A Soundtrack for the Seasons of a Human Life

When preaching the psalms, we are reminded that old Israel sang about things that matter. These songs travel through seasons of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, of blessing and suffering, of joy and grief, of forgiveness and resentment. These songs travel through the intense feelings that humans have experienced. The psalms are like a soundtrack for the seasons of human life.

But this is no Gaither sing-a-long.  These songs and prayers have a lot of rough edges.  Many are likely written by David. A guy who worked fields of livestock. A guy who kept lookout for lions and bears and was willing to battle them to protect the flock. A guy who carried a slingshot into a creekbed one day and met a giant on the other side. A guy who entered the battlefield without armor. A guy who hid in wilderness caves while there was a bounty on his life. A guy with experiences to match his imagination. These are songs with rough edges, prayers that are blatantly honest. And they always bring us into the company of God.

We might be tempted to preach around the rough edges and make the psalms sound more religious. Walter Brueggemann helps us to allow the psalms speak in all of their messiness. In The Message of the Psalms he suggests the themes of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. He suggests the flow of human life is located either in the actual experience of one of these categories or in the movement from one to another.

Brueggemann proposes that psalms of orientation address satisfied seasons of life that prompt thankfulness for experienced blessings. He proposes psalms of disorientation are laments during seasons of doubt, hurt, alienation, and suffering. These express rage and resentment and self-pity and hatred. He proposes psalms of new orientation as songs that are sung when surprised by new gifts of God, when joy breaks through despair, when light breaks into darkness.

Preach the psalms because we need lyrics that push us beyond rational thinking. We need melodies that dismantle things that seem so certain. We need tunes and tones that call us back to our homeland. Preach the psalms because we do not want to neglect such a gathering of composers and instrumentalists, of artists and lyricists, of poets and praying people that bring us back to the reality that God is interested in the seasons of human life.

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That You May Believe

Next weekend I will be in conversation with preachers about preaching the Gospels. Here are some things that we may highlight from the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John tells us there are so many stories about Jesus they cannot possibly fit in one book. In fact, John goes on to say the world could not possibly contain the books that would be written. Obviously, John wants us to know there is much that could be said about Jesus. He also wants us to know that the stories we find in this Gospel are written that we might believe.

This is emphasized from the very first chapter. There when Jesus meets Nathaniel, the episode ends with Jesus saying “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” Right away we hear the emphasis on belief and we get that John is not writing about Jesus’s skills of identifying who sits under what tree. As we near the end of the Gospel Jesus says to Thomas “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

In between these episodes, the chapters are full of sayings and signs and other stories that encourage us to believe. After all, John wants us to know that “These are written that you may believe… and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Enough Gospel to Go Around

Later this month I will have the opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching (and am looking forward to it). Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one emphasis of our conversation.

Luke’s Gospel wants us to be sure to know there is enough gospel to go around. There are no quotas or limits. We do not have to budget gospel or worry that it will run out. In the gospel, Jesus is throwing good news around as if there is an endless supply. One of the questions Luke seems to ask is “How are things different now that Jesus has arrived?” and Luke’s Gospel seems to answer that question with “Let me tell you…”

Early in the Gospel Jesus preaches a sermon. (It is not well received. Perhaps it is good for us to discover here that not all sermons are well received. Perhaps we should evaluate our definition of success). In this sermon Jesus tells us how things are now different. There will be good news and freedom and recovery of sight and favor. The recipients include the poor and prisoners and blind and oppressed. We are supposed to catch on to the notion that there is enough gospel to go around. And this is only the beginning. Luke will give us multiple pictures of what that looks like.

Preaching as Lullaby

It is true that we do not know the songs Mary may have sung to Jesus and his brothers to help them sleep at night. But thanks to Luke we do know at least one song she sang during pregnancy. It is difficult to believe she would have only sung this one time. It was a song about scattering the proud and bringing down rulers. It was a song about lifting the humble and filling the hungry. Should we be surprised if her lullabies may have been a little political as well?

