Archive for category Say Something Nice

The Simple Gift of Attention an Antidote to Abstraction – Gregg Jarrell

On a Tuesday afternoon, Dave knocked on the door. His weathered face was covered in tears, his head held low. Dave is gruff even on his most pleasant days, always edges and elbows. This day, the sharpness was gone.

“I’ve hit bottom today,” he told me. “I’ve lived a rough 50-some years, and this day is the day I’m ready for it to come to an end.”

His head drooped lower. The dusty porch floor caught his tears. Between his sighs, he kept talking; the series of misfortunes, still piling up, had all collapsed into a single Tuesday afternoon. I just sat there, useless except to provide cool water and a snack.

And two ears.

Dave laughed at one point. He was holding the children’s book that was on the table next to him, which he had been reading while I was in the kitchen. Johnny Appleseed. He read me a page that tickled him. “That’s the first time I’ve laughed in weeks,” he said.

Concerned for him, and knowing my own limitations – I’m a pastor, not a mental health professional – I offered to take Dave to a crisis center where they could help him get reconnected with himself and treat any physiological or chemical issues before he returned home on his own. When we arrived, we walked in together and exchanged a hug. I watched as he shuffled behind a nurse, down the hallway and into a treatment room.

“Our attention is especially rich when lavished on those whom the world ignores.”

None of my actions was remarkable in any way. I just sat down and paid attention. And yet I’m aware of how rare attention is in this wired world. Attention is a gift, but I often withhold it, usually for reasons I cannot explain. That afternoon on my porch was an exception to the way I usually move about on my block.

I know I am not alone in this. The world constantly trains us into distraction. Buzzing, noise, notifications. “How’s that book?” my wife asks sarcastically, seeing the book lying open, face-down on the table as I stare at my mobile phone. Reading for a few minutes is not simple. It requires conscious effort – silencing gadgets, quieting children, hiding from the basket of clean laundry that needs folding. It is easier to drown in the distractions.

Sustained, uninterrupted attention is an unusual gift, both to ourselves and to others. It may be the thing that saves us. The moment of pure attention contains within it the possibility of a future worth having.

”Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer,” Simone Weil writes in Gravity and Grace. It is the seed of a revolution, a break from the fantasies of distraction and the alienations of rumination. Our attention is especially rich when lavished on those whom the world ignores. It makes us active creators of the world we want to live in, the one of justice and equity and beauty.

“An antidote – maybe the antidote – to abstraction and alienation is to return to the tangible: neighbor, porch, story; park bench, stranger, song; table, bread, wine.”

The future we long for begins in the present – often on a porch, or maybe a park bench or perhaps around a kitchen table. Along the way, true attention touches every place. It especially touches those places where the concentration of wealth and power have isolated people from themselves and one another. In those places, neighbors are an abstraction at best, and enemies at worst.

Culture and policy begin to reflect the impulse against neighborliness as the powerful exert their will through political and economic institutions and willful blindness. The current trajectory of the United States, moving headlong toward human rights atrocities, is fueled by the abstraction of neighbors. In the soul deadened by excess, there are no stories worth hearing, no life that matters but your own. There is no porch, no park, no commons.

The only place that matters is the balance sheet. Nothing is sacred but money, nothing worth sustained attention but the making of it.

An antidote – maybe the antidote – to abstraction and alienation is to return to the tangible: neighbor, porch, story; park bench, stranger, song; table, bread, wine. Paying attention to the details of the person nearby does not fix everything, but we won’t fix anything without that sort of careful attention.

Dave came back a few days later. He is better for now, but he is still alone. In a crisis, a trained professional will help. But for the mundane days, the ones where discontent simmers without boiling over, where folks stumble from one distraction to the next, what Dave needs is not a professional but a neighbor.

I suspect that is what we all need. The best neighborhoods are the ones that help us to tell good stories about ourselves. They are the spaces where we pay close attention to the details – where the birds nest, how long the pothole repair took, when we last saw Miss Evelyn on her porch. Our lives get caught up in those places. We get rooted in them, and they sustain us.

Neighbors know you with a casual intimacy. They know your schedule, how you greet your kids when they get off the bus, what music you blast while cleaning the house, what color flowers you tend to plant. Those daily acts of noticing – of attention – make the world a bit more gentle. They help us to tell better stories about ourselves.

