Saturday, September 13, 2014

What are we doing when we preach?

Back in the mists of time, sometime around May, I was at the exceptional Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis. A five day feast of speakers, worship and making new friends that I enjoyed and felt very refreshed by.  The purpose, to talk about preaching, and to have great examples of preachers and to consider how our preaching can be improved and be stimulating and engaging.
A full Central Lutheran Church, Minneapolis (from Festival Flickr Stream

We did a lot of how, I didn't pick up a lot of 'why?'.  It seemed to taken as a given that we accepted the importance of and the reasons for preaching.  It wasn't the nature of the conference.  But as I consider the possibility of taking on a course of Study - a Doctorate of Ministry in Preaching - the question of the nature and purpose of preaching is at the forefront of my thinking at the moment,

Let's start with me, though, as it is kind of obvious but needs to be said - I love preaching,  More accurately, I love the discipline of preaching, the need to break open scripture, pray through it, consider it, struggle with it and relate it to the lives of faith that I believe our discipleship of Christ calls us to.  For me, preaching is not an academic exercise, but a faithful one.  I share my own understandings (and those of others) in relating our faith and worshipping life together to our everyday walk with Christ.

In this I am assisted, inspired, and challenged by a weekly gathering called 'The Sermon Circle' - a group open to all of between five and thirteen of us that meets on the Thursdays at 10am before the Sunday I am preaching on.  We also meet on the weeks I am not preaching, and the group meets when I am unable to be there, because of the value in sharing our thoughts (and sometimes pooling our ignorance) together as we are confronted by the readings for the coming Sunday.  This is a pretty raw form of Bible Study, with each voice having it's value and it gets me away from ever feeling I might be a 'religious expert' - there's too much wisdom in the room for that!

This Sermon Circle, along with the encouragement and thoughtful response of the people of St John the Divine, Victoria - my current (and future) spiritual home - has been the liberation of my own preaching and I have felt much more than in previous situations that what I am sharing from the pulpit (or the nave) is from, for and connected to the community I serve as Parish Priest.  But that still doesn't start to answer the question - "Why preach?" or the adjunct "What is it for?"

The question is brought into sharp relief when we consider how peculiar and even anachronistic the idea of a person standing up in front of a relatively large group of people and speaking to (or at best with, and at worst, at) them.  In this world of 140 Character updates, interactive, hi-tech, graphic heavy expression - where (apparently) the average transient attention span is now down to 8 seconds and the average length of sustained selective attention is probably limited to about 10 minutes (up to forty for an engaged task) Thanks Wikipedia for the figures - interesting summary article here - just in case your attention is waning and you need a distraction...

So, what are we preachers (or homiletes) doing in sharing words for a certain amount of time, usually between 13 and 17 minutes in my case, it seems...(sermons here to prove it)?

Well, here's the start of my thoughts.  There may be more to come, though as is usually the way with blogging that may be years down the road!

I believe that with a faith rooted in scripture, no matter how we may express that, or how we approach it - from a more literal or conservative interpretative framework, or a more metaphorical or liberal one - we have a responsibility to engage with the text. Not just to read it, but to consider it's meaning, to join in the stories, to consider how they meet with us and where we are today.  There is a place for having someone lead us in that - preaching is ONE (but by no means the only) way in which we can do that.

And if we are to take the roots of our faith seriously, there is some value in making - consciously or unconsciously - the statement that we are going to talk about these things for a while. Or we are going to listen as someone shares their interpretation - not as an expression of superiority or control, though preaching is used that way.  In the same way that as priest I see my worship leading as facilitating the worship of the community, I see my role as preacher as facilitating an involvement with scripture and with the realities of faith - part of a process, not the whole of it.  A place I have been liberated to take by the Church which supports me in my role as their servant and minister.

I am also convinced that there is a calling to be counter-cultural in this!  To say that there are things worth paying attention to, and to give time to them. By this I don't mean the preacher him or herself - though a good preacher is a joy to listen to and to engage with.  I mean the idea that we feel the need to apply our faith, to get to grips with our story passed down over generations and over many centuries - to explain and explore, to recognise our part in a greater story and a greater community of faith and not just to create a faith in our own image, that idea is worth putting some effort into.

