The Best Advice

Occasionally, someone asks the question: “What is the best advice you’ve received?” I’m not sure if I could narrow it down to just one thing, but here are some wise words for pastoral ministry, from mentors and colleagues along the way. In no particular order, these are pieces of advice that I’ve taken to heart, and may help you along the way too.

1. Learn to lead meetings well. It’s amazing how frequently the same conversations can be repeated in local church committees! Parishioners who work in the corporate world taught me to curtail the repetition by ending each meeting with a review of action items, identifying a responsible party for each item, and establishing a deadline for its completion. I mark a follow-up date on my calendar, to remind me to check in with responsible parties as the deadline approaches. The next meeting opens with a brief review of the accomplished items, and we’re ready to move on to new business. I also end meetings with a brief refocusing question: “Where did we sense God at work during our time together?”

2. Give yourself space to grieve after a funeral. Accompanying families and friends through illness, death, and funeral preparations is one of the most sacred responsibilities of pastoral ministry. I am deeply grateful for the privilege of ministering to persons in the midst of grief. I’m also glad that a mentor warned me early in my ministry of the toll that such work can take on my own emotional well-being. Even when the deceased is completely unknown to me, holding others’ grief is draining. The advice I received was to take a half-day off following a funeral. Sometimes my schedule does not allow that to happen, but my secretary and staff know that is my goal, and help to make it happen as often as possible. The time to rest renews my energy for ministry. Working with a counselor to understand your own grief cycle is also immensely helpful.

3. Sleep while the baby sleeps. Okay, that advice was given to me when my kids were born, not when I entered into pastoral ministry. But the same concept applies. Low-energy seasons in the church can be enormously frustrating to the pastor. I hate summers without Sunday School, or the ways that ministry can slow to snails-pace around the holidays. For the first couple years out of seminary, I tried my best to spur the congregation on to greater engagement during those low seasons. In time I realized that it rarely worked – the pull of vacations and family traditions was just too strong, and my energy was too quickly depleted trying to pull folks along. At the same time, those slower seasons provided great opportunities for my own recreation and renewal. As it turns out, slowing my pace when the church schedule naturally slows is a good way to practice Sabbath rest!

4. Fill the gaps. Churches that are seeking new ways of connecting with their neighbors often try to duplicate popular programs. The thinking seems to be, “Look how many kids show up for the YMCA after-school program! We should offer one too.” Rarely, though, will a start-up program draw the same crowds as an established one. Instead, a clergy mentor taught me, look for the gaps in community life. What isn’t being offered in your town? For example, after-school care may be readily available, but what about days when the local schools are closed for staff training or holidays? A congregation might offer all-day childcare on teacher in-service days or other school holidays when many parents have to work. They’ve filled a gap for many families, and have opportunity to connect with children and their parents in meaningful ways.

Advent and Violence

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year” – except, when it’s nott. Advent is a time of hope, peace, joy – except, when it’s not.

Preaching can be difficult in Advent, because it brings the messy realities of our world and our lives face to face with holly-jolly holiday consumerism. We wrestle in Advent with the tension between a promise of hope, and peace, and joy, and the reality of Ferguson. We wrestle with the contrast between already – the presence of God already and always with us – and not yet – the presence not yet fully realized, and sometimes even quite hidden by the circumstances of our lives and our world.

That’s why we read and preach the prophets in Advent. The words of the prophets cut through the haze of the present day and proclaim a hopeful future. Prophets “hear God when everybody else has concluded God is silent. They see God where nobody else would guess that God is present” (Deborah A. Block, “Zephaniah 3:14-20: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, vol. 1, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009], 52).

The prophets insist that God is not absent. Our congregations need to hear the prophets’ insistence.

What our congregations don’t need is more words. They hear more than enough talking heads. They hear (and read) endless sensationalized headlines, and they hear the same words repeated hour after hour after hour. They don’t need more words. What they need are new words. Words that call them back to God. Words that renew their hope and restore their faith. Words of the prophets.

Here’s how I used the prophet Zephaniah in a sermon a few years ago, in the wake of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Perhaps this example will serve as a guide for your own prophetic preaching during Advent:

In Zeph 3:9 (CEB), the prophet speaks for God:

Then I will change the speech of the peoples into pure speech, that all of them will call on the name of the LORD and will serve him as one.