“The best neighborhoods are the ones that help us to tell good stories about ourselves.”

A good neighborhood makes it easier to find someone who can tell you about the goodness of your story on the days you cannot see it for yourself.

Without neighbors, and without the careful attention that a good neighborhood encourages, people don’t know how to tell their stories well. A human needs to be seen, to be heard, to have a voice to sing in harmony with. For that, we have stories, and we have porches.

We have the choice to listen, and to live in the way of peace.


OPINION: VIEWS EXPRESSED IN BAPTIST N

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Comic and Preacher Pens How-To Book on Sermon Prep  

Susan Sparks reflects on humor that is joyful and therapeutic in her book, “Preaching Punchlines.”

She is not speaking of humor that is scornful, rude, hateful or judgmental, but humor that lifts us up and honors. She quickly banishes any thoughts that she is advocating delivering sermons that are theologically light.

Sparks, who is pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, knew that her calling was to be a pastor at age 6.

Yet, her dreams were ridiculed and squelched by religious leaders in her native Southern Baptist upbringing, and so she delayed that dream until mid-career after becoming a successful attorney.

She delights in being a pastor, and this book stresses the hard work that delivering a sermon, speech or comedy routine requires. She is part of a standup comedy troupe that includes a rabbi and an imam.

The heart of the book is the fifth chapter, in which she demonstrates the humor of Jesus in example after example.

Sparks is enthusiastic about how Jesus uses ordinary circumstances to connect with his audience.

He uses every technique available: exaggeration, humor, voice, irony, timing, silence, parables and repetition to capture his listener’s attention.

Follow Jesus’ example, she urges. Use every means possible including humor. This is important because the audience will remember only 10% of what you say.

Providing step-by-step instructions on sermon preparation, she emphasizes always keeping your congregation in mind. What are members of your congregation interested in? What keeps them awake at night? What’s going on around you?

Observe people and listen to them, she advises. Always keep a notebook or recording device with you. Make a note about your observations. Develop a file system that will let you find illustrations that you have experienced, observed or read about. Talk about the hard stuff.

She stresses that congregations need more than they can Google. They need to be given real food by someone they trust.

“A sermon is bigger than us,” she writes. “In its purest form, a sermon should be a message inspired from a higher power given through you to a congregation. God is the power source. If we don’t feel the power, it’s not God.”

Learn to write like a comedian, Sparks says. Build your scenario. The punch line comes last. Wait a moment to let it sink in before you start talking again.

Boil your sermon down to your core message. Put that at the top of your page. Read your sermon out loud at least twice. This will help you weed out unnecessary words or extraneous material.

Narrow your sermon to what is direct and necessary for your one-line summary. Reserve the rest for another time.

Finally, she follows and recommends the practice of praying your sermon out loud.

One commandment Sparks gives is the one many ministers ignore, but its observance is essential: “Thou shalt not be exhausted by the Sabbath.” Rest and sleep are essential.

Sparks believes that being given an opportunity to preach before a community of faith is one of the highest honors one can receive. If one is to perform at her or his best, time apart, rest and reflection are mandatory.

So, she emphasizes that ministers must take a day off. Get away. At least stay away from the church once in a while. She and her husband take motorcycle trips.

Always remember why you are doing what you are doing, she says. Tap into the source. Always keep a copy of your sermons. Review them, taking note of common themes. What excites you? What do you preach about most often?

Her final commandment is my favorite, “Thou shalt have joyous communication.” This is true for comedians, motivational speakers and preachers. “No matter how we feel, we must radiate joyous communication into the rafters and far corners of the sanctuary.”

As I travel around and hear sermons from preachers in various denominations, this element most often is missing. Where is the joy of living the Christian life?

I already know my failures. If the joy is lacking in your speeches or sermons, Spark’s book will lift your spirits and help you rekindle your zest for preaching.

She reminds us that we are enough, and that God always has our back.

“Preaching Punchlines” contains ample references and numerous QR codes that allow you to scan even more. This book is pure gold for anyone who wishes to improve her or his sermons.