I do believe there are lots of ways in which we can think of making our preaching more engaging. I am sure there are ways in which we can facilitate a common learning together, within our acts of worship and beyond, that are creative and imaginative. I am committed to, and love using, Social Media to share, explore, consider, debate.  But after all this time (I have been ordained for 18 years) I am convinced that there is still a place for preaching, and a role for those of us who take the strands of faith and tie a few together to add to the tapestry.

But I am open to discussion.  And not always right. Feel free to comment.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Yes, I preach

To keep things moving on the blog, here's the sermon from Sunday.  I have been thinking about the purpose and nature of preaching lately - but such lofty thoughts will need to wait....

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sunday Sermon

Of course, having made reference to my Sunday Sermon in the previous blog post, I really should post that too...

God is nowhere?

Good song to go with this morning's sermon, and indeed last Sunday's sermon

Am going through a rediscovery of various things - including some of the music I haven't listened to for a while, and a reconnection with the heartfelt part of faith.  It's easy to get lost in the practicalities of Church, or the intellectual aspects of talking of faith.  This last year has been a journey into a deeper emotional engagement with my own faith and a desire to share and foster that in the community I am privileged to be leading, St John The Divine, Victoria.

Anyway, this song works well as part of a theme. Jars of Clay, Silence.  The video is fan made...

The illustrious history of weepy women

I wondered about putting this on New Kid Deep Stuff, but decided that things have been too quiet here lately - so here's my thoughts for the commemoration of St Monnica, mother of St Augustine, which is marked tomorrow (August 27th) in the Anglican Calendar.

First of all I need to share what the Anglican Church of Canada writes in the way of biographical information for this day:

Today we remember Monnica, a woman of fourth-century North Africa and the mother of Augustine of Hippo. She was a devout Christian, regular in her prayers and careful in raising her children to be Christians as well. However, her eldest son Augustine wandered away from the Church in his youth and came under the spell of an outlaw sect  known as the Manichees. Monnica refused to give up on her son and tried to get others to argue him out of his infatuation with Manichean teachings. She once approached a bishop who told her that, given time, her son would certainly outgrow his false opinions. But Monnica would not be soothed and continued her entreaties.  The bishop finally groaned: “Woman, go away from me now ! As sure as you live, it is impossible that a son of such tears should perish!”

Augustine was embarrassed by his mother, and when he decided to leave North Africa and seek his fortune in Italy, he tricked her so that she would not come with him. He ought to have known her better, for she eventually showed up on his doorstep. By that time Augustine had at last renounced the Manichees and was slowly moving back towards the Church. Monnica had the supreme joy of beholding the fulfillment of her prayers at the Easter Vigil of the year 387, when Augustine was baptized at the basilica of Milan.

Shortly afterwards he decided to return to North Africa with his mother, but while they were waiting for a ship to take them across the Mediterranean Monnica fell ill. It was soon clear that she was dying, and Augustine became anxious, knowing she had always wanted to be buried in North Africa. She told him not to worry, saying: “Nothing is far from God; I need not fear that he will know where to raise me up at the end of the world.”

 A few days later she died, at peace with God, the Church, and her son.

And the Bible Readings set for this day give some background... Click on the references to go to links at The Oremus Bible Browser.... 

And here's what I think....

The illustrious history of teary women

At first sight it looks as though today`s Bible readings are about weepy women – along with Monnica being described as a mother who weeps for her son when he joins the Manichees and longs for his return to Christian faith.  We celebrate Augustine tomorrow, so we know the end of the story…

So often, tears are seen as signs of weakness – and when we see someone weeping we are conditioned to think that this person can`t cope.  We read of Hannah in today`s lesson from 1 Samuel and see her disappointment and distress at not being able to conceive.  We hear Jesus talk of women in labour struggling and tearful.  If we go elsewhere we see the women who go to the garden after Jesus` death weeping, and Mary Magdelene weeping in front of who she thought was the gardener.  Alongside the story of the woman who washed Jesus feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.

But these tears aren`t tears of weakness.  And weeping isn`t a sign of not being able to cope.  Nor is it just the province of women – the writers of the psalms talk of weeping by the rivers of Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah cries out “Oh that my head were a spring of water and my eyes fountains of tears”, King David wept over the loss of his Son, Absalom, and in the shortest verse in the Bible (at least in the King James translation) we read ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11.35).

Weeping becomes something that has multiple layers – from bereavement, to loss of nation, longing for forgiveness, compassion and hope.  It’s not that a person isn’t strong, but that only tears can express the depth of their feeling.