This verse falls just at the turning point of the tiny book of Zephaniah. The turning point between destruction and despair and a joyous hope for a peaceful future.

The first two and a half of Zephaniah’s three chapters are filled with judgment. Zephaniah lived – as we do – in a time of violence. The Assyrian King Manasseh ruled over Israel then, and Manasseh was a cruel and vengeful king. He practiced child sacrifice and murdered his own family. 2 Kings 21:16 tells us that Manasseh “spilled so much innocent blood that he filled up every corner of Jerusalem with it.”

The people in charge killed those they were to protect, and the city was drenched with innocent blood. That was Zephaniah’s context, his world.

That world feels heartbreakingly similar to our world. For some of us, “distress and anguish” came with the week’s news headlines. For others, it came when the doctor spoke the word “cancer” or the divorce papers arrived or the calendar reminded us of a painful anniversary. The “most wonderful time of the year” can be easily overshadowed by days of “darkness and gloom” (Zeph 1:15).

Zephaniah knew that. And he didn’t try to fill the darkness with sparkling tree lights or drown out the anguish with holiday carols. He didn’t start with joy.

He started by railing against the tragedy, by giving voice to the despair and the horror. He names anger, and pain, and grief. And not just our anger and pain and grief – Zephaniah names God’s anger and suffering, too. At least three-fourths of the prophet’s brief words are devoted to calling out the suffering and telling us that God shares it. They are “not yet” words.

He speaks them, and then he sits with them. Our news headlines today repeat hopeless words over, and over, and over again. The prophets don’t. They speak of despair, and then they sit with it as long as they must. So Zeph 3:8 (CEB) calls us to “wait for the Lord. Wait for the day when the Lord will rise up like a witness.”

I imagine, here, a long pause between v. 8, “wait for the Lord,” and v. 9, “In that time I will change the speech … they will call on my name.” How long did the prophet have to sit with the despair before finding the courage to pick up the pen and begin writing again, this time of a different future? How long was the wait?

The pause between those verses – that’s Advent. The waiting for a new word, for speech to be changed into praise. That’s where we live.

But it is not where we stay. The prophets knew that judgment was coming. But they also believed it was not the last word.

The last word, Zephaniah says, is a word of joy.

Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem. For the Lord your God is in your midst; he will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing. (3:14, 17, CEB)

I love these prophetic words – have loved them since I was a college student and first heard them. They are written in the tradition of women’s songs – within the stream of Miriam and Deborah, Mary and Elizabeth – women who lift their voices to praise God and sing for joy even in the midst of some of the most difficult of life’s circumstances. These are the words of women who live with fear and despair, and choose joy anyway.

Their joy isn’t naïve or irresponsible. They don’t turn away from suffering or ignore the pain. But they refuse to give it the last word. They insist that God will yet deliver the lame, gather the outcast, remove our judgment, and restore our wellbeing. And that is reason for joy even in the midst of sorrow.

Sometimes, it is hard to find the words to say. It seems there are already too many words said, and most of them not the right words. And then I realize: we don’t have to find words, because the prophets have already spoken them for us. We just need to hear their fierce insistence that God’s words are the truth: “Wait for the Lord.” “Rejoice.” “I am in your midst.”

[Adapted from a sermon preached at Coraopolis United Methodist Church in Coraopolis, PA, on 16 December 2012.]

Preparing for Change

We’ve all heard it: “They didn’t teach that in seminary!” It’s true, the first year or two in congregational ministry will teach you many things that you won’t learn in seminary. But this summer, I’ve been grateful for one thing I did learn in seminary: how to lead during times of change. And as it turns out, this particular lesson has been as useful in my family life as it has been in my church life.

The most memorable lesson from the semester-long seminary course, “Leading through Change,” was this: Prepare for change by increasing care. The premise is this: change – positive or negative – always brings stress. A new worship service = stress. Growth in the church = stress. Decline in the church = stress. Change brings a certain level of stress for an organization and the individuals within it. Therefore, the best, most pastoral thing you can do when leading a congregation through change is to increase care for each another in anticipation of the coming stress.

How does that happen? Strengthen small groups, where relationships are built and maintained. Shore up your prayer chains. Deliberately increase time spent visiting the elderly and others who might be easily forgotten in the midst of the change. Maybe even add a staff member to provide pastoral care, strategically freeing the pastor and other leaders to focus on leadership and vision. Do whatever you need to do to remind people that they are loved, cared for, and valued in the midst of change.

