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The previous posts on this topic can be found here and here.

The third shift in my writing and preaching in the past several years can be summed up simply: more courage. I’m accessing deeper truths in myself and speaking about the things that I see as most important to me. When the writing gets scary–when it’s leading me to question things I’ve taken for granted, or to say things that might be hard to hear, or to feel scary emotions–instead of backing off, I keep going. On my best weeks, I’m giving people the most important things I’ve discovered.

This is not to be confused with self-revelation, which can be a trap for preachers. It’s easy to think that simply by talking about incidents from our own lives, we’re being brave, when sometimes we are just dumping stuff on the congregation that would be better aired to our therapists or best friends. (Sensing the distinction is one topic in the seminary course I outlined but haven’t taught, “Preaching on the Edge.”) You can’t preach well week after week without revealing a great deal about yourself, but it’s not necessarily about anything you’ve done or said. It’s about depth of soul and being willing to dig deep to that treasure and share it with others. For me, courage comes into it because I’m afraid they’ll reject my offering, or sneer “That’s all? That’s what’s in the treasure chest?” or one way or another, find my gifts inadequate. But I think the best sermons come out of that risk, because when I don’t risk it, I’m hiding what is most valuable.

I learned a lesson from Allen Ginsberg back in the mid-90s, though it took a good many years to filter into my preaching. Recordings of fifty of his poems and songs had just been released (Holy Soul Jelly Roll, Rhino), and I went to hear him read. This was an era of nudity. Madonna was breaking barriers by strutting onstage in her lingerie. Yet she never seemed very raw or vulnerable to me; on the contrary, her act felt like an act, the skimpy clothes a kind of emotional armor. Ginsberg was just the opposite. He kept all his clothes on, a 60-something-year-old man standing on a modest stage in thick glasses, a button-up shirt and khaki pants; for the most part his content was PG-rated; despite the ego required to recite one’s poetry to a crowd, he didn’t give the sense of putting himself forward in any way; and for all that, he was utterly naked. He peeled away all pretense and allowed us to see his soul. Watching him, listening to him, I realized a person can share the most intimate thoughts and feelings in a way that says not “Look at me!” but “Here, let me help you take a look inside yourself.”

True vulnerability invites vulnerability from others. That takes courage. I don’t know how others develop it; for me it’s been by doing things that scare me.

For the previous post on this topic, click here.

The second shift in my sermon writing and preaching was one of intention and attention. Anything can become a routine, and preaching was often a routine for me–an excruciating, four-in-the-Sunday-morning routine, sure, but still, routine in that I’d lost touch with the reason to preach, the reason people sit and listen to a sermon in the first place. It wasn’t entirely absent; it flared up in my preaching, I’m sure; but in many of my weekly struggles with writing, it had ceased to be central.

Maybe something began to shift back where it needed to be when I began to open every service with an eight-word mission: “to transform ourselves, each other, and the world.” Another thing that brought it back now and then, brought my heart back to what was most important, was others’ great preaching. I would go to a service–typically, someone’s ordination, or the short worship services ministers lead for each other during our retreats–and the preacher’s words would rock my world. I would walk out of the service remembering what my life was about, “This, this!” and know once again, in my bones, that I needed to reorder my priorities to put the people I love most at the center (thank the departed Mary Harrington for her sermon “A Lifetime Isn’t Long Enough”); that I wanted to wake up before my short time was over (thank you, Erik Walker Wikstrom, for a sermon you gave just before your departure from Brewster, MA, in the summer of 2008). These sermons transformed me, personally. This is what I could do for the members of my congregation.

Around the same time, Christine Robinson’s Berry Street Essay, i.e., sermon, spoke to my soul by reminding me that my job was to speak to others’ souls: to allow them to be “touched to the core of [their] being.” She spoke about an experience of holiness she had on a ride at Disneyworld, and I was pressed back against my seat–it felt like 2 g’s–by these words: “The only thing you’ll really have to work with . . . is yourself and what you are willing to share of your own, precious and always threatened spiritual life.” Another wake-up call. Was I sharing of the core of myself, and was I speaking to the core of those gathered on Sundays?

Then I read Kay Northcutt’s book. My congregation, mostly atheists, humanists and naturalistic theists, might be nervous to know the title (Kindling Desire for God: Preaching as Spiritual Direction), but the fact is that whatever they love about my preaching in the past five years owes a great deal to this book. The message I took from it is: whatever your text for the week (and Northcutt, like most Christian preachers, follows a lectionary and has Biblical texts as her reading), prepare for writing by meditating and praying on that text, yes, but even more, meditate and pray on the spiritual needs of your congregation, individually and collectively. What is happening in their lives right now? What is happening in their world? What are they hungry for, frightened of, longing for? These are the “texts” for your study, preacher. Northcutt spends significant sermon-prep time each week contemplating the heart of her congregants’ being, and she says to all preaching ministers, Go and do likewise.

