Wednesday, May 8, 2019

How LBJ's Biographer is Helping my Preaching

    I continue learning how to preach from unlikely tutors. Robert Caro, the Pulitzer prize-winning biographer of Lyndon Baines Johnson, recently put out a little book (called Working) about how he researches, thinks and writes, and why. I kept circling this and that, prompting fresh thoughts about how I preach.

    Caro is maddeningly slow, turning out a volume about LBJ about once every nine years. Preachers can’t afford such a luxury – but I realize I’ve prided myself in churning out sermons more rapidly as I get older. Maybe that’s not such a good thing, even if I feel it’s good enough, or done enough. Caro is a perfectionist, always looking to uncover one more fact, or to recraft one more sentence so it evokes just the right mood.


     When Caro was writing about Johnson’s childhood, he felt he wasn’t understanding all he hoped to understand. So he not only visited the area. He and his family moved to the Hill Country of Texas for three years. Mind you, this makes me think of God taking up residence among us for… yes, three years. I also wonder: How do I go there in preaching? I’ve been lucky to visit Palestine, Turkey and Greece. With video, online photos and virtual stuff you can find, any of us can go to the wilderness of Judea and notice it isn’t flat sand but a rocky, sandy zone with steep hills. The Jordan River is a muddy creek.  You can even see an artist's rendering of Caesarea Philippi and realize that it was before the Cave of Pan and a thicket of imperial temples that Jesus asked, "Who do they say that I am?"



     Caro is the master of what he calls the “sense of place,” “helping the reader to visualize the physical setting in which the action is occurring: to see it clearly enough, in sufficient detail, so that he feels as if he himself were present while the actions is occurring.” Caro’s next thought intrigues me when I think of preaching, and creating this sense of places: “If a reader can visualize them for himself, then he may be able to understand things without the writer having to explain them; seeing something for yourself always makes you understand it better.” Might I, in preaching, describe a place, its texture and temperature, its light, color and shadow, and my listeners will grasp more than I know to tell them?

     Places, as we all know, evoke emotion. So, “the better the place is envisioned, the more the reader might feel the emotion.” Speaking of emotion: when Caro went to the Hill Country, he found it took a while for the people to trust a guy from New York. Eventually they opened up. Very old women described what life was like before electricity. The dark. The loneliness. The labor required. One woman handed him a heavy bucket of water and asked him to carry it up the hill to her house. He did. What was life like for Mary? Or for Sarah? How dark was the sky at night (or how bright, as they could see millions more stars than we can)? How lonely did Abraham or Elijah feel in that place? Was there a breeze? A multisensory depiction of a Bible scene should be far more fruitful than me trying to “make the Bible relevant today.”

     I love this: Caro asked Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson, to go with him to visit the LBJ childhood home. He asked him to sit at the dinner table, in the very seat where he sat growing up. He waited a long time in the quiet before Sam began to talk about the toxic, harsh relationship between Lyndon and his father. Interviewing people is the key to Caro’s work – and he explains that in interviews, “Silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it.” His notebooks are full of notations and comments – and regularly you can find in big letters SU. “Shut up.” While interviewing, instead of filling a quiet moment, he reminds himself to SU. Eventually the interviewee begins to say more.

     I am thinking I should never preach without interviewing some people. And observing the SU counsel. I might interview a Bible character. Howard Thurman famously asked Jesus what he was thinking on that Palm Sunday as he jogged along the back of that donkey. Talk to Elijah: how did it feel during that crackling, scary storm? Ask Peter how it felt to be engulfed in the water. Ask Paul what Silas’s voice sounded like in the Philippian jail.

     Or interview some live people. Phone up a scholar at your alma mater and ask a hard question. If you have a neighbor who’s not a churchgoer, ask him what he thinks about David dissing Michal. Talk with a pregnant woman in your church, or a mom who lost a child. And SU. Listen. Marvel. And ask more questions. Caro was advised by his first boss to “turn every page, never assume anything.” So often in preaching we assume we know things – about the text, about the Gospel, about our people. But ask questions. It helps them to tell you. And you learn amazing things. That was the Cappadocian way, right? You ask questions about God, and instead of getting answers, you get three more questions.

