Fairest, Beautiful

The first hymn I ever loved was “Fairest Lord Jesus,” in our hymnal as “Beautiful Savior” (ELW 838).

Having not been raised in the church, then coming home from summer camp wanting to find out everything I could about God, I listened to the Christian radio station in Houston. Mixed in there with a lot of very bad theology and political discourse was a lot of great 1980s “Contemporary Christian” music—some of it terrific, some truly awful—covering the whole range of 80s sounds from synthesizers, to fake rock and roll, to the truly grandiose. One day, cutting through all that noise like a laser, I heard this simple hymn. It was performed a capella, without instruments, starting with a single voice and then layering on part after part in a way that made my ears tingle. It was like musical glitter, sparkling and lovely.

I knew about Jesus the baby, Jesus the mighty, Jesus the mysterious, Jesus the dead-then-alive. To that point, my attraction to Jesus had been to the idea of Jesus.  It was about his teachings, his importance, the necessity of Jesus.

keplers_supernovaBut THIS was a different Jesus. Jesus the beautiful. Jesus in the meadows and woodlands; Jesus in a shining sky.  Beautiful Jesus. The Fairest.  The song, and the Jesus in the song, cut right through my brain, through all that thinking and reasoning I had been doing, and got into my musical heart. Thinking about Jesus was good, but through this song I started to feel Jesus.

Beautiful Savior, delight us with your starlight and moonlight. Shine on the meadows and woodlands, and on us.  Drizzle your beauty all over us like musical glitter. Let your love enter our brains, our ears and our hearts. Amen.

Photo by NASA/ESA/JHU/R.Sankrit & W.Blair [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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On showing up: Advice to preacher-writers

News flash: preaching involves writing.

I study writing, and I have studied the writing that preachers do, and I am here to tell you: writing is a huge part of preaching. And writing is really, really difficult.

The most difficult thing about writing isn’t always anything in the writing, it’s actually just doing the writing at all. Forcing yourself to do it.  If you don’t believe me, go visit any dissertating doctoral student’s apartment and witness the piles of clean laundry, the baking, and the art projects.  Anything other than writing. Or, for a certain group of pastors, visit on Friday morning and see a house that’s been cleaned, an office that’s been organized, a well-weeded garden— and an open laptop somewhere with Facebook open instead of a sermon.

Most books about preaching focus more on the content of sermons than on how they’re made. Three-point, law-and-gospel, topical– ok, but how to get from the empty page to one of those? What writing processes? What practices— not just reading practices, but writing practices– lead you there?

Which is why someone might pick up a book like 8 Hours or Less: Writing Better Sermons Faster by Ryan Huguley (Moody, coming out in May 2017). It’s a prescription about workflow: do this on Monday, do this on Tuesday. If you like direction, you’ll understand why this book could be attractive.

Here’s what Huguley misses, though: the reason why writing is so hard is that it requires honesty and attention in the moment of invention. And that is a moment requiring so much bravery that many of us would rather do anything (even weed a garden!) rather than face it.

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Anyone who has ever written has felt writing’s difficulty. Sometimes it’s starting at the blank page or screen, not knowing how to begin. Other times it’s sitting stuck in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph, reaching for a word that doesn’t come. Or it’s writing oneself halfway into an argument that suddenly, somewhere in the middle, breaks down. Or it’s sharing writing with a reader and finding, painfully, that you have not made yourself clear, or—more often—hesitating fearfully before sharing with a reader, or before writing at all, for fear of criticism.

In preaching, it’s hearing in the Gospel story the story of some situation with some parishioner, but not feeling you can speak to that too directly. It’s feeling the week’s text resonate with some aspect of your own life, but feeling (or, in some cases, knowing) that the congregation isn’t ready for that story right now, or that you’re not ready to tell it. Or it’s being tired, so tired, and discouraged, and not feeling the joy in preparing to preach that you used to feel. And it’s feeling guilty about that. None of that is conducive to writing fluently, or well.

Huguley’s book touches none of that. It just gives orders, assigning writing tasks to its reader on a schedule. An eight-hour schedule. Scheduling is really important, but for this advice to be helpful it has to speak to why the reader hasn’t taken the advice already.

So, here are some alternative resources, resources that point to the real difficulty in writing for preaching: this powerful list of Resources on Preaching for Women from the Junia Project, which includes more attention to craft than I’m used to seeing. No easy answers there.

And there’s the set of ideas that comes from seeing yourself as a writer, and then attending to doing the things writers do.  Is there one right way? No. These astoundingly interesting portraits of writers’ processes at Brainpickings show how there is not.

