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Monday, December 05, 2011

Playing with Fire

I wasn't going to write about this.

I had begun to think that it was just me - just a part of my "adjustment" about not being in the pulpit every Sunday. Probably more my ego than anything else, I thought, tinged with a bit of "healthy neurosis" that besets many of us who wear a collar.

But, this article from the Alban Institute has me thinking that it's not just me.

Actually, the article is excerpted and adapted from Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence and Power,  by N. Graham Standish.

Here's what originally caught my eye:
Many denominations, churches, pastors, and members have become mired in a series of worthless arguments in their attempt to diagnose why mainstream denominations and churches are in decline. Many churches simply aren't open to God. They let the will, ego, and purpose of the dominant voices in their congregation, whether the pastor's or that of a few strong members, drive the agenda. Instead of seeking God's call and purpose, they argue over who is right and wrong. Declining churches tend not to be open to God's presence. They worship, meet, and engage in ministry and mission, but their sense is that God is in heaven, we are on earth, and all that matters is doing good deeds. The congregants have no sense that Christ is in their midst, and that this presence of Christ can bless them and make their churches places of love. So they continue to engage in the practices of the church, but they don't expect an encounter with Christ.
I don't think there are too many churches in decline in my neighborhood. Most of them are either making modest gains (I heard one rector talk about how, thus far, there were 17 new pledges in his congregation), or holding their own (the losses are made up by the increases and everyone sighs a sigh of relief for another year).

Mostly, that's because going to church is part of the culture here. It's simply what one does on Sunday morning. And, if one doesn't, one might have a bit of 'splainin' to do with one's neighbors.

I can't think of one person in my neighborhood - or even those folks who come to the house to service my heating system, or the occasional leaky faucet or roof, or for renovation - who hasn't invited me to "their" church. Usually, it's for a Pot Luch Supper or some "event". Pastors here have gotten the message out to "invite someone to church" - and it's been heard.

Lately, however, I've gotten bold and pushed the point. I've been asking about Jesus. You know, how they experience the Risen Christ in their midst.

Mostly, I get a stammered response, accompanied by some words about how the music is good or the sermons are "helpful". Sometimes, even, "very helpful".

I usually ignore the comments about music. Everyone has an appreciation for the "entertainment value" of church music.

When I ask about the sermons and why they are helpful, what I mostly get is "Well, I learn so much about the Bible". Emboldened, I ask, "But, do you learn how to apply the Bible to your daily life?" The response is usually a quizzical look. Like, what does that have to do with sermon? Or, church?

Standish calls this "rational functionalism". Here's what he says about it:
Rational functionalism is rooted in the idea that we can uncover the mysteries of life and the universe mainly through rational thought and disciplined investigation. It is the tendency of denominations, their congregations, and their leaders to subscribe to a view of faith and church rooted in a restrictive, logic-bound theology that ignores the possibility of spiritual experiences and miraculous events.
What really sparked this whole thing for me was an experience I had at church on Sunday. The Second Sunday in Advent is almost always "John the Baptist Sunday" in which we encounter the wild man dressed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, eating wild locust and honey. This year, we meet him in Mark 1:1-8.

No matter the year in the Lectionary Cycle, I love the lessons for this Sunday. John the Baptist always stands for me as the symbolic part of myself that is simply wild with expectation about God's presence in my life. His is "the voice of one, crying out in the wilderness" to prepare the way of the Lord, which we hear in Isaiah 40:1-11.

I was aware that I was mildly excited to hear how the preacher would "connect the dots" of what we are experiencing in our world today with this wild expectation and preparation for the re-awakening of and re-awareness of God's presence in our lives.

Well, what I heard was a sermon on the Collect. Indeed, none of the lessons were referred to, except in passing, and, only to prove the point of the Collect. Which was:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Actually, it was not a sermon. It was a lecture. And, it wasn't on the Collect, actually. The Collect was simply a springboard for a little "talk" from the pulpit about sin - something our preacher told us doesn't happen very often. Or, often enough, apparently.

It was a good "talk". A fine "talk". It was even blessedly brief. I learned a great deal about the Seven Deadly Sins and the pros and cons of each one. And, at the end, we were invited to consider our own sins in this "penitential season of Advent". Which, I suppose, moved it from a strict lecture and more into the realm of a sorta-kinda meditation.

Forget about the part that Advent is about preparation not penitence. This was not a sermon. It was a "talk". It was all conceived and addressed from the neck up.

It was "rational functionalism".