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“Religious Liberty” is being hijacked; Rev. Dr. Molly Marshall – BaptistNewsGlobal

It is much easier to sit in front of my computer screen and opine about government, politicians, policies and the challenge of living in a democratic municipality than it is to enter the political process as one voice among others. It is much easier to limit my engagement to spaces and contexts where most are in agreement. It’s easy to sit in our Sunday school classes and talk about our responsibilities in the public square. It’s much harder to actually move from theoretical advocacy to responsibly and faithfully inhabiting those places where decisions are made about the common good.

I recently had such an opportunity as the city in which I live was debating whether or not we need a nondiscrimination ordinance to protect LGBTQ persons in our community. I went to a public meeting as a private citizen, as a person of faith with clear convictions about justice and as a religious figure who serves as president of a seminary that resides in the area the city council oversees. I went as one voice among others (which is always helpful to those of us given to pontification).

Members of our community had been working on this for more than a year. It takes great patience and strategic thinking to make policy change. As one who came late to this movement, I grew in respect for those who have labored to garner support and sift what is at stake. They are serving the common good in ways that may surpass some of our faith communities that are more insular.

I was pleasantly surprised by the level of civility. No one clapped, hissed or booed. Persons listened attentively to those with whom they disagreed on the nature of human sexuality, religious freedom and public accommodation. And we stayed a very long time in order to give each one opportunity to present perspectives on the proposed ordinance. I found myself on the opposite side of some other clergy, especially Roman Catholics, which was painful since I care intensely about unity of the Body of Christ.

I felt it important to stress that persons of faith can find inclusive ways to express their own religious freedom. It requires empathy and attentiveness to those whose experience we may not understand. I spoke about the journey our school has been on, seeking to be nondiscriminatory in all our functions.

“We must work to preserve human dignity and religious liberty for all.”

For the past seven years, Central Baptist Theological Seminary has had a non-discriminatory policy that names gender identity and sexual orientation. Our board is far from a wild-eyed liberal group; rather they are sober, faithful people who believe in religious liberty, justice and compassion. They acknowledged that we know a lot more today about human sexuality than when the Scriptures were penned. We believed it was the right position for a school that prepares leaders for ministry.

Some in attendance at the city council meeting were stunned that “a Baptist can be open minded,” as one put it, after I articulated our institutional perspective. The popular (and rather monolithic) conception of who Baptists are is less than admirable.

I presented a few brief words of witness from the perspective of religious liberty, especially as the rhetoric of discrimination is heating up nationally, kindled by the Trump administration. Reportscontinue to surface that the president is asking the Supreme Court to legalize workplace discrimination against gay employees.

Religious liberty does not mean persons can do whatever they please. We live in community as citizens in a democracy that has both legal and social obligations. The free exercise of religion is within a larger commonwealth, which has implications for the religious liberty of others.

Thus, the limits of religious liberty have to do with whether or not its exercise causes harm to another. Precluding employment, housing or public accommodation is life-threatening and injures already vulnerable citizens. We are aware of the statistics of incidences of suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth and adults; additionally, violence against this community is rampant.

Congregations are free to do what they choose about including or excluding sexual minorities from membership, roles of leadership either ordained or lay, and whether to provide pastoral services (including weddings) to LGBTQ couples. The church or synagogue or temple can determine how it will exercise its religious liberty. It can exclude in a way a civil society cannot, yet many religious leaders are learning how to include and accord dignity to those formerly marginalized by faith communities.

As the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty has concluded: “A baker or florist’s religious beliefs do not provide a blanket exemption to state or local laws that protect customers against discrimination in the commercial marketplace. Granting an exemption could drastically undermine nondiscrimination laws which provide important protections for religious customers.” This balanced perspective offers a helpful approach to the thorny issues a community faces. Baptists and other communions caring about religious liberty can trust the BJC as a reliable guide on current legal challenges.

“The limits of religious liberty have to do with whether or not its exercise causes harm to another.”

We must work to preserve human dignity and religious liberty for all. This means that employment, housing and commercial services are equally available to all. It is the right thing to do; it is good for our community; and, yes, it is good for business. Across the nation, the law is trending toward equality. The church must not lag behind.

We must not be absent from the social landscape. Schools and churches are members of the larger community, and we are called to participate constructively as faithful interpreters of gospel values. Keeping silent is not helpful in our times when the principle of religious liberty, as set forth in the First Amendment, is being hijacked by religious leaders and others who give it a narrow sectarian meaning that argues for personal privilege and concomitant discrimination.

