Doubting Thomas/Honest Thomas

This past Sunday my friends and I launched a new worship service here in Charlotte.  It was amazing– and God showed up major. Lots. (points for getting that subtle 30 Rock reference).

We had just over 40 people, mostly young adults, rocking out by lamp- and exposed bulb-light, in wingbacks and on pews, around tables and on couches. We had a candle-lighting area for private prayer, Eucharist, and a healing prayer station with anointing oil and a place to kneel. There was a spoken word/rapped prayer that riffed on the Our Father, and it was good.

There were tears, there was joy, there was laughter.  I was overwhelmed with the spirit/Spirit in that place. That, and stomach pain. I was nearly overwhelmed by a lot of intense, sharp stomach pain. But I whispered weakly to myself, like Mel Gibson’s character fighting through pain to do something heroic in every Mel Gibson movie ever made, “You can burst if you want, appendix; I’m having too much fun to care!” (It didn’t burst, my appendix is totally fine. My heroics, it turns out, are even less impressive than Mr. Gibson’s. Which is saying something.)

We sang songs about love, about hopelessness, about God’s grace. We sang about shaking the devil off your back.  I read from John 20 and preached on Thomas. Would you like to read my sermon?

The Hub- Gathering 1

The Hub- Gathering 1

A couple of thousand years ago, there was a man named Thomas. Very little is known about him, except that one day he met a man named Jesus and he followed Him. He appears by all accounts to have been a very brave man. He left his family, his home, his livelihood, and followed a total stranger. At one point in the stories, all his friends become afraid, because they realize this Jesus is going to get them all killed. Thomas is the one who says, “Let us go and die with Him.” The faith of Thomas is a witness to us. Oh, to have the faith of Thomas.

Now let me read to you the story Thomas is best known for. His friend, his Teacher, is dead; He’s been killed by the government days ago, and now all Thomas’s friends claim to have seen Jesus alive. This is the story of Thomas’s doubt. The story of his courage. The story of his brutal, heartbreaking honesty. The story of a man who would not sing of love unless he was sure it existed:

This comes from the gospel of John, in the new testament, chapter 20, verses 24 to 29.
“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” (NRSV)

Reprise of Paramore’s “The Only Exception.”

Our man Thomas has got a bad rap. Doubting Thomas, that’s what he’s called. Never mind that that’s not what the disciples ever called him, or what Jesus ever called him. Actually, they called him “the twin”; that’s what Thomas meant in their language. Yet we’re never told that he had a brother or a sister… Some people believe that they may have called him “the twin” because he looked a lot like Jesus… Maybe they were teasing him for looking like their teacher. Maybe they were teasing him for acting so much like their teacher.

In any case, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the disciples allowed Thomas’s doubt to define him.

You know, this service is aimed at “young adults,” that’s what we’ve put on the signs, although all are welcome. The thing about us young adults is that we’ve got a bad rap. I’ve read a lot of books on how to reach “milennials” and the things they say about us are sort of insulting: they say we’re fickle. We’re noncommittal. We’re flighty. We come and go and never settle and can’t be counted on.
Up to 1/3 of Americans consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious, and when you look just at young adults, that percentage skyrockets.

So I guess it’s sort of true that we’re flighty and noncommittal, isn’t it? We’re the generation that invented the “maybe” RSVP on facebook. A third of us transfer colleges at some point during undergrad. I did! 1 in 5 of us identify as having switched religions from that in which we were raised.

So that’s our bad rap.

But back to Thomas. Thomas gets 4 total speaking parts, all in the gospel of John. The first is the one I already told you about, when he says with great courage and conviction to his friends, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” No sign of doubt there!

The second comes after Jesus’s statement that He is going before us to prepare a place for us, and that we will follow. Thomas pipes up and says what probably everyone else was thinking, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Let me pause to ask you something: is this doubt? Or is this a question? If you ask me, it’s not doubt. Thomas doesn’t ask if that’s possible, or if Jesus can be trusted. Like Mary before him, he simply asks how. How can this be for I have no husband? How can we follow you? We want to we believe that we can, and we believe that we will, I’m just wondering how.

The last two times Thomas speaks are in the section I read to you. ”Unless I see the nail marks… I will not believe.” And what does Jesus do in response to this doubt? He extends His hands and invites Thomas to place his hand in the wound in His side, and Thomas exclaims, in the powerful last line we get from him, “My Lord and my God!”

