Tuesday, April 20, 2010


During my first week of seminary, we were divided into small groups and we were asked to share our answers to the following question: "If you were going to be traveling cross country in a car with no radio, who are the other 3 people you want riding in the car with you?" I have been trying to remember the three people I picked, but I can only remember 2: Mark Twain and Robin Williams. I do remember the thought process behind my answer. I decided I wanted people who would tell good stories and keep my laughing.

When I think back on it, what we seminary students were really being asked was this: what conversations would you really like to be a part of? This question has come to roost in my soul again in recent weeks. It started when I was traveling with the Baptist Student Union on their Spring Break mission trip to Charleston, SC. We were traveling by van and everybody had brought their own books, iPods, and pillows to pass the time with. However, both in the journey to Charleston and the journey home, several of us ended up engaging in conversations that touched on such topics as the meaning and purpose of education, the best (and worst) books and novels we had ever read, and the theology and practice of sabbath. I think all of us who took part in the conversation found ourselves better off for having been a part of it. I know I have already pulled "A Tale of Two Cities" off my book shelf to start reading based on the comments of several folks from that conversation.

I wonder if we ever stop to consider the true power and impact of our communal conversation that digs below "small talk" and tackles real wrestlings and dialogue. While attending Elon University's convocation service, I learned that Phi Beta Kappa was started by 5 students at the College of William and Mary who met at a pub off campus to discuss the higher issues of learning. In his book C.S. Lewis: Life at the Center, Perry Bramlett tells the story of the Inklings. This was a group of authors and thinkers who met twice a week at an Oxford pub and in Lewis' college office to discuss politics, books and religion. The unofficial membership of the Inklings included C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and J.R.R. Tolkien as well as other notable authors and theologians. The discussions of the Inklings would often work their way into the writings of these men, thus carrying their influence beyond the pub and the university to millions of others.

Throughout the history of mankind and Christianity, revelation and inspiration have come when people have joined together to talk and listen to one another, to think through and discuss and debate the deeper issues of life and faith. In these days of Twitter and tea parties, of talk shows and time-cramped schedules, I wonder if we are ignoring the possibilities of talking to one another to focus on talking at one another.

As I write these words, my thoughts are beginning to turn to a panel discussion I have been invited to participate in this coming Sunday night. Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church has invited me and several other ministers to come and be a part of an ecumenical discussion among senior high youth in our area about the different Christian denominations. The youth will ask the questions, and we ministers will respond and dialogue with the youth about the various issues that arise. I am excited and grateful to have been invited to this conversation. Perhaps, in our dialogue, a better picture of the "body of Christ" will emerge for all of us to consider.

What conversations do you want to be a part of?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Why Pay the Preacher?

John Chandler reprinted this article in his "3 Good Minutes" weekly email. I thought I would share it here as a follow up to some earlier postings. The article, written by Dan Hotchkiss, originally appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of Clergy Journal.

"Pastor, I've always wondered: how long does it take you to prepare a sermon? As a board member, people ask me, and I'd like to be able to explain why we pay you so much. Could you keep track of how you spend your time and put a summary in your monthly board report?"
Such a request, coming from a member of the session, vestry, deacons, or trustees, can raise the blood pressure even of experienced clergy. It is a natural request in a society that considers "the days of a man's life" as a type of property to be exchanged for salaries and wages.
Most of us know that the smart response is a non-anxious one. Possible non-anxious answers range from accurate ("I find it varies from eight to twenty hours") to honest ("I'm not sure; it depends how much looking out the window and how many false starts you count") to whimsical ("Last week's sermon about aging took me sixty years").
But non-anxious is no easy thing to be, especially when lay leaders ask us about money, time, and preaching. As a denominational executive, I used to monitor church newsletters for signs of trouble, including clues that ministers had overreacted to such questions. Some clergy counterattacked, lecturing their congregants about how mysterious, intangible, and immeasurable our work is, and how wrong it is for lay leaders to oversee us as if our work were somehow comparable to that of common...well, to their work. Few congregations respond well to condescension or to scolding nowadays.
The other troublesome response I often saw was to over-comply by keeping the requested time log and publishing it not only to the board but to the congregation in the newsletter. Such a response buys into the time-clock way of thinking. It also telegraphs anxiety, making it more likely that a harmless-perhaps even innocent-question may lead to real difficulty.
An embarrassing truth about the work of clergy is that a lot of it looks like loafing. Who else gets paid to drink iced tea with a wise great-grandmother or toast the giddy joy of newlyweds? And little that we do looks more like goofing off than preaching. I don't mean, of course, the feverish final preparatory rush or the climactic 20 minutes on the podium, but the hours of hunt and peck, preceded, in my experience, by as many hours of what might appear, to the naïve observer, to be procrastination.
And yet, that lazy-looking process-which seems to take the best preachers a full day or two to carry through-is one of the main things as clergy we're paid for. Everybody seems to know this except clergy, who tend to undervalue this one aspect of our work.
Some years ago, a university divinity school appointed a faculty committee to review the school's success in "homiletic pedagogy," that is, teaching students how to preach. The committee, looking in the rear-view mirror, saw it was not the first to plow this ground. In fact, every eight or ten years since World War II the school had asked a committee to rethink how and whether to teach preaching. Most of the committees, after studying contemporary trends, declared that preaching was passé, or almost so, and so the school should focus its attention on the Next Big Thing-lay participation, worship arts, liturgical revival, radio, TV, small groups, the Internet.
Meanwhile, in the parishes, search committees kept on listing preaching at or near the top of what they wanted in a clergy leader. Governing boards kept putting preaching high among the qualities they praised in clergy or complained about. Despite the faculty committees' confident pronouncements of a post-sermonic age and the school's best efforts to prepare for it, preaching didn't die. If anything, it grew in importance as parishioners acted more like fickle restaurant customers. Preaching, it appears, is a big part of what the people in the pews pay for.
In theory, of course, this should be true only in traditions where the pulpit stands at the center-front, as in Reformed churches. In practice, Calvinism flows wide and strong through North America, affecting Lutherans, Jews, Episcopalians, Buddhists, even-partly through the influence of charismatic movements-Orthodox and Catholic Christians. In Pentecostal churches, perhaps the most distinctive and successful kind of Christianity yet to spring from New World soil, preaching lights the fuse for the explosions of the Spirit that quieter denominations envy.
In lean economic times, boards often fail to recognize that their desire for "good preaching" means they need to pay their clergy leader, not to put in certain hours, but to play a certain role in the community of faith. The best response to questions about how long it takes to write a sermon may be the honest one: it takes a lot of time, including time that looks like work and time that looks like goofing off.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Giving Up

