Brother’s Gaga

I had a roommate in seminary whose name was Joe Obermeyer.  We called him Jober.  He was a good friend.

We used to go on guy dates all the time.  Subway was an occasional spot but we found ourselves eating tacos and drinking margaritas as Los Aztecas quite a bit.  On weeks that Nora worked the weekend, we would have our guy time; when she was available, he would often join us for dinner.

I spent a lot of time in the Jober.  We were younger guys, I was unmarried and him single, our ministries were both local, and we found ourselves with a small amount of free time that others in our seminary community didn’t have.

Long story short, we spent a lot of time together.

All of that was to tell this story.  This was around the time that “Bad Romance” had gotten popular and we had a song that we sang together constantly that went something like this:

WOAHOAHOAHOAHOAHOAHOAHOAHOAHOAH!  Caught in a bad bromance!

It was our theme song. As we marched into the Mexican restaurant, cheap margaritas and tacos on our minds, this song was always on our lips.  I’m pretty sure our roommate Matt, Nora, and anyone else who had to hear us this these few lyrics sang over and over again wanted to murder us, but we sang it forever.

I miss my friend.  He is rocking it in North Dakota, living the dream and serving God, so we don’t get to see each other very often, but it is always a great time when we do.

I will always remember my “Bad Bromance” and the stupid song rewrite that we did.  I’m sure more than a view people had honest considerations of murder.

But it is such a good memory.  Nothing big, nothing crazy, just brings a smile to my face.

To cheap Mexican food and margaritas!

– Robby

Who am I?

I ask myself this question more than the average bear, I suppose.  I find myself wondering who it that I am from moment to moment.  I stand in a pulpit and I’m a teacher, and a teacher of the Word none the less.  I stand behind a camera and all of a sudden I’m back to a previous self that doesn’t understand how people blush at certain words and sound like I spent a considerable amount of time on a naval vessel.  Put a beer in front of me and I’m somewhere in between.  If I find myself behind a keyboard, all of a sudden I am forcing myself to be vulnerable.  In a meeting, I’m a closed vault of sorts.

At any moment, I have to decide which me is going to come through.  Actively decide.  I have to choose what level of vulnerability, brashness, and that intangible but always known “sailor talk” is appropriate in every moment.  I actually spend an inordinate about of time deciding if I need to go through and change every “hell” and “damn” I’ve put in this blog.

As much as I may want it to, it doesn’t make me unique.  Every adult has to do that.  Every person who ministers really has to do this.  If you stand at a pulpit, you are hyper-vigilant about it.  You have to decide how honest you are in the pulpit, on the street, and in the hospital room.  Do you show a bit of vulnerability at the risk of authority?  How do you balance that?

This has been weighing on me because I find myself wanting to be more honest and vulnerable from the pulpit.  I’m not desiring to make it my therapy session or a session to air my dirty laundry, but I still feel like there is a certain amount of “faking it” in my sermons.  I had a conversation with one of the ladies of the church after Sunday worship one week and we got to talking about my sermons and somehow it went to our imperfection.  I will never forget her words:

…when you talk about the bad things you’ve done in your sermons, you aren’t that bad.

“…not that bad.” I have to chuckle because I know myself, and I know the whole history. I smile because I know there are weeks that my exegesis is paired with a decent sized glass of bourbon. I chuckle because I think about editing a sermon while South Park is on in the background.  I shake my head because I think about the actual bad things I’ve done, and the things that I thought were really bad.  And I’m torn because I know that those facts shared from the pulpit in a pastoral way would make me more accessible to some people hearing my teachings and yet would drive away other that hear because I cannot meet a certain standard of “piety”, even if my not meeting that standard is a conscious, thought-out choice.

Again, though, this doesn’t make me unique.  If I lined up all of my pastor/preacher friends, I could similar conversations.  Maybe they don’t want to talk about their whiskey and entertainment choices, but maybe there is a bad decision they made or a horribly difficult life situation that they have to hide while in the pulpit that would open up relationships because of the vulnerability it shows and it makes the preacher, the teacher “real”.  The line of how vulnerable and “real” we are supposed to be while preaching, while teaching, and while interacting and providing care for those who we are charged with leading is not straight and changes in thickness, depending on the day, person, and situation.  An act of vulnerability can be too vulnerable, just right, or not vulnerable enough and not change in the slightest.

It’s a battle and “game” that anyone in a caring profession – ministry, counseling, or any others – play out every day, and find the ways to land on that line as often as possible.  Success in these fields requires it.  Period.

And it is freaking draining.  I’m not full-time in ministry at the moment, but even in the small bits of ministry that do come my way, I’m always torn.  Combine that with being on a media crew that is essentially a polar opposite of my church family and wanting to be the best “me” I can be to feed the souls in both groups the best that I can because I am a Christian and that is my interpretation of the call of the gospel (Feeding All Souls In Love) and it is exhausting because I don’t know when I am the real me.  After 27 years, 4 months, and 25 days, I don’t really know who I am.

