Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Joy of Repetition

One of the classic pieces of cinema that is about the Christmas season is the animated cartoon, by the late Charles Schultz, creator of the comic strip "Peanuts".  The movie is called, "A Charlie Brown Christmas".  There is one scene in this movie that features Linus offering the Christmas text in an extremely nasally, and slightly boring way, "And there were shepherds watching over their flocks by night...and they were sore afraid."  What Schultz captures so well in this movie is the repetitive, almost Ambien sleeping aide quality of the Christmas texts.  We have heard them so many times that they literally put us to sleep.

As I sit down to write this blog post on the eve before Christmas Eve, I have been asking myself a question.  How many times have I preached the Christmas Eve texts?  I think I have come up with an answer of about 20 times.  Of course, that is not counting the multiple times that I preached in some churches on Christmas Eve.  I think there were 6 services (or maybe 7, I can't exactly remember) each Christmas Eve at First Pres. Colorado Springs, and in many other churches there were at least 3.  So, given this consideration, I think I have preached the Christmas texts over 100 times.  I must have heard Christmas sermons texts at least ten times that number in my lifetime.  Over a thousand!

How many times have you heard the Christmas texts?  Are they new to you?  Are they fresh?

My friend and mentor Will Willimon, former chaplain of Duke University, has recently reminded me that part of the power of the Gospel is that there is repetition throughout.  And as a preacher, he has told me that one should not try to come up with something "new" to say, but rather, should find;

The Joy of Repetition

Willimon writes,  "Faithful preaching is always repetitious reiteration, always preaching again" (Undone by Easter, p. 51).

Willimon goes on to point out that many great artists relied heavily on repetition.  Mozart was known to repeat certain phrases of music in his piano concertos as many as 10 times in one piece of music.  Tolstoy is, "known for his deliberate, frequent, and sometimes exasperating repetitiveness."  Wittgenstein said that, "he was only attempting to think what people had already thought."  Plato said that, "all teaching is a form of midwifery."  G.K. Chesterton once said that, "Almighty God is a bit like a young child, saying every single morning to the sun, 'Again!'" (Undone by Easter, p. 56).

Many years ago, when I was at a pastor's conference taught by the great Middle Eastern Bible scholar, Ken Bailey, I will never forget him offering an ancient proverb, "If it's true, then it is not new, and if it's new, then it is not true."  This dictum, from the ancient world is a warning against things that seem innovative or cutting edge when it comes to God.

The biggest mistakes I have ever made in preaching, I think, have been times when I tried to do something creative with a text, and the sermon didn't "work" because I was trying to do something that the text did not really reflect.

Our God is a God who loves repetition.  God created each week to begin with Sabbath (in most Christmas traditions that day is Sunday).  Since the beginning of time there has been a repetition of Sabbath, Sabbath, Sabbath, every seven days.  7, 7, 7, 7...

For the Jewish people, the repetition of the festivals, particularly Passover, was part of its intrinsic holiness.  Since at least the year 1,500 BC, the Israelites have celebrated passover.  By my count that is 3,517 times.

So, as you listen to the Christmas texts one more time over the next couple of days, and find yourself dozing off to sleep, or thinking of other things instead (stockings, parties, presents), remember, that part of the sanctity of our faith is in repetition.  And that there is;

Joy in Repetition

All For Now,


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Internalize Don't Memorize

I wanted to take a bit of a pause from the terrible news of the fires in Ventura County, and now the entire Los Angeles region, to reflect on something more mundane, but perhaps helpful.

After preaching last week at Burlingame Pres. a member came up afterward and asked me how it was possible for me to offer a 25-30 minute Sunday message without notes.  I explained to my friend that it was not really as hard to do as it may seem.  Here are my ideas about how to deliver a long talk without notes.  So, this blogpost is for anyone who does public speaking, preaching, or other forms of declamation in a classroom or a work-room or boardroom.

*  It is always easier to recite your own material from memory, rather than someone else's.  If I had to memorize Shakespeare rather than my own self-generated material ("Et tu Brute?") it would be much harder.

*  The great preacher Mark Labberton, President of Fuller, and also someone who speaks regularly without notes once told me to see a message as a "quiver full of arrows", rather than a fixed set of ideas that had to be communicated in a certain order.  A good speaker comes to the platform with a bunch of arrows.  Not all of them have to be shot in one message.  They don't have to come out of the quiver in any particular order.

*  A good message should be a conversation.  Each week I try to have a conversation with the congregation that I am speaking with.  Just as I don't worry about what to say when I am having a conversation with my 5 year old, Sheena, or my 9 year old, Haley, I don't worry about just having a conversation with a congregation of 600+.

