Saturday, January 21, 2017

GASLIGHTING IN THE AGE OF TRUMP: TIPS FOR SURVIVAL

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade; lschade@lextheo.edu


Only one day has passed since Donald Trump has taken office, and already we are seeing outright lies being asserted as truth by him and by his press secretary.  When the world could see in real-time the size of the crowd gathered for the inauguration and compare that to pictures of crowd for Obama’s inauguration, we can obviously see the difference.  Yet they dispute the facts right in front of our eyes.  What is going on here?

In a word:  gaslighting.


Gaslighting is the attempt of one person to overwrite another person’s reality.  It is a tactic used for gaining power and control.  The term gets its name from a 1938 play and 1944 film Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman in which her husband would secretly dim the gaslight, but when she commented on it, he insisted she must be crazy.  And he convinced others she was insane as well.  Thus gaslighting is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize a person or group of people. The point of gaslighting (sometimes called “mind games”) is to sow seeds of doubt, with the purpose of making the person or group question their own memory, perception, and sanity.  Gaslighting is a favorite tactic used by people who exhibit narcissism. The underlying message of a gaslighter is always this:  What you know to be true is not true.
Our country has been subjected to gaslighting by Trump, fake news, internet trolls, and Trump’s White House team that is hell-bent on imposing its xenophobic, white supremacist, homophobic, misogynistic, planet-destroying authoritarian agenda on our country and the world.  Name-calling and stereotyping certain groups is another form of gaslighting, because it attempts to assign a demoralizing identity to a person or group, thus countering the reality that they are precious human beings whose lives matter.  The effects that this bullying and abuse will have on the collective psyche of our nation remain to be seen, but are certain to be felt for perhaps decades, even after this presidency ends.
People of faith and goodwill need to understand what is happening and how to counter the effects of gaslighting.  Faith leaders especially are obligated to name it, shame it, and speak truth, as well as educate and pastorally support their congregants who are being subjected to this kind of psychological trauma (even if people don’t recognize it as such, or are unwittingly assenting to it).
5 Things to Know about Gaslighting:

1.      Gaslighting requires a belief that it is acceptable to overwrite another person’s reality.  Notice the way in which Trump has actually used the term “fake news” to accuse legitimate journalists and news outlets of being illegitimate.  He is attempting to turn reality upside down.  This encourages people to doubt that the institution of the media is necessary for a democracy to function.  Resist all attempts to demonically alter reality.

2.      Gaslighting has the goal of actually changing who someone is, not just their behavior.  Note how the very character of our nation seems to have become distorted by the events of the campaign, the election and its aftermath.  Be especially vigilant about practicing kindness, compassion, empathy, and active solidarity in order to counter the cruelty being normalized.

3.      Gaslighting doesn’t always involve anger or intimidation.  Often the gaslighter transforms themselves into the victim. Witness Trump’s tweets or verbal responses to criticism, the Russian hacks, anything that he believes is trying to diminish him.  This is also typical narcissistic behavior in an attempt to exercise control.  Don’t fall for it.

4.      Gaslighters accuse the victim of being the bully.  Abusers will often manipulate the story, the memory, the environment and witnesses to make it appear that they were the one who was abused by the actual victim.  The victim wracks their brain trying to remember how and when this happened – and it didn’t.  But they’re already mistrusting their memory, so they experience self-doubt.  All the while the gaslighter deflects the reality, and often does so publicly.  Witness the way Trump would call Hillary a “nasty woman,” making it seem as if she was abusing him, when, in fact, just the opposite was happening.  Also notice the way he calls the media and any public figure who attacks him abusive (“and they don’t even know me!”).  This is classic gaslighting from a narcissist that should not be fed or assented to in any way.

5.      Gaslighting engages the victim in a hamster-wheel of illogical arguing and sucks up vast amounts of emotional energy.  You argue for hours, without resolution. You argue over things that shouldn’t be up for debate. There is no resolution and you feel drained afterward with no energy left for re-constructing a healthy self.  This is a tactic for effectively shutting down resistance and allowing the gaslighter to have his or her own way.  It’s used on journalists constantly (witness Kellyanne Conway in nearly every press interview) and exhausts anyone who tries to make sense of what’s happening.