I had forgotten. I had been writing as if my job were to present twenty minutes of coherent and occasionally eloquent argument. Coherence and eloquence are important, but they’re just the craft of writing, and while craft is often underrated, if you’re an artist it’s intended to be the servant of meaning, not the end in itself. In church, the meaning is our lives. A preacher is an artist, meant to create something that is not just well-crafted but beautiful and charged with meaning: something that will touch the core of our being.

I know why I’d forgotten this. It was a convenient amnesia, an avoidance of something that scared me. So what I needed to do, if I were to write and preach in a way that would speak to people’s spirits, was to move through my fear.

Next time: Doing the thing we think we cannot do

My writing and preaching have changed dramatically and for the better in the last several years, and as I find it instructive to read other people’s accounts of changes to their writing, here are three quick posts on how I changed mine. They are not a recommendation to do anything except listen to yourself and go with processes that will bring your work closer into line with what you envision. As to the specifics, they vary so much from writer to writer, preacher to preacher, that blindly adopting someone else’s approach is bound to steer you wrong. Try it out by all means, but don’t expect that every experiment will work for you the same way it worked for others.

Several things happened to me in the space of a year or two that drove the change, two of which had to do with departing from a word-for-word text and preaching from notes. A colleague shared how Mark Bellettini, well known as a riveting preacher, would take all of his thoughts and ideas for a sermon and turn them into about a half-page of notes, which is what he took into the pulpit. Some people can deliver a sermon from a word-for-word text and make it sound spontaneous, but as I couldn’t, I needed to try something else. I had been frustrated with my preaching, feeling that it lacked the immediacy and liveliness of my non-preaching speech, and I resolved aloud to try Mark’s approach.

I don’t know if I would have done it, though, if I hadn’t been thrown into the deep end by accident. I was having printer trouble one Sunday around that time, so I did something I’d done before and e-mailed myself the text to print out at church. When I got to church, I turned on my computer, found the e-mail I’d sent myself an hour earlier, opened the attachment, and sat staring. It was the wrong attachment: the order of service for that morning, not the full service with sermon included. My home was 20 minutes’ drive away; my wife was with me; there was no one at home to send the correct file, the cats being notably unhelpful in this department.

I was at church without a sermon. All those anxiety dreams, in the flesh. After I’d finished gaping at the screen, rereading the same useless document several times, and gasping for breath, only ten minutes remained before the service.

So what else could I do? I asked Chaz, the person who was to ring the bell to start the service, to hold off until I came in–I wouldn’t be long–and I grabbed a notebook and jotted down the points of my sermon. I had time to recall the beginning and end and the basic outline of the points in between, and like Mark Bellettini, I went into the pulpit with nothing else. I felt naked.

No one but Joy and Chaz knew about the mishap, and they said after the first service that the sermon had gone well. For my part, I could have done without the adrenalin rush–to this day the memory makes my heart speed–but there was no question that I spoke differently than usual: less as if I were reading something I had written, more as if I were speaking ideas to which I’d given a great deal of thought. I was excited. It was the beginning of a transformation.

Next time: Remembering why I preach

In a great addition to our Sunday services, our Associate Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, is going to be doing something special in the 9:30 service three Sundays a month. This past Sunday morning he led a chant, a quasi-call-and-response called “Have You Got the Spirit?”

Have you got the spirit? / Oh yeah!
Let me see it in your head!

He drafted our music director to stand beside him and lead the congregational part, and we all shook our heads and waved our arms as called upon. As in education, there are theories that worship should engage the whole person–you want elements that use different modes and appeal to different aspects of ourselves. This one had laughter, using our bodies, music (rhythm), camaraderie, and definitely lots of spirit.

Return engagement is this Sunday, 9:30 a.m. Oh yeah!

Falling water drops A Unitarian Universalist friend and I were talking about class tensions in church, and he said that he found Water Communion hard to bear because it was so much about the places people had gone on their summer vacations.

Oh yeah. I’ve been to some Water Communions that felt that way too. It is so easy for our ingathering ceremony, in which people bring water and pour it into a communal bowl, to turn into a “what I did on my summer vacation” recitation, which can make the ritual obliviously exclusive of those who don’t have summer homes, or summer vacations, or the money for airfare, or the luxury to stop working for even one week out of the year. What a shame; it’s so opposite of what the Water Communion can be.

