Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Everything changes as we age … even resolutions!

Over the past few months, my parents have gone to the funerals of a number of their very close friends. Recently, one of their friends was hospitalized with an unknown heart condition and it worried them greatly. When I asked how they were taking all of this – they reminded me that getting old often means going to funerals and dealing with loss – alongside all of the other things in their lives.

I remember my grandmother, as she aged, saying that calling the final decades of her life the “Golden Years” was just not right. She said that phrase was absolutely insane. “Getting old is not the most enjoyable ride,” she told me. She had great times, continued to travel, and enjoyed her family. But losing one’s independence, needing others to care for your needs, dealing with loss and illness, and spending more and more time with doctors was not much fun.

I am now in my 50s and I can honestly say that it is the best time of my personal and professional life. I am far from old – physically, emotionally or intellectually. But my knees are a bit shot – too many skiing accidents growing up – and I am on a few more prescriptions than I would like to be on.  So I am not as healthy as I wish I was – but I am working on that. And I am working hard on it – have been for months. This is a life change – not just a couple of week’s living up to some faint end of year resolution.

Growing older is inevitable and I am happy to get to do it – like they say, “the alternative to living is not much fun.” Maybe it isn’t always pretty but it is living.

Growing older is also a huge blessing. As my grandmother told me, it means we get to learn from our experiences, watch those we love grow up and become their own persons, and spend significant time enjoying our lives. Yes, we’ll have to deal with the other stuff  - and there is often “other” stuff to deal with - but getting to live, laugh and love is an amazing gift.

As we enter into 2014 tomorrow, we are often asked or even intimidated into making lists of resolutions for the New Year. I used to succumb to the pressure of resolutions to remake my life – as if it sucked before. And I made promises to myself that I knew I could not live up to. I was doomed almost as soon as I made the list. But I have learned.

This year, I’m not gonna promise anything that does not feed me spiritually and emotionally. I’m not gonna make a list of things that I am not able to do and then feel badly about failing.

So here are my 14 for 2014 – in no particular order:

1. Love my family even more deeply and enjoy every moment I get with them (ok, I have a teenager so every moment seems too drastic). How about most of the time?
2. Support my friends and family in good times and bad.
3. Love myself – despite any perceived flaws. Because I am awesome. Seriously!
4. Never be afraid to say no when I need to (hmmm … setting myself up again?). Better?  “Try not to be afraid to say no when I need to.”
5. Try to let go of the judgment of others. Their view is not as important as mine.
6. Make the most of my life by laughing more and trying to live without regrets.
7.  Spend more time on my faith journey by reading and praying more often.
8. Do things to stay healthy – for me – not because I’m bullied by others’ perceptions of who I ought to be. 9. Work for justice and inclusion in all I do.
10. Don’t take too many selfies (ok, this is easy since I don’t do it now).
11. Have fun being true to my calling and myself.
12. Don’t say yes to too many writing assignments. Guard my time.
13. Try to laugh at Monty Python even though I don’t get it (I’ll likely fail at this one).
14. Love – just love.

That’s a list I can get behind. It’s a list that helps me age into this next year more happy and healthy. It’s a list that is about faithfulness and self-acceptance. It’s a list about love and family. It’s a list I can live with – regardless of my age.

So a happy and healthy New Year to all of you.

Live, laugh, and love your way into and through an amazing 2014.

All my love –


Saturday, November 30, 2013

All is Lost? Not hardly!

 These past few weeks many in The United Methodist Church experienced just the latest moments of pain and anguish at the hands of our church. The trial of Rev. Frank Schaefer for celebrating the wedding of his son, Tim, to his partner several years ago was held in Pennsylvania this month. It was a gut-wrenching trial, conviction, and penalty phase. It had to have been an unbelievably painful moment for Frank and his family – and was, as well, for many persons and groups working for full inclusion in the UMC.

Previous to this, the Council of Bishops asked for charges to be filed against retired UM Bishop Melvin Talbert for performing the wedding of two men in Georgia. The request to file charges was another blow to many who have felt blow after blow in the church. And there are more trials, most likely, on the horizon.
They have brought about yet more instances of anger and frustration for many in The United Methodist Church. And it has been another time of crying out in righteous indignation and “hearing” the absurd silence of too many in the church.

Also this past week, I sat in a movie theater watching the Robert Redford movie All is Lost. The movie is about a man fighting the elements after his yacht is damaged while sailing alone in the Indian Ocean. It is, in my opinion, a cinematic masterpiece. The images - both under and above the water - were stunning to the point of almost being overwhelming. The acting job by Redford is a tour de force. I sat breathless for much of the movie. It was simply incredible.

The movie is at the same time one of the loudest and the quietest movies I have seen experienced.

The crashing waves, spooling lines of rope, surging storms, spilling cargo, billowing sails, and howling wind are so loud at times that it makes the listener uncomfortable – but not because the volume was loud. It was because of the impact of the sounds.