But they do show one thing that all writers know and must do. And it is the one thing that all the pastors in my study of writing for preaching must do, too– at least, if they want a day off before Sunday rolls back around, as it inevitably does.

It’s showing up.

Just showing up for the writing. Like you show up for a dentist appointment even though you don’t really “feel in the mood” to have metal pokers jabbing into your teeth. Like you show up to pick up your kids even though you were in the middle of something when it was time to go. You have to show up.  We can talk all day long about what to do once you’ve started writing, but the real truth is that most of us are saying we have writing problems when our real problem is that we didn’t even show up.  Didn’t sit at the desk, didn’t open the document, didn’t start typing.

recite-1otdi31Preachers, can you show up for writing sermons the way you hope parishioners will show up to hear them? You hope they’ll show up on time. You hope they’ll show up even when they’re not really in the mood. You hope they’ll show up even if they’re tired, and even if their laundry’s not done. You hope they’ll show up with open hearts, with ears that hear and minds that consider. You hope they’ll show up like this because you know that there’s something just for them in the Gospel, no matter how bad your sermon turns out.

Can you show up for your preaching in the same way?  Come on time, be awake, ignore the laundry, forget whether you’re in the mood. Just show up and start writing. There is something in the Gospel for you.  If you show up.

Writing about yourself: When work and faith collide

For a writing scholar and teacher, for a person who more than once a week sits on the carpet writing alongside children, for a person who teaches adults to journal and grad students how to own their knowledge, for a person with a blog (!)…. I have a hard time writing about myself. A really hard time.

I’d rather write a technical manual for an appliance nobody uses. I’d rather write a note of apology for something I’m not that sorry about. I’d rather write a list of household chores. And then do the chores.

The great Anne Lamott gives this advice for writing about people in your life: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. Just change their height and hair color. No one ever once has recognized him or herself in my fiction. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.” And she’s right. But what about when the person is me?

I spend most of my writing life in the academic arena, where I am a professor of education at a research university. We academics are famous for writing stuff nobody will ever read, or at least that’s how we self-loathingly joke about it. But people do read my academic writing. Smart people. People I respect. People I know, and people I don’t know (I’m not sure which of those scares me more).

My academic writing has been explicitly about me a few times– I’ve written about my own childhood school experiences, and experiences as a parent. I’ve written much more than that about my teaching. And even the stuff that never says “I” is about me in that it’s the material I spend time with, reflect on, pour energy into, and care about.

But still, a couple of years ago I started researching about writing in the context of religion. And from there, it wasn’t long until I was sitting in research interviews that sometimes included as many questions for me as they did for my participants. And from there, it wasn’t long until yesterday, when I took deep breaths and hit “send” on a manuscript for an academic journal with stories in it about my own beliefs and my own prayer life. I hit “send,” but my heart still pounds a bit when I think about it. It feels transgressive, like I’m doing the one thing an academic must never do, even though the truth is that I go to a church that is absolutely packed with academics, and we’re doing just fine.

Which is why my heart soared to see this tweet from Krista Tippet today:

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According to this, I’m not an overly insecure basket case (much); I’m just like Krista Tippet! And she’s right, it’s vulnerable-making. And she’s right, that is good for me. And collisions produce a lot of energy.

(And, when the article comes out, I’ll share it with you.)

This artist concept illustrates how a massive collision of objects, perhaps as large as the planet Pluto, smashed together to create the dust ring around the nearby star Vega. New observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope indicate the collision too

Know your (women) theologians

I can’t say enough good things about this list of important women theologians over on Englewood Review of Books. Some I was familiar with, and others were new to me. All are examples of women writing about God, in a diverse array of perspectives.

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What a theologian looks like, in my head

And can I just say, the word theologian hasn’t really kept a lot of currency in the secular world?  I have always taken it to mean something like “scholar of God,” and I’m not wrong. For the most part, theologians are scholars of God– members of the academic field of theology. As a scholar myself, I value that sense of the word. But, as I spend more time with this word I’m learning more of its nuances too.

Like “public theologian.” My favorite elaboration of this idea is at (my favorite podcast/ radio program) On Being, where the great Krista Tippet interviews people of faith (and just people of ideas that link somehow to faith!). My sense of the term “public theology” is something like “bringing divine matters to bear on matters of the world, for the good of the world.”  As On Being’s “Public Theology Reimagined” project articulates:

“Public theology is about the virtues that accompany the work of theology, not just the ideas. It means connecting grand religious ideas with messy human reality. It means articulating religious and spiritual points of view to challenge and deepen thinking on every side of every important question.”