… … …

Actually, yes I do.  I know exactly who I am.  I’m a God-worshiping beer drinker who cooks a bit too much, swears a bit too much, and loves as much as he can.  That’s who I am.  I think the reason I have to ask myself “Who am I?” constantly is because I don’t let myself be myself.  Sometimes I can’t be myself – cracking opening a beer at the pulpit is unacceptable, I think – and sometimes I don’t think I should be myself but this short, overweight, beer-loving preacher who curses and loves and gets distracted so easily (from the start of this sentence to now I’ve followed 6 new blogs….) and worships Jesus as much as he can and maybe relies on the Holy Spirit a bit too much on Sundays and tries really hard to be a good husband but falls short sometimes and really just wants to be real and vulnerable.

And that conflicts with who I have to be to feed some souls, and matches right up with other souls I feed.  And I want to feed them all.

So to respond to Ben Huberman’s prompt about our various “Me’s” colliding, I simply say, “Got 27 years, 4 months, and 25 days?  Because my life is defined by various versions of myself colliding with the real me.”

Who am I?  I am “Jesus, Beer, and My Tiny Kitchen” in human form; this blog is me in writing form.  Only person me messes up a whole lot more in the kitchen and written me cures a whole lot less.

To honesty, vulnerability, and beer,

– Robby

Seeking Unity

I realized a long time ago that, along with all of the writing I do here, I also do about 1500 words of writing every week for my sermon.  Most weeks they aren’t really something that translates that well into reading on a blog – or maybe I’m just over-critical – but this week I really liked when I wrote.  I also have had the idea of unity and disunity and wanted, at least subconsciously, to touch on the subject here.  It worked out perfectly, I suppose.

Here is my manuscript, edited a bit after I gave it yesterday:


The Unifying Act of Pentecost

Many gifts, one Body.  Many gifts, one Body.  Many gifts, one Body.  Many gifts, one Body.

Every year, when I approach my Pentecost sermon, I find myself focusing on the gifts of the individual.  Each one of us is part of the Body of Christ.  We have have a talent, a gift, a skill that we contribute to that Body.  We are each important.  Every year I tend to find myself focusing on the individuals.

That is a valid focus.  There will always be times that we find ourselves wondering if we are a necessary part of the Body of Christ.  Do we contribute?  Does Jesus actually desire us to be in his Body?  Can we even contribute to this Body?  What can we contribute?

Every year come to the same conclusion.  We each have gifts to share, we each have something that we contribute.  We each are part of the Body of Christ.  As faithful believers, we each have a roll that we play.  We fall short, we deny that role from time to time, but we each have a role in furthering Christ’s message, showing Christ’s love, and growing the Body of Christ.  We each are a part of the Body of Christ.

Every year I preach the same sermon.  Every year I talk about talents and gifts and how even the most miniscule act that do that is done in love and out of our faith in and love of Jesus Christ has radical effects.  A balloon has just a bit of air and yet it grows from something ugly, dull, and boring into something large, fun, and beautiful.  It does not take radical action to change the world.

Every year the same sermon.  I fear, though, that we miss something with that same sermon.  We need to reverse the lens that we are looking through.  We need to look not at each of us individually, but at the entire Body of Christ.  We need to do this because I’m afraid we miss an incredibly important part of the Pentecost day and what it did for our faith.

When we look at the Pentecost story, we see that Jews from every corner of the Earth, from every country, and in every language hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.  In this one act they were unified by hearing one Word.  They were one people connected to one message at one moment in time.  The Pentecost was as much a unifying act as it was an act of talent and gifts.  In that moment, the world of believers became one united Body of Christ.

Those who heard and understood were brought into the Body of Christ, becominf followers of the true Word of God expressed through Jesus.  They saw and heard the works of the Holy Spirit and were moved to follow Christ.  They were made better, their souls more whole, when they entered into the Body of christ.

It is better and joyful to be part of the Body of Christ.

Importantly, each of those who were brought into the Body of Christ were sinners.  Each had their flaws, each fell horribly short of the glory of God.  They were unworthy of being in this Body, and yet through Christ they were brought into one Body, showing mercy and love, and given their salvation.  Only faith, love, and submission to Christ was required.

No one was turned away, each was brought into the Body of Christ.

I see this outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the unifying actions of those who followed Jesus, the creation of a Body that requires only faith in Christ to be part of, and I cannot help but contrast it with the world we live in.  This world is not a world that is modeled after the actions of the Pentecost; it is the exact opposite of it.

When you look at politics, what do you see?  Do you see a unified Body working towards the good of the people, or a disunified Body whose concern is individual and selfish?  What do political ads say?  Do they speak to what good can be done, or what evil someone else has done?  What do we hear from our leaders?  Is it that they want to sacrifice for those who have elected them, or that they can help us if we just follow them and not that other person who has a different letter after their name?