The reason for this heightened audible impact was because the main character, Redford, only speaks three times in the entire movie. The sounds from other elements of the film are even more profound due to the absence of speaking from the only actor ever seen on screen.

Redford only speaks three times in the entire movie –

First he speaks into a radio he is trying to repair and pleads for someone to hear his SOS. He says it over and over several times asking for anyone to hear his cry of desperation. His voice is raspy and dry. The suffering he has already endured is evident.  He is pleading for help. He is asking for someone to hear his plea. But it is clear that no one hears his cry.

LGBTQ folks in the UMC have cried out for years for someone to hear their pain. Cries for help and change have gone unheard and unheeded by too many in the church.  We cannot even seem to be heard enough to agree that we disagree on the issue of homosexuality in our church. It’s as if the apparatus we are using to cry out is broken and the message is unable to get to those who need to hear. Or maybe they hear, but choose to ignore the anguish because they are so certain in their own positions on the issue.

Second he cried out in rage when his predicament becomes worse and worse – crying out in a loud voice “Fu#k” with all of the righteous indignation he could muster. We are beyond that point in the UMC. There is no way to know how many LGBTQ persons have felt our denomination, how many pastors have left over our position on sexuality, or how many person called into ministry have said way will they venture into our system. Many do so in deep pain – crying out with all of the righteous indignation they can muster. The strains are loud right now – on both sides of the debate. But the painful anguish of those excluded is pushing our church and I for one will continue to cry out with them.

The final time he speaks in the film is crying out to a passing ship, “Here! I’m here! Here! Help me!” The United Methodist Church often seems to be a gigantic passing ship not even aware of those who they have left behind. But I know many who are keenly aware. And many who are working hard to make their voices and their stories heard and known. We have Bishops, District Superintendents, pastors, laity, and leaders from all kinds of positions in the church whose hearts and minds are being changed to be receptive to the cry for full inclusion in our church.

In the end, the voices of those calling for inclusion are getting louder and louder. The media sees the UMC as a bully right now. Many are decrying the fact that despite the rules, a father celebrating the marriage of his son and his partner should not result in a church trial. Many are looking for our church – one of the last mainline Protestant denominations to embrace inclusion – to be who we say we are, United. Many are calling on our church to live out our doctrine and theology of grace. And many are pleading with rasping voices for our motto, Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors, to finally come into reality.

All is not lost – justice will prevail. Because I believe that grace is bigger than exclusion and inclusion will win in the end.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Preachers Learning from Longtime Listeners

This past month I had the great joy of going to West Texas to see my family for a week. It was a delightful trip which allowed me to spend some significant time with my Mother and Father, who I do not see nearly often enough. I also spent some time with their collection of amazing friends and family of choice - folks who play, eat, worship, travel together, and look out for each other since many of them do not have children who live in the local area.

One of the fun parts of the trip was doing some teaching for my Mom (Dad did not ask soon enough). I taught her Sunday school class and her Women's Bible Study group. The Sunday school class was part of their lives when my son, Shelby, was adopted from Russia. And when we came home with him, they threw a "Papaw Finally Has a Grandson Baby Shower” (he had 3 daughters and 4 granddaughters at that point). Up until a few years ago, my son still used the red Radio Flyer wagon to play with and to haul things around the yard. It was literally used until the wheels fell off.

The Women's Bible Study group that my Mom teaches has been meeting weekly to study together for 43 years (my Mom is the youngest one in the group). One of the original members was present for that lesson on Tuesday and she remembered Shelby running around the house when we were in Texas visiting some 13 or 14 years ago. It was all fun and I got to relive some great memories.

But one of the things I wanted to do while I was there was to talk about the task of preaching and the lessons we can learn from listeners. In the SS class, the average age is about 75. These folks have been listening to sermons for decades. Like many of us, they have heard a variety of preachers, seen several different preaching styles, and had many varying reactions to those preaching moments -- some good and some not so good. So after doing my preaching "spiel" I asked them this question:

"If you could tell new or practicing preachers one thing about preaching from a listener’s perspective, what would it be?"

I got some great answers that I want to share with you. These are the words of wisdom from folks who listen.

First, “don't talk down to us.” Just because you went to seminary does not mean you know everything. We read and study, too. Don't assume we are not as smart as you are.

Second, “use good grammar.” You did go to seminary so you should be able to speak properly. If you are using some kind of notes - make sure they are grammatically correct. If not, practice your sermon with good grammar.

Third, “if you are going to use humor - make sure it’s appropriate.” Don't make fun of people or use off color jokes. And don't tell "funny" stories if they are not appropriate to your context or very appropriate to the sermon.

Fourth, “tell us stories.” We remember them better - especially if they are tied to the text and help us connect better to God, the world, and to each other. If your story teaches us a lesson and is engaging, we will remember it even more.

Fifth, “bring us good news.” There is so much bad news right now and we need a word of grace and hope. We need to hear about love and what's possible. We need to be challenged and engaged, too. But don't be negative or judgmental every week.

Lastly, “know that we want you to do well.” We want to listen and take a lesson, image, story, phrase, etc. with us when we leave. Help us get that from your message.

