Having graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary early this month, this is the next of my seminary reflections. This marks the third post. They are out of order, except for the last few.
Preaching is as scary as I always thought [but it can also be powerful!].
One of the more intimidating aspects of the pastoral vocation is this: speaking in front of a lot of people. Those people may be judging you, or they may offer great charity. Those people may come interested, or they may come with impatience and plenty of other things to think about at that time. Those people long for a sense of the eternal, of deep purpose for life, of grace and truth; but they may not have gotten enough sleep the night before.
And there they are at church.
Now, let’s add to that.
I’m not someone who was naturally drawn to speaking in front of people. My college speech class illustrates this perfectly. The goal to was to eradicate ums and uhhs from our speeches, and also to memorize our main points. I couldn’t remember the next point, and I knew I couldn’t say uh or um, so I just stopped. It was probably about 8 or 10 seconds. Yeah.
If you listen to me preach nowadays, don’t be deceived. You may initially think I’m calm and poised, but don’t let that fool you! I am not! Well, at least beforehand. As I move into a message, somehow God’s Spirit seems to slowly calm my nerves, and I allow him to animate me. Somehow, my hands even seem to work with my words as I tread holy ground. Somehow, the people out there who always used to intimidate me have turned into people who simply long for an experience of God.
Just like God used Moses, a guy who stammered and lacked confidence and poise, God can use a guy like me. God can use a guy who wasn’t always a natural with words and with communication. God can use a guy who hated public speaking for the first two decades of his life. For me, this has been evidence of my calling that I have been given grace to do the communication that pastoring requires. That’s not to say I’m killin’ it. But I’m taking steps. The meme below says it all.
God calls various people in various places to proclaim the hope contained in Scripture and made most evident in the Son, Jesus Christ. This is a serious, scary task. That can [and does] make us young pastors terrified!
But the incredible thing about preaching is this: it sticks. I still remember concepts and illustrations from the sermons my pastor preached growing up. I remember the story about bitterness that featured Eskimo hunters who dipped an icy blade into blood, then planted it in the snow. When a wolf would smell the blood and lick the blade, they became so intoxicated that they failed to realize their numb tongue was being cut open. That’s harsh, but it’s what we do to ourselves when we fail to forgive and harbor bitterness against others. Preaching sticks.
That stuff matters. It’s terrifying, and it matters. A lot.
Ask most Americans what it means to be a Christian, or even what the Gospel of Jesus is, and they will likely respond with a phrase to the effect of, “Jesus died on the cross for your sins so you can go to heaven.” The problem is simple: people are sinful. The solution is simple as well: ask Jesus to forgive you. The effect is said to be remarkable. Jesus decides, after your prayer, not to send you to hell.
Could eternal salvation be so simple? Certainly the details of faith are slightly more complicated than this. However, this prayer can be a starting point. Indeed, many powerful people of God have begun in such a fashion; they prayed a simple I-need-you-Jesus prayer, then followed him.
The difficulty arises when ministry centers entirely on attempting to get people to make decisions to follow Jesus. This may sound counterintuitive, but I have witnessed this very strategy. Most recently, I was present at a winter retreat for junior high students. The retreat was held at a small Christian camp in West Michigan. A couple times per day, we rounded up the tweens for an hour of formation. Essentially, the message was that everyone needs to escape the fires of hell via the I-need-Jesus prayer. The aging yet passionate camp director vividly described the death of Jesus at every gathering. The problem was that this is as far as they got. They touched on the resurrection of Jesus just once. There was nothing about the great cost of discipleship. There was nothing about the kingdom of God [a subject Jesus seemed to emphasize – see the synoptic Gospels]. There was nothing about sanctification, the long Christian word for how God slowly transforms people from the inside out. No, everything was about escaping hell. After all, people could die at any time. And it is scary to imagine what it would be like to die as a rebel from God.