It isn’t intuitive, this way of approaching change. It can feel like circling the wagons right when you should be pulling out of camp. Visionary leaders are anxious to move ahead, reach new people, and strive toward strategic goals. And they should be! But doing so without laying a strong foundation of care within the existing congregation can lead to misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and divisions among the body.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, slowing down enough to shore up your systems of care brings big payoffs down the road. When members feel valued, you’ll see greater buy-in for the vision, more engaged leaders, and fewer misunderstandings and complaints. Strengthening relationships and increasing care for one another creates natural communication channels and provides healthy outlets to share concerns and questions. Persons feel more confident stepping into ministry in new ways because they feel supported. Hospitality is more naturally extended to others when members feel secure in their own relationships within the congregation.

I’ve also realized, with my most recent change of appointment, that the same lesson applies to my home and personal life. In the midst of a move, my children need more of my time, not less. One clergy mentor told me that he dedicates the first year of a new appointment to his new church, and his family knows they will not get as much of his attention in that first year. For me, the opposite must be true. In the midst of transition, my children will need me more than usual. I make it a priority to be there for first days at a new school, and playdates with new friends. Getting my children settled into new routines and new relationships is one of my highest priorities in the early months of a new appointment.

So far, the communities to which I have been appointed have been gracious and understanding of this. They get to know my family this way, and they see me modeling healthy boundaries and good parenting. Over the first year, as we begin to develop a vision for our future together, I’m ready to offer more of my time to living into that vision. It is much easier to gradually increase my workload at the church than it is to cut back after habits and expectations have already been established.

Perhaps the hardest piece to honor, in the midst of change, is my own self-care. I’ve learned – with the help of a spiritual director – to schedule self-care days on my calendar well in advance of significant ministry changes. Before my most recent move, I scheduled personal days – apart from both church and family responsibilities – once a month for the first six months of my new appointment. It felt unnecessarily self-indulgent when I was writing them into my calendar, but as the days have rolled around, I’ve been surprised at how desperate I was for a break. If those days hadn’t been marked “unavailable” on my calendar, the much-needed rest would not have come. Planning ahead for self-care allows me to attend to my own emotions and reconnect with my own spiritual journey in the midst of change. It makes me a better mom and better pastor.

Consider, as a new semester begins: Where do you need to increase care, in preparation for the changes that are upon you, or soon to come?

Words Come to Life

What follows is a devotion written for my congregation the week after Easter. With some adaption, I offer it to you as both academic year (in seminary) and appointment year (in the church) come to a close. May it encourage you to bring words of faith, hope, and love alive in your own life.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. (John 1:1, CEB)

Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her. (John 20:18, CEB)

Words. As Easter passes and a semester draws to a close, words flood over us. Holy Week and Easter sermons. Final papers and essays. Graduation speeches, well-wishes, introductions, good-byes, and hellos. Lots and lots of words.

Some of those words are just words on a page. But some of those words matter a great deal. They represent lives shared and hearts changed. Words brought to life – embodied words – make a difference. Words incarnate can change the world.

Easter is all about words brought to life. Easter words change the world: Promises, kept. “He is risen, just as he said!” Names, spoken. “Mary.” “Rabbouni!” Commands, obeyed. “Go, and tell the others.” Testimony, given. “I have seen the Lord!” Those words changed everything.

Actually, those words have power because they point to the Word that changes everything: the incarnate Word of God who lives among us and brings God’s love to life. That is the Christian message in a nutshell: look at Jesus, and you will see God. In Jesus, the words of God – the creating, life-giving, redeeming words of God – are lived out. Jesus is the word of God. In him, God’s words become real to us. Words take on shape in a human life.

As Easter people, we, too, embody words. Author Barbara Brown Taylor writes:

Jesus is not alone in this word-made-flesh business…. Almost everyone has a word that he or she has a gift for bringing to life. For one person the word is ‘compassion.’ For another it is ‘justice.’ For someone else the word is ‘generosity.’ For another it is ‘patience.’ Until someone acts upon these words, they remain abstract concepts – very good ideas that few people have ever seen. The moment someone acts on them, the words become flesh. They live among us so we can see their glory. (“Second Sunday after Christmas Day, John 1:(1-9)10-18, Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word Year C, vol. 1, Advent through Transfiguration [ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009] 191)

We, like Jesus, live out words. What words we will live out, however, is up to us. Sometimes, in our busy over-scheduled days, the words we bring to life are words like irritable…grumpy… distracted…impatient. We don’t always embody words that point to God, as Jesus did.

