Jay's Blog 

NativityChristmas blessings!

May the light of God’s peace illuminate your home and heart with hope, as a new Advent dawns on a very broken world.  It’s been an especially hard year for those working the church vineyards — here’s hoping we begin to regain our footing and focus in God’s gift of the new year ahead.

Welcome and thanks for taking a moment to re-connect with our ongoing conversation about the ministry of the Word through this now-and-again missive for the Connections community.  Your comments and contributions to what follows are welcome at the addresses (electronic and terrestrial) below.

Preaching with empathy

Of late, I’ve found myself focused on the challenges of empathy.

In the humanities course I teach at St. Anselm College, our last text of the semester is Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (2018, by the way, marks the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication).  My students (and their professor) struggled to understand the fears and feelings of the creature to love and be loved and the irresponsibility of the doctor who “created” him to abandon him in a cruel, hostile world (a “heads up” to those of you have never read the novel: Shelley’s narrative is nothing — nothing — like the iconic Boris Karloff movies). 

My wife and I have also gotten caught up in the ABC-TV series The Good Doctor, the story of a young surgeon with autism: Sean is very much aware of his inability to feel empathy for his patients and struggles to see those he cares for as more than just medical puzzles to be solved.

Since preaching is our focus here, I’ve wondered how empathy should affect preaching.  Too often, it seems, the homily is approached as a “teaching” exercise, and one could certainly argue that there is a place for that in the homily.  But if homiletics is a ministry, shouldn’t it be centered in the lives of the congregation?

Empathy walksEmpathy is not just an awareness of what others are experiencing but the ability to feel what they are feeling because we feel it or have felt it ourselves.  It’s more than just sympathy (that can easily turn into patronizing): empathy is understanding why and how a situation is what it is and being able to relate to the fear and hurt and despair that the individual is experiencing as a result.  That’s a tall order for most homilists I’ve heard of late.

So, if we’re serious about preaching with empathy, we might try to make the following part of our sermon prep:

Listen to the folks sitting in front of you on Sunday.  Engage in conversations with parishioners about what they are thinking and feeling, about the struggles and challenges of raising a family, aging, coping with illness, the ethical and moral quandaries they face in the workplaces — and keep in mind that listening is NOT an opening to debate or persuade or convert.  Empathy is not between healer and wounded – it’s a relationship between equals, based on respect and understanding.     

Find your community in Sunday’s Gospel.  Read Sunday’s Gospel from the perspective of the people on the other side of the ambo.  What are they seeing and hearing in this text?  How does this periscope apply to their lives?  How can you help them see God at work in their Monday-through-Saturday lives — as God reveals himself in yours?  With empathy, we do not step into others’ experience to see it with our eyes — empathy demands that we work to see it through their eyes.

Seek to make “connections”:  Jim Wallis writes in his book Who Speaks for God that empathy and compassion have “less to do with ‘doing charity’ than ‘making connections’ . . . It means to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, try to understand their experience, or see the world through their eyes.  That always changes our perspective.”  Empathy is about connecting with another human being, about finding common ground to move forward together.

“Practice” empathy.  We humans have the intrinsic ability to tune into the emotions, wishes, thoughts, intentions, and hopes of others, and we can make intelligent decisions about how we’ll respond to the information we receive — in other words, empathy is a skill that can be practiced; it’s an attitude for dealing with the world.  Empathy helps us perceive, understand, engage with, and respond skillfully not only to human beings but also to nature, art, music, ideas, etc. 

When you think about it, empathy is central to understanding the Christmas mystery.  The birth of the Christ Child reveals to us a God of compassion and empathy.  In his Christmas homily last year, Abbot Damian Carr, O.C.S.O., of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, preached: 

“When God begins this life among us, God inaugurates a new way of being with us. God communicates the gift of divine life for us through a human life like ours. Christmas isn’t just the discovery of something about God but also about humanity.  The God we believe in is not a God that has to be lured down from heaven by our efforts at trying to be very, very good.  We are dealing with a God who does not have to be persuaded to be interested in us.  Jesus our Emmanuel is with us and for us through a solidarity and identification so deep and total that when we see Jesus, we see a God who values us beyond all imagining.”

Let this be an Advent for sharpening our sense of empathy in every ministry entrusted to us.

Christmas candleGiving Connections . . .

Many of our subscribers discovered Connections because of a friend who was already “connected.”  Our most effective marketing tool is a copy of Connections picked up by a visiting priest or deacon from a rectory desk or coffee table.  Every January we hear from preachers and catechists who received Connections as a gift and appreciated how the resource was already making a difference in their ministries.

A Christmas gift flyer — offering significant discounts for two or more gift subscriptions — was included with your December issue (let us know if you would like us to send you another) and sent to e-mail subscribers.  We can send a card announcing your gift or we can send the card to you to give to the recipient — just let us know your wishes. 

In answer to several inquiries we received this year:  Yes, you can give Connections DAILY as a gift, as well, at the same holiday subscription rates.

Two ground rules:  This special rate applies to NEW subscriptions ONLY (not renewals or extensions) and the deadline for this special offer is December 31, 2018.

Connect-ing every day . . .

So you’ve already resolved to “up” your preaching in 2019 (we all do).  This year give your resolution a fighting chance with an assist from The DAILY.

Connections DAILY provides an image or idea for a short, one-to-two minute homily based on the day’s readings, concluding with a brief prayer summarizing the theme.  The reflection/prayer usually centers on the day’s Gospel, but some days is inspired by the first reading or the day’s feast or saint.  We keep it brief and to the point — we know that time is a factor at weekday liturgies.   The DAILY is only available via e-mail (we are looking at some options to make the material available on paper for those unable to receive it online).

Check out a recent sampling of Connections DAILY reflections on The DAILY section of this website, where you’ll also find an order form.  

A “well-trained tongue” takes work

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. 

Thank you for “connecting” with us . . .

We cannot begin to express our gratitude to you for the many notes and e-mails we receive about Connections, The DAILY, our special projects and issues, and the Connections website. Your taking the time to share with us your comments, ideas, suggestions and war stories is something that we do not take for granted. How you use Connections and, specifically, what you use from Connections in your preaching ministry are our principal guides in planning each issue. Connect with us anytime at jaycormier@comcast.net.

And make a note to visit our website for additional resources, including exegetical notes we post each week on the week’s Sunday Gospel and stories from our Connections archives.

“The Essence of the Season”

The last word comes from minister, preacher, neighbor (living “next door” in Maine) and friend of Connections, J. Barrie Shepherd (for those of you who are new to the preaching ministry or have been working in the homiletic mines for any number of years, we enthusiastically recommend Barrie’s 2006 book Whatever Happened to Delight?, his insightful series of essays on the art of preaching the Gospel in poetry and parables).

In this short piece published in The Presbyterian Outlook, Barrie succinctly puts the madness of this season in perspective:

It’s about the giving, really. So that all those
holy folk who moan about the marketing and
such can tend to miss the deep, abiding truth
that, for a month, at least, and once in every
year, all sorts of people seek to find new, and
surprising ways to make other people smile,
ways to say, in varying degrees of warmth, “I
love you,” or at least, “I care,” ways to call a
temporary halt to grab-and-gain, and set aside
a time and place for simple gratitude instead.
Given the way we spend the remainder of our
days and months, one might even be excused
for calling this an, honest-to-God, miracle.

Hope the busy days ahead are filled with “honest-to-God” miracles for you and those you love and serve.

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 enrichmnent. 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.