Vocation and Family
2007-10-09 by Tom Steagald

I am struck in the Jeremiah text for Proper 23 that the "practices" Jeremiah announces as God's word for the reframing of the Exile experience are what might be considered traditional (in the sense of historic) family values: building houses, planting gardens, wedding spouses, having children, celebrating the generations, praying for the city in which one resides. The depression and anger attending deportation might cause the exiles to react differently--might prompt the atomizing of life and culture. But if the bad news is that Exile has separated the remaining Jerusalemites from their foundations, it has not cut them off from their essential roots of being a holy people, multiplying and fruitful, recipients of blessing in the hope of once again being the channels of blessing.

This word is vital to me right now in my place of service. Many of our new believers (though some of them are "believers again") are struggling with the energy church requires, the (oft-times self-imposed) challenges of small group meetings, work areas, services, etc. They want to be a part of it all, but it is dividing husbands and wives, parents and children, if only in terms of time and place (though the stress seems to go deeper among some). This text reminds me that "family" can be an essentially spiritual reality, the locus of spiritual development and transformation. As Luther said, famously, the family is but the smallest of congregations.

Many preachers, while eager to preach on the corporate nature and communal dimensions of the gospel, can for various reasons overlook the family as one aspect of those realities. Perhaps Jesus' own ambivalence toward his mother and siblings is the theological excuse for our inattention. Or perhaps the recent political manipulations of "traditional family values" has been (rightly) pegged as a form of judgemental nostalgia and summarily dismissed as another apt candidate of the gospel's formational and political ambitions.

But Jeremiah seems to say that the family is a place where God will work to maintain the identity and survival of the elect in the midst of a pagan culture. Indeed, this is where God has put them--another reframing of the Exile, not as godforsakenness but, emergently, as the place where God and God's people may enjoy new intimacy and the reforming of covenant.

And so the historic tasks of families become themselves spiritual practices; this word of the Lord becomes a summons, answering in obedience a spiritual vocation as sacred as any other.

Highlights from This Week's Articles in "Lectionary Homiletics"
2007-10-09 by David von Schlichten

There is much here at the website to help us endure and receive healing as preachers. See the samples section for an exegetical article on Luke 17:11-19 by Holly Hearon.

Second, be sure to scroll down to read Nora Gallagher's two poedifying blog entries, and check back for more later this week. Her first one reflects on healing, and her more recent one reflects on how our clinging to cliches, including religious ones, belies our experiences of reality. 

Finally, “Share It!” has been expanded to include recipes, a reading group that you can participate in, and many other exciting new ventures to nourish us preachers.

Here are my highlights of this week's articles from Lectionary Homiletics:


Susan Eastman points out the parallelism in verses 11 through 13, drawing attention to the parallelism's if . . . then “punchline” of Christ remaining faithful even if we are faithless toward him. Christ remains faithful to us even when we are unfaithful to Christ.

Susan's thoughts get me imagining a sermon that echoes this parallelism. Would it be effective to imitate somehow the if . . . then structure of these verses in a sermon? I'll have to think and pray about that idea more. I wouldn't want such an imitation to come across as gimmicky, corny or parodic.

Pastoral Implications”

Mary Clark Moschella writes with grace and economy about a salient theme of the text, endurance. The passage, she says, encourages endurance. She writes about endurance being an under-rated virtue. The Christian life, both for lay people and pastors, requires persevering for the long term.

Addressing preachers, Mary observes semi-facetiously that when we preach a poor sermon, we may be providing an opportunity for our hearers to develop endurance. She says that pastors generally get more praise and more blame than they deserve. We are not to take either too seriously and worry about being popular. Instead, we are to be faithful, plugging along, continuing to do the often mundane work of the Church. More important than being perfect is being there, doing what we can.

Lesson and the Arts”

Richard Stern offers a fascinating essay on bluegrass gospel songs and John McClure's categories of theological worldviews from Sermon Sequencing and the Four Codes of Preaching: tensive (just try to endure the hardships of life), oppositional (oppose evil and hope for something better in this life), equilibrational (good and evil are in balance, but good will eventually win), and permutational (the new life has already begun). There are bluegrass songs for each worldview, but many tend to be of the tensive nature. Indeed, Stern adds, such a view may seem grim for those of us who have lived the good life of middle class America, but for people who live in constant hardship or who are near death, the tensive worldview may be the most compatible.