But this goes beyond these divisions we’ve made for ourselves; we don’t just divide, we actively work to exclude people.  The world is set up in a way that we can only act like adversaries.  We are divided as “Us vs. Them” and the only ones who deserve to be part of the Body of Christ are the ones who fit in our “Us”.  The Body of Christ is universal and yet we like to see it as only those who minister like we do, talk like we do, and sin like we do.  Those other sinners have more black marks and different black marks on their souls so they cannot possibly be part of the Body of Christ.  They aren’t good enough.

We live in a world and we live lives that are anti-Pentecost.  We live in intentional disunity, we divide ourselves into groups that look and act and sound and sin the same, and we are glad to do it.

Glad to do it, joyful when we do it, and celebrative when it is done.

Disunity saddens me to a deep degree.  We are all called to be part of one Body and yet we are so divided.  If we disagree, we are more likely to battle, flee, or separate versus trying to solve the disagreement.  If something fails, we are ready to oust the person responsible and remove them from the Body.  If someone sins in a way that scares us, disgusts us, or just makes us feel uncomfortable, we are ready to cut their part of the Body of Christ away and make a more “pure” Body of Christ.  We are so ready to do this, so very ready.

Even denominations have the same issue.  I am not a huge fan of denominationalism as a whole, but I am even more angry at the denominations, my own Presbyterian Church included, that create more disunity in the Body of Christ over issues that are not that large, mostly issues that make people uncomfortable.  They split instead of trying to find a way to live within the same Body.  Martin Luther in no way wanted to divide the church and split it apart; he wanted change, he wanted discussion, but he realized that one of the calls of the gospel is unity within the Body.  His 95 Thesis was not supposed to be a wedge, even if the church treated it as one.

The Body of Christ is so divided, both as Christian bodies dividing themselves into fractured individual bodies and Christian churches denying entrance into the Body of Christ to those who are “different”, and those who contribute to this fracturing are denying everything about the Pentecost.  We were unified in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and we have done our best to deny that in our lives.

What is the solution, then?  What are we called to do?  We are divided, we are broken, we are fractured, and we live in a world of disunity; what are we supposed to do about it?

We can only work towards unity and wholeness of the Body of Christ in our own lives.  We need to recognize that all are called to the Body of Christ, including those whose ministries are different than our own, whose appearance is different than our own, and even those who sins are different than our own.  We have to act in a way that is accepting, loving, and unifies of the entire Body.  This is not to say that we need to turn a blind eye to sin but that sin does not exclude from the Body of Christ because of Jesus; we are redeemed, saved, and called to this Body despite of our shortcomings and our failures and our sins.  Christ makes us more than ourselves, and he makes everyone else more than themselves to be part of this one, unified Body.

Above all, the most unifying thing that we can do is love.  I talk about it every week, and I will every week.  One of the greatest things that Jesus gave us was an example of how to love.  Every action that we take must be made out of love, love of God and love of neighbor.  If we desire unity within our world, if we desire unity within the Body of Christ, we must love at every intersection and every waypoint.  We must love in everything we do.  We cannot have unity if we don’t.  Period.

We can only be unified if we love.  So love.  At all times and in all things.  Amen.


As always, comments encouraged (including homiletics comments if you are so inclined)!

To preaching the Word and being part of the Body of Christ,

– Robby

Lost Art of Freedom

I’m a tech person.  I love tech.  I’ve argued for tech.  I’ve seen the social media revolution as a great thing for humanity.  I’ve watched the internet destroy barriers and connect people in a way that science fiction writers could not dream up.  I won’t go so far as to say the entirety of human knowledge is available as my fingertips as I write this, but I would say we are getting pretty darn close to that.  A good friend of Nora and I’s was diagnosed with MDS and AML and I was able to go from knowing nothing about either to having a pretty decent basic crash-course in both within a few hours, including bleeding-edge information and treatment options.  Even this blog, which would have been a journal of an unknown man in times passed, is now available for the world to see.

All of this sounds great, but it gets even better when you start to dissect is a bit more.  Information is power, and information is freedom.  The more you know and the more you have access to learn (or access as necessary), the more freedom you have.  If you are not reliant on the powers to know, learn, and grow, if you are not reliant on archaic structures for learning and education, if you can learn anything you want because everything is available, you are more free than someone who cannot.

The internet has also broken down social barriers.  Twitter, for all of its faults and negatives, has completely opened up the social sphere and leveled the playing field.  It has opened paths of communication and allowed people of different social classes to communicate in an honest and open way – and mean and funny, as well, but the communication is happening that would have never happened before.  YouTube has allowed people, not giant corporations, to determine what entertainment they want.  Netflix has given artistic freedom to movie and television creators that the industry has never seen before.  This talk by Kevin Spacey is worth the 46 minutes.