     Caro only appears to be a slow worker. He actually works long hours, every day – and he’s in his eighties. His rule is that he writes several pages every day. The more you write, the better you write. Lots of it gets thrown away. I know my best preaching decisions are when I toss something out. It might be a really good idea too. Caro researches relentlessly. Then he pictures his entire thousand page book in a short outline, with summaries of his key points, and then he fills in. Whatever doesn’t fit that pre-arranged structure doesn’t make it into the book. Preaching would be wise to adhere to such a discipline.

     Caro taps away on an old Corona manual typewriter – which is charming. But he only does so after writing several drafts in longhand. That seems charming as well. He does this, he says, in order to slow him down. With a pen and legal pad in hand, he thinks a long time before writing, and as he writes. I did my sermons pen on paper for years. I am going to go back to that, at least for a season.

     Finally, back to the idea of going to the place and creating the sense of place. Caro interviewed several people who reported that when Lyndon first came to Washington in 1931, he would show up for work early, walking from a tiny, shabby apartment near Union Station. A couple of folks oddly reported that he was often spotted running as he passed in front of the Capitol. Caro thought this was interesting, but couldn’t figure out why he ran, since he wasn’t late for work. After taking careful notes, he decided to walk from Union Station to the Capitol along that same route at the same time in the morning. What he noticed was the stunning way the rising sun gleamed on the white face of the Capitol at that very hour. Johnson, thrilled by the beauty of the light, broke into a run out of sheer joy and enthusiasm.

     If I’m preaching on Psalm 8, I’d best go outside at night out in the country somewhere and stare upward for a while. If I’m preaching on Genesis 32, I’d be wise to unroll a sleeping bag and sleep up in the hills outside my city. If I’m preaching on Jesus’ Baptism, I might wade into a stream nearby and feel the water. Then my people might be awed that the God who strewed the stars across the night sky is mindful of them, and that a sleepless night is a night in God’s unexpected presence. They might feel the rush of the water, and a breeze, and sense God’s Spirit. For at least this next season, I’m going to imagine Robert Caro going to work with me as I prepare to preach.

    {My weekly lectionary preaching blog will try to incorporate some of these approaches in the coming weeks!}

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Religion News Service Op-Ed

Religion News Service invited me to write an op-ed reflecting on General Conference. It has some fresh stuff I've not put here before.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

What now that the vote is past?

The Traditional Plan just passed by a vote of 438 to 384. I am not shocked, but deeply disappointed. A few observations: 

(1) "Traditional" is a bit of a misnomer. So much we associate with "tradition" is good. In this case, the church has traditionally condemned LGBTQ people, and this plan is a more ferocious version of what has been the tradition. 

(2) We know that more than 2/3rds of the U.S. voted against this. A coalition of American conservatives (that's not really the right word either), Russians, Africans and some others appear to be forcing the issue, refusing to be in fellowship with centrists, moderates, progressives and young people in the denomination. 


(3) What will unfold, we do not know. We and many others will be discerning how best to be faithful to God and to God's people. And much of this adopted plan has already been ruled unconstitutional.


(4) General Conference is NOT the church. The Church is where you attend, love, worship, learn, share. We do what we do at our church, not for a denomination, but for people seeking God. 


(5) We will continue to stand with LGBTQ people and all of us who love them, who are wounded by this, unconditionally, always, joyfully. 


(6) The best way for us, at Myers Park church, to support them and the hope for a church for all people, is to remain strong as a church. A weaker Myers Park will only weaken us. We are viewed around the denomination as a bright light of hope for centrists, progressives, and young people. 


(7) God is still God, God is still good, and many of us believe a beautiful church of life and joy is coming to life even in the ruins of this conference.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Where We Are Now at General Conference

    A conference like this is hard work, with an intensity of emotion, and added pressure that this work is for God – and so I am so very grateful for the many expressions of love, support, prayer and encouragement from so many.  It shows me how many people love God and God’s church, and care deeply about what we do together for God. I’m sure some on both “sides” have prayed for me, and for the conference – although the very idea of “sides” in God’s family breaks God’s heart, and mine and yours. I have felt the love and solidarity, and it has given me much strength and courage.

     I have come home from these conferences, and probably will this week, burdened by a keen sense that I have failed some people, that they vested hopes in me getting something done which I didn’t get done. It’s like preaching: it’s way harder than it looks. So many factors, such a large, unwieldy body of divergent people, much less the complicated process.

