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From Essay to Art.

Sermon crafting is a verbal art. Unfortunately I learned to preach with books, a strange thing we’ve picked up I suppose from the enlightenment. It also informs - subconsciously - my sermon process. Once I’ve researched, constructed, illustrated, I feel done with the sermon. But this is all in my head and my hands. So lately I’ve realized - partially from cringey viewing sessions of myself on video - that I need to verbally prepare my sermon as well. I tend to avoid this, because it feels “inauthentic.” But authenticity takes work, especially for an introvert. Nathaniel Hawthorne once quipped, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” The same is true - and why shouldn’t it be? - of listening. So

Rinse, Wash, Repeat.

Weeks before Coronavirus, I felt in a preaching slump. It was a season where words felt like molasses and ideas seemed cloudy, I could barely hold my own attention. But it was a season God used to jolt me out of complacency into perspective as I dipped back into preachers I loved, analyzed my own process, asked others for help. It became clear to me that my process had become formulaic, and thus, dead. Preaching needs to be living, creative, moldable, just as the preacher must be. It’s why I’m going back to constructing my sermons along the text. In a way it’s simpler, in other ways it forces my creativity. There is a formula to it, but it’s a micro-formula, rather than a preset structure: 1

Screaming in the Streets.

Sometimes - well most times if you’re me - you don’t know what you need until it’s gone. So let’s talk about human touch. We need this. If we’re single, married, or something in between, there’s something inhumane about being quarantined. John McCain was once asked about his worst experience as a POW, and he answered without hesitation: “Solitary Confinement.” More than the water-boarding or humiliation - in those situations, at least, you’re worth being tortured - in solitary confinement, you are definitionless, because we humans find our definition in community. There’s no such thing as a mere self. Touch is part of this. I ache for our young single guys, especially, whose daily experience

Pascal's Wager.

There is a reason I haven’t had space in my life before #quarantine days. I don’t want it. I’ve kept myself busy for a long time because I do not want to know what bubbles up to the surface when I’m alone. I prefer to clog up the pipeline to my soul, muffling it with noise so it can’t get a word in edgewise. The mathematician Pascal once wrote, “'All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I’ve always beaten my chest at this quote. Why, I sit in a room alone quite often thank-you-very-much. With a book. On Netflix. Browsing social media. Listening to a podcast. Writing expense reports. Now I’m not sure that’s quite what he meant.

A Life of Congruence.

The other day I said to a friend, “I’m realizing drama is part of this job.” He laughed, having been in ministry far longer than I have. “I guess I thought I could escape it, like if I had the right amount of space between my and my students, better management skills, more excellent preaching - like it would all go away. I realize it’s a lie I’ve been telling myself.” “It’s part of the church, my friend,” he said. “And no matter where you go, or what job you have, it’s what happens when sinners get together. They sin. There’s no escaping that.” This is obvious. What he said: obvious. But it wasn’t only the truth I needed, it was exposure to my own lie. I understood the truth, but I hadn’t un

A Vaccine for the Soul.

It’s amazing to me what I see when I slow down. Pandemics (I guess?) have a way of doing that, making us pause and breathe and be attentive. There’s an emotional space I have now to lean back and let my brain swirl and my heart catch up with it. Normally I leave my heart in the dust, looking dejectedly on as I sprint down the track past my imaginary opponents. So this space to be human, it turns out, is something I need. The other day I rested on our couch, shut my eyes for a bit, dozed off, opened them again. Just resting, laying there, with no other intention. I don’t believe I’ve done that for months. Vaccines are little sicknesses, just enough to educate our physiology on the proper resp

I'm No Lumberjack.

I’m not made for pioneering, turns out. I tried to saw a log the other day, yes, just a mere log. Well I have nothing else to do and it was weeks ago when this tree came crashing down on our roof. Not a tree really but it practically could be, it’s a very large branch. So I thought I’d saw it up, split it and give it our neighbors. Well it was not a wood-saw, for one, it was flappy and short like the kind that make warbling noises after striking a cartoon character on the skull. And I am not a wood-sawer, so that’s two strikes. I would guess I spent about an hour at it, in total, and couldn’t get a single full cut through. There was something weirdly familiar to me about the process. So much

Planting isn't the Fun Part.

