Posts Tagged Jesus

How not-so-random acts of kindness from strangers – Rev. Dr. Molly Marshall

transformed my latest air travel odyssey

Molly T. Marshall

One thing any experienced traveler learns is that other travel veterans can always trump your “worst trip ever” stories. I just endured one of those “eventful” overseas flight experiences, but this journey also introduced me to strangers who offered this Baptist theologian a few reminders about kindness and compassion.

My annual pilgrimage to Myanmar did not have an auspicious start. I left Kansas City early Friday morning headed for Seattle, then Seoul and then ultimately Yangon. Fog shrouded Seattle and planes could not land, so our flight was diverted to Eugene, Oregon, where we sat in the plane nearly four hours waiting for fuel and a landing time.

Trying not to be too anxious, reluctantly relinquishing control over the logistics, I kept my eyes on my app. Sure enough, I received notification that my flight to South Korea had taken off without me.

One of the flight attendants demonstrated impressive emotional intelligence. She came by with water and empathy in generous servings, and she helped us see the humor in our situation. Who would not want to spend time viewing the surrounding mountains through the small windows of our plane?

At this point I wondered if I should have heeded the admonition of friends who thought perhaps this trip to Myanmar was ill-conceived as the COVID-19 virus continues to spread. With my usual stubbornness, I said all will be well.

Indeed, all would be well, thanks to the kindness of strangers who use their professions as a place of caring and service.

Arriving in Seattle, I headed to an airline club to get rescheduled, if possible. Many had missed connections, and agents were pressed to fulfill our requests. A young woman of Asian descent took up my case and worked for several hours to get me re-booked. She told me to go get some food; she would find me when she had completed the task.

It takes fortitude to do methodical work pleasantly when you are facing a long line of anxious, weary and impatient customers clamoring for attention. I had plenty of time to observe her as I spent the next eight hours awaiting my flight.

“It was as if an angelic messenger had been sent my way.”

Flying back to Detroit on a red-eye would allow me to catch a midday flight to Seoul; it was my best option. Again, with a long stint in an airline club (I’m thankful for the thousands of frequent flyer miles that qualify me for this amenity), I met a remarkable person. As one of the attendants who collects the cups and glasses and newspapers of the guests in the travel lounge, this tall, African American woman circled around to check on me several times.

She asked what I was doing, and I told her a bit of my travel challenges. She said God had placed her there to work so that she could notice God’s people and encourage them. While others may render her invisible as she goes about her routine tasks, she is perceptively observing those who come through her section of the club.

I teared up at her kindness and witness of faith, and she offered a prophetic word as if she could peer into my very soul. Sensing that I was burdened about some matters, she firmly said, “God has got this.”

She disappeared to complete other tasks, and I could not find her when I needed to leave for my flight. It was as if an angelic messenger had been sent my way; and, of course, God had her busy noticing and encouraging some other inconvenienced traveler.

When I arrived in Seoul, I met another ministering spirit. The usually bustling Incheon Airport felt a bit like a ghost town as fear of the virus has slowed travel dramatically. Everyone was wearing masks, trying not to get too near anyone else, and viewing others with furtive suspicion.

Once again, I had to spend a couple of hours waiting in an airline club. Upon entering, I encountered a mask-free, smiling young Korean man with a most hospitable attitude. His capacity to welcome guests, anticipate their needs and seem genuinely interested in each was contagious. I asked him why he served as he did, and he said it was because of his faith in Jesus. He wanted to be like him in how he treated people.

Finally, there is no greater kindness than to be met by a friend at the end of a long journey. By now, my travel had lasted about two-and-a-half days. Arriving in Yangon, there was a flurry of activity as a medical agent took each passenger’s temperature, and an extra step was added as a medical form was examined prior to going through customs.

Emerging from the chaos of collecting baggage and the throngs of persons awaiting their passengers, I searched the crowd for my Myanmar Institute of Theology colleague. Soon he was by my side helping me thread our way to find our driver.

“You must be tired,” he said, acknowledging that I was arriving a day later than originally planned. His kind words and pastoral attention reminded me yet again how important our caring is in helping others manage their challenges.

During the first week of this Lenten season, I have been the beneficiary of unanticipated, but not-so-random acts of kindness from sisters and brothers who are my fellow travelers in the compassionate way of Jesus.

I wonder what the trip home has in store.

 

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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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Sinners at the Laundromat* – Rev. Susan Sparks – Shiny Side Up

One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, while all good Christians were congregating in church, all evil sinners (including me) were congregating in the laundromat.

I thought we were safe until somewhere mid-spin cycle when the door to the laundromat opened, and a scarily clean-shaven gentleman walked in and said, “A blessed morning to you, brothers and sisters” (a warning sign, if ever there was one).

I could see he had a number of brochures in his hand, but I tried my best not to make eye contact. Sure enough, he came to me first. I think it was because of the t-shirt I was wearing that read: “Lead me not into temptation, I can find it myself.”

“Sister,” he asked in the most earnest of tones, “have you met Jesus?”

Not wanting to get into a whole thing about how I was an ordained Baptist minister on vacation in Wisconsin skipping church because I wasn’t Lutheran and, more importantly, was planning to go pan fishing afterward, I simply said, “No sir, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of Jesus this morning.”

He then handed me a tract with a picture of Jesus holding a tiny lamb that was looking a bit queasy, and said, “You know, Jesus can wash your sins away better than any of these machines.” And with that, he went to the sinner next to me at the industrial-sized dryer and started his pitch again.

