Good, Christmas will soon be over, and we can get back to the divine Jesus

Asian girl t show thumbs up with red christmas ha and clock at mI am suspicious. I was suspicious before I ever knew about a hermeneutic of suspicion. If the Dutch are born on bikes – as our language tutor claimed – I was born suspicious.

I am suspicious that many of us in the ‘evangelical’ (always have to put that in brackets) side of the Church are not very comfortable with the humanity of Jesus. You would not think this at advent or Christmas when we go to great lengths to emphasize his human birth. But I am not always sure who we are trying to convince…for it seems to me that for much of the rest of the time…in the Church:

The humanity of Jesus is not stressed…

When it is mentioned it is always accompanied by the ‘but he was also divine you know’ …in a nullifying non orthodox sort of way

Preaching from the Gospels tends to be often aimed at showing his divinity just incase it has got lost in this human Jesus

The life of Jesus is only given significance as the preliminaries to his death…

People get very uptight when you suggest that we need the humanization of the Church for the sake of mission…(do they get uptight???I say!!!)

Contrary to the above it seems pretty clear to me (and John and Paul and…) that the mission of God took the downward movement to humanity …

It appears, however, that since we know the prequel and the sequel we cannot quite cope with this part of the story.

One might argue that this is out of confessional respect for the divinity of Jesus. I am not sure because I am suspicious. As a consequence I suspect that we are not keen on this part of the story because it is actually our part – the human part – the episode we are starring in.

Here we run into difficulties. We are not sure of the part we are playing. For while we are pretty sure what bad humanity looks like we have never quite settled on what a good human Christian might look like – other than not being like the bad ones. Maybe actually it is more than that. Maybe it is because we actually do know what a good human Christian is meant to look like and that is like Jesus. This, however, is the sort of thing we want to avoid because this really does call for a change (repentance conversion and all that stuff) and not simply for us to be a Church going version of respectable citizenship.

The above would make sense of why we stress the divinity of Jesus not his humanity and stress the divine in the Gospels not the human. Because the more we can keep his story separate from our story the less we need to see his story as the script for the part we are meant to play. This move is really clever because it allows us to simultaneously keep our distance from Jesus, our own humanity, and the humanity of others – all in the name of God.

This being the case the sooner we get Christmas over with the better – then we can go back to before … what Frost calls an ‘ex-carnated’ Christianity – which is no Christianity at all

but as I said I am just suspicious …

Merry Christmas

It is Monday but Sunday is coming…

Monday morning again

It used to be (in the old days) that in Scotland – Monday – was the Church minister/pastor’s day off.

I never did this because I was still somewhat adrenalin high from the responsibilities of the previous day, had things to follow up from the day before, and well – need to get started on next Sunday’s sermon. It might be Monday – but Sunday is coming.

For many in regular pastoral ministry preparing a sermon (sermons) for the following week is a necessary part of the task.

Oh yes I know that some want to respond with arguments about why preaching is out of date and out of touch, or at least why so much time and attention is given to them – but while you are debating and discussing this many ministers know that next Sunday they will need to be there – sermon ready.

Like it or not Sunday by Sunday in the vast majority of our churches – preaching happens.

Again some may not like the comparison but I think that Herbert Sennet was spot on when and where he drew among others two comparisons between actors and preachers which highlights the ‘task. The first is that they have to perform regularly ‘on demand’. The second is that they have to perform in keeping with the ‘conventions’ of the expected performance (The Journal of Religion and Theatre, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall 2003, p. 143). So Sunday is coming and the preachers has to preach and preach means something in particular that they are expected to do.

For some the relentless nature of this task can be demanding if not daunting.

Yet, I do not want to wallow here. These demands can be offset by:

A sense of call to the task of preaching.

Practical decisions regarding preparation – e.g. know your text early – a benefit of both lectionary and ‘series’ preaching.

A ‘high’ view of the significance and importance of preaching – this relates to ones theology of preaching.

I am always a bit unhappy by some theologies of preaching … but that is for another day…

So I will rest for a moment on this idea of our theology of preaching … and this idea that Sunday is coming …

In Matthew’s resurrection account at least (Matthew 27-28) the resurrection message was spread from a preaching angel, to preaching women, to a preaching church.