It’s very important, this statement of Thomas’s: at first he calls Jesus his Lord, which isn’t very descriptive. Lord could be simply the title of a man of higher social status. Lord could be just another way of showing respect to a teacher. Lord could mean master, nothing more. But then Thomas calls Jesus, “God.”

Thomas was a Jew, and for a Jew the belief in one and only one God is as essential as breathing. You don’t just go around calling anyone a god. That’s pretty much the gist of commandments 1 through 3. To say these words could easily have gotten Thomas killed. To say these words could have gotten him considered damned by everyone he knew, his father and mother, his old friends, his old rabbi and everyone in his town.

But he says it anyway, because Thomas, I want to suggest, was not a doubter– or at least not for long. Thomas, ultimately, was very brave, and very faithful.

Let me tell you the story of one of Thomas’s friends, another of Jesus’ friends, named Judas. Funny enough, some historians say that Judas might have been Thomas’s middle name, so they had something in common… Judas, you might say, lost faith, he began to doubt. He doubted that Jesus was really God in a human body. He doubted that Jesus could actually save him from his own miserable, narcissistic, self-centered life. He doubted that his life could really change. So he sold Jesus out. He took a list of all the rules Jesus had ever broken, all the things Jesus had said that made him uncomfortable, those things he couldn’t believe, and sold the body of God to the highest bidder.

And he regretted it deeply. He was not smited. No fiery lightning bolt came down from heaven, no angel showed up to make him pay. His own heart betrayed him and showed him his guilt. The gospel of Matthew says that he was seized by regret.

I wonder if you have ever felt the spindly, cold fingers of regret slice through your soul? After all, every day we sell the body of Christ for nickels. When we choose gossip, or hate, or lust, over love. When we numb ourselves with movies or alcohol or flirting with strangers instead of filling that deep chasm in our hearts with the only thing that will truly satisfy.

Judas could not handle it. Matthew tells us that he committed suicide, that he went out on Good Friday, “early in the morning,” and that he hanged himself. It is of poetic importance that I tell you this would have been about the same time that Jesus was crucified. On a cross between two thieves, God was hung on nails and wood by sinners. In a field, alone, the doubter hung himself.

I tell you this story because I believe that it, like Thomas’s is a story of doubt. Here’s a question I heard recently about Judas that I want to put to you: What if Judas could have waited two more days before he hung himself?

What if Judas could have held on for Good Friday and Holy Saturday, what if he could have made it to Easter morning? What if he stood there with Thomas and expressed his doubts, his fears, his unbelief?

You see, the miracle of Thomas’s story is that Jesus does not have an unkind word to say to him. Jesus comes to him and says, “Look, feel, see- I am alive.” He does not mock him for his doubts, or make him say any hail Mary’s or do any pushups. He answers him. Exactly what Thomas said he needed– to see the nail marks and put his hand in Jesus’s side– is what Jesus offers him.

Judas didn’t stick around to ask for what he needed. For whatever reason– fear, or embarrassment, or bitterness that he couldn’t believe what all the other disciples seemed to believe so easily– he couldn’t be that honest with his friends, and he looked for the easy way out– just to get Jesus out of the picture.

Thomas, though, he was not afraid to speak his truth: “I am having trouble believing this stuff. I didn’t see it with my own eyes, and I don’t think I’ll be able to believe until I do.”

Honest Thomas. Oh, to have the authenticity of Thomas!

Here’s what it seems to me we can learn from Thomas: When his faith began to crumble, when he could no longer feel God walking beside him, or hear God speaking to him, he did not run. He did not leave. He did not take the easy way out and just go back home where it was comfortable and safe. The story finds him in the room with the disciples. He says, “I don’t believe right now,” and yet he stays.

And not only does he stay, he asks his brothers for exactly what he needs: “I need to see the wounds, to put my hands in them.” And I think it’s because of the faith it took to stay and the courage it took to be that honest that he was given what he asked for– Jesus’s wounded hands and feet and side.

Friends, if you have come here tonight with doubts, you are in good company. Thomas stands with you, because he has been there.

Brené brown says that faith without vulnerability and mystery is not faith at all. Faith is a risk, a risk that takes honesty and courage, like Thomas had. A risk that takes fear and trembling, like Thomas had. A risk that takes everything you have, like Thomas gave. We have created this space here tonight for you to get honest with God. What will you offer Him? What if your worst doubts are worth more than your most beautiful pretenses?

