Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Why Scripture compels me to favor the One Church plan

     As we come to this lovely season when we dig into the Scriptures, which Martin Luther called “the swaddling clothes in which Christ is laid,” I want to share why my commitments and devotion to the Bible compel me to be a Uniting Methodist who favors the One Church plan for our denomination. Our shared dream is for the coming of Christ, “who is our peace, who has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).

     I enjoy robust dialogue and even arguments with my fellow United Methodists on how we discern God’s way for us regarding human sexuality. What puzzles me, although I understand, and don’t really mind so much, is when someone interrogates me with a question like Have you read Romans 1? Have you considered what Paul wrote to Timothy? What possible reply might there be? No, what is this Romans? Who was Timothy? I might concede that the stereotype has some truth: conservatives have fixed their attention on Scripture more than progressives. But many progressives are great students of the Bible, and just because you can quote a verse doesn’t mean you understand the heart of the Bible. I wouldn’t ask a conservative Have you read what Jesus says about divorce in Mark 10?

     I’m a Bible guy. Always have been, always will be. I adore Scripture. I study it, in the original languages, constantly. I read commentaries, cover to cover, just for fun. I have humbly and zealously submitted my life, and my ministry, to the inspired Word of God. The question isn’t Have I read Romans 1? Rather, it’s How do we read the Scriptures we all believe to be inspired? And not just the texts blatantly about homosexuality. All the texts.

     There are no un-interpreted texts. We strain to see clearly the heart of God’s word given mind-boggling gaps of time (the passing of 2,000 years), language (Hebrew and Greek don’t flow easily into English), and culture. We all inevitably read into texts our own prejudices, our own preferred outcomes. We Bible readers are broken, needing immense mercy – to receive it from God and to extend it to others.

     Some smart alecky people point to quirky texts like not wearing blended fabrics to prove we don’t adhere to texts literally. That’s not very helpful. What’s wiser is to consider how some texts apply directly to us (like “When you have a dinner party, invite those who can’t invite you in return,” Luke 14:12), and how others require some translation into our world – like the Bible’s clear and constant demand that you should not loan or borrow money at interest. I can respect someone who refuses then to work for a bank or have a mortgage. But my hunch is that we cut to the heart and see how in our day, as in Bible times, interest can grind the poor into ever greater poverty. The very clear principle is to do all we can to keep the poor from sliding into ever worsening poverty. Bankers and mortgage-holders might even help.

     So why then does the Bible not only allow the One Church model but, for Bible lovers like me, even require it? One Church embraces the humbling reality that Bible devotees understand what the Bible has to say about intimacy differently. Conservatives have an insightful reading of Scripture on homosexuality. I can’t and don’t even wish to prove that they are wrong. The texts that deal with homosexuality are indeed clear; I have no doubt the men who wrote Scripture didn’t favor same gender marriage. I do wonder though, since we read a single Bible passage always in concert with the rest of the Bible, if those texts have gotten isolated from other texts about the image of God in all of us (Genesis 1:27), about no condemnation in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1), about welcoming instead of obliterating the identity of others (Acts 8:38).

     The question is: Are the clear homosexuality texts like the clear Invite-others-to-dinner texts? or like the Don’t-loan-at-interest texts needing interpretation? I lean toward the latter. God can clear this up for us definitively once we get to heaven. But we’ll be having that conversation in heaven. Salvation depends on the blood of Jesus shed on Calvary, not on whether you or I think right on an ethical issue – thankfully. We fallen sinners are wrong about so many things.

     How can I find space, embrace and nobility for LGBTQ people in Scripture? Ordination is easy: God can use anybody. In Scripture, God seems determined to use the shocking, unlikely people, the despised and lowly.

     When it comes to who can marry: I am obsessed with the increasing rarity which is Christian marriage. Churches, mine included, happily marry hetero- sexuals who have limited or zero understanding of what is a holy or theological marriage. The Bible’s understanding of marriage is hardly Male + Female = Good. For Paul, marriage is to put on display Christ’s love for the church, and what sacrificial love can be (Ephesians 5:25). Marriage is a mystery (Ephesians 5:32) – musterion meaning not a puzzle but something sacramental, pointing to the divine reality. Marriage is a calling: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). It’s about being subject to one another (Ephesians 5:21).

