Singing Release for the Captives: Claire Davidson Frederick is coming to Streaming

The most impressive gospel stories I know these days come from people who spend time in prisons. Go figure. I’m a little surprised too. But sit with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove for awhile who advocates for prisoners in Durham, NC, or my friend Richard Beck and my son Josh who teach in the prison in Abilene, TX and you will hear stories that simultaneously inspire you and break your hearts.

My latest prison stories, though, come from Claire Davidson Frederick who leads an amazing project in the Tennessee Prison for Women. Claire has worked in the music industry in Nashville. She is a singer/songwriter with a powerful voice. But she’s also a good theologian, currently completing her MDiv from the Hazelip School of Theology at Lipscomb University.

Bringing these two interests together, she currently leads a Collaborative Redemptive Songwriting Workshop in the Tennessee Prison for Women. She and other songwriters (she had to recruit others given the response to the workshop) teach the women about what makes a good song, lyrically. So, they are invited to write lyrics and bring them back to the workshop where musicians help put their words to music. The project has been remarkably successful. They recently performed the songs that have been written in the prison, which was an amazing experience for all involved.

My friend, Richard Beck, talks about the importance of singing in finding courage for difficult times. Civil rights activists sang for hours before they marched, knowing that on the other side of the church walls, dogs and fire hoses and beatings awaited them. Paul and Silas sang in prison. My favorite scene in The Shawshank Redemption is when Andy Dufresne pipes a Mozart aria through the prison loud speakers, allowing for just a moment an experience of soaring freedom. You get the idea.

More, however, poetry is a subversive language. Walter Brueggemann suggests that control is maintained through prose, where even love letters sound like memos. But poetry evokes something different. It suggests possibility and hope that the settled world given to us by the principalities and powers is not the only world available to us.

Imagine the power of women prisoners bringing their experience to poetic expression and put to music. Imagine the way this would empower them in a situation that suggests they have none. Imagine the experience of community and belonging that would come through collaborating together, to bring something beautiful out of something so difficult. Imagine the experience of freedom for these singing captives.

I am thrilled that Claire has agreed to come to Streaming, Oct 8-10, to tell these women’s stories and to perform their songs. Her presentation will be called, “Songs of New Creation from the Tennessee Prison for Women.” You will want to be there.

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A Different Kind of Graduate Program (one that’s perfect for you)

I’ve written here before about our master’s in missional leadership at Rochester College. It’s our effort to design a degree more in lines with the demands and opportunities for ministry in a new missional era. Simply put, the way we’ve trained ministers for the past 200 years prepares them for ministry in congregations that are fading away. While many of the skills cross over from one ministry era to another, many don’t and different skills are required.

So, one way our degree is different is that you have to have a ministry context in which you have permission to do projects. Our students and their missional communities do not have to imagine how what they’re learning will be used someday in the future. They get missional dirt under their fingernails as they go.

This past week, our graduating students have been doing their portfolio defenses. They provide samples of work they have been producing throughout the program, suggest how these samples are examples of their growth in relation to the five competencies we are tracking, and write a few paragraphs about their growth in each of these five areas. This group has been exceptional.

One of the things that was striking to me about these conversations was that they could not only link concepts together in meaningful ways, but they all had stories to tell about how all of this was at work in their ministry context. Real life ministry stories. Good ones.

One talked about how our focus on God-centered identity allowed him to be a more confident leader of evening prayers in his community, and how the practice of Dwelling in the Word had created a rich dialogical community. Several spoke of the powerful impact the reconciliation project done for John Barton’s class had, not only on them, but on their churches and communities. One student talked about the Appreciative Inquiry project that was done alongside a more typical “demographic” study of the congregation led by the elders, and the results of the AI project were far more revealing and powerful. All of them talked about changed perspectives on leadership that were accompanied by new skills that they had actually put to use.

At several points in these conversations, I found myself being envious of their experience. It was so different than mine. I had to figure out on my own how the things I learned in grad school applied to congregational life.

I am very thankful for my training, and very thankful for the experience I’ve had teaching in more traditional programs. But I will never go back. I wouldn’t trade what we do in this program for any other.