If you have come here in doubt and fear, know that we, too, stand with you and pray for you, because everyone here has been there. If you are looking at our prayer stations and especially at this meal prepared with trepidation, just know this: Jesus invites to the table everyone who earnestly seeks Him. Just as he invited the doubter Thomas to put his hand in His side, Jesus invites the doubters in this room, including you, including me, to put our hands on this broken body and, by it, believe.

Amen.

Identity: Why That Voice in Your Head Is an Idiot

I am a fidgeter.

Well, let’s use a verb, not a noun: I fidget.
(When I die, I don’t think they’ll write “Here lies Erin, a Fidgeter” on my tombstone, so let’s stick with verbs, not identifiers.)

I like to be doing something with my hands at all times. I think this is why I like knitting. It’s mindless, if you want it to be, so you can do it while talking on the phone, while watching TV. Once I actually knitted in a movie theater. Yeah, I’m that cool. Don’t be intimidated.

When I had long hair, I twirled it. Now that I have short hair, I still twirl it, and end up with little unicorn horns sticking out all over the place. It’s attractive. In the sense of not being attractive at all.

I also like to doodle. This is the most socially acceptable form of fidgeting, I suppose, although sometimes people think you’re being rude. I once had a professor who put, “No doodling during lectures,” on the syllabus right behind, “No surfing the internet” and “No gum-chewing.” This, I thought, was a bit extreme. And I doodled a lot during her lectures in protest.

 

I always tell myself, and the people who give me dirty or inquisitive looks, that I fidget during lectures and concerts and things so that my brain can concentrate better.
If I can’t fidget, my mind will wander. If I allow myself to fidget, though, all my brain’s wandering power is concentrated on the doodle, or the knitting, so the rest of it can enjoy the concert or lecture or whatever.

I don’t know if this is true, but it seems to be.  Or at least it makes a nice excuse.

 

Why am I telling you this?

Oh, right.

 

Once I brought some knitting to a hymn-sing at the church where I’m working. I pulled it out of my purse casually… and then I panicked: Oh dear. Is this appropriate? YOU’RE BEING SO INAPPROPRIATE. How can I put this away now without being awkward? Are people staring? Do I look pretentious, like, “Ohhhh look at me! I’m knitting! Everyone pay attention to me!” Oh no oh no oh no.

It was a dramatic moment inside my head.

My fellow pastor Barbara sat down next to me to enjoy the concert.  I leaned over and whispered, somewhat frantically, “Does it make me a bad pastor that I’m knitting during this?”

Barbara’s response was BEAUTIFUL.

She looked at me– in the kindest way possible– like I was an idiot and said matter-of-factly, “No, it just makes you a pastor who’s knitting during this.”

 

….RIGHT?!

 

“Does this make me a bad pastor?”

I am constantly asking myself that question.

Does it make me a bad pastor that sometimes I don’t feel like I’m worshiping when I’m leading worship?
Does it make me a bad pastor that sometimes I don’t prepare totally for Disciple and then have to scramble on the day-of?
Does it make me a bad pastor that sometimes I’d rather go play with the kiddos on the preschool playground than answer my emails?

No.

None of this has any bearing on whether or not I’m a good pastor, or a good person. It makes me a pastor… who sometimes doesn’t feel like she’s worshiping, and who gets behind on Disciple, and who like kids better than a computer screen. JUST LIKE MOST EVERYONE ELSE.

This is one of the hardest lessons of life, and if I learn it by the time I die, I’ll have achieved Nirvana. Or the Christian version of Nirvana. Which is probably the ability to make the perfect sweet potato casserole. (You do know I’m joking, right? Okay, good.)

What you do affects you. But it doesn’t define you. Just because I accidentally stepped on my dog’s foot at the park yesterday doesn’t make me an abusive dog owner. It makes me someone who makes mistakes. Just because I deliver one stinker of a sermon doesn’t make me a bad preacher, it makes me someone who had an off day.
They will not write on my tombstone: “Here Lies Erin, a Dog-Foot-Stepper-Onner,” or, “Here Lies Erin, the Worst Preacher in North Carolina.”
It’s a hate crime against yourself when you let your mistakes become your identity. It’s an act of violence. It’s identity theft (you knew I had to make that joke, there, it’s over with).

