This is going to be one of those Jesus Blog entries for my co-religionists. I don’t do this often, but every now and again I will take a more “so how then shall we live” tone. I know that this will turn some people off. I don’t really care all that much, but rest assured that I’ll be posting on Jesus’ digestive system again very soon.
There is a question that I get from seminary students once and a while that I like very much. It goes like this: “How does somebody who has spent their life studying 'these things' ever sit through a sermon again without cringing?”
I like this question a whole lot for two reasons. One, it means that the seminarian has reached a level of intelligence that has ruined them for any sort of Joel Osteen/Kirk Cameron/Mike Huckabee tomfoolery. Two, I get to offer one of the few answers that I know of that is both pithy and true at the same time. Normally with fortune cookie wisdom, you get what you pay for - but not always. Here is my answer:
Whenever I sit in a sermon, or lecture, or presentation of any kind, I try to allow myself to be challenged by at least one thing.
I have had the privilege of learning from some fine preachers and teachers in my time, so perhaps it is easy for me to say this. I have highly intelligent friends who use the sermon time to read Game of Thrones. We all have our own survival mechanisms and all that I’m saying is that mine works for me. To each their own, but do my best to engage with the sermon on some level.
I say this because it is far too easy for critical minds to deconstruct. I often feel this way in films. I find myself critiquing the placement of a scene toward the development of the plot, or the delivery of a line, or the motivations of the character, etc. ("The Hobbit" almost broke me.) And if I’m doing this, I wonder how trained film critics ever “lose themselves” in a story. Well biblical scholars and theologians have a similar problem at church (and I imagine at synagogue, temple and mosque too, but I wouldn’t know).
By focusing on finding one acorn of nourishment, I am able let most of the other stuff drift past. Now, on occasion, I find myself blindsided by some bit of premillennialism, American exceptionalism, or anti-Semitism that I cannot let go. If so I become Dr. Grumpy in car-ride home as my wife can attest. But I try.
Another bit of advice that I’ve appreciated comes from a friend of mine. He says that “Church really isn’t about feeding you; it really isn’t about you at all.” I take this to mean that Church is about worshipping and worship is an act of forgetting oneself long enough to focus upon something beyond you. This, of course, is easier for some than others.
This may or may not be helpful as you find yourself deconstructing traveling stars and Moses typology this advent.
Any thoughts on this? What is the best advice you’ve heard on this topic?