Friday, December 31, 2010


A friend in another part of the country recently told me that he and his wife had been unexpectedly pleased by their pastor’s Christmas sermon. It was unexpected because they had been concerned of late that his preaching was consistently a mixture of thin soup and “avuncular rambles.” They found themselves pleased, that is, even though they were pretty sure the sermon had been downloaded from the internet. “But he delivered it well.”

My friends’ consideration as to whether they should go and talk to the pastor about the issue of his preaching is, perhaps, food for another blog post. For my purposes, their report brings to mind a growing, uneasy intuition I have that more and more sermons are being downloaded by more and more preachers.

This is discouraging and disturbing at many levels. The first, of course, is dishonesty. Unless the preacher is informing his listeners of the source of his sermon (yes, some may be), he is not only plagiarizing, but erecting a kind of wall of deception between himself and those with whom he has an ongoing pastoral relationship. The deception goes beyond the legalities of plagiarism; a sermon, unlike a speech or lecture, is a unique concoction of the word spoken into and out of the context of the community that is the church. The lives and experiences of parishioners and the community (including the wider community of the world)* is every bit as much a part of the process that results in a sermon as is whatever goes on in the preacher’s study. The downloaded sermon renders this inter-relationship irrelevant.

A few years ago I discovered a collection of sermons by the great twentieth century Scottish preacher, James S. Stewart. I was so charged up by reading these sermons that I decided to deliver one or two of them to my congregation (with full disclosure). In my opinion, the endeavor fell flat. Stewart did not write these sermons for these people or for this time. They had some inspirational appeal, but they didn’t work as sermons preached by this preacher. (This also raises the obvious question of delivery: Should a preacher simply be “reading” a sermon to his congregation?)**

Another possible deception practiced by the internet sermon downloader is the theft of time. Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that there’s plenty to do in parish ministry, and time not spent reading, studying, writing, and preparing for a sermon can readily be sopped up by other areas of ministry. (Perhaps the preacher is spending all that time, like Doonesbury’s Rev. Scot Sloan, as “the fighting young priest who can talk to the youth.”) But even if a pastor was spending 60 hours a week in youth ministry, hospital visitation, committee work, administration, education, and counseling, that would only beg the question: “What about preaching?” and how is the preacher’s time being used if not in study and sermon-writing?

While some of my colleagues may disagree with me, I confess that I give “preaching” top priority in any list of ministerial duties, for the reason that it is at the center of most preachers’ “letter of call” (job description), and because the weekly worship is the only time in the life of the parish when the whole congregation is (at least potentially) gathered together.

Preaching calls for time and care. My homiletics professors urged twenty hours a week in sermon preparation. Rather than dismissing that as “impossible,” I rather see it as a goal and experience a sense of frustration when I realize how often I fall short (precisely because of the other things on the list) of that reasonable standard. Sermon preparation in the life of a parish pastor is exhibit A in support of the maxim: “That which is urgent but not important crowds out that which is important but not urgent.”

In my first parish, I once strolled past the open-door office of my senior colleague, Charlie Mays (of blessed memory). Charlie – recognized widely throughout the church as a great preacher – was sitting at his desk hunched over a book. I walked past a few hours later, and he was in almost the exact same position – still reading. It struck me as a revelation: “He’s not afraid to let people see him wasting time reading a book!” It’s one of the many ways Charlie served as a model for me.

I’ve written elsewhere about how the freedom of the study granted by the Anglican system of “the living” or the “freehold” has given the world the great poetry of the Revs. John Donne and R.S. Thomas. (Or perhaps I should say that their congregations have given these gifts to the world by granting their preachers the time.) But as Bill Bryson, in his new book, At Home, and Jane Austen remind us, this Anglican system has historically also been rife with preachers reading out sermons from published collections while spending their time at the garden party up at the manor. How they would have loved the internet!

If you have any involvement with the church, dear reader, how much time, really, do you expect your pastor to spend in sermon preparation?