Salvation is absolutely an important message. And it is a lot easier to talk about salvation than discipleship. But maybe the problem lies in the difficulty of letting go of old habits. Everyone, it seems, has heard about the sinner’s prayer. But have they heard about God’s kingdom? Have they heard about the Holy Spirit that was sent at Pentecost to comfort, empower, and guide the church? Have they imagined what the world might be like if the church was truly a forgiving, restoring, loving, generous, honest community?
Sadly, the message of salvation seems to have sanctioned off the work of Jesus to the next world. It is only when we die that we reap the benefits of salvation, the story goes. But this does not appear to be the case for members of the early church. For them, following the risen Christ meant radical life-change. In Acts 2:45 Luke records what following Jesus meant for the earliest believers: “And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” They also ate together, prayed together, and worshiped God. They had a common life together. I doubt if there was a guy telling everyone to accept Jesus into their heart at these meetings. All they knew was that a change should be made.
To be clear, I do believe our relationship with God is personal. I John 3:1a speaks of this: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” Saint Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:5 about how God has literally adopted us: “[in love] he predestined us for adoption as sons [it should go without saying that women are part of this in an equal manner] through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…” And since God is personal, we can follow relationally. The late Robert E. Webber said this: “When someone asks me the question, “Do you have a personal relationship with God?” I always answer, “You’re asking the wrong question. What is important here is not that I in and of myself achieve or create a personal relationship with God, but that God has a personal relationship with me through Jesus Christ, which I affirm and nourish.”
I also believe that belief is important. John’s Gospel brings this into crystal clear perspective. But James tells us the result of life in Jesus: real change. He does not equivocate: “…faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead [2:17].” Jesus is interested in eternity. But eternity began millennia ago, and time races forward whilst unnamed people are dying without hearing about Jesus. Famines wrack the planet even as human casualties mount from wars and genocide. Christians, I believe, should cease worrying about how God will judge those who have never heard his name, and embody a faith that the world will find peculiar.
Pope Francis is helping to animate this kind of faith. Washing the feet of imprisoned Muslims was certainly an act of humility and love, an act that forces one to ask, “why would he ever do that?” I am not advocating that followers of Jesus cease sharing their faith. I am only suggesting that their sharing should point toward God’s kingdom reality. Individual lives are transformed, as is the church as a corporeal unit.
See, the problem with inviting Jesus into your heart is that he stays there. He stays, instigating change, reminding you of your calling, listening to your cries for hope, helping you to grow deep roots of life changing faith, and spurring you on toward love and good deeds.
Robert E. Webber, The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 89.
Stories move us. They hold our attention. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself why you were up until 4am watching Breaking Bad the other week. Undoubtedly, narratives are the intersection of logic and wonder. We desperately want George to find his better self when we watch It’s a Wonderful Life, and we hold out until the end when he finally “lives again.” Ask yourself what drew you in to the books your mom read to you at age 3, and you will likely find that it’s the same things that draws you to finish a quality book even though you haven’t eaten in 8 hours: we humans long to know about each other, about good and evil, about hope, about love.
2. Going Off-Script is Okay [At least according to MLK]
My work in communication comes from a particular field: Christian ministry. More specifically, preaching is what I’ve studied the most over the years. A rather noteworthy preacher-turned-activist, Martin Luther King Jr., employed this well in his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream.” If you click here you can read a version that shows the places he went off-script. Interestingly, the final summary–the part where he goes off-script–is the most memorable part! No one remembers, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism” from the written script. But they probably do remember, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” This line was off-script. If one listens to a recording of the speech, it’s easy to hear where King’s voice had begun to border on a deep-south whoop, faltering between singing and speaking. As he plowed toward the final line, each concept built on or enriched the idea before. That’s preaching. But it’s also how communication works. As a follower of Jesus, I believe God’s Spirit leads pastors, at times, to go off-script. If you’re not a person of faith, maybe you could rely on that gut feeling in you that tells you there’s a little more to be said.
