Writing For The Soul, Hope, and Metaphor (at best)

I write fiction from time to time. I make no comments on the quality of such fiction – usually of the speculative kind – but I found that I am surprisingly nit-picky about the ideas I use. When I’m deep in the flow of it all, or the inspiration, if you prefer, I can be brought up short by running into a gap in my story. I have friends who just keep plowing on, and are able to write the next part of the story. I cannot. Until I have resolved the jump from one idea to the next, I cannot keep writing. This has lead to days where I have been unable to write because I cannot form a specific sentence to accomplish the transition from one plot point to the next. Often, when I’m able to resolve the transition, it is when I’m able to hunker down and provide undivided attention to my story – making the leap from simply getting out the idea, from casually writing, to a feverish intensity where my story gains all my focus.

Writing for academic purposes actually hits me a bit differently. There I have an outline, and that helps me bridge the gap. But I also structure my environment differently. When I’m writing for my own pleasure and (perhaps one day) profit, I just plunk down and write in the midst of my family, not segregating myself from them except perhaps for my level of distractedness. When I am working on a paper for school – I make sure to clear a space in my schedule and in my home to be able to write with fewer interruptions.

But there is an inexactness that I experience when I’m writing about the divine – when writing theology – that I simply do not experience when I am writing fiction or even non-fiction about the real world. Part of this is the simple understanding that I cannot completely encapsulate God in words. If I could, there would be a disheartening finitude to my ultimate concern. All writing about anything truly divine is at least to some degree, done in metaphor. Even Jesus recorded parables instead are full of assertions: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who has lost a coin…” Let’s be honest, if Jesus used metaphor to describe divine things, the best we can hope to do is the same. Sometimes that is frustrating because it feels like what I’m writing is false – and perhaps deliberately so – as I’m only catching one corner of the divine personage, one angle, that I happen to glimpse in the moment.

So I take well the admonition from Stephanie Paulsell in her “Writing as a Spiritual Discipline,” where she says: “We need the audacity to believe that our writing matters, to stick with a difficult task, to live a life that makes room for the discipline of writing. We also need the humility to know that our writing must always be under revision, to do slow, painstaking work with no immediate external rewards, to be writing to seek and receive the critical response of others. Allowing writing to focus our attention, we may have our capacity for attention honed and increased.”

The thing that I have found most helpful with my academic and theological writing is how it has forced me to more clearly articulate my half notions into full notions. To be able to communicate my understanding of the divine, however limited it may be, I have to get my idea sharp enough in focus to lay it out in a way that someone else can follow my logic. The side effect that Paulsell suggests of having my attention increased comes on the reverse side of the writing – it is not an after effect of the writing but an effect generated by the discipline of reading other ideas, growing my vocabulary and focus and creating the associated synthesis of ideas to express my own perspective. My attention grows as a result of exposure, and leaves me just a bit more perpetually aware, a bit more attentive as I challenge myself to find just the right words to express my thoughts.

This discipline is something that I have to forgive myself for failing in, and rededicate myself to often. It is too easy in a busy life to let my attention be split or fully diverted, to shirk the time needed to be set aside for writing and focusing my ideas. It is easy to let the internet, or a show, or my family demand my time – “spending my time” as if I am not instead choosing what I make priority. There is a way to strike a balance – I say this in hope because I have not managed it for longer than a week or so myself – between the discipline of being fully present for my family and being fully present for my writing.


Incarnation, Attention, Reading Theologically

Simone Weil, a French theologian of the last century, posited that all attention given in school was effectively sacred – all focused attention to the smaller truths that one finds in math class, or science class or while studying philosophy or even theology leads to the greater Truth. She suggests quite clearly that: “Twenty minutes of concentrated, untired attention is infinitely better than three hours of the kind of frowning application that leads us to say with a sense of duty done: ‘I have worked well!'” (Simone Weil, Waiting for God, translated by Emma Craufurd, G Putnam & Sons, p 111)

And that may be true, but I have to admit that attention is occasionally in short supply when I get to class time. After being up at 4am to be at work by 6am or before, and working all day to get home in time for a brief meal before hustling to my room to video conference in to class is often exhausting. I am deeply grateful for this ability to video conference in. It allows me to participate in my Constructive Theology class – which I’m enjoying like I’ve enjoyed all my theology classes – a required class for graduation.

