Tag Archives: story

In Defense of Sermon Illustrations

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I just finished reading Craig Barnes’s fine book, The Pastor as Minor Poet. I agree with my friend who said it should be required reading for new pastors—so long as they agree to reread it every few years. This is one of those books that begs to be revisited.

Barnes’s book is a welcome counterpoint to the numerous blogs, articles and books out there that trumpet the pastor’s need to be an entrepreneur, fundraiser, change agent, CEO, family systems guru, social media expert, etc. Those skills are important, but Barnes’s book calls pastors “to continually search for the deeper, truer understandings of what they see–both in the text of scripture and in the text of their parishioners’ lives.”

In other words, our attentive study of the scripture and of the human condition isn’t superfluous. It’s our primary vocation… not least because we’re likely the only ones in our parishioners’ lives doing that.

As pastors, our job is to notice and to name. It’s just that simple and just that complicated.

One place where I quibble with Barnes is in the area of sermon illustrations. He seems pretty down on them, for reasons I partly understand. Stories within the sermon are tough to get right. Karl Barth used to talk about preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I told someone recently that I also feel called to preach with the Bible in one hand and popular culture in the other, but it’s a tricky business. (Part of the reason I enjoy tackling it. Remember, I’d rather be wrong than boring.)

I’ve done sermons about gospel lessons in Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, children’s literature, reality television, and comic book characters. On reflection, some have probably worked better than others. You have to bring people up to speed, and I can remember a few sermons in which I thought “this is requiring too much setup to get to the point.”

What I hoped all these sermons did on some level, though, is to model for people a faithful engagement with the world we live in: to sleuth around for the living Christ at work in (and/or standing against) those works of culture we consume every day.

Anyway, here’s Barnes’s critique:

There are two great dangers that accompany every sermon illustration. The first, and most common, is that the illustration will overpower the gentle revelation of Christ that the preacher is trying to hold before those in the pews. The second is that it will be only ornamentation that distracts the listeners from the pristine beauty of the message. This is not to say that preachers should avoid using illustrations. There are times, especially when preaching out of the epistles of the New Testament, when a good illustration is necessary even for the minor poet. But even then, it is important that the illustration not get in the way of the preacher, the congregation, and the Holy Spirit.

At this point it seems like Barnes isn’t against illustrations, just against bad ones. But he goes on:

The longer I preach, the fewer illustrations I seem to use. Mostly that is because I have learned to trust the incarnational nature of the biblical text. The vast majority of the Bible presents not abstract theology, but theology embodied in sacred stories. These narratives are profoundly compelling, and they don’t benefit from being interrupted with similar contemporary stories.

Did you catch that? Preaching without benefit of illustrations is a matter of trust. Do you agree?

I’ve heard it said (and Barnes intimates) that if people leave the service remembering the story you told more than the story you read from scripture, that you somehow didn’t serve the people well. I don’t think it’s that simple. What is the goal of our preaching? For people to leave with the scripture passage on their lips? One hopes so, and a good sermon can provide some biblical education, but it shouldn’t be the primary aim of our preaching. Rather, our hope in preaching is that the gospel message continues to live in the hearts of the listeners. Why can a well-told story not do this?

I find it peculiar, this idea that the gospel is somehow threatened by our stories, as if the illustration and the scripture are somehow in competition with one another. This is a false dichotomy. A good illustration doesn’t pull attention away from the text, it breaks it open further.

Preachers and listeners: what do you think?

~

By the way, you can read those Harry Potter sermons (and lots of other stuff) here.

By the way2, thanks to everyone who’s subscribed to my email list. I promise a big juicy update this week. Subscribe here.

photo credit: Randy OHC via photopin cc The Word became flesh and lived among us. BOOM.

Now the Story’s a Part of You: Explore Biblical Storytelling with Casey FitzGerald

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Here’s a resource for ministry and for personal enrichment that I want you to know about!

My friend Casey FitzGerald is a biblical storyteller. What this means is that she learns stories from the Bible by heart and tells them to audiences and congregations. Casey is also a pastor, and she’s created Faith and Wonder, a wonderful website that includes videos of stories being told plus a wealth of fantastic resources, including additional information about the text and reflections questions for individuals or groups.

