Sunday, November 26, 2006

Always Incomplete

Recently another blog I watch pointed to a series that a fellow is doing on the problems with youth ministry. One of the problems is that we don't talk about death enough. This Incomplete One, a compilation of sermons occassioned by the death of a young person, tackles death head on. With unflinching compassion and honesty these sermons present the Gospel in the darkest of times. They speak words at a time when words do not begin to encompass the pain and grief, a recurring theme for me these days.

No youth minister should go through their education without figuring out what they really believe about death, life and resurrection. No program, no great talk, no game, no way-out-so great-it-hurts conference will ever say what needs to be said at a grave site. Young people and therefore youth ministers tend to focus on the now, the effervesent life that bubbles out. When death comes we have done nothing to prepare them because we ourselves are not prepared.

Death and young people is almost always violent - suicide, car crash, drug overdose, terminal illness. When I had to face a violent death as a minister I cast about for resources to help. How do you preach at this funeral? How can you do some sort of meaninful liturgical response that encompasses both families and friends? I could find nothing out there. I called a friend who had done a similar funeral a number of years ago. I worked it out and I think it worked. By worked, I mean it had theological integrity and pastoral sensitivity. I believe that I could do this only because I had already confronted death, had seen a man die, had been part of an organ transplant from a dying 6 year old, had claimed Romans 8 as the foundation of my life even in the face of death. Reading this book would begin that process for people who have not already started.

Even with minor quibbles (I could have done without Jonathon Edwards as great a man as he was; could have done with more women preachers) this book receives my unqualified recommendation as an antidote to one of the bugbears lurking in the shadows of youth ministry - a glib theology that merely plays with a Gospel so powerful that it overcomes death.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Remembrance Day Service

I preached last week and ran head long into many of the issues that Lischer notes. I felt constrained by the congregation in the sense that I didn't want to needlessly offend memories of loved ones lost. The particular passages that were assigned by the Lectionary were apocalyptic in nature (Isaiah and Revelation) which pose certain challenges. Chief among those challenges is that there is no point, no underlying moral or principle to apocalyptic prophecy. I was also challenged by time as there is an unspoken rule that worship will not last longer than an hour and there was already a 10 minute memorial liturgy taking up the 15 to 20 minutes allotted for sermon. There was also the fact that it was Family Sunday meaning that I was theoretically preaching to all ages.

In the end there was still work to be done. I don't thing that I offended anyone but hopefully challenged facile views of war, glory and memory. I was on time and didn't use big words so was accessible by all. I still had a sense of failure however. Part of that failure was mine. Apocalyptic Scripture is a fuzzy area in my head as it is visionary and imprecise. Couple this hermeneutical fuzziness with my own desire to obfuscate my true position regarding war and there was an ambiguity about parts of the sermon that don't satisfy me.

I do wonder though if part of my unease with the result is because the congregation wasn't able to hear the sermon. As my wife said, "What was your point?" Well, the point was fuzzy but was still there. The point was proclamation. The point was that war is human and therefore contains both good and bad. The good is recognizable only by looking at it through the lens of the future. The future is God's. There were no applications in everyday life other than the fact that we cannot remember without using God's vision. Have we so trained people to listen for the point that they are deaf to sermons that simply state God's reality? Does proclamation have a point besides the thing that it proclaims?


Monday, November 06, 2006

Bart Simpson Doesn't Read the Bible

The final part of three articles is posted now on the Presbyterian Record website. Not thrilled with the graphic. I assume that Bart himself was copyrighted. Maybe something like this would have helped my run on sentences:


How to speak?

I had dinner with two friends last week who don't regularly attend a church but do care about words. For them the two go together. How can a fallen human craft words that speak to the full range of the world? Can the depths of God find adequate measure in mere words? Can truth really come off of the tongue of a preacher?

Lischer has a lot to say to my friends. So many factors lead to the end of words in our culture. I've written about some of the same ones that Lischer enumerates including technological changes that shape the way that we understand the world. As well, words, any words, seem an inadequate response to the death count of the 20th century. The list goes on.

Lischer plays with the meaning of his title to make the end (as in terminus) of words into the end (telos) of words. Calling preachers to preach, read Scripture, narrate the Biblical story and point to reconciliation, Lischer follows a pretty standard direction. The beauty of the book is in the words. The destination is predictable, the journey delightful.

Preaching, with its incessant regularity, forces preachers to make hermeneutical decisions that they don't necessarily want to. Don Juel once said in a class on the death of Jesus that come Sunday morning we needed to stand in the pulpit and say something. We couldn't equivocate or avoid. Our papers could do hermeneutical gymnastics but come Sunday, all of our ruses to avoid the truth must stay in the office. We must stand and say why Jesus had to die.

It is that imperative, that must stand, that Lischer captures beautifully. Words will never cover the breadth of the world nor adequately measure the depths of God. Nevertheless, the preacher has an obligation to stand and become a vessel for God to speak some word to God's people. Hopefully, next time my friends hear me preach, they won't hear me but God.