Jay's Blog 

Adirondack chairsSummer blessings!  Because of a busy winter and an early Easter, we had to keep putting off a new posting, but now that the blessed peace of summer Ordinary Time has come, here we are again.  For the first-time visitors to this site, Jay’s Blog is the work of our editor; the blog a now-and-then letter with news on trends, ideas and resources in preaching, as well as information on new projects at Connections.  So thank you for taking a moment, on what I hope for you is a warm, quiet early summer day, to join in our ongoing conversation about our shared ministry of communicating God’s Word.

The preacher as listener

M. Craig Barnes is the president of Princeton University Seminary.  Along the way to academia, he served as pastor of three Presbyterian congregations.  In several previous postings, we’ve recommended his insightful 2009 book The Pastor as Minor Poet, essays on the life and work of the pastor.

In an essay in The Christian Century (March 28, 2018), Barnes reminds us homilists that a big part of preaching the Word on Sunday is listening during the week.  It’s part of what he calls “the pastor’s calling to maintain a sacred conversation between God and the congregation.”

“Hopefully, the pastor has spent all week listening to God’s side of the conversation while carefully exploring the Sunday scripture text.  When the pastor leaves the study to make visits to the hospital, bring communion to nursing homes, or ponder the subtext of the angry man who is trying to hijack the agenda at a committee meeting, the sacred words of the biblical text are still swirling around as the third voice in every conversation.  Throughout the week — back and forth between the study, the parish, newspapers, literatures, movies, and even the pregnant quip from the cashier at the grocery store — the carefully heard words just keep piling up before the sermon can be written.”

Barnes learned in his four decades of pastoring not to “do the Holy Spirit’s job.”

“There is no way to write a [single] sermon about newly made marital vows and newly found grief, and the aspirations versus realities of parenting, and illness, and the congregation’s problems and anxieties about war.  Nor should a sermon ever try . . . I may find that the same text has as much to say to parents as it does to the new widow, or those who want to know when I am going to start fulfilling their expectations.  Maybe the text that day offers something about our created limitations and our common need to receive and give grace.  It’s up to the Spirit to take it from there.”

Most of us have had the experience of congregants thanking us for saying something profound in a homily that we didn’t really say.  Barnes chalks that up to the Holy Spirit, as well.

“I’m responsible for the writing of the sermon,” Barnes concludes, “but not the hearing of it.  I get that.  But of this I’m certain: it would be a very different sermon if I didn’t spend the week listening to God and the congregation as they try to talk to each other.”

FamilyThe best part of being church 

Margaret Renkl and her family were regulars at their parish in Nashville.  Both Margaret and her husband grew up in the Church and, like many busy families, getting their three boys to Mass was especially challenging some Sunday mornings — but they were there.  But that changed with the 2016 Presidential election.  Renkl was overwhelmed with anger and despair at the injustice of the results.  She and her husband felt let down by the Church, as well.                     

In an op-ed that appeared in The New York Times this past Palm Sunday weekend (March 26), Renkl writes about her year away from her parish — and what brought her back this Easter.  Yes, the secular world and its demands and expectations provide many convincing reasons not to believe, she writes, but the reasons to believe came down to one:  “I couldn’t not believe.  I seem to have been born with a constant ache for the sacred, a deeply-rooted need to offer thanks, to ask for help, to sing out in fathomless praise to something.  In time I found my way back to God, the most familiar and fundamental something I knew, even if by then my conception of the divine had enlarged beyond any church’s ability to define or contain it.”

And Renkl makes clear that this past year away from her parish “hasn’t made me miss the place itself.  I don’t miss the stained glass.  I don’t miss the gleaming chalice or the glowing candles or the sweeping vestments. 

“But I do miss being part of a congregation.  I miss standing side-by-side with other people, our eyes gazing in the same direction, our voices murmuring the same prayers in a fallen world.  I miss the wiggling babies grinning at me over their parent’s shoulders.  I miss reaching for a stranger to offer the handshake of peace.  I miss the singing.”

So the Renkl family were at Mass this past Easter Sunday “as I have been on almost every Easter morning of my life.  I will wear white and remember the ones I loved who sat beside me in the pew and whose participation in the eternal has found another form, whatever it turns out to be.  I will lift my voice in song and give thanks for my life.  I will pray for my church and country, especially the people my church and my country are failing.  And then I will walk into the world and do my best to practice resurrection.”
Lots for pastors and preachers to mull over in this essay. 

The betting here is that there is more than one Renkl family in all of our parishes.

“A hard rain’s a-gonna fall . . . ”

During Holy Week, a late winter storm knocked out power here, causing a major computer disaster.  We spent a good part of Holy Week and Easter Week re-covering data and re-constructing our e-mail subscribers list.  We’re pretty much back on track, but we still catch a miscoding now and then.  To those of you who had an issue arrive late or received an errant subscription notice, we apologize again for the confusion and inconvenience.  And we appreciate your understanding and patience during a difficult Easter here at Connections.