6 Ways to Respond to Gaslighting (and help others)

1.      Educate yourself with information from reliable sources.  See these documents: “Resources for Debunking Fake News,” “10 Investigative Reporting Outlets to Follow,” and this chart showing what news sources are fake or legit, politically skewed or nonpartisan.  You can share these with people in your congregation, members of your family, friends, and anyone who buys into the gaslighting rhetoric and uncritically regurgitates it.

2.      Name it, don’t normalize it.  When you see gaslighting happening, name it and shame it.  Call it what it is.  In Ten Commandments parlance, this is calling “bearing false witness” – lying – and it is opposed to God’s will.  So tell the truth.  And do not accept this behavior as normal.  It’s not.  It’s evil and it needs to be resisted.


3.      Check in with people you trust.  Who are the five people you can count on to help you figure out what’s real?  Who are the people who value you, affirm you, boost you up and infuse you with courage?  Who are the people and groups that equip you to resist the gaslighting and abuse?  Who are your go-to people who inspire you to be your best self?  Make it a point to check in with them often.  They are your psychological lifeline and safety net.

4.      Listen and believe those who are confiding in you their feelings about what’s happening in our nation, which are likely to dredge up experiences and feelings from their past, or exacerbate what they’re already subjected to.  Reassure them that they are not going insane, that they are a good person, and that they are strong enough to psychologically resist what is happening to them.  

5.      Help others to self-differentiate and resist in community. Self-differentiating means being able to separate feelings and thoughts, to base one’s responses on logical thought rather than a flood of emotions. When we do this with others, it frees us up to be able to work together to help those who are “the least of these” – the ones most at risk from this administration.  Taken together, self-differentiating and working with a trusted group to resist evil and bring about positive change helps make you stronger, clearer, more directed, more differentiated, and more compassionate.
Leah Schade at the Women's March in Lexington, KY - 5000 strong!

6.      If you are a person of faith, use every spiritual and religious resource available.  We have actions and words – rituals – that are designed to hold the vast range of feelings we are experiencing.  Rely on that pattern of worship that gathers us in and sends us out.  Pray without ceasing.  And if you are a Christian, trust that the Spirit of God through the compassion of Jesus Christ is in our midst, and already going ahead of us into this “grave new world.”  And what did Mary and the women find at the grave? . . . .

Leah Schade is the author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


For more information:  10 Things I’ve Learned About Gaslighting As An Abuse Tactic, by Shea Emma Fett, August 27, 2015 [http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/08/things-wish-known-gaslighting/] accessed 1/19/17.

A gaslighting, codependent circus: The Trump train wreck is America’s dysfunctional family by Mary Elizabeth Williams, Aug. 3, 2016 [http://www.salon.com/2016/08/03/a_gaslighting_codependent_circus_the_trump_train_wreck_is_americas_dysfunctional_family/ ] Accessed 1/21/17.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

17 Ways to be an Ecopreacher in 2017

#17in17

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

Imagine what your life would be like if you could be part of God’s work to heal this planet – right from the pulpit.

Imagine if your parishioners were inspired by your preaching to address the most pressing environmental concerns of our time.

Imagine hearing your parishioners actually thank you for preaching about protecting our planet.

Imagine discovering a new dimension to your preaching that opens a whole new world of perspectives, creative ideas, and inspiration for reaching people with God’s Word.

Imagine finding a whole new perspective for engaging the Bible that deepens and expands your faith.

Here are 17 ideas excerpted from my book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015) for helping make this vision for your preaching become a reality in the coming year:

 
1.     Walk. Walk the grounds around the church building. Consider your surroundings, which include the land you are sitting or standing on, the plants near you, the air you are breathing, other living creatures perceptible to your senses. Who are your biotic neighbors? Also consider the houses, buildings, businesses, factories, and other human-made “neighbors,” etc. Reflect on the interactions that are occurring between you and these multi-faceted surroundings. Are they harmful? Beneficial? Neutral? How do your natural surroundings affect your physical or spiritual existence? Your feelings? Your values?

