upper room daily devotions

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Need Help Preaching the Death of Jesus?

Need help preaching or understanding the death of Jesus? Try reading "Biblical Preaching of the Death of Jesus" edited by David Lull and William Beardslee. Contributors include John Cobb, Russell Pregeant, Theodore Weeden Sr, Barry Woodbridge, and the forward by Fred Craddock. Not a new book - it was originally published in 1989 - it puts forward a complex and rich understanding on preaching and how preaching steeped in disciplined exegesis can shed new light on Jesus' crucifixion.

For these scholars it isn't enough to get a good handle on the death of Jesus (as if that weren't difficult enough!). They also believe that it is the preacher's task to interpret this core Christian story in ways that transform the lives of worshipers by "[discerning] what the Spirit is seeking to do and to provide words that will serve the Spirit in that work." Therefore, all that the preacher does should support the ongoing work of the Spirit in the community.

The death of Jesus is not only a central theme in the New Testament, it is also one of the most hotly contested and debated themes. Since the beginning of Christianity people have differed in their interpretations and understandings of Jesus' death. Even the Church's establishment of orthodoxy leaves room for multiple understandings and interpretations of Jesus' death. Preaching on this subject is both primary to a preacher's work and tricky to do.

In the second section of the book, the authors turn to the stories of Jesus' death as put forth by the Gospel according to Mark and the letters of Paul. Their goal is to provide preachers with sound exegesis on the texts by opening people "both to the strangeness of the biblical texts and to their potential for transforming our visions of the world."

As someone who struggles with Paul and his letters, I bought this book hoping for a renewed appreciation for the author of the earliest preserved texts in the New Testament. After finishing the section on Paul, I was disappointed to learn that the ways that I already understand Paul seem to be correct (I had hoped for new revelations). However, David Lull provided a wonderful interpretation of Paul for preaching. In the section called "Rediscovering Our Interrelatedness: The Death of Jesus in Jesus' Story," he writes, "In the Christian tradition, Jesus' death decisively brings into view the inescapable confrontation with our interconnectedness, both with one another and with God. All of the theologies of atonement presuppose this dimension of the church's memory of Jesus' death...We need to be reminded of our interaction with God in order to be open to the possibilities of forgiveness and of new life, for at the heart of the story of Jesus' death is the image of God receiving the brokenness of the world into God's own self, suffering with the world and transforming the consequences of the world's brokenness so that new possibilities emerge" (pp 175-176).

I highly recommend this book and its use of process thought to explore the texts related to Jesus' death and to offer preachable interpretations of it. 5 Stars!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wear a Sweater for Mister Rogers

Fred Rogers, known to us as Mister. Rogers, would have turned 80 years old in March. In honor of his life and his work, people in the Pittsburgh area are invited to wear sweaters March 15-20. But why stop there? If you, like me, grew up with the wisdom and gentle presence of Mister Rogers and the crazy puppets and characters of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, you might participate in "Sweater Days" even though you live far from Pittsburgh - I think I will.

My only pseudo-encounter with Fred Rogers occurred in the late 1990s when Jonathan Kozol was speaking at my church. They were good friends. In celebration of Jonathan Kozol's dog's birthday, Fred Rogers send a happy birthday fax to my church. I faxed him back a hearty thank you from his friend.

It seems that dire news is all that we hear. From the environment to school shootings to the election, it is rare to hear about goodness. Fred Rogers was a piece of goodness. I want to remember that.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Short Confessional Moment - A Little Pensive

I took this picture in Kenya. It depicts my Lenten experience quite well. I feel like that tree under that big sky, so full of promise, so full of uncertainty. What will happen?

I haven't written on this blog for a little while. It just seems that every time an idea comes to mind, I'm not in a place to write. And, when I'm in a location with the time to write there is nothing to say. As Lent progresses, I have found myself increasingly pensive, contemplative, and at a loss for words. I've been wondering if this loss of words (and if you knew me you would know how unusual a loss of words is...I am clergy after all) might serve me well during this time of wilderness and wandering. Perhaps the journey through Lent can be better experienced without the trappings of the mind hurtling from one thought to the next, without the mouth speaking one more banal statement, without the clutter that arises from the overuse of words. How ironic that I'm using words to communicate a time of wordlessness.