     Our United Methodist liturgy includes “You have so consecrated the covenant of Christian marriage that in it is represented the covenant between Christ and his church… Bear witness to the love of God in this world… These rings… signify to us the union between Christ and his church.” Marriage is training in holiness. We sing “When Love is found and hope comes home, sing and be glad that two are one. When love has flowered in trust and care, build both each day that love may dare to reach beyond home’s warmth and light, to serve and strive for truth and right.” I do not see why same gender couples cannot be and do these things. I have seen same gender couples who very much embody this kind of joyful, faithful holiness. Yes, the Bible loves male-female marriage and procreation. To my knowledge, so do all LGBTQ Christians I know, and their friends and relatives.

     We of course encourage all United Methodist couples to strive for physical holiness. I tremble a little though, every time I speak of holiness of the body and holiness in intimacy, as we ordained people must. Telling another person how to behave tiptoes up to the edge of works righteousness – and I shudder when I recall that Jesus was harshly criticized for hanging around with the morally suspect – and that his only harsh critique was reserved for the holy and pious people who knew what everyone else should be doing and not doing. Holiness matters, and yet I am not called or able to pass judgment on anybody – again, thankfully. Holiness doesn’t save; mercy will.

     I’m not writing now about weddings out in society. I am focused only on United Methodist Christians who hear the call to be married, and want their marriage to be holy, a sacramental witness to God’s love in a broken world. We do not see this sort of marriage very often – and the world is desperate for it. Should we crush a would-be married couple who want to be Christ for the world, while not minding the straights who lackadaisically marry and grace a pew now and then? Might a holy same gender marriage awaken something beautiful in straight marriages?

     One Church, I think, implies that we differ on how we bring Scripture to life in relationships. Jesus, it’s fair to say, dreamed of holiness for all of us. And yet for him, the demands of righteousness got eclipsed every time as he embraced outsiders; to be like Jesus, to be Jesus, to be his Body now on earth, we would be wise to err, when we err, on the side of hospitality rather than righteousness and certainly than condemnation.

     One Church also implies that we fall far short of what God is asking of us if we are ready to be rid of others in Christ’s Body. I have labored for many years to keep our Church together around the Scripture essentials, God in Creation, God incarnate in Christ, Christ crucified and risen, forgiveness and redemption in him. I am grieved to look into the eyes of my brothers and sisters who wish to be rid of me. Scripture assures me God wants us to be together. Jesus is still praying for our unity (John 17), and does not wish for any of us flawed, confused, noble, tawdry, lovely and broken members of his Body to leave or be cast aside. Friends, let us “bear witness to the love of God in this world so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in us generous friends.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Old School: Shakespeare on Tyranny

     I’m old school, I’ll admit. History and literature matter – or at least they did, and should. We haven’t yet constructed our nation so that people only learn skills. Poetry, art, music, science, civics, all those seemingly useless subjects we learn in school are in the curriculum so we might be wise, and even good, and understand ourselves and the march of history with a deeper perspective. In our unsettled, confused and confusing day, recourse to old school might help us. Here's what we used to call a "book report."

     Stephen Greenblatt, a scholar at Yale who’s written a couple of other stellar books I’ve read (The Swerve and Will in the World), published one recently called Tyrant, exploring what Shakespeare had to say in his plays about the nature of power taken to excess. On the surface, you might jump to the conclusion he’s alluding to our President. Yet, in plays like Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, and Henry VI, Shakespeare dramatized historical figures from the distant past, carefully avoiding writing about any ruler or politicians within even 100 years of his own lifetime. Greenblatt’s point is that power is power, and history repeats itself (although he never mentions any ruler or politician within 100 years of today!). If there are lessons for us, they aren’t about any one person, but how power happens all around us in every place. John McCain’s death has raised questions about what kinds of leaders we have, and want. Shakespeare has some warnings for us.

     A few of Greenblatt’s summary thoughts are intriguing: “Shakespeare’s plays probe the psychological mechanisms that lead a nation to abandon its ideals and even self-interest. Why would anyone be drawn to a leader manifestly unsuited to govern, someone dangerously impulsive or viciously conniving or indifferent to truth? Why does evidence of mendacity, crudeness or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers?” “The disaster of tyranny could not happen without widespread complicity.”