In my own work as a scholar of writing, one important theme across much of my research (and not only mine) has been that we write better when we have a strong sense of “Writer identity”– that is, when think we are writers. So, how do people come to see themselves as writers?  It has three components. One component is actually writing. You can’t be a writer without writing any more than you can be a swimmer without ever getting in the pool. Another component is reflecting on what you do when writing– that is, remembering and describing writing experiences (to others and/or to yourself) so that you have intentionality and self-consciousness enough to draw deliberately on your writing experiences moving forward. (This reflection component is the focus of the next book!)

And finally, the third component is having a definition of the word “writer” that can conceivably include you. If “swimmer” is defined as people who have won Olympic swimming medals, it’s a small, elite group. If it includes all who swim on a regular basis, many more of us get to call ourselves swimmers– and seeing ourselves as swimmers increases our odds of getting to the pool a few times a week. It’s the same with writing: if you limit the definition of “writer”to only those people who have published books, then you leave out a lot of people. You leave out almost all children, for instance– yet sense of identity as a writer is known to be helpful for learning to write in childhood or adulthood. But if you can come to think of “writer” as someone who writes daily, or as someone who revises, or who shares writing with an audience, then there’s a lot more room for learners in there.

This gets us back to theologians. Who is a theologian? Scholars of God? Or those who think and write about God, with a broader public in mind?  If the latter, there’s room for me in there. And for you! I find that news encouraging. And it makes it somewhat less crazy to think that I might broaden my writing life from matters of education to matters of God.

Narratives of discernment

Because I’m a writing scholar, I see everywhere the writing of narratives. Of course I mean the literal writing of narratives, as when I tell a story here, in words. But I also see everywhere how we write and revise the narratives of our lives, of identities, of our memberships and intentions.

This idea isn’t mine, nor is it new. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And these days, I’m seeing how it’s especially true when it comes to discernment. Discernment is a storytelling activity. Everywhere people are discerning God’s call to them, those people are writing a narrative. It’s a narrative of what will happen going forward, and a narrative of what was meant to happen, looking backward. I’m especially interested in the backward part– a story made entirely by revising.

As any writer can tell you, revising takes bravery. What if my story hasn’t meant what I thought it did? What if my steps weren’t leading where I thought they would? And what, then, if I am not who I thought I was? To make a new story out of one’s life is not only to make a new story, it is also to let an old one go. eraser-316446__340

Jesus– the Jesus who, having been not only fully God but also fully human, knows what things are like for us– must have known this too. What stories did he have to revise along his way? What did he have to let go of?

These are my discerning thoughts at the beginning of an especially discerning Lent. And this old-but-good post from Amy Butler reads the temptation of Jesus as a discernment narrative (wrapping it in one of her own). She writes:

“Vocational discernment totally unmoors us.  It turns us around, sets us off course, rattles our comfortable cages.  Thinking about what we’re called to do and who we’re called to be in the large picture of God’s work in the world does have the potential to call us to greatness…and it has the potential to destroy us.”

Like I said, revising takes bravery.

Signs, signs

I’ve never been one to have signs in my yard. No “Welcome Spring!” flag; no ads for my political candidates of choice. They seemed tacky to me, like clutter right out front where everyone can see. And they felt like oversharing: Why does some person driving by care who I’m voting for? Without knowing me, what is that recommendation even worth?

Now it’s different. I have this sign in my yard:

 

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And as this NPR story explains, so do many of my neighbors. And the sign, which I wouldn’t have thought to have, would have rejected as clutter a year ago, now seems important. So important that a couple of weeks ago, neighbors from the local Islamic Society stopped by with thank-you gifts, grateful for a message of acceptance.

I’ve never been one to wear a graphic t-shirt either.  In fact, my stance has been “When the aliens come, they’re going to place a lot of significance in these words we have on our shirts. What will they think we mean by Adidas or Coke?” But now things are different. I wear my slogan shirts to make what little statement I can: “A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance.” “Girls Just Want to Have Fundamental Rights.” What does a shirt do? Nothing, except leave no doubt in your mind whether I am a feminist or not.

And so now, blogging on matters of Christian faith and discernment, I feel the same desire to put up signs as I do in my front yard. The signs don’t do much in concrete terms, but they clarify: this isn’t that kind of place or that kind of person.  And so, the “yard signs” of this blog:

 

 

Where poem meets sermon

Every once in a while, your varied passions and concerns link up. It’s like a little explosion of coherence, when your different strandsrope-1149537_960_720 of living suddenly line up and start playing together in a single thematic convergence.

It happened to me when I heard this “found poem” made from a sermon, in the first episode of a new podcast.  The sermon-poem comes from Nate Preisinger, who also happens to be director of admissions at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. The podcast is Season and Story, itself a cool convergence of faith, arts, and people in conversation.  Adding it to my list!