Friday, February 25, 2011

Relational Preaching, Ministry at the Bar, Social Justice

I teach regularly and supply-preach on occasion, which explains my impulse to pause for questions during the sermon! In the classroom, I love to elicit questions, opinions, and ideas from students, but sermons aren't usually so collaborative: often, the main contributions of the congregation are an attitude of worship toward God and an openness for learning and conviction. I was pleased when our pastor surprised us recently: during a sermon series on the Apostles' Creed, he asked worshipers to find someone nearby and chat briefly about the ways our relationship to Christ has changed since childhood. What an effective way to become more involved in the sermon!

How serendiptious when an article in the new issue of Circuit Rider addressed this topic! Here is a link to the entire Feb/Mar/Apr 2011 issue:, and here is a link to the article "Relational Preaching: Conversation and Collaboration in the Postmodern Sermon" by Mary J. Scifres,
Scifres discusses different kinds of sermons and preaching styles, and she shows how sermons can be made more "relational" in order to energize listeners and preachers alike. "Conversational preaching is not for everyone every single week, but it is one more way of relating God's holy word to the living, breathing disciples of Christ, who are striving to live that word each and every day .... Conversation is connection. And connecting to people is often the most rewarding and difficult task pastors and preachers face" (p. 6).

I was also interested in the next article by Jerry Herships, "From Last Call to My Call." Herships moved from bartending to ordained ministry, and he contrasts people's honesty when they talk to a bartender, compared to their reticence to open up in a more pious setting. "When I was talking to people 'over the wood,' I got to hear what was really on their mind ...including the subjects of religion, church, and God. Now that 'Rev.' is part of my title, I am shocked by how different what I am hearing now is from what I heard when I was pouring drinks" (p. 7). He goes on to describe how we can do "ministry at the bar," if (he emphasizes this ministry isn't for everyone) this interests you. "There are few places in the world where it is easier to talk to strangers than sitting next to them in a bar" (p. 8). Here is the link to that article:

THEN (among the several other good articles in this issue), I appreciated the article by Darlene E. R. Resling, "Talking about Justice: Tips for Pastors." Years ago I was chagrined when I read Lyle Schaller's comment (The Multiple Staff and the Larger Church, Abingdon, 1980), that social issues are sometimes delegated as "loser" tasks to the associate pastor so that the senior pastor can take the higher visibility, "winner" tasks of the church. But even if a pastor respects the need to address social issues in a parish context, Resling notes that "[s]ocial justice can be an intimidating concept for pastors to address in the local congregation." She gives helpful advice: Start with Biblical Foundations, Use Denominational Resources, Use the News, and others. And.... here is that link!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Spem in alium"

Reading Gramophone magazine a while back, I found an article by Fabrice Fitch called "Forty Voices" in the February 2010 issue. The article concerned the motet "Spem in alium" by Thomas Tallis. The motet ("Spem in alium nunquam habui," or "In no other is my hope") was written around 1570 and is considered a masterpiece of the period.

Fitch notes that the piece calls for eight choirs of five voices."The piece opens with a short melodic idea in a single voice, which is passed to another, then a third, gradually spreading around the choir like a 'Mexican wave.' As more are added, the opening voices drop out one by one, and eventually the wave reaches Choir 8, whereupon Tallis introduces the full ensemble for the first time. This tutti is short-lived, and after a very few bars the Mexican wave begins again in reverse, from Choir 8 back to Choir 1. This second wave is shorter than the first, and after a brief moment of repose on Choirs 1 and 2, the full texture is joined again, this time at greater length. Roughly at the piece's midpoint, the ensemble separates into four groups of two choirs each, tossing ideas back and forth. These interventions get short and shorter, until a cadence is reached." Here, instead of another full choir, a shorter and final Mexican wave ensures, and then the full choir "returns for its longest and final intervention, traverses in several harmonies before alighting on the final sonority as, one by one, all eight choirs come to a standstill" (p. 59).

This fascinated me, so I downloaded the piece. I don't know why I thought I'd get the same effect on an iPod, duh! It's a pretty piece, and I think it would send chills down one's spine in a live performance, but I'll have to wait till someone performs it to get the wave effect.

I'm no musician but I wonder if recordings are necessarily the next-best-thing to hearing a piece live. My daughter's choir, the Summit Choral Society in Akron, OH, performed Durufle's "Requiem" a few years ago, capped with the motet "Tota Pulchra Es." I downloaded those, but I always "hear" them as if the same choir were singing them in St. Bernard's Church in Akron on a spring evening, when tears rolled down my face.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

News Surfing about Egypt at the B&N Cafe

I had David Letterman on TV before I went to bed the other night. The guest, Tom Brokaw, discussed the recent events in Egypt within the context of our "extraordinary period of populist uprisings" since the fall of the Soviet Union, which in turn liberated millions of people and placed eastern European countries "on the right track." Brokaw noted that "Jeffersonian democracy" and reform hasn't necessarily taken place following the end of despised regimes. The process has not been smooth in the Philippines, South African, and other countries; Russia has a former KGB agent as president; the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s certainly did not result in a democracy. Years after Saddam's ouster, Iraq still works toward democracy. In Egypt now, the military is still in control. Brokaw remarked that, when comparing democracies and dictatorships, the differences are qualitative rather than quantitative.