The internet has changed things, some for the worse but vastly for the better.  Something it has done is given freedom, and in a way that nothing before it could have possibly done and nothing since its inception has come close to doing.  The internet is freedom, period.

A major aspect of that freedom is the fact that every bit of data is equal.  The only thing that differentiates how data is handled on the internet is size.  No data, no video or service, gets a priority over anything else.  There are sluggish servers, bad connections, but that is a problem with infrastructure, not a deliberate structuring of how quickly data is delivered based upon who can pay and who is willing to pay for their data to be given quickly.  No one is given preference and the internet is a neutral ground that has never been seen before.

And if what the internet delivery companies want to do with our data happens, we are going to lose that neutral ground.  If we let the telecommunications companies like Comcast, Time-Warner Cable, Cox, Verizon, AT&T, and Mediacom to determine who gets to go quickly and who gets throttled based upon who pays them in addition to what they are getting paid from subscribers, we are letting them destroy this neutral ground that has allowed small people to grow and succeed, allowed people who didn’t have the resources to learn before to learn anything they want from anywhere, and allowed the world to be connected to each corner.

If net-neutrality fails, then we are losing our freedoms.  Period.

I entitled this post “Lost Art of Freedom” to fit in here and I fear that I’m stretching it but I think there is something to practicing freedom.  Living in freedom is an art form.  I have no idea how to define that, but I do know what it isn’t.  I know that just using the internet for things that do not grow you, allowing your life to be defined by the frivolities of the internet instead of the beautiful thing that is presents, and not using it to broaden communication and freedom that is affords you, you are not practicing the art of freedom.

Or maybe you are.  Part of freedom is really the right to slit your own throat if you so desire.  Now, I am not advocating real suicide, but if you want to use the internet for cat pictures and Facebook chat, who am I tell you you can’t?  That is the beauty of freedom.

I don’t think, though, that if we idly sit by and not use the freedom and neutrality that the internet affords, we have lost our art of freedom.  If we don’t stand up and fight for our freedom, if we don’t use the freedoms we are afforded, if we are just idle, we have lost the art of freedom.

So what do we do now?  How do we fight that money and that power?

John Oliver has a brilliant idea (NSFW/Cursing Warning: I don’t blush at it, but I can understand why you may not want to watching something of that nature).  Contact the FCC and tell them that this is a freedom issue, not a commerce issue or something that should be determined by the powerful and rich men to make more money at the expense of freedom and neutrality amongst all people.  That is something you can do.  Here is the link:

http://www.fcc.gov/comments – Proceeding 14-28

Do this.  John Oliver kind of pushes for this to be “trolling” in terms of how we approach it but I think if we are professional, say that it is hurting our freedoms, and point to why, they have to deliberately deny this by changing the rules.  Period.  In changing this rule, they are choosing the profits of giant corporations over the freedoms of the entire nation.  We must express that this is unacceptable.

After you are done doing that, do something on the internet that makes it beautiful and wonderful.  Chat with someone on a different continent.  Learning something about theoretical physics.  Communicate with someone famous and important on Twitter.  Do something that the internet made possible that was impossible before.  Use the freedom we have been afforded in this act.

Learn to practice the art of freedom.  Act in a way that requires freedom.  Do something that shows you are free.

To freedom,

– Robby

Coffee

Every morning that Nora doesn’t have to open, we sit and drink coffee.  It isn’t a ritual thing, or even really an activity that we do together – right now she’s enjoying her coffee and I’m writing while we occasionally say something to each other.  Nora drinks coffee every morning.  Sunday morning rolls around and, because the sermon is never complete early, I need that cup of coffee to not be yawning throughout the service.  A nice cup of fauxspresso and Irish creme is…well, it’s just heaven.

We love coffee.  I honestly can say that I think I am better for having acquired the taste for coffee.  There are three things to have conversations over – food, beer (or whiskey), and coffee – and not having one of those three in my back pocket would have made the conversations I’ve had over the last 4 years less.  Period.

Have you ever offered a coffee drinker a cup of coffee when they had none?  It is amazing how much that cup of coffee can warm that person, both physically and emotionally.  I don’t remember where I picked this up, but I firmly believe that you can any knowledge of a person you want if you just offer them the comforting drink of their choice that isn’t alcohol-based; for coffee drinkers, and especially caffeine addicts, a cup of coffee will more usefully loosen a tongue than a bottle of bourbon or vodka.

My grandfather went downtown every day until the day he died and had coffee with all of the other old farmers from Battle Creek.  It was at the gas station, but either the coffee price went up or they took out most of the booths so they changed to one of the bars.  Then for some reason that didn’t work out so they moved to a small collectible shop across the street that basically served coffee and sweets so they would have a place to drink coffee and eat sweets in the morning.  And they did until many of them had passed.