     I’ve always said that the virtue to the Methodist church is that we meet and vote on many issues – and if you’re in the 43% that didn’t prevail, you don’t get excommunicated. I like being in a big tent church where we have, expect, delight in and benefit from disagreement.

     That is, until the disagreement harms people. “First do no harm” is the core guideline – and yet harm gets done. I have a clear calling, and I hope you’ll join me in this, to stand with those hurt by the church on this or anything whatsoever, and to do all we can to stop harm being done.

     At any rate, it appears that tomorrow some version of the Traditional Plan (which “does not condone the practice of homosexuality,” and thus won’t ordain or marry LGBTQ people) will prevail – although there are constitutional quandaries, primarily around the fiercer form being entertained. What that will mean won’t be pretty. We hear chatter about threatened departures, maybe a whole new more accepting denomination? Who knows? We hear that, quite understandably, our seminaries will be severing ties with that more fiercely traditional church. The Church as we have known it will not be.

     I am choosing, today, to be hopeful about that, and to trust that God is bigger than a squabbling denomination, and that God can use the many people here and those they represent who are doing their dead level best to serve God faithfully. Some new, surprising life will rise up out of the dark place where we have found ourselves.  The Church you and I dream of, one that young people will live into, will dawn, is dawning. What that looks like I do not know. What that means for the balance of my ministerial career, what I will do, I do not know. What that means for the Church where I am privileged to be the pastor, I do not yet know. But God is still God, and all will in time be well. God’s got us. All will be well.

     I would say that the highlight of the day in many ways was a late in the day speech by J.J. Warren that roused much of the crowd to its feet. Even if you are on the other “side,” you have to adore this young person’s passion for Jesus and those who don’t know Jesus. 

     I have often said the most astonishing sign of God’s grace in the church is that LGBTQ people who have been judged harshly and told they are not “condoned” have stayed in the church, loved the church, served alongside those who would rather be rid of them. God’s grace for all of us looks just like that.

     If music helps you, check out my choir singing “For Everyone Born” (by Brian Mann, arranged by Tom Trenney).


A Disappointing Day - and a Promise

     Last time General Conference met, I wrote a blog that went semi-viral entitled Thank God General Conference Is Not the Church. The Church really is the Church back home where you know and love, where you hurt and laugh and carry on.

     When General Conference meets, we are more ambitious, and way less successful. Standing in the long security line yesterday (it's a football arena we're entering!), one woman dinged me for supporting our "One Church Plan," as it leaves room for people who would not condone her as a Lesbian pastor. Another guy who's been a friend forever, after I said Go Gamecocks! (knowing his and my football loyalties), he responded, "Well, I guess we do have that one thing in common." He's in the not-condoning homosexuality camp. I started to ask, "Uh, what about Jesus?" but let it go.

    Both of them, like me, are in the Church in Jesus' heart.  Can they be together in the Church here? Probably not back home - at least not in our still divided, not-entirely-converted selves. Here? What's a denomination anyhow? We join hands primarily to be in mission together - and Methodists still do this quite well.  Many of us want to stop all this fussing and move on in mission together.

     Why do I bother with this struggle? First: Church should do no harm, and with a long-standing judgmental viewpoint against our members who aren't straight, and those who love them, we have heaped guilt and worse on thousands and thousands. There's also the futility of this long-standing "We do not condone the practice of homosexuality." Our not condoning has not prevented one person ever from being gay.  You're just gay, or not, or you're something else - but all the Church teaching doesn't make you straight.

     I get that some people we all know and love feel harmed if people who are different sexually are in the church. But this is interesting: if they "lost" (who wants winners and losers in Christ's church?), they would be angry (at least as I hear them speaking of it) - but if the LGBTQ "side" (who wants sides in Christ's church?) loses, they will be wounded.  I am not smart enough to diagnose why this is, but it seems important.

     And I am in this struggle because of the way I read the inspired Word of God. Long story...

     Yesterday was sad - for me, and not my Gamecock friend. We took sort of a straw poll to gauge which petitions should get attention, and in what order. Tops was our pension fund issues - which we are all interested in, so that's sensible. Keeping "we do not condone" and then two petitions to dissolve the whole denomination were next, and only then the One Church plan was ranked 5th - a shocker, as that was the official one we sent out a commission to bring back to us. We will see what today brings.

