Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Monday, August 31, 2015

Critically Engaging

Jon Jordan,
tucked away under the Manchurian Way by Cambridge Street

Yesterday I preached a sermon I titled "Mad Love". I was a guest preacher in a congregation that did not know me at all, filling in for a seminary colleague who was gracious enough to ask.

The sermon was based on a reading from Song of Songs, and as part of my point in the sermon was that Song of Songs can provide a disruptive force to our usual decency and order, I decided not to write a manuscript. I preached from notes--a practice some people affectionately call "extemporaneous preaching."

I dislike extemporaneous preaching intensely, preferring to preach from a manuscript. Preaching from notes often leads me to preach in stories, circling around my points, repeating myself, and occasionally straying from my course. I prefer the tightness of a manuscript, in which extraneous language, inappropriate commentary, and repetition have been excised.

Yesterday was also the first time I have been videotaped while preaching (to my knowledge) since seminary. It was a rare opportunity for me to review and critique myself. Even audio recordings do not provide the same chance to really look at oneself. It is...disconcerting. 

Since I did not manuscript my sermon, I had to transcribe it after the fact. I have now spent several hours slowly watching myself preach while typing out the words I spoke. It was both delightful and
excruciating. Truthfully, I don't usually have the kind of time it takes to do this critical work, but I gleaned a lot from the experience.

The combination of a video recording with an extemporaneous sermon gave me a rare (and vulnerable) opportunity to examine my biases, speaking habits, and errors in thinking that normally go unchallenged. It is unusual for anyone in the congregation to intensely engage a sermon I've preached. I am publishing this here, because I am uncomfortable with some of the things I preached yesterday, and I want to mark both what was actually said and how I am engaging some of those uncomfortable truths.

1. I owe an apology. I used the terms "mad" "insane" and "crazy" several times throughout the sermon. This marks both lazy linguistic habits and ableism. While I have my own brushes with mental health concerns (both personally and with close family), the way I used these words in the sermon was insensitive. And not accurate. Love, even overwhelming, all-consuming passion, is not a form of mental illness or disability.

This is one area in which extemporaneous preaching excels: exposing one's isms. Had I written a manuscript, I would have removed and reworded ableist language and references to insanity, madness, and crazy unless specifically speaking of mental health. Watching the video reminded me that I have a lot of work to do to both remove that kind of language from my conversational vocabulary and to search out the deeper reasons I am still using that language. Because I know better.

2. It was delightful to watch myself on video. When I first arrived at the church, our tech guy, David, asked if it was ok to record video. I laughed self-consciously and said, "Yeah, sure. I'll look terrible on video, but go for it." It took me a minute to adjust my self-image while watching the video--it's hard sometimes to remember that I am no longer that 20 year old woman-child I was once. But once I told my self-loathing internal fashion/body critic to shut the hell up, I was delighted. Caught up in the wonder of technology and seeing myself in review, I smiled a lot watching myself smile and move and laugh. It was good.

3. My pacing was better than it often is when I am preaching from a manuscript. I often speak too fast. The sermon clocked out at about 167 words per minute, which is a tad faster than I was aiming for, but acceptable. Still working on slowing this down, especially when preaching to older congregations.

4. The whole sermon was approximately 42 minutes long. In mainline, mostly white, protestant churches, that's about 30 minutes longer than it should be (congregations are often very concerned about keeping the service to 1 hour on the dot). We can argue the wisdom of confining a sermon to 12-15 minutes, but I do believe that THIS particular sermon should have been pared down to about 20 minutes. With a manuscript that would have been easy and obvious. I suspect it would take a lot of practice to preach both concisely AND extemporaneously.

5. I used a lot of bridge words that would have been left out of a manuscript. This sermon was conversational, so my conversational tics were exposed more than usual. I used the word "And" to start sentences or bridge sentences more than 50 times throughout the sermon--a sort of verbal tic like the word "um" which showed up plenty of times. Ugh. 

6. I often apologize for preaching Song of Songs (it's from the lectionary, or some other reason why I just HAD to preach it). This is the last time I will do so. No need to apologize. It just reflected my discomfort with guest preaching and with preaching about sex and sexuality.

7. I spoke of a "culture of death" in Trenton. This is quite a statement to make without some qualifications. It is true that my work recently has focused on violence in Trenton, but that focus can have the effect of making others believe (and myself as well) that Trenton is about violence. Or that Trenton has more violence than other places. This is not something I believe. I was raised in the violence of the suburbs. There are particularities about how violence is targeted and displayed in each community. In Trenton, violence turns mostly on black and brown bodies, terribly affecting our youth. The suburbs surround Trenton, choking off and draining economic opportunity, making a scapegoat of the city and her people for the benefit of white people who have long since abandoned Trenton. This was not conveyed well in my sermon. It is true, however, that I am tired.

8. I did not qualify this sermon with any reminders that there is a need for boundaries around love and passion. I certainly believe that boundaries are good. I suspect, however, that allowing ourselves to acknowledge and fully feel passion and desire would lead to healthier boundaries.

9. In speaking of passion as an antidote to racism, and in referring to Song of Songs as intercultural ministry, well, this needed more unpacking and nuance. I cringed a bit hearing that. I hold firm on my point that passion disrupts our orderly narratives and can make space for new ways of thinking. But I wish I had expanded that thought.

10. Likewise, at one moment I said, "Because I don’t care who you are, if you love babies, and there’s a little baby in front of you, and they’re black or white or brown, or any color whatsoever, they’re just so juicy and plump and Oh! You can eat them up!" I have had more than one person engage this single point to say, "That's right, it doesn't matter what color we are. Labels are bad." Which, is not my point at all. Color blindness is an insidious form of racism that is singularly unhelpful. I wouldn't dream of stripping black folks of their blackness--frankly, it's not even something I could do. Nor would I try to define blackness for other people. In this paragraph I was attempting to access that moment when a person might be so lost in delight and love and desire for another human being that one's usual prejudices, biases, and isms are banished from conscious thought. If you got color blindness from this sermon, you seized on a non-sequitor.

11. In my quote from Robert Goss, I paraphrased slightly and left out a specific reference to leather/SM communities. This was a deliberate move, and one I am deeply conflicted about. The context of leather/SM was important to the quote. But I did not know this congregation. so on the one hand, a cowardly choice. On the other judicious. Nothing for it but to accept that I sinned against the text and author. On the other hand, I did not provide a stumbling block for those who could not have tolerated it.

12. The congregation was engaged throughout the sermon. And frankly, so was I. I enjoyed myself thoroughly and was surprised to see it was 40 minutes long when I reviewed the video. I have a particular passion for this text and subject matter. 

13. What was definitely missing from this sermon was the possibilities of rekindling passion and desire in decades long relationships. Having been married 15 years and then divorced the last 8, I am no expert on that. After the sermon a woman spoke with me and said this, "I'm 84, and honey, if you've never heard that scripture read to you by a man who makes you swoon? Well you'll know if you did." Perhaps one of you who has been married for 39, 40, 70 years needs to take up this mantle.


  1. Fascinating and wonderful - thank you for sharing your thoughts about your own work - especially the looking under and around what our words say when we aren't paying attention. By the way, I am sure that there were many more wonderful moments in those 40 minutes that you didn't capture here, especially if everyone was engaged ;)


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