3. Lose the “Ums” [and Embrace Silence]
In 2007, I took a speech class. I could make a case for doing alright in the class in terms of grades, but my speeches were awful. During one of them, I completely lost my spot in my notes. Red-faced, I desperately searched for where I’d left off after a couple awkward errs and umms. Not okay. What I have learned since is that some people are cut out for manuscript-based speaking, but most of us are doing content-based speaking. If you’re in theatre, you’re doing manuscript-based speaking. You’re saying, word-for-word, what Shakespeare wrote. That’s your role. But if you’re in business, chances are that you have a different objective. You need to tell everyone about what expanding operations in East Asia means for the quarterly earnings report [or some other equally interesting topic]. Most of us are not trying to say, word-for-word, our manuscript. Most of us are trying to relate, to interested [or disinterested] listeners, concepts. So, find a way to memorize the main ideas, then passionately convey them. You may very well find that in the process your umms and errs have conveniently disappeared.
4. Embarrass Yourself
Please don’t actually do this. What I mean by embarrass yourself is something rather different. In fact, I only wrote the title like that to get you to read this. What I want to emphasize here is that communicators must establish themselves as human, as flawed, as real. The other year I went with my fellow church-staffers to a free conference on childhood development at a nearby university. The keynote speaker came across like he knew everything. With each line, he praised his own accomplishments more and more. He was polished, he was smooth; he didn’t emit as single umm. But his final point was muddied because he was, again, the hero of his own story. I say this not to tell you that you can’t tell of your own experiences or things you’ve learned. I say this because no matter who you’re communicating to, transparency is a draw. Consider the puffed-up politician who spews forth vitriol against his opponent. Do we want to sound like that? No. I think not.
5. Craft Key Phrases with Intentionality
Forget what I said about concepts in #3. Not really. Remember it, but take it with a grain of salt. In communication, we need to articulate ideas, concepts, facts, trends. Steve Jobs needed to explain the iPod when it was first released. He could have said, “it’s a digital device enabling individuals to procure, electronically, significant amounts of media–up to a gigabyte–from the internet for personal enjoyment.” That would have done the trick I suppose. But no. He got up in front of journalists and industry reps and quipped, “It’s a thousand songs in your pocket.” That was a phrase headed for the headlines. Succinct, image-driven. One more example. John F. Kennedy delivered a sparkling inaugural address in 1961. The world may never forget his line on civic responsibility: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Elegant. Trim. Balanced. It was headed for the headlines. Even though most speeches or sermons or boardroom presentations probably don’t require a manuscript, certain points really need to punch through afternoon corporate doldrums. Preachers, break through Sunday morning lethargy with memorable phrases that get to the heart of your main idea.
It was a sunny April afternoon four years ago that I received an email from Steve Argue with “youth ministry opportunity” in the subject line. At that point I was finishing my senior year at Spring Arbor University, and I had the written goal of serving in a historic urban or suburban church that was effectively rooted in its community. God was faithful in granting the desire in my heart; as I read the email I could not restrain my excitement, even though I had little assurance that anything real would come from this succinct email. However, events were lining up. Already I had been considering seminary here in Grand Rapids, and now I was presented with what was, at the time, at least a strong possibility. After an interview with Father Holmgren and Tina at Rose’s on Reeds Lake, it seemed even more possible. There was a genuine need for someone with experience working with young people, and I deeply desired to offer my gifts to a community seeking to follow the way of Jesus. Plus, I was interviewing alongside a good friend.
Before I knew it, I was headed to HoneyRock Camp in northern Wisconsin in a big van, seated next to Father Holmgren, wondering what the adventure would be like. Needless to say, that first trip was enjoyable. Exploring God’s creation on a kayak alongside fellow journeyers is a recipe for joy. Indeed, this trip was relational treasure. But the journey at Grace has been beyond my capacity to describe.
