Engle Institute for Preaching: First Unpacking

Last week I didn’t write here because I was attending the Engle Institute for Preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary. Through this year, the continuing ed event was always aimed at preachers in their first 2-10 years of preaching ministry. That ten year mark has always been squishy (with preachers still made welcome at 11 or 13 years too), but next year they are having a second track for people in their 11th through 25th years of ministry. I don’t know what that will look like, and I don’t think they do yet either.

In any case, if you preach and want to be a better preacher, they’ve got that Princeton money, so it was only $175 for a week, including room and board. You should definitely apply. The best way to get in is to apply early, and the best way to know registration is open is to subscribe to PTS’ Continuing Education E-Newsletter.

On a personal note, it was certainly the most fully “mainline” Protestant space I’ve been in since seminary, and it was the first time I had been around so much Reformed theology in my life. (A new Episcopalian friend and some Lutherans there agreed.)

In the course of the week, all 65 of us Engle Fellows attended a five-day plenary session (audio available here; video available here). This year the Engle Institute brought in Roger Nam, Professor of Biblical Studies and Dean of Portland Seminary, who challenged us to preach Ezra/Nehemiah in our churches. His own lens (which I will now not be able to read Ezra/Nehemiah without) as a second-generation Korean-American who learned Korean as an adult in order to live and minister in South Korea, is that of repatriation. How do those returning to Jerusalem relate to this place that is a home to which they’ve never been? How do those who stayed in the land relate to the returned people? And what in the world are we supposed to do with the “holy” (or is it most unholy?) breakup of marriages and families we find in Nehemiah 13? (Less practical but incredibly interesting: Did you know there was a Jewish settlement, complete with its own Temple, on an island in the Nile in the 5th c. BCE?)

After the plenary session, on Monday through Thursday I attended Preaching and the Theopoetics of Public Discourse, taught by Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm. (Yes, I’ve been trying to tell you I’m a preaching nerd.) This was the description for the course:

From ‘A City upon a Hill’ to ‘The Drum Major Instinct,’ American preachers have given voice to poetry and prose that have stirred our imaginations and empowered the church’s ministries of compassion and justice. This workshop will immerse participants in the theopoetics of preaching: the creative process of engaging metaphors, sounds, and the rhythms of Scripture and poetry to inspire our souls and empower sermon listeners.

(Click here to see all the other course offerings.)

We read favorite poems to one another, we watched some fabulous sermons and questioned some less fabulous ones, and we came away not totally knowing what “theopoetics” means, but still informed by it. One practical nugget (a Yale thang?): writing a sermon in sense lines as verse, rather than as blocks of prose, in order to free up creativity and communication of meaning.

Some links: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “The Drum Major Instinct,” Robert F. Kennedy on the night MLK was assassinated; Mitch Landrieu (warning of the possibility of violence months before Charlottesville) on the removal of Confederate monuments; Otis Moss III and Otis Moss, Jr. share a Father’s Day sermon on “Prophetic Grief” right after the Mother Emanuel shooting.

If you’re wondering if politics came up in our conversations: yes. I came away so thankful that my congregations are far from politically homogeneous.

Monday and Tuesday afternoon, I went to Carolyn B. Helsel‘s Stories of Recognition:

Preachers include stories in nearly every sermon, knowing the power of stories to expand listeners’ understanding of faith and ability to empathize with others. In today’s society, when many people remain in their own echo chambers of news media that affirm their own views of the world, how can preachers employ stories to help us see the humanity in our brothers and sisters across the aisle? This two-day afternoon workshop will engage practices of storytelling that help listeners recognize the commonalities between themselves and persons they view as very different from themselves, as well as to see how our experiences may be more different from one another than we might imagine due to identity markers such as race, gender, age, and physical ability. Resources for such stories will be available, and preachers will practice storytelling.

We literally told stories to one another, talked about how the stories we tell about ourselves shape us, and then talked about how the stories we tell about ourselves are not the only stories we could be telling of the same lives. That is, telling different stories about ourselves can be transformational. (For the Big Instance, if the Gospel is true, then we are part of God’s story. What difference might that make?) Practically, we also shared our favorite TV shows, movies, and book recommendations for stories we enjoy.

My final workshop pick was for Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, How to Turn the Ear into an Eye: Preaching as an Oral-Aural Event with Jared Alcántara:

This workshop empowers participants to “preach for the ear” instead of “preach for the eye” through helping them to conceive of the sermon as an oral-aural event rather than a written artifact. It teaches the rules of orality in preaching, discusses practices to avoid when preparing sermons, and invites participants to learn from one another through the practice of preaching for the ear.

Unfortunately, while we did get to watch some great preaching, and we actually learned and used some tools, I wanted something deeper about how communication works, how people hear and learn and respond and are transformed by hearing spoken words. (I only realize now while I seem to negatively review the class: those techniques and tools are ones that I will be using for a looong time after I might have forgotten some theory shared across four hours of class time.)

Princeton was great (although the beds were uncomfortable to sleep in and the wealth of the downtown area was uncomfortable to walk through), the workshops were great, the worship was great, but the people I got to meet were definitely the best part. If I had to boil down what I received from the week as a whole, it was the encouragement to just be absolutely who I am, whoever that might be. There is plenty of learning to do, plenty of technique to sharpen, but the core of who I am as preacher is actually something God made.

Yes, believe it or not, God made me to preach ridiculously long lectio continua sermon series in imitation of how the Church Fathers (and the Reformers in imitation of the Fathers) did it, to read poetry and theology devotionally, to listen to novels alongside leadership books on the way to pastoral care visits, and…to blog while I’m on the clock.

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Bartimaeus

I am not Bartimaeus.
I am not the son of Timaeus.

When Jesus summons I do not leap up,
I do not leave everything behind,
I do not fly straight to Jesus,
Forgetting that I am blind.

I sit, I consider, I weigh the call,
Weigh it again,
Ponder my options,
Measure my abilities,
Guess my future.

When I stand, I creak, I groan,
Pins, needles, fire,
Spine having forgotten vertical.

I leave nothing behind.
I pack and repack:
Clothes and extra clothes, food, money, keys,
toothbrush, guitar, dishwasher, HOA dues,
401(k), Netflix subscription.

And now my toes stretch, grab earth, pull me
Forward into the dark,
Utmost concern to never stub,
Never stumble, never bruise,
Arms waving high and low,
Scanning for obstacles.
I take stops to rest,
I reverse, then move ahead again,
It takes years.

When I arrive I find
the Son of David has not moved on.
He’s still stopped in the road,
blocking traffic, waiting for me.

He asks me:
“What do you want me to do for you?”

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

These extended excerpts are a way to share Kiese Laymon’s beyond powerful and beyond devastating book, Heavy: An American Memoir. It is at least formally addressed to his mother (the “you” in the first quotation).

I understood that day why you and Grandmama were so hungry for black wins, regardless of how tiny those wins were. For Grandmama, those wins were always personal. For you, the wins were always political. Both of y’all knew, and showed me, how we didn’t even have to win for white folk to punish us. All we had to do was not lose the way they wanted us to.

p. 53

===================================================

I looked at Grandmama and told her I felt like a nigger, and feeling like a nigger made my heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain feel like they were melting and dripping / out of the ends / of my toenails.

“It ain’t about making white folk feel what you feel,” she said. “It’s about not feeling what they want you to feel. Do you hear me? You better know from whence you came and forget about those folk.”

p. 56

===================================================

Before both of us went to sleep, I asked Grandmama if 218 pounds was too fat for twelve years old. “What you weighing yourself for anyway?” she asked me. “Two hundred eighteen pounds is just right, Kie. It’s just heavy enough.”

“Heavy enough for what?”

“Heavy enough for everything you need to be heavy enough for.”

I loved sleeping with Grandmama because that was the only place in the world I slept all the way through the night. But tonight was different.

“Can I ask you one more question before we go to bed?”

“Yes, baby,” Grandmama said, and faced me for the first time since I gave her the notebook.

“What do you think about counting to ten in case of emergencies?”

“Ain’t no emergency God can’t help you forget,” Grandmama told me. “Evil is real, Kie.”

“But what about the emergencies made by folk who say they love you?”

“You forget it all,” she said. “Especially that kind of emergency. Or you go stone crazy. My whole life, it seem like something crazy always happens on Sunday nights in the summer.”

p. 60

===================================================

I’d heard Grandmama whimper over the loss of her best friend and her sisters. I’d heard Grandmama yell at Uncle Jimmy for daring to disrespect her in her house. I’d never heard Grandmama scream while begging the Lord to have mercy on her until that night in the hospital…
With one hand in the pockets of my mesh shorts, and one hand holding hers, I told Grandmama it was going to be okay. Grandmama said she had faith in the white doctor who was taking care of her. She kept calling him “the white-man doctor,” though he was really a short, light-complexioned black man with a dry, red Afro.