*I agree with theologian Karl Barth, who said, “The preacher should prepare the sermon with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other.”
**A true story: A committee of the congregation approached their bishop with concern about their pastor’s preaching. “I think he’s just reading them to us, out of books, and he doesn’t even read that well,” said the committee chair. The bishop agreed to check it out. One Sunday morning he slipped unnoticed into a back pew. As the sermon progressed, he recognized it as one of his own – it had been published in a collection. At the conclusion of the service, the committee chair approached the bishop. “Do you see what we mean, Bishop? And this one was really bad!”

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


     It is as though we are singing to each other all day long.
        ~ The poet Robert Pinsky, describing the musicality of everyday speech.

The topic of our annual synodical pastors conference (yawwwn… c’mon, stay with me) a few years ago was The New Technology for Preaching. (It had a snappier title, but that was the gist.) The keynote presentation was on how to bring verve to our preaching – and reach out to a tech-savvy generation – by the use of media such as PowerPoint and video clips.

To demonstrate, our presenter showed a clip from the movie, “Contact.” The scene is Jodi Foster, as an earnest young scientist, delivering a heartfelt address to a government panel. It did have a certain spiritual appeal (if that’s what a friend sitting next to me meant when he sighed, “God, she’s beautiful!”), but midway through the demonstration it occurred to me: We’re being encouraged to use video by being shown a video of someone giving a really good speech! I came away from the presentation confirmed in my preference for a straightforward capable speaker over more creative styles of communication.

I’m attracted to the use of PowerPoint in teaching – a kind of updated blackboard – but my experience witnessing its use in preaching has been either seeing it as a background distraction, or hearing the preacher reading to me, badly, what I can read for myself on the screen. (I’m not talking about you, my good friends, who use it with creativity and dexterity to supplement your well-thought-out presentation.) Anyway, give me a talking head – with something to say.

I certainly like a good drama, but I am drawn more and more to television programs which feature something like straight human speech. My favorites are C-Span’s “In-Depth,” and “After Words,” one- or two-hour interviews with an author or historian which probe the writer’s interests, ideas, latest works, and approach to writing. As conducted by Brian Lamb or one of his capable colleagues, these have the feel of a fireside chat. (Here’s a recent “In Depth” with Salman Rushdie.)

Boring? Talking heads can also be compellingly dramatic, as in HBO’s remarkable “In Treatment,” in which the passionately laconic Gabriel Byrne, as a therapist, brings me to the edge of my seat even though it’s only – in this case – two talking heads.

The junior psychologist in me posits that an essential part of our humanness (and our humanity and our humane-ness) is the need for the interaction of communication – for conversation. I respond to you, literally get to know you, by taking your words into my brain receptors, roll them around, and “get back to you.” (Thus also discovering more of who I am and what makes us both human.) Perhaps this is the appeal of a good speech, or a thoughtful interview. An idea-driven speech, lecture (or, yes, sermon), although it is a monologue, is actually a kind of dialogue – at least with the mind of the listener. And an interview or a dialogue has a sense of fulfillment to it similar to the resolution that drives a musical line to completion.

I read of a study that was conducted on why the overheard cell-phone conversation is so irritating. The researcher referred to a scenario in an airport waiting lounge, where passengers are sitting in those back-to-back lines of chairs, and the emotional difference between overhearing a conversation between two people sitting behind you, or overhearing a one-sided cell phone conversation. The study concluded that the cause of the irritation is the one-sidedness – you don’t get to hear (or be a part of) the other side, thus, you don’t experience the sense of completion. You’re left hanging. (You only think you’re irritated because the jerk is talking so loud!) In the experience of hearing a good lecture, you are the other side.

One of the reasons that radio keeps plugging along, a seeming techno-dinosaur in an age of ever-new modes of communication, is that someone is talking to you. The bad ones -- the ranters and canned dj presentations -- are almost as irritating as that one-sided cell conversation. But the good ones are connecting. I like Pandora, and I have set up many classical “stations,” but I much prefer to hear my music introduced to me by the wonderful live announcers of Minnesota Public Radio. They are speaking to me man-to-man (so to speak). Somewhere across the ether is a talking head with something to say.