As one reflects on a four-year season in life, there is an abundance of material from which to pull. Though it’s tough to know where to begin, there are some unarguably hilarious moments – like every single one of Matt Olgren’s announcements – but powerful moments too. I remember my first Harvest Dinner Basket Auction in 2009. Dale Grogan won the [expensive!] bid on Steve Sweetland’s Michigan beer basket – and gave it to John and me. What a warm welcome to the community – it communicated, at once, both trust and generosity. I also remember leading trips to Mel Trotter with our students. We sorted clothing, serving in their massive warehouse. Sheila, one of the workers there, told her story of transformation. Through the power of God manifest in the support of her companions at Mel Trotter, she had forsaken a life of prostitution and brokenness. I remember when Jack Lennon taught us all a new word in Discipleship Formation: “retrograde.” It describes planetary movement, but also related directly to our lesson from the Gospel of Luke. I just can’t remember how right now. This spectrum of hilarious to heart-wrenching is emblematic of the dynamic that I have witnessed at Grace over these years.
My work at Grace has been most closely tied, of course, to ministry with a younger demographic. Gatherings with students have taken various forms: Sunday evening worship and teaching, morning formation, Saturday projects, Thursday evening hangouts at Schulers. Throughout, students have offered their insight, patience, honesty, presence, and trust. It is not easy, much of the time, to know exactly how to communicate the reality of God into the lives of young people. But they have listened, questioned, considered, and embodied so much of the Gospel of Jesus. I remember the time in the stairwell when Colin Grogan told me he was convinced God existed and that he had assurance God was working within his life. I remember sitting at a coffee shop, listening to Emily Batdorf consider the confluence of faith and science and pondering how God has arranged our universe. I know in my heart and from their testimony that many of our students are journeying faithfully with God. I remember quiet conversations, outlandish controversies, and plenty of squirminess during our two-week series on sexuality in early 2012. It has been a quite a time.
Working with the staff at Grace has also been life changing. Tina’s honesty and consistency has helped me grow. Her challenges have worked alongside encouraging feedback. Thanks to her, I understand what a calendar is. Just kidding. Seriously though, she is a blessing to me and to all of us. Father Holmgren has been supportive and gracious at every turn. He has carefully coached me in leadership, communication, pastoral care, and thoroughly enriched my comprehension of church history. Through his example, my insight has been expanded, and my spirituality has been deeply formed. And it is the kind of formation that will remain with me, even though I am sensing that God is gently drawing me out of the Episcopal tradition. God has worked greatly through this pioneer in faith, and I will be forever changed – and forever grateful. John Hamersma and Mary Baas have been such faithful servants, also. I remember making my way to the back of our crowded nave in April of 2013 for the oratorio they coordinated with Grace’s choir and Calvin’s Alumni choir. As we welcomed in brothers and sisters from the Reformed tradition, it reinforced how God had been present in our uniquely Anglican hymnody. Tears ran down my face as I attempted to join in singing “I am the Bread of Life” and “Lift High the Cross.” These songs, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the stewardship of faithful musicians, have soaked into my soul over these four years. I am indelibly changed.
During my time at Grace, our community has been warmly blessed as we have welcomed many new families and individuals. Many of these have been younger families and students. I had the privilege of serving God alongside Kyle Bos for an extended season that came to a necessary end when he left for seminary in 2012. I remember the Easter Vigil – Kyle does too. He was sick for a week after he stayed up all night. But we served, we sang, and we grew spiritually in the relational greenhouse of our church community. Kyle pioneered hospitality afternoons that have continued in his absence. God has been present as we have come together in homes after Sunday worship. Indeed, we have a blessed spiritual family.