 

Friends, hear the Good News of the Gospel:
That mistake you made yesterday, it doesn’t define you.

 

Just because you sin, it doesn’t make you damned, or evil, or forever “a sinner.” It just makes you someone who made a mistake. It doesn’t negate your identity as Christ’s beloved.

 

Never let someone’s words– not your friends’, not your boss’s, not your parents’, and especially not the ones coming from your own mind– convince you that you are anything other than the beloved of God. A beautiful being. One who was created for such a time as this. One who makes God laugh and smile and weep and die to save you from yourself.

You are nothing else. Thanks be to God!

Pray, Cry, or Drink: A Sermon-Preparation Post!

Dear readers,

I’m preaching this Sunday!!!!

If you recall, I once wrote a post entitled “The 12 Steps to Preaching a Sermon (A VERY Informative Guide).” Maybe you should read that post before you read this one, because this post will be something like a follow-up to, or an elaboration of, that one.
Maybe. I always write thesis statements and introductions before the actual paper/blog post so there’s really no telling if that’s going to be true or not. But if you go read that other post then my statistics go up because you’re clicking my links and viewing other pages, and then I’ll feel really good about myself. So, it’s your choice. Make my day, or be selfish.  (I really hope you all get it when I’m joking.  Love you….)

***

I solicited some advice from friends on how they prepare to preach in the day(s) and/or week(s) leading up to Sunday. Here are some of the answers I received:

“Pray. A lot.”
“Cry?”
“Go on a bender.  I’ll come over and help; I’ve got liquor.”

**Author’s note: The above were intentionally listed from best advice to worst.

I solicited advice from these same beautiful, hilarious, broken, Godly people on what to preach when you’re afraid of/distressed by/unsure about your Scripture.  Here are some of the answers, from the same respective people, and again listed from best to worst:

“Consult God, and then Barth.”
“Just go up there and preach universalism, who cares?”
“Just read Anne Lamott’s twitter feed from the pulpit. #that’llpreach”

***

As you can tell, all my non-preaching readers, preaching is hard. Writing a sermon is hard.

But it is also wonderful. You know all those things you think about saying to people– good things, smart things, funny things, helpful things, sweet things? Most people don’t ever in their lives get a public place to say them. The preacher gets that, most every week! The possibilities are endless; you can help people and bring joy to people and celebrate life and improve the world with your words.  That is the joy of preaching.

The terror of preaching is that your mind doesn’t only operate on the plane of good, smart, funny, helpful, and sweet things. You also think mean things, snarky things, ugly things, things that tear people down while masquerading as helpfulness.
One of my favorite lines on the new Taylor Swift album (stop judging me. That’s an ugly thought you’re having right now.) accuses an ex of being “so casually cruel in the name of being honest.”

***

Preachers have great power to be incredibly cruel under the guise of honesty and helpfulness.

So I get why my friends suggested I pray, cry, and drink copious amounts of, erm, unpastorly liquids.  But no matter what you do, Sunday will still come, and you will still have to open your mouth and give your people something.  It’s up to you to make sure that you’re not cruel, or dippy, or insincere, or flippant.  But the good news, I reckon, is that God can make living water flow even from a rock.  And can turn bitter water potable.

….Well. I guess this post is over on that note. Do I really have to go write my sermon now? #pastorproblems

EPILOGUE:

I’m going to take my first person’s advice: gonna go talk to Jesus and Barth, in that order.

A Confession and a Penitent Resolution Regarding Preaching the Epistles

I confessed to my supervisor today that I can’t stand preaching on the Epistles.  I’ve probably mentioned that here before, but it’s worth mentioning again because I hate it so much that it makes me feel bad.

Paul writing his epistles. Source: wikipedia

Paul Writing His Epistles. Source: wikipedia

My assigned texts for this Sunday includes Romans 12:1-2: “I appeal to you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship………….”

…YAWN.

So much of the New Testament has been so over-quoted as to be hackneyed at this point. I wish that, for every time someone quoted John 3:16, 1 Cor 13, or Romans 8, there was a requirement that they also throw in a good one from the Old Testament.

“Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you.” -Joshua 3.5
“The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” Exodus 14.14
“For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.” -Malachi 3.6

But I think the real thing that bothers me about the Epistles is the style in which they’re written.  It’s the same reason I never can get into Proverbs, or Leviticus.  It’s so didactic.  “Listen while I talk to you.” “Do this. Don’t do that.” It’s a lecture, instead of a Socratic-method seminar.  It’s a textbook instead of a novel.