I am so thankful for our grads and the work they have done and are doing in their ministry contexts. Now’s the time to apply for next Fall!

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Christian as an adjective. I don’t think that word means what you think that word means…

Luke tells us that the first time the early disciples were called Christians was in Antioch. This is significant because Antioch was the first place where Jews and Gentiles worshiped together, causing no little consternation for the church in Jerusalem and providing the catalyst for the Jerusalem conference. Put another way, the term Christian was used for the first time when the early disciples crossed a cultural boundary and widened the circle of belonging.

It strikes me that when we use the word Christian as an adjective, it’s almost for the opposite purpose. We use it to identify who we are in distinction from those around us. So, we have Christian bookstores or Christian schools or Christian news or music or Christian businesses. It’s a little like a rhetorical gated community. The rhetorical use of the word Christian as an adjective represents an attempt to maintain the privilege of a Christian culture. And I’m pretty sure that’s the opposite of what the word should mean. That’s what the principalities and powers do, protect privilege divide the world into affinity groups. No Kingdom of God there. I love Craig Van Gelder’s observation that somehow Christians in North America have figured out how to be of the world and not in the world.

So, here’s to trying to recover the Antiochan sense of the word, Christian.

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Salvation and the Church, Bacon and Eggs: A Reflection

The last few days, I’ve been at an excellent conference hosted by the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and The Parish Collective. If you don’t know the work of the Parish Collective, you should. And the place to start is the excellent new book by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight Friesen, The New Parish.

Today I got to hear them present, and for the most part I like what they had to say. But not the whole part. They had the misfortune of wandering into my dissertation area a week before my defense, so my tools were sharpened. I couldn’t help myself.

So, let me get it out and I’ll be better.

Friesen started by having us make word associations. “I say bacon, you say eggs.” Some things are natural partners. And since Luther, protestants, he suggests, have held the words church and salvation together like bacon and eggs. This is a problem for Friesen. The church should stop being preoccupied with salvation since this is God’s work and not the church’s. We should “decouple” those terms, and instead associate the church (ecclesiology) with the Spirit (pneumatology). The church’s job is not to do God’s work of salvation, but to bear testimony to what the Spirit is up to in the world.

I see what he’s trying to do, but I think he misses the bacon and eggs analogy. For instance, I would suggest that in some pretty significant ways Luther decoupled the words salvation and church a long time ago. He wanted to scale back on the sacramental system of the catholic church which totally made salvation the property of the church to dispense or withhold. Though this was likely not Luther’s intent, in Protestant circles the word salvation was decoupled from church and attached instead to the individual. The individual and salvation go together like bacon and eggs.

I have some data here. I’ve done interviews in congregations related to salvation and I have yet to have a single person respond in a way that suggests that the word salvation refers to something other than a personal status. Our individual sins are forgiven. Or we get to go to heaven when we die. There is never a sense that salvation is experienced as a new set of social relations or in a renewed creation. It’s always used in reference to the individual. This is true in both the mainline and evangelical churches I have worked with.

Now, I’m definitely interested in a little decoupling there. I want there to be some space between the individual and the word salvation so that other, biblical, meanings can be realized. And I know Friesen would agree with me here. His language of salvation today went well beyond individual salvation to include all things that relate to our future hope.

But for precisely these reasons, I want to “recouple” the language of church and salvation.

(By way of aside, the coupling language is his. I would want to provide a more robust metaphor for the complexity of the relationship between language and the world. I like better Ricouer’s metaphor of redescribing the world. But, if coupling floats your boat…)

The church isn’t just a collection of saved individuals. The church should be the prime location where we learn to participate in the salvation offered by God. The church should be the place where we learn that God’s offer of salvation includes participation in a community with different values and practices than those offered us by the principalities and powers of this age. It’s in church, a point made several times today by Paul Sparks, where we develop the capacity to live in a diverse community, no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. These aren’t just ethics, a good way to live after we’ve been saved. They are a part of what it means to be saved. They are a participation in the very life of God, which saves us.

Now, let me say that I think the book given to us by Sparks, Soerens, and Friesen give us precisely a view of church like this, where church and salvation should be coupled.  I think it would be very helpful if they could point that out. I wonder what keeps them from making that coupling?