But sometimes, we do get it right. Sometimes we live out words like love, grace, and truth.

I remember a man named Jose. Jose was the janitor at a homeless shelter on Chicago’s west side, where I once worked as a chaplain. I saw Jose often in the course of my work there, but didn’t speak to him much. His English was broken and slow, and my Spanish was, well, worse than his English. So we mostly just nodded and smiled at one another as we passed in the halls. But as I learned more about the history of that place, I learned Jose’s story too.

As a young father Jose got a job on the cleaning staff of a local nursing home. Years went by, and the neighborhood around the home deteriorated, the nursing home eventually closed, and the building sat empty. But Jose, who lived down the street with his family, didn’t want the abandoned building to become a drug hangout. So he maintained it. Impeccably.

Jose mowed the grass and planted flowers in the spring. He painted the worn siding when the old paint began to peel. He washed the windows. He repaired the sagging gutters. He kept the building looking beautiful. And he did it for six years. Six years of quietly taking care of an abandoned building. Six years of watching out for the neighborhood kids, making sure they had a safe, well-maintained lawn on which to play in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood.

Six years later, the board of directors of a homeless shelter found this building on Chicago’s west side, and it became their new home. Jose was hired as their caretaker.

For me, whenever I think of what it means to be faithful to a task, to a community, to a place, I see Jose’s face. He brought faithfulness to life.

We human beings are created in God’s image with the power of words – creative words – that bring to life the abstract. We have the power, through our lives, to bring love, peace, joy, and hope to life. We have the power, by the grace of God, to volunteer our own flesh to bring the glory of God into our world.

Consider, as you end well and start anew: What words do you allow to take shape in your life? Are they words that give life to others, that illuminate the character of God?

Pastoral Ministry through the Seasons

I sit on Ash Wednesday, a smear of ashes on my forehead, typing in a coffee shop. Lent has begun, and I feel unprepared. There are several good reasons for this – but the specifics don’t much matter. Does a clergyperson ever really feel prepared for one of the busiest seasons of our year?

Several years into the practices of weekly preaching and worship leading, I’ve found that the “high holy” seasons of Advent and Lent are exhausting for reasons that go beyond the inevitable extra events on the calendar. There’s a certain sense of spiritual and emotional whiplash that comes, for me at least, when I’m writing a Christmas sermon in the midst of the waiting of Advent, or shaping Easter worship while still in Holy Week. It is a strange feeling to be putting the finishing touches on a victorious resurrection sermon, and then stand up from the desk to preach a Good Friday service.

Although our personal rhythms vary, here are some things that help me personally and professionally:

  • Gather resources well in advance. Okay, ideally, I’d actually write the sermons in advance. But I’m not a person who finds it easy to write sermons far ahead of their preaching. Sermon writing is, for me, an occasional experience – it depends on the particular circumstances of a community at any given time, and that changes from day to day and week to week. That means that sermons must be written as close as possible to the day they will be delivered.

What I can do, though, is to gather the resources I will use in my writing. Before Lent begins, I set aside a study day (more than one, if I can!). On those days, I begin by reading the texts on which I will preach. Then I pull relevant commentaries from my shelves, and order additional reference books I need. I do as much of the technical exegetical work as I can ahead of time – take some notes on the meaning of a significant word, or the structure of a passage. I look at the world around me – are there news headlines I might reference? I pull those stories into a folder on my computer desktop. I’ll add current events to the folder as the preaching date nears, too.

Piles and folders – one for each service – become my short-term organizational system. It isn’t especially elegant, but there is something satisfying about working my way through those piles as the season goes on, so that by the time Christmas rolls around or Easter arrives, each pile has been reshelved and my desk is clear again.

  • Keep your schedule as light as possible. These are the seasons when interruptions multiply. During Advent, the social invitations and family obligations skyrocket. I’ve yet to get through Lent with fewer than five funerals. I’ve learned to prepare ahead by clearing my schedule as much as I can, so that I have space for the interruptions. If the SPRC doesn’t have pressing work to do, cancel the December meeting. If a dentist appointment can be rescheduled for the week after Easter, reschedule. It helps.