2.     Look at a topographical map where the congregation is located. Google Maps, Google Earth, or other online mapping services are free and can reveal a bird’s eye view of your setting. Notice the local waterways, landscape features (mountains, desert, beach, green spaces, etc.). How are they are disrupted, connected to or otherwise intersecting with human civilization?
3.     Talk with members of your congregation to get a sense of “who” (in the expanded ecological sense) are their neighbors, and who has been beaten and lies along side of the road. Who are “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) in need of attention and care?
4.     Talk with other clergy to learn the history of “neighbor-relations” in the community. What stories do they tell about neighbors helping each other (or not)? Do any of them have share your interest in environmental issues so that you may collaborate on preaching ideas?
5.     Talk with community members to hear their stories about environmental issues that are part of the community’s history. Were there any grassroots efforts to clean up blighted areas? Protest pollution? Confront toxic dumping? What was successful? What work remains to be done?
6.     Talk with local health care workers such as doctors and nurses to find out what the key public health issues are in the community. There are often environmental connections (asthma, obesity, cancer, and depression, for example, are all exacerbated by deleterious environmental conditions such as air pollution, radioactive waste, waste incineration, etc.).
7.     Meet with local chapters of environmental groups such as Sierra Club, Clean Air Council, Interfaith Power and Light and grassroots activist groups to find out what environmental issues are facing your community. Ask how local houses of worship can be helpful in their work.
8.     Talk with local naturalists, master gardeners, fishermen, hunters, farmers, beekeepers, or others whose work involves the natural elements. Ask what changes they have observed in animal, plant, insect, fish or other biotic communities in the last few decades.
9.     Search for clean-energy businesses in your community such as wind farms, solar farms, geothermal companies, etc. Inquire as to how they see their work in relation to the community and the planet.
10.  Meet with your elected officials. Ask them who they consider “the least of these,” or those most vulnerable among their constituents. What are their main environmental concerns regarding their watersheds, land, forests, and biotic communities within their territories?
11.  Preach as one of the “nature” characters in a biblical text (e.g., preaching as the fig tree whom Jesus causes to wither, preaching as the stones about to cry out along the “Palm Sunday Road,” preaching as the birds or lilies from Jesus’ parable).
The author preaching as the character of Ruah, the wind/Holy Spirit, in a sermon about climate change.

12.  Bring in or at least show a picture of an actual object of nature mentioned in a biblical text (tree stump, water, flowers, rocks, etc.).
13.  Preach a sermon series on Jesus’ parables about or interactions with Creation.
14.  Provide time in a sermon for listeners to share about their favorite places in Creation, or particular aspects of Creation. This not only allows them to hold an image in their mind, but helps to foster a relationship between the listener and some aspect of Creation within the context of preaching.
15.  Tell the story of a local natural habitat, framed within a biblical context or concept. Incorporate Earth’s story with the biblical story, and connect it with the listeners’ stories.
16.  Do a sermon series on features of nature in the Bible, such as rivers, mountains or valleys.

17.  Preach outside. This is a natural way to de-center the anthropocentrism of the congregation and directly address the larger “congregation” of the Earth community.
What ideas do you have for greening your preaching?  Post a reply to share what has worked for you in bringing Creation-care to the forefront of your preaching.
For examples of Ecopreacher sermons, visit: http://www.creationcrisispreaching.com/sermons

For more information on the book Creation-Crisis Preaching, visit: http://www.creationcrisispreaching.com/

Monday, January 16, 2017

Preaching King’s “Drum Major Instinct” in the Age of Trump

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade


What does the preaching of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., model for us as preachers today in the emerging political landscape of the Trump era? 

Since the 2016 presidential election, some pastors may be feeling reticent to engage in controversial justice issues, or to “stir the pot” and create unnecessary tension in the church by addressing topics that some deem “too political.”  The temptation is to “play it safe” and rationalize such a decision by deciding that the church is where people go to escape the world, not to further engage it.  But insular preaching ignores the reality that many parishioners are dealing with a world outside the church that is increasingly fractious, confusing, confounding and even hostile to their values as Christians.  To simply hunker down each week in the beautiful enclave of the Christian tradition without clear instruction on how to relate to the outside world will only continue churches on their path to dwindling relevancy.

