Archive for the ‘faith’ Category

Heard Any Great Preaching Lately?

Monday, April 20th, 2009

At a day long conference out in California, hence I’m unable to blog today. But that’s no reason to drop the conversation altogether, is it?

Let me put to you the question put to us panelists at this conference: What is the present state of preaching? What’s the future of preaching in the church in the North American context?

pulpitAll this reading, thinking, and reflecting on the topic has me asking myself, what makes a sermon a great sermon? And even if that can be answered, another question arises? What makes a sermon memorable? Why do some sermons stay with you, tumble around in your soul for days, weeks, or years after you heard them, gnawing at your conscience, feeding you with new insights, while other sermons, even great ones,  vanish from the ears a few minutes, days, after hearing them?

A sermon is only as great as it moves listeners to do something. To be-come different. To act differently in the world.  To change — self and the world.

As a child of the black church, God knows I have heard my share of sermons that have stirred my emotions. I’ve laughed, I’ve clapped, I’ve smiled, I’ve stomped my feet, I’ve nodded my head and moaned.  And, yes, I’ve even my thrown my head back and cried “Glory.”

But truly great sermons are ones that make me imagine a different world, a counter-reality, a better world, a transformed world, one more just and holy than the one I presently live, a world rooted in God, but one requiring me to do my part to bring it into existence. Great sermons leave you with an assignment. Great preachers know how to use words and imagery to  transport you to a place where you can imagine yourself existing in love, peace, justice, and goodwill toward others.

Great books need great readers, the novelist Toni Morrison once wrote. The same can be said about preaching and  sermons, I suppose.  In order for a preacher to preach a great sermon, with any regularity, assuming she’s capable of doing such at all, she needs an audience that demands something of her, expects her to dive deep and surface with treasure. Great audiences expect her to go beyond herself to a place where only God and imagination can take a preacher, and to bring back news of what she beheld and what awaits her audience if they would allow themselves to go there too.

Gotta say, it’s been years since I’ve heard that kind of preaching. The exigencies of time, church obligations, and religious occasion have seen to it that my own sermons often fail to live up my own expectations of great preaching.

Oh well, like I said I’m in a conference this week on the state of preaching. I’ll leave inspired either to do better or go back to ushering.

This I Believe

Friday, April 10th, 2009

praying man

I BELIEVE in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Holy Universal Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

We repeat this ancient creed every first Sunday just before taking communion at my church. Ours is a young, restless church in need of the wisdom of the old church. As a minister the words to the creed roll off my tongue with ease of habit. With ordination in the African Methodist Episcopal Church came years of rehearsing what others have said about the faith. I never thought years ago that I’d say this, but there’s something to be said for tradition. Landmarks help gauge where you come from and how far you have strayed.

These days I stand and lead a young, restless church in the ways of the faith and the tradition.  They are curious about what I believe, but more often they want something to believe that’s older than me and them. The creed gives us a place to start. From there we continue to build our own traditions. Some of the words to the creed come easily for me, others leave a lump in my throat. “I believe, help thou my unbelief” I whisper under my breath.  In truth, some months it’s easier to believe than others. But every month the creed calls me back. To belief. To believing in believing. To belonging to people who believe. To making a decision, to putting down roots, to staying put, to giving belief a chance.

Have a blessed Easter everyone!!

Holy Wednesday

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

I woke feeling spiritually parched. I didn’t need to write, I needed to read. I reached for a book in search of a cool drink of water for my soul. It’s been a tough Lenten season where I live. And even though a ray of light is beginning to peep through, there’s no denying that the wait has taken its toll on us all. It’s left me fresh out of insight and wisdom.

cup from the wellWhat do I do when my cup is bone dry? I sip from others’ cups. Until a little moisture gathers again in my own cup. And it will. It always does. But today my cup is empty. And it will probably be empty tomorrow as well.

What better way to honor and acknowledge the sanctity of Holy Week than to shut up and listen as others wiser and more Enlightened than myself describe what they’ve witnessed and  experienced on this exquisitely mysterious path toward God. I drink from their cup until my cup is refilled, at which time I can turn around and offer others a little drink to refresh themselves.

Life either dwarfs us or grows us. there is no in between. There is no standing still in the spiritual life. there is only the unending opportunity to become or to die. We see people die spiritually every day. Sometimes the look very religious in the doing of it, in fact. they go on believing, reading, praying, thinking, what they have always thought. In the face of new questions, they dare no questions. At the brink of new insights, they wan tto insights. the y want comfort and a guarantee of the kind of heaven they imagined as children. They think that to think anything else is unfaithful….But those who grow in the spiritual life know that spirituality begins where answers and pictures stop. the spiritual life is seeded in darkness and ends in light. It is about love, not law; it is about grace and energy, the cosmos and creation. It is about hope at the edge of despair and a beginning where only an end seems to be.” (Joan Chittister, Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir).

