Monday, September 26, 2016

The Year Of Living Biblically

Not too long ago, a book came out, by author A.J. Jacobs (pictured above), editor and writer for Esquire Magazine entitled - The Year of Living Biblically.  The book, as the title suggests, chronicles Mr. Jacobs' year-long quest to live his life exactly according to Biblical laws and precepts.  Born and raised a secular Jew, and who now self-identifies as an "agnostic" - Jacobs decided to see what it would be like and what would be involved in trying to live his life not only by the major tenets of the Bible (the Ten Commandments), but also to live by the myriad of small tenets found in the book of Leviticus and other priestly writings.

The examples of how Jacobs lives his life for one entire year, taking direction only from the Bible, are at the same time both hilarious and poignant.  For example, Jacobs decides that he will not lie or gossip or slander for an entire year, but runs into trouble with this, because as a journalist he, in his own words, "I pretty much lie and gossip and slander" for a living.  He tries to wear clothes that do not have multiple kinds of material - so he essential wears white for a year - even wearing a full "Jesus-like" robe to work.  He grows out his beard.  He hangs out with Hasidic Jews.  He tries to not lie ever, but finds that this begins to interfere with his marriage, as small-white lies are the seedbed of every good relationship ("you look wonderful today honey...").

Perhaps the most comical example of Jacobs' attempt to live his life by entirely Biblical precepts is when he is in a park one day, and he encounters an older man who he learns has been in an affair - who has committed adultery.  The older man says, "you probably are going to have to stone me now."  Jacobs, having saved up rocks in his pocket for just such an occasion proceeds to throw stones at the man, only to have them thrown back at him.

In terms of insight and life-change, Jacobs says that what he found fascinating was that as he was living his life on the "outside" by Biblical precepts, he noticed that slowly but surely he began to live his life on the "inside" in a slightly different way.  The outer activities began to impact, in a significant way, the inner life.  And so, not cussing, trying to love his neighbor, playing a "10 stringed harp", actually began to change his life in positive ways.  At the end of his - "year of living Biblically", Jacobs eventually joined a synagogue.  He hastens to add, not because he believed in God, but because he found the community of believers to be helpful for him personally.

One thought that did occur to me, as I have been musing about this book is that in some ways, Jacobs, though well-meaning and good-intentioned in his pursuit of Biblical living, has sadly missed the entire point of the Bible.  The Bible was not meant to be lived or read as a book of rules, codes, laws, edicts and tenets for good living.  The Bible is not an ancient example of Benjamin Franklin's "Farmer's Almanac".  The Bible/faith is not a set of moralistic teachings.

Essentially, Christianity is based on one single and all important concept - a relationship with God (for Christians - that is Jesus).  Without the relationship, there really is no point to the precepts and teachings and laws and rules.  The teachings of God don't make sense, and are silly when viewed as simply a set of codes.  While I don't mean to beat up on Mr. Jacobs, who has at least tried to live his life Biblically (a practice that more of us Christians, including myself, should try to do more consistently), he may have missed the forest through the trees.  The "forest", to continue the analogy, of Christianity is the relationship with God, the "trees" are the ethics, laws and edicts of the faith.

What I have been intrigued about, however, is the question of whether living the edicts of the faith can actually eventually lead to a relationship with God.  I wonder whether it is possible to develop a discipline for God (the laws), even before one develops a relationship with God (faith).  To use another analogy, is it possible to fall in love with a girl by first studying the biological make-up of a human being?  Is it possible to learn to speak a language by only learning the grammar of the language?  Is it possible to sing a song by only knowing the notes in whatever random order they may occur?

I am not sure about this, but I hate to say that I doubt it.  The disciples of the faith are in many ways on a totally separate track from the relationship of the faith.  The rules of the faith can be acquired through basic attention and discipline (AKA the Pharisees).  The relationship of the faith can only be acquired through a leap and a risk-taken.  As Kierkegaard said, "Faith is like being suspended over 10,000 leagues of ocean."

But, now that my blogpost is written, I will go back to playing my 10 stringed harp, and eating my breakfast of locusts and wild contemplate this question more deeply

All For Now,


Monday, September 19, 2016

The Preaching Emmys

Last night was the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards.  I must admit that between holding a baby, flipping back and forth between football and looking for funny out-takes of Jimmy Kimmel who was this year's host, I was only half watching the annual awards show this year.  One fact did emerge from last night's show that I have been contemplating - that is - that there were 409 scripted television series last year - more than ever before in the history of TV.  And there are more platforms for these scripted shows than ever before (HBO, Starz, Showtime, ABC, NBC....).

One of the newest platforms for scripted television series is Netflix.  Netflix has not only begun provide content of other media outlets, but they have begun to produce content ("House of Cards" is the most famous).  The CEO and co-founder of Netflix, Reed Hastings, was recently musing on how much content was out there when it comes to movies and content.  He said, "The really hard part about putting out media content today is that because of the internet and so many other media outlets, you aren't just competing with one or two other shows, you are competing with every series, show, movie, and cinematic offering that has ever been produced."  So, for example, if you are looking for a show to watch on a Saturday night, it isn't just "House of Cards" and "VEEP" that is available.  You are competing with, "Gone With the Wind", "Star Wars", "ET", "Citizen Cane" and "Cheers".  In today's media world, the world is our oyster, and all options are open to us any night of the week.