Stern adds that while our reading from 2 Timothy has a tensive color to it, ultimately it may be closer to the oppositional worldview. We trust in God. There is hope. As Stern writes, “Trust in God makes the difference between longing and hope” (p.15).

A Sermon: 'The Easter Faith for Autumn Days'”

This poedifying sermon by Mark E. Yurs points out that, according to 4:21, winter is approaching, so it is reasonable to think that Paul (or whoever) wrote this letter in autumn. In any case, regardless of the season, Paul is in autumnal circumstances, and so is Timothy. Persecution rusts the trees. Death howls like the wind. It would be easy to give in to the temptation to give up. Yurs writes, “People like Paul had every reason to forget about the Easter faith and give up on it as some kind of fairy tale for bright spring days. But they did not. They remembered it in their autumn days [ . . . ] They kept it because they knew it was true” (p.18). Paul, in autumn, advises Timothy, also in autumn, to endure, because Christ lives.

Endurance may be a form of healing. In this way we can connect these two themes, the theme of endurance from 2 Timothy and the theme of healing from the Gospel, which Nora Gallagher has lifted before us.

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, poedifier

Some words about writing and faith
2007-10-09 by Nora Gallagher

I am now in the second day of writing this sermon, and I am reminded of words I have used when teaching writing. I am trying to find the language from my own life that speaks to this gospel, or vice versa. How this gospel speaks to my own life. To give you some background:

 When I set out to write my first memoir, Things Seen and Unseen, I did not actually set out to write a book. I had been keeping a journal over several years at the request of my spiritual director. At the same time, as a journalist, I had been trying to sell a book proposal about families in Eastern Europe. I think nearly every publisher in New York turned it down.  Then my agent at the time fired me.

When I came to my director with this sad story, she suggested I take a look at my “spiritual” journal to see what was there.  We are talking scraps of paper, different journals (I have a penchant for collecting nice looking journals and then abandoning them halfway through the year), even scribbles on napkins. But I was surprised to see that in this collection of stuff there was raw material that might be worth developing.  There were some interesting stories, some half-baked ideas, a few insights that might be enlarged. I sat down and started to grapple. What I found was that I began to understand what had happened to me, that is, I began to understand what faith was for me in the act of trying to write about it. 

But I was often waylaid by trying to fit my words into “religious” writing. I found myself wavering between writing down what felt like the honest truth and writing that was too earnest, virtuous, or idealistic. If I did not know exactly how I felt about an experience I’d had in the soup kitchen where I worked or at the altar where I received, I veered towards resolving my confusion too early by settling for a hackneyed religious term: I experienced “grace” in the kitchen; I was “blessed” at the table. 

When I tried to describe what it was like for me to hear God speaking, for example, I, at first, afraid to fully investigate what this meant for me, used words that had been used by others: God’s voice was “soft,” “a whisper.” But that wasn’t right; neither word conveyed my experience.

Then I was reminded of a few hours I had spent in a Jewish museum in Prague. In this museum were children’s drawings from Terezin, the village on the northern Czech border that the Nazis turned into a transport camp for Jews. Some of the drawings were of children threatened by thunderbolts or dark monsters, but many of them were the kinds of things–butterflies, a tree with grass–that contemporary parents might attach to a refrigerator with a magnet for a few weeks or toss in a drawer, ephemeral, not particularly valued because there would be more of them. But these drawings were encased in glass and kept safe because there would be no more, the children were dead.

As I walked among them, I noticed that the other visitors in the museum with me were silent, but alert, as if they were listening.  We were listening because it was as if the children were speaking. I knew they were speaking and it seemed to me that the others around me knew, too, and if we all listened hard enough we could make out the words.

That was how it was for me when I heard God speaking, that level of intense listening, in a company of people, with that level of tenderness and dread, grief and compassion, and that level of knowing that the voice that was speaking knew something invaluable. I wrote out that story, and concluded,, “Sometimes I think faith is only about increasing peripheral vision, peripheral hearing.”

Each step of the way in writing that memoir, I had to fight off the tendency to use generic words and, instead, find my own. I had to avoid the cheery optimism that creeps into so much religious writing– in self-improving tracts, daily meditations, and sermons. An optimism that is rarely earned. (Nor is it related to the message of the gospels, which are the opposite of optimistic.) I began to wonder if cheery optimism is actually the enemy of faith; it is certainly the enemy of faith writing. The same was true of hope. Too much church writing ends on a hopeful note, I realized. Hope, if it does arise, must come up out of the situation; it cannot be tacked onto the story.

