The Grace that Surrounds Us

pulled away_snow_mountains_tobi gaulke


When we lived in Colorado, our church met in a simple chapel tucked into the Front Range. Behind the pulpit and altar were large windows offering a panoramic view of tall, elegant pines, rugged ridges and a vast, blue sky. Each week, I would sit in my seat next to Miska and gaze west, toward the wild. Soon, I’d hear the call to worship, but those magnificent mountains had already made the call — and I had already answered with reverence and supplication. That splendid vista offered me an invitation to lay down my cares, to breathe deeply, to be present in this one place at this one hour, to trust that “the earth and everything in it is the Lord’s.” Our pastor was an extraordinary preacher, one of the best I’d heard; but I remember the light cutting across evergreens, the white clouds drifting across craggy peaks, every bit as much as I recall any text he expounded.

Last Sunday, as I stood behind our church’s pulpit, I looked out the windows and saw heavy white flakes falling from the sky. All of our trees, shed of their Fall glamor, stretched their bare branches toward the falling grace, like a child craning her neck and sticking out her tongue to catch the magic. We paused. We looked out the windows and watched the snow. We were quiet. It’s likely those few quiet moments were the best sermon we heard that day.

There’s a reason why, when Jesus began to preach, he would at times say things like, consider the lilies or watch the birds. There is a grace that surrounds us, a grace not of our own making. We can receive God’s kindness from the world around us, we can sense the truth and welcome it and walk right into it and allow all these mercies to hold us up. Sometimes we need words and explanation. Sometimes we just need big eyes and a wide-open heart.

As Kosser and Harrison put it:

The moon put her hand
over my mouth and told me
to shut up and watch.

Speaking Amid the Pain

I believe that if we happen to be one of those folks who make it our work to attempt to say something helpful about God, someone who seeks to offer some light or clarity in this confusing world, then we must move into the pain. Sometimes we will speak with boldness. Sometimes we will whisper with a tremble in our voice. Sometimes, this ruin we encounter, the stories we enter, these heartaches, require only our silence.

If a preacher knows only principles and ideals and theological maxims but never goes silent… If a pastor refuses to wade into the dreadful terrors… If a pastor is too fearful to acknowledge the uncertainties, the oppressive fog… If a pastor never weeps with her people… If a pastor never wrangles with the weight covering one he loves or the sorrow pressing upon his own soul…

If a writer attempts to speak on questions of faith but never lays down the pen to wipe away the tears… If they seem certain of their cause or their position but they forget their own humanity — or the humanity of those they are writing to (or especially the humanity of those they are correcting or cajoling)… If a writer never comes up short, never finds their words paltry, never joins me in my quandary or sadness…

Such people, no matter how well intentioned, may provide me with insight or instruction, but they will inevitably leave me alone. And worse, despite their language, they will not offer me God.

It’s important for me to return to Orthodox theologian Thomas Hopko’s description of his sobering first days in seminary:

I entered St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 1957. The school was housed in an apartment house in New York City. Our professors were refugees from communist lands, mostly Russians. My first lesson in seminary was that I was never to say anything about God that I could not say over a furnace of burning babies.

I don’t know what to say about Hopko’s words here, what could I possibly say? But I believe I would trust a man who would write such a thing, a man who would know such a thing. I believe he would have something to say to me, something that would penetrate my heart. I believe he would offer me God, and I believe I would not be left alone.

 

Sermon Born of Cold

The 12º chill did not stop him, though if he had even a lick of sense, it would have. The run was long and frigid, and the hot shower and hot coffee could not wrest the cold from his bones. Still, these were the hours he’d been given for writing his sermon, the words he listened for each week, the words that sometimes arrived as a slow burn but sometimes limped in with hat in hand, apologetic for their plainness.

So he settled by the fire, with his grandmother’s worn, patchwork quilt. He watched the flicker and curled his toes toward the warmth. Whatever comes will come. And it will all be a gift.

Preaching

The idea of ‘preaching’ has fallen on rough times, often tarnished by those who claim to be friends. Perhaps I’m a hopeless idealist, but I think it’s a mistake to surrender a good word to the wolves.

At the same time, I also feel like Reinhold Niebuhr who confessed, “There’s something ridiculous in a callow, young fool like myself standing up to preach.”

At any rate, I continue my Church Words series at Deeper Church today, pondering the old, out of favor word: preaching. This subject gets me stirred up.

The Diary of a Plain Pastor

And mind you many a fellow who waves his arms like a furniture-remover isn’t necessarily any more awakened than the rest. On the contrary. I simply mean to say that when the Lord has drawn from me some word for the good of souls, I know, because of the pain of it. {George Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest}

 

Sometimes my sermons are boring. I know, sometimes I bore myself. It’s actually worse for me. If you’re listening, you have the option of nodding off, and you can even appear especially spiritual if you arrange it to appear as though you are buried intently in your Bible. Standing at the lectern, however, it is immensely hard to snatch a snooze.

Thankfully, Christian preaching is not about capturing attention or giving the congregation a good whirl. Preaching takes shape in the very human act of a Christian community gathering together to speak, receive and obey God’s words. Seldom flashy. This should be no surprise. With my sons, I suspect it will be the mundane, forgotten rhythms far more than the few high-gravity encounters that will most profoundly shape their souls. Dinner conversations, popsicles on the front deck, afternoons mindlessly tossing the ball – it’s all about the rhythm, presence, living our story. The same for a church. We gather, we speak, we listen, we strike the rhythm again and again. We are present. We live the story.