The next day, sitting at my favorite Barnes and Noble cafe, I started with a couple of online articles and then made a little "journey" among other articles. Starting with two religion sources, I found Christianity Today's blog, where Timothy Morgan reported (Jan. 30, 2011) that one Coptic priest "has expressed his view that Christians should take part in peaceful protests in order to show solidarity with the thousands of Egyptians who are in the streets protesting for President Mubarak to leave office immediately." Later in the article, the reporter noted that at that time, "It was unclear if evangelical churches in central Cairo were at risk." (; accessed 2/15/11).

Steven Thorngate, writing for The Christian Century blog, meanwhile notes that even though he wants to work for justice, he also prays for justice because his own effects are so small compared to God's power. On the other hand, when President Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast that "we pray that the violence in Egypt will end," Thorngate wishes Obama would use his tremendous influence to help direct Egyptian events: for instance, "by increasing pressure on ...Mubarak to step down immediately---under threat of cutting the rather massive military aid the U.S. sends Egypt's way." But however the Egyptian events evolve, a related question, Thorngate notes, is America's need to get "our own house in order when it comes to human rights," since America's "foreign policy is idealistic in rhetoric but pragmatic in fact, and it's always strategic to pick a winner." (; accessed 2/15/11).

Those comments made me "surf" some more, to a piece Jackie Northam, "Mubarak's Fall Spurs Calls to Rethink U.S. Policy." Northam writes, "The U.S. gave unwavering support to Mubarak because, among other things, he backed the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace accord, considered critical to stabilizing the region. Analysts say that treaty and other U.S.-backed policies enraged Egyptians and many others in the Middle East." Northam quotes Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute of Columbia's School of International Public Affairs: "People have feelings about American policies--they have very strong feelings...I think we should take those views seriously. It doesn't mean American policy is going to be determined by Middle Eastern public opinion, but in so far as countries in that region are able to develop credible democracies, the United States is going to have no alternative but to at least respect those opinions, even if it doesn't necessarily agree with them." Northam quotes another authority, James Zogby of the Arab American Institute, who believes the Middle Eastern public sees the U.S.'s support of Israel and would like the U.S. to treat other Middle Eastern countries the same. Meanwhile, according to Northam's piece, Israelis have worried about the effect of Middle Eastern peace if the U.S. distances itself from Egypt and Jordan. (; accessed 2/15/11).

That led me to think of a Newsweek cover story, published in the mid-00s about emerging movements for democracy in the Middle East. I don't have a copy and couldn't immediately find the article online, but I did find an interesting piece by Niall Ferguson in the current Newsweek, "Wanted: A Grand Strategy for America," wherein Ferguson sharply criticizes President Obama. When the "revolutionary wave of Middle Eastern democracy" swept Iran in 2009, "he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations." In the case of Egypt, the President did not support Mubarak (dismaying the Saudis) but also did not lend "support to the youthful revolutionaries" and seek "to ride it in a direction advantageous to American interests." Meanwhile--as Northam noted--Israelis feel insecure what will happen. (; accessed 2/15/2011).

I also found another Newsweek piece from last year, by Joshua Kurlantzick, "How Democracy Dies," subtitled, "A global decline in political freedom is partly the fault of the middle class (March 12, 2010). Kurlantzick notes once the war on terror began, the West shifted attention from 1990s democratization movements. Unfortunately the Iraq war, and its connection to Iraqi democratization, "tainted" democracy among many Middle Easterners. But he also notes that the middle class in developing countries linked democracy with the recent economic downturns and thus have not encouraged democratization. He comments that "on nearly every continent, democracy is sputtering out," and he names the Philippines, Cambodia, Russia, Venezuela, and Kenya as examples.
(; accessed 2/15/2011). Brokaw's similar perspective is more hopeful.

An aspect of world movements worth watching is the increasingly widespread use of communication media. Lance Ulanoff's article in PC Magazine, "What Do Egypt and Jeopardy! Have in Common?" noted the role of social media in the Egyptian protests. Although one can't really call the protests a "Twitter/Facebook revolution," since the protests continued after the Egyptian government ended Internet access, the role of social media in the formative stages of revolution are still notable.
(,2817,2380392,00.asp; accessed 2/15/2011.) In his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman has already described the role of the Internet in globalization---scarily, in the recruitment of young men to groups like al-Qaeda. If the events of Egypt develop into a viable democracy, we may see an interestingly "Jeffersonian" aspect of communication technology in globalization.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Bible's Second Most Important Character?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Keeping House

My mother remembers that, when I was young, I was a bit of a slob. She was startled that I kept my first house pretty tidy. She saw no evidence in my childhood of this sudden expression of cleanliness. I'm sure that, like most children, I didn't have good housekeeping skills. But children aren't automatically neat; they have to be taught, encouraged, and bullied into this habit, and perhaps the training will someday take effect. It did with me.

