Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Contemplative Preacher: Tending a Sermon Garden

I want to share with you the way I've approached the weekly task of creating sermons, because I think for anyone in any sort of teaching/planning/presenting role, there are some things here that might be helpful.
To begin with, if you're going to be teaching with any regularity, you are always better off to have a plan. I have my sermon texts, titles, and general directions selected as far in advance as I can manage. I try to lay out entire series plans long before I'm in them. Right now I've been preaching through James. Here is a link to download the plan I worked out, then sent to my song leaders and secretaries:

I committed that I wanted sermon preparation to be enjoyable, and not a frantic task at the end of every week. Whether you're preaching or teaching, I recommend that you try starting a garden for your lessons. Here's how this works for me:

In my desk, I have four folders. They are labeled:
- This Week
- Next Week
- In Two Weeks
- In Three Weeks

In each folder, I have one large notepad that I have titled at the top for the lesson plans it will contain, and the date which I will present the particular lesson.

I have carved out a regular time that is only for sermon preparations. For me, it has worked well for that time to be Monday morning. The secretaries know that for me it is study time. I generally go in before anyone else arrives, and I forbid myself from checking e-mail, turning on the computer, or even looking at my phone.

For the next hour or two--however long you are able to set aside for serious study--I use a kitchen timer to set my parameters, and begin working on my next four lessons, one at a time. Functionally, what this does is ensure that on the week I preach a given lesson, I will have already been thinking about the passage for a month, with three weeks worth of ideas. Each week I am encountering four different texts at various stages of their sermon development.

It breaks down to something like this for each individual passage:

Week 1 - 20 minutes. Taking a clean notepad, I label the top for the date, text, and title I've selected for the lesson that is three weeks away. I then shift all the notepads up one folder. So the one that was for "Next Week" is now placed in the "This Week" folder. As I am beginning a new text, this one will end up in the "In Three Weeks" folder. I always begin with preparation for the lesson that is furthest away, moving up folder by folder until I get to this week's lesson prep.

I spend a few minutes in prayer, then read the passage several times in the Biblical text and jot down all my first impressions on the first page of the notepad. What questions do I have about the text? What ideas does it bring to my head? If I have time, I will branch into a popular level commentary to get a few direction ideas.

Week 2 - 15 minutes. I read the passage in the Biblical text. I do not look at any of my notes from the first week, and I brainstorm again for whatever pops into my head as I've done the reading. I write these down on pages behind the ones I had written last week, never comparing the two. I will spend the majority of my time studying some textual aids and commentaries to begin fleshing out some other people's ideas about the passage.

Week 3 - 15 minutes. I read the passage in the Biblical text. I will spend time with a more scholarly commentary/textual notes and flesh out more scholarly research on the passage, adding their insights to my notes. As I read, if ideas hit me about ways to preach the material, I'll jot those down. I am now in more of a research phase than a brainstorming phase.

Week 4 - 30 minutes. I read the passage, paying more attention than usual to its larger context. I then read back over all of my notes from the previous three weeks. Most of the time, at this point, it is time to try and select which bits are most useful in flowing together as a sermon. I mark all of these in my notes, then make a page behind the others where I briefly write all of the major chunks of thought that I believe can connect well in a sermon form. Over the rest of the week, I finish out any study I need to do, the sermon outline and slides, and begin practicing.

Each of these times is governed by a small egg timer, so that I don't get too caught up in one passage and neglect to get work done on other upcoming lessons. When the timer goes off, I stop, file the notepad, and move on to the next one.

The real strengths of this sort of method are:
- You shield yourself against the dangers of abnormally busy weeks with unexpected stressors. You aren't bound by a need to get all your study done this very week.
- You have allowed yourself time both with and away from the passage in between brainstorming. This gives you a wide variety of ideas to pull from.
- You have a better sense of where you are going in future weeks, and can make plans for any special ideas you have or visuals you want, related to lessons you want to give.
- You spend more time in reflection on Scripture every week. Because I do this first thing on Monday mornings, it has really helped me to set a tone for each week, and to make opportunities to pray before I get into the grind of e-mails, visits, and everything else.

I like to think of this method as tending a sermon garden. In four weeks' time, I always have many more ideas than it is possible to use for a single lesson. I am therefore able to selectively grab the best of what's there. When I preach this material, I have already been living with it for a month. I believe it goes a long way in helping to make my sermons smoother and better formed. Also, this method works just as well if you aren't speaking every week. Even if this is a monthly rotation for you, if you go ahead and always work on the next four lessons at a time, you'll be ahead of the game. When you tend a garden regularly, it really does yield better fruit.

For now, this has been working well for me. When you prepare lessons for teaching or preaching, what has worked well for you? How do you plan and prepare well?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Contemplative Preacher: Ears to Hear

The way you hear Scripture underlies most anything else you would do for the sake of your faith. I've been grateful for the ways I grew up learning to hear Scripture, as well as for some new ways I've been tuning my ears to listen.