As a pastor who preaches regularly in the modern media world, I have found the same is true of preaching.  When you are preaching each week in a local congregation, you are not just being compared to the preacher down the street, or around the corner at First Baptist or Grace Lutheran, you are being compared to every preacher that has ever preached!

Recently, as I was standing at the back door of church at Goleta Presbyterian, where I now regularly preach, a man came up to me and said, "I really liked what you said in your sermon Graham about 'God Being With Us' - it reminds me of a sermon I heard on Tuesday from Peter Marshall about 'God With Us'".  "Oh, thank you," I said, "were you a member of Peter Marshall's church in Washington DC back in the 1940's?"  "No," said my friend, " heard him this past Tuesday on the Web.

Another woman came up to me after this to say that she disagreed with a point in my message from the week before, that Joyce Meyers had recently preached and had offered the opposite view from me on a particular subject.  "Oh, Ok, thank you for that," I said, "I love Joyce Meyers.  Did you see Joyce Meyers in Anaheim when she was speaking here?"  "No," she said, "I listened to her on the way to your church this morning, I heard her right before you."

It goes without saying that we live in a world that is literally boundary-less when it comes to public media offerings.  And that media has opened up whole new inroads for church-goers who want to hear a compelling message on Sunday.  And I get it, each week, my wife Star and I attend Holy Trinity Brompton in London (Nicky Gumbel) on the Web.    

In some ways having so many options seems to have the tendency to dull our senses and our ears and hearts by the weight of sheer overload.  In some ways the plethora of media options and preaching samples opens up huge new inroads of possibility.

All For Now,


Monday, September 12, 2016

The Power Of A Village

On this, the evening after the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attack, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on a more serious topic of global magnitude.  Namely, how we can move forward as a nation and a world given the continued threat and uprising of violent extremists (known to some as "jihadists") and all things terroristic and destructive.  Here's the good news and the really bad news.  The good news and the bad news is that we, in the West, can really not, to any substantial degree, do anything about it.  We cannot negotiate terrorism into submission, we cannot mitigate terrorism into submission, we cannot bomb terrorism into submission. These problems, namely located in the Middle East, predate America by many thousands of years.  The answers and the solutions must arise from the same places from whence the conflicts emerge.  We must discover once again,

The Power Of A Village

Tom Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the New York Times, recently reflected on this very dynamic, and his experiences of being in the Middle East during the Intifada and of speaking with leaders of both Muslim and extremist Islamic countries.   While he was on assignment in the Middle East during the 9/11 attacks, a wise leader told Tom Friedman that there was effectively nothing that America could do to stop these calamities.  He said that the only way these problems could be solved is if the countries and the cultures that were producing these terrorists would have the courage to dig down deep and to confront the terrorists themselves.  In short, "the village would have to rise up and confront these challenges of the village."  That, there is:

The Power of A Village

Having reflected on Tom Friedman's brilliant thoughts for the past 24 hours, I have to concur.  If two people, who you do not know, earnestly want to have a fight with one another, there is pretty much nothing that you can do to stop them from having a fight.  And, if an individual emerges from a community that is fighting within itself, that wants to do harm to others, there is nothing that can be done to stop that person.  But, on the other hand, if there is someone in a group who is causing problems, but the group decides that that person will not be allowed to cause problems any longer, the group can always rise up, and sequester that individual.  It's:

The Power of A Village

On a much smaller scale from global terrorism, I will never forget a situation my father once told me about in one of the churches he served in his ministry.  I will not mention the church specifically, or the exact situation, but I will say that the main perpetrator of the problems in that church was a person named Ivan.  For the purposes of this blog post, we will call him "Ivan the Terrible".  Ivan was against everything that my Dad was trying to do in this church.  Children's Ministries, good management, healthy structures, Ivan was against all of it.  Ivan was against everything - period!  If there was a new idea, Ivan was against it.  One day, so the story goes, there was an "All Church Work Day".  The whole church were assembled on a Saturday afternoon to work on the church grounds.  Ivan came on that day not to plant flowers, but to plant negativity.  Ivan moved from one group to the next saying negative things.  Dad intuitively knew that many of these negative comments were about him.  But he didn't know what to do about it.

