Accidental Preacher

I took Will Willimon’s introduction to ordained ministry class in my first semester of divinity school. Pastoral ministry was not on my radar; and I’d never heard talk of ordination until student orientation, when I discovered nearly everyone was seeking ordination but me. Will wrote a chapter for Kent’s book Sanctified by Grace, which I copyedited. So, I signed up for his class because I thought, “If Kent likes him enough to invite him to write for his book, he ought to be pretty good.” Will did not persuade me into pastoral ministry. In fact, he wound up being the professor who signed off on me switching from a Master of Divinity to a Master of Theological studies, as I flailed about unsure of what God was calling me to do. So, in some sense, I suppose you could call me an accidental preacher, which is also the title of Will’s memoir. We are kindred spirits in that regard.

Will’s memoir is filled with honesty, joy, humor, and rich theological and pastoral insight. For those who have listened to Will for any length of time, his sarcasm is predictable and his grace is abundant. Most of all, this memoir is a testimony to the God who refuses to stay an arm’s length from any part of the world God so loves.

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Christ the Preacher of Virtues?

Christ didn’t speak Spanish but, if he did, the first word of his sermon on the mount might have been bienaventurado. What English speakers often hear as “blessed,” Spanish speakers hear as a word made up of two words: “good” and “adventure.” A friend who asked her native Spanish-speaking friend shared this bit of information with me. Suddenly, Christ’s beatitudes took on a different shape. It isn’t that persecution or poverty of spirit (or just poverty in Luke’s gospel) are signs of “blessedness” or things to be happy about. They are invitations to take God’s hand, to join in on a good journey toward human flourishing. “On a good journey are the poor in spirit, for God is drawing them into the kingdom of heaven.”51igpt44dhl

In the same vein, Jonathan T. Pennington’s book The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing sketches an interpretation of Christ’s lengthiest sermon utilizing the language of virtue theory. Pennington gently guides the reader into this interpretation by introducing the sermon’s reception history before making the case that what Jesus is providing is “a Christocentric, flourishing-oriented, kingdom-awaiting, eschatological wisdom exhortation.”

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The Grammar of Grace

About nine years ago I began editing an anthology on the Christian life, and I’m very pleased to say that it’s now in print, The Grammar of Grace: Readings from the Christian Tradition (Cascade). The back cover reads, CASCADE_7x10_Template

This anthology is a collection of readings on the Christian life. They were carefully selected from every era of history and from across the spectrum of Christian traditions. They include letters, sermons, treatises and disputations, poems, songs and hymns, confessions, biblical commentary, and even part of a novel. In each case, the subject is life with God, life in God, life for God—life infused and enlivened by God’s grace.

The editors introduce each selection, highlighting relevant aspects of the author’s biography, spirituality, and historical context. Introductions are also provided for the major eras of the church which present theological, historical, and cultural perspectives to help the reader best engage the selections.

For individuals and groups, classrooms and seminars, this collection will generate dialogue between past and present, and between traditions familiar and unfamiliar. It is not merely a book on the Christian life but for the Christian life, making yesterday’s witness to life with God a resource for the Church today.

If you order the book from the publisher you’ll receive a discount (here).

Besides the many, many people who supported and encouraged me as the book took shape, I worked with two associate editors of amazing talent and skill, not to mention spiritual sensitivity: Ashley Cocksworth (UK) and Anna Silvas (Australia). Ashley and I worked together on the Reformation and Modern sections, and Anna managed the Medieval sections. You’ll find them trustworthy guides.

I’ll post a few times more about this book in the following weeks. I’d like to say more about the book’s range, the verbal icons that accompany each selection, and share a few parts from the Introduction.

Let me say this for now: I feel that my connection to the community of faith has grown stronger by curating this book. It is hard to find just the right words. I mean that after all the years drawing together and introducing these 96 different figures from across the entire history of the Christian faith – after sitting with them for so long to “hear” their testimony of life with God – I have a deeper and more tangible sense of the great “cloud of witnesses” of which I’m a part (Heb 12:1). I am not alone, nor are you, in the pilgrimage of following Jesus.

We are not the first to speak of life with God. Life with God compels expression. It requires testimony. Some kind of expression, some kind of “pointing” at what it is to know the triune God of the gospel. Christian Wyman calls such expression the “poetry and prose” of knowing God’s grace. It is “sighing and stammering,” Karl Barth says. After spending nearly a decade sifting through hundreds of different examples of Christians who “pointed” at life with God, I found this: they are tied together by the grammar of grace.

More on that later.

The “Untheological” Preacher

screen-shot-2018-02-26-at-12-18-23-pmIt’s not uncommon to hear preachers of a certain theological stripe say from the pulpit something like, “What I’m saying isn’t theological, it’s just biblical.” The sentiment is understandable even if the statement isn’t tenable. In many folks’ minds—both clergy and lay people—theology is a distraction from the real content of the Bible, from the real purpose of worship, or from the real goal of discipleship. 

Some of this sentiment can be chalked up to bad theology, written densely and in specialist language to no clear end. We might also wonder how the movement of theologians from the church to the offices of universities may have precipitated a sense of distance between theology and the church. Further still, theological debates often require an acceptance of nuance that is less than preferable when dealing with matters of salvation—in other words, people might chafe at theology because they feel it leads them to wonder if they can know anything for sure about God, life, or eternity. 

While I can charitably acknowledge these criticisms and concerns about theology, I think they reveal a narrow assumption about how theology works within the church. It seems that most people who think theology is more harmful than helpful assume theology works mostly to clarify (or confuse) matters of Christian belief that have little bearing on Christian life. If this assessment is on point, then it would take a substantial effort to redeem theology in the hearts and minds of everyday church folk, let alone the clergy who have taught them to think this way about theology. If that’s all it is, why do we need it at all? Continue reading

What is it that we truly are?

Paul prays for the Christians in Ephesus to know, along with a litany of other things, that God has made Christ “head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). In February 1922, Karl Barth lectured on this passage. His words, as usual, provoke us to recognize the vitality of the biblical text. The church, he writes, is Christ’s

pleroma, the filling up of the empty form, which he signifies, in contrast to all that is human and the true fulfillment of all that is human…Because they are in Christ, because they are the ekklesia, called together by him, they are truly the object of God’s blessing. Will the become what they truly are?

I can only imagine being a student at the University of Göttingen during this lecture. What would you say if Barth paused after that loaded question, looked at you, and asked, “And what is it, precisely, that we truly are?”  Continue reading

Gerard Manley Hopkins on a Sunday Afternoon

After a Sunday afternoon nap, I drank coffee and read Gerard Manley Hopkins. I am generally not much for poetry but this winter I am drawn to it. The poets I’ve been reading remind me that creation and faith cannot be fully settled down into the dust of reason. These subjects are opened wide when they not confined for argument’s sake. Today Hopkins offered me a description of the church that is, to my mind, as provocative as it is accurate. I hope you’ll enjoy it with me and, perhaps, share some of the poems, songs, or paintings that have helped you to think well about the life of faith.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Excerpted from “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.