This is also a time to be intentional about my own self-care and family time. I schedule family traditions on my calendar before the season begins. By late-October, tree decorating and Christmas shopping are on my calendar – and I protect those dates fiercely. Before Lent begins, I schedule time to color Easter eggs with my kids. If I don’t, it won’t happen, and then it is easy to resent the “church work” for getting in the way of family time.

  • Use music, art, and poetry to guide your own spirit. One of the hardest things about leading worship during Holy Week, especially, is the emotional ups-and-downs. On a typical Tuesday of Holy Week, for example, I might schedule the delivery of Easter lilies, prepare the sanctuary for Maundy Thursday communion, rehearse music with the soloist for Good Friday, finalize the bulletin for the Easter vigil, and work on my Easter morning sermon. Each one of those activities takes me to a unique spiritual and emotional place. Moving between them repeatedly through the week is exhausting.

The best way that I’ve found to navigate these behind-the-scenes realities is to keep good lists of what needs to be done (that helps keep my mind from racing), and then to intentionally pause between activities. This is where the music, art, and poetry help. If I am finalizing the Easter morning bulletin after reflecting on the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, it helps to listen to the Hallelujah Chorus while I work. Music, art, and poetry help me to engage spiritually and emotionally where I need to be at the moment.

  • Plan ahead for rest. The best thing I can do, for my own spiritual and emotional health, is to schedule Sabbath time for the week or two after a holiday, and put it on the calendar before the busy seasons begin. I need that time. My family needs that time. It is critical to my fruitfulness as both a pastor and a follower of Jesus.

Wesley on Faith, Love, and Salvation

Any local church pastor will eventually be asked the question that the lawyer asked Jesus in Luke 10:25: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (NRSV) – or the more common wording in contemporary American evangelical circles, “How can I be saved?” It’s the sort of question that we both welcome and dread: welcome because it indicates an openness to and longing for God, but dread because the question is so big that any answer feels inadequate.

In Protestant theological circles, the ready answer points to faith: believe in God, trust Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and pray the sinners’ prayer with conviction that God will hear your prayer. The Protestant doctrine of sola fide – salvation by faith alone – lends itself to a modern understanding that believing the right things – accepting them by faith – leads to salvation.

We in the Wesleyan tradition preach the importance of faith, but we also ask a further question. Following Wesley’s example, we cannot answer, “How can I be saved?” without also asking, “How can I live the Christian life?”

John Wesley answered that question by noting that faith gives birth to active love:

Without faith we cannot be thus saved; for we cannot rightly serve God unless we love him. And we cannot love him unless we know him; neither can we know God unless by faith. Therefore, salvation by faith is only, in other words, the love of God by the knowledge of God; or, the recovery of the image of God, by a true, spiritual acquaintance with him. (A Further Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, I.3)

Wesley understood faith as a necessity for salvation, even calling it “the sole condition” of salvation, in the sense that it led to justification, the beginning point of salvation. At the same time, “as glorious and honorable as [faith] is, it is not the end of the commandment. God hath given this honor to love alone” (“The Law Established through Faith II,” §II.1). Faith is “an unspeakable blessing” because “it leads to that end, the establishing anew the law of love in our hearts” (“The Law Established through Faith II,” §II.6) This end, the law of love ruling in our hearts, is the fullest expression of salvation; it is Christian perfection.

Wesley, of course, received frequent criticism for his doctrine of entire sanctification, and it remains one of the most distinctive and misunderstood doctrines in Wesleyan theology today. Despite the criticism, however, Wesley continued to teach entire sanctification throughout his life, arguing in his sermon “Christian Perfection” that Scripture compelled him to do so when it calls human beings to “be perfect.”

Wesley did carefully qualify the ways in which he believed one could “be perfect,” however. Christian perfection, for Wesley, did not mean perfection of knowledge, ability, or strength. Nor did it imply freedom from mistake, error, or temptation. All of these Wesley consider consistent with our nature as created beings. Christian perfection meant, rather, a purity of intention, conformity to Christ, and above all love for God and neighbor. It referred not to a state of being, but to a relational reality.

Wesley’s discussion of soteriology was at its core relational, like his theology and anthropology. The renewal of the image of God in us, such that the law of love rules in our hearts, requires restoration of relationship with God. Whereas all human beings may have some sense of God’s existence, or even come to be aware of and fear God’s power, their relationship with God remains distant and impersonal until they become aware of God’s prevenient grace that allows them to seek relationship with God. Then, Wesley taught in his sermon “On Love,” “Believers enjoy the extraordinary privilege of ‘delighting’ in God.”

