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.


Preaching and Possibility

I have been reading Walter Brueggemann again. This time from Finally Comes the Poet. The following thoughts that are worthwhile are his.

Preaching is no time for scolding or urging. It is not about doctrinal clarification or a problem solving answer. It is not moral instruction or good advice. Preaching acknowledges that we have spent the week practicing that God is not real. Preaching suggests that we spend most of our time listening to news that dulls us to the real news. Preaching opens up a text that we could not have come up with on our own – a world that is shaped by the news of the gospel. Preaching is the surprising proposal that the real world is not the one made available by the rulers of this age. Such a proposal brings with it new possibility.

Even as the congregation departs and quarreling begins in the car, followed by tension at dinner, followed by a tired beginning on Monday morning – the fact does not change that a new word has been uttered that brings hope and possibility.

The bible is our guarantee that the ideas of another world are possible. The preacher is a voice that shatters settled realty and evokes new possibility for listeners. From the narratives of Israel to prophetic poems to the testimony of early Christians, the singers and storytellers spoke about dangerous matters and new possibilities.

The Prince of Darkness has powerful allies in this age and together they try to prevent these new possibilities from being heard. Against the Prince and his allies we speak these texts and retell these stories. The Author of the text laughs with delight when the text is spoken boldly and new possibility comes into play.

The Song of Songs – More Than Just Good Bits

I was recently made aware of a sermon that Mark Driscoll preached in 2007 “Sex, a Study of the Good Bits from Song of Solomon.”  This is the only sermon I have heard or read from Driscoll so what follows is not an evaluation of the preacher but a review of one particular sermon.  Instead of typing out portions of the sermon for you, here is a link http://peterlumpkins.typepad.com/files/driscoll-scotland-sermon-copypdf.pdf

After reading this, my fear is that we are sometimes guilty of getting caught up in the desire to be relevant or heard.  To state something as matter of fact when the Song is metaphoric and add “Jesus Christ commands you to do so” seems to be the opposite of what the Song intended.  Yet, this is the kind of thing that occurs when we think of the text as a how to instruction manual.  This is what happens when we become overly pragmatic, thinking that truth can only be conveyed by methods or dot points.  The fact is, when we try to turn a text like the Song of Songs into prose – it is not only artistry that we lose.  I cannot help but think that this is an example of bullying the text.

Driscoll makes the statement early in the sermon, “Some have allegorized this book, and in so doing, they have destroyed it.”  Perhaps an accompanying statement is in order, “Some have literalized this book, and in so doing, they have destroyed it.”  Perhaps a more honest statement than either of these would be “Many have attempted to make this book something it was not intended to be, and in so doing, they have destroyed it.”

I am glad when I hear of preaching from the Song.  However, Driscoll leaves me with the impression that the text is a secondary interest.  This is not a text written for information.  Perhaps a good question is “how can we preach this in a way that brings listeners closer to God?”  We, like Driscoll, may find ourselves looking for something here that helps people connect with one another.  Instead, we become caught up in a lengthy game of romantic chase between a Shulamite girl and a shepherd boy.  Perhaps the Song is meant to slow us down and prompt us to reflect.

Preaching the Song is a form of rebellion.  Preaching the Song is contrary to preaching that tells listeners what to do and how to do it.  We may prefer the immediate and pragmatic but the Song challenges that idea and demands that we slow down and appreciate beauty.

Most of us, like Driscoll, tend to preach sermons that tell people how to live.  We attempt to be practical in our preaching.  Yet, the Song gives us artistic metaphor.  This is poetry.  This is Solomon’s greatest song.  Instead of reading in hopes to preach “what is it for?”  Perhaps we should read it and ask “what does it do?”  We do not read other poets or listen to other songs in order to find out how to do anything, but we do know what they do to us.