     “Indeed, something in us enjoys every moment of his ascent to power. There is a touch of comedy in the tyrant’s rise, catastrophic as it is. The people he has pushed aside are themselves compromised or corrupt. It is satisfying to see them get their comeuppance, and as we watch the schemer connive his way to the top, we are invited to take a kind of moral vacation.” “Much of the pleasure of his winning derived from its wild improbability.” Most assuredly, “some of the dangerous qualities found in a potential tyrant may be useful.” Shakespeare “did not believe that the common people could be counted upon as a bulwark against tyranny. They were, he thought, too easily manipulated by slogans, cowed by threats, or bribed by gifts to serve as reliable defenders of freedom.”

     Anger, in the people, as with the ruler himself, fuels tyranny. With York and Somerset (in Henry VI), “seeking power becomes itself the expression of rage: I crave the power to crush you. Rage generates insults, and insults generate outrageous actions, and outrageous actions heighten the intensity of the rage. It all begins to spiral out of control.” York indeed declares “I will stir up in England some black storm.” The crowd, in a frenzy, shouts “Let’s kill the lawyers.”

     Greenblatt summarizes Richard III’s character: “the limitless self-regard, the lawbreaking, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting he can do whatever he chooses. He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no sense of shared humanity. He is not indifferent to the law; he hates it because it gets in his way… He is a bully. He is gifted at detecting weakness and deft at mockery and insult. These skills attract followers who are drawn to the same cruel delight. His power includes the domination of women.”

     Of Macbeth: he has “a compulsive need to prove his manhood.” He wants flattery, confirmation and obedience.” Caesar’s famous line, expressing his worry about Cassius? “Let me have men about me that are fat, such as sleep a-nights.” King Lear insists that he is “more sinned against than sinning.” He can brook no disagreement, and lives in the grip of fantasy. “A tyrant does not need to traffic in facts or supply evidence. He expects his accusation to be enough. Anyone who contradicts him is either a liar or an idiot.” For him, “loyalty does not mean integrity, honor or responsibility. He means an immediate, unreserved confirmation of his own views and a willingness to carry out his orders without hesitation. When an autocratic, paranoid, narcissistic ruler sits down with a civil servant and asks for his loyalty, the state is in danger.”

     What the people do not realize in King Lear is that “it is extremely dangerous to have a state run by someone who governs by impulse. An impulsive narcissist, accustomed to ordering people about, should not have control even of a very small army.” Who suffers in the end? Everyone. That section in Macbeth I had to memorize in high school doesn’t speak of the meaninglessness of life, but the horror of life under tyranny: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / creeps in this petty pace from day to day / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle. / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage… It is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing.”

     Theologically, of course, much is signified in our fawning over whoever touts our political ideology and panders to our biased ways of thinking. God yearns for leaders, and followers, who are humble, who are holy, from whom truth is essential, who are driven by love and hope not fear or anger. Now that's really old school, from the greatest piece of literature, the history of God's dreams for us.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

An Open Letter to Rob Renfroe

    Having watched your recent presentation to the Confessing Movement gathering at the Texas Conference, I feel led by God to say to you: I love you. I want to be in the church with you, although your words of condemnation and insult hurled in the direction of beloved friends who are bishops, pastors, and lay people indicate you are repulsed by us. But I don’t want church without you.
     And I want to ask you to love me, and us. Jesus, by that astonishing expansiveness of his mind and heart, prayed not just for the disciples at the Last Supper but also for you and me to be one. In his church, there’s room for all, for both of us.

     My love for you is grieved to the core by your words, which I do not believe came out of the authentic child of God in you.
      How we love, how we conduct ourselves, is the ultimate test of Methodism during these days. During his first Senate campaign, Lyndon Johnson and some associates were in a cemetery one night fraudulently registering dead voters. A guy skipped a headstone, explaining it was hard to read. Johnson told him to include it anyway: “He has as much right to vote as anybody else in this cemetery.”
      The saints in glory won’t vote at General Conference, but they weigh in right now, if we have ears to hear. Was it Mother Teresa? or Clarence Jordan? or someone else who said “God doesn’t call us to be successful; God calls us to be faithful”? To be holy. To love. For LBJ, driven as he was by a blinding zeal to get elected, any tactics, however ruthless or devious, were acceptable. In the world, it’s always “Do anything to win.” We love, even if we lose.