Friesen said today that nowhere in Scripture does it say that salvation is our work. If that’s true, then what are we to make of Paul’s admonition in Philippians “to work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” Now, let me be really clear here, salvation is totally by God’s grace. So, how can salvation be both totally by God’s grace and something that we work out in fear and trembling. Both can be the case if we decouple the terms “salvation” and “individual status.”

This deserves and perhaps requires a detailed explanation, which I have neither the time or space for here. But let me say it this way. What if salvation referred less to a personal status that we own and more to way of life made possible by God? In other words, what if salvation belonged to God and not to us? What if salvation referred to all the realities that God will bring about at the end of this age which is expiring or perishing? What if salvation is less a status that we are given by God, and more a participation in the life of God that is in line with coming age of God’s salvation? What if salvation is less something we own and more something in which we participate?

Here’s the grace part. There’s nothing we can do to add or take away from the salvation that will be completed in the day of the Lord. The work is done. It’s been accomplished by Christ. There will be a day when God will be all in all, and it depends not one whit on our effort.

Here’s the work it out part. If salvation is God’s, then it is something in which we participate. And participate means there are things we do to live in alignment with the coming salvation of God. Participation means that in God’s grace we’ve been offered a new way of life, a way of life not under the power of sin and death, but under the power of grace and in the Spirit. See, everything is new. Everything we do is new. Everything we do is by a different power, the power of the Spirit. Everything we do is a working out of our salvation which we will know fully at the end of the age.

Every problem we solve in light of the values of the coming new age is a taste of our coming salvation. Every instance of reconciliation in our lives teaches us more what it means to work out our salvation. Every place where we work to renew God’s creation from ecological degradation is a working out of our salvation. Every time we forgive someone, we learn how to live more completely in our salvation. Paul calls this “being saved.” We are being saved. We are working it out. We are learning to live in the resources and values of the coming age of salvation made available to those who are in Christ, who live according to the Spirit. And in that work, we are being transformed, changed from one degree of glory into another. And we long for that salvation, which Paul says, “is nearer to us than the day we first believed.”

And, so the church is the “work it out” labratory, where we learn not to live for ourselves, but for him who died for us and all of creation.

Church and salvation go together like bacon and eggs.

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Why I’m particularly glad to be attending the Pepperdine lectures this year

I’m not a great conference attendee. This is ironic since I have for over twenty years hosted conferences. (I think this might be a requirement for lectureship directors in Churches of Christ. You know who you are). And I like people who are good conference attendees coming to my conferences. By good, I mean they’re not hanging out in the back and looking for an opportunity to sneak out and find a coffee shop or other type establishment. So, I’ve tried to be better at attending classes and presentations and actually singing during worship, to avoid that whole hypocrisy thing. I’ve upgraded, I think, to an average conference attendee. When I go with my wife, who is a truly, truly good person, I might actually be a good conference attendee.

I’ve been to the Pepperdine Bible Lectures every year for the last thirty years, save one. I go mostly to see friends and spend time with my parents who live on campus. I probably set foot in Duke’s more than I do Smothers Theater. Since moving to Michigan, I’ve thought about taking a few years off, but a personal friend is the new director and he’s nice to have me teach with another good friend each year, Richard Beck. This year, Richard and I are doing two late night things, one of which will feature us playing our guitars poorly and singing and talking about the music of Johnny Cash (the singing will be bad too so that people won’t notice the bad guitar playing). So, I’m happy to go to support Mike Cope and play bad guitars with Richard Beck in front of a live audience.

But here’s the real reason I’m going, why I wouldn’t miss this year’s PBL. Sara Barton is preaching at a morning keynote session. A big part of this is that I love Sara and am proud she’s my friend. I’m sitting in a kitchen that a year ago was hers, a place of warmth and grace where I found friendship and laughter in a time in my life when I desperately needed it. Now its my kitchen, or a kitchen I share with Sara’s lingering presence.

