Many of you have asked how I get to Sunday with a sermon in hand. Short answer, lots of mental sweat and curiosity. Here are a few of my favorite things:
Online biblical resources
Books for sermons
I read a lot, but have a confession to make. I don’t particularly like religious books. Most of them bore me. However, my all-time favorite religious book is Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, Sacraments and Orthodoxy. I read lots of church development books for professional development, but I doubt you would find that particularly interesting.
My favorite non-church books in the last 5ish years are:
I spend an inordinate amount of time listening to podcasts. I think it is because doing the dishes are more fun that way. Cardio, cleaning, lawn care, and commuting time is the perfect time to find out about the awesomeness of floss, the history of the Erie Canal, the archeological study of space trash, or the latest yes, yes, no.
In order of awesomeness
Thanks for listening!
I'm a pretty good preacher. My wife gives me a report card every Sunday afternoon that ranges from C+ to A. She is a stingy grader, only giving me A's about every six weeks. During my five plus years at Ascension, people have stopped telling me what they think about my sermons, maybe because they don't want to be redundant. Maybe they think I don't want to hear what they have to say. Mostly, it's "good sermon" or "thank you for your sermon" -- if anything. On occasion, I will get "I didn't like when you said XYZ" and ironically, I really appreciate critique or negative responses because it means they're listening.
I used to be the young guy with amazing insight, now I'm just the preacher. I'm not complaining; I really love the preaching ministry. I have read more books about and been to more conferences on preaching than I can count. Despite my wife's middling ratings, I care a lot about preaching.
If you were to ask me what the goal of preaching is (without using a lot of church language), it would be to transfer energy. I want the Holy Spirit to flow from me to the people and back. More theologically, I want the energy transfer to have a name - Jesus Christ; Father or Mother; or Holy Spirit - just as long as God gets the credit. I am not trying to reproduce a TED talk, mainly because I can't out-TED-talk a lot of TED talkers. But I do resolve every Monday to Sunday to let God be in control of my preparation, preaching, and the liturgy. If I out-TED TED, then God did it and not me.
One part of why I care for preaching is that I want to create an itch that many don't even know is there. Maybe you are just congratulating yourself for even making it to church, but next time you come ask God to help you listen to the sermon. You might be entertained, but if God has God's way, you will be transformed.
Now cue old man with reading glasses hanging precariously off the tip of my nose, "that's the problem with the world today," I say. For generations, even when I was growing up, my contemporaries had a sense that church had something different, even if we hated the church. As I grew older (high school), the spiritual itch I felt had a name - longing for meaning - and the backscratcher was the church. I felt like the church fire alarm would trigger if I set foot inside; but I held out hope that there was something to that old time religion, even as I was soaking myself in KMFDM and self-loathing.
Preachers have a particularly daunting challenge today. For many who come to church, there is no felt need for transformation. We preachers have to work overtime to first create a spiritual hole and then offer the living and active Christ who can get to work filling that hole long after we've said amen to our sermons.
Some of the most transformative moments in my development as a Christian came from preachers who spoke to the gap that I did not know I had until they spoke. I was at a Christian conference nineteen years ago. The presenter was a country girl who had land and cattle. She had made charcoal drawings of the cattle she saw outside her window as a way to understand grieving and loss. Because she had slowed down to really observe them, she noticed how younger cows would just sit with older, sicker cows just because they were comforted by it.
At that point, I was regretting coming to this talk because it was too precious, too anthropomorphic and I was getting bored. She read Proverbs 3 about wisdom focusing on verse 15 about how wisdom is more precious than diamonds. Blah, blah, blah. I was really late for the door at the point. I was calculating how I could leave discreetly when she began singing a song. It was with Proverbs 3 for the lyrics, but instead of praising wisdom, she replaced wisdom with our names. She sung how we were more precious than diamonds..... I lost it. A huge gaping hole of self-contempt opened up like a flower. It was dark and ugly. So big that I could not even look at it. Her singing was opening something and at the same time filling in huge gaps with possibilities. Maybe the story of human failure was false. Maybe a sick cow like me could be worth something.
That's not why I am not rushing to put up screens in church and not having the service downloaded on iPad, because as lovely as my iPhone is, it is great at distracting from the ever-present holes our spiritual life present. In worship, there is space for gaps to exist and to let God do the rest. The Church is not always supposed to make you feel better; sometimes it's supposed to make you feel worse! It's God's job to write possibility on our hearts.