If you’ve experienced biblical storytelling as a listener or a practitioner, you know that the story comes to life in a way that it often doesn’t when someone simply reads it. There are pauses. There are gestures. There are interpretive decisions. There are nuances. There is humor (gasp!).

For years I’ve wanted to go through the training and certification process offered by the Network of Biblical Storytellers. So much cool stuff, so little time… But the next best thing is to just start learning some stories, and Casey helps you learn how. I’ve learned several stories over the years. It’s a devotional practice, to let those words seep into you. And for those of you who lead worship, it can enliven your worship services.

Check out Faith and Wonder, and thank you for your great site, Casey!

photo credit: Ines Seidel via photopin cc

Having “The Talk” about Santa

medium_4188008601There are parents who refuse to participate in the Santa myth because they don’t want to lie to their children. That stand has integrity in its own way, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary to be so draconian about it. Myths are tales that give meaning and texture to our lives.

As an adult Christian, for example, Christmas invites me into the mystery of a God who refuses to remain at an aloof distance but would participate fully in human vulnerability through the incarnation of Jesus. But that’s kind of abstract for a kid. The Santa myth is much more relatable. As much as some of us chide our kids about lumps of coal and Santa keeping a list (and setting aside the reality that Santa showers more gifts on wealthy homes than poorer ones), the fact is that Santa embodies grace: no matter who you are or what you’ve done, you will be remembered on Christmas morning.

But if you participate in Santa, you need to be ready for some messiness later. There will come a liminal time in which younger siblings still believe in Santa but older siblings know the whole truth. Or what to do with classmates at school whose awareness may not match up with your own child?

Our middle child asked for “the truth” about Santa last year, and Robert shared it with her. Interestingly, this year she’s acting as if the conversation never happened. There’s not always a clear before and after with these things. Sometimes there’s a willful forgetting, or a benign sense of denial. And that’s OK.

Still, if you’re truly concerned about your kid landing in therapy someday to work through their betrayal once they discover the truth about Santa, you could start by downplaying the Santa thing from the get-go. Don’t insist that the guy at the mall is the “real” Santa. Don’t answer a kid’s critical thinking questions with ever wilder explanations about the physics of flying reindeer, or how Santa can deliver so many presents in 24 hours. The appearance of presents on Christmas morning, as if by magic, is wondrous enough. Glitter and fake hoofprints in the snow are just gilding the lily.

When my children ask questions about Santa, I usually preface my answer by saying, “Well, the story goes that…” This puts me in the role of the communicator of a folktale rather than some perpetrator of a fraud. If they’re inclined to continue believing, they will accept this framing. If they’re ready to push further, they will.

In fact, though there are many ways to have the Santa conversation, this is the one that makes the most sense to me—to approach it as a story. Here is the gist of what I said to our oldest daughter a few years back. Her questions had turned from idle to insistent (and trust me, you’ll know when it’s time for this conversation). I’m recreating it here as a single commentary, but this unfolded over a series of halting conversations—in fact, it continues to unfold.

The story of Santa is just that—a story. It began a long time ago, with a man named Nicholas, who was a bishop in Myra, in present-day Turkey. Nicholas was a humble man with a special fondness for children. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. There are many other examples of Nicholas’s generosity that were told. Over time, Nicholas became Saint Nicholas, which is the church’s way of honoring him.

And his story spread, as beautiful stories tend to do. It was such a beautiful story that everyone wanted to be a part of it, not just in Greece and Turkey, where Nicholas was from, but all over the world. People changed the story somewhat and called Nicholas by other names: Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, and so forth. Just as Nicholas gave gifts in secret, so do parents and other adults give secret gifts to children.

The story of Santa has continued all of these centuries because it’s a powerful story that helps give our lives meaning. And that story has not ended with you asking the “truth” about Santa. Santa is as real now as he was the moment before you asked the question. And the story will continue as long as there are people willing to tell it and live in it.

Yes, the story goes on—it’s just that you’re in a different place in the story now. Before, you were in the part of the story that received gifts as if by magic on Christmas morning. Guess what? You still get to be in that part of the story. But now you also get to be in the part of the story that shares those gifts with other people. (Maybe you’d like to help pick out stocking stuffers for your younger siblings, for example.)

