Category Archives: Reflections

Unnamed Heroes

NACFLA, the North American Christian Foreign Language Association, is an organization of Christian world language educators.  NACFLA seeks to provide a forum for the promotion of Christian reflection and practice in the field of world language education, to strengthen the contribution of Christian scholarship in this field to the larger academic world, and to provide Christian world language educators a community and network for support and encouragement.

The annual conference of NACFLA was held at Abilene Christian University, April 7-9, 2011 on the theme of “Narratives That Shape Us.” I spoke at the morning devotional on Saturday.

Unnamed Heroes: Hebrews 11:32-40

Thank you for the invitation to speak. I represent one of those students that keep you up at night. Over the years, I’ve learned four languages, namely, German, Greek, Hebrew, and American Sign Language. Yet, I’m barely functional in my native tongue that I regularly butcher by the irregularities of pronunciation and grammatical constructions I learned as a child. Due to neglect, I have lost proficiency in the others.

The loss of language is why Cornell West argues for America to be bilingual. He describes the language that you speak in your dreams as your heart language. When a grandfather dreams in a different language than the grandchild, then a break down in community results. He sees this in the Latino community that has a close family system. But when grandchildren, while still bilingual, lose the ability to dream in Spanish, the family unit begins to disengage.

The phenomenon of community break down also happens when people do not share a common set of stories. Michael Gallagher writes in Clashing Symbols (pg. 159) that J.R.R. Tolkien’s [wrote] his famous Lord of the Rings [because] we had neglected the springs of wonder in our pursuit of surface living, and therefore he saw his writing of fantasy as a way to refresh our imagination and to put it in contact again with larger hopes. In his own words, a fairy story can let us experience ‘a sudden and miraculous grace’, that ‘lets a gleam come through’ and so ‘we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater’. The very success of his work, as fiction and now as film, shows that it meets a real hunger in people. … He wanted to awaken the adventure of redemption in human imagination for a culture where that language of desire seemed faded or forgotten. In other words, his creative writings sought to make spiritual journeys real again for people.

  • Epic stories like King Arthur also function this way as demonstrated by at least two current cable television series.

Heb 11 recounts great stories of faith that shape us.

  • These are the stories we remember. They are stories that have shaped us from our earliest memories of VBS and bedtime rituals. Stories about Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. These stories have inspired epic movies like the Ten Commandments and Prince of Egypt.

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Others faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. Others were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. Others went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all of these were commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

  • Amazing stories about the adventures of being a follower of God for example, “women received their dead by resurrection.” Theses are grand stories everyone.
  • As Heb 11 skips the stone, the writer does not retell any of the stories at length. The writer simply alludes to the stories. These stories are vital, vibrant, and vivid in the imaginations of the hearers because these stories have shaped their lives.
  • God’s story that intertwines with God’s people in Scripture function to shape our lives. When we adopt those stories as our stories, our futures are reshaped.

VV. 35b-38 Others… These “others” are unnamed; yet heroes. Most folks in the OT are unnamed. And most Christians go through life unnamed. And they would not be listed in 1st Hebrews 11 with the heroes but in 2nd Hebrews 11 with the unnamed.

Conclusion: VV. 39-40 “Yet all of these were commended for their faith whether in 1st Hebrews 11 and the named heroes of faith or in 2nd Hebrews 11 with the unnamed masses. And their stories shape our own stories as our lives unfold before us.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, AMEN

For readers of the blog: Assignment

  1. Remember unnamed folks in your faith walk.
  2. Remember an unnamed act in your past.
  3. Imagine an unnamed act in your future.

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How to Preach a Curse

A few years back, a colleague asked about how to preach a curse.

First Impressions

  1. You must always make sure your incense cauldrons are thoroughly clean to avoid stale odors that might turn off any seekers who come to your services. I have found Apple & Spice incense from DeMarco™ the best overall product that does not stain cauldrons yet is attractive to Baby-Busters as well as Generation X.
  2. Practicing such words as BrrrrrrrrrrrmStooone!!! In front of a full length mirror is helpful. In today’s modern see through pulpits, the GQ preacher needs to be fully aware as to how his suit looks when swinging his fist into the pulpit. Powerful curse words, like those above, seem to empower the voice with such spiritual fervor as to cause embarrassing positions. This is even truer for those daring preachers who use lapel mikes and no pulpit. When selecting vestments, black is the color of choice.
  3. Always make sure your sermon titles have a positive tone. Curses are best delivered as a surprise. Don’t let your title show your cards before you are ready to play.
  4. If your finger doesn’t naturally crook when you point it, a plastic surgeon will help. Dr. Dyincrook of Hellspont, NM, 1-900-555-1234, will give ministers a 32% discount on all surgeries of this nature. Remember, when pointing your finger during delivery, small children and young mothers will gasp the loudest. Do not hesitate to make full eye contact. For the mature preachers of curses, the two-finger gesture is a powerful weapon in the arsenal.
  5. Finally, when delivering a curse it is best to use Ouiji Board methods of biblical interpretation. Allow your finger, crooked if possible, to float above the biblical text for no more than 41 seconds. When the spirit takes control, you will be guided to the best proof texts available. This also is effective with US News and World Report and Rolling Stone. Further research needs to be conducted with other genres.