My grandpa was at a funeral the day before he died and someone snapped a picture of him drinking a cup of coffee; even now, ten years after we lost him, my grandma still has that picture taped to the wall and she still has coffee with him.

Coffee is a part of life for a lot of people.  I’m not talking about a mochafrapaccinolatte (yup, made that up) concoctions that mask all of the coffee taste; I’m talking about a pot of drip coffee, milk and sugar for those who want, sitting around talking.  Growing up, after church on Sunday, the kids went upstairs for Sunday School and the adults went downstairs and drank coffee.  The coffee pot in the seminary lounge had the worst coffee imaginable and yet there was always a group of people talking and preparing their coffee right before and in-between every class.

There is something about the warmth, the bitterness, and the ritual around it that just brings people together.  It’s an intangible, something I can’t put my finger on, but it’s there.  Coffee brings people together.

(Note before I continue: I’m not a coffee-elitist.  Tea is wonderful, as well.  As is hot chocolate.  Mmmmmm, hot chocolate.  I just one, grew up in a coffee-culture, and two, find drip coffee in coffee mugs to be a unique part of our culture.  Other parts of the country, and other parts of the world, probably have their own thing that has the same effect coffee has on people in rural Iowa and much of the United States.)

As wonderful as coffee is, and it is wonderful, it has a serious dark side to it.  Big, multinational growers of coffee had harmed people in the name of cheap coffee.  People have been killed, have been starved, have been hurt just to make cheap, bulk coffee.  I’m not a social justice warrior of any sort and I really understand how money works for people who are without, but there was a point that I had to be honest with myself and align my consumption with my beliefs.  I can’t remember when it was, but I remember drinking a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee, enjoying the taste quite a lot, and then thinking, “Someone has hurt to make the situation correct for this cup of coffee to be placed in my hands.”  And mind you, Dunkin Donuts coffee isn’t a cheap brand of grind, either; more ethical coffee costs a bit more, but it isn’t cheap like a store-brand grind.  It just struck me that I was participating in hurting people, and for a cup of coffee that was good but cheap(er).

I didn’t get perfect right away; it took me a bit to get to that point where I drink mostly ethical coffee.  You will still occasionally find cheap, store-band coffee in our fridge.  We aren’t perfect, and I will still get a cup of coffee at a restaurant without asking about it’s sourcing, but I am trying to help the situation.  I am trying align my love of coffee with my love of humanity and doing the small part that I can to help people who are being hurt for coffee.

So what do we do?  I’m not a huge proponent of Fair Trade because, though I agree with the philosophy and the goal completely, I’m not sure I agree with the practices nor the price of certification.  I will never look down at someone who has switched to Fair Trade because every ethical option helps but that isn’t the route I’ve been following.  Instead, I’m a huge fan of a couple of smaller outfits who aren’t certified but do a lot of good.

The first one is Justo Cafe/Just Coffee.  What I love about this is that everything – growing, roasting, and distribution – benefits the actual people in the area.  It’s also organic and shade grown, which is good for the Earth and not just her people.  And it’s good coffee; the preaching professor gave us a bag for class and it was quite fantastic.  In honesty, learning about this coffee really planted the seed to start drinking ethical coffee in me and guided me into wanting to change my plans.

The second is More Than Coffee.  There are a lot of groups that have this name; the one I am talking about is at http://www.morethancoffee.info.  The coffee itself is delicious, sourced from Ethiopia, and the farmers are treated as well or better than Fair Trade farmers are.  In terms of ethics, they are solid.  What is cool about this group, though, is that the profits are put back into helping the orphans and widows of Ethiopia.  What is even cooler is that I actually got to meet the woman who started it, know people who work with them personally, and I can attest to their love of God and love of helping people.  I have faith in the goodness of people who do these things, but knowing the people who do this makes it the obvious choice for us in our coffee drinking.

Their Ethiopian Delight is also the only coffee I have ever had that stopped me in my tracks with how delicious it was.  It is just amazing coffee.

Do I think these are the only good options for ethical coffee?  No, absolutely not.  I just know about them and have done research into them.  What I’m saying here is that you should know where your coffee comes from, know how the growers are treated, and find coffee that aligns with the second greatest commandment – Love your neighbor as yourself – and isn’t a selfish choice for you.  Just do a bit of research and find a brand that you feel is doing good instead of harm in the name of coffee.

Small choices, small actions by everyone change the world.  This is a small thing you can do.

In Christ,

– Robby

Fire and Ice (or, Robby Rambling about Preaching)

Last night we had a bonfire because…well, I cut up a lot of firewood Friday, I haven’t had a chance to have a fire since then, and we’re leaving Wednesday for a wedding and I wanted to actually benefit from my labors instead of just longingly looking at the wood and being sad a fire wasn’t burning.

Holy crap, I love bonfires.