There are all kinds of characters in stories like this. There are characters who think the whole thing is silly and a waste of time. That’s OK. There are also people who go around telling their siblings or their peers the “truth.” You can choose to do that if you want. But then you’ve taken away their choice to be where they want to be in the story. I hope you won’t take that choice away from them. They’ll come to another place in the story when it is time.

When I said earlier that the story began with Nicolas of Myra, that’s not really true. Because Nicholas was part of an older and deeper story, the story of Jesus. Jesus’ life was one of giving to those around him, living simply, sharing good news with hurting people, and asking others to follow his example. Nicholas decided that he wanted to dedicate his life to living in that story. So many of us, when we participate in the Santa story, are also participating in Jesus’ story. For others, the Santa story is not connected with Jesus, but with the spirit of giving. That’s OK too.

Over time, you will have questions about Jesus’ story as well. How can a man die and come back to life? Are all of Jesus’ miracles really possible? What happens to us after we die, if anything? I have all of those questions too, and probably always will. But the bottom line for me is that the story of Jesus has grabbed ahold of me and won’t let me go. It’s the story I want to live in, as best I can, for as long as I can.

~

photo credit: cuellar via photopin cc

Who Was Jackie Robinson’s Jackie Robinson?

 

Robert and I went to see 42 last night. Good film, well worth seeing. There was the tiniest layer of cheese over the movie, and the score was not the least bit subtle. But it was well done, and it captured the essence of his story, at least according to Robinson’s widow.

A church member had told me to be on the lookout for references to faith, and they were certainly there. Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) quotes scripture as a justification for signing Robinson to the Dodgers, though he’s also clear that it’s a good long-term business decision. Loved the line at the beginning: “Robinson’s a Methodist! I’m a Methodist! God’s a Methodist!”

During their first meeting, Rickey talks to Robinson about how he is to respond to the racist vitriol that will come—he cannot fight back, even if provoked, because he will inevitably be deemed the instigator by a wary and suspicious public. His job is to play ball and to do it well. (Which he does… and there are clear elements of the trickster in the way Robinson toys with the pitchers when stealing bases.)

Jackie Robinson: You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?

Branch Rickey: No. I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.

This idea is connected explicitly to Jesus’ teachings later on during a conversation between the two characters.

Given the Christian images that wove throughout the movie, I longed for just one scene of Jackie Robinson in church. It’s not that I need that validation as a Christian or anything. But there is no real sense of the community Jackie grows out of. Whenever we see him in the movie, he’s either on the field, with Rickey, or with his wife.

We see him inspiring countless African-Americans at the time (and it was cool to read that one of the most “Hollywood” moments of the story, involving a young boy at a train station as Robinson and the team pull away, was based in reality). But who inspired and sustained Jackie Robinson? Who did he look to for support? During the torrent of abuse, the pitches thrown at him, the petitions circulating behind his back, was there a community that he leaned on?

Even trailblazers need a community.

As I wrote last week, John Lewis talked recently about the training the civil rights activists received around non-violent resistance to racist attitudes and barriers. That kind of training didn’t spring fully formed in the 1950s, post-Robinson; it rises from a long history and a deep grounding in the stories of liberation in the Bible. I understand that in a movie you have to be economical with the story, but it felt a bit strained for Rickey, an old white guy, to be Robinson’s sole mentor helping him along the way. (Though I loved the character.)

Maybe a Jackie Robinson fan will come along and shed some light—and for all I know the film may be accurate that he was kind of a loner. But there’s a bigger point. I’m always a bit bothered by this kind of portrayal of our heroes. It strikes me as a very American way to tell the story—it’s the bootstrap myth on steroids—but it’s ultimately inadequate. What’s powerful about real-life hero stories is that they tell about real flesh-and-blood people who rise out of a community in a specific time and place. They may see themselves as nothing special, but their gifts and circumstance conspire to thrust them into greatness. Even so, they cannot do it alone.

Not everyone is called to be Jackie Robinson. Heck, not everyone can be Jackie Robinson. But our world needs people to aspire to great things. If the cultural story we tell is of the lone hero, I suspect that most people will choose to sit out because they think they don’t have what it takes. But if we get to stand on the shoulders of others who’ve gone before, I suspect that more people will get to climbing.