Here's the Jody Foster Contact clip that we were shown.

And for some real fun, how about a good academic lecture series!

Friday, December 24, 2010


For a number of years, my friend Warren Hanson and I have collaborated on an annual Christmas song. I write the lyrics and he composes the music. (My part of this year's song is half finished.) This is the song written in 2001, just a few months after 9/11. I offer it as a blog Christmas card. Alas, it is without Warren's beautiful melody.

(The first two verses are a dialog between Joseph and Mary; the third verse between a shepherd boy and his father; the fourth -- as in many carols -- is a kind of prayer. )

Mary, the night is dark, you’re getting weary;
I thought we’d find Bethlehem long before now.
I know a little inn – the keeper’s a friend of mine –
he’ll find a bed for you somewhere, somehow.
Mary, of course I will stay with you always,
though your “angel’s message” I don’t understand.
Now, while we’re looking for light in the darkness,
I’ll hold the candle and you hold my hand.

Joseph, the message is our little baby,
and you are the angel that guides us tonight,
over this rocky road, under this starry sky –
look at that one that is shining so bright!
Joseph, what keeps you so true to your promise,
when this isn’t anything like you had planned?
Could it be love? Do you feel love around us?
You hold the candle and I’ll hold your hand.

Father, I’m frightened; the whole sky was glowing!
The nighttime was brighter than sunshine at noon.
The sound of a thousand wings – something was happening!
Now it’s so dark – just that star and the moon.
Father, you fell to your knees in that brightness.
Yes, till the angel’s song told me to stand!
Now let us go find that Bethlehem stable;
I’ll hold the candle and you hold my hand.

Dear baby Jesus, we follow the shepherds –
follow a star to the place where you sleep.
Mary and Joseph rest; you sleep in gentleness –
a little light shining in shadows so deep.
Jesus, you’ve been the light from the beginning –
And, on that day when night covered the land,
You are the word that we heard in the darkness:
“I’ll hold the candle and you hold my hand.”


Last year's Christmas song post is here.

Warren has made a CD, "Christmas Always," of his arrangements of a number of our songs, as well as some of his own. You can order it from Warren's site, here.

(c) Richard Jorgensen

Thursday, December 23, 2010


I have, of late, had a recurring vision. It is of an old man in a remote cottage, at his desk with a ham radio, sending messages into the night to his fellow radio operators. Except, I think, it is not a ham radio, but a computer, and he’s writing on Facebook.

The meaning of this vision for me is that, in spite of the important controversies plaguing Facebook,* it really is a superb (and still-developing) means by which people can communicate with one another. This may strike the reader as an understatement, but the epiphanic part of my vision is that, beyond posted photos of youthful drunkenness and minute-by-minute reports of children’s cuteness and what one had for lunch, Facebook – and whatever it evolves into – will certainly become a meaningful connection with the world - and, more to the point, with friends old and new - for the elderly and isolated.

Although people in both generations have wondered if “the parents” should get involved with Facebook (thus somehow invading the turf of the young and diminishing the cool factor), it is fast becoming as commonplace as the telephone. The use of the telephone, too, is part of my new Facebook revelation. Until recently, I supposed that the phone would be preferable to all other distant-communication technologies because, after all, you can speak directly to another human being. I’ve come to believe, however, that Facebook (and e-mail, too) offer more depth of communication – on an ongoing basis – than the telephone. Of course there are exceptions – a forty-five minute phone conversation between two people in love is undoubtedly more intimate than a series of e-mails, and it will always be good to hear the voice of an old friend. But a phone call, even with a good friend, will always come to that “er... uh... well, den….” moment (not to mention the delay and over-talking that happens with long-distance and cell calls – what’s that all about?); a similar juncture in an e-mail or Facebook message is an opportunity for more thought, or to go on to the next point. In that regard, an e-mail or Facebook message is more like an old-fashioned letter (and I mean old-fashioned – from the days when the letter was it), than it is like a telephone call. (Although it does seem odd to crow about a progression that goes from the spoken back to the written word.**)