Anyway, as the fire was burning I couldn’t keep something out of my mind.  A couple of summers ago I worked with a pastor who has a very intellectual mind.  Very organized, very regimented, clean desk and set schedule.  This isn’t to say he is horribly inflexible – successful pastors can’t be inflexible and unsuccessful pastors don’t stay at a church happily for 30+ years – but his mind is very much logical and rational.

Anyone who knows me in my personal life could tell you that it was only destined that we would get along very well.  We just kind of clicked when I started my rotation at that church.  I’m less regimented than him, and I’m certainly not a clean-desk sort of guy, but the logical and rationality he showed in his ministry makes sense to me.

Another thing that worked with just getting along is he is a musician and a fan of jazz. Our lunches would be a sandwich at his kitchen table and then 20 minutes or so listening to jazz records CDs before we went back to work.  I can tell you, there isn’t much in the world I enjoy more than something like that; just listening to even part of a beautiful record like Kind of Blue as a break from whatever work you are doing can reset your engines and clear your mind (especially if you are an introvert).

One of these lunch sessions we got to talking about his violin playing and he mentioned something that a conductor had given as inspiration to the orchestra he as performing with: “Hearts on fire, minds on ice.”

Something about that has resonated with me since that day.  An idea that, even in the midst of our deepest intellectual moments, the midst of the coldest logical thinking, our hearts can still be on fire.  The fire of passion and desire does not require the brain to be shut off or even reduced at all; in fact, an expression of a heart “on fire” can be a brain working at its fullest and coldest.

Last night it popped into my head because of the fire because the fire didn’t want to start.  The leaves were damp, the wood a bit wet, and the wind a bit strong to be conducive to starting a fire in a small fire pit.  I couldn’t just have a spark to easily light a fire; it required work, it required thinking, and it required maintenance.  It just wouldn’t become the raging fire that burns anything easily; even when it got hot and the wind was making it bigger than the fuel said it should have been, a small misstep could have reduced it to smoldering.

In a lot of real ways, a fire in optimal conditions is better than my fire last night.  In optimal conditions, with dry kindle, dry wood, and properly sized logs, you are only limited to the size of the fire pit and the time you want to spend with the fire.  It burns bright, it burns warmly, and it just works on every level.  It just comes out.

I’ve had sermons like this.  You sit down at the computer and suddenly 2000 words are on the page and it flows perfectly.  It’s theologically sound, artful, and just a good sermon.  I’ve had this happen to me, I’ve had it happen when I didn’t deserve it, and I’ve had it happen when I deserved to have nothing sit on the page because of the lack of preparation I’ve had.  Sometimes it just happens that way.  Some of it is obviously the Holy Spirit, the flame of our souls, and some of it is the training and experience we’ve had.

A world of change can happen to a sermon between printing Saturday night and preaching Sunday morning.  I’ll use a fire I built at camp to explain.

One night I had one of those nights that young, angst-filled college students have.  I decided that I needed to build a fire to get through it and it was a darn good fire. Literally, it is one of the best bonfires I’ve ever built.  It just burned well, stayed lit, and it was a beautiful fire.

No one enjoyed it.  I was alone, and I was angst-filled in particular that night; this beautiful fire seemed wasted because no one enjoyed it.

I’ve written beautiful sermons I was proud of, and I still love despite the need for a couple of tweaks.  I can think of one in particular that just felt right.  It was artful, different, followed a homiletical style, and I just enjoyed writing it.  I had a solid interpretation of the scripture in use, backed up my commentaries, and it was just what the spark of the Holy Spirit lit in me.  I was ready to be lauded for my beautiful effort.

It is, in my opinion, lack on small word change, the best sermon in terms of art form I have ever written.  And my church enjoyed it immensely.

That C I got on it in Preaching Class showed me exactly how much a good sermon can completely miss it’s mark.  The best manuscript, the best delivery, and the best preacher – abstract, not specific in my case – can be heard wrong, suffer from the distraction of those listening, and have a small phrase that is mostly irrelevant to the message of the sermon derail the entire thing.  The beauty of that “fire” that I wanted to share ended up putting a sour taste for preaching in my mouth.

If I’m honest, both that fire I built at camp and that sermon I gave in class nearly caused me to quit.

Pride sucks and can kill everything about you.  It just is that way.  Especially when you think you’ve done this amazing thing, no one may notice and it may feel worse after than before.

That isn’t to say that every good sermon – or every good bonfire – that went like that was wasted and caused me grief.  I’ve written good sermons, preached them, and they hit exactly where I was aiming.  I felt good, the sermon had its message heard, and it was obvious that the Spirit was guiding my lips and the congregations ears.  I don’t always fail when the sermon came out easy and came out good.

What I will also say is that the sermon doesn’t always hurt when it is a grinder.