Fortunately, Dr. King’s model of preaching that engages with the current events and timely concerns of his parishioners encourages, even urges us to bolster our courage and speak a prophetic word.  Remember – there is a way to preach about politics (literally, the concerns of the citizenry, the polis), without being political (siding with a particular party or group).  The key is to identify the biblical themes or values that underlie the contemporary figure or situation in question.  Dr. King was an expert in this, and we would do well to learn from his strategies.

Homiletician Richard Lischer's analysis of King's sermons demonstrate the way he masterfully combined the strands of Protestant Liberalism, black theology, American civil religion, and, at the end, a strongly prophetical voice to the issues of segregation.  Lischer not only read the texts of King's sermons, but listened to recordings in order to gain a fuller understanding of the performative aspects of the preaching that is often missed in edited, cleaned-up, written versions.  What King was able to create was a preaching style and content that was able to comfort the "disinherited" (to use Howard Thurman's  term), while appealing to the highest ideals of white society in a way that left them no choice but to answer the "call to repentance" or accept their own guilt.

King's early work demonstrated his belief that the great arc of human history is bending toward the God’s righteousness as manifest on earth.  His Christmas Eve sermon, for example, sees the interconnection of all living beings and God's intention of healing, restoration, and redemption not just for the oppressed but also for the oppressor.  As well, the famous “I Have a Dream Speech” paints a vision of God's intention for all children to live in harmony with one another regardless of skin color, creed or cultural background.  Toward the end of King's life, however, the tone and content of his sermons became more caustic as he got at the heart of the demonic possession that had corrupted (and still corrupts) America's political and cultural heart.

If you read the works of King in the last three years of his life, you will begin to see a change in his rhetorical style and content.  No longer content to affirm the highest ideals of American society, King seeks to unmask and reveal the dominating power structures underneath.  This is brilliantly demonstrated in his sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct,” which is a virtuosic example of preaching that takes a commonly understood image – that of the drum major for a marching band – and refigures it to represent the ego hidden within us that seeks its own ends and power.
It is especially telling to read his sermon in light of the upcoming presidential inauguration.  Read the following excerpt from King’s sermon while considering the words, Tweets, and actions of our president-elect, Donald Trump:

And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It's a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. . .There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive. . .If this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one's personality to become distorted. I guess that's the most damaging aspect of it: what it does to the personality. If it isn't harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. Have you ever heard people that—you know, and I'm sure you've met them—that really become sickening because they just sit up all the time talking about themselves. And they just boast and boast and boast, and that's the person who has not harnessed the drum major instinct . . .

And then the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is the fact that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. And whenever you do that, you engage in some of the most vicious activities. You will spread evil, vicious, lying gossip on people, because you are trying to pull them down in order to push yourself up. And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Whether you support or oppose the president-elect, there can be no denying that his “drum major instinct” goes wildly out of control.  This is appealing to some – especially those who feel their own drum major instinct satisfied by attaching themselves to such a figure.  But most reasonable people recognize that the kind of out-of-control egoism demonstrated by the man about to assume the highest, most powerful office in the world, poses a radical danger this country has never before seen.  And in the spirit of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church in Nazi Germany (which served as a source of inspiration for Dr. King), preachers must speak a prophetic word that critiques the abuses of power being exercised by elected officials, or risk kowtowing to and being complicit with the forces of evil.


As a teacher of preaching, I encourage pastors to engage in prophetic critique of the “drum major instinct” that we’re seeing both writ large in politics, and infused into racist, xenophobic, misogynistic rhetoric of our citizenry fed by the intoxicating reach and anonymity of social media.  Now is the time to expand our understanding of preaching beyond the confines of the church.  Because both Scripture and Christian history show us that preaching has and should take place in the public square (witness Paul at the Aereopagus, or Dr. King speaking at the Lincoln Memorial, just to name two examples). 