For Monnica, mother of St Augustine, whose commemoration is part of today’s Eucharist, her tears were for her son’s spiritual life.  She, faithful in following Christ, struggled with Augustine’s drifting to a sect which she saw as so far from the truth.  She wanted her son to know the fullness of the faith she had found in Christ, and the knowledge of God’s love in Christ.  For those of you who like to know these things, Manichaeism was a Gnostic sect that believed that matter was evil and spirit was good – the material world was dark and the spiritual world was light.  It was a dualistic religion of asceticism and self-denial.

She saw her son drifting from the fullness of life offered in Christ, and wept with compassion, loss, and even hope.  In dismissing her, perhaps in a short tempered moment, the nameless Bishop actually seemed to speak some truth – it is impossible that a son of such tears should perish.  When such love and compassion is shown, change, transformation, hope is present. 

I suffer from two great afflictions –  certainly when it comes to expressing emotion – that I am English, and that I am a man.  From a country that still believes in the ‘stiff upper lip’ and a western society that somehow continues to buy into the myth that ‘big boys don’t cry’.  I am learning again to recognise that God doesn’t live solely in places of reason, order, clear thinking, argument and structure.  God is in our hearts, our emotions, our messy lives, our love, our compassion, our frustration, our despair and our tears.

So if you encounter any wailing people in our scripture or any of our Christian story – be aware that such tears are blessed, and God hears the cry of our hearts when the words fail.  I thank God for the illustrious history of weepy women, and men, and pray that I may too be able to follow their example. 

Thanks be to God.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Today at Church

Not done this for a while, but today's Pentecost Celebration at St John the Divine was so enjoyable that I think I want to post a sermon which shares a bit of the holy chaos and the feeling of welcome and inclusion which is (for me) one of the strengths of St John's.  So here is my thought for today!

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Collecting it all together

If you do want to read the entirety of my dissertation on "power and pastoral ministry' (and who wouldn't ? (joke) ) then it might be easier if I just give all the links in one post....  So here goes - click on a title to be taken to the full chapter

Chapter 1 - The roots of power in pastoral relationships
Chapter 2 - A New Testament understanding
Chapter 3 - Power structures within the Church
Chapter 4 - The use of power and its abuses
Chapter 5 - Observations and Conclusions

And there we go...

Friday, June 06, 2014

Last but not least - Bibliography

I should really let everyone know my sources, so here's a link. 


That's all folks.  I have a couple of essays which might bear re-reading and sharing, I will get back to you on that.  In the meanwhile, enjoy some Anathema

Concluding Chapter

Here it is - some threads drawn together in my deliberations from 18 years hence.  I am, as previously said, amazed by how much of what I wrote back then is embedded deep within my style and convictions as I proceed in this wonderful, weird and wacky world of  Ministry.  As the years go by I realise more and more the privilege and responsibility of this calling - and how much fun it can be, as well as the deeply moving experiences of being alongside people in all aspects of life and death.  I could say more, and will do.  But here's the last chapter... and for those of you who like such things there will be a Bibliography added soon...

The nature of power in Pastoral Ministry

Chapter 5
Observations and Conclusions

The purpose of this study has been to make it clear that to attempt to deny or ignore the power inherent in Pastoral encounters is deluded and opens the way to serious, though often unconscious, abuses of the power that exists whether it is acknowledged or not.  This acknowledgement of power and the acceptance of the authority conveyed upon those engaged in pastoral ministry is the beginning of any attempt to move on and tackle the related issues that arise in pastoral work.  The presence of power will, whether known or not, influence any pastoral encounter for ill or for better.[more]

Thursday, June 05, 2014

And on we go... Power (and it's abuses) in Pastoral Mnistry

This next chapter is a telling one, within it is a short reflection on when the wielding of power in Pastoral ministry goes wrong, using in part the experience of the Nine O'Clock Service in the UK which having begun as a seemingly positive and life-affirming attempt to meet people 'where they were' turning into a community of manipulation and abusive behaviour. 

The nature of power in Pastoral Ministry
Chapter 4
The use of power, and its abuses
In the previous chapter we saw how power has been an integral part of the ministry of the Church since it’s inception, by the example of the power and authority within the ministry of Jesus and by the authority conferred onto the Apostles and subsequent leaders of the Church.
Power, and the authority which often makes that power possible, undergirds the relationship between client and minister in any pastoral encounter. [more]