But the real reason is that this will be a woman preaching a sermon in a large Church of Christ gathering. Sara will be the first woman to preach a keynote message at Pepperdine. I commend ACU for having Barbara Brown Taylor preach at their last Bible lectureship. Huge. Way to go Brady Bryce. But this is different, I think. Sara’s as Church of Christ as her Arkansas accent. This is one of our own ascending one of the most historically significant, er, pulpits in our recent history. The best preaching I’ve heard has come from Pepperdine’s Firestone Fieldhouse. Bill Love, Mike Cope, David Fleer, Randy Harris, Aaron Metcalf and many others have delivered powerful messages in that space. And now, Sara, a woman in Churches of Christ, will take her place beside them.

And what this will mean for other women in Churches of Christ cannot be adequately brought to words. At the very least, this will say that this is a possibility for other women with similar gifts and godly dreams. At the most, it will normalize the practice. I’m under no illusion that this will become common practice among our churches in the near term. But what I think might happen is that it will create a space for what some Churches of Christ do that doesn’t make those congregations something other than Church of Christ.

My guess as a former lectureship director is that Mike doesn’t yet know what the public reaction will be. I know this will cost them some market share. Numbers might look different this year and for awhile. I hope not, but I would guess otherwise.

But in thinking about Mike and Pepperdine today, I was struck by the few brave souls who made these kinds of moved thirty and forty years ago and who were ostracized for it. I think of Bob Randolph and the good folks at Brookline in Boston, and the brave people at Bering Drive in Houston, or the good folks in Stamford, CT, or Manhattan or West Islip. I will think of them when Sara climbs the steps in Firestone Fieldhouse.

I remember when the Northwest church in Seattle went to an instrumental service about 20 years ago. Milton Jones found his invitations to lectureships severely curtailed. Now, however, many congregations have made changes related to music in worship and they are not excluded the way that the good folks at Northwest were. And I’m hoping that this will be true of congregations that become more gender inclusive.

I’m thankful for brave people who cross the line first simply out of conviction that they are doing the right thing though no one else may follow. So, I’ll save you a seat to hear Sara and we’ll honor those who made similar moves years ago.

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On the way to an alternative proposal, a review of Spufford’s “Unapologetic”

Because my last few years have been spent reading the same books over and over as I try to finish a dissertation, I often have to give a sheepish “no” to the question of whether or not I have read the latest “it” book. Usually, I can somewhat overcome the feelings of un-hipness these questions bring with a little inner-dialogue. “No, I haven’t. Have you read Truth and Method twenty times? How about Being and Time or Oneself as Another or The Rule of Metaphor? Yeah, I didn’t think so.” But I always feel a little that the world is passing me by.

But last year, the buzz around Francis Spufford’s book, Unapologetic, proved irresistible. Here’s what got me. Spufford, enthusiasts would say, is avoiding the temptations of theodicy (the problem of God and evil) and offering instead the gospel. So, I downloaded my Kindle version and read the book in a manner of a few days.

I could see why others loved the book. Spufford is a brilliant writer, a journalist who knows his way around a sentence. And he’s a thoughtful Christian in a place, England, where that phrase is considered an oxymoron. And he brilliantly exposes the vapidness of both Christian fundamentalism and the new atheists. His riff in John Lennon’s, Imgaine, is worth the book. So, read the book. By all means read the book.

But don’t count me as a proponent for where Spufford ultimately takes the reader. The sub-title of the book, Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Still Makes Surprising Emotional Sense, provides a reliable description of the direction the book hopes to take the reader. The phrase “emotional sense” is especially crucial for Spufford. He writes because of the “embarrassment” people in England feel when they encounter a truly believing Christian. He writes because, though the Christian history of England provides much of the scaffolding for contemporary British culture, the experience of being a practicing Christian for most is non-existent. And he wants them to know what the inner experience of being a Christian is like. What it’s like, from the inside, to be a Christian.

For Spufford, this inner experience is the result of grace, more directly, the experience of being forgiven. In opposition to the optimistic anthropology of the new atheists, Spufford insists that we are all tragically broken by sin, (I’ll let you figure out what his abbreviation for that throughout the book means, HPtFtU) and long for an experience of grace and forgiveness that comes from someplace or someone outside of ourselves. Spufford’s passages on grace, and by extension the nature of the church, are beautifully poetic and ennobling. For Spufford, the ongoing experience of mercy made available through the church creates en emotionally satisfying account of things, of life, of meaning, of purpose.