I was listening this morning to a podcast about Tom Hanks, the perennial everyman, the Nice Guy, the golden boy. I wanted - like we all do - for the podcast to take a darker turn, but it did not. The Interviewer tried, but could not find an angle. It was a boring, uneventful, fairly mediocre podcast, but it also brought me delight. I’ve noticed this about good things. They are mediocre at the time, small things. But they grow like seeds and wild vines and sprawl all over. Other things - the selfish things - are explosive, colorful, and momentary. I’m told physiologically there’s a difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is signaled by a rush of dopamine to the brain, an addictive

The Sinner's Prayer

There was a day this week when I ate too much, and not just too much, but far too much, like my body had been invaded Hyde-like and pounced upon every scrap and morsel it’s barbaric nostrils got wind of. And that is the way temptation always comes to me, not like a little offer or a clever Satanic witticism but like an invading barbarian sacking all my ramparts. Paul says when he sins it is no longer he who sins but sin that lives within him. Well I don’t relate to that. I for one wish my sin would decide on its address instead of breaking in through the cracks of my windows and sacking all of my belongings at midnight, plundering me when I’m depleted. I feel more like the man Jesus describe

Maybe It's a Sock.

Rain is snaking down the car windows in little interesting zig-zags diverging this way and that, and I’m driving my oldest to school, apocalyptic scenes of every apocalyptic film ever running through my mind as I insert him into the Petrie dish of school halls. COVID-19 (I note to myself) sounds like 23-19, the infamously overblown sock-scandal in Pixar’s “Monsters Inc.” Well maybe it is just a sock, I think. But in non-Pixar settings, the plot takes darker turns usually. The Titanic, for instance. The iceberg isn’t a problem, they said. We can veer around it, they said. Everyone go back to your mingling and networking, go on, nothing to see here. But there was something to see, and had wise

Copious Amounts of Stress.

Sometimes I wonder if my current method of repeatedly whacking myself like a kid with a stick at the ground is really the best way to test my limits. Why do I have to hit a wall before I stop? Why do I have to flop before I see I’ve been drowning, gulping, spitting, lurching and gasping all along? “Well,” says I. “Jesus was tired, tired many times. Torn by the demands of others, giving beyond his set limits, weary of his disciples.” “But,” says I. “Jesus could take a nap.”

I Didn't Ask for Middle Age.

I never expected to be a middle-aged man. Since I’ve been born, I’ve been on the world’s slowest stopwatch, ticking one year at a time for thirty-three years almost now. I’m looking ahead, and I can feel the hourglass tilting, the stopwatch pausing, the New Year’s ball reaching its zenith and slouching gently back toward its beginning. The math is all so straightforward at first: one year equals one, two equals two. But ahead, everything becomes inversely proportional: Forty-one years old is a thirty-nine year countdown, forty-two is thirty-eight, etc. Seeing aging grandparents hasn’t helped. They become agitated, ragged, child-like even, living quiet but different lives in the Independent V

Traffic is (Not) a Silly Thing.

I know traffic is a silly thing, a thing we pooh-pooh and slough off and banter about when there’s nothing else to talk about. But it’s a thing. It’s a thing in my day that works like a pH tester for my soul, testing the condition of its waters, telling me which disease I have now (and one is always slipping in when I’ve vanquished the other - a factory of idols if there ever was one - now slinking into bitterness, now rising in self-congratulatory spiritual triumph.) There are days when the five - count them, five - stoplights within an eighth of a mile stretch on Broadway feel like hitting pause in the climax of a movie. A good movie. A movie featuring me, naturally, who else? Other days I

Leaving a Hole.

A fog clouds my vision, and I’m struggling with words, hoping/praying something cogent pours out as I stand before forty eager, beautiful college-aged souls, sitting patiently, resisting the Siren call of their iPhones, staring watery eyed at me. Me. There I am, standing emotionally naked in a room of spectators, questioning my every word and thought: “Do they understand me?” “Can they tell I love them?” “Do they care about this? How can I help them care?” I said to a friend last week who’d been in the same line of work: “College ministry isn’t humbling. It’s humiliating.” He knew exactly what I meant. There is something humiliating about ministry, especially, to me, about preaching. I’ve wo

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