What Is A Miracle?

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

What makes a miracle a miracle? Is it a miracle because it defies explanation and breaks the laws of nature?

The word “miracle” is used so often, often for such trivial events, that it has become a cliché. “It’s a miracle that I made it to the meeting on time in light of all the traffic I encountered on the road.”

It’s probably true that we can explain away many events, even “miraculous” ones.  A good mind, after all, can explain away anything.

For some there are no such things as miracles. For others a miracle is simply an unexpected event or a wonderful surprise. For still others what makes an act a miracle is its infrequency. It may be explainable to the laws of nature, but it’s a pretty rare occurrence.

Regardless, the point of a miracle is not the miracle; it’s the  feeling that God has intervened supernaturally into your life. That God has been revealed in human events. That God has proven once again to be all powerful and able to bend even nature to God’s will.

All of life is a miracle when you think about it. Birth.  Death.  Sleep.  Gravity. Love. The change of seasons. The sun. The moon. The stars.

Take airplanes and flying, for example.


Perhaps it’s because I’m on and off of planes a lot. But the sight of US Airways flight 1549 landing there on the Hudson River in New York back on January 15th, with crew and passengers  safe and all accounted for — that image will forever be emblazoned in my memory. It was a miracle. A “Miracle on the Hudson” is how New York Governor David Paterson described it.

I know. The story is a month old now. We’ve all but forgotten it. Since then there’s been another airplane crash, this time in Buffalo, where the crew and passengers were not so lucky. My prayers are with the families of that tragic crash. But I can’t get out of my mind the wondrous sight of Flight 1549 floating there on the Hudson with crew and passengers standing out on the wings waiting to be rescued.

It’s a miracle. Not because it can’t be explained.  Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger was a veteran pilot with years of experience. After both engines failed and concluding that landing in on the Hudson River was their  best chance of survival, the pilot had the wits about him to know to close off all the plane’s compartment doors (including the landing gear doors) in order to keep water from rushing in, thereby insuring the plane’s chances of remaining above water long enough for all to get out and be rescued. So, I guess you can say that the plane’s landing on water can be explained according to all the laws of thermal dynamics. But that doesn’t make what happened on the Hudson back on January 15, 2009 any less of a miracle.

It was a miracle not because it defied explanation. It was a miracle because people experienced it as a miracle. It was a miracle not because it was unheard of. It was a miracle because nothing like it had ever happened before to the people who witnessed and experienced it.

It was a miracle not because  nothing like it has ever happened before. It was a miracle because it happened when something extraordinary was most needed.

Finally, I wanted to include this blogpiece with a video clip of one of the ferry rescues from that day. It ran many times on CNN for few days after the crash landing. But I haven’t been able to find the video on the Internet. I found a photo of the woman on the video, but I can’t find the video of her reaction after being rescued. It’s precious.

After being rescued by one of the local ferrys, a group of passengers from flight 1549 are standing upright on a ferry with various looks of shock, pain, and relief etched understandably on their faces. The woman below is standing at the end of the line of passengers. And for one brief second the camera catches her as she closes her eyes, bends over, grabs a rail by the hand, and lets her head bob up and down.

sister on 1549

Wolf Blitzer and the rest of CNN didn’t catch it. But I did.

You gotta be churched to know what was going on. It’s called “shouting.” In church it would have been a pew, but the woman in the photo reached for the rail of a Hudson ferry instead.  And she let it rip. The full weight of what had just happened probably hit her. She probably thought about the fact that she’d just survived a crash landing in water. She probably thought about what could have happened. She grabbed that ferry rail, bent over, and danced a holy dance. Sister girl went in, as we say in church vernacular. Praising God.

At least shouting is what it looked to me like she was doing. It’s certainly what I would have been doing on that ferry.

Afterall, there’s only response to a miracle, or whatever you wanna call it. And that is a shout.  A praise dance. Let others figure out what just happened and why it happened. For now: Halleluiah!! Praise the Lord!!! Thank you Lord!!! Speaking in tongues.

Makes you understand what prompted the prophet Miriam to take out her tambourine after the miraculous parting of the Red Sea (or was that a mighty wind that had just blown through?). You can understand why she shook the other women to their senses by insisting they join her in shouting and praising God for doing what only God could have done at the moment that God did it there at the Red Sea:

“Sing to the LORD, for He is highly exalted;
The horse and his rider He has hurled into the sea.”
  (Exodus 15:21)