Wesley often invited Christians to delight in God. In contrast to the Anglican and Reformed traditions of his day, the Methodist movement encouraged (and was often criticized sharply for) enthusiastic, expressive worship. The movement over which Wesley presided affirmed open-air preaching, lay testimony, and physical manifestations of spiritual experiences. Ironically, the same people that were mocked as “Methodists” for their strictly “methodical” practice of spiritual disciplines were also derided as “enthusiasts” for their passionate and emotionally charged worship services. Their rigorous attendance to the means of grace – including Scripture reading, prayer, the sacraments, Christian conferencing, and works of mercy among the poor, the ill, and the imprisoned – grew out of a relational spirituality that was grounded in passionate love for God.

“How, then, can I be saved?” In an increasingly postmodern world, where belief may easily be challenged or doubted, Wesleyan soteriology offers us a reassuring answer. Salvation begins with love – God’s love for us, and our response of love for God and neighbor. This is reassuring because love is something that we can practice and perfect. We do not have to “summon up” enough faith to be saved. Faith – in the sense of believing in God and trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior – grows naturally as love is practiced.

Wesley on Faith, Love, and Salvation

Any local church pastor will eventually be asked the question that the lawyer asked Jesus in Luke 10:25: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (NRSV) – or the more common wording in contemporary American evangelical circles, “How can I be saved?” It’s the sort of question that we both welcome and dread: welcome because it indicates an openness to and longing for God, but dread because the question is so big that any answer feels inadequate.

In Protestant theological circles, the ready answer points to faith: believe in God, trust Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and pray the sinners’ prayer with conviction that God will hear your prayer. The Protestant doctrine of sola fide – salvation by faith alone – lends itself to a modern understanding that believing the right things – accepting them by faith – leads to salvation.

We in the Wesleyan tradition preach the importance of faith, but we also ask a further question. Following Wesley’s example, we cannot answer, “How can I be saved?” without also asking, “How can I live the Christian life?”

John Wesley answered that question by noting that faith gives birth to active love:

Without faith we cannot be thus saved; for we cannot rightly serve God unless we love him. And we cannot love him unless we know him; neither can we know God unless by faith. Therefore, salvation by faith is only, in other words, the love of God by the knowledge of God; or, the recovery of the image of God, by a true, spiritual acquaintance with him. (A Further Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, I.3)

Wesley understood faith as a necessity for salvation, even calling it “the sole condition” of salvation, in the sense that it led to justification, the beginning point of salvation. At the same time, “as glorious and honorable as [faith] is, it is not the end of the commandment. God hath given this honor to love alone” (“The Law Established through Faith II,” §II.1). Faith is “an unspeakable blessing” because “it leads to that end, the establishing anew the law of love in our hearts” (“The Law Established through Faith II,” §II.6) This end, the law of love ruling in our hearts, is the fullest expression of salvation; it is Christian perfection.

Wesley, of course, received frequent criticism for his doctrine of entire sanctification, and it remains one of the most distinctive and misunderstood doctrines in Wesleyan theology today. Despite the criticism, however, Wesley continued to teach entire sanctification throughout his life, arguing in his sermon “Christian Perfection” that Scripture compelled him to do so when it calls human beings to “be perfect.”

Wesley did carefully qualify the ways in which he believed one could “be perfect,” however. Christian perfection, for Wesley, did not mean perfection of knowledge, ability, or strength. Nor did it imply freedom from mistake, error, or temptation. All of these Wesley consider consistent with our nature as created beings. Christian perfection meant, rather, a purity of intention, conformity to Christ, and above all love for God and neighbor. It referred not to a state of being, but to a relational reality.

Wesley’s discussion of soteriology was at its core relational, like his theology and anthropology. The renewal of the image of God in us, such that the law of love rules in our hearts, requires restoration of relationship with God. Whereas all human beings may have some sense of God’s existence, or even come to be aware of and fear God’s power, their relationship with God remains distant and impersonal until they become aware of God’s prevenient grace that allows them to seek relationship with God. Then, Wesley taught in his sermon “On Love,” “Believers enjoy the extraordinary privilege of ‘delighting’ in God.”

