When Preaching Means Meddling

I walked upstairs Saturday morning and announced to anyone who would listen – my wife, my dog, my two-month old baby – I just don’t know how to finish this sermon.

The text of Scripture was on mercy and compassion. The text of the week was President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration.

Gospel and News, Faith and Life. They make the best sermons. They produce the most sleepless preachers, too.

I’ve yet to figure out how to be one of those preachers who just preaches “The Gospel” and doesn’t pay attention to what’s happening in the world. Our Gospel is one of Incarnation, of God coming into the world because God so loves the world. And so, the way I see it, to be faithful – to myself, to the Scriptures, and to the people who trust me to help them interpret what it means to follow Jesus in 2017 – is sometimes going to involve connecting Christian faith with a social issue or two.

Or sometimes faithfulness means you just have to meddle.

And in the aftermath of a contentious political season and a tumultuous civic life that I’m not betting will calm down anytime soon, preachers are going to have to keep wrestling with how and when to meddle.

So here are a few things I’ve learned about meddling.

1. It’s Always About Jesus

Most of the people in the pews, or chairs, have been in church a long time. They are smart enough to have a pretty good idea about your political leanings. They are also smart enough to know whether you are honestly trying to preach about Jesus or whether you are using Jesus to make the point you want to make. They are much more likely to listen to you if they trust you are trying to be faithful to the Gospel and help them become faithful in their own discipleship. Our job isn’t to build a voting bloc but to point people to Jesus and to a life committed to building his Kingdom.

2. Lean on Scripture 

We follow the Narrative Lectionary in our church, a series of Scripture readings designed to help us live more fully into the Biblical Story.  It has been amazing the number of times the assigned reading for the day has intersected powerfully with issues in the culture. And the people in our church who pay attention to how we plan worship know that when I have something to say that might make us uncomfortable it is grounded in a Scripture text that has been chosen for me not one I went looking for to prove a point. Particularly in more theologically conservative churches, if it comes from the Bible people will listen to you. That doesn’t mean they will agree with you, but they will listen to you.

3. Pick Your Spots 

People, particularly these days, are inundated with analysis and opinion on about politics. CNN, Fox, The New York Times, their local newspapers, the radio, social media – it’s everywhere. Most of them are not looking for your opinion as well. People will listen and allow you to preach as you feel called, but you can’t make every sermon about the news of the week.  People are looking for messages of hope and grace, how the Gospel intersects with their daily lives and in the ways that won’t make the evening news – how to be a better spouse, what Jesus has to say about raising their kids, how to spot God’s Spirit in the hospital, the cemetery and all the places in between.

4. Own Your Bias

All of us live with bias, we pay attention to certain things and ignore others. One of the best ways to understand our bias is by asking why do we get our news in the places we do – MSNBC isn’t purely objective and neither is Fox. Part of my own sinfulness is my bias – I am willing to see certain points of view as more non-negotiable than others. This same bias lives in every person in our churches. If I am going to challenge or question one side I have to be willing to take on the other side when they go astray from my interpretation of the Gospel. The Gospel is political, but in a different way than we think. Gospel politics transform and judge all of us, regardless of ideology or affiliation.

5. Don’t Be Afraid 

Fear Not. Jesus says this more than almost everything. It’s been my experience that most of the things I usually worry about end up causing me the least amount of trouble. The headaches usually come from things I never see coming. Although people might prefer you not preach about certain topics, they also lose respect for you if you don’t. One of the fastest ways to lose spiritual authority with people is to let them know you aren’t willing to stand up for what you believe. Most people, particularly your leaders, want the church to lead with moral authority even if we disagree about the particulars.

6. Make Yourself Available 

At their best, sermons provoke conversations – about Scripture, about life, about what it means to be faithful to Jesus. Every sermon, particularly those that dabble in controversial topics, are opening statements and not the last word.  I hope and expect people will talk to me about what I said. I want to make space for people who disagree to have the opportunity to engage with me.