The ears I grew up learning to use were rational ones. There are things that this kind of hearing does well:
- You pay close attention to information, hanging onto names, places, times, facts, and details.
- You place a heavy importance on discerning a singular "meaning" of the text you're reading, showing great respect for the author's intended meaning in the author's historical context.
- You keep your brain engaged, ensuring that the elements of faith to which you cling are likely to have an intellectually honest basis in your life.

Growing up in churches of Christ, we have adopted this way of reading Scripture almost exclusively. Since our central goal for reading Scripture was to discern what the early church taught and practiced, we developed a tool for applying Scripture--our hermeneutic--that is precisely aligned for this goal. I think more than any religious group, we have thought deeply about providing a simple platform for church worship and structure that anyone can agree is well within the realm of what the early church would seem comfortable practicing. I like the idea that if Paul showed up at my church this Sunday, it would mostly feel like church to him. (I grant there are several elements that probably wouldn't fit within that mold, but a lot would.)

As a minister, I went through a really dry spell with Scripture. Scripture contains some rules and directives, but not all of Scripture is intended to be a set of rules, a blueprint, or a map. Once I had all the "facts" down of what was said, and all the specific rules figured out, there wasn't much else to do with Scripture. As I've grown in a more contemplative direction, I've come to love some aspects of Scripture that do not fit well within the rational mold of hearing the text. Specifically, Scripture does some wonderful things with mystery, joy, and imagination.

Here are some passages to consider:
- Ephesians 3. Paul is noticeably infatuated with the "unsearchable riches" of Christ. He can't get over his excitement of this "mystery" of who Jesus turned out to be. This has been shared with us, though generations of holy people were never privileged to see God the way we've seen God through Jesus. Later in this passage, Paul prays that the Ephesians can gain in knowledge of a certain type. Not just that they would memorize lists of kings and judges, but that they could know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Think about that...to know what goes beyond knowing. Scripture invites us to understandings of God that go deeper than the purely rational. This also leads us to wonder what God might be up to in our congregation, and in our time so that we, too, can experience knowledge of God that cannot be transmitted purely as a set of instructions.
- Jude 24-25. This passage is a doxology; an expression of praise. Sometimes God's overwhelming goodness moves us to praise him. (And if we didn't, the hills and rocks might anyway.) Joy doesn't need to instruct; only to proclaim heartfelt truth.
- Revelation 12. This is the story of the Gospel told in the literary form of myth. Talk of women with crowns of stars running from dragons just doesn't fit well into a rational reading; specifically one that is preoccupied with what rules are being given in any text. It is possible to analyze this text to death, but I think Revelation 12 is meant to be read much the way we would enjoy C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. You see the story of Aslan being put to death on the stone table, and it has the power to move you to tears. It isn't a historical story, but it's an absolutely true story, understood through the eyes of faith. Some things are so true and so powerful that they are best expressed with stories and metaphors, rather than explanations. This must be part of why Jesus preferred to teach in parables.

I could add things to the list like the Psalms and much of the prophetic poetry. Scripture engages our minds, but it also invites our emotions and imaginations to the table, because God is bigger than any of them can contain.

Here are some ways I've been trying to approach Scripture with ears tuned a little differently.
- In addition to reading for instruction, I read for formation. 
I used to be rigorous about daily Bible reading plans that were very goal oriented. My goal was to complete reading tasks, which for me took on its own form of mild idolatry: achievement. I often forgot what I read, but at least I checked it off the list.

I now tend to select smaller portions of Scripture, and read them repeatedly. Sometimes I spread this over multiple days. Think about the description of Jacob wrestling with God when Jacob said, "I won't let you go until you bless me." I continue to hang on to the passage, trusting that God's spirit-inspired Word is a well that won't run dry, no matter how many times I return to the same text. Amazingly, that's been true.

To start hearing Scripture differently, don't allow yourself to keep moving too quickly. Be willing to dwell with a smaller passage for more time. Read and re-read. Listen for a word or phrase that seems intended just for you, and be open to how God might be working on you through it. Sometimes it helps me to print off a Scripture on a single page so I can't give into the temptation to keep moving past it.

A great question to ask is, "If this is what God wants the world to be like, what will I have to do differently?" or "What is God calling me to through this text?"

I now don't begin textual or historical-critical research on any passage until I have first experienced it contemplatively. Listen to the text first as if it's God talking to you, then after that, enhance your understanding through good techniques of study and application.

I have started trying to experience Scripture communally, rather than privately.
Most Scripture started off as documents intended for a faithful community to hear together. I have been working the last couple of years at inviting other Christians to join me in contemplative listening. Rather than starting off with dates and historical backgrounds, we spend a minute or two praying silently. It's helpful to make space in your heart for God before you listen to God's word. I will have a couple of readings out loud of the same text while everyone listens. After we've heard the text, we will ask some questions like, "As you have been listening, what spoke to you from this passage?" "What is God helping us to imagine our world could be like?" Before we listen for instruction, we listen for what resonates with our hearts and our present places in life.