EucharistConnect-ing every day . . .

If this is the year you’ve decided to jump-start your preaching at weekday Masses, we invite you to connect with us every day, as well as Sundays.

Connections DAILY is our electronic newsletter of ideas and images designed to help homilists develop their own brief reflections on the daily Gospel readings.  For each weekday, Connections DAILY provides an idea for a one-to-two-minute homily (we realize the clock is running on weekday liturgies), concluding with a brief prayer that summarizes the point.  The reflection and prayer usually center on the day’s Gospel, but are sometimes drawn from the first reading or the day’s feast or saint whose memorial is being observed.  Each DAILY reflection focuses on a single idea to help you develop your own concise, to-the-point homily.

Subscriptions to Connections DAILY are $50 a year.  The DAILY is delivered ONLY via e-mail. We apologize to those of you who would prefer a “paper” version, but making this service an electronic newsletter is the only way we can make producing The DAILY viable and timely.

An order form and a sampler of Connections DAILY reflections can be found on The DAILY pull-down menu above.

“Upping” your preaching

Every summer we get calls asking for help and suggestions in putting a preaching workshop or study day together — sometimes it’s a small group of deacons wanting to “up” their game at the ambo, often the call comes from organizers looking for suggestions for their diocese’s annual clergy day of enrichment.
If you’re considering a preaching retreat/in-service day or are in the planning stages of a homily training program in the next programming year for the priests and deacons of your diocese, region, community, etc., please let us know if we can be of assistance.  We can help you develop themes and topics as well as put you in contact with speakers and facilitators.

Become part of the conversation . . .

Thank you, one and all, for your notes and e-mails with your suggestions for Connections and comments about the Sunday newsletter, The DAILY, Keeping CONNECTED, our new projects, and our website.  They are invaluable in our planning.  We are especially gratified (and humbled) by the many kind and complimentary notes subscribers write on their renewal cards or enclose with their renewals.  Send your questions, comments and suggestions to the address below or e-mail us anytime at jaycormier@comcast.net.

And we invite you to “bookmark” or add our website to your “favorites” list.  We regularly post new resources for homilists — and, as we’ve happily discovered of late, many catechists and RCIA team members have found the site helpful, as well.  The site includes exegetical notes for each Sunday’s Gospel and stories and reflections we post from past issues Connections and Connections DAILY.  You’ll also find information on our special issues series, information on workshop and retreat programs, and practical advice for effectively communicating the Word in your homily. 

Drop by anytime — and let us know how we can make it more helpful to you.

Easter credo

A final benediction on the post-Easter season work of resurrection, from Blessed Are You Who Believed by Carlo Carretto:

When you forgive your enemy
When you feed the hungry
When you defend the weak
you believe in the resurrection.

When you have the courage to marry
When you welcome the newly-born child
When you build your home
you believe in the resurrection.

When you wake at peace in the morning
When you sing to the rising sun
When you go to work with joy
you believe in the resurrection.

Belief in the resurrection means filling life with faith
it means believing in your brother
it means fearlessness towards all.

May the light of Easter illuminate every corner and space of your life this summer and fall.

NativityChristmas blessings! May the grace and kindness of our God illuminate your heart and home this holy season!

This edition of Jay’s Blog comes with best wishes for Christmas peace that blesses every day of the New Year.  For those of you recently “connected” to our Connections community or who are making your first visit to our site (welcome!), the Blog is our humble attempt to carry on an ongoing conversation on the ministry of proclamation and preaching.  We include information here on new homiletic resources, ideas and trends in preaching, wisdom gleaned from masters of the communications and preaching craft — and just “stuff” we find interesting and thought you might find interesting, too. 

So, thank you for taking a moment be part of the conversation — and, remember, please, that your comments and ideas are always welcome.

Preaching in “whispers”  

One Sunday in mid-August, the first reading was one of my favorite stories from the prophets: Elijah’s encounter with God at the cave on Mount Horeb.

Elijah is fleeing for his life from the murderous wrath of Ahab and Jezebel.  He has had enough of the burden and danger of being the Lord’s prophet and begs God to take his life.  Elijah falls asleep under a broom tree and, in a dream, an angel instructs him to go to Horeb, the mountain of God.  Dejected but ever obedient, Elijah walks 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb.  At Horeb, he takes shelter in a cave; there he has a second vision, telling him to wait, for the Lord will be “pass[ing] by.”  From the safety of the cave, Elijah experiences, first, a violent wind, then an earthquake, and finally a firestorm, but the Lord is not in any of them. 

Then Elijah hears a “tiny whispering sound” — and Elijah hides his face in his cloak at the presence of God.

I first heard this story (1 Kings 19: 9a, 11-13a in the lectionary) read at a friend’s monastic profession; since then, I have always heard it as a parable on seeking God in the quiet of one’s heart.  But this year (probably because a Connections deadline was looming at the time), I was struck by what Elijah’s encounter might say to us preachers. 

It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that preachers should speak in “whispers.”  But this is not about a speaker’s volume.

Many homilists approach the homily as a “powerful” storm thundering through the church, “crushing” the rocks of institutional and societal evil.  But in all the noise generated by the preacher, the love of God is not heard.  The community may well agree with the speaker’s condemnation of evil — but they don’t see or hear God “passing by” in the homilist’s words.

Then there is the homily that rumbles like an earthquake, turning our unjust and decadent world upside down.  But God is left forgotten, buried in the rubble.

And there is the homily that is all fire.  But little light.

The reality is that, for the most part, we live our lives in “whispers.”  Few of us experience the dramatic “fire” and devastating “earthquakes” often proclaimed from the pulpit; we do not deal with the conflagrations reported on the front pages of our newspaper or the endless stream of terrifying images on cable news.  No, our lives are more “whispers”: the less dramatic but no less important experiences of raising and protecting our kids, caring for aging parents, balancing precarious finances, figuring out the right thing to do without losing ground.  We struggle to make sense of a world that is filled with little definitive black-and-white but an overwhelming amount of complex gray; we stumble up the trails of our own Horebs trying to discern God’s presence outside our own dark caves. 

To be sure, there’s a place for the homily that shakes the ground beneath us, that rends the mountains of injustice and greed and arrogance around us.  But the challenge to us preachers and teachers is to reveal the goodness of God in those “tiny whispering sounds “of our small, every day, mostly hidden experiences of life and death, of crucifixion and resurrection.

So maybe we need to tone down both the tone and scope of our rhetoric: a little less doctrinal certainty and a few more shards of God’s light illuminating our homes and hearts.

Halloween was a real horror this year . . .

A harsh windstorm swept through our part of New England on Halloween, knocking out power and communications for a few days.  Our apologies if you tried to call or contact us that week. 

And the timing could not have been worse: we were in the middle of a technical upgrade on our website and could not update the site for the first half of November.

But we’re happy to report we’re back on line.  Again, our apologies for the inconvenience and our thanks for your understanding and patience. 

One nice thing to come out of our electronic desert experience: the surprising number of e-mails — from as far away as South Africa and Australia — asking if we were OK and if the site was still in operation.  It’s good (and quite humbling) to know how many use the resources at ConnectionsMediaWorks.com.

Redwoods ChristAnd suddenly, it’s off to the desert . . .

It’s one of those liturgical years:  No sooner do we take down the manger scene before we’re off to the Lenten desert.  In 2018, Easter falls on April 1, which means an early Lenten season this year: Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, February 14.

We are now putting the finishing touches on our annual resource Connections for the Weekdays of Lent 2018.  We will be enclosing an order form with the February 2018 issue of Connections, which you should be receiving in early January. 

But if you’d like to get a head start on things, you will find an order form for the 2018 Lenten issue on the Special issues page of this site. 

The cost of the 2018 Lenten issue: $32 (Canadian: $34 US / overseas: $35 US) for the paper edition, $29 for the online (e-mail) edition.  Simply return the form with your check or money order, and pour yourself another glass of eggnog with peace of mind, assured that a critical part of your Lenten planning is done.

“Connect” with us anytime . . .

Thank you, one and all, for your notes and e-mails with your suggestions for Connections and your comments about the Sunday newsletter, The DAILY, new projects, and our website.  They are invaluable in our planning.  (We’re especially grateful by the kind notes many of you write on your renewal cards.)  Send your questions, comments and suggestions to the address below or e-mail us anytime at jaycormier@comcast.net.

And please visit our website regularly for additional resources, including exegetical notes we post each week on the Sunday Gospel and stories from our Connections archives.

A ‘well-trained tongue’ takes work

One of the highlights of the past year for me was leading a retreat at Saint Meinrad Archabbey for the deacon-candidates of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois.  This time of year, we get calls asking for help in developing training programs and skills workshops in preaching in the new year.  Please contact us if you think we might be able to help your clergy/diaconate group put together a study day, workshop, conference or retreat on the ministry of preaching.  We’d welcome the opportunity to talk with you about the possibilities and offer suggestions for programs and leaders. 

“Have yourself a really little Christmas . . . ”

Christmas lightFinally, a Christmas blessing upon all things small and simple — this from the late William Sloane Coffin, from Credo, a collection of Coffin’s writings and sermons:

“All saving ideas are born small.  God comes to earth as a child so that we can finally grow up, which means we can stop blaming God for being absent when we ourselves were not present, stop blaming God for the ills of the world as if we had been laboring to cure them, and stop making God responsible for all the thinking and doing we should be undertaking on our own.  I’ve said it before and will probably say it many times again: God provides minimum protection, maximum support — support to help us grow up, to stretch our minds and hearts until they are as wide as God’s universe.  God doesn’t want us narrow-minded, priggish and subservient, but joyful and loving, as free for one another as God’s love was freely poured out for us at Christmas in that babe in the manger.”

May this Christmas season be one of joy and gratitude for the simple manifestations of the love of the Christ Child in your Bethlehems and Nazareths.

Jay Cormier