There is much to be made about tone, volume, and affect during communication. But the content of our communication is equally important. We might think of Mary as if she is a meek and mild Madonna who would sing only calming lullabies. Yet the content of her song has the language of a revolution. It may not have played on pop radio, but others likely sang similar songs if not this very same one. No wonder Herod the Great was so nervous. I suspect Luke would expect us to be as revolutionary in our preaching. I don’t know if the powers that be are nervous when we preach, but perhaps they should be.

On Earth as it is in Heaven

In July I will have opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching. If this conversation goes as planned, we will be leaving with at least four sermons in some stage of development and ideas for a sermon series connected to each of those sermons.

Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one of the emphases we will talk about that day.

I am becoming convinced the Gospel wants us to be bi-lingual. Matthew, most of all, seems intent on teaching us a new language. Matthew speaks kingdom language. And his method is to saturate us in this language.

The Gospel does not want us to learn a new language just for the sake of learning. The Gospel wants us to be different. So Matthew gives us stories that are intended to change us. Not just stories for story sake, these are kingdom stories. Jesus tells these stories as if he is giving away the kingdom secrets.

The secrets of the kingdom of heaven are not to stay in heaven. Matthew preaches to us “on earth as it is in heaven.” One of these secrets is about forgiveness. It is not enough to forgive as everyone else forgives. So Jesus tells a story about forgiveness. This is not only a story but an invitation. Jesus invites us to participate in a ministry of forgiveness. Forgiveness is kingdom language.

When Gospel Enters Darkness

Next month, July 29, I will have opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching. If this conversation goes as planned, we will be leaving with at least four sermons in some stage of development and ideas for a sermon series connected to each of those sermons.

Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one of the emphases we will talk about that day.

The Gospel is not content with safe territory. In fact, Gospel seems to be drawn toward darkness. On account of that, we acknowledge risk when we carry the Gospel with us. To bring Gospel into darkness is to enter a battleground. While it might be paranoia to expect an evil spirit behind every tree, it is naïve to ignore the reality that there is more going on than the eye can see. The Gospel of Mark takes us into that territory. To be in the Gospel of Mark is to be saturated with powers and darkness and the question “who rules the realm?” The Gospel may be the story of the Son of God but humans and powers of darkness are woven into the story.

We might wish for something like “Ten Ways to Slay a Demon.” Instead, we find a story. And this story reminds us that every step of kingdom work is a step into heavily defended territory.

Caught Up in Reckless Adventure

Systematic theology can be a helpful enterprise. A good one can help us frame biblical thought in ways to articulate what we believe with some clarity. Nevertheless it is good to ask if we tend to over emphasize our systematic theology of choice.

It is true the biblical text can feel like a reckless adventure. This is one reason we might feel the need for a systematic theology. Systematic theology makes things more predictable and helps us think we can know what happens next. On the other hand, reading the bible may have us feeling uneasy about what just happened or leave us with questions about why God acted that way. The biblical text brings surprise and leaves us with mystery.

We might feel uneasy about finding such a surprising unpredictable God. Yet this God is such a large part of the story that to tame Him with religious terms or to pretend we have Him figured out is to create an entirely different story. Still we formulate theories to explain biblical themes. While this can be full of good intention, it can come with a dangerous level of certainty. Systematic theology may bring assurance to some of us, but it does not always reflect what life looks like.

I fear our systematic theologies allow for a hermeneutic of dismissal. That is, permission to look past texts that do not support our systematic theory of choice. To gloss over any text or to force it down a particular path will only give us slivers of what the bible is actually trying to tell us. In the name of certainty and assurance we settle for slivers of God and slivers of grace and slivers of other things that matter.

Systematic theology comes with a temptation to be overly cognitive. If we can make it a thinking exercise then perhaps we will not have to behave differently. We sometimes give ourselves permission to make a verbal stand about something without demonstrating the behavior that reflects what we stand for. We can then preach holiness without being holy. We can then preach peace without being particularly interested in it. We can then preach grace as if it is something others should practice. We can then convince ourselves that to believe something and to say it out loud is more important than to change our behavior.

The bible was never intended to be a collection of proof texts to be pulled out on demand to make a case for our theories. The bible is the story of God’s mission in the world. All the text calls for is that the church will take it seriously. To become caught up in the reckless adventure that is the bible.