The core symbolism of the Water Communion is that we all come from water: as a species on a planet where life began in the ocean, as mammals who float in amniotic fluid as we are readied for birth, as beings whose cells are mostly water. And yet we are separate from each other, and we have been apart–since there tends to be a slowing-down, a different rhythm in the summer months, even in churches that have services and religious education right on through the summer–and now we are reuniting. We are separate and together, the way water scatters into rain and streams and clouds and springs and ponds and puddles and yet flows together again and again, one great planetary ocean. Not only is no drop of water superior to any other; all water comes from the same place.

So the class issue is only a part of what’s awry with the “where I went this summer” approach to the ritual. Even if everyone in the world had a summer home in Provence, “This water comes from our summer home in Provence” would not be what I wanted this ceremony to be about. It’s so trivial, whereas “We are separate beings and yet all one” is one of the profoundest truths we try to encompass.

I’ve deliberately shaped our Water Communion at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA) with these concerns in mind, and that conversation with my friend made me realize that other UUs could learn from that process, so I’m going to share it here. I’d also like to learn from readers: judging by this description, or by your experience of UUCPA’s Water Communion if you’ve been there, have we succeeded? And what do you do in your congregation to keep our attention focused on the deepest meanings of the Water Communion?

Here are some dos and don’ts that have guided me.

Don’t: have an open mike where everyone describes where the water came from. Not only is this impractical for any but the smallest congregations, but it just about orders people to say “We brought this from the Mediterranean, where we went on a beautiful cruise.”

Do: provide a way for people to share the significance of the water they’ve brought, and have a leader or leaders share a precis. Doing this has allowed me to rephrase people’s descriptions in a way that honors the most important aspects, while playing down the others. So, for example, if someone writes, “This water comes from our family’s summer home on Cape Cod, where I’ve gone since I was a small child visiting my grandparents–this year I was there with my grandchildren,” I might share, “Water from the Atlantic Ocean,” or “Water from a place made sacred by five generations of one family,” or “Water from a multigenerational family gathering,” or some combination of those.

Do: frequently model modest origins for your own water. I usually bring mine from my home tap, even if I’ve been somewhere exotic. (In the spirit of full disclosure, one reason is that when I do travel, I always forget to bring back a little bottleful . . . !)

Do: make reference to the water’s many sources. At UUCPA, we have banners that artistically express the four directions and elements; sometimes we use those in this service and people pour their water into a bowl under one of the banners. They can have a time of meditation to think about where their water comes from, symbolically or literally, and choose the direction/element accordingly. Jane Altman Page wrote nice words to accompany something like that here, on the Worship Web.

Don’t: just pour the water down the drain. While keeping it in the water cycle, that doesn’t honor the sacredness of the ritual. People are bringing something of themselves when they bring that “water from a special day at the beach” or “tap water from my great-grandfather’s house,” so it’s important to let them know that it will be treated with due reverence.

Do: do something important with the water. For example, carry it out ceremoniously after the service and water a special tree. . . .  Bless it and invite everyone to put it on their foreheads / hands / feet / hearts. . . . We save some of ours for dedications throughout the year, and pour some in from last year’s dedication water so that the water is now gathered from many years of rituals (does anyone else do this? I don’t even remember if I came up with that idea, or inherited it on arriving in Palo Alto). I usually pour the rest out on our grounds with some words of thanks and praise.  (A comment by a church member just reminded me of another possibility: invite people to bring some of the mingled water home, the way we do with the flowers at Flower Sunday, and encourage them to mindfully use it, e.g., to water a plant.)

Do: frame the ritual in terms of its larger meanings. There are so many. Our Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, has done a wonderful, geeky demonstration of just how many molecules of water we’re talking about, and how big a number that is. (Remember, we’re serving in Silicon Valley. When you ask, “Are there any geeks here who can come hold this paper for me?,” many hands shoot up.) He uses that to prove our literal interdependence. The year Water Communion was preceded by Hurricane Katrina, we had to talk about the destructive power of water, and that was a chance to go into some theological depth.

And, if you’re reminding folks about Water Communion now, as summer starts, don’t emphasize that they should bring their water back from special travels. There’s no need to mention travel at all. This year, my reminder in the newsletter said “We bring water from the places of our lives.”

I’d love to hear what others do.

Last month we started ending our services with a benediction. We already had a benediction–different words each week–but it felt swallowed up in the chalice extinguishing, and then hemmed in on the other side by the postlude. Also, at Palo Alto people want to applaud the musicians, so when the postlude is the very last thing, the service ends with applause. This doesn’t always feel appropriate to the theme or mood of the service, and it tends to create the feeling that one has been at a performance.