Listening to these listeners was fun and exciting. Learning from them is something we can all gain much from. Are you listening to your listeners?

Friday, October 4, 2013

New Book Released

My new book, I Refuse to Preach a Boring Sermon: Engaging the 21st Century Listener, was released yesterday by Pilgrim Press. The book is available from them - please call their customer service staff at 800.537.3394. You may order online at www.uccresources.com. The book will also be available on Amazon but there is a glitch with it right now that they are ironing out.

About the book --

Preaching is the centerpiece of worship, meant to inspire, empower, and engage. Preachers, with the best intentions, have preached sermons that did not connect with the audience, left the listener uninspired, confused, or simply bored. I Refuse to Preach a Boring Sermon: Engaging the 21st Century Listener encourages preachers to be creative, to take risks and to adapt to tough realities. From imagery to technology, Wiseman offers new techniques that will enable any preacher to creatively energize their sermons.

Here is what others are saying about the book --

“Among pastors these is a commitment to speak the Gospel in a way that engages worship participants with holy imagination that changes the way they see everything in life.   This is a non-negotiable.  It is required of us. It is, as Wiseman reminds us here, in our hands!" -- Paul Nixon, author of I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church!

 “Wiseman knows what it takes to preach to the network generation, and she encourages preachers to create sermons that are dynamic, energized, imaginative, and connected. I Refuse to Preach a Boring Sermon is the perfect “go-to” resource for the postmodern preacher.”  -- John S. McClure, Charles G. Finney Professor of Preaching and Worship, Vanderbilt Divinity School

“If churches are riddled with bored-again Christians suffering from a semiotic breakdown, this resource is filled with practical approaches and creative angles that will wake up the preacher, and move the sleepiest congregation from bored to death to born to life." -- Leonard Sweet, best-selling author and chief contributor to sermons.com

 “Finally, someone confronts the problem of boring sermons head-on.  While Wiseman attacks the underlying causes of boring preaching, she also succeeds in loading every page with up-to-date, workable, ideas. Paying attention to what is here will make preaching truly fun again, for preacher and hearer alike.” -- Joseph M. Webb, author of Preaching Without Notes

I hope you get a lot out of this book - as I wrote it with preachers and church folks in mind.

Best wishes --


Monday, September 30, 2013

Where’s Your Ethical Line?

We saw the movie Prisoners this past weekend and I squirmed in my seat more than once. The movie is a tense psychological thriller about the lengths a father will go to when his daughter and her friend go missing while walking one day. The tension is palpable throughout the movie and the premise is one of my worst nightmares as a parent.

When I was in high school, our band director and his family were on vacation in Colorado. Their teen son went on a walk to go to a nearby store and was never seen or heard from again. I remember all of the drama when he first went missing. It was a tragic story that caused many parents in our West Texas community to watch their children a little more closely.

As a parent, it would be an unimaginable nightmare to not know where your child is. Once or twice, my son failed to get home on time or answer his phone for an extended time period and for just a bit I felt panicked. It was an overreaction but real for me for a bit. I cannot imagine having a child go missing and not have any idea where they were. And it happens … too often for too many parents.

And that is the premise of the movie – parents dealing with a missing child.

But the other piece of the movie is the question of how far a parent will go to find that child. The movie asks, “What would you be willing to do – even beyond the law – to get answers in that search? Would you be willing to harm another human being? Would you step over that line if you thought it would bring your child home?” There are many morality issues in this film that push the viewer to the extreme. As I sat watching, I could not help wondering what I would do if my own child was missing.

Our band director spent thousands of dollars to set up a phone system that followed them everywhere they went – in the late 1970s. They went back and forth to Colorado for months searching for their missing son. They continued to search for years. Their lives were changed forever. And they never got any answers as to what happened to him.

In the movie, the dad clearly crosses a moral and ethical line (even the trailer gives that much away). And the viewer can’t help but wonder how far they would go in similar circumstances. I, too, began to wonder where my line is.

Truthfully, I have a pretty high doctrine of humanity. That means I am one of those people who expect the best out of people. I assume folks will do the right thing and that they will be their best selves. I got this doctrine from my parents – so I blame them.

Sometimes it means I get disappointed by the failures or behavior of others – and myself. But I would rather err on the side of trusting others and expecting their best than the alternative.

So as I sat there in the movie, I knew to the core of my being that I have a fairly high moral compass and would struggle to ever justify harming another human being – even to get information about my own missing child.

I was raised in a home with faithful parents. I was taught from an early age to “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) I would not hurt another human being to get information about my own child … at least that’s what I think.

I believe that there are limits – ethical limits – that bind us as humans one to the other and should keep us from harming others for our own purposes. I’m an idealist – I know that. There is evil done to others for personal, selfish, and ridiculous reasons daily. I love my son but my faith leads me to only do unto others what I would have them do to me.