Given this central argument, the place where Spufford sends us in the direction of a conclusion is in the third chapter where he describes an experience of sitting alone in church and in the quietness of that moment having both his life and the world enlarged so that he is connected somehow to all of it. God is absent, missing, if you seek God in the answer to prayers or in some experience of the Spirit or the conditions of the world. Instead, God, if there is a God, is manifest for Spufford in moments like these.

In the final stanzas of the book, he writes about the church’s purpose as “offering the hush in which we can bear to find out what we’re like. Christ will still be looking across at us from the middle of an angry crowd. God will still be there, shining. If, that is, there is a God…It (the reality of God) not being, as mentioned before, a knowable item. What I do know is that when I’m lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if he’s there…”

While these lines possess a poetic beauty, to me they represent why the book falls short. I applaud Spufford’s attempt to do public theology, that is, to provide an account of the faith that would make sense or be compelling. And I applaud his avoidance of some of the pitfalls he avoids along the way, notably his refusal to dip into the waters of theodicy. I even say “Amen” to admitting to doubt around the reasonableness of the faith.

So, what’s my issue? He offers as public what is ultimately private: the inner life of the individual believer. In addressing the spirit of the age, he falls prey to the very heart of it, namely that the interior of the individual is where all the action takes place. While he successfully attacks the rationalist side of the individualist dogma, he offers in its place a romantic version of the same dogma. Ultimately, Spufford’s book reads like a very well-written sermon from Paul Tillich. I would put it on my shelf next to my Frederick Buechener books, books I’m glad that I read and would be happy to quote on occasion, but not books that point me ultimately in helpful directions.

I’m trying to imagine how my unbelieving friends would respond to Spufford’s book. While they would be happy to see the way he takes on homophobia, appreciate his less than Puritan use of language, and might even envy his emotional equanimity, or take to heart his critiques of the new atheists the way a Nick Hornby might, in the end I’m not sure they would be suitably impressed. I think they might say, “I’m glad he’s found a good place for himself inside of Christianity. I just think you can get to the same place in other ways. I’m glad it works for him. It just doesn’t work for me.”

And I think Spufford might be ok with that, for others to simply appreciate the emotionally complex inner life of believers like him, to get them not to think of his daughter as the unfortunate recipient of a harmful set of superstitions.

But I think there’s more to be accomplished than this and in ways that don’t succumb to a defensive rationalism or to cases of special pleading. And the more I think about it, the more pneumatology holds promise. Spufford quickly dusts off any possible association with the “charismatic.” And while I’m no holy roller and can’t embrace much of what passes for Spirit-filled, I do think that vivid experiences of the Spirit are crucial to a public theology in a scientific age.

This is why I’m happy to announce the theme for this year’s Streaming conference at Rochester College, October 8-10, “Baptized with Fire: The Holy Spirit and Missional Communities.” Amos Yong, from Fuller Seminary will be our featured presenter.

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A few observations about spiritual satisfaction

As a part of an ongoing research interest, I’ve been surveying congregations to get a picture of member participation in practices, e.g. prayer, sharing possessions, meeting in small groups for encouragement and support. My sample size is still fairly small and so any definitive statements are still a long ways off, but the initial results are intriguing.

One of the questions I ask toward the end of the survey is related to satisfaction with a respondent’s spiritual life. While I am learning several interesting things about this, a few are worth a quick mention. First, those who report being mostly or very satisfied with their spiritual life are much more likely to report spending quiet time with God on a regular basis than those who report being unsatisfied or slightly satisfied. Now, in general, those who report being more satisfied practice their faith more regularly across the board than those that don’t. But the gap between the more satisfied and the less satisfied is widest related to spending quiet time with God by a whopping 30%.

(No one fasts. Period. Well, only a very tiny minority do).

Those who report being less satisfied with their spiritual lives are also more likely to be disciplined in their practice. Very few respondents report doing anything regularly as a discipline. We seem to be occasional in our everyday faith practices. That is, we do them as occasion arises. Most who are more dissatisfied practice less than the more satisfied across the board. But those who do have disciplined practice are more likely to be unsatisfied or only slightly satisfied with their spiritual lives than those that don’t.