It was a message born in the reality of the socio-political context of the day where through the use of military force, closed door conversations, and a managed media the powers and principalities of the day sought to manage the ‘news’.

In these verses an alternative view of reality and life was cracked open which people in faith were invited to enter, indeed to stake their lives on as it was announced through the marginality of the alternative voices of the disciples.

Perhaps here is a theology of preaching that can inspire on a Monday morning.

Preaching in proclamation rather than teaching mode (to be sure that can follow) is a ‘cracking open of the week’ that has been and the week to come based upon the alternative voices of those who have seen the Lord and felt a new day dawn.

Such preaching does not, cannot, ignore the reality of human existence including the depths of human suffering – it is resurrection preaching because it rises through such drawing on it as the stuff out of which it will yet emerge. Rather such preaching proclaims a different way now of seeing and living – a way of seeing and living based on what has been (as recorded not least in the Gospels centred on Jesus Christ) and what is to come in a kingdom whose ‘promissory note’ is the resurrection.

Oh this does not mean that all preaching is about the resurrection – but it does mean that all preaching is done in the light of the resurrection with some fear but also great joy – for it is spoken out of and into real embodied human experience on the basis of a crucified and resurrected body.

Maybe that can help on a Monday – cause Sunday is coming.

 

 

 

 

Preaching and Panic

Multiethnic group of scared people

‘The answer to your questions is yes, I always feel nervous before I preach, sometimes physically sick’ – my response to the question just before preaching at the Acadia Divinity College Chapel service on Wednesday.

Despite the Facebook post I did know that I was preaching. I am not, sure, however, whether the comments made to me by a colleague the day before (I paraphrase) ‘Professor of preaching and worship, eh…you better nail it tomorrow big man!’ …had helped with the way I felt about it!!! My own preached ‘mocking’ comments directed twice towards the Greek scholars in the sermon was a part response.

I think it is good to reflect and evaluate ones preaching. This is not least the case if you have made some conscious choices in the necessary exegetical, hermeneutical, and homiletical ‘creation’.

I made choices.

The text was Mark 1:21-28.

One choice was that I wanted to engage with the ‘text’ not simply the theme of the text (authority) but with this theme as dealt with in this particular text: authority affirmed, challenged, confirmed.

Another choice was that I wanted to deal with the text as a narrative text – this means not just paying attention to the meaning of the words (Greek or otherwise) but to the event as an unfolding drama. The drama of the narrative impacted my choices regarded the ‘meaning’ of a main section. I read the words of the unclean man not as ‘confession’ but as ‘contestation’ (scholars agree and disagree with this reading but do not always take the narrative setting into consideration).

Following on from the above, drawing primarily though not exclusively on the interpretation of Ched Myers, 77411I read this text as involving an early conflict in the Gospel of Mark where the authority of Jesus  is set in ‘contra-diction’ to the authority of the, scribes, teachers of the law, has that authority challenged (man with unclean spirit – interesting that they and the scribes are set somewhat on the same side in this reading) and has that authority affirmed and so we end up with:

‘They were all amazed, and kept on asking one another “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands, even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”‘ (Mark:1:27 NRSV)

Listening back (can always be painful and informative) and reflecting on the sermon I remain quite happy with the choices I made about my exegetical interpretation and my attempts to explain the ‘verbal duelling’ in the synagogue conflict.

But what to do with this in a sermon – where to land it?

One option would have been to continue in what Robert Stephen Reid calls the ‘Teaching Voice’ – with the emphasis being – ‘yes, this is what we understand about Jesus’.41490T812BL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_

This can be quite valid. There is an argument that with increasing personal biblical ‘illiteracy’ more rather than less of this may be required.

Yet, I am always intrigued with what a passage is ‘doing’ as well as saying.

This in turn begs the question of what a sermon is not simply saying but ‘doing’ and the extent to which the ‘declarative’ function of a text can be aligned to the declarative function of the attendant sermon.

J51ZeX7Y-xWL._SX357_BO1,204,203,200_ohn N Gladstone in the introduction to his book of sermons which has the title: ‘The Valley of the Verdict’ quotes the Scottish church leader Thomas Chalmers who when congratulated on his oratory at the General Assembly brushed the praise aside and asked: ‘Yes, yes, but what did it do?’ (Valley of the Verdict, 15).