More on Violence and Holy Week: Breaking Bad, Hunger Games

Rue from the Hunger Games

Rue from the Hunger Games

In response to yesterday’s post:

This was going to be a comment but it’s too long. I want to share a quote from a recent episode of On Being. The ep was The Great Cauldron of Story: Why Fairy Tales Are for Adults Again with a folklorist, Maria Tatar:

Ms. Tippett: I’m just following on some of the things we’ve been talking about also in terms of popular culture. I also do see some very gritty ways right now specific to our time I think. You know, television like The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad or The Hunger Games, you’ve talked about. There’s also this genre where there’s a really intense existential fear. And one of the themes in a lot of these is everything that we think has civilized us is taken away. Right. And that we are brutalized.

Ms. Tatar: Right, right, yeah.

Ms. Tippett: And, but I’ve read you feeling concerned also about some of that going to new extremes that might not be good for us.

Ms. Tatar: You know, it’s hard, I don’t like to be the one preaching a sermon. Because I told you about my childhood experience. So I’m always reluctant to sort of be judgmental. But I must admit that Breaking Bad was my breaking point. That is, that there’s some — I remember just seeing — I won’t even describe it. But I thought, OK, that’s just too much for me.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, I feel that way too.

Ms. Tatar: I have to turn that off, yeah. And Hunger Games I was startled by, because to me, the idea of a book about children killing children was just going to an extreme. It was violating a cultural taboo in a way that was difficult for me. But then there, I read the book and I watched the movie and I thought they were sensational and really fascinating. You know, and I didn’t — even though it had crossed a line, Suzanne Collins somehow seemed to have done it in a way that made sense for me. That you know, there seemed to be a real point to that. And you know, I’m not the one who is looking for a lesson. But you know, we do have a new culture.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Tatar: You know, where there’s a lot more is permitted. We don’t protect our children as much as we once did. And I guess, you know, I do worry that children today they can see anything.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and they know they’re not protected. Right. That’s…

Ms. Tatar: Right, right, right. And…

Ms. Tippett: I mean, here’s something you wrote: “This savagery we offer children today is more unforgiving than it once was. And the shadows are rarely banished by comic relief. Instead of stories about children who struggle to grow up, we have stories about children to struggle to survive.” But I think that’s a reality people, even children, are aware of.

Ms. Tatar: It is. And I have to say that the minute you go into the protectionist mode and you say, you know, we need to draw a line and it shouldn’t be anything goes, you just get a lot blowback from people who say, oh you know, you don’t give children enough credit. They’re able to navigate this. And also we live in a violent world and therefore children should be, should know that, and all of that. But some of that — I think we haven’t been very thoughtful about figuring out, you know, where is that line? Where do we draw it? What responsibilities do we have as adults? But as I say, I always feel uncomfortable and maybe that’s why we’re not talking about it, because it makes us uncomfortable to be the censors or the editors or the ones who are saying, oh no, oh no, that’s too much.

Ms. Tippett: You know, I remember when my son whose now 14 — I think he was probably 12 or 13 when he was reading and really just inhaling it. And I asked him what it was about? I mean I heard other people tell me what it was about. And the first word that came out of his mouth is, it’s about poverty. You know, that’s not the word other people — I mean it wasn’t about children struggling.

Ms. Tatar: Oh, that’s fascinating.

Ms. Tippett: I mean it was about children struggling, but if this book has him thinking about poverty, well OK.

Ms. Tatar: Oh yeah, because Katniss is — remember when the book starts out she’s skin and bones.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Tatar: And she’s, you know, she’s living in Panem, the country of bread, where there is no food. And she, you know, she becomes this extraordinary trickster figure, who has to survive in a time of famine and use her wits.

~

The Holy Week angle, not that there needs to be one, is that Jesus’ story has elements of the trickster as well. But more broadly, I resonate with this exchange, even as I notice that Tippett and Tatar are conflating two things. One, the intensity of those stories as they relate to children. And two, the appropriateness of those stories for children.

And we shouldn’t confuse those two issues. There are spheres for adults and spheres for children. I’ve just noticed that extremely dark stuff (violent or not) is not cathartic or entertaining in the way it once might have been before I started relating to children every day, for many hours a day. The fiction leaks into the non-fiction, and the world looks darker than it really is.

But I’m very interested in other perspectives on this.