No, none of this would work if I were to write a book that felt real to me and actually conveyed my experience. I had to find the metaphor, the turn of phrase, the description that was mine.  And (we know this from every kind of writing) once I found that unique way of describing my experience, it had a chance of connecting to the reader. 

  The great “faith” memoirs, like Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, or Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness, are not successful because they set out  to persuade the reader to become a Christian, but because the words are alive on the page and the writer is on a voyage of discovery. 

But they also signify more than that: One of the talismanic pieces of writing I kept near me as I wrote was an essay  about van Gogh by John Berger. In this essay, “The Production of the World,” Berger describes going to a gathering of socialists in Amsterdam, an annual meeting he had attended for many years. But something was wrong. He felt separated from himself, depressed. “The connection between words and what they signified had been broken. It seemed to me that I was lost; the first human power–the power to name–was failing.” Nothing seemed to work: joking, lying down, drinking coffee, not drinking coffee. Finally he decided to go the van Gogh museum to see a friend who worked there, not to see the paintings. He needed van Gogh, he writes, “like a hole in the head.” But as he walked past “The Potato Eaters” and then “The Cornfield with a Lark”, he could not help but glance at them.  Then he stopped and looked. Within two minutes, he was reassured, calmed, restored.

Berger thinks about this encounter with the paintings. He is careful not to generalize too much from his experience, but he says some wise things about the nature of great paintings, about van Gogh in particular and the nature of making art. He says that events in life are always at hand. But the coherence of events is not.  He calls that coherence “reality.” And reality, normally, “ lies behind a screen of clichés. Every culture produces such a screen, partly to facilitate is own practices (to establish habits) and party to consolidate its own power. Reality is inimical to those with power.” 

He concludes : “For an animal its natural environment and habitat are a given. For a man [sic]…reality is not a given: it has to be continually sought out, held–I am tempted to say–salvaged.”   

This is as wonderful a description of what artists and writers try to do as I ever found. Our work is to salvage reality from behind the screen of clichés.  Both Day and Merton do that in their memoirs; van Gogh does that in his paintings. With this in mind, the need to break through clichés when writing about faith or anything else, is even more important. At risk is the very coherence of reality. The struggle to find the right word is often hard and painful and I certainly want to give it up but when I break through that screen, I can sense a living reality there, what a friend calls the Really Real, as close a description of God as I need. 

Have not, as yet, broken through this week but it's worth the effort.

Nora Gallagher, Healing, This Week's Readings, Nobel Prize
2007-10-09 by David von Schlichten

Healing is prominent in this week's Gospel from Luke 17. Healing is also prominent in 2 Kings 5, the story of the healing of Naaman, which some have as the first lesson for Sunday.

Others have as the first lesson Jeremiah 29, which speaks of the people in exile needing to have patience. Deliverance will eventually come, but, for now, the people are to make themselves at home in Babylon. Perhaps, in this case, the healing comes through the people adopting the mindset of patience.

It is exciting to hear from Nora Gallagher, our guest blogger this week. Scroll down to read her first entry, which has some stimulating thoughts about healing. Many of us in the Church would benefit from a broader, richer understanding of healing, and Nora Gallagher's first blog entry helps us in that direction. 

Gallagher has listed as her first lesson Ruth 1, which tells of Naomi's misfortune and Ruth's poignant commitment to her, another form of healing. By the way, 2 Kings 5, Luke 17, and Ruth 1 all feature a foreigner receiving healing or behaving in a manner worthy of emulation. 

We look forward to more from our guest blogger. Nora Gallagher has received much critical acclaim as an intelligent, poetic, spiritually edifying writer. She is the author of the non-fiction books Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith and Practicing Resurrection, as well as a new novel, Changing Light. One of her sermons appears in the collection Sermons that Work. She is the preacher-in-residence at Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, preaches widely as a guest, and is on the board of advisors of Yale Divinity School. You'll be able to hear her speak at the 2008 Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis.

Thanks be to God for the healing we have received so far from all our guest bloggers.

Soon I will post my weekly highlights of the articles for this week from Lectionary Homiletics.

One final note: today it was announced that a German and French physicist will share the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in magnetics that has helped to make computer hard drives much more efficient and powerful. Without the contribution of these two people (another form of healing?), I imagine blogging would be a tad more difficult.

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, poedifier

2007-10-09 by David von Schlichten

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