Thursday, November 16, 2017

Swing Change: Growing as a preacher over time.

Swing Change

There is an old saying that if you aren't growing you are dying.  I've been an Episcopal priest for almost 12 years now, and I have been actively preaching even longer.  I felt in the last few years that I was getting into a bit of a rut--using the same catch phrases, mining the same themes, and, most egregiously, ending almost every sermon the exact same way.  I wasn't growing as a preacher anymore, and my preaching was, therefore, in danger of dying on the vine.  

I have recently taken a new call as the Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Fort Oglethorpe, GA.  So, I decided to seize the new context as a chance to overhaul my preaching.  It's equivalent to a long time golfer going through a swing change.  While this is an ongoing process, like a golf swing I am starting to find a new tempo and trajectory.  

Two new things in my preparation are sermon writing playlists and mind maps.  On the delivery side, I am making a commitment to preaching without a manuscript or notes.


The Method

I actually started playing with this idea before I moved, but it's becoming more of a pattern and is beginning to bear fruit.  During the week, as I am meditating on the scriptures--wrestling with them until they yield a blessing, to paraphrase Phylis Tickle--I keep in mind what music comes to mind.  Then, on Thursdays, my sermon writing day, I compile those into a playlist that I play as I write.  If very few tunes came to mind, I'll go searching for tunes related to the themes of the potential sermon.

The Fruit

I was a musician before I was a priest, and I'm still a Christmas and Easter trumpet player, so music stimulates my brain.  This is probably true for everyone biologically, but for me, it is a developed phenomenon because of the decades of playing, listening, practicing, and performing music.  I am finding that both building the playlists and listening while I write helps me form connections between the sections of my sermons.  Thus improving my ability to preach from memory sans manuscript (more on manuscript preaching versus not below).

Mind Mapping

The Method

Mind Mapping was invented by Tony Buzan as a way of taking notes.  It has a lot of other uses which you can read about on his site.  Simply put, it is a way to draw an outline that is more organic than the traditional-linear-vertical outline.  You start with a central idea like "Sunday Sermon" in the middle of the page and then draw branches for major themes out from the central idea.  Then your draw branches off the branches for related ideas and continue to iterate as needed.  You can also add images. My mind map for this coming Sunday, November 19, 2017, is at the top of this post.  

The Fruit

I am finding that the more organic layout of Mind Maps, especially when using different colors and images, enables me to preach without a manuscript or notes.  Now, there is an ongoing debate as to whether preaching from a manuscript is better than preaching without one.  While listeners, of course, have their preferences, the fact is that you will find fantastic preachers who use a manuscript, such as Babara Brown Taylor, and those that do not.  It's more a matter of context and which skills the preacher possesses.  Nativity is a relatively small room and the pulpit is nondescript.  Also, in the interview process, the search committee emphasized that they wanted a rector to "lead from the middle".  Taking these things into account, I decided to preach exclusively from the floor instead of the pulpit while I'm here.  I had been using manuscripts on a music stand but it felt stifling and constricting.  Coupling that dynamic with my desire for a swing change I have begun searching for ways I can prepare to preach sans notes.  The Mind Map helps me memorize the sermon because it is more visual/spatial.  Consequently, by preaching without the manuscript, I am free to be more expressive and engaging.  Babara Brown Taylor is successful as a pure manuscript preacher because her writing is so strong.  But let's face it, very few people write on her level, and certainly not me.  

Now, I in no way want to suggest that my methods are how others should do things.  My hope is that folks are encouraged, if/when they find themselves in a preaching rut, to change their methods of prep and delivery to breath new life into their preaching.  I strongly encourage preachers to try new things.  Go and find the methods that spark your creativity, the ways you can self-trigger your gifts and creativity to better prepare and preach the gospel. 

Lastly, here's this week's sermon writing playlist:

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

I Thessalonians Teaching Series, Session 1 -- It's not about the end of the world!

Below is the script for a video teaching series I'm doing on Facebook Live. I'll post a link to the video at the bottom. 