“The white-man doctor got my best interest at heart,” she said. “Grandmama will be fine directly.”

The black doctor with the dry red Afro asked me to leave the room because they had to do a small procedure. He said the infection was deeper than he thought. It started in the middle of her head and went down the back of her neck. “We’re gonna help her with this pain,” he told me. “The infection is seeping into her bloodstream.”

I walked out of the room but he didn’t close the door behind me. “Lord Jesus,” Grandmama kept saying before she screamed. “Please have mercy. Please have mercy.” I knew, but didn’t want to admit, why Grandmama was screaming, why the black doctor with the dry red Afro didn’t give her enough anesthetic, why he thought cutting a full inch and a half deep into the back of her scalp was for her own good.

Folk always assumed black women would recover but never really cared if black women recovered. I knew Grandmama would act like she recovered before thanking Jesus for keeping her alive. She would never publicly reckon with damage done to her insides and outsides at the hands of people who claimed to have her best interest at heart. She would just thank Jesus for getting through the other side of suffering. Thanking Jesus for getting us through situations we should have never been in was one of our family’s superpowers.

I spent the night in the room sitting in a chair next to Grandmama’s bed and holding her hand. Grandmama didn’t say a word. She just looked out the window of the room, with her cheek pressed into the thin mattress until the sun came up.

pp. 169-170

As you can see, Heavy is a difficult read, likely even re-traumatizing for some readers. That’s part of what the title means. My initial difficulty when finishing the book and attempting to review it was that I worried for its author. I had a similar experience reading Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir last year. A few years before that, it was something by Augusten Burroughs (although this makes me more hopeful). In each of these authors’ works, his or her story has many ups and downs, then things close on an up. In each case, I am left wondering whether this was an editor’s suggestion, whether it was for the purposes of narrative, or whether things really are getting better in some more or less permanent way.

Laymon, who shares his life to the bone and writes like a poet, also reminds me of the confessional poets. This article on that movement names some of its most important figures: John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Silvia Plath, Ann Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass. Of those Berryman, Plath, and Sexton all took their own lives. Lowell (my first favorite poet) was hospitalized multiple times for bipolar disorder. Snodgrass, meanwhile, wrote his first collection out of the experience of being separated from his daughter after his first divorce, and then was married three more times before he died of cancer in 2009. All this frightens me for artists who seem to sweat blood on every page.

It took me two or three days to realize the other piece that unsettles me in Heavy. It’s the same reality I opened with: Is Laymon writing about the 1920s and 1930s or the 1970s and 1980s? Does progress ever come for racial and economic justice? Heavy is not at all a hopeless book, but it makes clear–again back to the meaning of the title–that even to feel hope placed on your shoulders is to bear a heavy load, one which you did not choose, and one which Laymon does not feel free to un-choose.

Read this book, and be disquieted.

Bonus: While you are waiting 38 weeks for your local library hold to bring the book to you, check out this interview with Laymon (beginning at 26:19 with a reading from Heavy) from the always excellent NY Times Book Review Podcast.

Not a Psalm of Asaph

Psalm LXXXII
And there was December and there was January,
A new year.

And in this new year, I will
I will, I will, I will, I will, I will
I will–

But what will I be?

I will be more beautiful
Than the angels,
Although with regard to me
The answer is zero
Can dance on the head of a pin.

But what shall I be
And what shall be and
What shall be
And what shall I be?

God has said, “You are gods,”
And God meant it.

Visual Aids Using Canva.com

This Productive Pastor episode 19 pointed me to Michael Lucaszewski, who produced this ebook of his favorite apps, among which was Canva.com.

If you already can handle slick-looking visuals (or are on a staff which can), you don’t need this tool. For the rest of us, it’s pretty cool. Easy, free (with paid options), and you can create useful things or make up truthy quotes from famous authors.

Here are my first attempts. (The background on the final one is a photograph of Merton’s hermitage at Gethsemani.)

Samwise Gamgee--Is everything sad going to come untrue

Daniel Berrigan quote

Merton Hermitage

I Gave Up Manuscript Preaching for Lent

On Monday mornings, I review my sermon video from the day before. (The churches I serve are 40 and 20 in regular weekly attendance, and I use the Zoom Q2HD in the first service, which is at the larger church. This is not some high-budget televised or even live-streamed thing, so don’t use the excuse that your preaching assignment is too small to be worth recording and reviewing. Regarding expense, the Zoom plus memory card was sub-$200, and I use a free video editor, a free audio editor, a free podcasting service which iTunes picks up and lists for free, and then post the audio on a free Facebook page, so even the smallest church can be sold on this investment in good preaching.)