At this point, with only about 8 months left to graduation, I’ve got my eye on the prize – aiming for that goal (and the attendant things that will follow it). This makes it more critical than ever that I pay attention to the here and now. If I get too wrapped up in the there and then, I can easily miss important things. Whether that’s a theological opinion that I haven’t heard from one of my fellow class mates, or a reading that I’ve not yet done, or making sure that my wife and kids have my attention when I am present with them.

That’s part of what the incarnation thing is about. Jesus was fully present in this world. Even after the resurrection, Jesus went to lengths to prove that he was physically present. This was critical to his relationship with his disciples, to his calling for the Heavenly Realm in the here and now. The Heavenly Realm is not just an abstract thing meant to be felt spiritually, or debated academically, but a physical reality as well. That Justice would flow down like rivers – not just spiritually freeing, but physically freeing each person to have their space, and their hope, and become the people God created them to be – it must be incarnated – made physical – through the actions of the people of God.

And of course we are incarnated beings. We are subject to the limits of our physical frames, even though we may transcend them in our minds, our souls or our hopes. It means that considered focus must go into paying attention to not just the classes before us, but the truths revealed in the lives around us, in opinions different than our own, in cultures different than our own. It means that I need to make sure to go to bed earlier the night before class so that I’m not completely wiped by the time I get home on Thursday night.

God willing, as I become a bit more the person God has called me to be – as I live up to the incarnation I should be – I’ll find a way to manage not just my time, and not just my energy, but also my attention. Amen.

The Shrewdest Generation

So this is the sermon I came up with when I was considering the story of the dishonest manager, and reading what I read for Constructive Theology. The readings that I tapped (see my last post) and my reflections lead me to this.

Two things you should know. The last sermon I preached I started with a joke and it was bad. Crickets after I finished. In the moment I said I’d never start a sermon with a joke again. Which is why I started this sermon as I did. The second thing is that I did preach this sermon at the First Baptist Church of Berkeley, just this recent Sunday.

The Shrewdest Generation

            I know I said I would never start a sermon with a joke again, but, like falling off a horse, I have to get back on or I’ll lose all nerve. Ready? Here goes.

There was once a pastor who preached amazing sermons. Each week, she waited until the spirit came to her and then her sermon practically just wrote itself. It felt like the spirit was just whispering in her ear, and every Sunday she found herself with another great sermon in the pulpit. One week, as she looked ahead in the lectionary to the following Sunday, she shuddered. She hated the coming passages, but she decided to trust the inspiration of the spirit and prayed for revelation. Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Thursday, came and went without the visit of the spirit, while she was busy with the other things her church required. Then Friday came and went. The bulletin was pushed through with no title for her message. Saturday, she knelt in prayer, begging the spirit to come inspire her. Nothing. After a night where she kept waiting to be awakened by inspiration she found herself very early on Sunday morning, still staring at a blank page, without so much as a sermon title. She prayed one last time for wisdom, and the whisper of the spirit came to her: “Maybe you should have cracked a commentary on Wednesday.”

Ok, to be fair, that’s more of a cautionary tale than a joke, but I’ve heard it used as both. Like that pastor, I struggled with the lectionary readings for this week. At first I thought I might just ditch the readings, and find another passage to preach on. Honestly, I also considered rewriting my first sermon, but I like you all too much to make you suffer through that. Instead remembering that tale I just told, I doubled down, and did not wait for divine inspiration. It just so happens that classes started last week at ABSW, and because God is faithful, our first set of readings for my Constructive Theology class sparked against these passages. I have to tell you, it still took some wrestling to get this sermon I’m preaching, because I have always disliked this parable.