So I'm praying that every time I sit down to get ready for my sermon prep on Monday morning God will reveal the gaps in my own life and fill my words with possibility. Maybe I can trust that in God's good timing I too will be filled up to overflowing. Then my words will open the door for the spirit to come in and fill the church and her people.
When you sit in the pew, will you give me more than the standard, episcopalian Mona Lisa smile when you like something I say? I gave an energizing sermon just yesterday after Sunday services at a private Nigerian baptism. The sermon was 3-4 minutes long, but they "amen"ed and nodded me into a better preacher than I had prepared for.
Maybe you won't be standing up in your pew and telling me to 'testify' when I preach, but I will be a better proclaimer of the Gospel of Jesus Christ if I know you're with me. At the same time, if I bugged you in the sermon, tell me that too! One of my sermon anchors (a church lady who listens intently) looks like she ate lemons when she does not like my words. Hallelujah. I really believe preaching is the work of the people good and bad.
In the next post, I will tell you some of the things I do to get from Monday to Sunday.
Detail warning - this post has detailed notes about what we actually did on our Saturday Core Values workshop. Go to the previous post if you are already bored.
We brought in a consultant, Reb Scarbrough, to help us on our journey toward discerning God’s call for our future. Forty of our Ascensionites gathered to hash out core values. Core values are the values that we actually practice and not what we hope to be. The hope-to-be stuff comes later in our vision and mission work. The day was exactly like Vision Quest (my favorite movie as a high school sophomore wrestler). Underdog wrestler loses 20 lbs to wrestle the demigod Shute to the rockin’ background of Madonna and Journey. So yes, our meeting was exactly like that, if by exactly, you replace grueling workouts and a 500 calorie daily diet, with kolaches, workshop handouts, and church fellowship around six circular tables. Louden beat Shute and we beat business as usual.
In the beginning we started out in groups of six writing a “book” about Ascension.
Chapter 1 Why were we founded?
Because the Bishop said so. Not really - we used to be out in the middle of nowhere and Westheimer ended two miles to the east of us. Episcopalians were tired of stealthing at the local Methodist church and the Bishop was keen to support them.
Chapter 2 What we do well internally?
We have always been Jesus freaks and bible fanatics. Christ is at the center of our lives and scripture is our guide. Also, Ascension-as-refuge has always been important for us. We are a sanctuary for all and a place for people to have a church family.
Chapter 3 What do we do outside the church walls?
Our consultant remarked on how many events and ministries we engage for outreach. This was neither negative nor positive. My hunch is that we need a clearer sense of outreach so that we can clearly and cleanly do the work of Jesus in the world. I am pretty sure as we get more and more focused we may do more or less outreach but we will have guiding principle and themes for why we reach out.
Chapter 4 Why do we do what we do?
“Cuz we care” was one group’s summary. We do it for the glory of God and the care of souls. It is our joy and duty to proclaim the love of God to those inside and outside our church.
2/3rds of the group went on with their day and the smaller group had the daunting task of distilling two hours of controlled mind spill into a working set of core values. The smaller group made several passes at “Book of Ascension” trying to distill the essence of the work. First, we made summaries from the five different books made by the larger group and tried to come up with repeating themes.
After we had the summaries of the books, groups of three broke out to actually discern and write out a working draft of our core values. This working draft turned out to be largely similar to what we created seven years ago. To my mind the new version has cleaned up and clarified the prior language about our values. We also added diversity as an explicit core value. It’s important to us to welcome everyone regardless of background and we cherish that we have members from a variety of cultures.
This is the working draft of our work on Saturday:
We are called by God to worship and enlarge His Kingdom in the living tradition of the Book of Common Prayer, practice of the Sacraments, biblical principles, and joyful praise.
We grow spiritually through worship, fellowship and education.
We create opportunities to build relationships and nurture one another in the love of Christ as we welcome the community into our family of faith.
Mission and Outreach
We proclaim the love of Christ through prayer and compassionate service to the larger community.
We embrace our diversity by welcoming all and sharing our common faith.
Core Values from seven years ago with a little of my commentary
If you were wondering about the older ones, they are:
Love for the Truth and Authority of the Living Word of God.
Christian Development: Making disciples of Christ of people of all ages through Christian education and evangelism.
Mission and Outreach: Proclaiming the love of Christ through prayer and compassionate service to the larger community.
we did not change anything we liked it so much.
Worship: Exalting Christ in Anglican worship and praise as set forth by the Book of Common Prayer.