Sometimes the fires in non-optimal conditions are so much more meaningful than fires in the best of conditions.  Last night I just felt good that I got that stupid fire to burn.  The flames never got big (expect when the wind blew and they were way bigger than I wanted them to be) and it was hard to keep a flame at all.  Yet it was good and mind-clearing to be outside, to feel the warmth of the flames, and to have time with my wife without distraction other than the constant need to keep up with the fire.

Sermons can be like that.  There are certain passages that you decide to preach on early in the week (or weeks before) and Saturday comes and the sermon just won’t come out. Even passages that lend themselves to easy sermons just don’t have a message for you every time.

But Sunday morning doesn’t wait for you.  At 10:30 I have to have a worship service planned, bulletins printed, and something to say when I get to the sermon.  I can’t just say, “Screw it!  No sermon this week!”

Okay, maybe I could, but I like not being asked to not return.

It is amazing to me, though, how often those sermons hit the mark they needed to. Even more amazing – and annoying, if I’m honest – is when that mark is nowhere near where I was aiming.  It’s not that I didn’t prepare, it’s not that I didn’t try to hit a good message, but the sermon lent itself to another message and another point without my intervention.  Often times I don’t even know how it did it, and can’t find it when I read my manuscript again, but it worked on a spiritual level.

The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways.  With or without me.

I’ve also been burnt by those sermons.  Sometimes you talk for 15 minutes just to have the message, “Jesus loves you and the pastor loves the sound of his own voice” come through.  I know it’s happened; my congregation would never tell me, but I know it.  It happens.

So what about that quote, “Hearts of fire, minds on ice?”  It seems like I got derailed – and I did – but there is a point.  The first is obviously that the Holy Spirit can fix my brokenness from the pulpit.

But that isn’t the end.  Despite how many times the Holy Spirit has saved me from myself, it always works better when I’m in study and thought about my sermons.  There is a definite correlation between my working through a sermon before Friday or Saturday and the sermon coming out good and hitting its mark.  And there is a correlation between a grinder sermon actually working out and me having spent time with the scripture.

Compare it to my fire last night.  If I had just left it up to what was there without work, I would have burnt some wet leaves and then watched TV all night.  If I have no preparation and just grind out whatever will come, nothing will come of it.  “Jesus loves you and I love the sound of my own voice” is not a good or useful message.  If I had just relied of the little bit of flame I had starting on its own, it would have died.

If I rely on just the Holy Spirit to give me a message without the brain work, I am going to fail as a preacher.  Period.  I will fail as a preacher if I don’t let my mind be on ice and think through this stuff.  Passion, emotion, and fire are all good things in a preacher, but they don’t come together as a whole, cohesive piece on Sunday morning.  I offer 1 Corinthians 14 as proof of what I am speaking of; speaking in tongues is a bit different than just standing up and speaking on Sunday without preparation but the whole idea of one just using the heart while the other uses both the heart and the mind stands true.

So here is my interpretation of that ideal, “Heart of fire, mind on ice,” in a ministry standpoint.  There are people who believe we should just go out and do and let the Holy Spirit guide on the fly.  I disagree.  I believe the Holy Spirit guides my preparation, my study, and my thinking.  Preparation is holy and good, and can also lead to a refined message instead of a rough one.  Rough wood can be beautiful, but refinement can make it shine.

So I guess I’m saying let your hearts be on fire.  It requires passion and love to preach the gospel and share Christ’s love.  But when the time calls for it, set your minds on ice and allow them to do what they do: process, think, and analyze.  Both can, and should, work complimentary, not oppositionally.  Let them.

Not preaching this week so you kind of got an extra-Biblical homily. Hopefully I’ll get the second part of the sin series flushed out sometime today (but I wouldn’t bet on it).

To preaching with our minds and loving with our hearts, and also visa-versa,

– Robby

P.S.: I used four words that WordPress’s writing checker doesn’t recognize.  Either I’m brilliant or arrogant…

Do No Harm

Writer’s block, you are just a horrible, horrible thing.  Not only do you prevent me from actually be productive but you also force me to play 2048 in hopes that something in my creative brain will spring a leak and I’ll finally get the ambition to either get up and leave or just write something.  And how fickle she is with what will spark the fuel.

Facebook.  I spend so very little on Facebook when I’m not working on SSEM stuff or trying to fall asleep and I get bored easily on it.  But I do like to post interesting things, and when I see Vince Gilligan is making a show that has the same name as my home town (Battle Creek, which I assume is Michigan because a crime show about Battle Creek, Iowa is going to be about as exciting as Corner Gas), I had to post it.

After that, I looked a bit and I saw a Methodist pastor friend of mine had posted a short guide to a Wesleyan approach to social media and the first rule was “Do No Harm.”  I’ve also been bingeing on House, M.D. (thank you Netflix) and that whole ideal pretty much gets thrown out the window constantly in hopes of diagnosis and healing.  I’ve also had the Westboro Baptist Church in my mind, both their hatred and some of the positive response to their hatred (and negative response), and I’ve wanted to address that whole method of evangelism.