Indeed, there is a host of memories. It is not possible to contain them in a letter, however long. And, as always, the Grace community is left the important question of what is to come in the future. According to Revelation 21 and 22, the Scripture I had the privilege of expounding on May 5th, we have an even more exciting hope ahead. What we have to anticipate – eternity with God in a transformed world – this hope shapes our participation in the present. We must continue to foster an attentiveness to how God is leading us to love others and show compassion. We must continue offering hope to the poor and broken. We must continue to advocate for freedom from addiction, confronting the powers that be. My prayers are with each of you as the seasons come and go. And because of the hope that lies ahead, may we continue to love and serve both God and people with faithfulness and singleness of heart, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Since we can think of teaching as functioning in just two categories [I recognize this is impossible, but stick with me] let’s briefly redefine those.
Feel free to visit the post below this one if you are interested in the beginning of this two-part series.
Moving quickly ahead, the first category is deposit-making. A teacher can perceive her job to consist of depositing factual information into the minds of students. One can picture this teaching style like serving ice cream: each cup needs it, and in approximately equal amounts.
The second category is problem-posing. In essence this consists of raising awareness of problems. At first glance it may appear to lack guidance, but this is exactly the point. To establish a problem implicitly invites a solution. It invites imagination and enjoins the student’s faculties to action. According to Speech Act Theory, communication precipitates action. Let me illustrate.
Recently I listened to a man who had planted a church and pastored it faithfully for a number of years. It had grown significantly both fiscally and numerically. Many would say it grew spiritually as well. As the pastor continued, he revealed his motivation for such dedicated work. He had been cut from the basketball team in 7th grade. He tried out again the next year and failed again. After a long and difficult conversation with a coach, he was instructed not to pursue basketball: “son, it’s just not for you.”
He refused to quit. Fueled by these words and assisted by a growth spurt, he practiced unceasingly between junior high and high school. Having made the team his freshman year, he started all through high school as a center. Later he received a robust scholarship for college basketball, and he flourished in the sport.
He intimately described the motivation for his success both in basketball and then in pastoring: “I didn’t want to be told ‘you can’t do that.'” That was it. And he went on to prove them wrong. Though it eventually led to some critical errors in leadership, it was fuel sufficient for a season.
What does this mean? It means that words are extremely powerful. To instill imagination in people is to plant seeds of hope. As a Christian, the words of Jesus have sparked hope and life in me. Teachers, pastors, and leaders of every kind have the ability to invite imagination at every turn. And it is in the way we teach that we can either spark incredible change or cause irreparable damage.
Teaching is more than revealing factual information. For the Christian, it is about capturing the imagination for the sake of sustained participation in the Kingdom of God. For Christians and secular thinkers alike, though for differently ultimate purposes, teaching is about capturing the imagination for the transformation of the world.
In the illustration about the pastor, words – discouraging words – were powerful enough to, in a certain sense, drive him to both create and build, to push himself to his limits, and to react to how others had [foolishly] instructed him. May we as teachers have the courage to ask the right questions, helping listeners to better understand the haze of the world we live in. The world sees more clearly when teachers ask the better question. For the Christian mind, we live to advance the Kingdom of God. And in advancing the Kingdom of God, the world of believers and unbelievers flourishes.
For the past several years, as most everyone on the planet, I have been on somewhat of a journey. At certain moments in the journey I have wondered if there is anything worth sharing. In a world permeated with information, why bother adding to the vortex of existential reflection? Over the past few years, I have done some thinking that could be worth at least the time it takes to post, so I’ll share. And, of course, we live in a world free to chose from where information is to come.
Deciding where to start is likely the most difficult question to address. Maybe it’s a bland beginning, but I thought it could be interesting to reflect on the life of bees theologically.
Harkening back to my childhood, I remember being deeply moved by Moody Science videos. Though I do not fully comprehend the spectrum of methodology within entomology, I can definitely tell bees have a comprehensive sense of purpose and order in their lives. They support a mother bee, giving life or limb for community and temporal kingdom. From the video, I remember how the bees maintained a very structured cadence for daily life. They even remember exactly which hive they belong to, a commitment never taken lightly.
On to the homiletical thrust? In a moment. Allow me to briefly describe events of the past few months; only after this breviary on current endeavors can the homiletical observations abound.