 

The choices made about what (as far as it lies with us) a sermon should do as suggested above should be shaped by the text – but of course the ‘context(s)’ in which it is to be delivered will also impact the decision.

This where I am aware I made a choice.

My context was somewhat new to me. First time I was going to preach in the Chapel in my new role. 41mwN00ClGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The listeners do not really know me as a person or as a speaker. This suggests care. One indeed has to ‘negotiate a hearing’ (McClure) between the expectation of the listeners and self.

Indeed, yet I could not really escape from the the resulting outcome of Jesus’ sermon in verse 27…

‘They were all amazed, and kept on asking one another “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands, even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”‘ (Mark:1:27 NRSV)

…which according to Myers indicates not simply ‘incredulity’ as Jesus teaching ‘but a kind of panic associated with the disruption of the assumed order of things’.

The above being the case I chose to go for something of a more ‘disruptive’ approach (testifying voice) based rhetorically around the phrase ‘what is this?’ in which I sought to highlight a number of areas in which the teaching of Jesus (as found in Mark) might be regarded as amazing, new, or troubling.

The choice itself I remain happy with – there seems to be something not quite right about preaching about the ‘amazing, new, disruptive’ teaching of Jesus in a ‘pastoral’ voice…a domestication of the text, a taming of the first teacher who even the evil spirits obeyed.

Listening back, however, I remain less sure, however, about the rhetorical strategy of delivery in terms of the repetition with increasing speed and volume. In a relatively small chapel this creates quite an intensity not least among listeners who do not know you…context is important.

In hindsight, this is the area I would address – adopting a less intense approach in the rhetorical delivery, a bit more ‘conversational’… ‘wondering’…(yet I know when I find my self on such a slope I can ‘take off’…or as a friend once said ‘ski off piste’.

The above, personal critique made, it was yet the case that the intensity at the end of the preach was somewhat off set in the context of the ‘liturgy’ (our order of service) as the preaching was followed by a much more reflective, sung- good word of mutual blessing and time of open prayer…(although that interestingly focussed on a very local and contextual conflict.)

What is all this about (I am asking myself that)

…well it highlights I hope that preaching is complex not least when and where there is a real desire to bring self, text, and context into an event not simply of learning but of encounter with the God to whom the Scriptures bear witness

…it highlights I hope the necessity for choices and reflection on practice … oh to be sure it is not all about technique – but there is technique as in all ‘arts’

…it invites a conversation about preaching and how we see it and practice it

…it highlights I hope why I feel nervous every time I preach – I think it matters.

Oh – a final word – I do know that preaching is a divine, holy, Holy Spirit event as well as a human event (fully human/fully divine without one negating the other) – I am simply focussing on the bit of the work the preachers do – by definition the other part is God’s work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Curating rather than leading worship…

art-of-worship1In the forthcoming course that I will be offering on ‘worship’ – ‘What on earth do we think we’re doing? Crafting worship for our local neighbourhood’ we will be considering among other things: the language we use for the preparation and ‘leading’ of worship (leading, directing, curating, crafting); the importance of context (space) and the contextual (cultural); and the role and place of art and the artistic rather than the purely didactic in worship.

(Of course, and this will be another theme, I am using the language of ‘worship’ here in a ‘narrow’ [worship service/event] sense but not the most narrow sense of ‘singing’ – another thing we need to discuss).

It was with the above in mind that I have been reading the book: The Art of Curating Worship: Reshaping the Role of the Worship Leader. I chose this particular approach to ‘curating’ because the writer is a Baptist and ecclesiology does indeed impact assumptions in ways which mean that we cannot uncritically simply borrow acts and actions unless we ‘unbundle’ them.

There is so much in this book I appreciate (emphasis on art, creativity, doing some things including small things in a different way, knowing your congregation, guerrilla worship and on) that this could be a long post –

But for example, the writer makes the point (here I paraphrase) that a worship leader with eyes closed may well be worshipping but it is not so clear that they are leading the participants and the way in which those leading/curating can actually participate in the worship event, or the nature of their ‘worship’ while leading needs to be though through. Here I remember what I thought was the correct idea of a worship leader I worked with, that his worship was the sacrifice of concentrating on enabling others to worship rather than themselves being caught up as it were in ‘wonder, love, and praise’.

