaching must engage both the mind and heart of the listener.

THE ICONOGRAPHY OF PREACHING

Jacques Ellul suggests that images, which deal with reality (not truth), enables media to appeal to the aesthetic, kinesthetic elements of life. Ellul finds a problem in the fact that images are decontextualized metaphors that necessitate explanation. They, in his opinion, do not correlate with truth – only words can do that. Images deny words their power and place and rob people of necessary community for discerning truth. With the proliferation of images, the Word and its vitality are diminished and finally discarded. This is the essence of the Decalogue’s prohibition against images, according to Ellul. They necessarily, due to the fallen nature of the world, become idols.[9]

Yet, language cannot be entirely separated from images, especially due to language’s earthiness embedded in every life. Although Ellul defends his position against dualism, his categories separate matter and spirit, truth and reality in a total bifurcation. If the redemption of reality is part of the work of Christ, which the Church carries forward, then it seems appropriate that images might also be employed in our preaching and worship in faithful ways.

Jennifer Lord follows this thought:

“Our goal is to work with the textual words and images and to find our own words and images for each sermon. This is faithful work because to shape appropriate new words in order to expand on textual words and imagery is incarnational work: we are tethered by the biblical text but work to show its gospel meanings for our lives now”[10].

The work of preaching is allowing the power of the Word to infiltrate our reality. Obviously, we still await the fulfillment of the day when God shall be “all in all.” However, we also recognize the privilege that we are invited to participate in the life of God even here and now! Thus, the prayer that “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is not simply a future hope but an invitation for us to embody the Kingdom now!

Fred Craddock observes the dissonance in iconoclastic thinking and the implications for preaching:

Even the angry preacher, deliberately iconoclastic and anticlerical, preaches relevant sermons in a way no longer relevant. The preacher is still saddled with the traditional image of preaching with its clearly discernible authoritarianism being communicated nonverbally not only in intonation and manner but also in the form and movement of the sermon.[11]

Even those trying to avoid images have an image that informs their methodologies and metaphors. Moreover, the images are inherent in the metaphors themselves.

Carol Meyers, in the New Cambridge Bible Commentary on Exodus, comments on the Decalogue’s iconoclasm:

Its basic intent is aniconic; that is, it forbids the construction and worship of images meant to represent a deity. There is some ambiguity in the wording: it may be forbidding people to make sculptured images, probably meaning metal ones, of any aspect of creation; or it may be forbidding the making of such images to represent a god. Given the fact that representations of flora and fauna are part of the specifications for the tabernacle and temple, the latter reading of the text seems more likely.[12]

Throughout the Scriptures, imagery is employed as a sign or symbol of God’s presence in the midst of God’s people. The Tabernacle, Temple, Ark of the Covenant, Eucharist, the Church, Jesus (who also becomes Temple, Priest, and Sacrifice), all signify in vivid imagery God’s presence. With the exception of Jesus, do they contain the whole of the mystery of God? Certainly not. But, that does not mean that images are prohibited. Rather, images cannot pretend to be God. Ellul’s poor incarnational, iconoclastic, and anti-ontological theology skims for proof texts that speak against images. Yet, his assertion of the Word’s power does not seem capable of conquering his certainty that images can only degrade the Word. In this sense, it seems that Ellul is unable to finally affirm the Word’s power of redemption (at least until the Second Coming). But, one might question why the humiliation of the Word matters now if there is nothing that can be done until Christ returns.

Ellul posits that the Incarnation was a particular historical event. It is not cosmic in its nature. However, this, in my assessment, falls far short of an appropriate pneumatology that follows the Spirit of Christ at work in and through the Church! Yes, we continue to wait for the eschatological consummation, but that does not mean that we as those who partake in the imago Dei are incapable, by God’s power, to embody the Word here and now! Dennis Kinlaw makes this point abundantly clear, “As I read the biblical biographies of mighty preachers, I’m convinced that ultimately there is no great preaching unless the preacher partakes of the divine holiness in some measure.”[13]

Icons continue to be an important part of worship and in preaching. However, preaching itself cannot be an icon because it is an aural and oral event. As Walter Ong states, “Writing moves words from the sound world to a world of visual space, but print locks words into position in this space.”[14] In other words, because preaching is oral it does not occupy visual space as do icons.

However, this does not mean that icons are not a vital part of preaching. There are at least two ways that icons can play a supporting role in preaching: preacher and community as icon and sacraments as icon. We cannot pretend that preaching is an isolated moment. It takes place in the context of communal worship, whose audience is God. That is essential!

