“Still talking about your sermon?”

PulpitThe opinions are still coming in about that sermon – yes that one (no not yours…sorry, the British Royal Wedding one).

Oh perhaps it has been a long time since the old days when a sermon could elicit such interest and controversy from the style, to the content, to the preacher. Just when we though the old preaching thing had had its day – it springs back up to surprise us as a form of public discourse and as a stimulus to such.

Of course not all sermons get such coverage or are so public, but week by week people are engaging in something that at the very least is taking up 15 – 20 – 25 … (oh my) minutes of our listening worship service time.

Reactions are not always good – some sleep Man sitting up sleeping in churchsome do not but are glad that their Church has the internet and they can enjoy some time on social media…oh yeah, of course you are just looking at an online version of the Bible. Of course others do appreciate and respond.

My thought – if we are going to do this, if it is a practice of value,let us understand it and do it to its full strangely human and divine potential with all of it rich variety of styles as appropriate for context and purpose.

Acadia Divinity College offers a long established Doctor of Ministry Program designed to allow those in ministry to enhance their practice through robust biblical, theological, and practice based thinking and research. Wherever I got it from, I still like the idea that theological education should help us think tough, feel deep, and act courageously (I think a paraphrase from MLK).

The Doctor of Ministry program at ADC does not “stream” as such into specific types of DMin (e.g. a DMin in this and a DMin in that)  rather we require all participants to engage in advanced biblical and theological courses as part of the program to provide skills and competencies that will go beyond the one DMin project you will do. This said, through reflection on one’s own ministry, Directed Studies options, certain ministry electives, and of course the “Thesis Project” where participants are encouraged to make a contribution to the understanding and practice of ministry, it is possible to focus on a particular area and aspect of ministry.  One such area can of course be preaching.

As the Associate Professor in the John Gladstone Chair of preaching and Worship I would love to see a “cohort” of people studying preaching at the same time along with the wide variety of people studying other different critical facets of ministry practice. Of course there are already Doctor of Ministry alumni that are both notable preachers and or have studied preaching as part of their DMin. A cohort, however, would mean that in addition to the regular peer and tutor support we could offer one another additional subject specific support benefiting from one another’s research and practice.

This is not an advert (yet)…but the idea…

If you are in the practice of ministry and would be eligible to do, and interested in the Doctor of Ministry program, check out the website for requirements. If this seems to fit and preaching might be your thing also feel free to get in touch with me through my College contacts to discuss ideas.

In addition to the above, if this is not quite where you are at, in the next year we will be delivering initial and advanced courses in preaching which you may wish to take either for credit or to enhance your own development.

“That sermon…”

Normally following a Royal Wedding (there was a British Royal Wedding on Saturday) people are talking about “that dress” (and some certainly are) but following this Royal wedding several are talking about “that sermon”.

Indeed as one who did not watch the Royal wedding (you see my bias) I had to watch it later as various people (yes all Christian) extolled its virtues.

Was it a good sermon?

Yes, indeed in many ways.

In part, therefore, I hope that it will have introduced people to the very strong “African-American” or wider “Black Preaching” tradition(s). The style and quality of the wedding sermon was not atypical but very typical of the best of this tradition in passion and power, although shorter in length!  Bishop Curry quoted Martin Luther Jr. who himself stood in this tradition, a tradition that has included, and includes, women as well as men, see for example: Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and Their Sermons, 1850-1979.

Daughters of Thunder

While much mainline preaching struggles to find a future form this is a very vibrant tradition in the world of homiletics.

Following on from the above, more generally, as someone who teaches homiletics, I hope that it may have encouraged people who preach to see what they can learn from this and other preaching styles.  The hermeneutical, as well as homiletical approach of this particular sermon is different from that practiced and indeed expected in many Church traditions. These congregational expectations, such as, “we need teaching,” whatever  that means, can be as limiting to preaching style and expression as narrow understandings on the part of the preacher. Of course not every style “fits” every context, and a one off special sermon – such as a wedding sermon – is of a different sort from the regular practice. But different preachers can learn from different traditions and appropriate in appropriate ways (deliberate repetition of word) different style suitable to sermon purpose and context.

