One of the fun things that happened on the trip to Denver was getting to watch the Preakness with my family. I am not a gambler. Usually I will not bet more than a penny unless I am 100% sure I will win a bet. But I decided that I was willing to bet $1. What I didn't realize was that we would be drawing the names of horses out of a hat. When I drew Tale of Verve, I was very excited, not because I knew anything about the horse but because Verve is the name of the vitamin/energy drink that I love and that saves me on Sunday afternoons from the post-liturgical coma. Drawing Tale of Verve seemed fortuitous. Learning that the odds were something like 30:1 did not dampen my enthusiasm.
If you watched the race, you know that American Pharaoh won. What you might not have noticed if you weren't betting on my horse was that Tale of Verve got off to a terrible start and was in last place for a good bit of the race, only coming from behind toward the end to pass everyone and finish second! I couldn't believe it. I doubled my money! But best of all, I was proud of Tale of Verve, and in disbelief. Of course all the attention was on American Pharaoh because he won, but I couldn't believe they didn't give more time to Tale of Verve - he was last, and then he was second! Such a comeback. My horses are usually in the back - choosing a horse by name does not go well for me. I'm sure that the horse was not drinking Verve, but the way he ran looked like how I feel after I drink it. Ready to come from an energy slump into clear laser focus and productivity. Go Tale of Verve!
The first time I heard Bishop Curry speak was at the Festival of Homiletics in 2009. I believe that his sermon was titled, "We are family." That man can preach. This year he was scheduled to preach the first morning of the festival, and Jan really wanted to hear him. Knowing of his dynamic preaching and learning of his nomination as a candidate for Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church made me want to hear him again as well. But I had signed up for a workshop in another venue at the same time with Andrew Foster Connors on "Building a Sermon that Agitates," and in the 3rd venue Nadia Bolz-Weber was preaching and Sara Miles was giving a lecture. How to decide? In the end, I decided to go with Michael Curry. Though I wish I could have heard the others, I have no regrets. Did I mention that that man can preach?
Now that I have some distance from the festival, many of the specifics of both sermon and lecture have deserted me, though I did take a few notes during the lecture that I will share. Bishop Curry likes to use songs in his preaching, and the lecture, which was really more like an extended sermon, was titled, "Just tell the love of Jesus." He used the line from "Balm in Gilead" and exhorted us to tell the love of Jesus. He said that the opposite of love is not hate but selfishness - placing myself in the center of the world instead of God. He suggested that if we spend our time loving God and loving our neighbor, then there's no room left over for selfishness - and "when I love you, I love me too." His delight in some of the things that he said almost rivals the joy I have seen on the occasions I've been in the presence of Archbishop Tutu.
Bishop Curry said that when we love God and love our neighbor, we become our true selves because we discover the image of God in ourselves. He talked about God being a unity that embraces diversity, a community of love in Godself and that the reason we are here is that God is love and the nature of love is to make space for the other. Interspersed between all of his great one-liner nuggets of wisdom, Bishop Curry told stories and wove scripture and quotes into the fabric of what he was saying. It all tied together, each piece building on what had come before. He has a way of speaking with every increasing passion, building up, up, up, and then ever so gently bringing it back down because we simply wouldn't have been able to sustain listening to that level of exuberance the whole time. Masterful.
He talked about justice and how it needs to be done because that's what love demands, but that the end result must always be reconciliation. Close to the end of his lecture, he told the story of Attorney Barbara Winters who heard gun shots ring out on her way to work in Ottawa last October, and, using her medic training, tried to save the soldier guarding the war memorial who had been shot. Several others had also come to his aid. As he lay there dying, Winters kept telling him that he was loved, that his family loved him and that all the people working on him loved him. "You are so loved," she told him. That was what he got to hear as he left this world.
You are so loved.
"Love can transcend this world from the nightmare it often is to the dream God has for it..." Bishop Curry ended by singing "There is a Balm in Gilead" and having us all join him. It was very powerful. What he said wasn't new and innovative, but the way in which he took us on a journey of words and emotion truly inspired me. On our break I went up and introduced myself to him and told him where I was from and that I'd be praying for him as he engages this journey of the presiding bishop election. He told me that he'd gotten a speeding ticket in our diocese. When I told him that I work with people in recovery from addiction, he said, "Ah, then you know the balm in Gilead, don't you? Keep doing what you're doing."
Thanks, Bishop Curry. I have never heard any of the other candidates for presiding bishop preach, though I have read books written by a couple of them. I also don't get a vote. With no offense or disrespect intended to the other bishops, however, I think that the Episcopal Church could use a strong dose of Bishop Curry's inspirational presence. He told the love of Jesus on that Tuesday morning at the Festival of Homiletics. And I, for one, am grateful.
Last week Jan and I attended the Festival of Homiletics in Denver. It fortuitously coincided with my niece's Confirmation in the Lutheran Church on Sunday, so I was able to enjoy family time and support my niece as well as being inspired by excellent preachers and speakers during the week. I had been to the Festival when it was in Atlanta in 2009. The keynoters that year were Archbishop Tutu and Barbara Brown Taylor. This year it was Nadia Bolz-Weber and Sara Miles. The theme this time was "Preaching from the Mountain: Heralds of Good Tidings." Pretty much if you include the word, mountain, I'm in! I was pretty excited to be returning to Denver and the Rockies.
