The Individual Impact of Writing a Sermon

Preparing a speech is something I have done in the past and is an activity I have relished. While there is certainly a great deal of anxiety that comes with performing before an audience, the thought process that goes into presenting a message to others is unlike anything else. When I have written essays, the intended audience is almost always the grade. I see that the only people who will generally read these assignments are myself and the professor. In writing a journal, I know the primary audience is myself. Even this blog, something that other will read, is written as a means of communicating my personal beliefs to a larger whole. It is a means of pointing my audience to myself and to whatever I have thought is relevant and meaningful enough to share.

crucifixion

 

There is a painting done by Matthias Grunewald called the Isenheim Altar piece. In it, John the Baptist stands to the right of the crucified Jesus and points to him. This painting was most recently brought up in a class by a visiting

The role of the preacher is to facilitate the spirit. Prior to this year, I had never realized the reality of this statement. I have written two sermons at this point, a smaller one for my multi-faith worshiping community and a full length one for my preaching class. In both, my creativity in putting words to the page was inspired by my faith and I felt as though I truly was working with the spirit. Being a somewhat of a liberal intellectual, I feel very odd acknowledging a reality of God in my life. I often think of His esoteric presence, something that is influential but not powerfully moving. However, by beginning to point to the cross, there is a power the raises my eyes to that reality. In writing a sermon, I feel as though I look upon that Cross, the holy to which I am trying to understand, and am captivated by its complexity and depth. Only after taking time and internalizing the sermon do I pull myself away enough that I can look to my audience, reach out my hand, and invite them to look on with me at what I am trying to understand.  A preacher’s objective in speaking is not to confine the Cross in his or her words but to use his or her words as a key to a latched door. The objective is to open the audience to the presence and power of the Spirit in the many forms it takes so that their lives might be changed. professor, but it is one I have seen a few times since high school. It has been explained to me that John represents the modern preacher and indicates his/her role in that vocation. To preach the word of God, to lead a religious community, is to point to the cross. I would take this meaning a bit further and say that the preacher’s role is to point to the Cross and God’s truth with one hand and stretch out his or her other in a gesture that would say, “Come with me and let us see”.

When I write a sermon, because I am trying to point to the cross, a sense of responsibility grips me. It is a responsibility to the Spirit, to the text, to those that have written it, and to myself and my audience. It is a space in which I must interweave the issues that face us today with the Presence which brings people to church. But more than anything, I have seen the opportunities as a gift in which I am able to share my experience in a way which connects myself and others to God. I hope that in my future endeavors at sermon writing I can honor the opportunity that is given to me with humility and wisdom.

 

Advertisements

Why do we as Christians do theology?

The question I pose is one I have in the past struggled with greatly because of my over emphasis on objective moral law and the strict code of the Bible. The issue in this case was, why do we speak of the nature of God? Why do we postulate anything if our only source of objective knowledge is the Bible? Why conjecture about what heaven and hell look like without data from the Bible? From this standpoint, I believed I was pursuing a useless exercise in my theologizing.

However, I still persisted in it. I continued to think of the nature of God, the possibility of salvation, the definition of Sin, the proper conduct of relationship. All of these questions were touched upon in the Bible (more than touched upon in fact, we’ve got a couple thousand pages minimum of source material to go off of) but I felt I needed to continue exploring what these things meant by reading, watching movies, writing, playing video games, talking, and questioning. This curiosity about the divine nature of things could not be silenced.

But what does this mean? I did not suspect it as a beneficial practice until these past few years. To inquire about God seemed a noble endeavor, but to make a judgment on something I cannot determine seemed sinful, like a practice that did not put faith in God’s goodness and ability to make decisions for me. However, through studying the Bible in my second half of college and first year at divinity school, I have determined that to put ultimate faith in the Bible as I have described and to abandon or hamper that curiosity which strives to know God is the true error.

Questions of the Bible’s make-up have led me to question its true authority. A book, compiled over thousands of years from the pens of numerous authors and missing so much from the destruction of time, not to mention its somewhat arbitrary (in my mind) canon selection made me question its importance at all. How could such a thing be authoritative, let alone infallible? But to discount the Bible in such a fashion is to discount the curiosity of millions from the past, a curiosity which I  continue to experience and better understand because of my studies.

After regarding the shortcomings of both practices, relying on individual curiosity and on the infallibility of the Bible, I have come to the conclusion (thus far in my life) that one must do both. To take either alone is to discount the importance of the other. To rely on an individual and personal connection to God without the Bible is to open one’s self to individual desire and fickleness. To rely on the Bible is to pursue a similar course of action, to rely on one’s own interpretation and to apply the thoughts of ancients to the (in many but not all cases) radically different present. To rely only on the Bible is to discount the power of God in present, but to abandon it is to abandon perhaps the greatest source of guidance for a confused and lost Christian.