My notes range from: “good emotions in announcements” to “energy ebbs at…” to “the sermon is too long because…” to “shave your face before next week.” For almost the entire time that I have been doing this (July of last year), I have been annoying myself with lack of eye contact, and months ago I realized that using a manuscript was keeping me from actually learning how to preach.

Transitioning off of manuscripts is a cold turkey process. Knowing that, I kept putting it off until some utopian week when I would have extra time to prepare and then make the jump. (N.B.: Those weeks don’t exist, and somewhere in my heart of hearts, I’ve known that the whole time.)

Finally, I picked up Preaching on Your Feet: Connecting God and the Audience in the Preachable Moment by Fred Lybrand because it was really cheap on Kindle one day. It’s not a great book, but it is a great kick in the pants. And so I decided to give up manuscript preaching for Lent.

The thought of this scared me so much that I started a few weeks early, and I did it not just without manuscript but without notes at all. I hated the results the first week, and it was hard to believe it would improve, but I was committed. Consider how in Mario Kart everyone who is good uses the Manual Mode, but if you start out on Automatic, you will experience a dip in your abilities when you make the switch to Manual. I definitely experienced a dip going from manuscript to no notes. But…no one in my churches noticed (or if they did, it wasn’t any worse than any other dips I’ve had for other reasons).

This week, however, I think I may have preached better than I have ever preached in these two churches. Yes, I went long. (Quick! Can I modify Communion without messing up something important? No. Quick! Which verses of the closing hymn should we cut? The middle ones, for no good reason.) I also was so much more present to the congregation, and I can see it on the video. It was so encouraging, even as I already know enough about preaching that it is never going to be just up-and-up-and-up.

It’s Monday again. Better start sermonizing.

Lecturing vs. Preaching

The Lecture on the Mount.

Yesterday, I visited one of my parishioners and her husband at their home. It was my first time having a conversation with her apart from brief Sunday morning pleasantries, and so I had a lot to learn. For my particular context, place matters a lot. If you weren’t born here, but have only lived here for 50-60 years, then you aren’t from here. So there are those facts of place and the facts of family–kids, grandkids, siblings, parents–including how close they are geographically and emotionally. But I noticed I have to push myself to make that more difficult turn, to guide the conversation toward current life experiences, if the visit is to make it to the level of excellence.

Today, I sat down to watch and listen to my sermon from Sunday. In the course of watching several weeks of sermons, I have noticed that an unhelpful direction my sermons can take is toward the lecture. The problem stems from my approach, which has been (1) to present the information of Scripture in an accessible way through storytelling and through elucidating historical, cultural, religious, anthropological, political, psychological, and other details and then (2) to make the application to the lives of my parishioners today. What I’ve come to realize is that most of my congregation isn’t as interested as I am in Part 1 (nor do they tend to find it as helpful), and that the way that I pursue it can easily make someone exhausted before they get to a more nutritive Part 2, so they aren’t able to receive that either.

I noticed this two-part design at about the same time that I simply Googled, “What is the difference between a lecture and a sermon?” One helpful distinction: a lecture is giving information to an audience, while a sermon is focused on transformation. The second distinction builds from there: in a sermon, all the information should be in service of the application, rather than simply tacking application on to the information (my tendency). What I am attempting to do now is to live this out to the extreme: a sermon doesn’t just need an application piece; a sermon is an application.

This approach to preaching requires that any information that isn’t directed to the application is left on the editing room floor. By information, I mean all that stuff that is interesting to me and could be helpful in a different context, but which is neither interesting nor helpful in this particular context. A different context could be an academic course, or a Bible study, a presentation to other pastors, a blog post, or simply the next time I preach on the same text to the same congregation.

This application-centered approach sounds a lot like topical preaching, but (for me right now) it isn’t. The topic is (I pray) whatever Jesus wanted to say or do in the Gospel lesson assigned to the particular Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary (or whatever is going on in whichever other assigned text). So maybe it’s not that it’s not topical preaching at all, but that it’s good topical preaching. Or maybe it’s good exegetical preaching. Or just good preaching. I’d be happy with that.