     You said that usually you “play nice.” Please don’t play. I believe down deep, holiness is a thing we both care about and are committed to, with those saints in the cemeteries. Want to know who’s close to Jesus in United Methodism? Look for those exhibiting the Spirit’s fruit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control – and then those traits Jesus blessed, poverty of spirit, meekness, mournfulness, mercy, a hunger for righteousness (not a smug claim we’ve already got it), mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and a willingness to suffer for sticking close to Jesus (instead of inflicting the suffering on others).

     I listened in vain for the Spirit’s fruit, for Jesus’ blessing, for any grace at all in your words. I hear presentations these days that are snide, sarcastic, snarky, dismissive and derogatory - from politicians in our newfangled United States where nastiness wins. But this is God's church.

    At first I recoiled from your onslaught of words. But then I thought it must be hard for you to live in your own skin. Rage corrodes you from within. You asserted that you are sure your side will win in February 2019, and the One Church plan, which I and other Uniting Methodists support, will lose. If so, why are you so upset? Why not a placid faith in God’s good future for the church which we know “will be preserved to the end of time”? Why not keep with what you've been about in ministry, which there's room for in One Church?

     You blast hypocrisy, hubris and contempt. Surely you know that your talk is overflowing with hubris, and contempt for brothers and sisters in the Body. You say they are just plain dumb. I can confess that I used to be a lot like you. I was a smart guy boasting a Ph.D. in biblical theology. I jumped at every opportunity to spout how right I was and to point out how wrong others were. I was sure God would be quite proud to have a defender like me. But I’d never absorbed Paul’s words: “If I have all knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing.” I was worse than nothing. My hubris inflicted pain on God’s children. Thankfully, someone who loved me helped me learn to love.

     I love the song from Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a little bit racist.” We Methodists should sing another ditty, which I’ll entitle “Everyone’s a little bit hypocritical.” Not one of us is as holy as we want to be. We’re easily rankled. We’re blinded to the truths and goodness in others who seem so wrong. We get puffed up. We all pick and choose what within Scripture to take literally, as it suits our pet notions, and where we apply spin, again to evade what we do not prefer. We forget how broken we are. Not one of us teaches infallibly.
     Let me see if I can offer you some comfort. I sincerely admire and applaud your effort to defend God’s honor and pursue the truth and holy living. Please understand (as failure to understand others is the crime you pin on the bishops) that we too seek to lead holy lives, and have committed our lives to God’s truths. I love and am steadfastly committed to God’s living Word in Scripture. And while we never understand anyone, including ourselves, fully, I think most of us who lead in Methodism do understand you. I have invested a lot of my life in listening to, learning from, and befriending people across the theological spectrum, including many in the WCA. I’d ask for your love, and that you begin by listening to and trying to understand me, and mine, and how God’s Spirit is working through and living in us.
     Recently, I led a Bible study on Paul’s terse, tearful letter to the Christians in Corinth who were splintering. Many were sure they were absolutely right and full of the Spirit while others were dangerously misguided. After explaining how the Body has many differing members, he taught them and us how to function within the Body: “Love is kind, Love is not arrogant, Love does not insist on its own way.” My brother, I’m asking for your love.

 My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available now.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Come with me to Israel March 31, 2019!

I hope you will come with me to Israel on March 31, 2019, returning April 11.  The cost will be $4195, including flights, hotels, ground costs, and most meals.  Contact me (james@mpumc.org) to let me know you're interested, or if you have questions.  Our cut-off date for applications to travel is Friday, September 14. A $300 registration fee is due by November 1, and full payment is due December 15, payable to MPUMC.  A refund schedule exists, if you have to change your mind.  And if you want/need a single room, the supplement for that is $685.

I love taking people to the Holy Land.  It's always inspiring, educa- tional, trans- formative and great fun.  Each trip I lead is unique - because of the particular people who come, and also because we see something new every trip, and archaeological sites evolve over time.  Four years ago, after we got home from a pilgrimage to Israel, I wrote a blog that might interest you - reflecting on the experience, what we learn, how we grow, why it's so profound.