Yet I confess that at times I found the book a bit frustrating. I had one repeated concern. This concern relates to the open-ended nature of artistic interpretation. For it seems to me that while the author criticizes ‘individualism’ and argues for corporate participation he does not seem to allow anything but ‘individual’ and ‘personal’ response. That is, we have a lot of people in the same space and time (or more or less) but the only possible outcome can be ‘my’ interpretation never an ‘our’ interpretation precisely because the plan is such open-ended interpretation or experience of God.

To be sure, for theorists, he discusses Victor Turner’s concept of ‘communitas’ in a ‘liminal’ space but actually I am not at all sure how that actually works in practice where response is often curated to be individual and indeed at or a specific ‘station’. I have experienced such ‘communitas’ but almost necessarily this has not been as I have responded in my own space to a particular stimulus but in a context when and where I have been experiencing and sharing that moment with others in the same space and time being – indeed able to look around , smile at them, and sense – my we are all in this zone together.

Ok – some clarification.

I understand the tension in the artistic between seeking to control or to leave open an interpretation…preaching can also do this not least in its use of story.

I am not against in the slightest opportunities for personal, individual response. I like his idea of stations for response.

It is also the case that experientially we may need to start with the individual person because it is the only way we can physically and psychology begin to respond (at least in the Global North).

The above, however, does not resolve but simply begs the question of how we ‘form’ not simply individuals but ‘congregations’ together in and through our shared worship practices. We are surely concerned not simply for faithful ‘persons’ – but actually a faithful ‘people’ with some sense of shared identity. I cannot help but think that the dominant approach suggested in this book inadvertently (perhaps deliberately) militates against this.

Pierson makes much of the Lord’s Supper. In this respect I would argue that despite all of the differences in interpretation of the Lord’s Supper in terms of its meaning – Jesus and Paul did not actually leave the meaning and practice of the symbols open – but gave them what was meant to be some Christian shared meanings building upon inherited Jewish meanings. I would argue that the reason for this was that it was meant to be a shared communal practice – something we do and not simply something ‘I’ do. The words of institution are actually meant to locate us in a shared story.

The tension, if that is the correct word, between individual and corporate in terms of not simply participation but in terms of the creation, ownership, and experience of shared meaning is I think an important one in thinking about why we do what we do.

Anyway more ideas for the forthcoming course…

For anyone interested in doing this course (audit or credit – graduate or post-graduate) which will be held on Thursday nights in Stevens Road United Baptist Church Dartmouth please contact John Campbell at Acadia Divinity College mailto:

john.campbell@acadiau.ca

with questions or for information.

 

 

 

 

Why these as essential reading?

I am currently preparing the material for the course I will be delivering next semester: Crafting worship for our local neighbourhood … Or ‘What on earth do we think we’re doing?’

In the course descriptor I have included these two as ‘essential’ reading:

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Why these as essential?

Well one deals with more practical (a handbook) and one with more theoretical (cultural liturgies) issues and both practice and theology and more importantly the theology of practice are important.

Both contain stimulating if not provocative ideas which may enrich thinking and practice.

Both are contemporary books with Smith’s books in particular considered somewhat ‘leading’ in the field and as such cannot be ignored in any serious conversation which claims a ‘thoughtful’ (scholarly/academic) engagement as well as practical concern.

BUT I have not chosen these books as essential because I necessarily agree with them in all of their details or indeed in substantive parts of their arguments.

I find one for all of its strengths inherently and perhaps necessarily locked into an ecclesiology with attendant practices not necessarily my own.

I find the other likewise but also lacking substantive empirical evidence for its claimed thesis. This does not mean it is wrong – simply that I am not fully convinced.

I find both lacking the ‘earthiness’ which is in my question of ‘what on earth do we think we’re doing?’

I have chosen these books, therefore, not because they can tell us what contextual worship might look like in our neighbourhood but rather because they deserve to be engaged with in terms of the theory, theology, and practices they discuss.

This is a compliment to their quality. They are ‘thinking’ books – books in which the authors are thinking about practice and its meaning. In turn, to be sure, others may be more convinced of their perspectives than me.