There will be people who disagree, and sometimes strongly. As the preacher I have a privileged place and microphone in these conversations. So stand up, make yourself available, and let people be part of the conversation. Most of the time people just want to be heard and reminded that you value them and that God loves them. Disagreement about the application of the Gospel does not mean we have to write the person off.

This isn’t an exhaustive list. Just a few things I’ve learned. How about you – how do you proclaim what you believe with integrity and humility in contentious times?

 

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Deep Roots That Bear Fruit

A few years ago I was asked to speak to a group of young adults.

They were mostly recent college graduates who had committed to giving the next year of their lives as urban missionaries. They had gathered on a farm for their orientation, where most of them were both excited and terrified about the year ahead of them. Only a few of them had ever spent time in America’s cities and so they knew that while the upcoming year was going to bring beautiful experiences it would also bring problems and challenges with the potential to overwhelm them.

I was the opening act, so sometime in the morning, with one extra large coffee finished, I began the talk that I, if no one else, was convinced might have been the most important they would hear all day – on spirituality as a fuel for mission. I shared the lessons countless world changers before them had learned, that bearing long-lasting fruit in mission was impossible apart from the spiritual resources God has given them – including but not limited to prayer, Scripture, and maybe most importantly, one another.

I was reminded of that talk the other night.  Because to survive 2017 and its Attention Whiplash we are going to need some help.

Every hour of every day seems to bring with it another issue to become educated about, another protest to participate in or ignore, another call to speak or be silent, another petition to sign or let go by. Each minute brings another article or post about who has it figured out and the requirements of earning residence on the right side of history.

The early days of 2017 feel like a continuation of the chaotic air we breathed in 2016. And if January has anything to tell us about the rest of our year, the chaos isn’t going away any time soon.

To live an engaged and informed life in 2017 requires dodging plenty of pitfalls. Many of us are tempted to dive into every event of every day while others want to bury our heads and let someone figure it out.

It seems clear that to do the right thing – to live the kind of life that we want to live, one that both values our friends and family as well as those whose names we don’t know yet – we’re going to need some help. To avoid becoming overwhelmed and find the perspective to live the engaged and constructive life that feels both holy and necessary, we’re going to need wisdom and power that’s deeper than the latest post on Facebook and more enduring than the breaking news alert on our screen.

Roots and Fruit

The term Jesus used for living an engaged and committed life that flows from what you believe was bearing fruit. That sounds churchy, but bearing fruit really is just another way to talk about loving one another. Scripture, as well as our experience, confirm that we can’t do that on our own. We get too mad. We become defensive. We find our worth in the idolatry of being right.

In a message to his disciples recorded in John’s Gospel, Jesus said that with his help, by staying close to him and doing the things to receive his gifts and power, we can bear much fruit. Put another way, with his help, even in 2017, we can love one another well. But without it, when we rush to do things in our wisdom and power, to stand on our own opinions and understanding, love goes by the wayside.

The only way we can effectively love one another well, in good times much less hectic times like these, is to root ourselves in something that will last. And so for me, it means that before I dive into the latest analysis I need to dive into the story of God, the story that tells me who I am and how I should live. It means that before I commit to another email list I need to commit to spending time in silence to let God work in and on me. It means that before I rage against the machine I need to spend time in confession to understand the ways I am complicit in the same machine.

Our charge hasn’t changed. It might feel more urgent today but the work and the call is the same – love one another. Love can be controversial. Love can be uncomfortable. Love can cause divisions. But it is the response and requirement of faith.

Love one another. Apart from me you can do nothing. But with me, you can bear fruit that lasts.

I’m taking Jesus at his word. So let’s root and ground ourselves in love. Let’s trust the Psalm and believe that rooting ourselves in a deep reading of Scripture is what we need to remain anchored and live with wisdom in the storms of our day. Let’s ground ourselves in the spiritual practices and ways of life that have nurtured so many.

Let’s take the help God wants to give us to love well. Because we know we need it.

 

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Two Words To Find Our Way

I was scanning the room, making a mental checklist of what I needed to do before I could leave.