Anglican had multiple and confusing meanings for people. i.e. are a church with African oversight? Are we not really connected to the Episcopal church? Are we Church of England? Also, we included “tradition” in the core value of worship. The word tradition caused a lot of faces to wrinkle in equal parts confusion and distaste. I offered the somewhat vague description of “living-tradition” to communicate that we value our heritage but are not stuck in 1979, 1928 or some other ‘better’ past. If you push me too hard I will look piously to the heavens and say, “living tradition helps us encounter the mystery of the church while standing on a three legged stool” or “I dunno.”
Fellowship Welcoming others and nurturing one another in the love of Christ.
It was a lot of fun and everyone who came was energized and refreshed by our work and I pray it spreads to others as we continue.
Why did we start using a consultant?
We started this multi-phase, 10 month strategic planning process with two goals in mind. To bring Glory to God and to turn our fabulous 50 leaders into our fab 100 leaders. We don't want to do more to feel self important, but to be more engaged because of the joy following of Jesus in this place.
One small piece of this puzzle was our Nov 12 Core Values workshop. It left me buzzing. So many people finished the workshop with a new sense of joy and purpose. The connections people made and the excitement about what we are doing was exhilarating. People with young kids got to hear stories of those who were empty nesters ten years ago. People with no kids got to hear about the crazy landscape of parenting today. We all came together to think about how Ascension is a sanctuary for all of it.
This workshop helped us take the first steps toward a vision for a fun future. The workshop crystallized around four reasons for us to swing for the church fences.
I am pretty good at a lot of things, but I have a calling to be your Rector. I am the best darn suit salesman in Texas and the most creative personal trainer anyone has ever known, and I am humble. But as your Pastor, God has invited me to serve the church with a plastic ring around my neck. God has convicted me that my big goal this year, as your Rector, is to foster the Joy of the Lord. It is not just Christian insider speak. Without the Joy, specifically Joy of the Lord, the church has no reason to exist. Like Paul said about Christians (filtered through Mr. T) - "I pity the fool, if Christ is not raised from the dead."
We are good - we can be great with Joy. We can be the best darn church in Texas, if we let God have his way with us. When I got back from Sabbatical in August 2016, I made one silent pledge to Ascension - I will swing as hard as I can to help Ascension flourish. I will do everything I can to get people into batting practice with me at Ascension I am invested - 90% of what I put my shoulder to daily is within 77042. My church, family, school, gym - everything is in this wonderful little bubble, and nothing less than everything I can give is going to be acceptable.
My sabbatical pledge is to double down on blessing Ascension. I am at my best when I am not counting heads on Sunday, or worrying about air conditioner repair bills or nursing my emotions when someone has grumbled about me. I am at my best when I open my eyes to really see each of you as fellow workers for the Gospel of Christ and as buckets o' joy. This may be a high bar - so how about potential to be buckets o' joy? I am looking at you grumpalumpagus. Grumpy or not, we are worthy of, even deserving of the Joy of the Lord.
We all should give great thanks for the many gifted leaders on finance and vestry. They empower me to count eyes more than heads. My most important job is to see you. I see you as you are and as you can be. I see you and am walking with you on the road to more joy. The joy of worshiping God and serving his people is the secret sauce for everything. Nothing else matters except the joy we feel about following Jesus 2000+ years after the first Easter.
What I am hoping from you -
What do you need from me for the joy of the Lord not to be cliche? How can strategic planning help us head toward that end?
I will post the "guts" of what we did on the Core Values workshop on Nov 12 in a bit.
I am an Episcopal Priest - ordained in 2006. I have had the privilege of leading ministry in three churches. My latest church, Ascension is experiencing a tectonic shift in culture that has been brewing for years, but we really began experiencing it over the last two years.
In 2015, I did 21 funerals at my current parish. It was holy work, but extremely emotionally draining. Our Sunday attendance is down just under 10% this year. We have great, and I mean great worship. My staff is better than it has ever been. My ministry leaders are committed and passionate. But I wake up at night anxious about the future.
I am proud to be in a church that has not immersed itself in culture wars. But even with that ditch avoided we are rethinking church. Who are we? What are we supposed to do? What are we called to do by God? I am hoping to work all how God is asking us to be.
I have four convictions about our "problem".
I want you to cue in your head old time southern religion twang and sing along with me “I have decided to follow Jesus”. Personally I have decided to follow Jesus because with him I am confused, groping, and uncertain. Without Jesus, I don’t even know where to start.
So I invite you into the next six months of the life of an episcopal priest trying to find Jesus. I have a Jesusy job, but want a renewal of a Jesusy vocation as a follower of Christ.