Our guide while we're in Israel will be my dear friend Hillel Kessler. He's absolute- ly the best, brilliant, witty, a great teacher, an engaging travel companion.  He's the only guide I use, and everyone who travels with Hillel falls in love with him.  He and his wife, by the way, have become grandparents to four granddaughters - in a single year!

We fly into Tel Aviv, one of the most beautiful and surely the most secure airport in the world.  We make our way then to the north, where we spend the first three days exploring Nazareth, Capernaum, and other places where Jesus taught, healed, called the disciples, and even fished. 
There is nothing quite like waking up your first morning in Israel, looking out the window - and there is the Sea of Galilee.  We'll take a boat out on the lake, and you'll get a sense of how quickly the weather shifts from peaceful calm, to wind and storm, then back to peacefulness.
We will take a day and drive north.  The country- side is beautiful near Hazor, where we examine ruins from the days of Joshua and the Israelites coming into the Promised Land.
Further north, we will see the Bronze Age city of Dan, with its impressive walls - and most fantastically, the city gate through which Abraham himself walked. 
Nearby we visit Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus conversed with the disciples, asking "Who do you say that I am?" 
  Just a short hike downhill from there we come to a marvelous waterfall, right at the source of the Jordan River - and likely the place where Psalm 42 was composed.  This is one of my favorite days. 
 Mostly likely we'll end the day at BinTal, a high overlook where we can see the Road to Damascus, and into Syria and Lebanon. 

But now our attention turns toward Jerusalem, just as Jesus' did midway through the Gospel stories.  On our way to the holy city, we visit Beth Shean, where King Saul died, and where the 1971 Jesus Christ Superstar movie was filmed. 
We stop by the edge of the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized by John - and we seize the occasion to have a service of baptismal remembrance.  It is so very moving to wade into that river.
We'll zig down to the south for a day to see the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth - and where you float without even trying.

Finally we make our way to Jerusalem, where King David built his palace, where Solomon built the temple, where Jesus taught and healed, and was crucified. 
We will pray at the Western ("Wailing") Wall, a holy moment indeed.  We'll sit on the steps Jesus walked on to enter the temple to teach.  In Jerusalem we will visit the Israel Museum, which contains fabulous archaeological finds from Bible times. 
We hopefully will visit the Dome of the Rock, the beautiful 8th century shrine built over the place where the temple stood for centuries.  Of special interest for us will be our visit to the archaeological site where excavations are being conducted by our own UNC-Charlotte - the only American university digging in Jerusalem! 
Shimon Gibson, longtime archae- ologist in Jerusalem will join us for a charming and inform- ative intro- duction to what they're finding there.

The climax of our time in Jerusalem will be walking the Via Dolorosa, the traditional pilgrim's walk commemorating Jesus' trial and crucifixion. 
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre houses both the place where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb where he was buried, and rose from the dead. It has been restored in the past 3 years after years of considerable decay. Stunning.

Here are a few more photos of interesting things we'll see.
1500 year old olive trees grown from the shoots of olive trees that stood in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus prayed there.

The aqueduct at Caesarea Maritima by the Mediterranean Sea.

Palm trees by the Dead Sea.

Stones from the temple from the time of Jesus.

A fishing boat archaeologists discovered and miraculously preserved - from the time of Jesus.

A statue by the Sea of Galilee commemorating Jesus sending Peter to "feed my sheep."

Most who go with me say it's the trip of a lifetime.  I hope you'll go with me.  There is a simple but important application process: let me know of your interest at james@mpumc.org.  I also strongly recommend travelers insurance, as occasionally someone has to cancel and need a refund.  Shalom!  See you next year in Jerusalem!

Monday, May 21, 2018

Could Ben Franklin Save Our General Conference?

     Question: might God’s church we call United Methodist be rescued by Benjamin Franklin? During these gloomy days when many of us are pondering the likelihood of an impending split in the denomination we love, I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s fascinating biography of Franklin. It had not occurred to me how his life paralleled John Wesley’s, born just two years apart, and dying just one year apart, both pragmatic populizers of complex thought, spanning a revolutionary century.