Later, I thought about my new friend and his earnest attempts to save us. Was there a lesson here? Spiritual laundry, perhaps?

Consider the three categories of dirty clothes. First, things that don’t really need to be washed. If you are like me, you tend to occasionally leave clothes on the floor that aren’t dirty–ones you can put right back on and wear with pride. Similarly, there are things in our lives that don’t need cleaning, like our physical traits (signs of aging included), our ethnicities, our race, our gender. These are gifts from God that do not need to be washed; they need to be celebrated and worn with pride to celebrate our maker. As Psalm 139 tells us, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Then there is the second category of laundry which just needs the delicate cycle with the least agitation. In regular laundry, these would be things like silk or polyester. In life, these would be things like mistakes, hurt feelings, or use of colorful language because you couldn’t get into your jeans that morning.

Don’t waste time getting agitated over this stuff. Use a short and delicate wash cycle. Acknowledge that you’re wrong; say you’re sorry and move on. And do it now. If you wait, delicate stains can become hard to get out.

Which brings us to category three: the industrial-strength stuff. These are the heavy stains that have been ground-in over time. Things like anger, shame, resentment, and self-loathing.

The only thing we can do with this nasty pile of laundry is to get ourselves an industrial-strength spot remover—a spiritual OxiClean—something or someone that will go deep into those buried places and release the stains.

Again, the Psalmists have the answer. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12)

When we allow God to work—when we accept God’s forgiveness, something profound happens. The stains start to break up, we begin to forgive ourselves, and we walk back into the world clean and fresh, ready for the work ahead.

The next time you are doing laundry, ask yourself three questions:
1)    What in my life does not need washing?
2)    What in my life just needs a delicate cleaning?
3)    What in my life needs an industrial-strength stain remover?

Do a little spiritual laundry. In the end, it will all come out in the wash.

*Sunday morning sermon at Madison Avenue Baptist Church, New York City

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Toward Non-gender Language for God – Dr. Molly Marshall

September 24, 2018 – The Christian Citizen

Most of us have now made the shift toward inclusive language for humanity, and we are learning about how pronouns matter in personal identity. We have realized that exclusive language erases half of humanity. Using only man or mankind ignores the presence of women in biblical narratives—and in life. It makes men normative humanity and sustains androcentric privilege. Just when we think the linguistic work is done, I pick up another book (often a theological text) that addresses or describes only men.

We do violence to women or persons who are non-binary (or other sexual minorities) when we subsume them into the conventions of exclusive language. We know the power of naming, and Scripture reminds us of all the ways identity is carried in a name. It is remarkable that as many women are named as there are—yet there are so many more whose names we will never know.

The contexts in which Scripture was shaped—the Ancient Near Eastern world and the Greco-Roman world of the early centuries of the Common Era—were patriarchal to the core. The social structure was hierarchical, and men held most of the rights for inheritance, divorce and religious standing. The language of the Bible reflects this structure, and it is not surprising that masculine imagery predominates. Many persons today read these ancient texts as prescriptive for the roles of women and men today, and they construct a complementarian vision of male and female relationships—to the detriment of both.

What progress are we making in our language for God? Using inclusive language for God has powerful impact on how we view God, how we order human relations and how we perform our roles as disciples of Jesus. Many translations, such as the New Revised Standard Version, have moved the practice of inclusive language forward by including women and sisters in the texts but have left He as the primary pronoun for speaking of God. The challenge is that grammatical gender elides biological gender in the minds of many. Far too many believe that God is literally male and that “Father language” rightly denotes God as ultimate progenitor.

In addition, the language Jesus used for God is warrant for many to speak of God only as Father.  Jesus’ language is much more about filial intimacy than ascribing literal gender. It is easy to see the growth of a tradition from Mark to John. In Mark, Jesus names God Abba 11 times; by the time John is written, this naming for God occurs 120 times. In the midst of great strides to include women begun by Jesus, the writers and editors of the Gospels wanted to ensure that a masculine vision of God safeguarded men’s prerogative and that women would remain secondary. We can see this effect by comparing the treatment of Peter and Mary Magdalene. Recent scholarship suggests that there was a concerted effort to subordinate her leadership to her male counterpart.

 

Many have dismissed inclusive language as “politically correct.” However, it runs much deeper. It is an attempt to speak justly about humans, and it strives to offer a vision of God beyond gender.

Many have dismissed inclusive language as “politically correct.” However, it runs much deeper. It is an attempt to speak justly about humans, and it strives to offer a vision of God beyond gender. Of course, our language for God is always a human projection, and we live in a world where biological identity is a key marker. Scripture uses masculine and feminine metaphors for God, and this enriches our image of God. It does matter that we keep some personal language for God, and Scripture provides more pathways for this idea than we have pursued.

One of the reasons I have given attention to the Spirit of God in recent years is that it allows one to bypass gendered language for God. Scripture and tradition use feminine imagery for the Spirit, yet using that imagery exclusively opens the door to exclusive use of masculine language for the other persons of the trinity. Spirit language, however, allows us to imagine that God is beyond our anthropocentric projections, or ascribing human characteristics to God. If anything, God is supra-personal and grounds our understanding of what it means to be personal and communal. The God who dwells eternally in the richness of trinitarian community invites us to new ways of imagining God with us, moving us beyond our exclusively masculine vision.

Dr. Molly T. Marshall is president of Central Baptist Seminary, Shawnee, Kan.

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