I watch over my son the best ways I can. And I pray for his safety. I teach him to be aware of his circumstances as he navigates a major metropolitan city on his own. I protect him the best ways I can. But he is a young man who needs to venture out and be his own person. And we have taught him well. Beyond that I have no idea what else to do.

Would I harm others to protect him? Wow – that’s a hard one. But if someone attacked him and I was standing nearby I think my “Momma Bear” would probably come raging to the surface.

Would I harm others to get information if he went missing? Lord, I hope not. I really don’t think so.

Will I do everything to teach him to protect himself and be the best he can be? Absolutely.

My faith teaches me to pray for those who are missing and for their families who miss them each and every day. And to pray for their safe return.

The best I can do is to be the best parent I can be and sometimes that is really hard … but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Trading Powerpoint for Play-doh

Reblogged from The Wabash Center's Blog

12 Surprises When Lecturing Less
(and Teaching more!) 

Karyn L. Wiseman is the Associate Professor of Homiletics at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
One of my goals is to be as creative as I can be – in my preaching and teaching. I have not always thought that I was creative, but I have come to appreciate my creativity more in the last few years. However, it’s often very hard to convince others of their creativity. Most people, in my experience, when asked if they are creative, quickly answer, “No.” A few years ago I ran across Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Through it I was reminded that we are ALL created by the Divine Creator to be creative.
Many of my preaching students answer that creativity question with a big NO, as well. But preaching requires creativity – in crafting a sermon, finding images and metaphors, and presenting the sermon in an engaging and creative manner. Getting students to acknowledge that reality, come to own it, and embrace their creativity has meant trying something new for me as a professor.
My preaching classes every semester have a “Play-doh Day” when we look at a number of preaching texts and then spend time playing with them to find images and metaphors for preaching. We start by having a conversation for about 20 minutes of a 2 hour class session about creativity and I use a few sections from Cameron’s book as conversation starters. And then I break out the crayons, colored paper, play-doh, and other crafting supplies and the students begin to work on expressing their creativity around those ideas.
They pick an idea from the text and find a concrete image or metaphor to use in the exercise. Then they have time to create something with Play-doh or crayons that expresses that. I try to create a relaxed environment for this activity by playing music and letting students work casually on their creative expressions. Many students have created some very good art work – stick figures are ok and affirmed – and have found ideas that others in the room never would have thought of. But not everyone finds their groove.
A big piece of the learning is moving around the room as students describe and show their artwork. Teaching with crayons and Play-doh is an amazing way to teach without lecturing but some will still balk at owning their creativity. But it’s a start.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Not What God Intends

This is not the way God wants us to live. It’s just not. There is no way you can convince me it is. God wants for us to live in peace, to show compassion and love to others, and to be humble servants showing mercy to our fellow human beings. Some may say that’s a bold assertion about the desires of God, but I believe it to the core of my being and it is borne out in scripture.

God does not want us to live in an environment where mass shootings happen – and happen far too often. God does not want us to live in an environment where young kids are killed while playing on their front porches when gang violence comes into their neighborhoods. God does not want us to live in an environment where handguns in the home end up being used in domestic violence situations or in shooting accidents. Enough is enough.

We will hear in the next few days many “facts” and opinions about the Navy Yard shooting that took place this week in DC. We will hear that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” We will hear that we have enough gun regulations in our country and that they simply need to be enforced more fully. We will hear cries for patience and that the country is not ready for more gun regulations. We will also hear a huge outcry for Congress to make changes to our gun laws – finally. We will hear many stories of heroism and loss. And we will hear the pain of a nation once again wounded by the flying bullets of another mass casualty event. We will hear pleas to do something so that we can stop them. Enough is enough.

Despite all of these opinions, cries of pain, and listings of “facts,” for me, the truth remains – a person with access to guns, multiple guns, and possibly high capacity firearms fired at others in an act of hate and without regard for the humans he was hurting. He was able to do that because he had access to guns. Whether he bought them legally or illegally – he had access to guns that were created for doing maximum damage with minimum effort. He was able to do that because our country values the right to own any and as many guns one wants OVER the right to live safely in this country. Enough is enough.

I do not believe this is the way God intends for us to live. God’s vision for earth is a reign of justice and peace. God’s desire for humanity is to love and live in harmony. God’s teachings through the Old Testament, the prophets, and through the teachings of Jesus tell us clearly what we are to do. In Micah 6:8, my “theology in a verse,” says, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (NRSV) In John 13:34, we are given a new command to “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (NIV)

This is God’s wish – that we love one another as God loved us – as God loves us. This is God’s command – that we live together in justice and kindness. Maybe soon we will learn to truly love one another and learn to value life over weapons of destruction. I believe that would be living up to the wishes of God.

May peace reign in our world. And may love and justice prevail – finally. Because ... enough is enough.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Running on Empty

About a week ago a pastor friend of mine posted on their Facebook page about being exhausted and too busy to rest. One of the comments made on the post suggested they HAD to take some time away from the church to rest. The fairly quick response from the original poster was that they had no time, no money, and no one to cover for them at the church. It was clear from multiple comments under the post that many are in the same situation. It is not the first time I have seen these kinds of posts from pastors on my feed or heard comments from pastors talking like this with each other.

