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 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.