I’ve mentioned before, from this very spot – well, maybe a foot more that way – how the Gospel according to Luke is my favorite. I’m not going to reiterate all the reasons here, but one of the most important is that this gospel, more than any other, focuses on Jesus as teacher. This Bible is the one that FBCB gave me just after the Oakland Hills Fire a month shy of 25 years ago to replace the one that I lost in the conflagration. It has a helpful chart between the Hebrew and Christian Testaments, called a “Synopsis of the Four Gospels.” This parable is in a section helpfully called out as Luke’s Special Section. Parables and teaching moments fill the 9 chapters of Luke’s Gospel which is considered part of this section. The other three gospels don’t really have a section like this. And of all the parables, this is maybe the one I’ve struggled the most with.

The parable of the Dishonest Manager comes right after the tale of the Prodigal and his Brother – one of my favorites. I always felt the messages of these parables were really off kilter from one another. In the tale of the Prodigal, where the father is often interpreted to be God, we are shown redemptive healing love from God. In this parable of the Dishonest Manager, on the surface, God, as the Master, is giving the tacit endorsement to lie and steal. Before now, because that’s what it seemed to be saying, I think I had a tendency to just let that surface level be enough, admit that I didn’t always understand the divine mind and move on. I have learned, that operating like this is the cheap way out. “God is vague and mysterious,” may be a true statement, but it’s rarely a helpful one. So I read, and I re-read, and I read again this parable. I read my class readings, I read this parable. I read a book about Jesus, and I read this parable. I watched a movie about Jesus, the excellent Last Days in the Desert, directed by Rodrigo Garcia, and I read this parable. I wrote a blog post for class, and I read the freaking parable. Sometimes it felt as thin as it always has. Sometimes certain parts seemed to resonate with me. Particularly, the words that Jesus shared at the end: “And his master commended the dishonest manager, for he had acted shrewdly. For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation then are the children of the light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.” It was in these words, despite the seeming tacit approval of lying, that I found my entry into how to dig into this parable in a new way. To me, these words now ring with hope.

I feel lucky to be in seminary, and frankly, graduating from seminary at the time that I am. I see the church as on the cusp of transformation. This transformation is necessary, because church in the traditional model doesn’t seem to be connecting with people in the West like it used to. There are theories out there about how often the church transforms itself in a major way – but the most prevalent I’ve seen is that roughly every 50 years is typical. The Vatican II conclave, which had ramifications in both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, could be called out as a point in church history that precipitated a change – or marked a change already in progress depending on your point of view. I think it’s important to note that conclave closed in 1965.

So here we are – right on schedule (more or less) and again the church in the West is faced with a decision: change or become irrelevant. Perhaps that is a harsh way of stating it. Yet, despite the church is growing by leaps and bounds in the developing world, it is not possible to deny the massive uptick of the SBNRs. That acronym means people who identify as Spiritual But Not Religious – persons who maintain a relationship with God, but want to leave the church out of it. I have to be honest and say that without change in and by the church, I see a whole generation coming up which will fall into that category.

When I look at my peers, and at the young adults in their 20s, and perhaps especially when I look at my children, I see a group that has good reasons to identify as Spiritual But Not Religious. In the West, all three of these groups have been fed line after line by the church as a whole. We’ve been told there is this one way to do church. We’ve been told that there is no incompatibility between the Gospel and the Great Western Religion of Consumerism. We’ve been told that Pastors and Preachers are beyond reproach, more moral than we ever could be. We’ve been told that we will have a planet to inherit, one with endless resources, so don’t worry about how many of them our parents, and grandparents are using.

But then the secular scientists point out that Global Warming is a crisis that will overwhelm the poorest areas of the world and harm millions if not billions of people. And then Pastors and Preachers are caught in hypocrisies and inflicting the worst harms on the very congregants they should be caring for. And then we see how Consumerism has subverted our society so that we ration human life by how much a lawsuit will bring. And then we see that the church is not at all what we were told it was…and we look earlier and see that there are as many ways to do church as there have been iterations of the church.

I don’t say this to indict anyone. I don’t have to because Amos does that just fine for me: “You’ve pushed down the poor, taken over the land, skimmed God on what God is due in the name of pushing for ever greater profits, and cheated your fellows to make a few extra coins. You’ve bought out the future of your own children for the price of your comfort and wealth now. And God won’t forget any of that.” Whew! That’s certainly a heck of a legacy to leave behind.

