Welcome to the Party!

I haven’t written many blogs lately because the world is full of people sharing their opinion. I still have lots of thoughts about things but I want to help ease the tension rather than cause more. So these days preacher humor is a primary delight for me. If I’m not careful I will wander into the abyss of trying to find a Scripture text to fit the great joke that I just heard. Honey works better than vinegar in a sermon any day. To his horror a pastor just about to preach realized that he had left his sermon notes in his study. As his apology, he said, “This morning I shall have to depend upon the Lord for what I might say, but next Sunday I will come better prepared.” Yeah, right?

Who needs notes for a kind word, a saving word? If you know the joke, if it struck a chord then it’s easy to retell. So it should be with the Gospel. Jesus brings Good News. Every worship service should be more like a wedding reception than a funeral. Last Sunday I asked everyone to turn around and say, “Welcome to the party!” It was fun and uplifting. Some people better than others can brighten up my day, but we all can spread the cheer in our otherwise stressed world.

NFL millionaires taking a knee, North Korean nukes and ICBM’s, Trump, Congress, Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Wildfires, Walls, Racism, and more, what’s the hot topic on your mind or Facebook feed? What’s the crisis about at your house, or in your community? Some people make sure they’re plugged into the concerns of the world. They meet with their morning coffee group or hang out at the barber shop. I have friends like that, and cherish my time with Cindy in the early evening when we watch the news. We tongue-in-cheek call it the “War News,” because that’s what my parents called it, and they called it that because it was usually true. It still is. How many years have we had in the last one hundred that didn’t have a war somewhere on the globe? Zero. All the more reason for us to hear some good news, especially THE Good News!

I don’t do a morning coffee group or a regular golf foursome, but I do go to the Y every morning during the week. I flip between news channels at 5:30 a.m. and they can’t seem to agree that the sky is blue on a cloudless day! All of the issues are important to someone, but, like it’s said, “Politics is all local.” In other words, what matters is what matters to you, your locale, community, where you live, work, and walk, so I look at the local news or the Weather Channel. You can’t get more local than that.

So who do discuss things with – the things that really matter? Is it your golf friends, your book club buddies, your Sunday School Class, or whomever? I heard of a preacher recently who asks people to send him texts during his sermons so he can respond and literally connect with the congregation. That is a little much for my taste, and I can’t type that fast. Autocorrect isn’t usually my friend either. In our polarized society I much rather prefer to focus on Jesus, and connect with people using humor. I want people to leave St. John’s with the sense that God was pleased with their worship, that it was a joyful celebration of faith over fear.

This is annual meeting season in United Methodist churches. We elect officers, make plans, and vote on other important matters. We get to celebrate connectionalism, the United Methodist hallmark that says “Together We Can Do More!” That’s the point of having a cadre of friends to share with, and sharing a vibrant worship service. We get to connect with God and one another.

Six months after the owner of a little store at a crossroads was appointed postmaster the folks in Washington started getting complaints. Not one piece of mail had left the village. The postmaster was investigated. He explained his reasoning, “It’s simple. The bag ain’t full yet!” What a poor excuse. What if we acted like that? What if we waited until our lives we’re full of blessings before we shared any of them? If we waited until we could afford children to have them then there certainly wouldn’t be many.

Our bag doesn’t have to be full for us to share our blessings with others. If your bag isn’t full, that doesn’t matter. Use what you have. Share what has been generously given to you. Enrich the lives of others with what you have right now. Smile and spread all the joy that you can. Remember that joy isn’t the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God. In our frazzled and stressed world we get to be God’s smile. Let it show! Tell a good one for me. I need some new material!

Take a Smile Pic

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Gratitude for Lay Servants and Lay Speakers

It’s been my pleasure to teach the Advanced Lay Servant course, “From Your Heart to Theirs” for the past 7 years. My last stint starts Sunday week. It’s a course that is subtitled, “Delivering an Effective Sermon.” The gist of the whole course is to encourage Lay Servants to realize that the best message is one that comes from the heart and touches someone else’s.

The official teacher’s guide to the course is good and helpful, but like many curricula it needs tweaking to juice it up and grab the attention of the students. The first week of class is mostly lecture with facts about different kinds of sermons, Bible interpretation aids, pluses and minuses of manuscript versus extemporaneous preaching styles, use of the hymnal, and tips on how to use one’s voice more effectively. The bottom line is that the course is about making it personal. The second week is when we listen to each other to see if that’s what we’ve done.

A “heart-to-heart” message is authentic, genuine, and has immediate “street cred.” It is not about sharing a speaker’s glamorous life events, but sharing how our ordinary lives intersect with and are really a part of God’s bigger narrative. The Scriptures are the text and we are the illustrations. Of course, I know that good sermons depend upon thorough exegesis; an interpretation from or out of the text itself. The biggest temptation in preaching a “heart-to-heart” sermon is a tendency to depend on eisegesis; a reading into the text from our own experiences and perspectives.

I submit that although exegesis is most important, the application of that knowledge into our contemporary existence through eisegesis is vital, too. We are required to superimpose our stories onto Scripture in order to be real and relevant. Therefore, I often find myself preaching in a way that uses my personal narrative in an illustrative manner. The Scripture speaks for itself, but I also need to share how it has applied to my life.