***

Someone I confessed this to recently exclaimed sarcastically, “Ugh, you’re such a woman! You want poetry, don’t you?”

Yes, I do. Sorry about my vagina. (This same person also accused me of having a “vaginal theology.” My response: “I’m trying to be offended… but I’m sort of not.”)

***

Give me a Psalm, or a story.  Don’t command me to be transformed by the renewal of my mind, tell me a story about someone who did that and then let me imitate her.

The thing about poetry and storytelling is that it gives legs and feet to this amorphous blob of an abstract idea: Be transformed.
I could hear an hour-long speech on being transformed and leave going, “What’s for lunch?” But you put me in front of Les Miserables for two and half hours, and now I SEE transformation.
Jean Valjean is the ultimate example of someone being transformed.  Sinner to saint. Darkness to light.  Condemnation to salvation.  Hate to love.  Now I get it.  Now this idea has legs and feet and arms and hands and even a few snot bubbles and bad teeth but it’s beautiful because I can see it and touch it and sing the songs with Jean Valjean as he [SPOILER ALERT] commits his soul to God.

When I was in seminary, my preaching professor had us write a final paper on our theology of preaching. I had no idea what that meant, so I ended up writing a long metaphorical essay comparing preaching to poetry.

Preaching, like poetry, I said, is that place where you take truth and you weave it in with beauty and discomfort and mystery and misery. And the music of it is heard better than a lecture, digests easier than a textbook, and breaks down walls more effectively than a bulldozer.

Preaching, like poetry, is that medium wherein commands will not fly.  A poet who is so obvious as to write something like “The moral of the story is, don’t sell your soul to the machine” will never get published.  Way too obvious. Where’s the mystery, the beauty, the twists and turns and ups and downs?

Similarly, every pastor who has ever stood in a pulpit and given me an ultimatum has lost my trust.  You tell me “Don’t sin or you’re going to hell!” and I will probably walk out.  But you tell me a story of someone whose sins drove them into the bowels of hell– the streets of New York City, the bottom of a bottle, the suicide chatrooms online– and how God came through for them? That’s a commanding story.  That’s a story that will change my heart and transform my mind.

I think this is part of the meaning of the incarnation.  God could have handed down some more stone tablets.  Heck, God could have just wiped us out and started all over– clearly we weren’t listening.  But what God chose to do instead was to insert Jesus into human history, to make Him part of the story, to give Him a start, an end, with ups and downs and mystery and beauty and twists and turns.  The story of Jesus is a story indeed: Humble beginnings, persecution, prophetic voices, assassination plots, climactic murder, and triumphal resurrection.

God knew that a story would speak to us.  A story would give calloused hands and blistered feet and nail-impaled wrists and ankles to this vague idea that God loves us.

So, my fellow preachers, if you’re like me, when you encounter a text that is not enough story for you, put the hands and feet of Christ on it.  The story is there, bleeding… and shining with hope.

And if you’re not like me, and you encounter a text that is TOO MUCH story for you, see in the hungry Israelites, the murderous enemies, and the wayward disciples the hands and feet and face of Christ.  They’re there. Dig into the mystery, and the beauty will always find you.

The 12 Steps to Preparing a Sermon (A VERY Informative Guide)

When you get the word that you’re preaching on an upcoming Sunday, here’s what you do.  Note: I didn’t say this is what you SHOULD do.  Just that this is what you do.

1. Get excited! This is your chance, girl. You’re gonna change the world.  This sermon is going to go in the preaching books right next to Anna Carter Florence’s! Feel that you have already succeeded. Consequently, eat a lot of celebratory foods like ice cream and waffles.

2. Realize, with a start, that you have not yet actually succeeded.  Put down the waffles slowly and begin to panic.  Remember, at this point you probably haven’t even looked at the Scripture yet. Consider vomiting.

3. It’s pep talk time.  Stand in front of a mirror, look yourself in the eye, and say all kinds of kicky things to yourself.  “You are a lion, take what’s yours. You’ve been preparing your whole life for this day, and you’re going to kill it!  You’re Jack Donaghy! Is it in you?! I’m loving it!” Note: This is a fun but socially unacceptable step. Make sure this is happening in your home… or in the bathroom in the church basement that everyone forgot exists and so it’s your own personal bathroom now.

