George Herbert

Commemorating George Herbert (1593-1633) and his work in Fugglestone St. Peter with Bremerton hit a strong chord for me as I have been contemplating the modern priesthood and its demands.

Love his work, or not, George Herbert is probably the best known pastoral theologian among Anglican/Episcopal clergy.  He left academia for the life and work of a small parish and served for only three years.  I have no doubt that his reputation is significantly enhanced by his short tenure, and having worn himself out in ministry, his early death at the age of 40. If he had lived to serve a few more years in Fugglestone he might not be so well remembered, as we all know that the real issues in parish work do not erupt until year 4, 5, 6, etc.  After those years he might have been called all sorts of names by those associated with his ministry. Ok. I kid. I kid.

In all seriousness, what Herbert represents is a type of pastoral identity that is counter-cultural in our day.  Clergy are beset by the temptation to be “corporate” and “professionals” rather than pastors. I believe that our push for the “professionalization” of the clergy has actually weakened our ability to serve as priests.  We wanted to be treated like the physicians, lawyers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and professors in our cities and towns, and even though we have less social capital today, we are treated like them.  We put our degrees on our walls showing we have the proper credentials. Those who come to us for ministry inquire about our “vision” and “mission” statements so that we can adequately discover our market and how to operate within it for “success” and to determine whether or not we are “visionary” enough for them to join the work. The National Church asks us about our “liturgical style”, and how we “handle conflict”, “budget management”, or our experience  in “leading through change”.   TPTB have never asked me about my prayer life, spiritual disciplines, how much time I spend in Holy Scripture and Christian reading.  I cannot remember the last time anyone in my “chain of command” asked about visiting the sick in hospital or pastoral care.  Nor has anyone inquired after my practice of being “out and about” in the community I serve.

George Herbert represents the model of the “Country Parson”.  He literally wrote the book on it.  And while it does not all translate to our context today, it is a model for a pastoral life less concerned with the “operations” of  parish, but consumed with a deep love of Christ, place, and people.  The life of the “Country Parson”, and the “City Pastor”, is to be that life of serious devotion to Christ through prayer, discipline, study, and deep concern for the spiritual and physical needs of the members of his parish.

Clergy, we need to be less administrators and better priests and pastors.  We need to log of the network and log more time “on our knees”, and to get out of the office and into the “Office”.

Rant off.

Ashes to Go!

In recent years it has become quite popular for clergy to offer “Ashes to Go” on Ash Wednesday since modern life leaves people too busy to visit a Church on this day.

While I commend the spirit behind the movement, there is a significant misunderstanding of what the ashes of Ash Wednesday mean. They are not primarily a mark that one is a Christian, or has been baptized, nor are they simply sign of blessing.

Ashes are a reminder that we are all going to die. We are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth we will return. This thought should bring us to our knees. We need the time and space to process this reality, to take stock of our human condition. This is what an Ash Wednesday service does, and to shortcut this tremendous work is a disservice.

Of course, Ash Wednesday proclaims the other side of the fact of Death. We proclaim that in Christ there is ultimate deliverance from death itself. And we receive ashes as a sign of our repentance from our sin that would bind us into death, and of our faith in Christ. This, too, is tremendous spiritual work and should not be cut short.

We then carry the mark into the world that proclaims that death is real, and our confidence that deliverance from death is found in Christ alone.

Memento mori,

Low Carb Preaching

I was in a recent conversation on preaching, and my conversation partner shared the story of a friend whose pastor used a very odd illustration during the sermon.  Now, the point of the sermon was not remembered, but the illustration was.  And it is this, “Men’s brains are like waffles, stuff is all spread out and separated into little squares of information.  Women’s brains are like spaghetti, all the thoughts get tangled, and they can pull the individual thought noodle out whenever they want, even years later.” Now that is offensive to men and women, and I think for Christian preaching. Waffles and spaghetti noodles? Talk about empty carbs!

I cannot imagine that being shared from any pulpit.  Of course, I was not present, but I struggle to discern what point is being made, what text was being read, or that it had anything to do with the Gospel of Christ.  Speaking from my experience in this corner of the world, it is also symptomatic of a problem that I have seen in preaching across the board over the past decade, that of not knowing what the content of preaching should be.  It is as if preaching, at least in the big box churches and the mainlines, is becoming either a commentary on the national news or a summation of the latest ideas from the Barnes & Noble religion section.  The categories of which are: self-help, marriage help, parenting help, bestest life now, financial management, preachers working out personal issues, or political issues under the guise of being “prophetic”.

Now, I am not saying some of these are not worthy of pastoral attention, but they are not the content of Christian preaching.  The content of Christian preaching, if I may be so bold, is Christ.  In the life of the local church, there is a place for marriage and family training, there is a place to discuss politics, there is a place to teach personal finance, but all of these should not receive pride of place in the Sermon.

For those of us given the terrible responsibility to stand before a congregation at worship, we would do best to remember to focus on the Word of God, and point away from ourselves and to Christ Jesus and our salvation, reconciliation, to the Father, through Him and in the Holy Spirit.  Of course, this means that Dogma and doctrine are important in our preaching, as is the state of our personal relationship with Him. We can even preach about the necessity of virtuous life and wrestling with the passions, but these do not change the core content of pointing to Christ.

To reiterate our sermons are not about self-help, politics, or really cool quotes and stories we find and want to tell.  People should remember not the stories or the tidbits, but that they heard the Word of Life and were pointed to Him in whom is our life.

As we move toward Lent, all of us who are called to preach, should take stock of our messages and see where we are pointing. The Body of Christ needs less carbs and more meat!