Forty years ago this month, I took a job as a student pastor in a small nondenominational church in a blue-collar community south of Chicago. I was a middler at the University of Chicago Divinity School–Chicago Theological Seminary, married with an infant daughter, and broke. The church offered $50 a week and a house with three bedrooms, bath and a real back yard.
Members of my household are preparing for a journey that will involve both regular and light backpacks. Regular hiking backpacks are made to hold a vast amount of gear—you strap them on when you go to the woods for a week or more.
“A funny thing happened to me on the way to the pulpit today” is as familiar a remark in some churches as “It was a quiet week in Lake Wobegon” is on Saturday radio. Take the recent seminary graduate who comes to her first parish. Sermon after sermon includes a story about a seminary classmate, or about the place where she used to live or about how her wedding plans remind her of something in the epistle. Is there anything wrong with sharing one's life and experiences from the pulpit?
I regretted to see in the January 2 New York Times that Peter Steinfels was writing his final “Beliefs” column. I’ve rarely missed a Steinfels column over the years. They were consistently respectful and totally devoid of either simplistic advocacy or simplistic criticism. Steinfels attempted to understand and analyze the complexity of religion in contemporary America.
The very idea of preaching a single doctrine seems misguided, even though it’s far superior to preaching on neat themes that intrigue the consumers out there. So I didn’t expect to like reading Preaching the Atonement.
John Ames, 76-year-old Congregationalist minister and narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s stunning novel Gilead, keeps his old sermons in boxes in the attic. “Pretty nearly my whole life’s work is in those boxes,” he says.
Every other week, on Thursday afternoon, several editors at the Century gather around a cluster of filing cabinets. With the pages of the next issue spread in front of them, they work on coming up with titles for the articles. The editors do this job standing up. I notice that they laugh a lot during the process, which usually involves tossing out outrageous as well as serious possibilities.
I preached a sermon this morning—one in a long line of sermons stretching back to 1992. I’ve preached so many sermons by now that I find it almost impossible to remember any particular one. Right now, on a Sunday night, I don’t want to remember any of them. The discipline of Sunday night is forgetting.