4. Read the Scripture.  Gird yourself with Diet Coke, kick off your shoes, and just open the book.  Subconsciously, and with your physical body tensed appropriately, approach it as though it’s a snake ready to bite you.  Cringe as you wildly guess at what parable or section of Paul or prophecy you’ve been assigned. …You just know it’s that one Psalm about babies getting dashed against the rocks.  You just know it.  And that’s pretty impressive, because your assigned text is in Mark!  That’s the power of the Holy Spirit, though. You never can tell where those imprecatory psalms are going to pop up. (Yeah, that’s right, I said imprecatory psalms. I read that Brueggeman book on the psalms and didn’t just skim it. WHAT THEN.)

5. Having read the Scripture, enter a state of semi-paralysis. This will last roughly 20 minutes… but can extend to up to a week.  The whole area behind your face, where your seminary-educated brain is rumored to live, will suddenly become vacuously, alarmingly empty.  You will vaguely wonder if this is what being lobotomized feels like.  You will vaguely wonder if you’ve slipped into a coma.  It’s okay, breathe.  This is all normal. You have indeed entered a coma-like state.  The official term for it is Lectionary Narcolepsy (coined by me, just now).  You’ll snap out of it soon. Before Sunday, at least …we hope.

6. Emerge from your introspective hibernation. Examine whatever panicky, wild thoughts you were having during your fever dreams.  Realize you haven’t actually been thinking about the text, but about all the things that could go wrong when preaching on this text.  Perhaps it is too well-known, and you are worried that people will have read the Anna Carter Florence sermon on the same Scripture, and then you’ll never make it into the anthology because hers was way too good.  Or perhaps this text is too unfamiliar– your seminary professors didn’t give you the cheat-sheet on this one (Note to all non-seminarians reading this blog: This is an exaggeration and wishful thinking. No cheat-sheets for any Scripture were given out at Duke, or at least they didn’t have enough hand-outs to make it to the back row where I sat).

7. Settle down to actually think about the text, not about your/the congregation’s/the editors of all those great sermon anthology’s expectations. Realize you’re not entirely Biblically-illiterate, but have read this before, sometime.  Read it silently, and then out loud. Get a pen and paper and write the text out, perhaps writing interesting words in a different color or in bold.  Begin to actually get excited.  Have dreams of preaching a Good sermon– it doesn’t have to be Great; but at this point you do believe it can be Good.

8. Write the sermon.  Whether it’s the Tuesday before, or the night before, get it down on paper.  This will involve a lot of diligent eschewing of that The Closer marathon that’s on TNT right now, as well as whatever pastoral non-emergencies are blowing up your email and voicemail.  But because you are a preacher in your heart, you will get something down on paper, I promise.  Memorize it as you go, practicing transitions and gestures.  Feel mildly, vaguely, potentially successful, and that this sermon might actually be Okay (you’ve downgraded from Good to Okay, but that’s fine).

9. The night before or the morning of, take one last look at your sermon.  Decide it is the worst thing you’ve ever written, read, or heard of.  Downgrade your sermon from Okay to Disaster Area. Daydream about calling Chris Christie because he seems to be doing a good job with the Hurricane Sandy stuff.  Daydream about running away.  The lay speaker or another pastor can step in.  The choir director can make the whole service one big hymn-sing and the congregation will LOVE it. Have an existential crisis about your role in the church at all. Pack a bag.  Unpack the bag.  Pack it again.

10. Just do it.  Preach.  Throw caution to the wind– the wind, you’ll realize, is probably the Holy Spirit, so that’ll probably work out. Get nauseous and stumble over your words.  Feel so obviously nervous and underprepared that you’re sure people are ready to drag you out of the pulpit and stone you– or worse, call your bishop.

11. Go to lunch afterward with friends.  If no friends are available, go with a good book (which is just the same as a good friend, in many ways).  Overeat many salty things.  Take a very long nap. Remember that you have some leftover ice cream and waffle batter.  Feel too tired even to go get it, much less get out the waffle maker– ugh, life is hard.

12. Fall asleep that night (“night” here meaning about 5:30 pm) with your phone next to your bed, waiting for the sermon anthology editors to call.  They won’t, but your mom will. Or your best friend from seminary. Or a congregation member with a death in the family.  And it will be exactly what you need. And you will go on with your bad self, and the Kingdom of God will be about .02% closer as a result.