Wesley often invited Christians to delight in God. In contrast to the Anglican and Reformed traditions of his day, the Methodist movement encouraged (and was often criticized sharply for) enthusiastic, expressive worship. The movement over which Wesley presided affirmed open-air preaching, lay testimony, and physical manifestations of spiritual experiences. Ironically, the same people that were mocked as “Methodists” for their strictly “methodical” practice of spiritual disciplines were also derided as “enthusiasts” for their passionate and emotionally charged worship services. Their rigorous attendance to the means of grace – including Scripture reading, prayer, the sacraments, Christian conferencing, and works of mercy among the poor, the ill, and the imprisoned – grew out of a relational spirituality that was grounded in passionate love for God.

“How, then, can I be saved?” In an increasingly postmodern world, where belief may easily be challenged or doubted, Wesleyan soteriology offers us a reassuring answer. Salvation begins with love – God’s love for us, and our response of love for God and neighbor. This is reassuring because love is something that we can practice and perfect. We do not have to “summon up” enough faith to be saved. Faith – in the sense of believing in God and trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior – grows naturally as love is practiced.

The Writing Life

There’s a lot of writing going on in the Wagner household lately. My preschooler is learning to write letters. My kindergartener is beginning to weave letters into words and words into the occasional sentence. And Mommy is writing – well, everything from blog posts to Sunday sermons to children’s curriculum to academic essays. Each writing task is different, with its own unique joys and challenges.

During seminary, my writing was primarily academic. Even my assigned sermons – when I look back on them – were written in a more formal, academic style. Long sentences. Precise arguments. Careful attribution.

Then I started to preach every week. Sentences got shorter, repetition more frequent, and ideas more fluid. The text flowed, but also sometimes rippled right over rocky places that, in an academic context, would have demanded explanation. It took some getting used to.

It was during Ph.D. coursework that I learned to integrate academic writing and sermon writing – probably because I was doing both simultaneously during those years. I knew I had found the sweet spot when a professor remarked that my papers had a storyteller’s touch, and my congregants paused on their way out the door to ask me to repeat the author’s name that I referenced in the sermon that day.

My grad school classmates (many of whom found my pastor/scholar vocation a curiosity) would occasionally ask me which was harder to write – the paper or the sermon. The answer was the one for which I was most out of practice at any given time. During finals week, when I was writing and editing one paper after another, my sermons came out awkward and clumsy. But when Holy Week ended and I had just preached five sermons in four days, academic writing felt foreign and intimidating.

As I moved back and forth between the two, I established my own writing guidelines:

1. Cite sources. Every time. In academic work, citing sources is expected and assumed, and citation styles are standardized. In sermons, the expectations are less defined. My rule of thumb is always to cite, for my own future reference, but especially if the sermon will appear in any written form (electronic or print). I use end notes to document my sources in sermon manuscripts, because both parenthetical citations and footnotes at the bottom of the page break up the sermon’s flow too much for my liking. In addition to the formal citation, I add generalized attributions in the text of the sermon, giving as much information as is needed to orient the listener. My in-text references often include titles, categories, and time-periods (“one contemporary theologian argues…” or “Rev. XYZ of ABC Church said…”), but I rarely use full names, unless the name is well-known outside of the academy. I also rarely assume that a name is universally recognized; even the most familiar household names may be unknown to someone in your pews. The goal is to provide enough information that your listeners can put the quotation or idea into context, while keeping sermon delivery moving along smoothly. Too much information is distracting; not enough feels disrespectful to the person from whom I am borrowing.

2. Don’t water it down. I have heard several variations on the argument that sermons should be written at a level that a child can comprehend. Write at a third-grade level. Don’t assume that people know the Bible. Preach to the seeker who knows nothing about church. Frankly, those arguments annoy me. Sermons ought to provide more than a feel-good story. They should stretch and teach and challenge. A good sermon teaches the biblical narrative, provides explanation of unfamiliar context or historical elements, and invites the listener to be shaped by the text. Sermons should have substance, helping the audience “become even more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight” (Phil 1:9, CEB).

At the same time, I do define technical terminology, or avoid it altogether. Every field has precise vocabulary that serves as a sort of shorthand for those familiar with the field, and theology is no different. In sermon writing, though, I can’t assume the shorthand will be understood. I try to edit out jargon completely, and define any technical terms that are integral to the sermon’s main point. I also read with a critical eye to theological or liturgical words that are familiar to me, but outside of the vernacular.