     Last night a bunch of us met to think, pray, plan, hope, grieve, worry, and love. How odd - a little improvised Church in the thick of the big Church. As Jesus intended it, I suppose.

     However it pans out, I will always and forever stand with all of God's children, including those who aren't condoned by others in the Church. You are loved. You belong. You are beautiful. We all are. We are all demeaned when we don't embrace everyone in God's Church. That's the one thing we should never condone for a nanosecond.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A final plea for Courage, Faith & Love at General Conference

     As I’m packing to go to St. Louis for General Conference, my mood oscillates. Part of me feels like Caleb and Joshua, acknowledging there are giants in the land but also surprising, sumptuous fruit to be had. Then I drift into a drowsy kind of denial like the three disciples in Gethsemane, trying to stave off the likelihood that Jesus is about to be crucified once more. The fruit seems unlikely. But with God all things are possible.

     All of us fall into one of two categories. Some fear and grieve their sense that the civilization they know and love is crumbling around them. Others fear and grieve that the world they dream of will never come to be. Christians, because of the greatness of God, have good cause to understand both, but to be afraid of neither.

     To cross into the land and seize the fruit, courage, faith and love will be required. Courage embraces risk and cost. Courage isn’t assured of outcomes. Courage is about faith in something larger than me and my secure preferences. Courage isn’t devising the cleverest strategy to win the vote. Courage is being the Body in a world that doesn’t get or love our beloved Lord.

     Faith: do we realize that when we say “A split is inevitable,” we’ve shrunk our vision of God down to an ineffectual, co-opted weakling who can only baptize our limitedness? The true God is magnificently larger than our inevitably blurry perceptions of God. The living God embraces all of us in our dogged yet broken determination to be faithful disciples. None of us understands or teaches infallibly. Mercy is required: we can’t elude God’s, and so we never flag in our zeal to show mercy. 

     We are God’s church. It’s not ours. The mark of the Church isn’t victory, or finagling votes, or even being right. They will know we are Christians by our love. Love does not insist on its own way. Love bears all things. Love doesn’t threaten. If God’s Spirit is in us, we bear fruit. And so as we go to St. Louis, are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control evident in how we do our business or think about the others?

     The world is watching. Will we be nothing more than a cross and flame pasted on top of the divisive ideologies people are already burdened by? The world doesn’t need Christ or us Methodists to feed their cultural frustrations and rancor. The world needs an alternative, pulling off the impossible, loving and united in ministry in the thick of divergence on things that really do matter.

     God is watching. God looks around at us and sees thoughtful, prayerful, biblically-focused, holy, broken, sinful, confused, visionary, faithful followers of Christ who connect those dots differently on human sexuality. Does Christ hope we get a divorce? Christ prayed and prays for unity. His heart is larger than all of us. He doesn’t need protection.

     I’ve blogged many times saying human sexuality is not at the core of our faith. Many of my sisters and brothers disagree – despite, as I’ve noticed, that even the most conservative books with titles like Key United Methodist Beliefs don’t mention human sexuality. For most of us, core beliefs are about God, the Trinity, God’s saving acts, grace, and hope, not our fallen, broken responses to the marvel that is God. If human actions are at the core, then I would think that splitting up God’s beloved church would rise to the top of unacceptable actions. Our core is Christ, the cross, his resurrection. He is our unity, nothing else.

     The One Church plan, which I support, is terribly flawed and not the dream in God’s heart. It does invite people on both sides to love, to work together, and even to repent of rejoicing in the wrong. Both sides are sure the other side is wrong. If you think I am wrong or flawed about any or many of the things of God, I do not mind. I don’t wish to be rid of you. We can, with courage, faith and love, live and thrive in church with people who are wrong. There’s nobody else anyhow.  

     I’ve received much mail in recent days, telling me how to vote, threatening dire consequences if the vote goes wrong, imploring me to read Bible verses. Today I received a holy letter, from 31 members of a church, thanking me for serving, expressing love, and pledging to surround us and our church in prayer for peace. Period. Made me smile. I think Jesus smiles. I believe in miracles and am praying for one. The miracle could just be crossing over the river and finding the fruit, living into the fruit, being Jesus’ church full of blessed, flawed, loving, wrong and wronged people. Together.