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: