Friday, May 27, 2005

Mentors, Friends, and Brothers

Dr. Fred Craddock is minister of Cherry Log Christian Church in Cherry Log Georgia. He is also professor of Preaching and New Testament in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. His books on preaching are the first books on preaching I can remember reading. I have listened to his recorded sermons on various occasions. The messages of those sermons still live within me. I often follow Dr. Craddock's instruction to preachers because it is so plain and sensible. I agree entirely with one comment declaring that Dr. Craddock "speaks the folk idiom with prophetic authenticity."

Dr. Craddock was speaking at the Rochester College Sermon Seminar this week. It was the third time that I attended the Sermon Seminar. The director of the seminar is David Fleer, professor at Rochester College. He too has taught me to preach. David understands that such a seminar should not be limited to technical discussions of biblical texts or communication technique. We are handling the word of God, so worship and fellowship are essential. David is gifted with the ability to encourage community. When the assignments are passed out in the Great Beyond, I hope that David will be given the role of greeter at the gates or emcee at the banquet. His welcome and introduction of speakers is as significant as the key lectures.

I could tell that David was also excited that Fred Craddock was speaking this year. Of course, David already knows Dr. Craddock and has heard him speak in person. For me, this was the first time to meet in person the man that nearly all of us there consider a mentor in preaching. I agree with David that it was a blessing to simply have Fred Craddock talk to us.

The entire seminar experience was a blessing. As always, it is a chance to meet up with my comrades in preaching. Seven of us were staying at the Concorde Inn in Rochester Hills. I have been to preaching and ministry gatherings in the past that seem to be more about professional placement and advancement. This has never been the case for my colleagues and me at the Sermon Seminar. When we speak of our churches and ministry it is as if old friends are talking about the news. Mostly we talk about our families, sports, politics, books we have read, movies we have seen, and we tell jokes. Some may say that this mundane talk is idleness unworthy of a ministry seminar. I strongly disagree. I say it represents the sort of authenticity that emerges from spiritual concord. I say it is the sort truthful community and encouragement we need for evangelism and the long journey.

The seminar closed with worship and David Fleer's wonderful summary and blessing. I wait expectantly for next year. The good fellowship was not over yet, however. My friend, John Knox, and I had the honor of driving Fred Craddock to the airport. Now I had the added blessing to spend downtime with a very special mentor who had been for me only a disembodied voice and the author of a few books. Can you imagine what we talked about on the hour drive to Detroit? We talked about our families, sports, books we have read, and of course we told jokes. And yes, Fred's jokes were the best.


There were no less than seven of my cohort of preachers and professors on the flight to DFW. Because of delays at DFW I spent even more time with my friends. I even had the chance to talk about matters with another mentor, Dr. Charles Siburt. He too taught me to minister and preach. I said farewell to these friends and boarded a flight ready to depart at 6:45 p.m. It was an earlier flight that had been delayed and I would have arrived home earlier than originally scheduled. Unfortunately, all standby passengers were forced to get off the plane because the maintenance crew had overfueled the aircraft and now it was too heavy to take additional passengers.

I disembarked the plane aware that my friends from Abilene had already departed. I found a seat in the airport to wait out the next two hours. Usually I don't mind the loneliness in the midst of a crowd that comes with air travel. This time, however, my cell phone and laptop were both without power as I had neglected to charge them. I began to read a rather uninspiring magazine article when I saw Larry Roper walk in front of me. I am thankful for the blessed surprise of meeting one of my brothers from the West-Ark congregation. It was a nice transition back to Fort Smith. Larry and I spent the next three hours talking about our families, the books we have read, and the movies we have seen. Due to the delays we even took the same flight. Along the way I anticipated the spiritual concord I have with my brothers and sisters at the West-Ark congregation and I gave thanks for the truthful, spiritual authenticity for the journey ahead.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Hungry for the Great Simplicities

My family and I are enjoying a few days in Branson, Missouri. I can recall my trips to Branson as a child, so this trip is always a nostalgic for me. Of course, in those days we weren't interested in Branson at all. It was just a suburb to the greater and infinitely more interesting metropolis known as Silver Dollar City. My sister and I used to talk about growing up and living in Silver Dollar City. What work would we do? Where would we live? And who wouldn't want to live in a town with a steam train and a rollercoaster?

Silver Dollar City has changed since then. There are new attractions and some old ones are no more (anyone remember the Diving Bell?) Then of course, there is the inevitable sell-out to popular culture. It is not as bad as some theme parks. I am thankful that we don't have to confronted with the Nickelodeon culture at every turn. I don't want to see the Hatfield's and the McCoy's flashing gang signs to their boyz and capping each other in the SD Hood over nothing but bling-bling. I am not a fan of clogging, but I don't want to watch a 6th grade dance class version of Brittney's latest video. (I know, Brittney probably isn't even the "in-star" these days. She is so 15 minutes ago).

I like indulging in nostalgia and I like immersing my children in it even though they have no clue. I am also aware that nostalgia is nothing new. In the hotel room is the latest copy of the Ozark Mountaineer. It is a sort of "remember when" hillbilly-living magazine. It contains an article about May Kennedy McCord, a singer-storyteller once known as the Queen of the Hillbillies. The magazine features a reproduction of a 1942 newspaper advertisement of May Kennedy McCord's radio show. The images and captions hint at the "remember when" nature of the show. The main caption says "The World is Still Hungry for the Great Simplicities." I imagine that would have been a very accurate statement during the height of World War 2. I also am struck by the fact that during an age that many remember as a simpler time, the 1940's and 1950's, they were also longing for a simpler age. Is it possible that our desire to return to the Golden Age is really a misunderstood longing for a simpler, more hopeful future?

Let's think about that. You can tell me what you think. In the meantime, I am going back to Silver Dollar City and take in that distinct aroma of stone ground flour, homemade taffy, smokehouse smoke and hot asphalt that is just how remember it.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

How's Your Garden?

This is the time of year when it is common to hear someone greeted with the phrase, "How's your garden?" I love it that people who work in a hospital, a bank, a school, or an office building can gather up the produce from their backyard farm and give it away in boxes and plastic bags. Amateur fruits and vegetables are the best.

I am looking forward to the summer. The height of the goodness will be, as always, the tomatoes. If I had never read the Bible or visited a church but had eaten a tomato, I would believe in God. A real bona fide garden-grown tomato is surely what God had in mind when he said "Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds." I guess all the vegetation could have come up at once, but if it didn't then the tomato is either the first or the last seed-bearing plant made. If it was the first, then it was the standard for all the others and there's nothing to compare to the original. If it was the last, then it was the final product perfected after testing designs with all the others. First or last, but you cannot convince me it was made somewhere in the middle.

So, how's your garden?

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Time of Your Life

Contrary to a popular misconception, I was not a Winslow Squirrel. I have never been a Winslow Squirrel and no one in my family has ever been a Winslow Squirrel. I was a Greenland Pirate.

For those of you outside of Northwest Arkansas, Winslow is a town very close to my family homestead. I was baptized at the Winslow Church of Christ on Highway 71. I preached my first sermon there. It has been suggested therefore that I am a Winslow Squirrel because, believe it or not, Winslow High School's mascot is the Squirrel. Although there was a period of time in which they were known as the "Killer Squirrels" and they sported a painting of a rabid, fang-toothed squirrel on their gym wall. This was never an official mascot and besides the point is moot because I was a Greenland Pirate.

I graduated from Greenland High School at some point in the 1980's. It was after my cousins and before my sister. There were forty in my graduating class. I knew all of the students in my class and most of those in the classes before me and after. It has been nearly twenty years since I returned to Greenland and unfortunately I missed my ten year reunion. Yesterday was significant because I returned to the alma mater. I was invited to speak to the 5th - 8th grade classes on the occasion of the 8th grader's transition from middle school to high school. The experience has left me feeling just so very mortal.

I arrived early, so I walked down the hall and looked at the familiar class portraits of every graduating class since 1948. When I was a student at GHS, I used to look at these photos often. Occasionally I would look for some adult that I knew to see what they looked like at age 17. It was also good for a smile to notice the goofy hairdos, glasses, formal wear and make-up from the past and to follow how they changed over time. The pictures were just as I remembered them. As I paced along the decades I saw old familiar faces that I knew only as photos of the past. The only difference this time is that one of the faces I saw was mine. There in that cloud of Pirate witnesses saying "Carpe Diem" was Chris Benjamin in the silver cloud tuxedo loaned by the photographer. I had become a face from the past with my own goofy hairdo and tuxedo.

I was especially blessed to see some of my old classmates. No pun intended, but yes they are older. The truth is that they are younger than me and they look great, but they are not the 15, 16 and 17-year-olds I remember. I suppose when you grow old with someone you watch the changes happen gradually. The last time I saw these old friends was about 20 years ago so I had to decode the changes in appearance and voice immediately. It was like the before and after images on a make-over show - "Hey, that's you!" Don't get me wrong, these people look great and they really are young. The "before-and-after shock" I felt was more of an awareness of how different I must look to people who last saw me 20 years ago. It just makes you feel "mortal."

Perhaps strangely to some, I feel pretty good about it all. Perhaps the day will come that I feel bad about growing old and I may even develop contempt toward the younger generation. I really hope not. I do not want to be a generational or demographic stereotype. I tried not to be one when I was 18 and I do not want to conform when I am 81. Also, I have never been able to put my finger on one particular period of my life and say, "There! Those were the good days."

The 8th-graders chose Green Day's "The Time of Your Life" as their theme song. It sounds like a sentimental title, but I cannot help but wonder if they are being slightly subversive and saying "Good Riddance," which is the actual title of the song. That's the sort of thing I would have done in 8th grade. I really hope they chose the song for shallow reasons. I hope it was because they thought the music is sort of sweet or because they heard it played on Smallville and all the girls think Tom Welling is cute. I hope that because 8th grade is just way to early a time in someone's life to say that that was the time of one's life. After all, they have four more years until they get to add their goofy photos to the GHS "Walk of Fame." Carpe Diem!

Monday, May 09, 2005

Magic Lantern's Light

It looks like it is going to be a tough week over at The Magic Latern Show. I have enjoyed two weeks worth of new release movies. First I saw Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Last week I saw Kingdom of Heaven. Great movies! Good start to the summer.

However, there are no releases for this Friday (yes, I know it is Friday the 13th) that really interest me. The big release this week will probably be Kicking and Screaming, the latest Will Ferrell comedy. This is the one where he is a TV anchorman married to a witch, right? No wait he's a cheerleader raised by elves. Does it really matter?

What about Mindhunters? It is about the FBI. I used to work for the FBI. Seriously, I was a contracted sketch artist. They still didn't let me in on their greatest secret: What does the J in LL Cool J stand for? Perhaps this film will give the answer. Perhaps this film is one big question mark.

Maybe we could all go see Monster-In-Law. It stars Jane Fonda and J-Lo. J-Lo is going to marry Ben Affleck, but Jennifer Garner shows up with her boyfriend from Alias and then J-Lo falls in love with Vaughn from Alias and Jennifer Gardner (J-Gar?) falls in love with Ben and they are forever known as Bennifer. Wait, which Jennifer make Ben a Bennifer? Could it be that Jane Fonda is there to sort all this out? No wonder she is a monster. Maybe we shouldn't go to this one, it's too silly.

Well, unless one of those art films comes to town there's Unleashed. Now here is an enigma of a film. It looks like a Jet Li action movie but it also stars Bob Hoskins and Morgan Freeman. Isn't that like Jimmy Stewart showing up on an episode of Gilligan's Island? Man, Jet's going to have to carry this film.

Since I hope to be in Branson this weekend I may just take in a live show and review it. Just kidding - then again the Baldknobbers are looking pretty classy compared to Will Ferrell.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

The Divorce Culture

Preaching is not easy. Not because of the study or the public speaking. It is not easy because you are required to speak plainly and truthfully about subjects that are sometimes uncomfortable.

The sermon today, from Malachi 2, was one of those difficult sermons. Once the words leave my mouth, I know that I have no control over what is heard. My prayer during my study has been that God's grace and love would be evident in every sentence even as I declared the unbridled truth that God hates divorce. Perhaps what has made the task of preaching such a text and subject so difficult is the tradition of hellfire and brimstone, toe-stomping preaching. My aim in preaching is not to "sweat the sinners" or give the guilt-ridden a half-hour of catharsis. My vision for preaching is to do what Paul describes in Colossians: "To proclaim Christ, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ."

Combine the tradition of condemnatory preaching with the fact that so many divorced people have, quite regrettably, felt alienated by or "kicked out of" the church and perhaps my trepidation at preaching the text of Malachi 2 is clear. I should mention that I was helped by a reliable and astute conversation partner: Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's book, The Divorce Culture. I found her work to be unique. Instead of building an argument against divorce, she brilliantly surveys the ideological foundations of what she calls our culture of divorce. We are all stakeholders in the institution of marriage and divorce impacts all of us. Her survey speaks for itself and her closing chapter recommends that we begin to reframe our concepts of social institutions, such as marriage, with the ethics of virtue and community rather than the ethics of individual expression.

After reading the book I began to see that Malachi 2:10-16 is implicating a culture of divorce in Israel. They had exchanged the ethic of covenant with an ethic of faithlessness. Perhaps in rediscovering covenant we can begin to heal the brokenness of our American culture. So, what do you think?