3. But don’t dress it up either. Sometimes, the temptation is not to water it down, but to dress up my writing with lengthy descriptions or strings of examples. I like words, and sometimes I let loose with a string of flowery adjectives that add little to the argument. I also use repetition frequently in my sermons, a tool that works well to keep the listener oriented, but can be overdone. I’ve learned that tight, concise writing is more enjoyable both to read and to hear. I’ve also realized that the more sophisticated the argument, the sharper the writing needs to be. A well-written argument, whether in an article or a sermon, should be easy to follow and readily understood.

Whatever I write, my goal is to tell the story – the story of God’s love for us, of the light of Christ in the world. When that’s the goal and the motivation, any kind of writing is a joy.

The Books I Keep

If there is one thing that accumulates during seminary, it is books. I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember, and I came to seminary with several bookshelves already comfortably full. By the time I left, the shelves were stacked two layers deep in places, and piles of books that didn’t find a place on the shelf decorated the corners of my living room.

When I graduated from seminary, most of those books migrated onto my church office shelves. But as time passed, only a few are read and reread with any regularity. And they aren’t necessarily the ones I expected.

Eight years into pastoral ministry, here are the kinds of books that have a permanent spot within reach of my desk (beside the Bible and the hymnal!):

Annotated bibliographies, and books with extensive topical bibliographies included. No matter how widely I read during seminary, I could never have prepared for every topic on which I would teach and preach in the local church. Nor do I have time (in the midst of hospital visits and committee meetings and all the rest) to read the wealth of commentaries, theological texts, and practical ministry guides available on any given subject matter.

That’s why I find annotated bibliographies like David Bauer’s An Annotated Guide to Biblical Resources for Ministry (Wipf & Stock, 2011) to be invaluable. Guides like this one – or the “Building a Library” series here on the Catalyst website – provide a quick overview of available resources, alert me to relevant theological and textual concerns, and help me select the resources that will best meet my needs at the moment. A few moments spent reviewing the literature in advance will save hours (and dollars!) later.

Collections of sermons. On all but the worst of weeks (the ones with four funerals in five days!), I’ve done my exegetical work early in the week. I’ve prayed through the text, read the commentaries, and studied the pericope in context. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve found my preaching points. The path from exegetical study to preached sermon isn’t always a straight line.

When I struggle to find my way into a text, the best thing I can do is read someone else’s sermon and let it speak to my heart. With luck, I can find a sermon in my collection on the same – or a parallel – text. If not, I can usually find one on a similar topic, at least. Even better, I can find two or three written by different preachers in different contexts.

Reading sermons expands my understanding of the text in intuitive ways that an academic commentary may not. Seeing how another preacher connected the text to their own context helps me to connect it to mine. Hearing what they highlight in the passage opens me up to nuances I might have missed. My own preaching of the text may sound nothing like theirs in the end, but reading their sermons invariably strengthens my own.

My favorites range from historical sermons – Augustine, Luther, and Wesley top my list – to contemporary preachers like Frederick Buechner, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Fleming Rutledge. Whether I agree with the preacher on every theological point is far less important than whether they stir my heart and mind.

Theological books written in simple, straightforward language. The books I loved in seminary (and still love today!) were the deep, nuanced texts that challenged my convictions and stretched my understanding. I need these books – they keep me thinking, and learning, and growing in discipleship. But the books I reach for more often these days are the ones that address theological questions in simple, everyday language, the ones I can pull off my shelf and hand to a parishioner, or recommend to a deep-thinking teenager. They may be written by pastors rather than academics (Adam Hamilton is a current favorite), or be collections of essays, prayers, or even devotionals. They are practical, readable, and usually under 100 pages. There is a simplicity to these books, but the more I read them, the more I realize that engaging deeply theological questions in simple ways can be more profound than doing so in the complex and technical language of the academy.

Books that feed my soul. There are certain books that become traveling companions through life, and they deserve a special shelf where they won’t get crowded out by the rest. For me, this shelf contains a collection of women’s prayers, memoirs and novels, and even a few children’s books. They are there not because they are valuable to my ministry (though I do sometimes quote from them!), but because they keep me healthy in the midst of ministry. They are the books that spark my imagination, lift my spirits, and open my heart to beauty and longing. They are worth keeping close.

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