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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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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Six For Your Weekend – Plus Some News on Moving Day

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If certain religious services were less about preening about one’s own virtue or pointing fingers at somebody else’s iniquity and more about tackling human needs around us, this would be a better world — and surely Jesus would applaud as well. -Nicholas Kristof

Six Reads that will inspire you, make you think and help make your weekend a bit better.

What Religion Would Jesus Belong To, Nicholas Kristof

“This may seem an unusual column for me to write, for I’m not a particularly religious Christian. But I do see religious faith as one of the most important forces, for good and ill, and I am inspired by the efforts of the faithful who run soup kitchens and homeless shelters.”

What I Learned in the School Cafeteria, Caroline Lamar

“I’m pretty positive the kingdom of Heaven looks exactly like a school cafeteria. Fellowship over the table. Laughter. Sitting with people who don’t always look like you or talk like you or believe the same things.  But there they were all there together, gathered around a table. I cannot imagine a more beautiful view.”

A Farewell Guide to Political Journalism, Ron Fournier

“A great article on leadership with serious implications for church leaders: (Don’t lose sight of your mission, remember who you work for, Build Relationships, Integrity is Everything, Own Your Convictions) “A reporter’s job is to get as close to the truth as possible, overriding personal biases and sifting through a rising churn of spin and lies to explain what happened and why it matters. At its highest levels, journalism informsprovokes, and holds powerful people accountable (with no fear or favor).”

Stop Touting the Crazy Hours You Work, Jena McGregor

“The idea that being well-rested could be a black mark against a leader is preposterous. And even if a super early wake-up time works for some people — and they’re sensitive about sending out email before dawn — if you’re having to get up at 4 a.m. to avoid distractions in your day, there’s probably something wrong with how we’re working.”

Hillbilly Elegy: J.D. Vance on Faith in Appalachia, Kelsey Dallas 

“I lived in a pretty chaotic and hopeless world. Faith gave me the belief that there was somebody looking out for me, that there was a hopeful future on the other side of all the things I was going through.”

To Attract Young People to Your Church, You’ve Got to be Warm, Not Cool, Kara Powell, Jake Mulder and Brad Griffin

“Ironically, it is possible that your church might be working against warmth by offering myriad programs. Busyness doesn’t equal warmth.”

A Bit of News…

I’m excited to announce that on Tuesday, I’ll be moving my writing to a new place on the web.  In short, I’m looking forward to sharing my new website with you on Tuesday.

It’s been a long time coming and more work than I expected, but I believe it will be worth the effort. My hope is that it will not only be a more attractive and better space from which to write, but more importantly, that it will make it easier to share resources and create community that will help all of us with the things I care about and tend to write about – church, the hunt for grace and the search for joining what we most desperately believe with how we actually live.

If all this sounds like something you might be interested in, you can learn more by following the link to sign up for my email list here, and I’ll send you a preview of the new space on Monday (Note: If you already subscribe to this blog by email, you don’t need to resubscribe to the website. If you follow via your wordpress account, however, you will need to resubscribe).  And if you aren’t impatient (or don’t care that much), you can watch for it on social media on Tuesday.

Thanks so much for reading and I hope you have a great weekend.

With Gratitude,

Daniel

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Survival Guide: Four Strategies For Thriving in a Summer of Discontent

The counter in the fellowship hall serves as the de facto water cooler in my church. It is the place where we talk shop – where the teenagers inform me of my latest fashion missteps, where the old men taunt me with ghost stories about the Cubs’ impending collapse (not going to happen this year), and where everyone seems to want to find anything to talk about but the upcoming election.

A study of our zip code would lead you to assume that we are a pretty reliable voting bloc for the Republicans, but we’ve got some blue dots in an otherwise solidly red district. In some cases, blue and red even manage to live under the same roof.

None of us are political or cultural experts, but we have come to agree on one thing – we are dreading the summer.  With both major party’s candidates sporting higher negative ratings than any in recent memory, we are battening the hatches and preparing ourselves for a summer of negavity, a prolonged season of personal attacks, and a stretch where locating hope and inspiration will require an exhaustive search.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Christian call to resistance.  Although the easy access to information and the daily drumbeat of analysis and criticism won’t make it easy, it is possible to resist the trap our broken political culture wants to set for us.  It is possible, even in an election year, to love God, love people and shine God’s light in a hurting world all while keeping your sanity.

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Here are four practices that can help us do just that.  I’m going to do my best to embrace them. You might find them helpful too.

  1. Seeing God’s People: Although the candidates and their teams will segment people by voting bloc, zip code, priority issues and other data points, we know that for God everyone is funneled into another category – people God created and loves unconditionally. No matter how strongly we might disagree with someone or think they are wrong about the direction of the country, God thought enough of that person to send Christ to die for them.  When we keep that in mind, it becomes a lot harder to divide people in ways that are sinful and reject the words of Genesis – that male and female, God created them in God’s image.
  2. Citizenship Matters: Although I vote in a particular state and county, in my baptism I received a citizenship in another country and a charge to serve another kingdom – the kingdom of God. That citizenship and that commissioning come with a higher purpose and higher stakes than those of any interest group or political party. In short, the most important commitment I will ever make is to become a follower of Jesus Christ.  If we can remember that, we can avoid the temptation to forget our life’s purpose and the One who is the true source of our hope and salvation.photo-1456409977730-84bb5dbf5503
  3. Thy Will Be Done: One of the implications of Incarnation, that in Jesus God became human, is that God cares about what happens in the world.  For God so loved the world, John 3:16 begins.  As Christians, regardless of our political preferences, we believe in a different kind of politics that leads us to pray in every part of life that God’s will be done. Although we do take the election seriously and we do earnestly study the candidates and make the best choice we can, our ultimate prayer is that these events would reflect and bring about God’s will for our families, our nation and the world.  After all, Paul reminds us in Romans 13 that political rulers and authorities are ultimately servants of God, and the Bible is full of examples where God uses secular rulers and authorities to achieve God’s purpose and mission. 
  4. Tuning Out: God called us to work for six days and on the seventh day rest.  Citizenship isn’t for wimps – it requires us to pay attention, to grapple with issues and leaders, and to listen and talk with wise friends about the kind of leadership we need.  Like life, sometimes citizenship can be overwhelming. That’s where sabbath comes in. The practice of sabbath – resting from the drumbeat of the process – can restore perspective, provide needed rest, and remind us of the truth Christians believe about any aspect of the world – that God is still God and we are still not. Sabbath isn’t just a day apart, but is a way of life. We can practice sabbath and receive holy rest by letting go of things that are consuming us – our phones, our fears and in this season even our politics. So, eat lunch with a friend, enjoy a good book, or go for a walk in the woods.  In short, do whatever you need to do to relax. You can take a break, it will be OK. Sabbath is God’s way of reconnecting with us and healing what ails us.
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