Thursday, June 10, 2010

Graduation Speeches

I'll warn you: this one will not set well with some, so you have a delete button for a reason.

Graduation season is about over. I didn't attend any of those ceremonies this year. Sent a couple of out-of-town gifts, but was mercifully spared the exercises. I did, however, read the predictable stories in at least a couple of papers about kids who were making what they considered to be bold stands by including prayer or some overtly Christian statements in their public school commencement speeches. The issues which bring these stories before us are far more complicated than most people realize and cannot be dissected in sound bytes or easy formulas. The whole concept of taking God out of school and public life makes little sense to me since omnipresence continues to be one of the primary attributes of God. I think that what people usually mean when they use that kind of language is that their particular understanding of God is the one that matters. If I remember the various graduation exercises I've attended accurately, paying attention to anything but the name we're waiting to hear called doesn't happen much. If we're band or choir supporters, we might be interested in their contributions to the festivities, but most of the speeches and comments are usually pretty un-memorable. I've never figured out, then, why it's such a big deal to include references to God or Jesus in a speech not many are paying attention to anyway. Doesn't that happen often enough in church? I doubt that very many can look back on a graduation speech and say, "There. That's when I first became a believer!"
So I wonder when all of us who talk a lot about our faith, preachers and non-preachers alike, will think about how effective our speech might be if we talked less about Jesus and talked more like him. What might a faithful student embarking on a new phase of life have to say to peers and community if that student talked from the perspective of one whose life had been transformed from following the culture in which he had been nurtured to responding to God's call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God? What might that student and others of us have to say if we focused less on what we can't do or say and more on what God is empowering us to do and say by making us new creation.
I suspect that next year's graduation stories in the press will have another story or two about students who think they're effective witnesses by being controversial. I can't think ahead to anyone graduating who will expect me to attend commencement. On most of the fifty-two Sundays between now and then, though, I will be in the pulpit, where there's not a lot of control over what I can and can't say. I think I'll try to talk more like Jesus than about him on those Sundays. I'll let you know how it works out.

On Preachers and Preaching

I recently had the privilege of attending the Festival of Homiletics (a week of sermons, lectures, and other things related to preaching) in Nashville. I know. I know. Three sermons and a lecture or two a day and some other conversations in the evenings don't sound like fun to most people. So grant me that preachers are a weird lot to begin with. I heard some wonderful preaching that week. I heard lots of helpful things about how to preach in the midst of a culture that doesn't much care for it. I'll be thinking about some of the things I heard for a long time. I picked up some books (surprise, surprise) to help me with that thinking. They'll be a big part of my summer reading schedule.
Then I came home and heard a tale about a preacher from some friends that made me want to run back to that artificial world we lived in for a week instead of living out here in the real world that hadn't been to Nashville with me.
This guy preaches a much more expository style than I do. That means he usually has a lot more definitive answers in his preaching (and in his life, apparently) than I have or want. Worship in his church is all about the sermon. The bulletin doesn't have much in it that helps people know what to do or say because they aren't supposed to do or say much while they're there. They're supposed to listen to him. There is even a place in the bulletin for people to take notes. Really, it more like a programmed instruction text: When I say this, you write it down so you'll know the answers. Now he's apparently decided that not enough people are playing by his rules so he's instructed the other staff members (One version of the story says the male staff members. I'm not sure.) to sit down front in visible locations, act interested, and visibly take notes so that others in the congregation will follow their lead. (If that’s not a direct quote, it doesn't miss it by much!).
Wondering whether or not people are listening is always an issue for preachers. Wondering if they're paying attention, even if they're listening, is another issue. Sometimes I can tell when I'm not connecting. Sometimes I can even tell when it's because the sermon just isn't working or when it's because they're just not with me. But I can't imagine ever getting to the point that I'd have to instruct people to act interested.
Sometimes the loads people bring to worship with them are just too heavy to let them listen much. I contend that something can still happen that is helpful to them just because they're there. I have also helped to rear two people who are now young adults, so I know all too well that sometimes people are listening when I can't see it happening. And that sometimes they're not listening even if it appears that they are. I know that everyone in worship every week is not hanging on my every word. But I also know that just being among God's people can create an environment in which we can experience things we're not expecting. Telling a child to sit still and pay attention is one thing--whether they ever do or not--but telling adults to act interested is just too much. I work hard at crafting sermons that invite people into the process of communicating with God along with me. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't. I think I'll continue to invite rather than command people to participate. Taking notes is optional.