At that time the LORD said to Joshua, "Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites a second time." ... For the Israelites traveled forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, the warriors who came out of Egypt, perished, not having listened to the voice of the LORD. To them the LORD swore that he would not let them see the land that he had sworn to their ancestors to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. So it was their children, who he raised up in their place, that Joshua circumcised; for they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way. - Joshua 5:2, 6-7

The generation of Israelites that came out of Egypt were familiar with circumcision, because they themselves were circumcised upon leaving Egypt. So if they were familiar with the expectation, why did they not perform circumcision on their own children? Could it be that, once they knew the Promised Land would not be within their reach, they saw no reason to fulfill this covenantal expectation?

I think about the children of Israel, and I think about that person who thinks that they have sinned so badly that they are beyond repair. They give up once any hope of restoration seems beyond their reach. I just finished reading Josh Hamilton's biography, and he talks about how easy it was in 4 years of drug use to just continue to spiral downward. Once he had hit what seemed like bottom, recovery seemed like such an impossible task that he saw no reason to do anything else but just dig deeper into drugs. He talked about disappearing for days, not returning the phone calls of his wife who was at home with their newborn child. When there seems to be no hope, why bother keeping a promise?

This story in Joshua points out one of the problems with giving up: their children were delayed in receiving the promise. They had wait in their camp for several days while the men healed from their circumcision, they delaying their entry into this land flowing with milk and honey. I know we are only talking about a few days. Still, if you are standing at the gate of Disney World and it is 8:55 and the park opens at 9:00, how hard is it to wait that last five minutes?

There was another issue that arose from that first generation's giving up, a much bigger problem: their surrender kept disgrace alive. God tells Joshua after all the the men have been circumcised, "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." 40 years after leaving Egypt! And no one that had actually been in Egypt was still alive! Yet their lack of circumcision made it seem that nothing had changed: the Israelites were still just escaped slaves, not God's people. Even though none of this generation had ever known the Pharoah's whip, they still carried with them the disgrace.

I can't imagine how hard it must have been to know that you would never enter the Promised Land, especially to know that you would not enter because of your own moral failure. It would seem so easy to just thrown in the towel, to give up on God because there was no hope. Would Christians today be as concerned about righteousness and morality if God said that he was taking Heaven away? Of course, if our faith is only about getting to Heaven, are we missing something important in our faith?

It seems to me that the promise of Heaven is only part of a much more important promise: the promise of presence. God desires an ongoing relationship with His people. Heaven is the part of the promise that lets us know that the relationship God desires is an eternal relationship. Heaven is not the ultimate goal, the relationship is the ultimate goal. Even when the Promised Land was moved beyond their grasp, God still offered the opportunity of relationship in the form of the tent of meeting and daily manna. These people who were once slaves were still free. They were still God's people, and He still wanted to be their God. Even without the Promised Land, none of this had changed.

I know what it is like to sense that God's promise, God's reward is out of reach. I know what it is like to feel like I will never attain what I hoped to attain. And I know very well the temptation in those moments to just give up. What's the point, if I am not going to get the ultimate payoff? Perhaps the first step to overcoming this temptation is to ask the question: even if the Promised Land is gone, is the relationship still possible? Even if I can't have everything I hoped, can I still have everything I need?

Jim Valvano was a successful basketball coach, but his lasting legacy has become the words, "Don't give up, don't ever give up." To those who feel that the promises of God have been pushed beyond reach, I would say, "Don't give up, don't ever give up." The presence and the love of God are still yours to have.

Thursday, April 1, 2010