Good afternoon, I’m Fr. Jason Emerson. This afternoon we are beginning a three-week study of some passages of scripture from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. The texts we’ll be exploring are also the epistle readings for the Sundays during the remainder of November. My intention is to give you a couple of brief thoughts each week to encourage your own reflections. Today I’m going share some background information about the letter in general, then discuss chapter 4 verses 13-18, the reading for this coming Sunday, November 12th.

Commonly dated between 49-51 this letter is both the earliest piece of writing included in the New Testament and the earliest of Paul’s letters that we have. Paul is regarded as the primary writer, though he is writing on behalf of his missionary team: Silvanus, Timothy, and himself. It is a safe assumption that Silvanus and Timothy not only agreed with Paul but presumably also taught the same thing. Therefore we are getting some of the earliest of Christian thought in general and Paul’s theology in particular. So, we can call this letter embryonic Pauline theology. Remember that description, embryonic Pauline theology, it will return later.

Now let’s focus on chapter 4 verses 13-18. This is the passage appointed from the lectionary for this coming Sunday, Nov. 12th. We are reading the end of the chapter and almost the end of the book. There are only five chapters in the book; so, my first encouragement to you is to read the whole letter. You can read it in a half hour or less, and it will give you a feel for how this passage fits into the logic of the whole letter.

So, the passage…

Paul writes:

"We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this, we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words." ~

This passage obviously deals with what we commonly call the second coming of Christ or the end times. It’s one of the most challenging concepts of Christian theology, and sadly one of the most prominent. There is a lot of wonderment about the end times in culture, but on measure very little in scripture. Nonetheless, Paul gives a very detailed description of the Resurrection of the Dead.

Obviously, what Paul describes has not happened yet, and I am even willing to say I do not believe the Resurrection of the dead will happen the way Paul describes. I think it is important for us not to get caught up in the details of the Resurrection instead of Paul’s intentions of encouragement and hope. We need to keep our eyes on the forest, not the trees.

Remember this is early Christian thinking, early and embryonic Pauline thought. It was a common thought amongst the earliest of Christians that Jesus would return before the end of their lifetime. Obviously, as of Paul’s writing, this hasn’t happened and so they must through prayer and faith grow in their understanding and theology. Years later when Paul writes to the Philippians from a jail cell where he assumed his own death was imminent, he writes that in death he will be “with Christ,” implying something different than in his letter to the Thessalonians. It is safe to say, Paul’s theology matures over time.

Therefore, our theology, generally speaking, should mature over time. The point of this passage is hope and encouragement. Like Paul writes later in the Letter to the Romans the point is that no matter what happens to us, even death, we cannot be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

So, I encourage you to take some time and ask yourself where you find Hope and Encouragement, where do you see evidence of God’s presence in your life right now? Paul’s last line is that we are to encourage each other. So, I’ll close by encouraging you to be encouraging to each other. Find creative and joyful ways to assure somebody today and every day that they can not be separated from God’s love. I’ll see you next week online, if not Sunday morning. Until then, may you always know, “God loves you, no matter what.”
Here's the video:

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

When a loaf of bread is prophetic.

This past Sunday a lot of preachers tried to address the tragic shooting and murder of nine members of Mother Emmanuel AME church by a self pro-ported white supremacist.  I commend all of these preachers for attempting to look out over the pews of their own faith community and speak cogently about an incomprehensible act of terror.  I commend my brothers and sisters for standing up and speaking out.  I mentioned the massacre in my sermon as well, but I feel a desire today to say more.

However, before I can say more, I think I should address the question, "Who am I to say anything at all?"  I mean on paper I am just another middle aged white dude who has grown up in a country that privileges middle aged white dudes.  So, do I have something to say, and if so, should I even say it at all?

I think I do have something to say because even though I am a middle aged white dude, that's not all the privilege I have.  For the last six and a half years I have been privileged to serve as the rector of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection (CoR) in North Omaha, NE.  "North O" is the traditionally African-American part of Omaha, which suffers the brunt of systemic racism like many other traditionally African-American neighborhoods in cities all over this country.  More than the geography, more then the location of CoR, it is a privilege to be a part of CoR's history.  29 years ago the white parish of St. John's and the black parish of St. Philip's merged to form the Church of the Resurrection.   The merger was not out of an ideal of reconciling the races however.  No, the merger was about survival.  Both congregations, like so many in the Episcopal Church, had thrived in the 50s and 60s and then began to decline in the 70s and 80s; so much so that joining together was the only way to find a way forward.