The surveys don’t indicate why this is the case. But I have a few hunches. Maybe people who take their faith seriously enough to be disciplined in their practice know there is always more to God than what they’ve experienced, and so they are modest in their reporting. In fact, given that most report a fairly low level of regular practice in their everyday lives may indicate that higher satisfaction is related to lower standards and vice versa.

Or, perhaps some who are rigorous in discipline are more likely to have a performance based notion of spirituality where the practice is an end in itself, leaving them bereft spiritually speaking.


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Dylan on a Friday: The Musicares Speech and Preaching

As readers of my former blog know, I used to write a weekly piece entitled, “Dylan on a Sunday” where I would riff on some lyric or theme or related theological topic in the Dylan world. I’ve written a few since then, but have fallen out of the habit. But this week demands a piece.

First, we have the release of Dylan’s new cd of Sinatra-like covers, Shadows in the Night. It has received surprisingly good reviews, Rolling Stone giving it four stars. I saw where Elvis Costello even called it brilliant.

I was dubious, fearing it would be more like his Christmas album which I only listen to if I want to laugh. There’s nothing like the polka style Dylan rendition of “Must be Santa.” And for that we can be thankful.

My first listen through Shadows has been a relief.

I also found it fascinating that he granted both an interview to AARP’s magazine and gave away 50,000 copies of the new cd to its readers. I’m 40 days away from senior movie discounts, so its nice to look forward to other perks as I enter my new stage in life.

But the bigger recent Dylan event for me was the tribute given him by Musicares as their musician of the year. Last year, I watched the Musicares tribute to Bruce Springsteen. It was an incredible evening, and I can’t wait to find the Dylan tribute to view somewhere.

While I haven’t seen the tribute yet, I did read his speech from the event. It was amazing. It was touching, funny, and poignant. I laughed out loud at his response to critics who say he can’t carry a tune, lacks vocal range, mangles his lyrics, all met with the refrain “Lord, have mercy.” The funniest bit, though, of this part of the speech related to the way Dylan supposedly “confounds expectations.”

Critics have said that I’ve made a career out of confounding expectations. Really? Because that’s all I do? That’s how I think about it. Confounding expectations. Like I stay up late at night thinking about how to do it. “What do you do for a living, man?” “Oh, I confound expectations.” You’re going to get a job, the man says, “What do you do?” “Oh, confound expectations. And the man says, “Well, we already have that spot filled. Call us back. Or don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Confounding expectations. I don’t even know what that means or who has time for it.

The most fascinating part of his speech, though, had to do with his explanation of where his songs come from. They aren’t, according to Dylan, something entirely new or without precedent. In fact, just the opposite. They are steeped in tradition. “These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth… It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock and roll, and traditional big band swing music.” The hours he spent listening to traditional music funded an imagination which found new expression in his songs.

If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me – “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.” If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.

“Roll the cotton down, aw, yeah, roll the cotton down / Ten dollars a day is a white man’s pay / Roll the cotton down/A dollar a day is the black man’s pay / Roll the cotton down.” If you sang that song as many times as me, you’d be writing “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” too. If you’d had listened to the Robert Johnston singing, “Better come in my kitchen, ’cause it’s gonna be raining out doors,” as many time as I listened to it, sometime later you just might write, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”

I sang a lot of “come all you” songs. There’s plenty of them. There’s way too many to be counted. “Come along boys and listen to my tale / Tell you of my troubles on the old Chisholm Trail.” Or, “Come all ye good people, listen while I tell / the fate of Floyd Collins, a lad we all know well.”

“Come all ye fair and tender ladies / Take warning how you court your men / They’re like a star on a summer morning / They first appear and then they’re gone again.” And then there’s this one, “Gather ’round, people / A story I will tell / ‘Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, the outlaw / Oklahoma knew him well.”

If you sung all these “come all ye” songs all the time like I did, you’d be writing, “Come gather ’round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone / The times they are a-changing.”