But for me, the significance of these books is that they will invite US to THINK HARD (faithfully) about why WE DO WHAT WE DO IN OUR CONTEXTS – critically engaging with the wider conversation.

 

Welcome to our ‘house’

Most families or groups of people sharing a place together develop their own rituals and ways of doing things. Sometimes this is implicit, folks just learn and develop ways of doing things that work for them in terms of place, personality, time etc. That is okay – that is home.

Yet, hopefully when guests come someone takes the time to say, you can hang your coat here, the washroom (see my cultural sensitivity) is through there, no you do not need to take your shoes off (great relief if you remember you have holes in your socks!), can I get you anything, food will be through here, just eat, don’t wait, please go back for more.

In such a context welcome as hospitality is expressed through invitation and information maybe even gentle ‘instruction’ based upon the idea that one is a host, that a guest may not know and we do, and that a word here or there can make a person feel at ease and not awkward.

 

A handshake between business people

I think that the same should be true with respect to churches. As a consequence I would make it one of my basic ‘rules’ for worship leaders, that they should offer hospitality and welcome to visitors through invitation and information about when in this ‘house’ we stand, sit, sing, pray, eat the bread, drink the cup and so on.

Why not I say, why not…

Those who do not regularly attend churches will not have a clue as to what to do anymore than any of us in an unfamiliar place – they are not stupid – just unfamiliar. Those who do attend churches will often have very different practices in their ‘houses’ and can also be marginalized and excluded as they stand or sit at the wrong time or spend energy trying to work out the in-house rules. Indeed, anxiety about what to do can result in ‘I’m not going back there in a hurry’. Feeling awkward should not be a necessary condition of participating in an unfamiliar Church service.

Here I am not arguing for ‘if you are a visitor’ type of speech which can unfortunately come across as patronizing – highlighting the visitor as ‘stranger’.

I am also not asking for a lengthy explanation of why a congregation does what it does although I certainly think that this needs to be re-vistied time and again in teaching and conversation to help give meaning to meaningful practices or expose the fact that they have no meaning other than local habit and preference.

(If a practice only has local habit and preference in its favour this of course does not mean that it has to be to be stopped, it just means that we do not need to get too uptight about it not least in a cultural context where faith needs to deal with major issues).

No I am not talking here about this sort of necessary teaching and conversation about why we do what we do.

Rather I am referring to the at worst polite, and at best caring and hospitable ‘ we will stand to sing’, ‘we will eat the bread together’ sort of words that inform and invites participation from everyone including the guests (without singling them out) who we say are welcome. To those who hear them every week such words will become as unconscious as familiar road signs present, necessary, but not obtrusive, but to others they can be a very welcome guide to finding the way and joining in. If we want people to participate – stretch out a hand and welcome them in.

 

Clutching at straws and Christian hope

Woman hand hold cocktail straw on black background

In a cultural situation dominated by a malaise created through the live streaming of world pain at speeds beyond which human beings can meaningfully respond to, (Anna Robbins), there is a danger that our ‘good news stories’ sound like nothing more than the wearied morning after spin of the representatives of a political party which has just been humiliated in a general election – a kind of public grasping at straws, straws which everyone knows are not substantial enough to drink a thick milkshake through let alone build a house with.

As a consequence we need something more durable than chipper optimism…but a hope which dances on the quaking earth of resurrection ground (Matthew 28) and rises from such dark events as Matthew 27.

Such hope cares about bodies – the bodies of young people, old people, white people, black people, able people, disabled people, people in penthouses and people who others would confine to poor houses, these bodies all these bodies matter and for all such bodies he died and rose again.

Such hope challenges the violence, economics, and propaganda of religious and secular principalities and powers which will one day be exposed as ‘fake news’.

Such hope is an essential precursor to mission and – and motivates people as it moves out from a preaching angel, to preaching women, to preaching disciples, and a preaching Church with the trust that there is no situation, no community, no individual heart which is so closed like the sealed tomb that it cannot be prized open by the mercy and love of God.

Such hope is not the desperate half time talk designed to inspire us to do better in the second half but is the Christian proclamation of an idea which if it is not true – we are to be most pitied of all people.