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Book Review: Telling God’s Story

I am a firm believer that every Reformed pastor should have a favorite Arminian. It’s good for the soul and it helps keep tabs on your blind-spots. When I was in college, I bought a bunch of books at an estate sale that had interesting titles. In particular, two books on pastoral care by William Willimon struck despite our very different views on the nature of God’s sovereignty, Willimon became a go to source on pastoral care.

He may have been supplanted as my favorite Methodist. Telling God’s Story by John Wesley Wright is one of the best books on preaching I have ever read. A while back I spent an entire semester reading books on preaching and as far as methodology of deliverary, none of them hold a candle to Wright.

What I found so good about Wright’s book was the way that he recorded a number of things that I have done in my preaching for years, that I never quite knew how to explain. There have been an onslaught of books in the past 10 years about narrative preaching and most of them have been lack-luster. Many of these books have been overly simplistic.

“Uh, stories are good, you know. People like stories and you should tell more of them. It would even be cool if your whole sermon was a story, eh?”

Obviously that is a bit exaggerated, but the nuts and bolts how to make transitions and structure a sermon were missing from these books. Wright walks through the how-to’s of narrative sermon, showing why each piece is important. He gives particular attention to two ideas; the comedic verse tragic nature of sermons and concept of a sermonic “move”.

Wright points out that much of the churches current preaching is falling deaf ears because it has become routine and people see it coming. He calls this sort of preaching comedic. He goes on to compare it to I Love Lucy. There is going to be a problem and that problem will neatly wrap up in the way that you expect it to in about 25 minutes. Wright shows how this caricature is far too similar to most of our preaching. He suggests instead a type of preaching that tragically reveals the disconnect between who we are and who the Biblical narrative calls us to be. He says that this type of preaching should feel more like Romeo & Juliet. The ending of the love story makes us uncomfortable. Wright says this is precisely what sermons should do.

Wright says that one of the ways we should accomplish this is sermonic “moves”. These moves differ from points in that they are not just pieces of information to build on, but connections between the text and the listener. These moves form the basis of the sermon and serve to connect us to the text and to show how the original hearers would have moved through the text as well.

Overall, I cannot recommend this book any more highly. It is a perfect complement to books like Greidanus’s Ancient Text Modern Preacher.


My Love/hate Relationship with my Yard…a metaphor part 2

Last time I talked about my yard, I spoke of the struggle I have seeing the big picture as I stare at the details. That’s not the only thing running through my head as I mow.

I also absolutely love to mow the yard. It is one of the only things in my life that is measurable and achievable. One of the great difficulties of a minister is struggling with the fact that there is very little, if any, objective measuring stick to my work.

When I was in management with Starbucks, they had a very strong system of objective accountability. If you had good labor to cash ratios, if you generated a proper number of transactions per half hour, if your secret shoppers worked out well, you were doing a good job. Even when I was telemarketing, you could measure my strength – more like weakness – by the number of leads I was turning into sales. All of us, my self included (maybe foremost), love to know we are doing a good job. We love to exceed expectations.

As a minister, there is simply no objective measurement of ministry. Jeremiah was called to a people who wouldn’t listen and wouldn’t convert. Jesus didn’t have great numeric success. Furthermore, Jesus own disciples didn’t understand his mission and scattered at his arrest. If we measured the breadth or depth of Christ ministry…he was not a huge success.

So there must be something else.

But even me searching for something else betrays a certain idolatry. I worship success. That’s why I love to mow so much. When I am done, I sit on my porch with a beverage and take it all in. I have mowed this yard. Those blades of grass have to submit to me, Lord Justin of the Push-mower! I can see what I have done, and I take comfort in it.

In Luke chapter 10, the disciples return from their mission that Jesus sent them out on. They are excited that they have accomplished so much in Jesus name; they even boast to Christ that the demons obey them. When they mentioned Christ…of course.

Instead of responding with a round of “attaboys” Jesus subtly chides them and me. He says, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

The disciples wanted to measure their ministry by what they had done. I want to measure my ministry by the things I have done, what I have accomplished. But Jesus roundly refuses to allow for this.

Do not rejoice that your ministry is effective, or not. Do not rejoice that your preaching is good, or not. Do not rejoice that people say really nice things to you around noon on Sunday, or not.

Rejoice that I love you. Rejoice that I love you whether or not your church is growing. Whether or not you are the greatest preacher. Whether or not you are asked to speak at big conferences.

Ministry, true/gospel ministry, must grow out of our acceptance of the Gospel. My ministry is pleasing to God, so long as it is born out of my understanding of the greatness of my sin and the even greater-ness of my redemption. If ministry flows from this in my life, my ministry won’t need any sort of objective goals or measurements.

Now if I could just get this through my thick skull.

Book Review: A Cross-Shattered Church by Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas is noted theologian and professor at Duke Divinity School. He is typically known for his work in Ethics, additionally he has the distinction of being a man who is committed to the local church as well as the academy. As a teacher of practical theology, he takes very seriously the call to be both professor and practitioner. He serves at the Church of the Holy Family in addition to his post at Duke.

A Cross-Shattered Church (ACSC) is a collection of sermons from the Church of the Holy Family, the Chapel at Duke Seminary, and some other places/events. In all 17 sermons range from the dedication of the new processional cross at the school to the homily at a wedding of some of his students.

As a collection of sermons, ACSC is best read slowly and periodically. I found when I read more than one sermon at a sitting, the strength and power of the sermons was blunted. The book is certainly more devotional than it is instructional.

Three particular things jump out about Rev. Hauerwas’s preaching. The first is the connection to communion. Preaching in a liturgical context, he does an incredible job tying each sermon into the meal that follows it. This focus on communion (which had created some fascinating thoughts in me, which I will share some other time) is both beautiful and helpful. While some in liturgical traditions seem to apologize for weekly communion, Hauerwas celebrates it. For anyone who teaches in a church that serves the Lord’s Supper weekly, this book has some excellent teaching on how to make fresh connections between word and sacrament each week.

Second, all of the sermons in ACSC are short and simple. Hauerwas rarely gets involved in complex metaphors. Furthermore, he rarely adds illustrations. His messages are truly spartan. What is most fascinating about this seemingly drab approach to homiletics is that he doesn’t seem boring. He is genuinely engaging. The simplicity of the sermons lends itself to their “punchiness”.

Lastly, Hauerwas is known for his stance on non-violence and pacifism. When I decided to read this book in January, I wondered if it would be too preachy in those areas. (pun unintended) Much to my surprise, these issues take a back seat to the texts that Pastor Hauerwas expounds. He speaks of non-violence when the text indicates it, but he does not wedge it into others.

A Cross-Shattered Church is a good collection of sermons, that would be excellent for men in ministry or seminary to read one a week for spiritual refreshment and encouragement. As far as value in teaching homiletics or showing any sort of method, it’s value is eclipsed by other books.