My church hosts a Thanksgiving Day Dinner for our community and has for years – just one picture of the way God can work hope out of tragedy.

It had been a great day, one of those days that reminds you why you do what you do. But the day was drawing to a close and I was in a hurry to get from one Thanksgiving meal to another. My wife and I were celebrating Thanksgiving by ourselves this year and there was a slow-cooker full of ribs with my name on them as soon as I could make it home.

About that time a church member came rushing into the room with an urgency normally reserved for news that isn’t good.

My first thought – those ribs better not get cold.

“Daniel – you’ve got to see this!”

There usually isn’t much use arguing with this particular child of God and there certainly wasn’t going to be on this day.

I walked across the hall into a classroom packed with clothes – some on hangers, some on tables, all given so that moms and dads might find some coats and clothes to make the winer a little less harsh for their kids.

But she pointed not to the clothes, but to a wooden bowl against the wall, normally reserved for a Sunday’s School class’s offering. In the bowl was a wadded up piece of paper.

A closer examination revealed that it was more than paper, but a dollar bill, left by a mother with a message for us. Snuck between the wrinkles and the lines sat two words in fresh black ink:

Thank You.

I was reminded of that message this week. We’re getting ready to host the dinner again – turkeys and pies being prepared, clothes being organized, people giving their time and their gifts for the reason that this is just who we are and this is just what do.

These simple words of gratitude from a woman, like so many in Scripture, whose name we’ll never know. This mom, who would have given anything to have enough money not to need our generosity, giving us the kind of gift money can’t buy.

And to think how close I came to missing it.

It’s not hard to miss things these days, in the days and weeks after our votes have been counted. They told us life would return to normal after the election, but normal feels a long way away.

I attended graduate school with many friends who take pride in calling themselves progressives. I serve in ministry with many friends who would take great offense at being called the same.

And so, like many, my Facebook feed is filled with point and counterpoint. I could spend, and admittedly have spent, days swimming in outrage and self-defense, trying to keep my head above water in the midst of analysis and accusations about why things are the way they are and just what they expect me to do about it.

It’s exhausting. And as anyone with kids knows, when you are tired you miss things.

I wonder how many gifts all this point and counterpoint has blinded us to. I wonder what grace we don’t have the eyes to see because we just can’t take in anything else. I wonder how many times Jesus has walked right past us while our eyes were watching something else.

I’ve come to realize in the last few years how so much of faith and discipleship is resisting the temptation to blindly settle into the categories people want to squeeze us into – rich and poor, blue and red, young and old, urban and rural just to name the most obvious.

Most of us have a hard time seeing ourselves as resistors. It might be because we’ve been conditioned to be skeptical of them. I suspect, however, that the real reason is that in the midst of work and family and church and everything else we don’t have a whole lot of energy left for resisting.

But what we need, now more than ever, is to summon the courage to resist and to find a better way to live our days. The good news is that as we turn to Thanksgiving and prepare to watch and wait through Advent, the path of resistance might not be all that complicated. It might be so obvious that even a beginner can find it, it might be right there on a wadded up dollar bill.

Thank You.

These words might be the clearest path beyond the categories that fuel our outrage and our defensiveness.

It’s hard to feel superior to the person across the table when you remember that everything you’ve been given is a gift. It’s hard to convince yourself that you have it all figured out when you look back on all your mistakes that somehow in grace weren’t terminal. It’s hard to judge the person who thinks differently when you are reminded of the things you used to think.

At least it is for me.

Because no matter what gets our blood pressure rising, we all have have received much from the God who has chosen to give it to us. No matter whether our bubble is an urban one or a rural one, we all have much to be grateful for. No matter what we want to say to that one family member, if we are honest, we can all find one place to say but for the grace of God go I…

So, how can you survive Thanksgiving Dinner this year?  What is the way forward for us all?

The answer might be the same.

Begin with two simple words.

Thank You.

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Finding Old Words to Heal Fresh Wounds

Our long national nightmare is almost over. Well, maybe. We can hope.