But then, all of a sudden, an incredible thing happened.  A handful of eight of the most wise and sagacious members of the church all walked up to Ivan.  They circled him, and the spoke to him.  The appearance of this conversation across the entire church yard was serious.  No one will know for sure what exactly was said during that meeting - but one thing was certain.  After the group conference of "The Village Leaders", Ivan got in his car and he peeled out of the church parking lot, and he drove himself home.  Ivan was never negative again.  Why?  Because Ivan heard the voice of God and decided to turn his heart towards holiness?  No.  Because of:

The Power of the Village

One of the things I have noticed as a father of two young daughters (4 and 8) is that I have a choice between either being a "referee father" or an "encouraging coach father".  If I play the role of the referee, I will be sitting in my office and hear the girls playing and one person will do something mean to the other person and I will have to constantly say; "Hey, don't do that, that's not ok, be nice..."  But, on the other hand, if I play the role of the "encouraging coach father", when I hear them playing well and getting along, I say, "Hey, you guys are playing so great together, I'm so impressed."  What I mean by this is that "The Village" (even the village of two youngsters in my nuclear family) has an ability to regulate itself, and to modify its own behavior much better than I can do.  It's:

The Power of the Village

Sadly, it won't be until the communities that produce the terrorists in the world can rise up, and like the church work day that I experienced as a youth, circle around the bully of "Ivan the Terrible" and decide that that behavior is not acceptable, and must be brought to heal, that terrorism will really find an end in this world.  In the mean time we can all build our own healthy villages that play among ourselves with health and love and life.

All For Now,


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Preaching With A Baby

I promised that eventually I would have something to share about how having a new baby has impacted my life and ministry.  So, here it is the first installment:-)

Preaching With A Baby!

Every weekend that I have offered messages on a Sunday morning, for the past 16 years now (gulp, that's a long time), I have always made to sure to take some time to practice my Sunday message, the day before, on Saturday.  I don't "practice" delivery technique, the way that, for example, Rev. Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie might have in a previous era.  Mostly, I work on memorizing the message and hearing with my own ears how a message ebbs and flows.  Speaking a sermon out-loud helps me to hear how the congregation hears the message on a Sunday morning.  Often, content that I think is just fantastic on paper, ends up not being not so great when it is spoken.  Ideas that I think seem like logical linkages don't link when I actually hear them in my ear.  So, I have taken each Saturday, for 16 years now, to stand in my office, or sanctuary, or garage and practice my message.

This past Saturday, during the time that I normally practice, I was on baby duty.  Not only was I on baby duty, but Ewan (our 6 week old) was crying more than usual.  He was very fussy.  How was I going to calm a baby down and practice my sermon at the same time?  The answer was, very carefully!

Rather than preaching my sermon in the usual fashion of sort of a "preaching voice, guy from the front style", I had to modify to be much more baby friendly.  I had to deliver my message with a simple softness, a quiet calming baby voice, a soothing comforting voice of solace and tranquillity.  "Good morning," I said, as I rocked Ewan in my arms and held a bottle to his lips, "We are on the third week of our series called, Rio: Embracing God's Rivers Of Mercy" - (waaaaaa!!!!!).  "Ok, ok, hush little baby don't say a word, mama's gonna buy you a...ok that's good, sweet baby..." (Much quieter this time, and in a sing song voice), "Gooood morning....We are on the third week of our storrrry called, RIIIOOO."  Presto, Ewan was asleep.

So, how did,

Preaching With A Baby

change the way I preached my sermon last week?  I hasten to add that I did not bring Ewan up front with me as I preached my actual message before the congregation.  And you will have to ask my congregation if the message that I preached was more or less effective.  but here's a few ideas that came to me:

It's Different Actually Being In the Presence of A Fragile Little Living Thing
To hold a baby in your arms is to hold a very fragile little life form in your arms.  You sense how vulnerable a child is, and how each little movement has to be done with very careful delicacy.  Preaching to "adult people" is also an act of preaching to people who are fragile.  Preaching to real people, is an activity which must be undergone with tenderness and delicacy.  All people's souls are fragile, and speaking to them must be done with the sense that the souls that are listening are doing so from a place of sometimes being injured and tender and raw.  We must be careful when we preach to not do any harm to the people who are listening.

No Quick Jerky Motions and Transitions
Moving quickly or speaking in an abrupt way which goes from one idea to the next quickly woke up my son, Ewan.  But if an idea flowed and was consistent and clear and was seamless, he stayed calm and asleep.  Jerky transitions were jarring, smooth movement was comforting.  I once asked the great preacher John Ortberg what his main key to great preaching was.  He said, "transitions," and recommended a book called, "Homiletics: How It Moves And Transitions".  The problem with most sermons is not that they have too few ideas, but that they have too many, that are underdeveloped and move in a jerky transitional way.

Lose the Preaching Voice
I have tried for a long time not to ever have a "preaching voice" that is different than a normal speaking voice.  And yet, a "preaching voice", though I don't want it to, just sometimes creeps in.  You think you are speaking in a normal voice up front, when all of a sudden you say something like, "And thus the problem is that we tarry a little too much along the way..." and you have adopted a preaching voice, and lost the congregation.  When I spoke my sermon in a calm voice Ewan stayed calm, when I preached it in a "preachy voice" he woke up and cried.

Preaching in the midst of children of all ages changes the entire tone and content of a message.  Jesus loved having children around when he preached, which means that he must have preached in a kind, warm, soft, soothing way.  When others told Jesus to send the children away, so that he could speak just to the adults (presumably in a preaching voice), Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and don't stop them.  For the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like these children." Matthew 19:14.  

Next week, I will continue this theme in my next blog post, and some thoughts on the connection between taking an offering while changing a diaper...

All For Now,