But I qualify this partnership of real-life experience and curiosity and the Bible with the most important aspect for refining both: community and relationship. Ultimately, that is what Christianity is about. We are in relationship with the Trinity and with those around us, with Christians and non-Christians, with our multiple selves. It is through discussing and living and experiencing these relationships that we refine our theologies, our true understandings of God. It is these relationships which prevent us from using the Bible as a weapon of hatred and from groundlessly believing foolishness. Thus, in my head, our spiritual lives are balanced upon legs of scripture, prayer, and community. From our relationship with tradition, with God, and with our fellow brothers and sisters. Without any one of these legs, we risk losing ourselves to perdition, to succumbing to sloth, complacency, hatred, error, and at worst, incompleteness.

But to be human is to be incomplete. To believe that even these three things can perfect our lives and understanding is to underestimate the complexity of the real world. There are questions that may never be answered, despite how much time, effort, pain, and love we put into these questions. I will likely never truly understand why cancer exists, why disease cripples us and robs us of the relationships which define what it means to be a Christian.  And we must simultaneously and paradoxically be fine with and accepting of this fact, that we can’t understand everything in our reality and outside of it. We must accept our finitude and inability while celebrating and exercising our initiative, autonomy, and ability. I firmly believe that all goodness comes from God, but that humanity too can create goodness through what we have been given.  We attribute thanks to God, but God has endowed us with our own creative ability. It is this that lets us love one another, drink into the night with companions speaking of life, to put on plays that capture life’s brutality and reality and hope and goodness, to read scripture and be enraged or given life and hope.

Life is too complex without theology, it is too complex to not allow curiosity. So let me say it proudly, I know God because I have lived Him, because I have explored Him. And while there is much I don’t know and don’t understand, I do know that I am closer to God and His truth because of my own thoughts, prayers, endeavors, and relationships.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Revolution of Values

While Martin Luther King Jr.’s  “I Have a Dream” speech may be his most recognizable speech, the most moving words for myself come from “Beyond Vietnam”. In it, he writes:

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind.

These paragraphs illustrate the heart of his movement, one that is both politically and spiritually based. King uses language that evokes both individual and collective responsibility to love indiscriminately. The concept of love is one that does not enter the political arena often, but King insists that the nation, one made of individual people, work to embrace the dignity of all men. This stretches from the Vietnamese who desire independence and Americans who must ban segregation. By embracing this individuality through loving respect, King hopes to banish violence from discussion. This is one of the most significant distinctions that King makes: that people do not need to agree with him on everything, but that the discussion must be done in a sincere and respectful manner devoid of harm. This is made evident in different places, such as in “Beyond Vietnam” where he writes that everyone must listen to his or her convictions and protest to avoid apathy. Through this means of discourse, people might love one another by looking for the best option in all choices that best suits all the people, not just the selfish individual.

I believe King’s call for a revolution of values both within the individual and the nation is still being answered. People tend toward complacency and King’s example and hope of an ecumenical society proves the efficacy of public ministry in turning people’s apathy. The Civil Rights’ movement owes King much because of his use of personal faith in advocating desegregation and equality. In today’s society, we still have many issues that have yet to be laid to rest. Abortion, Gay rights, intolerance towards different faiths and all manner of other taboo and difficult issues remain with divided sides so polarized they no longer discuss with one another. They yell. The only answer to such polarization is a revolution in which humility, love, and selflessness frame discussions of such issues. The use of personal faith is both hazardous and powerful. On the one hand, it leaves one vulnerable to attack. On the other, such risk enforces the power of personal belief in convincing others that a point of view matters and that it is worth discussing. By admitting this vulnerability, one pursues loving discussion: one in which the individual is on the line. Only by coming from behind the walls of false confidence in a polarized view can meaningful discussion occur to produce meaningful change.

The Right to Vote: Hope for the American Mind

I have gotten into far too many awkward and combative conversations about politics.  I (a Democrat and Obama supporter) have many friends who disagree with my political opinion.  Often, we passive aggressively talk past one another, saying things we don’t like about one candidate or the other.  Honestly, I don’t see this impasse being resolved anytime soon (though I believe we must take steps to resolve this, no matter how daunting it seems).  Instead of talking about how bad political discourse is today, I want to focus on how wonderful our opportunities are.

I voted at approximately 7:24 this morning (Central Standard Time) and had to wait for one hour to get to do so. This was after attempting to vote on the last day of early voting where I found a 3.5 hour line. The voting process wasn’t easy.  It took time and thought and consideration of the candidates. While I think our perceptions of the candidates we glorify and the ones we despise can often be extreme, I do believe we as American citizens have a genuine desire to elect the best candidate.  We have honest concerns about where the country is going. We want to know how our lives will be affected by the government.  While we are adaptable and can face even the most incompetent of decisions, we care about our lives and the lives of those we love. We care about justice. We care about truth. While these ideals may be ridiculed in their cliche redundancy in our society, they ring true.