I have visited other congregations where the very last words are a blessing, and I’ve loved the way it felt. It seemed right to have the postlude (followed by its applause) and then an element that would help us to leave with a sense of participation, mutual care, and a turning outwards. So what words of blessing? I knew I wanted them to be something we all said to each other and that we said each week, and I knew I wanted for us to make a physical connection.

I have a great affection for this passage from the preface to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and will probably give a sermon on it sometime (I could fill a book with thoughts just on the most perplexing line, “Argue not concerning God”), but it isn’t really right. It sounds like a command more than an invitation, albeit a command to do some terrific things.

Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

Dan Harper, who is our Associate Minister of Religious Education, and I both had stories relating to the benediction said in the Concord, Massachusetts, church, where he grew up and I have visited. Actually, it was the same story: of going to the home of someone who belonged to the congregation (they were not the same someones, but two separate families) and finding that they’d put the words of the benediction on their doors, where they would see them each time they left the house. They had become a blessing that they bestowed on themselves daily.

I knew them and liked them and wondered where they’d come from, so I poked around a little. First, here’s the Concord version:

Go out into the world in peace
Have courage
Hold on to what is good
Return to no person evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Honor all beings.

The Rev. Dr. Brent Smith has this on his website–I’m not sure whether it was, and/or is still, a regular feature at All Souls in Tulsa, where he previously served:

Be of good courage.
Search all things, and hold fast to that which is good.
Render unto no one evil for evil.
Strengthen the faint-hearted, support the weak, help the afflicted.
Love all men. Love all women. Love all children.
Love all souls, serving the Most High;
And rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Amen.

I’m guessing that both have their origins in the Presbyterian Worship Book, because I found another site listing this, used by the Rev. Herb Swanson when he was interim pastor at St. John United Church, Columbia, Maryland, and described as “adapted from the Presbyterian Worship Book and the Bible”:

Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the faint-hearted; support the weak; help the suffering. Honor every person that you meet. and Love and Serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I liked the Concord version, and pondered if anything essential to my theology was missing. There were two things: beauty and–to a lesser extent, since it was already implicit–love. I wrote two more lines and ended up with this:

Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.

We have been ending the service by taking hands and saying it–a feat that the people at UUCPA attempt with good humor, since it’s not easy to hold hands and hold a piece of paper at the same time–and I see a lot of smiles. Maybe we are feeling our very flesh become a great poem.

 

Update: we now have a Spanish translation.

I proposed a course called “Preaching on the Edge” to Starr King School for the Ministry for next year or later, with this 100-word description:

Great preaching takes risks and emboldens the listeners to do the same. When we go out onto the edge of our experience, our words can be more alive and authentic. When we meet the listeners on the forward edge of their experience, our words have more power to transform them. As we observe and practice different approaches to creating and delivering sermons, we will explore: spiritual practices, ministerial roles, use of the body and voice, interaction with other elements of worship, how to walk the line of appropriate risk, and responding to political, pastoral, and spiritual matters.

Few courses are accepted each year, so I don’t know when I’ll get to teach it, but I keep thinking about the ideas and assignments, and refining the syllabus. It encapsulates so much of where my preaching has been heading in the last few years. In fact, things have shifted so much that when I first proposed a course to SKSM, four years ago, no way would I have offered a course of this description, or any preaching class. I wasn’t taking, or asking, the kinds of risks then that I do now. I’m braver. When I first thought of this course, I conceived of it as “Preaching Without a Net,” but that isn’t quite right. There is a net. Finding yours is part of being a better preacher, or taking any of the brave, scary steps that life might demand.

What do you think, givers of sermons and listeners to sermons? Does your experience of the great ones match the description I’ve given?

photo by Dave Pape, released to the public domain

I was inspired by a Facebook friend’s inquiry (“What songs give you goosebumps every time?”) to bring Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 in the car yesterday and start it up at “Blind Willie McTell.” The goosebumps are still there.

Something I love about Dylan is that how, when he has a refrain, he will sing it differently every time. There it was on “Blind Willie McTell,” five verses and the two-line refrain sung five different ways. Next song, “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky,” same thing. I’ve been listening to “Jokerman” for 25 years, hearing new things in it all the time, and part of the reason is that no two refrains are sung the same way.

It doesn’t sound at all gimmicky the way Dylan does it, but like the result of a singer really listening to the words he sings. He’s there with every nuance of meaning, with what’s happened in the preceding verse, and it flows out in his voice. When a singer elicits so much from the music–when his voice is so present to his words, gives them such immediacy and power, reaches down through the depths and pulls so many layers of meaning from them–the listeners do the same. My dream of a perfect Sunday morning is for my preaching to be like that.