     Isaacson reveals how we are mistaken if we think of Franklin as a jolly, playful tinkerer. He was brilliant, friends with and admired by the greatest minds of his day: Joseph Priestley, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke; and in politics, he led and mentored the brightest lights of early America: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

    Here’s how he reaches out to us. When the Constitutional Convention was at a total impasse, when none of the delegates would budge on their irreconcilable differences over how to be a nation, or if to be a nation at all, Franklin tried two last-ditch ploys to save the day. The first didn’t work; but the second did.

     First: he made the startling, wise suggestion that they pray: “With this convention groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, how has it happened that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probably that an empire can rise without his aid?” Although many prize the piety of the Founding Fathers so highly, the fact is that idea was quickly shelved. Some offered testy rationales of why they should not have such prayer, and then others pointed out they had no budget to pay a chaplain – as if they could not pray themselves?

    But second: the esteemed Franklin, older by 15 years than the next oldest delegate, his age double the average age of all the others, rose to make an impassioned speech to the congress bent on going home the next day with no consent to the proposed constitution: “I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”

     Why should others doubt their own infallibility? “I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution. But having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subject, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error.” Then, with his usual wry humor, he told of “a certain French lady who, in a little dispute with her sister, said: ‘I don’t know how it happens, sister, but I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right.’”

     This humility, jocular and yet wise, could conceive of voting for something flawed – which, of course, all human institutions and arrangements, including our church, are. Interestingly, they were at loggerheads over whether you could have a large body (like a nation), yet with smaller, empowered decision-making entities (like states) within that larger body.

     Franklin's motives intrigue me. Yes, he wanted to craft a unified nation for its own sake. But having served abroad in France and England as an ambassador for many years, he was grieved by the reaction failure and division would spark overseas: “I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the builders of Babel, and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats.”

    The world may not care what we Methodists do in February, 2019, but if they pay attention, our cutthroat, Babel-like division will provide yet more cause for cynicism, apathy and atheism. And are we as infallible, are we as supremely right as we imagine – so very right that we simply must divide God’s church?

     Perhaps the trouble is that we have not yet prayed. Yes, we’ve prayed for victory for our side, and we’ve prayed for enlightenment to dawn on the others who are so very wrong. But have we prayed as Jesus prayed, not seeking my will, but what will actually cause me discomfort and even suffering? I wonder what would unfold if we could welcome a time-travelling Franklin to the mic at General Conference to suggest we doubt our infallibility and pray? Would he be shouted down or ruled out of order? Or might we hear the wisdom, and pray, and surprise ourselves, as the Constitutional Convention did, with the birth of something new, unanticipated, and lovely?

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Tracy Kidder on Writing (and for me, on Preaching)

     My preaching has been blessed, over many years, by books I have read about writing.  Mind you, I constantly remind preachers I teach or just know (and myself!) that a sermon isn’t an essay to be read or semi-read or memorized even.  It’s an oral event, spoken words, eye to eye contact, conversational in ways that lead us to use incomplete sentences, or fumblings and pausing, and even the marvelous and useful word Um… (which similarly can be grossly misused; I love Michael Erard’s book on this word).

     At the same time, reading great writers explaining their craft can refine, retool, and re-envision how we approach crafting a sermon, how our phrases and sentence actually happen, and some big goofs we should avoid.  My favorites? 
Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is brief, packed with wisdom, and humbling in a way that helps me feel better about my struggles to get the Gospel (which she never mentions) onto paper and then voiced out loud.  Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (which is the origin of the much-quoted and misquoted “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans”) similarly delves into the whole thought process, which is really a life process, a learning to observe, being attentive to and reflective on your life and the world swirling around you.  Stephen King’s On Writing is a happy jaunt through the habits and principles of what it is to think and write.  And there are more.

     Recently I stumbled across a relatively new one I’d missed somehow, just five years old: Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd.  It’s mostly Kidder, whom I have admired so much for several things, especially his riveting retelling of how Paul Farmer became Paul Farmer (in Mountains Beyond Mountains).  Todd served for years as Kidder’s editor, and contributes a bit to the book.  As I read Kidder’s recollection of how he has labored to write well, and his wisdom and counsel for other writers, I kept scribbling in the margin “Preaching!”  Let me share some of his most provocative insights.