This is just an amazing description of how traditional texts become new performances. There’s so many themes here for someone, who like me, thinks about hermeneutics–how meaning gets made. But because this is a blog and because I have bigger writing fish to fry, I will simply notice how Dylan’s very productive imagination was funded by a deep immersion in these older songs. Songwriting came from the deep practice of living in these songs. His new songs were not commentary on the old songs, nor were they lessons learned from the old songs. They were instead a new performance of the old songs, a continuation of them, an extension of them.

I think this is precisely how one ought to think about preaching and where sermons come from. They come from a deep and repeated engagement with the biblical texts so that the sermon is not commentary on the old texts, or moral lessons gleaned from the old texts, but a new performance of the text. Preachers don’t or shouldn’t strip mine texts for sermon ideas. Rather, sermons should spring from a deep and long engagement with texts. And here’s the deal. Though these sermons are a re-performance of these ancient texts, like Dylan songs, they seem fresh as today, inventive and alive, unique and new.

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A note for preachers from Paul Ricoeur

I’m up against writing deadlines for my dissertation. So, no time for blogging these days. But in searching for a quote from Paul Ricouer on language, I found this little gem again that has huge implications for preaching. Here, Ricouer is talking precisely about the task of interpreting biblical texts.

“The primary task of a hermeneutics is not to bring about a decision in the reader (listener) but first to allow the world of being that is the ‘thing’ of the biblical text to unfold. In this way, above feelings, dispositions, belief or unbelief, is placed the proposal of a world, which in the language of the Bible, is called a new world, a new covenant, the Kingdom of God, a new birth.”

This, to my thinking, is what constitutes “biblical preaching.” Let those with ears to hear…

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Appealing to the conscience of everyone

I’m not a philosopher or psychologist, so my functional anthropology lacks the precision and care that it deserves. But I’ve often been fascinated by what Paul means by the term “conscience.” It appears in the 2 Cor 4 text that I’ve been writing these meditations on. But the notion of the conscience also features prominently in the Pastorals (1,2 Tim, Titus). (I know this makes any claims about Paul dubious, since authorship of the Pastorals is highly disputed. While I’m open to someone else writing under Paul’s name, I’m more convinced that Paul wrote the Pastorals than Ephesians or Colossians).

In 1 Timothy, Paul urges Timothy to distinguish himself from those who would be teachers of the law. While the law is good, it’s usefulness is primarily for the disobedient, “for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral,” etc. You get the picture. The problem by insisting on the law is that it “shipwrecks” faith and good conscience. It is contrary to “sound doctrine,” literally “healthy words,” which build a capacity in those of faith for faithful judgment.

Now in my faith tradition, we flipped Paul’s notions of sound doctrine to be the black and white things (like the law), which could not be veered from without straying from the faith. For Paul, those who insist on breaking life down into black and white are the ones who shipwreck their faith. The faithful are those whose imaginations are funded with “healthy words” from which faithful judgments can be made. The place where these judgments occur Paul calls the conscience.

I think for Paul, the conscience is like a muscle that can be developed or trained for God. Using the law as a substitute for moral judgement is like always riding a bike with training wheels. It can get you only so far with God and you’ll never really know what riding a bike is like.

Faith depends on the capacity of the conscience to make godly judgments in the innumerable situations we will find ourselves in. To foreclose on this capacity with appeals like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” is to put faith at risk. Though Paul doesn’t say it this way in 1 Tim, I think he would say that this is the place where the Spirit can influence us, change us, guide us. In fact, I wonder if this is what he means in Romans by a “renewing of the mind” which allows the believer to “discern what the will of God is, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

So, when Paul says in 2 Cor 4 that he “appeals to the conscience of everyone,” I think he might have two things in mind. First, unlike the tradition of Sophistry valued by the Corinthians, Paul makes his appeal to something other than people’s affections. He is not trying to secure his audience by flattering or entertaining them. Second, he is trying to build a capacity within them for discernment, for making judgments, for exercising a Christian imagination which will be open to the Spirit in all circumstances. He does not spoon feed his listeners principles for godly living. Instead, he funds their imagination with the gospel so that they can live faithfully in the wildly improvisational art of life.

Posted in 2 Corinthians, Christian practice, conscience, hermeneutics, ministry, missional leadership, missional practice, Paul | 4 Comments