Since my wife has a demanding job with very long days, I try to care for the house. We also have a professional cleaning service, but there are always dishwashing, picking-up, laundry, waste-basket-emptying, and other daily chores between the cleaning team's visits. Much of my own professional work--commissioned writing, other writing projects, and preparation for college classes--is done at home. So my mind and heart are divided among the work I need to do.... and washing bath towels. I do like this saying of the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, which has become a motto for me: "If you hold your head in the air and think great thoughts when you should be doing the obvious chores in life, the great thoughts won't come." I've known colleagues who impose upon underlings chores that they should at least occasionally shoulder, if for no other reason than to keep their heads level to the earth.

One's house becomes messiest when one has less time to devote to it, which dampens one's enthusiasm for the work. But keeping house can be therapeutic, too. When I'm downhearted or have a problem I can't yet fix, I'll go through the house and "pick up." I'll strip and make the beds. I'll even tidy up the basement, always low on the list of household priorities. Cleaning house gives me a mild sense of control, of being in charge.

We're cat people, so part of housekeeping entails cleaning abandoned fur. Our little buddy Domino shed with impunity; considering all the white and black hair on the floor, I marveled that he wasn't bald. Our other cat Oddball, and our present cat Taz, shed much less; at least there aren't many "tumbleweeds" of cat hair beneath furniture and along baseboards.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke felt an overwhelming sense of wonder at his furniture as he polished it. "I felt moved, as though something were happening, something, to tell the truth, which was not purely superficial but immense, and which touched my very soul. I was an emperor washing the feet of the poor, or Saint Bonaventure, washing dishes in his convent." The humility of his work, the goodness of work, gave him a spiritual sense of glory. I wish I felt that way more often when I've my "Homer Formby" in one hand and a rag in the other!

There is a popular conception of Benedictine spirituality that links work and prayer (but see I've tried praying while housecleaning, but it's more difficult (for me) to focus upon intercessory petitions. Sometimes I can do the next best thing: getting my mind in a prayerful sense of peace instead of a regretful ingratitude for everyday chores.

Keeping house can also give one a feeling of security. Several years ago, the comedian George Carlin had a routine about one's "stuff." when one checks into a motel, one puts one's "stuff" in a certain place and says proudly, "This is my stuff!" Everything else in the room belongs to someone else but this stuff is mine! We like to be in the presence of our own things, our own keepsakes, kept for the sake of beauty, memories, pride of ownership or whatever. We keep them, and keep them clean, like we keep a promise. Our "stuff" gives us a sense of identity. My and my family's house, for instance, contains antiques from my hometown.

I remember my great-aunt Ruth kept her house spotless. If she was reading a book, she put it back on the shelf rather than leaving it out. Those habits gave her satisfaction. I used to marvel at that, but I'm becoming that way more and more. Being proactive saves time later. But one of the hazards of a very busy life is that one forgets what tasks lie ahead, so I usually have a few neat piles of projects at hand. For instance, right now I've our tax materials in a pile as I do computations to give to our preparer. Writing projects, books to read, bills to pay, form piles placed strategically around the house. You know you're too busy when you dust and clean around those piles from week to week!

Having one's house on the market provides an element of stress to housekeeping. If no one but you sees the house, you can keep it as tidy as you want, with elbowroom for imperfection. But if strangers are scheduled to traipse through your house, with the aim of purchasing the house, you feel like you have to pick up more diligently, lest the potential buyers say, "Well, it's not very clean, so I'll offer a few thousand dollars less." One time I had to rent a storage room for a couple months when a realtor stated that a few storage plastic boxes, kept in the basement, would have to go. Or, insidiously, you fear the censure of people who may disapprove of your skills as a housekeeper, as if that reflected upon your character.

We do fear coming up short, even as we avoid elusive perfection. As Wendell Berry puts it, “One is afraid that there will be no rest until the work is finished and the house is in order, and the farm is in order, the town is in order, and all loved ones are well.”

Perhaps that was the problem of Martha, in that famous Gospel story of her and the contemplative Mary. Jesus did not correct Martha’s work, or her desire to work hard, but rather her fearfulness and fretfulness. That Christ doesn’t go over our work with a white glove, but instead looks to the place and the peace of one’s heart, is something all busy housekeepers can happily ponder.


Vaughan Williams is quoted in Michael Kennedy, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (London, 1980), 234-235.
Rilke is quoted in Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston, 1969), 70-71.
See also Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (San Francisco, 1990), 12.

(This essay first appeared in Springhouse magazine and in my book Journeys Home.)