It was not an easy way forward though.  It took almost 15 years or more for the people to come together, to no longer think of themselves as two faith communities worshiping together.  It took that long at least for folks to begin to think of themselves as one community, one "culturally diverse family united in God's love."

This is where the prophetic nature of a loaf of bread comes in.  See, we break bread together here at the Church of the Resurrection in complete and total defiance of the "powers that be".  The fallen forces of this world want us to be separate.  They want worship time on Sunday morning to remain, "the most segregated hour in America," as Dr. King said.  Therefore it is prophetic for us to gather around God's Altar and share in the bread and wine that are the body and blood of Christ.  It is prophetic because we then leave that altar to go and be the body and blood of Christ--taken, broken, blessed, and given--to a hurting world in deep need of God's love.

Now that last sentence, might just sound like preacher rhetoric, just nice sounding words that lack much behind them.  That is not the case, at least not in my own life and in the lives of the members of  the CoR faith community.  So much of American society keeps us separated by race and class.  However, praying with and for the members of CoR brings me into deep relationship not just with Black folks, but also Sudanese folks and Puerto Rican Folks, gay folks and straight folks, rich and poor.  If I wasn't serving alongside this faith community, my kids would not have African American Godparents and I wouldn't have a Sudanese Goddaughter.  We live our lives through the Church of the Resurrection as a prophetic vision of what God's Kingdom on earth should look like.

So, I think I have something to say about a way forward after Charleston, because it just as easily could have been CoR that the gunman walked into that night.  I humbly suggest three things we should all do next.  First, please know that systemic racism in this country is about more than a flag.  Certainly the Confederate Battle Flag should come down just as it never should have been raised over the state house in South Carolina.  However, the way that the conversation has been taken over by discussing the flag is a distraction from hearing the voices of those calling for change.  It is easier to talk about a flag than it is to look at our privilege as white people. It is easier to talk about a flag, then to be convicted by the forgiveness that some of the members of Mother Immanuel AME have already offered the shooter.

Which leads us to the second thing we should do: be convicted by grace.  Specifically the grace of God working through those profoundly forgiving members of Mother Immanuel AME.  To be real honest, I do not know if I could do that.  I love the people of CoR deeply and if someone harmed them, it would only be the power of God that could cause me to forgive such a criminal.  Watching and listening to the members of Mother Immanuel is convicting me to search my own heart and aspire to greater forgiveness.  And it should convict us all to do the same.

Lastly, and this is the lesson I have learned at the Church of the Resurrection: We should live together.  I don't just mean segregation should be unlawful.  I mean we should eat together and pray together like the early Christian communities.  I mean we should worship together on Sunday, work with each other during the week, and fellowship with each other on the weekends.  I mean we need to go to the school programs and little league games of the children of our black friends.  I mean we should learn the deepness of relationship with others in an incarnate and functional way.  Black lives matter, not just when we hold up a sign, but when we have personal relationships with actual black people.

While the proceeding paragraph sounds simple, it is not.  Society is set up to keep us apart.  That is why it is prophetic that the Church of the Resurrection exists.  That is why it is prophetic for us to share in the bread and wine of communion; so that we may be the One Body of Christ out in the world.  That is why it is prophetic to be a "culturally diverse family united in God's love."

Friday, April 24, 2015

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Comfort Food of Beers

I haven't done a beer post in awhile; so it's time to get back at it.  At my watering hole yesterday I got enjoy not only the company of some amazing colleagues, but also this HoffBrau House Dunkel.  Sometimes you just need an old school comfort beer.  This Dunkel is perfect for such an occasion.  Malty and smooth with a rich but not over sweet body, this beer is like curling up on the couch with a good book. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

40 Days of Chant, Psalms 37 & 38

I am almost there.  I got two more done today, and I hope to have the last two done tomorrow.  The intent after I get them all done is to compile them with the psalms pointed for chanting into a downloadable edition.  I'll sell the editions from my website  I'll keep you posted for when that will happen.  Here are psalms 37 and 38.