Today I was walking in my church's neighborhood. It's a residential area populated by small bungalows, lots of folks in their early 30s, and Priuses on every corner. The sun was out and the blue sky was dappled with full and plump clouds drifting by on their way to...where? I stopped beside a house with a rusty iron bench in its front yard and wanted to wander over and sit. Thankfully I resisted, but throughout the walk I thought very little while feeling quite a lot. Most of the feelings included a sense of longing, almost melancholy but not quite. That bench seemed a perfect place to bring a rusty spirit, a lonely heart, a wishful hope. Or perhaps the bench itself needed company. I'm not sure.

One thing is becoming more clear this Lent. Regardless of the Lenten disciplines I established at the beginning of the season, my spiritual journey is taking its own course - one not established or controlled by me. And it is a course that is much more emotional than intellectual. So, I am realizing that I am along for whatever current is pulling me along. Sorry for the quietness of the blog, but I have clearly entered a time of quiet in the soul.

I hope you are having a meaningful Lent. I certainly am.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Sanctuary Appointments and Lent

Sanctuaries have a way of reflecting the personality of the congregation. Often times the best way to get to know a congregation is to walk into the sanctuary and look around. Where is the baptismal font? Is there a Christ candle? Are there pews? If so, are they straight, padded, curved, or angled? Are there kneelers? Is there a chancel proper? Where does the choir stand? Are they using multimedia? How integrated are the video components? The sanctuary says a great deal about a congregation's understanding of community, sacrament, Christology, and mission. How is your sanctuary decorated for Lent?

I currently serve a small neighborhood church in North Seattle. You can tell right away when you enter the sanctuary that they value intimate relationship. Often there are quilts on the pews; they are made by church members and then given or auctioned for chairty. Liturgical banners and frontals are also created within the congregation. They are not satin or silk; they are not mass produced or particularly formal. They reflect the communal understandings of this local congregation.

This Lent we are using a set of sanctuary art pieces that are quite interesting. They are quilted pieces that depict a pathway surrounded by wilderness. In keeping with the tradition of Lent the main color is purple. The main decoration is the full frontal of the fixed altar on the chancel wall. Each week during Lent a new part of the journey is added until a big sunrise completes the picture on Easter Sunday. I like the idea of adding a rock, a tree, a mountain as a way of visually moving this community through Lent to Easter. There are complementary paraments for the lectern and the pulpit.

Last year we made the image more compelling by furthering the image of the path. We added plants and rocks - real ones - in the chancel to extend the path on the frontal. We even added cairns. That was a particularly interesting addition since cairns are used to show hikers the pathway. These decorations reminded us that even though we are in the wilderness, there are markers to help us find our way to Easter, to resurrection.

One challenge with these decorations is that the full frontal is obscured when we serve communion from a communion table set up in front of the main altar. This challenge reflects the marginalization of Holy Communion in many United Methodist congregations. There was a time not so long ago when Holy Communion was celebrated only quarterly; now most congregations participate in the sacrament monthly. However, as we move toward a weekly celebration of Holy Communion, the decorations that we currently use will no longer serve their function.

The visuals used in the sanctuary are important, whether we are in the midst of penitential seasons or in the middle of Ordinary Time. How we appoint the sanctuary speaks volumes to us and to our visitors about what we think about God, community, and worship.

Is your church decorated in a way that helps worshipers understand what is happening in the service? In the season? Do you have a theme? Nonverbal messages are at least as important as the verbal ones. What we say, sing, and pray will be undermined if what we do and display don't play a supporting role.

An aside: You can find a lot of horrible, HORRIBLE sanctuary art (my opinion, of course). If you are interested in how sanctuaries and altars "should" look and what the names of the appointments are that you find in sanctuaries, there are a number of good guides. I recommend "The Altar Guild" by Lee Maxwell. For helps in keying in on important themes that will help in decorating your sanctuary, I recommend "Sundays and Seasons" as well as "Living Liturgy". For a look at what good liturgical art looks like, check out the artist Nancy Chinn.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Do Ash Wednesday and Lent Have to Be Such Downers?