People vote because they care about things and this, I think, is the greatness we witness in election day. We recognize our presence in the grand scheme of things. While our vote will statistically be meaningless, it means more than that. It represents our stake in the life of something outside ourselves. While we live in a global community, one which must accommodate all of humanity, we are different. We have nationalities. We have teams. How we deal with other groups is one question, but on voting day, we focus on ourselves. We remember what it means to us as individuals to be an American; to be part of a history (however flawed) that represents the struggles of those that have come before us. What that means to each person is very different. I am thankful for the legends we have of our founding fathers. While I think they are often over-glorified and that our constitution is too often treated almost as scripture, I love the story of America.  To be part of that experience is to vote, to join our voices with the rest of the team and say we hope towards a better tomorrow.

It took me a long time to vote. I got angry. But the reason for this is that everyone else wanted to vote too. I will state here, in spite of my grumpiness, my thanks to everyone involved in this process. Thank you fellow voters and thank you everyone who has taken on the responsibility of moderating this process. It isn’t an easy job. I thank also the candidates, all of those who have run for office.  While we can get petty, mean, spiteful, and downright evil, we are brothers and sisters together in this enterprise.

My great hope for American citizenship is great involvement in holding our leaders accountable and understanding the issues at hand in greater depth. While seemingly impossible, I know that we must work towards this ideal. If we do nothing, we risk greater suffering for ourselves and others. We must open ourselves to being educated and be gentle and engaged with those we hope to teach. We must pursue conversation in these areas which are so sensitive so that they become less so, that we can actively search for answers to the questions we already think we know the answer to. How we undertake this challenge is something that cannot be answered easily; we must know how to engage one another on the individual level. But as I have witnessed in this election so far, we are wholly capable of this endeavor.

Silas Marner and Redemptive Love

I had read George Eliot’s Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe when I was in eighth grade and remembered enjoying it and recently decided to give it another read. Upon finishing the story, I realized how good and in many ways different it was from a lot of classic literature.  The story is a more modern (albeit written in 1861) comedy; following the traditional meaning of ending with joy and a wedding. The story relates the life of Silas Marner, a man wrongfully exiled from his home town of Lantern Yard to Raveloe, a sleepy little town.  In the process, Silas loses his faith in God and becomes a miser; working constantly on his weaving and hoarding the wealth he accrues.  The people of Raveloe initially see Silas as a somewhat evil figure; mysterious and apparently powerful.  However, Silas reaches out to the community when his hoard is stolen and his appearance becomes more approachable. The case is furthered when he finds an abandoned toddler in his hut.  The child’s golden curls are mistaken for his money initially, but Silas comes to find the hole from his loss filled with the relationship with this child, naming her Eppie after his mother Hepzebuh.

Silas Marner’s story is the story of redemptive love; a story in which isolation and sadness is replaced by relationship and selfless love. In today’s literary society, I wonder if we wouldn’t think George Eliot’s account rather simplistic.  A greedy man is saved by loving a child. The entire plot is summed up within that sentence, more or less. What matters is the emotion felt within the play.  As we see the people of Raveloe ostracize and fear Silas because of the wrongs done to him in the past, we sympathize with Silas and want to see him redeemed.  Eliot draws this emotion out, rewarding it in the way we hope to see those we love in our lives redeemed. Silas makes one step at a time; first relying on others in helping him find his gold, then relying on them in dealing with Eppie.

The point of Silas Marner is this redemption we can be given through community. Eliot recognizes the badness that can come of human interaction (or lack thereof) as witnessed in the exile of Marner as well as his placement as a pariah in Raveloe.  But Eliot emphasizes that need expressed to others is often reward; while many people may ignore the need, it is doubtful that no one will find sympathy.  The fact is that we have all had common experiences. We have all suffered loss and have experienced joy. While Eliot does not expound on why we feel the need to share experience with others (both present and past experience) she does show this need and the benefits it can accrue. Often times, we dissect our actions. While this can help us gain greater self understanding and lead us into a better ability to understand others, it is important to “stop and smell the flowers” as it were; to simply live. To experience the beauty of life’s tragedy and joy. George Eliot promises us that while our situation is awful, there is always hope for us to find goodness in the love of others.

The Necessity of the Seperation of Church and State

As the title implies, I believe in the separation of Church and state.  As the election season comes to its climactic conclusion, I feel it necessary to join with the voices of others who maintain that a government official should not be elected based on his religious base but rather on his or her likely ability to promote the wishes of the people as well as the foundations set forth in our constitution.  By this I mean that the basic ideals of freedom and equality should be maintained in the best possible manner.