The first time I attended the Festival, I remember being overwhelmed - like drinking from a firehose. There are 3 venues with speakers and preachers running concurrently, and attendees have to choose between preachers like Nadia and Michael Curry or David Lose and Brian McLaren or Will Willimon and Craig Barnes. No matter who you choose, you're going to miss out on something great. But you'll also be hearing something great, and I have learned to trust that wherever I choose to go, I will hear what I need to hear.
When I first began discerning my call to ordained ministry, I didn't think I could ever preach a sermon. I had no confidence in my ability to say anything worth hearing. I remember one session with my pastoral counselor (who was a Methodist minister,) in which I rattled on at great length about my anxiety around preaching. She looked at me and said, "Okay, let's work on this. If you were going to preach, what is the first thing you would do?"
"Well, since I'm in a lectionary based denomination, I would read the passage first."
"Great," she said, "And what would you do next?"
"Well, I think I'm supposed to look up a bunch of Greek words and figure out what they mean and then start reading commentaries and..."
"Stop right there," she said. "They can teach you all that in seminary. Go get a Bible off the shelf and let's look at a passage."
She then took me through a passage of scripture in which we read it out loud and she asked me questions about who I related to in the story, what would it have been like if I had been there, what were the questions I had, what images stuck out. She asked me how it related to me. And as I answered, she told me I had the beginning of a sermon.
It wasn't so hard after all. In consultation with a mentoring priest, I chose a passage from the daily office about Jesus finding the lost sheep, and I wrote my first sermon while sitting in the backyard of my house in Norfolk. It was actually fun! I never preached that sermon, but it gave me the confidence to preach at my internship church when I was in the ordination exploration process. As much as I angsted and worried and practiced that sermon, I found when I was done that I loved preaching. And then I slept for 4 hours! Ever since then I have felt a call to preach.
Attending something like the Festival of Homiletics is very humbling though. I have received many compliments for my preaching over the years, the best of which are when people tell me they really thought about something in the sermon or that something changed for them. I'm always grateful then that God has spoken to them through me. But my ego also loves the praise, and I get to thinking of myself as an especially gifted preacher. It never hurts to get a reality check.
The preachers at the Festival are phenomenal. The first time I went I wanted to give up. I felt that I didn't even belong in the same category with these people. I was so intimidated that even though I had been inspired by all I had heard, I found writing my next sermon extremely hard because I had all these expectations. You see, I think I have an African American preacher deep in my soul just waiting to be heard, only I'm a white girl manuscript preacher. Whenever I have a chance to speak without notes, the Holy Spirit gives me silence, not words of wisdom. And so I long to give passionate, inspiring, extemporaneous sermons, but it's just not who I am. Maybe one day, that will be my gift, but for now, the Holy Spirit and I meet in the writing process.
And so, as I come back down from the mountain, literally and figuratively, I am preparing to write a sermon for that most holy of days, Pentecost. I pray, as I always do, that I will get out of God's way, and that God will help God's people hear what they need to hear, regardless of what it is that I say. I give thanks for the opportunity to go up on that mountain, to hear the brilliant preachers, to learn new ways, to hear God say to me what I needed to hear, and to be renewed and restored. I will blog more about what I learned, but today what I feel is gratitude for each preacher out there who dares to take the risk to step into the pulpit or onto the chancel step or out into the aisle and proclaim the good news, to be a herald of good tidings, to speak the words of truth in love. Thanks, God, for taking us up on the mountain, and then for bringing us back down again to share our experience with others.
The last day of the first year of the Plaza Prayer Station was
bittersweet. Mostly very sweet. Just a little bit sad because I said
good-bye to some of the seniors whom I have come to know during the past
year. I will miss them.
It was a beautiful day at
the Plaza, clear and bright and warm, spring green leaves coming out on
the trees. It was the last day of classes. It was supposed to be the
first day of exams, but the academic calendar had been extended to
accommodate the classes that had been missed due to snow. Everyone who
came by was in a good mood. One of the skateboard dudes who I had hardly
seen this semester came by and sat for awhile and we chatted about his
plans for the future and really cool authors that we like, including
Richard Rohr, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Walter Brueggeman. While
chatting with my young friend I got to meet a few new people. It seems
like he knows everyone! I hope to hear really cool things from him in
the future and wish him all the best as moves out into the world.
I said good-bye and gave hugs to several of the Canterbury students as well. I will miss them this summer, too.
the end of the first year of the Plaza Prayer Station. It has far
surpassed my expectations. There are so many rich stories that I do not
share here for privacy purposes, though sometimes I wish I could share them with you. I have been amazed by the trust that complete strangers have put in me. Faculty, students,
and staff have all stopped by for prayers and conversation. Some days
were quiet and I simply prayed for the well being of the campus. Other
days were full of prayer requests and conversation. My trusty sign has
helped me overcome my natural shyness and introversion and allowed me to
receive visitors to the station instead of having to seek people out. I
am grateful for the chance to start this ministry, and I look
forward to it growing in the next school year. Until then, I will keep
CNU in my prayers, asking God to bless the campus and the community.
Traveling mercies to the seniors. I hope we will meet again!