As suggested, “context matters”. In many ways it was the context of this particular sermon with its particular style that contributed to its “power”. This was not simply a Church Service, or the marriage of two young people – it was a British Royal event in the English State Church. Bishop Curry’s sermon, the choir and the music, brought very welcome cultural and stylistic diversity into what can be seen as a largely established, institutional, and monolithic British Royal world. Despite what you would think from some of the comments, however, passionate preaching (a subject of another post) is not unknown in various pulpits. The surprise, however, was that people did not expect such preaching “here” and in this context. When it did happen, for many it was surprising, and welcome for its social as well as religious significance.

Strangely, however, and conversely, it is precisely because of the context that I found myself not quite as immediately  enthusiastic as others, about the wider impact of the sermon as a Christian witness beyond those who already have an interest in such social and religious matters.

Yes, the Royal wedding was watched by millions.

Yes, there was a great sermon.

Yes Jesus was spoken about.

Yes indeed, cultural and religious diversity was exhibited.

Yet, all of this took place in the spectacle of a much larger State Sponsored British religious event which sends its own message through words, actions, symbolism – some of which are not necessarily congruent with the radical call to love taught by Jesus and preached by King and Curry.

Sermons may challenge context but context can negate sermons.  Just as the sermon challenged the context the context worked against the sermon or at least any specific or radical application of the law of love beyond generalities.

So it is, that the “revolutionary movement” started by Jesus was spoken about in a Royal Pageant under flags that were not dedicated to King Jesus – so what message was communicated?

So it is, that justice for the poor was spoken about in the midst of a demonstration of wealth (others are writing about the famous guests, stylish clothes, cost of the event) – so what message was communicated?

So it is, that the end of conflict was spoken about in a context with explicit military symbolism – so what message was communicated?

It is not straightforward.

To reframe my concern a bit more theologically and philosophically – was this sermon a “Word before the Powers” or did it become a “Word of the Powers” when and where the radical is subsumed in the “spectacle” to the advantage rather than the transformation of the “powers”? (I should never have read Guy Deboard all those years ago!)

To put this differently again: was the sermon so implicated in the context that it could not be prophetic bur rather ended up giving the impression of challenge but actually changing nothing and supporting the status quo? (Many of us preachers find ourselves in such a situation).

The media attention given to the sermon can actually support either of the above possibilities.

It is not straightforward.

Yet for me …

In context, the sermon evidenced something of the free, improvisational, restlessness, and disruptive presence of the Holy Spirit…

In context, the sermon spoke truths prophetic that if even in the present will leave many only “almost persuaded” will in the end triumph, because indeed the arc of the moral universe may be long but it bends towards justice (Parker, King).

In context, a human voice spoke a counter narrative to the way things are – in the midst of all the technology – a convincing human voice – and in a sermon – who would have thought it…

While I am not convinced the sermon subverted the context – I do think that it rose above it with considerable passion and skill in a preaching tradition we can learn much from.

 

Pulpits…Hassocks… and falling over…

 

I must confess that I do get frustrated, indeed even annoyed (what ME?), when I am asked to speak at an event and no thought has been given to where I will stand or put my Bible, or anything else that I might have with me as part of my talk (a one person multi media event) – such as my specs!

This said, I am resistant to small confined pulpits, often elevated above and beyond the congregation.

Pulpit love is not simply a ‘high church’ phenomena. When I used to visit some Baptist Churches as a visiting preacher, the ‘Church Secretary’ would sometimes say that I could either preach from the pulpit or the communion table which was nearer the front, and more on the level – I usually knew by the way they said it that they thought the pulpit was the proper place and so most often… I chose the table – it did not really matter anyway as most of them sat at the back!

To be sure, I understand the various theologies that influence the proxemics of various pulpits…I just really do not buy many of them…

Here again Charles Spurgeon makes me smile in the lectures which he gave to his students on “posture, action, and gesture.” Because, according to Spurgeon in his discussion of awkward mannerisms and preaching “Pulpits have much to answer for in having made men (sic!) awkward”.  He writes of pulpits:

“What horrible inventions they are! If we could once abolish them we might say concerning them as Joshua did concerning Jericho – ‘Cursed be he that buildeth this Jericho,’ for the old-fashioned pulpit has been a greater cost to the churches than is at first sight evident.” (Lectures to My Students)

While I am not sure about his hermeneutical use of the Old Testament you have got to admire the rhetoric…

Spurgeon refers to Chrysostom as an example of the way things should be:

Chrysostom.jpg

And he compares the example of Paul at Athens (which he likes) with the very Rev. Dr. Paul preaching in London (which he does not) … again you have got to admire the rhetoric…

He recounts an occasion told by Sydney Smith (?) who while he did not like to be boxed in did like ‘to look down upon my congregation – to fire in to them’ (!!!) Smith tells of how on one occasion he got the Church clerk to pile up some hassocks for him to stand on as he preached on the text “We are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.” He writes:

“I had scarcely uttered these words, and was preparing to illustrate them, when I did so practically, and in the way I had not at all anticipated. My fabric hassocks suddenly gave way; down I fell, and with difficulty prevented myself from being precipitated into the arms of my congregation, who, I must say, behaved very well, and recovered their gravity sooner than I could have expected.”