This is not to say that we should abandon the meaningful traditions of the church and abdicate our pastoral responsibilities to our parishioners. Rather, I suggest juxtaposing an understanding of our liturgical and pastoral commitments alongside contemporary concerns of public ethical engagement around those issues that are most threatening to “the least of these” – those most vulnerable in the Trump era who have little power, decreasing access to health care, education and economic security, and heightened levels of anxiety over their safety due to their gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity or status.  Preaching that engages on this level would create a "new thing" in the best, biblical sense of the word, and enhance the level of relevancy for our churches in the midst of a world that often seems to be spinning apart.

Regardless of one’s politics, the object lesson on the drum major instinct provided by the president-elect begs engagement.  We have much to learn from Dr. King’s preaching, not the least of which is how to reframe the drum major instinct to be harnessed for good.  In explaining how Jesus responded to the disciples James and John (Mark 10:35-35) who requested to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand (demonstrating their drum-major-egos), here’s the move King makes:

What was the answer that Jesus gave these men? It's very interesting. One would have thought that Jesus would have condemned them. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, "You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?" But that isn't what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, "Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be." But he reordered priorities. And he said, "Yes, don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right. (Yes) It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. (Amen) I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do."

And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, "Now brethren, I can't give you greatness. And really, I can't make you first." This is what Jesus said to James and John. "You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared."

Did you notice how he encourages the instinct to greatness, but redirects it toward the highest ideals of our faith?  This is what we are called to as Christians.  And this is what Christians must be calling our leaders to exemplify.  This does not mean that a “Christian agenda” is to be imposed on the citizenry.  Rather, we are holding ourselves and our leaders to the highest standards of moral and ethical preparedness and fitness.  This is what we must name and claim as Christians who live in the world and have a responsibility for the world.  May your life, your voice and your actions seek greatness in yourself and those who represent you – greatness in generosity, in moral excellence, in love.  


 The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (KY) and an ordained Lutheran minister (ELCA), though the views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect the institutions she serves.  She is the author of the book Creation Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).



Friday, January 13, 2017

Preaching in the Purple Zone: Homiletics in the Red/Blue Divide

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship
Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, KY

Just before the 2012 presidential election in the United States, CNN posted to its website an article by John Blake entitled, “Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus”?[1]  Though the question assumes a false dichotomy, the author’s observation of the election four years ago was just as applicable in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election:  “Here's a presidential election prediction you can bet on. Right after the winner is announced, somebody somewhere in America will fall on their knees and pray, ‘Thank you Jesus.’ And somebody somewhere else will moan, ‘Help us Jesus.’ But what Jesus will they be praying to: a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus?” 
Blake went on to explain that both faith and elections are about choices, and that those choices are informed by how one views Jesus.  It may be tempting to assume that liberals “see Jesus as a champion of the poor who would support raising taxes on the wealthy, while some conservatives think Jesus would be more concerned with opposing abortion and same-sex marriage,” Blake observed, but the reality is that just as Jesus cannot so easily be coopted into a political position, Christians, too, may be more nuanced in their beliefs.  “Perhaps most Christians follow not one Jesus, but many – including a bit of a red state Jesus and a bit of a blue state Jesus,” the author surmises.  The article’s online quiz, however, gives only two choices for each of the 10 questions aimed to help voters see where they fall on the red state-blue state Jesus scale.  Nevertheless, the fact that many voters (and hence parishioners) often categorize themselves according these ideological lines raises the question of how preachers might approach the homiletic task of addressing controversial justice issues in such a fractured and deeply divided socio-political culture, especially given the contentiousness of the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath.
As you probably already know, the divides themselves are illusions.  None of us lives in a truly “red” or “blue” state.  Those colors run together in our families, our houses of worship, our schools, our places of employment, and even within our own hearts and minds.  Our job as preachers, then, is to find a way to courageously step into the “Purple Zone” – where the colors red and blue combine into various shades of purple – to listen with hospitality, engage with integrity and prayer, and learn with intellectual rigor in order to speak a Word that addresses the Powers, casts out demons, and proclaims the crucified and risen Christ. 
Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, in her excellent book Prophetic Preaching: A Pastoral Approach (Louisville, KY, Westminster John Knox, 2004), suggests a myriad of reasons why pastors resist preaching about justice issues and offers practical suggestions and strategies for ways to be both pastoral and prophetic in their preaching.  My project is building on that work.  I have designed a questionnaire to ascertain if, why, and how theologically-trained ordained preachers in Mainline Protestant traditions choose to address controversial issues in their sermons.  If you are such a preacher, I would love to have you take the questionnaire.  The survey takes about 15-20 minutes to complete.  Responses are being collected through Feb. 28, 2017.  You are invited to take the survey by clicking on the following link:


My goal is to collect 1000 responses, so please forward the link to any other preachers you think might be interested.
 The long-term goal of this project is to develop a book that:  1) provides data that helps us survey the landscape of preaching about controversial issues during this deeply divided time in our nation’s history; 2) establishes both scriptural and theological rationale and authorization for addressing contentious issues; and 3) offers insights from my own experience as well as scholars and other practitioners about best practices for addressing “hot topics” in sermons. 
Finally, this project will build on the concept of conversational preaching as developed by Lucy Atkinson Rose, and within the book Under the Oak Tree edited by Ronald J. Allen, John S. McClure and O. Wesley Allen.  I will make the case that using a process known as “deliberative dialogue” in tandem with conversational preaching can be an effective way to address controversial issues in our churches.  Deliberative dialogue is a process developed by researcher Scott London and used by organizations such as the National Issues Forum which involves face-to-face interactions of small groups of diverse individuals exchanging and weighing ideas and opinions about a particular issue. I will be testing my hypothesis that conversational preaching - together with deliberative dialogue within a congregation - is an effective and potentially powerful venue for entering the Purple Zone and emerging with new insights and healthier relationships not only within the church, but for civic and public discourse in our communities and our country.
In Part Two, I will discuss the pastor’s dilemma when it comes to addressing controversial issues in the pulpit. 


Leah Schade is the author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

[1] Blake, John, “Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus?” CNN, Nov. 2, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/02/politics/red-blue-state-jesus/

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Droplets of Paradox: The Ripples of Our Baptismal Calling

January 15, Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts:  Isaiah 49:1-7; John 1:29-42
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship
Author, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2016)

The texts assigned for this Sunday originate from different times, different authors and out of the midst of different communities.  Imagine them as droplets falling into the still baptismal font on Sunday morning.  The ripples of each drop merge with the others, creating movement across the surface, stirring the waters of our faith.



The tension in Isaiah 49:1-7 is palpable.  The speaker is held taut between his call to prophetic ministry and feelings of frustration in seeing nothing come from his work.   For those answering the call to ministry, this text speaks to the kind of tension we experience as well, caught between two poles of paradox.  At one end is the undeniable call to preach to every nation from coast to coast, calling for people to heed God’s message of justice, reconciliation, and restoration for our planet.  At the other is the undeniable experience of utter despondency because either not enough people are heeding the call, or the response is happening too slowly.  Especially for those of us who have felt “deeply despised” for attending to this call, the announcement that “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you” (v. 7) seems like a pipe dream at best, and a cruel lie at worst.

Charles Campbell and Johan Cilliers talk a great deal about paradox in their book Preaching Fools:  The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly (Baylor University Press; Waco, TX, 2012).  "Paradox could be described as holding together irreconcilable opposites in order to create and sustain liminality," they explain (185).  Liminality is "the experience of being and moving in between spaces and times,” (39), and, for preachers, involves actually creating that in-between time and space so that people can come to experience the transformative work of God.  They note that is exactly when the church’s existence seems ludicrous that the foolish message of the preacher is needed.  Especially “during periods when the church has power and accommodates to the political and social structures,” preaching fools are necessary. They are needed to “interrupt the status quo by unmasking and deconstructing the structures of the day,” (154). 