According to several pastoral studies, full-time pastors work on average 50+ hours per week. Approximately, 42% work more than 60 hours per week. And these are not regular hours – they are evenings and weekends, include emergency calls or visits in the middle of the night, and are often filled with stressful human interactions (contentious meetings, funerals and crisis ministry, strong willed parishioners, and extreme pressures on their personal life and families).

Part-time pastors are typically “part-time” in pay only – as so many part-time congregations expect nearly full-time work for their part-time pay. Add to this formula high seminary debt, extreme relationship expectations with congregants, and often low pay (especially in earlier calls/appointments) and you now have a recipe for potential trouble.

One of my favorite things growing up was the bold talk of my Dad about how “in tune” he was with his car. He could drive to the edge of the “E” on his gasoline gauge and he knew instinctively when he had to stop and get gas. He bragged about never running out of gas. It was a “guy thing,” my mother would say. But during one family trip, my Dad’s expert knowledge of his car failed him.

He just knew he could make it to a particular exit to get gas. My Mom, my sisters, and I tried to tell him he needed to stop because he was not going to make it. He was certain – even a bit cocky that he knew his car and he knew where the station he wanted to stop was located. You all know what happened next – he ran out of gas. And my sisters and I pushed the car to the gas pump. We have kidded him for years about it. Even though he insisted that he knew how far his car would take him – he was wrong. We were running on empty and paid the price – well, his kids did. And he has gotten teased for decades.

Often pastors do the same thing. They run too long on empty and pay the consequences. They pay the consequences in their personal faith and life. They pay the consequences in their relationship with their parishioners. They pay the consequences in the ways they pastor and preach. And they pay the consequences in how they feel about their call to the ministry.

But the truth is – many pastors feel the same way as my Facebook friend. They feel exhausted and overwhelmed but know they have little time and less money to get away. So what should we do?

First, we should follow the rules of rest and renewal:

1.  Take time every day to refresh – pray, read for fun, go for a walk, go out into nature, take a nap, take a bubble bath, or something that refreshes you EVERY DAY for at least a little bit – even if it is just 10-15 minutes it will help.

2. Take a day off every week to rest or play. If something comes up on that day once and a while, take a different afternoon off to make up for it if you cannot take a different full day off. Go to the movies, go on a family date, spend time with your spouse or significant other, or sleep in.

3.  Take time off quarterly to rest and refresh. Take time to go see a friend in a nearby town, plan a retreat at an area church or retreat center that has low cost housing. Try area universities, seminaries, or other resources if you are short on finances. Do a spiritual retreat with colleagues at a local church for a day or spend time with friends.

4.  Take time off annually for a personal or family vacation. Swap homes with a clergy colleague in another conference or synod who is also short on finances. Find low cost alternative trips that are more service oriented or mission focused. Spend time with your family in larger chunks of time if you do a staycation – and do NOT give in to the temptation of answering calls from the church. Trade coverage of your church members and emergencies while you are gone with another area pastor by offering to cover while they are gone as well.

I know … money is tight. So is time. Expectations are high. So are the pressures of ministry. But you have to make the effort to find time – daily, weekly, quarterly, and annually to do something to renew and refill your tank. No matter how long you think you can go without refilling – at some point you will run out of gas and everyone will pay for that.
Honor your family, your call, your faith, your body, and your congregation – stop early and often to fill up that tank. Don’t run on empty.

P.S. A friend suggested that in toxic environments - churches or other ministry settings that are difficult to lead or have toxic personalities to deal with - self-care is even more important. And with the number of churches that are very difficult to pastor, the need for care is even more important. But even doing that cannot make up for these situations completely. It is a step that is important, however.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The People in Those "Boots on the Ground"

This past week the President has been making speeches about Syria and as of now we are awaiting a vote by Congress (at some point) to determine our next course of action. The President has "assured" the American public that any intervention would not include "boots on the ground." I have often heard politicians and news anchors use the term this week. I have also heard people on the street interviewed repeat the term. It is not a new phrase but I am not fond of it at all. I believe, actually, it is an inappropriate term.

The problem is that there are people in those “boots on the ground.” There are sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, and sisters and brothers in those boots.  Using that phrase is an interesting phenomenon. It seems to me that too often when people make use of the term, it becomes a little easier to forget that living and breathing persons are in those boots. And that is a huge mistake.

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, during the Vietnam War era. I remember vividly knowing that my Uncle Bill, my Dad's big brother, served there along with tens of thousands of other young men (and many women in largely support roles). My uncle was in the Air Force and he planned bombing runs, but he was located in an area that was often attacked. We anxiously watched the nightly TV reports, but his immediate family was even more anxious about it than we were. He was one of those "boots on the ground" persons in a very trying time.

My Mother told me stories about her two older brothers, Emory, who served in the Navy during World War II, and Jay, who served in the Navy in the late 1950s. Uncle Emory was on a battleship. They were often in harm’s way. She was extremely proud of her brothers' military service. They wore "boots on the seas" proudly.