*  I always write my outline out, with one word that would remind me of my point, if I forgot it, on a tiny little envelope sized piece of paper at the back of my Bible.  The goal is to have one word that jogs your memory, if you need a memory jogger.

*  The more you speak, the easier it is.  The best stand-up comedians do monologues in night clubs every single night of the week.  You can only gain a real sense of fluidity when speaking when you do it  A LOT.

*  The best advice I can give is the title of this blogpost:

Internalize Don't Memorize

Memorization occurs at a surface level, and comes and goes almost as quickly as it enters our brains. I knew friends who were good at cramming for an exam in college who could quickly memorize reams of material, and then dispense it into the called for exam, and then forget all of that material by lunchtime.  Internalization occurs at a much deeper level.  When you internalize something it finds a way into the recesses of your heart and soul.  When something is placed in that space of our consciousness, it is ours for the keeping, and for using in any public setting.

All For Now,


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

So Proud and Grateful!

Many of you may have heard by now that my family and I have been impacted, but not (fortunately) touched, by the fires in Ventura County.  By way of giving you a feel for the past 24 hours, let me relate to you the past day's news in a series of bullet points:

*  At 12:30AM last night, I was lying in my bed in Burlingame (where I just preached my first sermon as that church's pastor), dozing off to sleep.

*  At 12:32AM, I was alerted by text that the school that my girls attend in the Foothills of Ventura (Ventura Missionary School), would be closed due to fear of, "smoke inhalation" health issues.

*  At 12:35AM, I texted my wife Star who told me the power was out and that the heat was off and the Ventura was going up in smoke and that Ewan (our 16 month old) was crying uproariously.

*  At 7:30AM, I learned that Star's place of work, Vista Del Mar Hospital had burned to the ground, that several of our best friend's houses had burned to the ground, that 30,000 people were on mandatory evacuation, our children's school, Ventura Missionary School might burn to the ground.  Our worship leader's house might have burned down.

*  At 8:30 AM, I jumped in the car, and instinctively drove straight home.  I asked my very capable church Executive Director (Joan Cleary) and my very capable personal assistant (Heather) to cancel all my meetings, and help me through it.  They pointed me in the right direction and got me on the road.  "Get home," they said, "we will take care of things at the church."

*  At 11:00AM, 3.5 hours of driving time later, (it is a six to seven hour drive from SF to Ventura), I started to become aware that I was a part of a cavalcade of fire trucks that were driving southward from Northern California to help out with the fires in Ventura.

And this is really the major content of my blogpost, except for the very good news that my family is safe and they are sound here on the cusp of the fires (as I write this tonight at 9:58PM on Tuesday).

I have never felt prouder to be a Californian or to be an American.  As I drove down, I kid you not, I was flanked by no less than 50 fire trucks driving down from Northern California to meet the inferno head on.  [Enclosed above is one of the pictures that I took while driving of one small flotilla of fire trucks].  These young men and women and trucks came from cities like Los Gatos, Palo Alto, San Jose, San Francisco, San Mateo, Concord, Fresno, Merced, Madera, Red Bluff, Corning, Redding, and Sacramento.  Truck upon truck were driving south to fight the fires.  The closer we got, the more the impending doom of fires seemed ominous and foreboding.  But they drove headward and onward into the inferno.  As I passed each truck, I gave the young men (20 year olds) a thumbs up and a thank you.  They smiled back.  It brings a tear to my eye to think about it.

So Proud!

*   At 12:00PM, as I was heading into Santa Barbara, I saw thick plooms of smoke billowing through the entire city and area.  This was no small fire.

*  At 3:00PM, I rolled into Ventura to find, and I am not writing hyperbolically, a total WAR ZONE of decimated houses, neighborhoods and hillsides.  Where apartment complexes and middle income homes and grand estates had once stood, now ashen heaps and withered hopes and dreams lay in smoldering piles of soot and sunder.

*  At 3:30PM, when I rolled into my driveway, I cannot tell you the joy and elation that I felt when I picked up my 16 month old son, and held my two daughters and wife in joy and relief that we were all safe and together.  And we are safe here tonight.  Though we are leaving on Thursday, moving away sooner than planned, to evade the potential for personal harm.

But not all have been so fortunate.  My dear friends Bashar and Gada lost their house.   And their parents lost their house.  And others.  Too many to count!  And the numbers are rising.  Ojai is in trouble.

This is not over.

Not by a longshot.  The big winds are forecast to pick up on Thursday at a speed of 70 miles an hour.

But for tonight, I am

So Proud!

And Grateful!

All For Now,