"Do Ash Wednesday and Lent have to be such downers?" I hear this question - and others like it - every year. More accurately, I hear statements such as, "I don't participate in Lent; it's a downer, it's too hard, I never make it through with my commitments. Why try?" As you might have guessed, I'm a big supporter of Ash Wednesday and Lent and I'm going to tell you why. Maybe, if you're like those who are shy about the season, you'll find a new perspective that will feel more invitational.

Yes, it can be a bit stark to walk into a sanctuary to see black, gray, and purple cloths on Ash Wednesday. Usually the bright decorations that have been lingering since Christmas have been put away and everyting feels a bit bare. That's all true. Ash Wednesday is stark, but I find that this emptying out of the sanctuary helps remind me that it's time to empty out the spiritual garbage that I've been collecting for the past year. I have to ask myself what baubles, decorations, and clutter have I been hanging onto and whether I need them. Do they actually contribute to the quality of my life? Often times I find on Ash Wednesday that I've slipped back into emotional and spiritual patterns that aren't healthy or helpful. The starkness of the room helps me examine the cluttered and rushed areas of my life.

The words "Remember, you come from dust and to dust you shall return" can really frighten some people. What are Christians trying to do? Scare the crap out of me? Well, some might be but I'm not. These words remind me that, like the rest of creation, I have been lovingly made by God. I am a part of a great web of creation. I am connected to all of life, all of the dust in the solar system, all of the dust bunnies with which I am at war most of the time. I am part of something much, much larger than myself. I have a place - humans have a place - in this order of creation. We are a special part of God's holy and sacred creation. And yet I am not the crowning achievement of God's handiwork. I have a place, one out of which I often step. I move through the world as though I were in charge, in control - God. The words we say on Ash Wednesday remind me that I am not the Creator. They humble me. I am only on this earth for a short period of time. How can I be more alive in Christ? How can I live more fully aware of God's grace at work in the world and in me? One day I will leave this place, what experiences do I need to have, what effects do I want to leave behind? These words call me to account for how I live while I am here.

Ash Wednesday is the kick off day of Lent. The symbols can be a bit stark, but they invite us in to a sizing down of the overstuffed, overpacked, overcrowded ways in which most Americans live. Lent is a journey into the heart of God. What is so bad about that? Of course, it does lift up to us the reality that in following the God of Jesus, like him we may face trials and tribulations because of our commitment to God's realm. To follow Jesus is to follow his program of kingdom proclamation and kingdom building. We are, after all, proclaiming that God is the ruler of this world not the powers and principalities all around us that exert themselves with great might. We stand in opposition to oppression, injustice, and apathy. We are called to level the plane, extend compassion to the outcast, and rejoice with sinners (that's good because I am one). This way of living is often counter to the ways in which this world would want us to live. This way of living clearly and unashamedly declares that the world and all that is in it belongs to God and to no other - not to me or to you, not to corporations, and not to the state. To follow Jesus is highly political and overtly challenging of the norms of our world. So, it is dangerous. Lent reminds us just how dangerous. It also, however, invites us into the heart of the God of joy, peace, and laughter. The same God that created still creates. This God wants us to celebrate every time we gather as though we were at a wedding. This God wants us to drink deeply of life and love with abandon. Lent invites us on to this path as well.

Ash Wednesday and Lent are not downers, but they are an invitation to right our relationships, especially our relationship with God, remembering that we belong to God (God does not belong to us). They call us into lives of humility. They send us down dangerous paths on behalf of the kingdom. And they also pull us into the great party that always seems to be happening in the midst of this kingdom.

I hope that you walk into Lent ready to examine your life with honesty and integrity, to make changes that you need to make, and to remember that you are a beloved child of God who - whether you know it or not - is basking in the delight of God's grace.

For more about the tradition of Ash Wednesday, go my my post from last year.

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