After preaching a series of sermons on curses, you may want to take a mental break so you can restore your creative juices. Suggested reading: Elizabeth Achtemeier, So You’re Looking for a New Preacher. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.

Second Take

  1. Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, p. 392 refers to G. Bornkamm, “Das Anathema in der urchristliche Abendmahlstheologie,” in Das Ende des Gesetzes: Paulusstudien, Munich 1952, pp. 123ff. Von Rad compares curses with the anathema. See G. Bornkamm, “The Anathama in the Early Christian Lord’s Supper Tradition,” in Early Experience ET, 1966, 169-79.
  2. Closely related is a sermon by Willimon in Preaching to Strangers, p. 91. This sermon is from Amos 5:18 “Woe to you who desire the Day of the Lord.”
  3. I think you may want to balance curse with blessing in many contexts. Scripture maintains a dual look at judgment and hope.
  4. See Brichto, H. C. “The Problem of ‘Curse’ in the Hebrew Bible.” Journal of Biblical Literature Monograph Series 13. Philadelphia: SBL, 1963.
  5. See Westermann, C. “Blessing in the Bible and the Life of the Church.” Overtures to Biblical Theology Series. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.
  6. Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All its Worth, pg. 182ff has a section on imprecatory Psalms as well as Osborne’s Hermeneutical Spiral, pg. 185. See also Fee and Stuart pg. 151-152. Kleine, Bloomburg, Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics state that imprecatory Psalms should be seen as hyperbole.
  7. Finally, the best source I’ve read is from chapter 7 of J. Clinton McCann, A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms: The Psalms as Torah, Abingdon, 1993, is a longer treatment than given in the sources above.

For Example

1 Cor. 16:22 reads, “Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord. Our Lord come!” I would keep the text in the larger narrative framework of the letter. Many warnings are given to those who do not conform to the teachings Paul presents in the letter. See 1 Cor 3:17; 5:4-5; 6:9-10; 11:29; 14:38. I would want to answer the question, “Is Paul cursing some at Corinth?” Or, “Is Paul calling upon the Lord to deliver divine judgment?” Either way, God will be the primary actor in the curse. Furthermore, each passage cited above is found in the larger narrative framework of Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth, and God’s larger salvation history with God’s people.

For the OT texts, I would keep cursees in the context of covenant theology. Within that framework, I would not hesitate to preach a strong message of judgment. We cannot preach peace when there is no peace. With the dual focus of curse/blessing found in the OT, the sermon could easily correlate the message with judgment/hope. Many of the texts under discussion have in context conditional phrasing intended to offer alternative ways of being in God’s world. A helpful understanding for me comes from Blu Greenberg, “Deuteronomy 1-34: Hear, O Israel: Law and Love in Deuteronomy,” In Preaching Biblical Texts: Expositions by Jewish and Christian Scholars. Edited by Fredrick C. Holmgren and Herman E. Schaalman. Eerdmans, 1995.

From my notes above you will note my tendency to research how the genre functions within scripture. If you can think about complex texts like curses with wisdom and discernment, then those habits will serve you well throughout the homiletical process. While my “first impressions” might make sense to me when I draw upon my intuition and experience, my “second take” encourages me to seek out advice from those who have studied the issues. Therefore, when encountering any genre in scripture, always pursue the “second take” and research carefully the subject at hand.

Bibliography

[1] G. P. C. Hale, “Social-Scientific Research in the Many Uses of Dry Ice,” Hicksgeschick 176, (October 1954): 123-241, gives unverifiable and deniable evidence to the contrary that dry ice is 41% less effective than incense for audiences who earn more than $355,000.  Other demographics can be found that more accurately reflect your congregational makeup.

[2] See Johnny Sensing, “Let Your Fingers Doing the Walking,” Sensing  Enterprises -1 (Fifth Quarter 1999): 34-21.

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Who Dares to Listen?

I had a shelf in my office that was not level. Five times I lifted the shelf, moved the pegs, and leveled the boards. Each time, within a few days, the books began to slide forward again. I could not explain the phenomenon. If only I had written to Unsolved Mysteries or called Ghost Busters. I never found out why the shelf would not remain level; however, I remained convinced that there was a cause for this effect. Maybe it was how I put the pegs in the shelf. Maybe it was my eyes not sitting square in my head. Maybe something was broken. Maybe someone was playing a trick. I do not know. I’m well grounded in our scientific age and remain convinced that a rational explanation existed.