I think my experience of when a solo singers false teeth came out of his mouth while singing in Church, means that I would not have maintained much ‘gravity’ as a preacher toppled from their piled ‘hassocks’ and oh what a story (like the one with the teeth) to be told years later…

The above said, I do think that we do need to give attention to the position and place from which we preach as part of our desire to communicate precisely for both practical concerns and the emphasis on position and place as something of theological importance

In this respect we should note as Litfin argues that physical distance creates a psychological distance and as a consequence the basic rule is (all things being equal and possible which they seldom are) that we should seek to limit the physical and thus psychological distance. He writes:

“Unless the audience is quite large you will not need to mount a stage or platform, and you should avoid doing so if possible. The increased height puts you above your audience in more ways than one. It increases the likelihood that you will talk down to them. Keeping yourself on the audience’s level communicates that you do not see yourself as better than your audience but rather as one of them, a friend speaking to friends”. [Duan Litfin, Public Speaking: A Handbook for Christians, 2ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981).]

 

Overcoming incompetence

I have been reviewing this book for Regent’s Reviews … Radical Friendship

here is a “blog response”.

Sunday, 22 April was “World Earth Day”. A colleague noted on his Facebook page that he had seen little reference about this day. There could be numerous reasons for this. One of them is what ethicist Willis Jenkins calls “moral incompetence”. This is no insult but the recognition that some issues appear so great that they leave people so “ethically overwhelmed” that it undermines our ability to respond in any meaningful way at all.

It is Ray Andrew Newson who picks up on these language and ideas and writes on this in his recent work Radical Friendship: The Politics of Communal Discernment(Fortress 2017).

Speaking explicitly about Christians he writes:

“To be sure, Christians have severely misdiagnosed threats throughout history – that is nothing new. But in such moments as well as today, what this represents even if only in retrospect is a failure of discernment – failure of the capacities of individual Christians and individual Christian communities to hear and articulate, what to do, or who to be in the face of moral threat” (Radical, 2017, p. xiii).

In this way Christians participate in the “moral incompetence” of wider society in the face of moral issues, questions, and threats.

In response Newson argues for the significant role that local Christian “communal discernment” can make to such situations.

I agree with the significant place that Newson would give to “communal discernment” not least in relation to a “baptist” congregational ecclesiology. I also resonate with his wider argument that this ecclesiological polity has trajectories towards a “radical democratic” emphasis on local participative politics as a solution to the reduction of “citizens to consumers” and participants to voters. While not really one of his themes, I am also supportive of integrating a variety of ideas that can foster and create a more active participation of all voices in discussions and discernment.

The above notwithstanding, I would want to highlight the ‘theological’ perspective of specifically Christian communal discernment. For this is not only discussion and decision but “discernment” . This is discernment not simply of the “mind of the group” but indeed of the “mind” of Jesus Christ himself. Oh, to be sure this requires that which may well be spiritual disciples as well as practical approaches such as actively listening and taking the time to hold together in a greater common purpose even as we disagree. But there is more. There is the expectation and faith that Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit is present, and accordingly will be creative and disruptive and not least active in what is going on.

Christian congregational discernment is not less but is certainly something theologically more than participatory local governance (even that in which we may see God at work). It is the context in which we want to be able to say that not only does it seem good to “us” but indeed to the “Holy Spirit and us”. Without that claim, rather, without that living Spirit reality, we reduce such gatherings to something less than they can be and ought to be, and need to be if we are to overcome both our “incompetence” or at times “overconfidence” in correct responses to complex issues. In saying this I agree with Newson that such discernment can be provisional as it is always forward moving and open to further development and correction from God and from others who are also seeking to live this way.

Leading and participating in such discernment takes time and energy and a commitment to such a process of formation and transformation. Perhaps as I have argued elsewhere this is why it is something that people are not willing to give time and attention to. See earlier post. I think though I am with Newson – this is a “moral” issue of how to do ethics in a context of threatening paralysis or over certain platitudes.