My children would have gladly preferred that I kept much of this to myself through the years, and I agree. Too much of the preacher’s story and not enough of Jesus’ makes for a self-centered, look-at-me-and-say-“wow!” hubris. Sharing too much of my children’s stories, usually without their permission, was downright embarrassing! I exposed their lives to a critical public.

I may have seen the moral of the story, but my kids and parishioners probably thought, “There he goes again, tooting his horn about his family.” Now, granted, most of the time these stories were self-deprecating, but it was still overdone. The sermon should be mostly about God’s salvific work than about me-me-me even if primarily about foibles! On the other hand, an all-exegesis sermon can sound like a commentary read aloud – b-o-r-i-n-g! There needs to be a balance, and sermons need to be as creative as the Creator!

The emphasis of the teacher’s guide for “From Your Heart to Theirs” is to help students realize that they already have a basis for ready-made sermon illustrations. Their personal experiences are the source. The seductive pitfall, however, is to start from experience and then hunt a Bible text to back it up. I encourage using the lectionary as the foundation for any given Sunday’s sermon, praying and studying through the passage and other information, then pondering where a speaker’s life and the text meet. Then tell the story!

This process is where the rubber meets the road for Lay Servants, Lay Speakers, and clergy. All of us can benefit from using a timeline of the key events in our lives. Those events can provide tons of illustrations about God’s providence and our obedience to or thwarting of God’s perfect will.

Baptisms, marriages, deaths, grammar school antics, high school friendships and graduations, college encounters, adult friendships, love and heartbreak, parenting, illnesses and the like can provide living proof of God’s faithfulness. Stories that make these scenes come to life animate the sermon and enliven the speaker who can “see” what’s being shared and say it more easily than rattling off a memorized illustration or someone else’s humorous story. The hearers can easily connect their similar adventures or misadventures, and find themselves drawn into God’s narrative. It makes preaching more than just an “inner dance,” as someone has called it. It becomes a “conga line” that brings everyone along!

I appreciate so much the work of Lay Servants. It is an honor to be asked to teach preaching, and it is a blessing when these students fill our pulpits when clergy are out sick or we’re celebrating Laity Sunday – whenever! Preaching is an art that can be learned if laity and clergy alike are willing to tell God’s story and their story in such a way that’s faithful to Scripture and magnifies Christ. Thank you to every Lay Servant and Lay Speaker for all that you do to bring God’s Word to life! We’re all walking sermons!

Saying What You Mean, and Meaning What You Say

As I embark on a new week of lecturing and learning with my classes at Emory, I’m hoping to communicate clearly. I’ll also be preaching Wednesday night at Cannon Chapel. I have been known to stick my foot in my mouth. I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone.

I know a few preachers, and I resemble the remark, that can get so tongue-tied that what’s said is barely intelligible. In the homiletics field a verbal faux-pas is called a “spoonerism.” Examples include: A lack of pies (A pack of lies), It’s roaring with pain (It’s pouring with rain), and Wave the sails (Save the whales). They are named after the Rev. W.A. Spooner who lived from 1844 to 1930. He served as Dean and Warden of New College at Oxford University. He was said to unknowingly make verbal slips frequently. His verbal goofs were especially legendary at chapel services. Once when officiating at a wedding it was reported that he gave the following directions to the groom: “Son, it is now kisstomary to cuss the bride.” How awful!
 
Preachers aren’t the only ones who say things that are taken the wrong way. One of my favorite stories of miscommunication is the one about a “snowbird” from the North who wanted a week’s vacation at a Florida campground, but was concerned about the accommodations. Uppermost in this person’s mind were the toilet facilities, but the person was too proper to write “toilet” in a letter to the campground owner. The inquirer finally abbreviated “bathroom commode” to “BC” and asked in the letter if the campground had its own “BC.” The campground owner was baffled by this euphemism, so he showed it around, but nobody knew what it meant. Finally, someone said, “Oh, that’s simple. ‘BC’ means ‘Baptist Church.’ The letter writer is asking whether the campground has its own Baptist Church.” So the owner sat down and wrote: “To Whom It May Concern: I’m sorry about the delay in answering your letter, but I am pleased to inform you that a BC is located just nine miles north of the campground and is capable of seating 250 people at one time. I admit it is quite a distance away if you are in the habit of going regularly, but no doubt you will be pleased to know that a great number of people take their lunches along and make a day of it. They usually arrive early and stay late. The last time my wife and I went was six years ago, and it was so crowded we had to stand up the whole time we were there. It may interest you to know that there is a supper planned to raise money to buy more seats. They’re going to hold it in the basement of the BC. I would like to say that it pains me greatly not to be able to go more regularly, but it is surely no lack of desire on my part. As we grow older, it seems to be more of an effort, especially in cold weather. If you decide to come to our campground, perhaps I could go with you the first time, sit with you and introduce you to all the folks. Remember, this is a friendly community.”
 
How can we straighten out our communication before we let the ship hit the sand? Key to both good communication and love is listening, thinking things through before they’re said (or written). Someone said that fifty years after his family had left Germany, Walter Kissinger was asked why he didn’t share his famous brother Henry’s heavy German accent. “I,” he replied, “am the Kissinger who listens.” Amen!