And I have a friend, from my first church where I served as a pastor, who is married to a helicopter pilot who has served several tours in Afghanistan. His family worries for him while he is deployed and they keep the home going while he is serving our country as a proud "boots in the air" kind of guy.

I have a friend from college whose daughter, Amanda, has been in the Army’s Military Police for 13 years. She is typically on military bases in the US but has also served several tours in Iraq. She has been in precarious situations dealing with domestic abuse, violent crimes, and regular run of the mill stuff that happened on base that needed attention BUT she has also dealt with the danger of attacks in combat zones. She is one of those persons who are in those "boots on the ground."

So when people say the phrase "boots on the ground" I think of these men and women. When people say that phrase they are making it easier to forget the people who wear those boots. And I do not want to forget them.

Any language that dehumanizes or reduces the possibility that we think of the people first is not ok with me. And it should not be ok with our leaders or by us. It should not be used in any way that makes them less human or fails to acknowledge their existence.

The people attacked in Syria by gas are people, too. They are not nameless, faceless bodies to those who loved them. They are not collateral damage or unintended consequences or any other dehumanizing language.

As a pacifist, I am praying for peace. I am praying for a resolution that does not endanger our troops – the men and women in those boots on the ground. I am praying for the innocent people of Syria who have become pawns in a deadly game of power. I am praying for the UN to be the force for international peace and justice that it is intended to be. I am praying for the people - because they matter. They matter to God, they matter to us, and they matter as members of the human community.

They matter … They all matter.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Going Deeper - Preparing to Preach

This is the second blog post about preaching without notes, but this one is more focused on preparing to preach. In the previous post, I invited preachers to take the plunge off the high dive and preach with fewer and fewer notes as a way to be more engaging, connected and authentic.

This post is to invite preachers to go deeper into their preaching – into the text, into the context and into the community. Not every sermon can be preached everywhere, but every preacher can prepare a sermon for a specific place and time that is sensitive to the moment and contextually appropriate.

When I helped my son learn to be in the water as a baby, he thought the surface of the water was all there was to it. He floated with his floaties, he splashed with his hands in the swim ring, and he held on tightly as he rode on my back along the surface. We got him to put his head under the water's surface once or twice and he freaked out a bit. So for the most part he was fine above the water. As he gained more confidence, we took him to swimming lessons and he learned the treasures of the deeper water. He could not believe he had never experienced the "deep end." Now he could dive into the water, swim deeper into the water, dive for things at the bottom of the pool, and other more exciting things - like take on the waves at the Jersey shore or boogie board on a North Carolina beach. He was in heaven ... all because he learned to break the surface.

In preaching, too many preachers stay on the surface in their sermon preparation, in their sermons, and in their understanding of the listeners who will receive these sermons. They keep their floaties on. They stay in the shallow end of the pool. They avoid the big waves of controversial or complex texts. They splash around a lot seeming to be making a lot of impact when all they are doing is stirring up the surface. And they ignore the "deep end" of the text and the context. It is unfortunate for them and very often for their listeners as well.

So first let's talk about going deeper in sermon prep.

One of the most important parts of the preaching process is not deciding what goes into a sermon; it is more about deciding what needs to stay out. As preachers prepare to preach, they should be doing biblical exegesis to learn all they can about the text, research the circumstances of the text (author, place, time/context of writing, style of writing, etc.), and work to find connections between the text and their particular context (time, place, situation, congregational make-up, etc.). They should also be considering stories that will illuminate the text for their people. They should be pondering current events, their own lives, and the lives of their people in relationship to preaching any given Sunday.

All of this is vital for the process of crafting a sermon – no matter what delivery vehicle you are using. However, the problem for many preachers is deciding what goes into the sermon after that research. Some decide to preach what I call the "kitchen sink" sermon. They have thrown in everything but the kitchen sink. These types of sermons can provide a lot of historical and exegetical information for the listeners, but might be so much more than the current circumstances warrant.

I went to church on vacation a few years ago and the preacher was using the Good Samaritan text for their sermon. They spent 12 and 1/2 minutes of their 18 minute sermon telling us about the historical circumstances of the time, describing the history of the Jewish/Samaritan conflict, describing the road system in the area, talking about the inn system of the day, etc. by the time they got to the story itself -- they seemed to have lost most of the congregation, myself included. Often a little bit goes a long way. One or two short sentences briefly describing the context of the story would have been enough. It was a moment of too much.

Going deeper does not mean utilizing everything you find in your exegetical process ... it means analyzing those depths for what is necessary and important for the listener in the context in which you preach. It means creating a message that enables people to enter into the story without being inundated with so many facts or historical details that do not drive the sermon toward greater connection and engagement. It means using the relevant information you find in your exegesis in ways that are relevant to the sermon and context.