Cause and Effect⎯sometimes there is a break down. Sometimes the action does not produce the desired result. What about preaching the Word of God? The question was asked by Karl Barth, “Who Dares To Preach?” What about the antithesis to that question, “Who Dares To Listen?” Does preaching (the cause) still have God’s desired effect in people’s lives.

We laugh at the definition of preaching that sees it as the “art of talking in someone else’s sleep.” We cringe when dictionaries include, “boring harangue” or “giving advice in an obtrusive or tedious way.” But how do we explain that even the best sermons proclaimed by the best preachers are slept through week after week? You see, it is not boring sermons that are not listened to, it’s the good ones!

Warnings

Indiana claims to be a tornadoe state. Twice, while living in Indiana, tornadoes have twisted nearby towns. When I lived in Lafayette, Moticello was devastated. Friends died there. When I lived in Washington, Petersburg suffered severely. In both cases, nature’s breath struck with little warning.

Tornado sirens and early warning systems permeate Indiana. At noon, sirens blare there practice warning to reassure all that the system works. I’ve heard those sirens so often that I became nonchalant about there intended meaning. Even if I heard the siren at some other time, I did not notice it. It is like living by a railroad—it doesn’t take long before you are sleeping like a baby when the 2 AM express rumbles through. The cry of wolf dulls our sensitivities to danger. Confident in my own understanding of the facts, warnings go unheeded.

It happens all around us. The child becomes immune to the parent’s admonitions. The patient eventually ignores the doctor’s instructions. The spouse tunes out the nagging mate. The person in the pew sleeps soundly during the recitation from the pulpit. We are bombarded on every side by words, warnings, cautions, and advice. Language becomes prating. Conversation becomes chatter. Preaching becomes rhetoric.

The Word of God is the Deed of God (Ps 33:6, 9). God’s Word has power. In a society where talk is cheap, promises are empty, and rhetoric is synonymous with vanity, preaching has fallen on hard times. Preaching is not a speech. Preaching is not idle chatter. Preaching is not trading religious ideas about God with the audience. Preaching is the proclamation of the gospel. As heralds and witnesses of the Word of God, we preach. Who dares to preach? What audacity! Yet the calling remains. “The lion has roared⎯who will not fear? [Dare to Listen] The Sovereign Lord has spoken⎯who can but prophesy? [Dare to Preach]” (Amos 3:8).

The Preached Word of God is the Word of God! The preached word has power. God has spoken and continues to speak. Words give life, arouse jealousy, provoke anger, and bring peace. Preaching is the proclamation of the gospel that redeems, comforts, blesses, and provokes. Paul said, Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the [hrematos—spoken] Word of Christ (Rom 10:17). Preaching is not merely a word about God and his redemptive acts but a word of God that is itself a redemptive event (Rom 1:16).

The Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:12-13). If the Word of God is not penetrating your heart, it is not the Word’s fault.

Warnings are for our benefit. The wise one heeds the warning label on a household product—Do Not Ingest! Read and be wise. A door marked High Voltage or Radiation should cause caution. Warnings are for our safety and welfare. Warnings are for our instruction. Warnings are good. Thank you for the warnings.

We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (Heb 2:1-3).

Hear then the Word of God.

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An Inclusive Community

I believe in an inclusive church. My definition of “inclusive” involves a multiple list of issues. For example, socio-economic justice for the “least of these”; racial harmony that includes leadership roles for all races; women preaching and leading God’s church; and hospitality for folks our government will not document.

Related to women in leadership, the best preachers in my classes these days are women. When teaching a class overseas, some men were uneasy about a female student. Then she preached! The response swelled, “Surely God has granted women the gift of preaching.” Here are some related websites:
Gal 3:28
Half the Church

In a recent sermon, I did not follow my script closely. I planned to say more about persons who are not documented. “The nation has the right to protect its borders. However, the church is not the nation. The church has the right, the responsibility, the obligation to stand with open arms of hospitality to receive all with tenderness and care. The church stands and says, ”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” —Emma Lazarus

I did say about women leadership something like, “If our congregations are to reflect God’s inclusive community, then our pulpits must mirror that reality. If our congregations are to reflect God’s inclusive community, then our leadership must mirror that reality.” I referred to gender inclusivity and not to ethnic diversity because the audience has a small minority in their male leadership and has often invited men of color to speak from the pulpit.

Let me publicly cast my vote! It is time for the Church of Christ to do the hard work of racial reconciliation and gender inclusivity in our leadership and preaching roles.

If your congregation would like to invite one of my female students to preach, they are eager and able to proclaim God’s truth. Email me at sensingt@acu.edu for student contact information.

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