Images do not contain the full mystery to which they point. If they claim to do so, they are idols. An icon is not an idol. It is either one or the other, not both. To use a metaphor, an icon is like a window that allows us to see through it to something beyond itself. As soon as we become preoccupied with the window (perhaps we become entranced by the reflection of our face on the window’s surface), it no longer serves its function. It is at this point that the icon becomes an idol. And, yes, there is always a danger for that to happen! However, we have yet to get rid of our Bibles due to the tendency for bibliolatry! Does it then make sense to do away with any and every image for which this might be a temptation? Eliminating images and icons from worship does not necessarily eliminate the possibility of idolatry. We have always been adept at turning God’s good creation into our obsession (idolatry).

The preacher as icon notes the necessary aspect of a vessel consecrated to service with God. One who has yielded to the Word and been deeply transformed by such an encounter is marked by a power in their preaching. Dennis Kinlaw notes the importance of this kind of preaching, “…The Spirit-filled preacher knows how to relate the Word of revelation to the Word in creation. No matter what a teacher says or how impressively he says it, if there is not some extrinsic witness to what he is saying, nobody will believe it.”[15]

In other words, when the Word bears witness through us, Christ is also incarnated in and through us. This is also why there is such disillusionment that stems from pastoral failure. Truth and reality are not aligned in the preacher and the congregation languishes under the bifurcation. In a similar vein, if the congregation sees only the top of the preacher’s head while they read from a manuscript, the congregation may wonder if the truth of the Gospel has really gripped the preacher in their inmost being. It is through the character, mood, intonation, passion, and Spirit-filled leadership that the glory of God is imaged through the preacher.

Preaching, however, is not only about the preacher. It is about the hearers as well. As we receive the Word, we are called out of our passivity to response. As we faithfully respond to God’s call, we are also participating in the life of God. The Word calls for us to embody, to become icons, God’s glory to the world. Thus, we become visible reminders to the world that God loves and desires to redeem the Creation!

The sacraments as icons are also essential for preaching because they are the symbols of the Word’s transformative work already available in the ordinary elements of Creation, which includes us! Bread, water, and wine are the elements of everyday sustenance. Yet, through the Spirit’s power they become more than these things alone. They become the means of grace whereby we encounter God’s presence! The preached Word always moves to touch the ordinary elements of life, albeit transformed elements.

AESTHETICS, IMAGINATION AND DESIRE

In essence, we are back to where we started with metaphors. The Word and Sacraments become the culture-shaping metaphors of the collective imagination and desire of a congregation. James K. A. Smith puts it this way:

“We don’t choose desires; they are birthed in us. They are formed in us as habits, as habitus. And as Merleau-Ponty helped us to see, the acquisition of such habits is ultimately a rearrangement of our corporeal schema – a reconfiguration of how we imagine ourselves and our places in the world. Or as Bourdieu would put it, to acquire a habitus is to have been incorporated into a social body and its vision of a way of life. And that incorporation marshals our embodied nature. In short, the way to the imagination is through the body.”[16]

Preaching, along with the Sacraments, has always been a means for being incorporated into the social body that is the Church and its vision of the “good life,” which is the Kingdom!

But, if our language has been ineffective and the preaching event seemingly inadequate, how might it be re-energized? Several authors (i.e., Fred Craddock, James K. A. Smith, Walter Brueggemann, and others) have suggested that a primary means of allowing language to be evocative is through narrative and poetry. That does not mean that preaching is simply a series of stories. Rather, it calls for narrative flow and intentionality that begins and then goes somewhere. This is the difference between Kierkegaard’s direct and indirect language. Direct language is the language of the sciences. Indirect language is the language of faith because it deals with the existential questions that are irreducible, it provides meaning.[17]

The language of narrative and poetry also provides us with the opportunity to see the world afresh. Walter Brueggemann’s text, The Prophetic Imagination, undergirds the power of preaching in this way: “The prophetic imagination knows that the real world is the one that has its beginning and dynamic in the promising speech of God and that this is true even in a world where kings have tried to banish all speech but their own.”[18] This is the difference between the closed speech of deductive methods and the open speech of inductive methods. It is the distinction between propositional preaching and poetics. For, as Brueggemann notes, “The newness wrought by Jesus will not be explained, for to explain is to force it into old royal categories.”[19]

But, poetry and narrative happen upon us in unexpected ways. It is not the language of certainty, but allows the edge of mystery to circle about our worship. James K. A. Smith states:

“I imagine a telos or vision of the good life on an aesthetic, metaphorical, poetic register. And that is why a ‘vision’ of the kingdom is birthed in me or inscribed in me through aesthetic means. I come to imagine the kingdom in certain ways – because I have drunk up the stories of a people or a culture. I am incorporated into the habitus of a people, and that habitus in [sic] inscribed in me, because I have been immersed in the stories of the body politic. Liturgical animals are imaginative animals who live off the stuff of the imagination: stories, pictures, images, and metaphors are the poetry of our embodied existence.”[20]

The technological and visual age has tapped into this realization. Our immersion in that culture profoundly shapes our imagination by incorporating us into the cultural narratives. Much of this happens on a sub-conscious level! This is where preaching has opportunity to provide a counter-narrative, a poetic engagement with reality. We are formed as a community as we are corporately storied and habituated through our communal listening to the Word and responding in obedience. Preaching is the language-forming event of the community of faith. As such, it inevitably shapes the form of life for a congregation. To ignore this vital duty is to ignore our calling and to submit ourselves to the culture shaping world of technology and media.

GOD CALLS PREACHERS

If preaching really is no longer a viable option for communicating the Gospel, then we need to let God in on this new development. It seems to me that the basis for continued efforts to preach and to preach well is rooted in a long and continuous history of preachers called by God to go and proclaim the Gospel! If God still desires to call preachers, then it also follows that God is willing and able to empower the effective preaching of the Gospel. Perhaps preaching’s decline is not due to God’s inability or preaching’s lack of relevance. The problem may lie in impotent preachers and congregations who lack connection to the Source of our preaching.

Technology, as a dominant metaphor, often plays a significant role in this disconnect from God. In this technological age, perhaps our only hope is to allow God to breathe through our preaching so that our imaginations are awakened to the Kingdom’s call, as has happened in every age where the Word is proclaimed by the faithful. It is a Word that names the world, not only as it is, as it should be. When this is our proclamation, iconic communities are formed whereby the glory of God is reflected for the world to see and hear the invitation to be transformed by the Word.

 

Bibliography

Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001. Print.

Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised and with New Sermons ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001.

Craddock, Fred B. Overhearing the Gospel. Rev. and Expanded ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002. Print.

Ellul, Jacques. The Humiliation of the Word. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.

Kinlaw, Dennis F. Preaching in the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1985.

Lord, Jennifer L. Finding Language and Imagery: Words for Holy Speech. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

Meyers, Carol L., and Bill T. Arnold. Exodus: New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

Ong, Walter J., and John Hartley. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. 30th anniversary ed.; 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2012.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan, 1953.

 

 

[1] Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised and with New Sermons ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, 3-4.

[2] Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised and with New Sermons ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, 3.

[3] Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006, 15.

[4] Ibid, 28.

[5] Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. This is Neil Postman’s essential argument concerning technology’s capacity to shape our epistemologies.  Our entertainments have destroyed our capacities to speak, to think cogently, to have true dialogue, and to act.

[6] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan, 1953, Pt. 1, paragraph 19.

[7] Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013, 118.

[8] Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013, 118.

[9] Ellul, Jacques. The Humiliation of the Word. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985. This is the basic premise of Ellul’s work. He traces through both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament a line of thought that suggests images are entirely absent from these stories, unless these images are idols.  In his thinking, it is only the word that is capable of communicating truth. Images can only display reality, but can say nothing about the truth of that reality.  And, at best, those images only give the perception of seeing the whole of reality. But, in fact, we only see a small portion which must be interpreted but cannot be since images are decontextualized. It seems that the apostle Paul might not fully concur with Ellul’s assessment of reality. After all, Romans 1 has Paul claiming that nature clearly communicates there is a God, leaving us without excuse.  Perhaps reality is not entirely divided from truth, even if it can only communicate it in limited ways.

[10] Lord, Jennifer L. Finding Language and Imagery: Words for Holy Speech. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010, 37.

[11] Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised and with New Sermons ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001,

17.

[12] Meyers, Carol L., and Bill T. Arnold. Exodus: New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 170.

[13] Kinlaw, Dennis F. Preaching in the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1985, 18.

[14] Ong, Walter J., and John Hartley. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. 30th anniversary ed.; 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2012, 119.

[15] Kinlaw, Dennis F. Preaching in the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1985, 65.

[16] Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013, 125.

[17] Craddock, Fred B. Overhearing the Gospel. Rev. and Expanded ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002. 70.

[18] Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, 64-65.

[19] Ibid, 104.

[20] Imagining the Kingdom, 126.

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