Maybe you want your listeners to picture a time in their faith journey when they felt alone on a road, set upon by forces bent on destroying them, and feeling left by the side of the road ... and were rescued by someone unexpected. In this case some visualization of the road might be a way into the depths of the sermon. But do they need a full history of the road systems of the day? Probably not.
Going deeper in your preaching means making important connections between the text, the context of the day, and your own listeners.  It does not mean sharing every tidbit of information you have discovered in your exegesis.

Edit your research and edit yourself. Analyze the material and analyze its effectiveness in helping to further your proclamation. That is the key in going deeper.

Sometimes preachers preach as if this will be the only time they will ever preach on a particular text.  If you preach from the lectionary or just think you might preach a series on similar texts someday - store the research in a file (physical or digital) so you can come back to it someday, but remember you will need to once again analyze it for the context of that preaching as well.

Going deeper is an important part of sermon preparation but it does not mean pulling up and spilling out all of the water you pass through.

Be selective, be critical, be relevant. But still go deep.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Faith in Baseball? Tougher with A-Rod and PEDs

I believe in God. I am a follower of Jesus. I am a Christian whose faith is a big part of her life. I have had moments when I felt so close to God in my faith journey. And I have felt very far away. In those situations, it was me who moved away from God. I know God has never left me alone and is a consistent source of comfort and strength for me. That consistency has been important for me. And I learned about faith and consistency in an odd way.

I am a longtime fan of baseball. I love watching little kids playing t-ball in the park. I love watching multiple types of players – strong hitters, defensive players, and powerful pitchers. I love sitting in the stands and hearing the roar of the crowd, watching the hotdogs and peanuts being sold by creative vendors, smelling the grass, and listening to the sound of the bat hitting a ball and the crowd responding.

I love the statistics and the day in and day out expectancy of the lineup cards and rotation of the pitchers. The first time I walked in a Major League Baseball stadium, I knew God was a baseball fan – the consistency of numbers, the green of the grass, the crystal blue sky, and the love of the game from the players – it felt like home for me. And it made me feel closer to God during a time in my life when I was really feeling lost and was experiencing a crisis of faith.

I was unsure of my life and the direction it was taking. I had moved away from God in many ways and needed some kind of assurance. And I found baseball again. One of the things I love about baseball is that there are so many known quantities in baseball. The diamond is the exact same size in every major league ballpark. The bases are 90 feet apart from one another around the diamond. The pitcher’s mound is 60 feet and 6 inches from home plate. There are 137 feet from first base to third plate – and the same from home plate to second base. It is consistent.

Baseball is a yearlong passion with numbers for me. I have a countdown clock every winter for the beginning of Spring Training. I watch the box scores daily and catch games as often as I can. I sweat out the April and May hitting slumps and the dog days of summer when my team has tons of injuries to deal with. I live for October and the playoffs. Numbers make all the difference. I have faith in them.

Batting averages and pitch counts are determined by facts, formulas and math. Statistics for on base percentage and earned run averages help the fan know how a player is doing. The way numbers are created is basically the same as it always has been. You can compare – to some extent – the batting average of Miguel Cabrera or Chris “Crash” Davis with Cal Ripken or Hank Aaron. You can compare fielding percentages of a current player with a Hall of Famer. You can trust it. You can have faith in the numbers, I thought.

I took a pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY a few years ago and felt as if I was in heaven. I saw some of the displays of the great players of all time and nearly melted in their presence. It was stunning to be in that place. But it also made me wonder about the men and women in that place. They are all human and all did everything they could to make it in the game. Some made mistakes and some presumably took short cuts.

I am a faithful person and I want to pass on my faith to my son. I want to transmit what is important to me to my son as well. He played baseball when he was younger but did not get bit by the bug. He does love to go to baseball games and had a huge Derek Jeter fathead poster in his room for years. He has favorite players and so do I.

Faith in God - despite being rocky at times - is an important part of my journey. I was raised in the church and in a home that was clearly faith-based. I had tough times, but I still have faith. Faith in baseball, however, is getting harder and harder. Faith is defined in Dictionary.com as a system of faith, belief that is not based on proof, and confidence and trust in a person or thing.

That last one touched me lately as I hear more and more about the continued issue in baseball with performance-enhancing drugs. PEDs are a huge issue in sports. Basically every professional sport in the nation, colleges and universities engaged in the NCAA, Olympic sports, and even some high school teams utilize drug testing on a regular basis to ferret out the abuses of PEDs.

The effect of PEDs on players and fans is that we cannot trust them anymore. I don’t have faith in many of the numbers anymore. I watched with others during the homerun onslaught between Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa and knew it was due to juicing and was so disappointed and disgusted.

I watched as Ryan Braun,  the 2011 National League MVP from the Milwaukee Brewers, accepted his punishment for PED usage and was suspended 65 games – effectively ending his season. Again, my faith in baseball was strained.

And now we are faced with the suspensions and possible bans coming down on some big name players. Multiple names have been linked to a PED distributor called Biogenesis. Alex Rodriquez, A-Rod, a polarizing player to say the least, is facing a possible ban from baseball or a multi-year suspension according to many sources. Other players will probably have their seasons ended due to punishments to be handed down from Major League Baseball. And they all deserve it. They broke the rules and broke the fan’s trust.