The past six months have been a flurry of change for me and for many who are relationally proximate. If I had to pick the beginning, it would likely be around March or April of this year, 2012, at which point I was doing some research in ministerial candidacy positions within several different denominations. I was open to several options, and several opportunities presented themselves, though none were strong enough to capture my attention and full interest. I did not feel quite ready to move across the country or state. At that time I had also applied to a Master of Divinity program at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, where I was about to graduate with a Master of Arts degree. If I received the scholarship I could fold all the MA credits (65) into the MDiv (96 credits). That is what I am currently occupied doing as Fall gently cascades across the oaks and maples casting dappled shade over West Michigan countryside and cityscape.
A great many changes were also underway. After graduation I found myself amidst the busyness of a mission trip with my dearly beloved high school students and my wonderful mother, Ann. Then it was Vacation Bible School week at Grace Episcopal. Then I was on a plane to France with nothing but my bike, a few bucks, and lots of existential questions. 19 million grapevines, 58 Spanish pueblos, a few wonderful glasses of wine, and 800 kilometers of riding and contemplation later, I was heading back home. At that point I sensed in my heart that not only one close friend – Sarah Bailey – but also another, Kyle Bos, would soon be departing for seminary studies hundreds of miles away. Two other close housemates, Eric Anderson and James Kessel were leaving our community of disciples for the sake of a new living situation with a sister and for a new marriage, respectively. To convolute matters even further, my friend and co-worker of three years in student ministries, John Roberts, was now following a call to a new position in North Carolina. Neophobia had set in already when I pondered the evolution of my daily life. Seminary was starting soon and I was entirely unprepared. People were coming and going, I was scatterbrained, and I questioned whether life as it had been could continue.
See, the people with whom I share a home are fellow disciples in faith after Jesus Christ. Together in our home we have cultivated habits of worship, prayer, work, study, conversation, and peeled back the layers of guise that separate and stratify persons in this critical group of humans someone entitled planet earth.
When factors such as close relationships shifting press in around us, we are either brought to despair or to a deeper look at our truest anchor. This is, of course, a hyperbolic statement, but there is latent potential for much good or much harm. By now you probably sense that I am on the verge of the homiletical thrust. I am. Bees know exactly what their mission is in life. Likely this consists of the procurement of honey, protection of the queen bee, and the implementation of strategic construction project complete with managerial structure and materials oversight. Similarly, as Christians gathering to follow in the steps of Jesus, we know our mission. We know exactly what it is that is required of us. Saint Paul outlines the goal clearly in Galatians 5:22-23 : “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.” There are no laws against these things, and they coincide perfectly with the “grain of the universe” as John Howard Yoder phrased it.
In prayer and devotion, disciples after Jesus anticipate the kingdom that is to come. Unfortunately we are not as precise in our mission as bees are toward the preparation of delicious honey or the installment of new honeycomb structures. We falter, we question, we fail. And yet, the grace of God invites us to rise again.
In Benedictine monastic tradition, the Rule enjoins faithful monks to practice the virtues of work, study, and prayer. Undergirded by relationship, Christians establish rhythms in this same way, rhythms that might include daily 40 mile commutes to office jobs, biweekly stops at grocers or farmers markets, conversations with a depressed sister, plans for a needed vacation. But are these very normal routines undergirded in prayer and purpose? They can. Do work and study glow with the hope of a kingdom at hand? They can. Benedictines and bees have much in common. They both see the grain of nature facing a certain way. Humbly and unabashedly, they align themselves with it. Our hope as Christians is in a God who suffers with us and also hopes with us (see the biblical book of Luke in chapters 22-24).
Amidst a season of great change, I have found such stability and guidance from God in work, study, and prayer. I have been encouraged in faith, and I would venture to at least hope that I have been to encourage others also. These Benedictine-influenced rhythms propel me and the community close to me toward the God who, if only to inspire faithful disciples who often fail to live up to their implicit calling as such, created bees.