Election 2016 has been rough on us all. It has been hard and painful to watch the worst within us on full display, the decay we like to keep below the surface exploding out for all to see.

If there’s anything this year has taught is that we don’t agree on much, maybe the only the thing being that we haven’t enjoyed the view.

This year has been hard on a lot of people. It’s definitely been hard on the church, and no election in my lifetime has made me more seriously consider the wisdom of a holy separation – not so much for the nation’s benefit as for the church’s.

There are plenty of reasons, of course, and much of the damage we’ve received this year comes from being forced to deal with questions about the essentials on terms and in a context that are both unfamiliar and unhealthy.

We’ve been asked to define evangelical – one of our most important words – in the 24-hour news cycle and, even worse, on Twitter. We’ve watched so-called Christian leaders on both sides speak for us in ways and take positions that we would never defend. We know we are being judged for it even if there’s not a whole lot we can do about it.

Church and politics: it’s an age-old question that has always seemed to confound the faithful. What to render to Caesar and what to give to God, what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem, where and how do the two kingdoms meet, and just what is the right dance for fidelity and policy?

But now, with Election Day finally drawing near, we’re beginning to ask what feels like an even more important question. How do we come together when we’ve spent so much time ripping each other apart?

The bitterness and the destruction seemingly all around us has turned us into overwhelmed voyeurs instead of the engaged citizens a democratic republic requires.

And so, we’re searching for the right phrases to help us find unity after a year that has felt like we’ve never been more divided. We’re looking for words to bring healing for communities and a culture that has advertised its brokenness.  We need both a vocabulary and a path to chart a better way.

We are tempted to search for new words and flashy turns of phrases. But the words we need aren’t new at all.

The words that will help us, the words that will lead us, the words with the power to show us that better way, or return to it, we’ve been saying them in some form or another for as long as there has been a church, as long as there have been people willing to show up for a holy meal.

And so our work begins on Sunday as we celebrate the mystery of God’s incredible grace that comes in ordinary ways and especially in bread and wine (or Welch’s).

Before we can celebrate, we’ll begin with confession.  We’ll confess that we don’t have it all right, no matter what we’ve said on social media. We’ll admit that we haven’t lived up to our commitment to fully open the church to people of all ages, nations and races the way we promised we would in our baptisms.

We’re going to ask forgiveness for the ways we have not always represented God well in the world and how we haven’t always resisted the spiritual forces of wickedness around us.  After all, we’ll remember our belief that our battle isn’t so much against flesh and blood but evil powers and dark principalities.

We’re going to seek grace for the ways, regardless of how we vote, that we have allowed other people and parties to set our agenda instead of listening to God’s priorities and lived into a more holy agenda.

When we don’t what to do, repentance is always a good first step – turning from our own ways towards the ways of God. And so that’s where we’ll start.

As we tell this story, the story of God’s love and faithfulness that has become our story, most fully realized in an Upper Room and on a Cross, we’ll commit ourselves to that turning.

We’ll say things like we who are many – in zip code, in racial identity, in tax bracket, in ideology – are one body.

We’ll rededicate ourselves of being the body of Christ – hands and feet for a broken and weary world.

We’ll promise to be what the Church is supposed to be – agents of grace for a world desperate for it.

We’ll march out of one holy space into another with the charge to be people of hope in a culture overwhelmed by despair.

Those are big words and audacious promises. We know, both by our theology and our history, that we can’t keep them by ourselves. And so we’ll ask God for help, that some how and some way, in these ordinary grocery-store bought gifts we’ll experience the presence and power we need to find and share a better way.

Old words get a bad rap. We convince ourselves that if the words we need are to be found we’ll have to make them up or find them somewhere we’ve never looked before.

The good news, evangel, that word that we can’t get away from this year, is the words we need are the ones that were given to us a long time ago.

Those old words still have the power to heal fresh wounds. And that oft-told story still points us back to the right path.