So my faith in baseball is rocked.  My trust and confidence in the humans who play this game – and make millions of dollars for hitting, catching, throwing and pitching a baseball – has lessened.

But my faith in people has kind of always been an issue. I have what I call a high doctrine of humanity. That means I expect the best out of people. I expect people to do the right things. I expect them to carry out what they say they will do. Having a high doctrine of humanity means I often get disappointed. But I still expect the best.

Baseball has often been a redeeming thing in my life. But no one is perfect and humans are humans. They make mistakes. I expect better but they sometimes do bad things. The stakes are high in major league sports. Players have a limited life span for making money and getting endorsements to set them up for life financially. Making short cuts happens all the time.

I don’t want that to be part of the legacy that I pass on to my son. I want him to have my high doctrine of humanity. I want him to have my love of baseball. And I want him to have faith in the world. But I also want him to know that having faith in people will sometimes let him down.

I will keep on watching baseball. And I will keep on having faith in things bigger than I am – including my faith and trust in God. I will keep on going to the cathedrals of baseball and sit in awe because it was baseball that brought me back to faith. But I also will not completely trust the numbers when they are out of the norm. And that makes me sad – for my son and for baseball.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Taking the Leap Away from the Pulpit

 Over the past year there have been two different celebrity diving reality shows on TV. The premise was that famous celebs - or "infamous" ones in some cases - competed for charity by diving off spring boards and the 5, 7, and 10 meter diving platforms doing various dives.

Many of the celebs stated the tremendous fear they had to face to go up on the high dive. Basically diving off of the top platform is the equivalent of jumping off a three story building. I watched one of these series because there was a weird sense of wondering if they would be able to do it or not. It was amazing to watch people face their fears and conquer them while staring down into the water from the edge of the platform. Some say it can feel like hitting concrete if you land wrong. Not something I would sign up for.

I was reminded of that show recently when a pastor friend told me they were ready to move from manuscript preaching to a paperless pulpit. I had guided them in the process and given them exercises and options to use in the move and they were on the cusp of the very first no notes sermon. When they called to ask for last minute advice, I asked how they were feeling, they told me it felt like they were about to jump off a tall building into a little tiny kiddie pool.

I talked them through the fear and they reported later that they thought they did an amazing job. Their congregation was delighted and their own understanding of their preaching changed immensely. The feedback they received was extraordinary. But the fear was still real.

Sometimes trying something new or different is hard. It can be debilitating to feel stopped by the fear that can invade our minds as we try to take on something daring or challenging.

The best way to confront that fear is head-on, eyes open, and as prepared as one can possibly be.

On the diving show, they had a coach – Olympic champion Greg Louganis – to get them prepared. They had hours of prep and practice on the trampoline, on the practice boards, and warm-up dives before the show’s taping. Preachers need the same kind of preparation if they are choosing to make the important step of moving into the paperless pulpit (but I also understand that not everyone can or will move in this direction).

 So why do preachers choose to make the shift from manuscript preaching to the paperless pulpit?

Joseph Webb, in Preaching Without Notes, says there are several reasons to go paperless. They are:
                        1.  To maximize connectedness
                        2.  To maximize participation
                        3.  To reflect an authentic witness (25-30)
Most don’t argue that preaching without notes maximizes connectedness and participation. It has been shown in numerous situations and in listener studies.

But what about that third point? A lot of folks struggle with that one. It comes from the fact that listeners have reported that when a speaker relies completely on notes, they “hear” them as being less authentic. When a speaker talks without notes, the listeners feel that the speaker is more authentic.

So if I am choosing how my listeners “hear” me – I will always choose to do all I can to be heard as being more authentic. Clearly some who preach with manuscripts can traverse this authenticity gap, as many in their churches sense that in their preaching. However, the fact remains that the trend in many sections of the preaching community is toward the paperless pulpit.

Many people have interesting responses to trying to preach without notes. Many feel intimidated about going paperless. They feel fear and are taken aback by the anxiety that can arise from the task of moving from manuscript to no notes. Many also feel that part or all of many sermons are not intended for a paperless pulpit (because they feel that they need precision of words and theology). This is real and there are indeed times that preaching without notes does not work – for the person, context, content, etc.

But as preachers we must do all we can to be authentic, to connect to our listeners, to maximize participation from all present.

Every preacher – whether using a manuscript, outlines, key words, or no notes – has to do the work. Yes, it might feel like you are about to jump off the high dive, but working hard, practicing and using a coach or professor to help you through it can help you avoid many of those fears. No matter how you preach - with notes or without - you owe your congregation more than just going through the motions, or wordsmithing a manuscript to death, or simply reading a document to your listeners, or just walking around talking without a plan and a purpose. Do the work.

But in the end – it’s you standing on the edge of that platform. And for me – it is so worth it to take the plunge.

Come on in – the water is fine.