Here's more of what Standish says:
In churches caught in the grip of rational functionalism, sermons tend to become academic papers read to the people in the pews. They don't address more basic issues: How are we supposed to endure living with pain, loneliness, and turmoil? How are we supposed to find God amid life's darkness? Bible studies focus on the historical, sociological, economic, and cultural issues of the time, with the intent of uncovering what theological message the writer of a Bible passage is trying to impart. They don't address more basic issues: What is God saying to me through the Scripture about how to live my life? What is God saying to me about what God is doing in my life, especially in the face of my suffering? How is God calling me to love others and to reach out to those who are suffering, both near and throughout the world, and who are in need of God's love as well as mine?
You see, it's not that the "sermon" was bad. It's just that it wasn't a sermon.

I understand. Writing and delivering the kind of sermon Standish is talking about is like playing with fire. It requires that you strip down naked and wrestle with the text for hours - doing all the Bible study stuff and then examining your own life and taking a deep look at what is going on in the world and in your community.

When you do that work, you are playing with the fire of the Gospel. But sometimes ......... sometimes... ..... every once in a while....if you're really lucky .... someone .... some one person .... in the congregation, is listening ..... really listening ....  and, begins to catch fire, too.

Or, at least, something in their soul begins to heat up or is "strangely warmed".

And, the danger of that, of course, is that, in Gospel-centered, non-rational functionalism, the emphasis is not on preaching for the sake of preaching - not to create a check-list of another part of the liturgy done - but, rather, to create an atmosphere wherein the congregation can experience an awareness of -  deepening relationship with - the presence of the living God in our midst.

Here's what I think. I think we're most afraid of that. We're all about "teh nice" - especially in The Episcopal Church. We're all about "teh feel-good" - at least for one hour per week.

As one of my former Senior Wardens told me, "I see church as a neighborhood Ice Cream truck, delivering good things to people."

Still makes me go, "Yuck!"

It's a fearful thing to have an awareness of the presence - or the coming - of the living God. I mean, look what it did to John the Baptist!

I understand. When you play with fire, somebody could get burned. Sometimes, it's the preacher. Sometimes, people begin to be more concerned with living a Christian life than living in the institutional church and, God knows, the institutional church doesn't want that!

Here's what Standish says about the expectations of a church which he distinguishes from one that operates on "rational functionalism" -  one he calls "blessed".
In blessed churches, people not only expect to experience God; they do experience God. Their expectations open the door to God, who stands knocking. They expect to hear the Creator's voice guiding the church to what it is called to be and do. They expect to encounter and be blessed by Christ. They expect the power of God the Holy Spirit to flow through their life and the church's, blessing them in so many ways.
Maybe the problem is that, in this Season of Expectation (NOT Penitence), I'm expecting too much.

My kids gave me a coffee mug once, for my birthday. On the outside of the mug it said, "If you expect me to live up to your expectations .....", and on the inside it said, "....lower your expectations".

Look, I'm not looking for a "WOW!" every Sunday. I don't need a praise band to get my blood pumping and I certainly don't need someone shouting, "Jeeeessssuuusss" every 10 seconds.

I am not looking for a Bible Study from the pulpit. Neither am I looking for an Adult Forum lecture or meditation on a "topic related to Scripture" or one silently entitled, "How to live a good Christian life".

I guess I feel like those men in John's Gospel (12:21) who said, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus."

I want to see someone honestly struggling with how to live the Gospel in her/his life. I want to see someone who has had an encounter with the Risen Christ, and speaks from that experienced place of authenticity and integrity and truth.

I want someone who can play with some Gospel fire. Right from the pulpit. Right in front of God and everyone. And, be unashamed about it.

I guess I am, after all, a real Anglican. I want Word and Sacrament. I want the Word to be broken open and I want to be fed by it in the same way the Bread is broken and shared so we all can be nourished and fed. And, in Standish's word, "blessed".

I guess I'd even settle for some locust and wild honey. I'll just pass on the pablum.

I may have to head to the Presbyterian Church nearby. I hear the preaching team there is really good. They even have a sermon discussion group after the sermon.

What would it be like to talk with other Christians about the gospel instead of arguing about theological positions, styles of worship, availability of programs, or to not have to worry about being too liberal or too conservative or not orthodox enough?

Hmmmm ...... What an intriguing thought.  Sounds positively wonderful to me.

Then again, I just might be playing with fire.


Lyn G. Brakeman said...

Ok Sistah, Bring back sin. Amen. We Christians do nip-ups to avoid saying the dreaded word for fear it might just offend. It's meant to offend for God's sake! And this is NO time to be thinking ourselves sinless. I love JOhn the B. This culture and church needs him BAD. Thanks Lyn

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I agree, Lyn, but let me tell you, this .... "sermon-but-not-a-sermon" just sort of scratched the surface - way up in the gray matter - and didn't address the Gospel or what John the Baptist was talking about. At. All.