 

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A Church For A Time Such As This

As the time came for our prayer on Sunday morning, we couldn’t help but pray the news – for the victims of gun violence across the nation, for those trapped in the cycle of racism, and for those whose call to protect and serve left them exposed, threatened and afraid.

One day removed from the horrors of another terror attack in France, a week from the awful events in Dallas, the horrible images of the deaths of African-American men at the hands of police in St. Paul and Baton Rouge still on our minds, the carnage of Orlando still in our hearts and souls – to be the church, we had to pray.

We prayed not to prevent action but to ask God to propel us to it. We prayed that we might have the courage to live into our ministry of reconciliation. We prayed that somehow and someway our nation might trade its current ways for a new way of justice and peace.  Mostly we prayed for all of this to stop.  We prayed for a way to settle differences and perceived scores that didn’t include unleashing death and destruction upon innocents. 

But within five minutes of getting back to my office after church, the five minutes it took to sit down and turn on the computer, I slumped in my chair.  Because before we had even finished asking God for help, there had been another one – another shooting, another attack on police officers, another declaration that life didn’t matter.

It is awful to watch and even more gut wrenching to live.  America is on fire – full of rage and stocked up on anger, plenty of it righteous. We’re long on shouting and justifying and knowing just who is to blame, but we’re short on relationships and kindness and ways that lead to life and peace.

Our parents told us stories of how frightening it was to live through the 1960’s.  We ignored them them, but we’re paying attention now.

And as a church leader I know that people are paying attention to us now, too.  They are listening to what we say and watching how we live. 

They know that the solutions to the presenting problems – circles that combine race and violence and inequality and neighborhoods and the cops – aren’t going to be found in political ideologies intent on assigning blame. They know that the way forward won’t come from blasting each other on Twitter or limiting ourselves to the echo chambers of those who see it the same way that we do. 

And so, looking for something else, they come back to us again. They listen again because they want to know whether the church they grew up going to or pass on the street every day has a message that’s big enough for this.  They want to know whether we have a way of life that can transform such a time as this.

They listen because even if a lot of them aren’t in our buildings on Sunday mornings, they know there is power in our story.  They know that our message is about light overwhelming darkness and that we put our trust in a life more powerful than death. 

They know that when we quote Scripture we quote words of equality. They know that in our story the logic of creation denies the logic of racism – no dark claim to racial superiority can withstand the light of Genesis 1:26, that everyone, male or female, black or white, rich or poor, is created in the beautiful and beloved image of God.  

They know that we claim that our identity isn’t tied to our appearance but is formed by who loves us and how far He went to prove it. To deny that everyone has the right to live without fear and to seek joy is to deny the fundamental truth of our faith – that no life is worthless and that every life can be redeemed.

They know that our mission is reconciliation, to bring those who are far apart together. They want to believe it when we remind them that this is what God is all about and this is the mission we can all be a part of. 

And yet they aren’t quite sure about us.  We have to admit there’s good reason for that.

They’ve seen us give up the essentials of discipleship for the convenience of an attractive consumer-driven faith.  They’ve seen us shy away from calling sin what it is so we can stay comfortable. They’ve seen us trade our mission of transforming the world for resting in the status quo. They’ve seen us praise God’s way with our lips and turn from it with our lives. They’ve seen us give up our convictions far too quickly when power and influence can be had.

To be a church for a time such as this we have to tell the old story but we also have to live it with truth and courage and conviction. We glorify God as much with how we enter difficult conversations and contested places as we do when we sing our songs and say our creeds. 

We spend a lot of time talking about how the church can bounce back, how we can connect with generations and groups that don’t seem to pay us much attention.  

People are paying attention now.  They are longing for a community of faith to live out what it believes.  They are desperate for a path forward and for leaders who can help them find it. They are seeking those who can remind us of what we have in common, who can help us listen to one another and who can do the work of reconciliation, not  by making an easy peace that denies the problems, but by forging a real one that can make all things new.

The good news is that we do have a way of life for such a time as this.

The question for us then isn’t what shall we say.  It’s more important than that.  

How then shall we live?

 

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