This is hard to say, because Unitarian Universalists generally treat Thou Shalt Adore the Poetry of Mary Oliver as a commandment, except that we don’t do commandments, but I need to confess. Oh wait, we don’t do confession either. (Though we ought to. That’s for another post.)

Never mind. The point is, I think Mary Oliver is mediocre. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that I cringe when the lovely images are drawing to the inevitable conclusion, the moment when Oliver says “Look” or “Listen” and then starts asking us rhetorical questions. It’s like coming to the end of a fable by Aesop.

I am not a person who believes that poems should have morals tacked on to the end. In my experience, the best poems, the ones that eventually turn my life inside out and, like Rilke’s Apollo, inform me that I must change it, are rarely the ones that tell me in plain language what I ought to do. They are more likely to make me say “huh?” I have to read them many times before I dig out their deeper meanings, and when I hold one of those meanings in my hand I know it’s the first of many, that that poem will keep revealing more to me the more times I read it. Oliver’s poems are, in a word, obvious. When she says, or implies, “Look!” I want to say, “Hey, you’re the poet. Don’t tell me to look. Just give me something to look at, something so compelling that I don’t need to be told what to do, and scoot yourself out of the way so that I can see it.”

I once came across an essay on the internet that said better than I can why she isn’t a very good poet and, damn it, is too good not to be a very good poet, but the internet being what it is, I have no idea where to find it again. It expressed my central frustration with Oliver: that someone who can evoke the experiences of the senses so well with words, who seems so perceptive and grounded, who can see the world with clarity, and yet stops short of creating really complex art, is very disappointing.

However, the failings of her poetry make it an excellent source for liturgy. In a worship service, just as the hymns must be fairly simple to sing, the readings have to convey their meaning the first time, to listeners who don’t have another chance to go back and read them again or hear them again (though in our contemplative midweek services, we sometimes do each reading twice). They can be layered, but they also have to be very accessible. They can’t have a very big “huh?” factor. This is why I seldom use my favorite poems in services. Those require absorption; they require analysis and reflection, and many rereadings; then they take off the top of your head, to quote one of my favorite, profoundly “huh?”-inducing poets, Emily Dickinson. You often can’t get them on the first go-round. Or you might pick up something of their wisdom, but you’ll grab on to the easiest bit. Like that last line of “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” by Rainer Maria Rilke, which sounds like a moral and seems easy to grasp. But having grasped it, we still need to spend more time with the poem in order to have any sense of why, how, a headless torso can see us so penetratingly that we know we must change. At least, I did. Rilke’s language is easy (a German speaker once told me it is notable for its simplicity) but his meaning is not. Spend a little time with this poem and you may see what I mean.

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Of course, you can use readings in a Sunday service that will have meaning on first hearing and then also repay further reading and reflection. But those are harder to find. The poems that offer most on the surface are seldom the ones that offer much more on reflection–that are, in short, great poems. Oliver’s poems are good liturgy for the same reason they are mediocre poetry. They deliver a poignant thought or a morsel of good advice for living, they do it with graceful language, they offer up images the mind can easily hold, and they have very little in them to distract the listener with “Wait, I didn’t get that bit.” They lead one with silken inexorability to a conclusion. That’s not what I look for in a poem, but it’s exactly what I need when I’m sitting in a worship service, or shaping one.

Leadership is a partnership. Just as some of my peak moments occur when I am helping to bring out the best in my congregation, others occur when the people of the congregation are bringing out the best that I have to give. I had one of those moments this past Sunday. I’d changed my topic the moment I heard the news (and oh, how glad I was that I’d turned on the computer. I could have found out about Tucson on Sunday morning on my way in to church . . . ). I didn’t have the kind of time for reflection and writing that I usually do, but that was how it had to be.

Looking down at the mishmash of paragraphs and margin notes and don’t-forget-to-mentions in my hand as I came to the pulpit, I was very tempted to preface the sermon with an apology, which was really an excuse: “Please bear with me if this isn’t as cohesive as I’d like. I was up most of the night, I’m sure you understand . . . ” But that would be a disservice to the listeners.

So I just plunged in. I spoke from the heart, and a bruised and uncertain heart it was, and I could do that because my congregation values it. Sure they want the preacher to make sense, but they care most about passion and are willing to bounce over the rough spots. Because they’ve made that clear, I could let go of my own nerves about wanting to give a more polished presentation than was possible, and give them the passion. They are making me a better preacher all the time. I’m so happy they’re my partners in this ministry.

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