Maybe that’s why Jesus tells us this parable. Jesus knew he was the primary teacher of a radical, liberating theology which would change the world. Jesus presented a way of relationship with God, meant to reshape the world and bring about the Heavenly Realm into the here and now. This transformed world would bring Justice not just for the rich, not just for the powerful, not just for the well connected, but also and especially for the poor, also and especially for the weak, also and especially for the other. Jesus shared that vision, and it was heard and interpreted by those around him. I think we can look at this parable with Jesus as the Master. And those who heard, and interpreted immediately around him – the women who would bear the Gospel message first and most importantly to his 12 followers, his 72 followers, and then through them on to the world? They are the dishonest manager – just like every generation of preachers, teachers, forgivers and healers since.

Since I’m stuck on acronyms today – let’s move on to WWJD?. “What Would Jesus Do?” is the cry that many raise up. Sadly, this cry is raised before denial of the humanity of people in the Middle East because they have one more prophet than we do. Horrifically, this cry precedes acts of terrible violence inflicted against gays, lesbians and transgendered people. Lamentably, this cry comes before calls to war. Awfully, this cry anticipates new and exciting ways to exclude the alien, orphan, and widow from participating “the American Dream.” Let me say it here, and let me be clear – WWJD? – “What Would Jesus Do?” is bunk. It’s the wrong question. At best it’s an educated guess. At worse it’s speculation to justify our preconceived notions of the world around us. It’s the cry of the church as it has been, not as it could be.

WWJD is a GIGO – that’s “Garbage in, Garbage out,” computation. The question we should be asking should be more concrete, more helpful, and take out the guessing – What DID Jesus Do? I have to tell you that if we were constantly asking not WWJD but WDJD we’d be looking at a radically changed world. Because if we are honest in answering “What Did Jesus Do?” the actions which follow it look very different. That cry precipitates acts of radical love which accept the whole person, not demanding they leave part of themselves at the door of the church. WDJD leads to the feeding of the hungry, the welcoming of the stranger, eating with sinners, making peace with those set on harming us, and calling out the highest levels of power to let justice RING OUT through a land which so desperately needs it. WDJD is the question that leads us to realize that Jesus sent out followers who couldn’t understand his vision perfectly – even as we understand it imperfectly. It was these same women and men who at being sent out by Jesus tried to help people close out their accounts. They reduced or closed out accounts of shame, accounts of self denial, accounts of improper stewardship of resources, and the weak and poor among them, accounts of separation from God’s neverending love. Forgiveness of debts that didn’t belong to them – a shrewd maneuver by a manager who has mismanaged the property and people committed to their care. Because even Peter and John and those who knew Jesus didn’t get it all right. They argued about who was their neighbor, not at all considering that Jesus had already showed them this answer. It was an answer Jesus had learned, according to Luke,  from a Centurion of the force occupying his homeland, and shared in the story of a Samaritan, another enemy of his people, who showed great compassion. But they were the Shrewdest Generation – they were welcomed into the homes of those whose accounts they helped close out.

Eventually Peter, John, Mary, and Paul sent out dishonest managers of their own: Women and men like Phoebe, and Barnabas, and Timothy, and Prisca, and Aquila. They didn’t quite get it right either, I assure you. But they reduced the accounts of the people they encountered. They were the Shrewdest Generation, talking to their peers using ideas that their teachers hadn’t considered, couldn’t have considered. And they sent out dishonest managers, who became a Shrewdest Generation of their own. And they sent…

I’ve neither the need to list Apostolic Succession on down to today, nor the ability. But let me assure you that each of you in this room as been part of the Shrewdest Generation in your time. Each of you has tried your best to do better than the generation which came before you – and to help people and even the church itself close out its accounts of shame, accounts of wrongs inflicted, accounts of continued separation from God’s ceaseless love. You have been part of laying down a foundation, one based on the foundations which came before you, for the generations to come to work with. Like every generation, shrewd though it may be, our generations, which ever one each of us belongs to, has gotten some things wrong. And the Shrewdest Generation to come – they have seen our sins and wrongs – and that’s why they’re asking if Church must be what it has been, and are ready to leave it behind if the answer is yes.