Campbell’s and Cilliers’ words resonate strongly given the way in which many church leaders have either acquiesced or actually thrown their support behind the incoming president who has threatened to derail much of the progress that has been made toward protecting God’s Creation, ensuring equal rights for all citizens, and providing for access to basic human needs such as a liveable wage, housing, health care, and education, for example.  From appointing racist, xenophobic, pro-fossil-fuels leaders to the highest positions, to vowing to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement to curb carbon emissions, to threatening to require a Muslim registry, to belittling everyone from the disabled to women to immigrants, to calling climate change a “hoax,” (and the list goes on), it can feel as if all our work on environmental, racial, gender and so many other social justice issues is being derailed, undermined, and erased.



It is into this kind of fraught time that Jesus came a-wadin’ into the baptismal waters to be baptized by John.  The Baptist was one of those prophets who drew the ire of the political leaders.  He was not afraid to use his powerful proclamation to create a liminal space, critiquing the abuse of power, and calling people to repent of both individual sins and systemic evil.  He must have known his ministry was bound to meet a violent end.  So to see the One who was at once timeless and “right on time” stepping into the waters of the Jordan must have been an answer to fervent prayer.  The ripple effect of Jesus’ baptism would indeed reach the furthest coasts, “to the ends of the earth,” (Isaiah 49:6).

Campbell and Cilliers remind us that we stand in a long line of “preaching fools” from St. Francis of Assisi to Desmond Tutu, who have “emerged in times when the church (or significant parts of it) has settled comfortably into the status quo and adorned itself with power.  The church, in fact, cannot do without the curious character called a fool, who prospers in times of liminality, as well as in times of stagnation and accommodation," (155).  So as much as you may feel caught in that tension of paradox, or unsure whether to preach in a way that creates liminality, I would encourage you to hold steady in your prophetic task and watch for what God is doing.

You may try asking of Jesus the same question posed by the two disciples who began following him, “Where are you staying?”  In other words, where can we find you, Jesus?  Where have you located yourself?  And then we must keep our eyes and ears tuned to the answer: “Come and see.”  Because it is likely that we will find the Lamb of God in the most unlikely, but nevertheless, life-giving places.

For example, the Preaching Fools authors relate a story told by Barbara Lundblad who described visiting a neighborhood in the South Bronx, New York:

[It was] a neighborhood marked by poverty and violence, with numerous 'shrines' painted on the sides of buildings in remembrance of young people gunned down on the streets. 'Picture after picture after picture, until we could not bear another,' Lundblad comments after viewing a slideshow of these shrines.  But in the midst of this neighborhood, Lundblad is shown some brightly colored church doors: 'The doors, once covered with graffiti, had been transformed into gospel doors by youth of the parish.  Almost every week, teenage artists paint a new scene, their interpretation of God's good news for their community.  I wish you could have seen the painting on those doors!  On the left-hand door, a young boy had opened up a fire hydrant – a New York City ritual on stifling summer days.  Water was gushing out in a cooling stream that flowed in a wide arc from one door to the other.  When it reached the right side, the water splashed into the baptismal font, making one continuous stream from the font to the street and back again.  Beneath the flowing water, a table was set: a loaf of bread and a cup of wine, along with a whole roasted chicken and a quart of milk - sacraments of life in the midst of the city.  I knew we were in the South Bronx.  The sign on the corner said Prospect Avenue and 156th Street, but we had come to Galilee.  Jesus was there in the doorway, very much alive.  As usual, he had gotten there ahead of us.' [187, quoting Barbara K. Lundblad, Transforming the Stone:  Preaching Through Resistance to change (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001) 27].

Where are the droplets of baptism falling around you?  What are the signs that justice is still stirring the waters in the midst of political upheaval? That grace is flowing like water over seemingly impenetrable stones of hatred, poverty, xenophobia, misogyny, white privilege, and environmental destruction? 

As Campbell and Cilliers remind us, "God's weak power humanizes, gives back, and enhances life.  Christ, the powerless One, gives life in abundance.  In God's compassion lies God's power - the foolish power of God's compassionate weakness,” (58).  Claim that power, and proclaim that abundance.  Let your own droplets fall into that font and stir the waters!