    See why page 1 grabbed my attention: “To write is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them – by imagining for the reader an intelligence at least equal to the intelligence you imagine for yourself. No doubt you know some things that the reader does not know, but it helps to grant that the reader has knowledge unavailable to you.”

     Wow. Preaching is all about trust – and involves us trusting them, believing they know plenty we don’t know.  I was taught you know way more, and preaching is an attempt to download into them.  Kidder explains how great writing creates a dialogue, in which you expect, anticipate and even articulate their questions, critique, and maybe their assent.

     I remember Frederick Buechner’s fascinating riff (in Telling the Truth) on that pregnant moment just before the first word of a sermon – how the preacher notices his mouth is dry, and the people are settling into their seats, worried about their issues and secrets, and so how crucial is that very first sentence.  Kidder feels the start is overrated.  Start slow and soft, he advises – and yet it can’t be awful or confusing: “You can’t make the reader love you in the first sentence or paragraph, but you can lose the reader right away.”

     You can lose the people out there in many ways.  One is what Kidder calls the “desire to impress” – which he believes emerges from a terror that you might bore the reader.  “Much overstuffed prose reflects a desire to bully, to impress, or to hide… Inflation of language is sometimes not a boast but cosmetic for insecurity.”  Kidder believes that what the reader wants is simpler – to believe that you are “trying.”  I love that.  Pew-sitters want to sense you’re trying to speak a word from God.  Again, it’s all about trust.  If you get that trust, Kidder believe, “trust and disagreement can coexist.”  Too many preachers fear or hope to squash disagreement.  Kidder invites it.

     I was struck by Kidder’s obsession with factuality.  Check dates, people, quotes (who really said that? and do I have it down right?).  There are facts – and Kidder pleads with writers never to slide down into the abyss of subjectivity, suggesting things like “If it’s true for you, then it’s true,” which he calls “the quagmire of postmodern nihilism,” and noticing how “subjectivity absolves people of responsibility for action.”  If this is true for a nonfiction essayist, a journalist, or a novelist, how much more is this true for a preacher?  And yet Kidder shudders over the notion of dogmatic absolutism – which gives the reader no space to disagree or respond.  This fine balance must be learned, tested and honed by the preacher, week after week.

     Kidder speaks of preparing to write – and the key is always in the posture of “a willingness to be surprised.”  Preachers don’t buckle down and figure out how to drill what the preacher has known forever into others; the preacher prepares in a way that is open to, ready for and delighted by surprises in the text, the world, and the people.  Writing, for Kidder, is lots and lots of revision, throwing away some of what you thought and still think is really good (but it just doesn’t fit the finished product).  He has a strong preference for shorter sentences: “Sometimes longer is shorter.”  And don’t get fixated on your writing (or preaching) technique, “which can be the same as concentrating on yourself.”  I love that, and notice often how skill, talent and inventiveness draws attention to the preacher more than to the text or to God.

     Good Prose has a terrific section on storytelling and character development – how you imagine the readers in their chairs, giving them not all there is to the story, but “telling details” to draw them in, making them wonder what will happen next, inviting them to insert their own “Oh no, don’t…” or “Oh God, that could be me.”  To me, there’s no better way to improve our skill at this in preaching than to read people who do characters and stories well.  Stephen King’s constant counsel in On Writing is to read, read in a waiting room, at a stoplight, on the toilet.

     At the end of his book, Kidder proves to be a man after my own heart with a simple, funny and challenging section on “usage” and “grammar.”  This matters so much in preaching: there’s always an old English teacher out there sighing over your split infinitive.  But it’s also about clarity – and how we honor God by our words.  Kidder warns writer about the perils of hackneyed terms and incorrect usages (“enormity” means something horrible, not something big, and “disinterested” means impartial, not bored), phrases from pop culture (like “I’m just sayin’,” or “Make my day”), and flat out grammatical errors (“Between you and I” should be “Between you and me,” getting who and whom straight, and also lie, lay, lain… “Samuel lay down to sleep” not “laid”). 

     Once again, I have learned new ways to improve my preaching, my expression of what I’ve apprehended of God, and my connection with my people.  We find help any and everywhere – and now from Tracy Kidder.