So back to where I began: “World Earth Day”, sadly another issue that remains discerningly unexplored in relation to the rich resources available to us in meeting together to ask what the living Jesus Christ may be saying to his Church here and now.

 

Who is my neighbourhood?

Crafting Worship 2018

And so last night was the final night of the course on worship which I have been delivering in the Halifax Metro. It has been a good experience to engage with a range of people who have attended this course. As ever I have learned as well, I hope, to have taught.

Last night we explored specifically the topic of the extent to which our worship services were shaped by their neighbourhoods or wider communities.

 

This is a complicated matter. What is named as neighbourhood or community can be a contested topic. On the one hand, the neighbourhood or wider community can be the people in the geographical location around where the church is situated. Colourful St John'sOn the other hand, for many whom attend the congregation, their neighbourhood or surrounding community of presence and influence may well be located in a different place, that is a place where they work or live and move and have their being.

Neighbourhood friends

Neighbourhood of friends

 

It may be necessary to recognize that neighbourhood for the church gathered may be different from the neighbourhood of the church scattered. This distinction, actually may be crucial to notice. When people in congregations are being asked to build relationships with the people in the surrounding neighbourhood (understood as the area around the church) they may actually be being asked to build relationships in a place where they actually spend very little time!

The question ‘who is my neighbourhood?’, therefore is a real one and points to neighbourhood as places of diverse encounter on the journey of life (kinda Jericho to Jerusalem stuff) rather than in a fixed geographical location.

Taking this matter of the church scattered in neighbourhood is also a strength of course with the attendant weakness of a Baptist ecclesiology of congregation as gathered (or gathering) rather than primarily geographically located.

Of course I am not denying or decrying the geographical significance of the location of a building in relation to its surrounding neighbourhood but this is certainly not the only neighbourhood in town!!!

To be sure from a congregational perspective it makes sense to give some attention to the geographical location and the people who live and work around where the actual church building is situated. To limit our understanding of neighbourhood, however, only to this geographical location may be to simply miss the opportunity of encouraging and enabling people to live as faithful Christians in the wide variety of other communities in which they are already situated and already have relationships. Perhaps, a greater recognition of the network of communities and neighbourhoods in which the church scattered has already is a better strategy – without completely negating the issue of the neighbourhood around the building.

In addition to the above, when we talk of a crafting worship for our neighbourhood we have to pay attention to the congregation who gathers as neighbourhood as well as the wider community as neighbourhood. The immediate neighbourhood in this understanding is actually the congregation who gather in their specific demographic make-up. In this respect, I frequently make the point that the cultural relevance of worship services does not need to be something targeted towards the not yet attenders. But rather cultural relevance is necessary for the meaningful engagement of the congregation who are already present.  It is indeed them who are going to scatter and worship services should enable, empower, and inspire them to live faithfully in the diversity of the contexts in which they live.

The above notwithstanding, I think that may be true to say, that many congregations do not represent in their worship an explicit sense of their physical locality other than in the most general of terms. This of course will differ from congregation to congregation and context to context e.g. a rural congregation

Rural Church

may be more shaped by the requirements of our farming timetable and the congregation in a multi-ethnic area (one would hope) may be more shaped by such demographics than a congregation which meets in the dominant cultural expression. This noted, I still think that may be true to say, but many congregations do not represent in their worship an explicit sense of their locality other than in the most general terms. In the Canadian situation this also relates to the wider question of the presence and nature of a Canadian identity.

With reference to our congregational gatherings for worship, the sorts of acts and activities in which our local neighbourhoods: gathered and scattered; congregational and wider could be more explicitly reflected are prayer, preaching, musical style, and in terms of the art represented in our buildings. Some of this will will require some work (some not – such as the intentional decision to pray for another local community group each week) I would argue, however, that the local crafted flavour is to be preferred to the bland global brand (either European Classical or Global North Contemporary) that many worship services can adopt.

 

 

 

 

 

Apples of gold in baskets of silver

Arguing that ‘Posture, Gesture, and Action in the Delivery of a Sermon‘ are certainly not everything, nineteenth century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, yet dedicates two lectures to this topic in his lectures to his students! I like his lectures, his metaphors perhaps because they are so dated are sometimes brilliant!