The proposed ordinance passed with a 5-2 vote. It was an act of compassion and justice for which I am grateful. I pray it will be but one of many grassroots-led actions for the common good in the days ahead.

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I’m on a mission to rid the world of theological malarkey – Molly Marshall

 

Molly MarshallAt the recent meeting of the Baptist World Alliance I had a friendly exchange with an interlocutor after presenting a paper. In my response I summoned an old term of uncertain but perhaps Irish origin, “malarkey,” which means foolish or nonsense, to describe what I believe is a grave heresy in trinitarian thinking. My comments created a bit of a stir, so, being a theologian and educator, I feel compelled to go further in explaining its significance.

The beauty of trinitarian theology is that it describes the relational God who dwells eternally in the richness of community, pouring out life to construct identity. The generativity, hospitality, and diversity of the Triune God offers a model for human community. To speak of one member of the Trinity being eternally subordinated and thereby a model for the subordination of women in marriage is heretical, and I called it theological malarkey. Equality is the hallmark of the dynamic movement in the divine life, as centuries of theological reflection have confessed.

We all know that Christian faith is suffering a credibility problem in many places, beginning here in the United States, for the willingness of white evangelical Christians to be co-opted by a demagogic racist. President Donald Trump’s recent diatribe toward congressional women of color, telling them to “go back where they came from” is being excused by his enablers as staunch leadership for the good of the country – and for Israel. That this sector of Christianity will put up with anything that comes out of this president’s mouth in order to secure the Supreme Court conservative majority for their signature issue is deeply troubling. They defend his verbal incontinence as serving a higher purpose, which is theological malarkey.

“Any church that is unwilling to risk its resources – letting some things die – in order to give itself to being the presence of Christ in its context is captive to theological malarkey.”

While at the BWA I observed a brochure that stated the nations in which Christians most likely would be vulnerable to mass killings by their governments. I winced when I saw it; putting this information in print only further jeopardizes this demographic and draws attention to a situation Baptist Christians in North America can do little about. If such information is generated only to make the privileged feel righteous by lamenting this situation, then it is theological malarkey. I remember with what care Christian leaders in Myanmar speak about their government; it is unwise to do otherwise.

One of the beautiful things about the BWA is the decentering of North American hegemony as voices of the global south and east articulate their vision for the church. In an epoch when the awakening to the burden of colonialism continues, it matters that these voices shape the narratives of what it means to be Baptist around the world and that those usually presuming to speak for all listen quietly, or else we protract xenophobic theological malarkey.

Last December, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, published an extensive study of its founders and learned more deeply of the slave-holding traditions that were ingredient to its early history. When challenged to make reparations by donating a tithe of its substantial endowment to Simmons College of Kentucky, a historically black institution in the same city, the administration said it could not do that because Simmons is not officially related to the Southern Baptist Convention and does not teach in accord with its tenets. Missing a huge opportunity to signal “fruits worthy of repentance,” the seminary will cling to its resources while its sister school struggles. The nit-picking argument of Southern Seminary is theological malarkey.

As churches face hard decisions about properties and personnel, often self-preservation precludes mission. As congregations we need to give ourselves to the kind of passionate reading of Scripture John Webster describes “as an instance of the fundamental pattern of all Christian existence, which is dying and rising with Jesus Christ through the purging and quickening power of the Holy Spirit.” To read Scripture this way as guidance for congregational decisions is “to be slain and made alive.” Any church that is unwilling to risk its resources – letting some things die – in order to give itself to being the presence of Christ in its context is captive to theological malarkey.

To live as if resurrection is only the story of Jesus and not of his larger body is to live a faithless existence. The resurrection renews the whole world, as the old Roman liturgy puts it. The same mighty power that raised Jesus from the dead is igniting authentic Christian witness. As Richard Hays writes, “The Resurrection purges the death-bound illusions that previously held us captive and sets us free to perceive the real world of God’s life-giving resurrection power.” When we wonder if there is enough spiritual power to live as faithful disciples of Jesus, we have succumbed to theological malarkey.

I am on a mission to rid the world of theological malarkey. Will you join me?

 

 

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