It’s an exciting time to be in seminary, and an exciting time to be graduating from seminary. We are at the brink of transformation of the church yet again. Who can yet say if the communities will be physical, virtual, or some combination of both? I can tell you that the legacy we have laid down – this foundation – will shape that future. And yes, there may be things we’ve gotten wrong – but I tell you that there are things we have gotten so right.

Living out the Good News of God’s love for all people. That is not a casual thing to attempt. It is hard work. And we have stumbled. We will stumble again. But I tell you, First Baptist Church of Berkeley, that we have lived, and are living, the Good News of God’s love for all people. We have welcomed in people who thought a church could never accept them, because of who they loved. We have empowered people who thought God hated them to understand that not only did God love them without reservation, but that they could help other people realize that too. We are not asking the misleading WWJD question, but living out the answer to WDJD. There is a legacy that this church has created – a legacy that will persist whether FBCB is here a hundred years from now or if we faded away tomorrow.

As for the coming Shrewd Generation, one guaranteed to be the Shrewdest Generation we’ve seen so far, they too will stumble, but, despite the cracks in the foundation, the strong supports we’ve built into it will be enough for them for them to lay a foundation of their own.

Ordinary Theology, Hashtags and Why Any Of It Matters

It’s interesting how often what I’m studying in school seems to intersect with the rest of my life. This week as I’m trying to work on my sermon for a particularly difficult (for me) set of lectionary readings, ordinary theology comes to the fore.

The lectionary for this week you can see here. This parable in the Luke reading – the parable of the dishonest manager has always confused me. I love the gospel of Luke – I think I may have mentioned its my favorite – and partly because of the parables. The author of Luke’s gospel loved Jesus the teacher, and so do I. This parable, however, confuses me greatly. Combined with the other readings, it made me almost ditch the lectionary, which is always an option in our free church environment at FBCB. I decided not to run and to instead double down and stick with the Luke reading, the Amos reading, and Psalm 113 – and talk about the shrewd children Jesus mentions.

Constructive Theology opens with readings on Ordinary Theology (the theology of the lay person, as opposed to the formally educated theologian), which is critical for anyone who would pastor a church, or do academic theology that will have meaning for the real world, to understand. It’s also the first theology that any of us do, though five years into seminary it can be easy to forget that. The other readings come through loud and clear that the world we live in has changed – that hashtag theology is not just a passing fad. The tool of Twitter, which has organized movements like the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter, is critically important now. That doesn’t mean that we have to be able to express every theological idea in 140 characters, nor does it mean we have to do all our public theology on Twitter. If we dismiss the power of this platform – and the greater (uncon)structure of the internet behind it – we cut ourselves off from the generations that are coming up now.

The fact is that people born after 1980, in the first world, process screen time differently than people born before 1980. People born before 1995 think about information differently than people born before 1995. And my own kids, born in 2001 and later, live by their phones and tablets, and computers in a way that even I, who love all my screens and video games, and blogs, cannot fathom.

Ordinary Theology has its unintentional heresies – The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus helpfully reminded me this week that the Tatian heresy (integrating the gospels to a single narrative of Jesus’ life and dismissing their distinctiveness) is the most common modern heresy. Just because Ordinary Theology has a tendency to skew off the “orthodox” line, doesn’t mean its dismissible or forgettable. We’ll miss connecting with the next generation of followers of Christ if we don’t remember that our spaces our not just interactive, but virtual. Yes, we can still have church buildings, and physically meet as communities – that shouldn’t change. We can connect with the next generation(s) without abandoning the needs of our own. It’s an exciting time to be part of the church. We must acknowledge that there are new ways to learn, new ways to connect, and new ways to be church. We can embrace these new ways without abandoning the old ones. We can hear Jesus call to acknowledge that the faith leaders who are coming up, and coming after will be different – and that’s ok.

We must continue to share, continue to show how it can be lived out, continue to reach out in these new ways so that those after us learn to share the Word – which they will have to do in ways we have not yet imagined.



Sorry about not finishing my sermon series. I did finish the sermon – but I also moved and have been hard at work in a new state. I’m now originally from Oakland, CA and live in Washington. Settling in has taken a bit. But with school starting up, with some sermons coming up, this blog will see some more action.

I know, I know, I’ve said that before. But this time I have to – its for class. I’ll be doing a weekly Learning Journal for my Constructive Theology course. Additionally, I’ll update as I work on my sermons, and I’ll be doing one this coming Sunday, one in early November and one in early December.

Sermon Building for June 19th, Part 2

You can find Part 1 here!

Over the last two days I’ve been thinking deeply about the readings, and relating it to what I’m finding in the real world. I am struggling with the hateful rhetoric in the aftermath of the homegrown terrorist action in Orlando, a crime targeted towards the Latinx and LGBTQ communities. I am saddened in particular by the ways that other Baptists are reacting. I am ashamed that we share a spiritual heritage.

When I consider the actions of Jesus in the Lukan story that is our periscope (text) to preach from, (found here – Luke 8:26-39) I find them to be the opposite of this divisive and hateful preaching that is coming from Baptist pulpits. At the core of this story, I find a Jesus who, having proved his mastery over the forces of nature, takes a moment to prove that he has mastery over not just the supernatural world, but is still deeply part of the world of humanity.

Jesus and his disciples disembark from the boat, having left behind the suddenly stilled seas, and walk up the shore. Pushed off course, perhaps, they find themselves in the land of the dead – tombs all around them. This is not an encouraging place to be. Indeed, knowing the rest of the story as we do, it is easy to see the foreshadowing that the author of Luke/Acts (the same author wrote both books, and I contend that it is meant to be a single gospel – but that’s another post for another time) is accomplishing in the aftermath of the quiet of the once violent storm. This liminal place between this world and the next has a unique occupant – one who greets them in a singular manner.

Naked, for his mind is beset by demons, living far outside society because they refuse to let him near, a man comes out from among the tombs and addresses Jesus – instantly recognizing him as “Son of the Most High God.” I think at this point it is important to note that the ONLY people in Luke’s Gospel who have called Jesus “Son of God,” or “Son of the Most High,” have been angels or demons. No human has called him such, nor has Jesus called himself such. Even the term “Son of Man” has not been used. Instead Jesus has been called a prophet by the crowds and his disciples. In many ways, I don’t think even Jesus has agreed yet that this is who he is.

You can read the story yourself, see how Jesus treats this person – troubled and lost in a wilderness of the mind – who has been cast out of normal society. Jesus does not condemn him. Nor does Jesus rebuke him. Jesus asks his name. Jesus talks to him calmly, rationally, treating him like a fellow human being, not a demon. When the demon answers with the name Legion (might this have been a very self aware schizophrenic), Jesus doesn’t immediately banish him. Nor does Jesus act in anger or harm the man. Instead, he honors the request of the “Legion.” Even these demons Jesus treats with respect.

What Jesus does is transformative. When the swineherds, who fled in fear to get a mob from the town (a different legion, no?), return with a crowd, they find the whole situation changed. Here is Jesus, talking with the formerly possessed man, very much in his right mind. He is now clothed, and they are talking as teacher and student might. And when it comes down to it, the people of the countryside do not know what to do in response to Jesus transformative healing.

Like people have since time out of mind, they react in fear to something different. This man – whose place in society, or rather outside of it – had been set is now restored to them. They just don’t understand. They cannot accept that such transformation is possible – it means they may have been completely wrong about rejecting this man in the first place. So they tell Jesus to leave. And acting in love in the face of their fear (and remember – Yoda taught us fear leads to hate), Jesus abides by their request. He gets right back in his boat and leaves.

When the man begs to follow Jesus, Jesus turns him back to his community, telling him that he now has a message of the Good News of God’s Love for his community. He who was rejected by the community now has a truly prophetic voice – for he has been alive, and he has occupied a space between, and he has been restored to community. Sometimes it takes living in the in-between to truly understand where one has come from.