Yet none of this suggests the Bible is dull or lackluster. The Good Book burns. The Word illumines. Preachers use to speak of a “fire in the bones.” I’ve felt that fire here and there. And the priest is right, there is a pain to it. There is a pain to knowing the stories of the friends who’ve gathered, the ones who can barely drag themselves, limp with tribulation or fatigue, to this sacred space. There is a pain to knowing that a few who are listening are giving God and hope one last shot, but just barely. There is a pain when you’ve seen a hint of something beautiful – but you know you have no words and that you can’t make anyone gaze along with you and that, even if you could make them, you wouldn’t because forced love strips all the love right from the thing.

The old priest speaks of God drawing the word from him, this word good for the soul. That seems about right. When one of these fire-in-the-bones moments happen, I confess it’s usually a surprise. Typically, it accompanies a solemn holiness or a rupture of laughter or, most often, tears – but it’s always as if something’s happening to me rather than me making something happen. It’s God prodding, God pushing into my own heart, finding my disappointment or joy or sorrow (for myself or others) and then bringing that hidden place into the open.

And it’s painful. It’s painful to be reminded of your own brokenness and to glimpse the brokenness of others more clearly. This isn’t a woe-is-me pain, for sure. This is the pain each of us knows when we’ve done a good work, and we cry and laugh at the beauty before us. The farmer viewing his crop at the cool of dusk. A mother watching her son walk the aisle. A painter laying down her brush and a poet speaking syllables into life. One of the strangest truths in God’s world is this uncanny coupling of pain and beauty.

But a good portion of my art happens in the parish. I’m a pastor, the plainest sort. And today I’m listening to the old priest and finding my own tale mingled with his.

Questioning the Sermon

As pastors, if you won’t let God use you to make a new world, through faithful words, then all you can do is service the old one. And that’s no fun. {Walter Brueggemann}

Taking my cue from the Good Bishop Annie, I think it would be a shame indeed to offer trivial sermons about trivial things. The Bible tells a most outrageous story. If it’s true, as I happen to believe it is, then our reality has been redefined; we need new eyes to see our life (and the entire cosmos) in new ways; and – perhaps best of all – hope has truly come, in Jesus.

This means that whenever I go to my work of wading into Scripture’s deep waters, my task is to immerse myself in the Story, to let it up close so that the text’s questions become my questions, so that the characters’ fears and worries and awe find their way into my bones. My aim for the Sunday sermon is not to dumb the text down to a few bullet-points and a poem but rather to open a door where our community can encounter the possibility of a world-made-new.

As I begin to get words on paper for Sunday’s homily, then, I need to wrestle with whether or not my words have any life to them, whether they are faithful to the Story, whether the words have any chance of helping people grapple with God-alive. Here are a few of the sorts of questions I ask to help me discern if I’m meandering in something like the right direction:

Are these words soaked in the Biblical narrative?

Will these words kindle holy imagination?

Will these words give space for sacred discontent, all the while pointing toward redemption and joy?

Do these words tend to our true questions, the deep questions?

Do these words yield to the gospel’s tensions and mysteries?

Will these words ask us to obey, rather than to merely listen?

Do these words live in the here and now, in the world as it actually is?

Do these words find their life and breath from the Living Word, Jesus – and from the Spirit?

Will these words announce – with grace and with boldness – Jesus as Lord over all?

There are more questions – and better ones, I’m sure – but these are a start.

On Preaching

Write as if you were dying. At the same time assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients…What would you be writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality? {annie dillard}

Words matter to me, very much. Ideas matter. Images matter. This trio of convictions probably explains a bit of why my vocation dances around two acts that have much to do with words, ideas and images: writing and preaching. I usually chat about writing here. Lately, I’ve been thinking about preaching.

I don’t think of myself as “a preacher,” at least not in the Huck Finn South sort of way. But I do gladly embrace the old and honorable pastoral practice of immersing myself in the Biblical text in hopes of glimpsing God – and then offering what I see (or what I think I see) to my community of faith. I believe – bet all my marbles on it, in fact – that God’s story is the narrative that is trustworthy and that gives meaning and dignity to my story, yours too.

For me, then, preaching is not about giving a lecture or merely passing along religious information. Nor is it an attempt to whip people up into some devoted fervor. A sermon is far more personal, more engaged, more treacherous and alive and messy than that.

A sermon, a good one anyways, tends first to God – and to us second. We get a whiff of what God has in mind, what kindness or justice or grace God intends – and then we ask ourselves if we have the courage (the faith, you might say) to believe, to obey, to spurn fear or control and dive into the mercy. I continually return to Karl Barth’s reflection on what happened whenever he stood behind the pulpit: “When I look out at the congregation, I realize they are here with one question: Is it true? Can it be true that there is a God who is loving and wise and powerful? Answer that question.”

Here’s a way to discern if we’ve told God’s story well: does it simply sound too good to be true? does it touch a hope so deep that it causes us to tremble at the possibility? do we wonder if it could possibly be true – and is there a certain sense of fear – of doubt – that it might not be? If we encounter that kind of fear and trembling, chances are we’ve gotten somewhere close to the God of the Bible.

Soon, I’ll post a list of other questions I bring to the text, in hopes that my sermons will not “enrage by [their] triviality.”