I want to emphasize that I am speaking of e-mail or Facebook messages that go beyond the trivial; what I have in mind are little essays of communication, again, like letters. (When I get an e-mail from a friend, I’m disappointed if it’s brief. Am I running against the tide?) This is not to say that there is not an appropriate place for the quickly-dashed Facebook report, even from the old guy in the little cottage. (I just posted, “Hey, we get to fill our krumkake tubes with whipped cream on Christmas Eve!”) I guess my point is that the combination of off-hand quips and weightier conversation that the Facebook/e-mail medium makes possible offers a sense of connectedness that, while no match for sitting across a pub table with someone, has something of the immediate feel of real communication. It has the sense of keeping you connected.

OK, I’ll say it, maybe I’m thinking of either Caryl or myself alone -- widowed. It seems that Facebook and e-mail would go a long way toward enhancing the quality of life of the elderly – especially the isolated elderly. So I'm not talking about an amazed, “Hey, Granny’s on Facebook!” but, rather, “Geez, Granny’s on Facebook all the time – she uses it more than I do!"

Studies show that the home-bound elderly receive, on average, one visit per month – from anybody. Facebook and e-mail can reach into that void with real depth of communication, and, all right, maybe even a report every-once-in-a-while – between old friends – of what one had for lunch, or a posted picture of a cute grandkid.


*Issues of privacy and “tricky” advertising are very important and need to be addressed with more urgency than they have been so far; thus, my endorsement of Facebook is not without hesitation.
**Tim Wu, in his new book, “The Master Switch,” reports that when the telephone was invented, the telegraph magnates laughed and said, “Well, maybe it can be used to tell someone that they have a telegram waiting.” Later, they tried to kill the new technology.
What happens when all those aging computer users start to forget all those passwords and user names, stranding all that information on their hard-drives or in the ether? Another issue for another time.
 I also opined on Facebook in this earlier blog post.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Christmas reflections that press against the normal cheer of the season, from two poets who left us in the last decade.

First, from the bleak, sere, but ultimately faith-haunted R. S. Thomas:


And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.

On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The Sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

And, from the wonderful Madeleine L'Engle:


The children say the tree must reach the ceiling,
And so it does, angel on topmost branch, 
Candy canes and golden globes and silver chains,
Trumpets that toot, and birds with feathered tails.
Each year we say, each year we fully mean:
"This is the loveliest tree of all." This tree
Bedecked with love and tinsel reaches heaven.
A pagan throwback may have brought it here
Into our room, and yet these decked-out boughs
Can represent those other trees, the one 
Through which we fell in pride, when Eve forgot
That freedom is man's freedom to obey
And to adore, not to replace the light
With disobedient darkness and self-will.
On Twelfth Night when we strip the tree
And see its branches bare and winter cold
Outside the comfortable room, the tree
Is then the tree on which all darkness hanged,
Completing the betrayal that began
With that first stolen fruit. And then, O God,
This is the tree that Simon bore uphill,
This is the tree that held all love and life.
Forgive us, Lord, forgive us for that tree.
But now, still decked, adorned, in joy arrayed
For these great days of Christmas thanks and song,
This is the tree that lights our faltering way,
For when man's first and proud rebellious act
Had reached its nadir on that hill of skulls
These shining, glimmering boughs remind us that
The knowledge that we stole was freely given
And we were sent the Spirit's radiant strength
That we might know all things. We grasp for truth
And lose it till it comes to us by love.
The glory of Lebanon shines on this Christmas tree,
The tree of life that opens wide the gates.
The children say the tree must reach the ceiling,
And so it does: for me the tree has grown so high
It pierces through the vast and star-filled sky.

"The Coming," by R.S. Thomas, from "Collected Poems 1945-1990" Phoenix Press. (More on R.S. Thomas here  , here , and here.)

"The Tree," by Madeleine L'Engle, from "A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation"
Luci Shaw, editor