When the Song wants to glorify the Creator, Driscoll seems to be interested in turning the text into a how to make your partner happy manual.  When the Song wants to woo the listener, Driscoll seems more interested in telling them what to do.  It does seem clear that Driscoll’s agenda on this occasion was not the same as the agenda of the Song.  The Song never dilutes its message to some version of high school health class.  No matter the subject, to condense a song of beauty into a list of instructions or good bits seems to be something other than gospel.

Preaching the Song

What do we make of a book that starts with “kiss me” and introduces meaning with the words “Eat, friends; Drink and imbibe deeply, O lovers.”  It is an obvious and passionate appeal for intimacy.  The Song of Songs connects us to a part of ourselves that is not ritual or tradition.  It protects us from getting caught in monotony.  It tunes us in to another reality and explores relationship and intimacy.  The speaker desperately desires to be connected to another.  The Song of Songs recognizes that we (and all of creation) are relational.

The Song says what it says through speakers.  Nearly everything comes from either a country maiden from Shulem or a rustic shepherd or occasional background voices.  It is erotic and provocative.  It is a collection of romantic love lyrics.  It is a liturgy of wedding songs and love poems.  Perhaps it even includes fragments from a fertility cult.  Sexuality is all over it and it gets explicit.  Yet, it is part of scripture.  Ecstasy and struggle are part of relationship whether between man and woman or human and God.  The Song, for whatever reason, weaves sex and religion together.

The Song covers a variety of dimensions of human love.  The joy of presence and the pain of absence and even erotic desire all can be understood as reflective of God’s love.  The Song is a celebration of the power of love.

Roland Murphy is reluctant to classify the Song as wisdom literature, yet acknowledges that its echoes reach beyond human sexual love to remind the reader of the love of Lady Wisdom – A “flame of Yah.”  Eugene Peterson suggests that sexuality is heightened in the Song because of the desire for intimacy that is shared by all of us.  Both Murphy and Peterson comment on the fact that the Song was historically read as part of the Passover celebration.  Peterson suggests that this helps us to connect the saving activity of God with our personal everyday lives.

Everyone who preaches or is preached to is involved in both the desire for and the struggle of intimacy.  We do not wish to ignore this, but to acknowledge it.  We do not want to rid ourselves of this desire, but honor it.  We want to grant significance to the desire in this Song.  We are not professionals trying to discover what is going on here, we are participants.

Perhaps the Song is meant to slow us down and prompt us to reflect.  This is contrary to preaching that tells listeners what to do and how to do it.  Reflection is contrary to the way that we receive most of our present day information.  We prefer the immediate and pragmatic.  The Song challenges that method and demands that we slow down and appreciate beauty.

This becomes a challenge for the preacher.  The Song expects to be retold creatively and not just as information.  How can we preach the Song in a way that brings listeners closer to the Singer?  We may wish for a phrase or statement that helps people connect with one another.  Instead, God sends us a Song that takes us into king’s chambers and out into vineyards.  We find ourselves in the tents of shepherds, riding in Pharaoh’s chariots, among the trees of the forest, leaping across mountains, gazing into windows, browsing among lilies, and walking the streets and squares.  In these places we find perfume, wine, jewels, raisins, apples, singing, cooing, blossoming, incense, and spices.  Oh for a quicker way to connect with one another.  But, we have no choice but to sit with the Song and contemplate meaning.

There are many who have attempted to preach the Song of Songs.  Probably more who have avoided it.  We tend to preach sermons to tell people how to live.  We tend to preach for practical purpose.  Instead of reading in hopes to preach “what is it for?”  Perhaps we should read it and ask “what does it do?”  After all, this is song.  This is poetry.  We do not read other poets or listen to other songs in order to find out how to do anything, but we do know what they do to us.

I am not suggesting that we all begin working on a series on the Song.  I am suggesting that preachers ought to be reading it as we prepare for whatever we are preaching.  The Song will inform our view of God and spirituality and relationship.  Perhaps we should ask that the Song revolutionize our thinking before we are able to preach what it teaches.