It’s All Grace Around You

Yesterday I preached my first sermon as a United Methodist minister.

I’ve preached probably somewhere around a dozen sermons in my life, but this was my first one as a pastor.  My first one in my first appointment.  My first one that felt like… like it counted.  I had images in my head of angels on the sidelines of heaven holding up scorecards (the Olympics’ beginning this weekend clearly didn’t help my nerves or my imagination).

I have been nervous before preaching before, but it has always been the typical, “Oh, I hope I don’t stumble over my words, I hope I don’t forget that gesture, I hope no one falls asleep.”  This time was different.  This time my thoughts were, “I hope my theology isn’t heretical, I hope I don’t accidentally call God by a masculine pronoun, I hope the other pastors don’t talk negatively about this sermon behind my back” (actually I’m still nervous about that last one– though this reflects much, much more on my own insecurities, and horror stories I’ve heard from other churches, than anything I ought to realistically expect in my current church).

As I sat up there in the profoundly uncomfortable Preaching Throne, as it should be called, I found myself for the first time in my life wondering if I was actually going to puke from nerves.  My stomach felt alarmingly vacuous and my lips tingled and my legs whipped around restlessly under my alb.  The ladies closest to me in the choir gave me their loudest and most encouraging smiles as the Scripture was read and my mic went live, so that I could hear—or imagined I could hear—my labored breathing amplified throughout the colossal sanctuary, which had suddenly tripled in size and crowd, at least in my frantic mind.

I have known my Scripture passage for weeks, and have been researching it and praying on it and thinking on it for weeks.  But by Friday morning, I still had nothing on paper, just a bunch of scribbles and notes with big arrows, exclamation points, and ellipses in my journal.  I was beginning to panic.

Because God is gracious, everything flowed by Friday night, so that I had SOMETHING on the page, and Saturday found me with that “Aha!” moment around 11:45am, and I nestled into the idea that this might just work…

But when you’re sitting there waiting for the final hymn, prayer, or Scripture to be over before you have to climb into that pulpit, all your sense of security disappears.

I wanted so desperately, you see, to impress the congregation.  To charm them with my wit and poetry.  And perhaps an even more ardent goal was to impress my coworkers.  They’re all master preachers, each with groupies in the congregation and all the right theology.  I was terrified I wouldn’t live up to their legacy.  What could be worse than being that pastor that people go, “Ugh, not her preaching. Let’s just go home.”  Which really happens.

So I agonized over this Scripture and this sermon, all but weeping as I stared desperately at the blinking cursor on my empty Word document for days on end.

What I forgot, though, is that we are Methodists, and our inheritance, our bread, our butter, our lifeblood, is GRACE.  I remembered my old policy: When you don’t know what to preach, preach grace.  So I wrote what I knew: God’s grace.

When she found me with my teeth chattering and lips nearly bitten off in my office before the service began, one of my fellow associates said to me, “What are you afraid of?  It’s all grace around you.”

It’s all grace around you.

God’s grace, the grace of warmed hearts looking up at you from the congregation, the grace of the choir’s energy practically buoying me up, the grace of friends who looked across the chancel at me and gave me a subtle thumbs up, the grace of my mother sitting in the fourth pew back on the right with her proudest smile on, and the grace of my father with tears in his eyes.  The grace, even, that my senior minister was out of town and thus I didn’t have a preaching professor-slash-superstar appraising me as I preached!

It’s all grace around you.

I wrote these words at the top of my sermon and stared anxiously at them as the service marched on toward my sermon.  And the most important “Aha!” moment of all came in that place—

It is not about charming my congregation, impressing my colleagues, making my old preaching professors proud.  It’s not even fractionally about those things.  It’s about magnifying the name of Jesus Christ.  It’s about breathing the Spirit and letting Her inhabit your lungs and your vocal chords.  It’s about stepping boldly into the presence of God and declaring what you see there to your fellow travelers.

I pray that I did that on Sunday, even in a small or imperfect way.  And regardless, it is a marvelous comfort to know that it’s all grace around me.

(Ps- [shameless self-promotion alert]- if you’d like to see, read, or listen to my sermon, you can find it here, listed as “July 29, 2012: Rev. Erin Beall, Associate Minister: 2 Samuel 11:1-15)