Let me clarify what I mean by freedom. I do not mean the freedom from sin, the freedom from the oppression of society, or anything of the sort.  I will note that I very much believe in the former freedom. However, the freedom I refer to is the freedom which allows an individual to make decisions for his or herself. This is the decision to be an atheist, to be a homosexual, to be dissatisfied with America.  From a Christian standpoint, this freedom is something that is the point of our current predicament: mortality and life on earth.  We should not limit one anothers’ ability to make not only our own decisions, but intelligent ones.  When I see a candidate take the stand and begin spouting beliefs in order to pander to the voting masses, I feel outraged and deeply sad.  Religion is something that is at the core of our beings.  It is something that defines our very understanding of life. This is not something that can be summed up in a press release to throngs of individuals.  Our personal convictions, the things we ourselves often don’t understand or have taken a lifetime to develop, cannot and should not be reduced to a mere elevator speech.

What’s worse to me is of course the apparent perversion of the ideal of freedom. While it is important to believe in what you want and for a person to have the freedom of expression of those beliefs, a person should not hope to run for an office which MUST support all religions/areligious backgrounds and expect to expound his beliefs as the basis for his political decisions.  Our faiths obviously affect us and bias us towards one action over another.  However, the hope is that we can promote understanding of others and provide a home for those who do not feel at home.  I think the world was created by God. But what does it say if we hold this as absolute fact as a nation? It indicates bias as a governing body; something America has attempted to avoid but I fear has continued to grow. Our country must promote free thought and the potential to find truth wherever that may be.

So many people fear change and so many people hate establishment.  This is because both hold onto a fear of the other.  Christianity is a religion that has been used for murder, oppression, hatred, and bigotry.  As a Christian, I have to own that and talk about it with other people.  These brutal actions which have arisen out of greed and (more often I believe nowadays) fear polarize those it has harmed. What reason do the oppressed have to love or even tolerate the oppressor? This goes for both sides.  So often we refuse to see the virtues of others for fear their virtue may invalidate or subvert our own. We have to be open to change; to the possibility that

we can be better thanks to the help of another person.

If we continue to allow our leaders to trivialize faith, both their own and that of the countless people they hope to represent and lead, we cannot hope to expect real positive change.  We must as individuals continue the discussion of faith, or what matters most to us and what we need from our leaders, in order to do justice to ourselves.

Starting at the University of Chciago Divinity School: Being Happy with Growth

Whoo boy. I have successfully completed my first week  and am starting my second at the University of Chicago Divinity School. My current feeling of the entire situation is, “Wow. It happened”. Prior to my senior year of college, I couldn’t imagine myself being in this place and learning what I am now able to learn. The opportunity coupled with responsibility might have once seemed intimidating, frightening, or daunting now spurs me on toward my hopes and passions. In essence, I believe that I have grown; an idea I think many people don’t consider.  Sure, we get to the age where we can see a PG-13 movie, drive, drink, and other sorts of benefits which society has deemed accessible only to older people.  What I mean is the sense that one has become a better human being than they once were; that while some things have faded or been lost, there are so many things to be thankful for in the present.


Much of my optimism has come from my growing relationship with God and my faith. I don’t feel alone, nor do I feel unloved.  I do not feel as though my actions exist in a vacuum; that they are not felt by others. God experiences the joy and pain I feel. Furthermore, I have faith that He experiences the lives of others; their pain and joy. I have also grown to trust in God more. Indeed, I came to the University of Chicago because I have been following a calling. By heeding this call, I have found something that is deeply satisfying. All of the great decisions I have made in my life that give me happiness have been because of some call or another (all of which I will one day elucidate): going to school at St. Olaf College (a school 1,400 miles away from my home in Louisiana), joining the College LARP (Live Action Role Play) community, taking my position at Rebuilding Together Acadiana (perhaps the most challenging experience of my life thus far), and of course, the one I speak of now.

I do not mean to sound “holier than thou” by any means; I have done awful things and hurt more people than I would like to remember. I have been greedy, selfish, lustful, cowardly, and ugly to my fellow man. For this I feel great shame everyday and greater shame that I know I continue to do these things.  My point is this: people are good, and so am I. I have been able to do wonderful things that have helped many people, and I have grown closer to God in spite of my vice. So often, people either beat themselves up over what they have done wrong or live in a world of apathy. Sometimes, they become full of themselves and don’t properly appreciate the goodness that they have done; they pervert it with their pride.

I speak from a standpoint of faith in God, and while I believe we are all motivated through His love, I think that we should all be happy because of our accomplishments regardless of religion or background. We all recognize our mistakes and we all have regrets. So often these can paralyze us and demote our self worth. We are all worth the world; we all have goodness within us. While it is of the utmost importance that we consider all of our actions in a day and that we recognize our shortcomings and destructive acts, it is equally if not more so important that we consider how wonderful we can be and what we have done to prove that.