I see three amazing things in this story. 1) Jesus loves everyone involved, even the demonic powers, even the hateful people. 2) It was an act of hospitality (asking the man’s name, talking to him as a human and not fearing him) which helped restore the man from a space in between to a space of community. 3) Jesus empowers the man to speak love, even knowing that the fear of the community is strong.

Let me be clear – while some view this as a parable of dealing with mental illness (and indeed, there are lessons to be gleaned from this viewpoint), I am not seeing the story in this light, at this time. Instead the supernatural forces, and the very natural (but not acceptable) fears of the community of the Gerasenes, which are the heart of this story leap out at me. Particularly this week, the fearful, hateful reaction of the crowd seems so normal – and tells me that we have not grown much as a species in the last two thousand years.

It doesn’t help that I am reading Frank Herbert’s Dune right now. I read it every year, at some point. It is a seminal text. It is foundational (no – not Foundation – that’s Asimov) for me. Between Dune and the hateful Baptists, two things come to mind.

The first is that I have this phrase I use – often – when I am talking about my faith and my faith tradition: “I’m Christian, but not that kind of Christian.” Almost always followed by, “And Baptist, but not that kind of Baptist.” Far too many of my friends have been scarred by their faith traditions – particularly those of a Christian bent. I say those phrases because it’s true – I am a Christian, and a Baptist – but I am not the kind of Christian or Baptist that most people think of. Sadly, in our culture today – and among my friends who were hurt by people of faith – Baptist tends to bring at best the image of a bible thumping, hellfire and brimstone, exclusionary preacher. At worst, it invokes Fred Phelps and his kin at Westboro. I am not ashamed to be Baptist, but I am ashamed that Phelps and his kind share a spiritual heritage with me.

That brings us to now – where though Westboro is mercifully quiet, other Baptist pastors are spewing their hate in the name of the gospel. It would be one thing if this were happening somewhere one might uncritically think to expect that (say the Midwest or the backwoods of Minnesota), but the preachers I have heard this from are from as close as Sacramento, as Arizona. These spiritual kin to Fred Phelps have lamented not the 50 people killed in this horrible attack, but rather that more people did not die. I want to speculate on their true thoughts but I will limit myself. I am not in fact a mind reader. I can only judge what they say. But what they are saying is in no way what I would understand Jesus to say. I cannot believe that Jesus would be disappointed that more people did not die.

The second thought I had is one that I have often when I read Dune. I read it for the first time when I was in Second Grade. I got two ideas out of it. The first is that water is precious, and the second is that you can make religion say anything that you want it to. Linked to my first idea – that is exactly what these hate preaching pastors are doing. They are using religion – specifically Christianity, and the Baptist name – to hold up their message of exclusion, violence and loathing. I wish I could say that this was particularly un-Christian, but there is a fairly significant history of this kind of rhetoric in Christian thought in the last two hundred years. I wish I could say this was not Baptist, but the Baptist name is thoroughly wrapped up in hate speech like this.

All I can do is make sure I speak out as a Christian and a Baptist. I must claim these mantles as my own – and I must speak loudly. I can grieve the loss of life – and specifically the targeted attack on LGBTQ persons. I can denounce the hate and I can speak out – preach – my understanding that Jesus would NOT agree with these hate filled ideas coming from these independent Baptist pulpits. I can stand for Baptist principles – Soul Liberty, Priesthood of all Believers, Church Liberty and Religious Liberty. I can speak against what these antagonistic Baptist preachers are saying without denying them a right to say it.

So I think there is my sermon title – “Baptist? Why, Yes I Am!”

And now I need to get some more rest…

Sermon Building for June 19th, Part 1

So if you’re interested, I’m going to share my process for building my sermon for this Sunday. I’ll post my thoughts and process on here. I’m hardly the most skilled person I know at this process of exegeting and then writing a sermon. I do however, have the advantage of still being a student. You won’t get the impressive but difficult to follow short cuts. I will share links (where available) to my resources, they will be in bold italics. I will also try to lay out how the various moving parts of this come together. This will be, to the best I can manage, the wholes process.