Oh indeed, Spurgeon argues, there is more to good preaching than appropriate gestures but concerning their value he writes:

‘Are not apples of gold all the more attractive for being placed in baskets of silver?’

or again

‘none of you would care to wear a pauper’s suit if you could procure better raiment, so you should not be so slovenly as to clothe truth like a mendicant when you might array her as a prince’s daughter’.

(See you can be a Princess of Preaching as well as a Prince!)

Spurgeon certainly makes an important point when he states:

‘It is not so much incumbent upon you to acquire right pulpit actions as it is to get rid of that which is wrong’.

hammer, hammer, hammerSpurgeon, had his own list of things (‘oddities’) he considered problematic , indeed ‘grotesque’, such as those who would ‘hammer, hammer, hammer, without sense or reasons, whether the theme be pleasing or pathetic’.

 

We could perhaps include: rattling keys in our pockets, fidgeting with our hands, playing with our sermon notes, waving our spectacles about, repeatedly playing with our hair etc.

Of course, as with other matters what is acceptable and what is not will vary according to context, but we do need to be aware of that which distracts and indeed impacts our ‘ethos’ as preachers.

In a somewhat newer book we are are told:

‘From the first moment you come into the view of your audience, they are beginning to make inferences about you on the basis of what they see’.

[Duan Litfin, Public Speaking: A Handbook for Christians, 2ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 317.]

As a consequence we need to consider general issues related to being on time, dress appropriate for the occasion, demeanor, and the way in which we approach and stand at the lectern, desk, pulpit, music stand. As with the spoken introduction this initial introduction can have an impact on people’s receptivity of what we are going to say. If in the ways we approach these things our body says we do not care, then we invite the listeners to dislike us and not to care either. Suitable dress (whatever that means) and a relaxed-confidence removes initial barriers – it is okay to smile at people when you first look at them.

Following on from the above, our body-language during our preaching is clearly also important. The goal here has to be that our body language works with our message and not against it.

Liftin writes: ‘Your posture, movement, and gestures should be orchestrated so as to serve your message. All of your body movements should complement what you are saying at the moment.’

On this Spurgeon writes: ‘Perhaps a man [sic!] is nearest to the golden mean in action when his manner excites no remark either of praise or censure, because it is so completely of a piece with the discourse that it is not regarded as a separate item at all.’

Some recent research into successful TED talks highlights the great significance of body language in enhancing talks: Body Language Survey. (This suggest that at least in terms of human communication body language is of greater significance than Spurgeon wants to allow).

Spurgeon may be right:

‘The sermon itself is the main thing: its matter, its aim, and the spirit in which it is brought before the people, the sacred anointing upon the preacher, and the divine power applying the truth to its hearers’ …

But…(this is great lol)

‘Small flies make the apothecary’s ointment to stink, and little foxes spoil the vines, and therefore small flies and little foxes should be kept out of the ministry.’

Since then ‘these minor matters of movement, posture and gesture may have that effect, you will give them your immediate attention’.

 

 

 

The Other Place

Neighbourhood friends

 

On Maundy Thursday evening I ended up in two places within the space of a couple of hour: a church and another place.

In both food was offered…

In Church there was bread and wine

In the Other place there was food and wine

In both there was music…

In Church mainly classical

In the Other place folk and contemporary

In both there was people

In Church manly elderly

In the Other place much more diverse

As I though about my prepared sermon script two things struck me.

First: How young relatively speaking were Jesus and probably many of the others involved in the events of last supper, arrest, torture, death, and resurrection: disciples, soldiers etc. and the yet apparently increasing divide between the Christian faith and various younger generations.

Second: That I should have probably spent much more time in the Other place writing my sermon because the Easter events did not take place and gain their significance and meaning by occurring in a building with people gathered in liturgical assembly but happened in the Other places of public, civic, social, economic, and political activity.

It is here in the Other places that the death and resurrection need again to gain traction and meaning. Yes indeed, Christ is Risen but what that means in the Other places and not simply in the Church places is the ongoing challenge for the post-resurrection witnessing Church. This challenge will not be addressed by simply shouting ‘He is Risen’ louder but by living in the faith of that claim and being able to articulate its significance for the lives of people (including our own) in all of their public, civic, social, economic and political activities.

We may not be behind closed doors for fear of anyone, indeed ours are open and we are trying everything we know as it were to compel them to come in – but I do not think that this is the direction of witness which is rather found as we place our bodies in the Other places knowing that the Risen Christ as with the incarnate Jesus (same person) is still be found in the public, civic, social, economic, and political dimensions of life.