I'm hungry - starving - for that. And, I don't think I'm the only one.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Are we channeling again? I've been passing that article around all over the place today.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

A colleague sent it to me early this morning. I read it and have been working on a response to it most of the day. That brother was just speaking to my heart.

Bill said...

Yup,, You’ve hit on some of my not-so-favorite points about sermons.
The first, of course, are those preachers who absolutely never talk about the Gospel. That’s just counter-intuitive. Isn’t it all about the Good Word and isn’t that supposed to be in the Gospel, so exactly what are they talking about.
The article mentions “…but their sense is that God is in heaven, we are on earth, and all that matters is doing good deeds.” This is very much the same thing I recently read about youth and “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” or God is good, we are good, God is in heaven, we’re going there someday and all is right with the world. To put it bluntly, it’s a child’s view.
I went through a long dry spell without hearing any real sermons (sermons as opposed to talks or lectures). But now I’m getting sermons again.
I attended Evensong the other night and listened to a mother’s story about the approach of Christmas. Except this was the mother of an autistic child and Christmas was a time of horror for her son. Too many changes, too many colored lights and people and noise and goings on. The child would fly into crying fits that lasted for hours. She told the story when the mother had to go across the street and replace one colored light bulb that had gone out on the neighbor’s garage. Her son had just gotten use to it and now it was out. He wouldn’t stop screaming and crying. Something had changed in his world where no change was tolerated. She went out in the middle of the night to replace the bulb so that she could get some sleep.
And then the child was ten and one day he decided he wanted a play station II for Christmas. This was the first time in his life he had ever asked for anything and now he voiced his Christmas wish. She took him to the store and he went right to the aisle. “This one – play station II – don’t open till December two five – not until December two five.” And they went home and he wrapped it very carefully and put it under the tree. “not until December two five”.
Looking around, I could tell that this story about a child’s wish and a mother’s Christmas was profoundly affecting the entire congregation. And isn’t that what a sermon is supposed to do, effect you in the heart, grab you in the stomach. Isn’t that wwhere it’s supposed to get us. I read somewhere recently that the Hebrew word for compassion (rechemet) comes from the root word rechem which means “womb” The male equivalent is bowel. That’s where these stories are supposed to reach down and grab us. They’re supposed to make us go cold and warm and hot all at the same time. The words are supposed to hit home.
If I want a history lesson, I can stay home and turn on the history channel (which I love) but if I want a sermon, where do I go if not to church.

Marie said...

"Playing with Fire" is a great book on preaching by my friend and preaching mentor David Schlafer. The sermon I heard on Sunday was indeed a dance with the fire, with the drumbeat of "400 years of silence" underneath it. It was a sermon worthy of one of John the B's best calls to repentance.

Keep dreaming about those experiences of God, sister. We need them.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Bill. I so appreciate the story you repeated and the words you use. Jesus used stories in his preaching all the time. Used history very sparingly. That's what reaches people's hearts and minds. The rest is just all about telling you how much the preacher knows - and, although there may be a place for that, the problem is that, by inference the preacher is telling you what you don't know. Which may be true, but as you say, you can get that stuff out of a book or a lecture or on TV or off the internet. A sermon is what you get when you go to church - at least, as I understand the sermonic task.

Thanks again, Bill.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Marie - Ah, now I know where my subconscious mind got the title. It's from that book. In fact, one of my sermons is in that collection. It's in the middle which the author uses to teach how to construct a sermon.

Which is hilarious, because I never sat down - with that sermon or any other - and said, "Ah, now I will do this and then I will do that". It just flows from my heart after wrestling with the text.

I'll have to get out my copy and read some of the Really Good sermons in that book.

whiteycat said...

To paraphrase Richard Rohr ... the Church is very big on information and very minimal on transformation.

Paul said...

We need passion in church. I'm all for fire. (And I don't mean just what Mike Merriman calls a "goose me Jesus" emotional high.)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for that quote, Whiteycat. It is so spot on.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Paul. "Goose me Jesus" is absolutely spot on, too. LOL. And, a hoot.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Elizabeth.
For me it's important that I sense and believe that that the sermon matters to the preacher. There's a tension felt when there are things at stake. If that's missing, it's just going thru the motions, and who really needs THAT?
Lou Poulain
Sunnyvale CA

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Lou - While that "connection" in the preacher is important to me, it's also important that I "connect" with the material. I've seen Very Ernest preachers preaching away and I really didn't "get" what they were saying or how it applied to the gospel, except that it seemed to matter to them.