I’ve known I was preaching on June 19th for over a month now. However, with the end of a semester at the American Baptist Seminary of the West, and some extensive travel for work, I’m only just now really getting started. So let’s start with pericope (text) options. I’ve only briefly read these before now.

First Baptist Church of Berkeley generally follows the lectionary. The lectionary is a three year cycle of readings, which every Sunday yields several options of texts. So what does the lectionary offer for this Sunday? Follow this link to Vanderbilt’s Lectionary site: June 19th, Lectionary Texts

**May the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O God, my rock and my true hope.**

Before I even consider the texts, just like in true meditation, I try to bring forward all the thoughts that I’m having – many about what is going on in my life and in the world. If I don’t acknowledge them, they may seriously skew what I’m reading in the texts, and not to the good. They may also guide my readings, if I bring them to conscious thought. Besides – supposedly Karl Barth said that one should preach “with the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other.”

The massacre at the Pulse nightclub weighs heavy on my soul. The rhetoric of the Presidential election, and the people subscribing to one candidate or another, I cannot keep out of my thoughts. The fact that this is my last Sunday as Seminarian-in-Residence at First Baptist Berkeley, I am keenly aware of. My upcoming move to Washington is very much in my mind. There are places of the world still locked in violent conflict – Syria, and other parts of the Middle East (middle compared to what?), the struggle between the cartels and the government in Mexico, the all but forgotten annexation of parts of Ukraine. Breathe in – breathe out.

I also need to take into account who I am. I am middle class, aged 18-35, white, male, straight, cis-gendered Christian. I have the privilege to ignore almost all of the things above. I need to remember that I read from this place of privilege. If I begin to think this is the only way I can read this, I can easily marginalize the people who don’t look, sound, or think like me. I’ll never totally negate the bias I have, but by being aware of it, I can reduce the effect of my bias.

I’m not going to preach on all the texts. It is important that my sermon be more focused than that. I should think carefully about what the texts are, which ones I want to touch on, which should be in the service. At first, the Elijah story drew my attention (1 Kings 9:1-15a). There is something of the lament, of asking God why and of suffering in it. As I look at the other readings, I see the Gospel reading (Luke 8:26-39). You should know, I’m a sucker for the Gospel of Luke. The Jesus in this Gospel is one who speaks to me – a teacher, a healer, a compassionate and passionate and very human person. Here is a text that speaks about an outsider, someone pushed to the fringe of his culture, rejected for being who he is. And Jesus response is amazing – not banishment, but hospitality, not fear, but empathy, not control, but freedom. And the response of the people to the miracle of a man who had lost himself restored to them – fear. The newspaper is screaming at me – I think I found my pericope (text to preach from).

Someday I’ll preach from a Hebrew Scripture, but this Sunday, it will be the Gospel.

Looking at the Epistle (letter) reading (Galatians 3:23-29), I see that it too speaks to hospitality and inclusion. Looking at the Psalm options in the Lectionary for the week, Psalm 42 and 43 speaks to my own heaviness of heart, but also my hope in God’s healing and love. So I will use these readings.

My next step is to read these texts again, and again, and again. Especially the Gospel, as that will form the core of my sermon. The first reading is just to read them. I use the New Revised Standard Version for this. I will read them a second time, looking at alternate readings. A site like Bible Gateway lets me look at one version (NRSV Luke 8:26-39) or even compare them Side By Side. I choose the NRSV because I like it. I choose the New King James Version for the poetry of it all. I choose the Message Bible because of the more colloquial slant of the language. The third time I read it, I’ll take into account the stories which come before this one (Jesus True Family, Jesus Calms a Storm), and also what comes next (Jesus raises Jairus’ Daughter and Heals the Woman with the Hemmorhage, Jesus sends out the 12, Feeding the Five Thousand). In this context – I’m now seeing this as part of Jesus defining the Heavenly Realm, its new order, and how we are freed to do our part in it.

Need to get some rest, but I will continue this tomorrow…