I think it sticks in my mind so much because my goal with every sermon is, first and foremost, to “Do No Harm.”  Whenever I’m writing a sermon and I come up on something that is going to poke the congregation in the eye with a sharp stick – which I do like to do – I always consider the ramifications beyond forcing thought and questioning.  I don’t even really mind offending people but just offending people for offense sake is going to do nothing for their soul.  There is no reason for me to kick the souls of those who are gathered there to worship on Sunday just because I want to be edgy and whack all of the preconceived notions they hold in their hearts with a flaming sledge-hammer as violently as possible.  There is not point or reason for that unless those preconceived notions are actually harming them in a way that is comparable to the harm I am doing to their psyche by doing this.  I am not that arrogant.

The one big thing that I am always stuck on is the harm that can be done around death and mourning.  I tell people their being jerks, their being judgmental, or that their views on sin are all sorts of wrong with only a slight amount of trepidation but even mentioning death and dying makes me want to fall into that path of no resistance.  If I can just get “Jesus loves you” across without saddening anyone too much, I think I’ve won.  In that moment of mourning, it is so incredibly easy to lose faith; trying to use that moment as a springboard for a prophetic word is basically forcing people away from God.

But the prophetic words are necessary.  We have 4 major prophets and 12 minor prophets that get their own book in the Bible.  We are sinful and we need those who have a prophetic word to share to actually share it with us and guide us back to a path of righteousness.  It is necessary and good, but it also should be intentional, timed well, and should focus on the glory and goodness of God and not at all on the goodness of the messenger.  “You’re evil and I’m good!” is not a prophetic message, as much as those who preach would like it to be.

No matter the message, and no matter the messenger, there are times that a prophetic message will do harm and no good.  I think about the prophetic messages in the Bible and I cannot think of message that was given in a time of mourning.  There are plenty that came preceding and telling of times of mourning, plenty that basically told the Jewish people that what was coming was brought upon them by themselves, but it was never delivered once they were mourning.  People don’t hear those messages in times of mourning.  Christ taught a lot of prophetic things and yet he simply mourned at Lazarus’s death (then brought him back to life, but that’s a bit off topic).

A prophetic word given specifically in terms of a death will do nothing but drive people away.  Even if the person was (insert horrible, disgusting sin that the community believes will send them to Hell), that moment is not the moment to remind people of Hell and condemnation.  The funeral of a 14-year-old son of a minister and grandson doctor is certainly not the time to give a universal prophetic of how the United States is going to Hell because of homosexuality and holding funerals.

Trying to not get pointed but can you see the flaw in their logic?  This boy probably loved everyone around him, his father has dedicated his life to teaching Christ’s message, his grandfather dedicated his life to healing, and they were shot in cold blood.  The Jewish people mourned and held services to honor the dead.  Christ’s body was to be prepared by Mary Magdalene.

Disagree with the theology around having a body at a funeral?  That’s fine.  Think we worship the dead a bit too much?  I agree with you.  Think the funeral of a 14-year-old boy who has friends who need to cope with the senseless loss of life and need to see a body for their psyche to accept that his death is real is the place to protest funerals?  No, it isn’t.

Do no harm.  No matter what your theology is, what your message is, there is no where in the Bible we are called to do harm.  If we take Christ as an example, especially on this Maundy Thursday submitting himself to the priests to become the sacrificial lamb for humanity, we should also be submitting ourselves, sacrificing ourselves for others and looking to life them up, not tear them down.

Do no harm.  I’m also struck, though, at the hatred that is shown towards people of this nature.  I’m not surprised by it – heck, I’ve even joyfully participated at times – but I am struck at how easily we hate them because of the sins they commit.

Have you thought about what kind of room in Hell Fred Phelps is sitting in right now? Because I have, and I am shamed by that.  I have had a serious shift in how my theological stances express themselves in a practical manner and if I am going to stand by the ideal that there isn’t a sin that is uniquely capable to condemning you to Hell, I have to stand by that.  Condemning anyone, judging anyone, and glorifying yourself are each sinful, but so is gluttony and sloth.  If my sins don’t condemn me to Hell because of my faith in Christ and recognition of my sin, then I cannot begin to claim that he is in Hell when I am saved.

I posted this sign before but I am going to post it again.  I’m going to be working with the “What Not To Do” when talking about sin but I think we need to worry about what to do, as well.  So in practice, the inverse of “Do No Harm” is “Do Good.”  So if I wanted to do good with this, this would be my option:

Do good.  I wonder why people don’t offer them food and drink, feed them and make sure they are healthy.  I get the counter-protests, I get the desire to drive them away, but we should be like the Good Samaritan.  Even if they are the most detestable group of people to us, we should be loving them like we love each other.

“Do No Harm”

To loving each other,

– Robby