I've been doing this with my elders as we start our meetings, and it has been helpful to create a more spiritual approach to the things we talk about. When you let your imagination get caught up in God's imagination before you move on to the nuts and bolts of congregational life, you tend to see things with a better perspective.

We spent the last two months in the elder meetings, beginning each meeting with a reflection on the very same few verses from John 10:1-9. Amazingly, every single time our observations went in different directions, and fresh insights continued to surface from the same passage over multiple exposures. It's a passage about Jesus as a shepherd, and might be the most helpful study on shepherding I've ever done. There were no external sources brought in to the conversation; just committed Christians, listening intently to the word, and sharing together what we're hearing. The more we get in the habit of seeking God together, listening together, the more we become a true community of believers, and not just a set of private thinkers.

Scripture isn't just mine or yours; it's ours.

In a future post I'll share some ways that I'm dwelling with texts more contemplatively in preparation to preach and teach. Are there any ways you've refined how you listen to Scripture?

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Contemplative Preacher: Resisting the Culture of Busyness

I'm now a couple of months into a new ministry setting. I have spent a lot of time in the last few years studying contemplative spirituality, and trying to implement spiritual disciplines with regularity into my life. The Doctor of Ministry program at Lipscomb has been especially effective in helping me to connect spiritual disciplines with ministry practices.  

Having spent a few years thinking about what a preacher's life ought to look like, this new opportunity in Texas has been a fresh chance to try to put my convictions into practice. One of the greatest challenges I've encountered so far has been the stark contrast of a contemplative way of life in the middle of an overcommitted culture whose effects are deeply rooted in congregational life. People are drowning in responsibilities, demanding bosses, overcommitted children, and everything else under the sun.  

We had an excellent class in our Faithbuilders group last week about the perils of busyness. One of the passages we discussed I have been trying to adopt as a model for spiritually-centered ministry.
Mark 1:35-38:35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37 and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” 38 And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.”

It is really counter-cultural for us to choose time alone with God while "Everyone is looking for you." Even as Jesus had many opportunities to perform more miracles in the towns where crowds were already gathering, he opted to move on and keep preaching in new places. I believe he must have done this in part because he was experiencing a clarification of mission and purpose during his time alone with God, and therefore deciding how he would use his time. Jesus lived by acting instead of by reacting. 

A couple of weeks ago, the elders honored a request I had made as I began this new ministry. I asked that every year in the fall I be granted one week without any teaching responsibilities. The purpose of this week would be for me to pray, to read, and then to plan some for what I should preach in the following year. If God is to speak through my lips to his people, I must listen much before I dare to speak. I invited the congregation to pray for me and the elders as we would dedicate time the following week to seek God's path for our congregation. 

During my week, I had a harder time than I expected finding solitude. But as a result of my searching, I was blessed with a couple of new locations that have already provided great options for these purposes whenever I need them.  

After my week of prayer and planning, I resumed preaching. I was really humbled by how many people let me know that they had sincerely been praying for me during my time of preparation, and even long before then. But I also had a telling moment when a couple of gentlemen joked with me about my previous week. "It must have been nice getting paid without having to do anything." The people who said it are friends, only humor was intended, and no offense was taken. I was grateful for the reminder of the culture I'm preaching to. They provided me with clarity about the value that people generally place on prayer and contemplation. Specifically, very little.

People will tend to think:

  • If "keeping busy" is a sign of personal virtue, then the preacher--if the preacher is virtuous--must be the busiest of all. 
  • If hard work is what determines one's worth, then the preacher must be the biggest workaholic in the room; obsessed with getting things done. 
  • If prayer is nothing more than a benevolent yet ineffective thought, we should quit praying so much and tend to all these people who are looking for us. Praying's nice, but do something instead! If everything depends on you, you can't miss an opportunity.

And so respectfully, and gently, I am trying to be a leader who embodies the values that I think our culture is missing, even as people may resist or be puzzled a bit along the way. 

  • I am committed that praying might be the most important work that a minister ever does--if the minister is a righteous person!--and I will give time to prayer before I try to rely on my own ability to solve problems. Like the apostles, people may occasionally interpret prayerfulness as laziness, but I hope to be the kind of person that only a prayerful life can produce.
  • I am committed to being a spiritually-centered person, who can thoughtfully choose the God-directed path like Jesus, rather than constantly chasing the multitude of expectations that never cease. 
  • I am committed to being present, so that wherever I am, I am in the moment, valuing the people God has placed in my path, and being mindful of the significance that every moment contains when it is used for the purposes of God. No conversations need be insignificant. Coupled with this, I accept that I will not manage to be everywhere at all times with all people, and will sometimes fail to do everything that people will wish I would do. 
I can post just as much about my failures to achieve these things as I can about my good intentions. Even so, I'm going to make a few more posts about some of the nuts and bolts of what I've been doing here in Texas, hoping that some of them might provide you with some fresh ideas, or at least some encouragement to remember what you already know is important. I hope you'll respond; I'm a better person through your willingness to share.