Preaching Pithiness

I’ve noted this interesting tidbit before, but according to a recent study by the good people at Microsoft, the smartphone age has brought with it a decline in the average attention span of an adult to less than that of the common goldfish.  Since the year 2000, our ability to focus on any single item has dropped from a measly 12 seconds to a minuscule 8 seconds.  For those who can’t focus long enough to do the math, that’s a 33% decline in 15 years!  The outside world has continuously been adjusting as well as adjusting to this decline.  We see it everywhere.  Billboards that were once static are now digital and ever changing.  Our television screens are full of information crawling across the bottom, cluttering up the corners, and sometimes filling a third of the screen.

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This bit of trivia came to mind for me this morning as I re-read the lessons appointed for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany and realized that from beginning to end, the preacher is dealing with one pithy soundbite after another.  As I tried to find a chunk of scripture to focus on, I felt my mind jumping back and forth, here and there, up and down.  I began to wonder what it will sound like to the average Christian on Sunday morning?  Will it just be a series of sound bytes that one can take or leave at one’s pleasure, or is there something of a cohesiveness to all the lessons?  More practically, though I am not preaching this week, I’m wondering how one would go about preaching pithiness?

There are probably several ways to deal with this conundrum.  Despite my mind’s inability to track with a single passage, there are several sections of these lessons that deserve some deep mining.  The section dealing with the harvest and leaving gleanings for the poor would be a fascinating study in 21st century America.  The admonition against hate and reproach could be studied under a microscope.  Paul’s play on wisdom and foolishness could take 45 minutes to unpack, as would each of the last two of Jesus’ six anti-theses.  The other option would be to hopscotch one’s way through the lessons.  Perhaps there is a theme – holiness or love – that could serve as a thread that is pulled through a pithy quote or two from each lesson.

No matter which path the preacher chooses, the battle is uphill but not waged alone.  As the Psalmist reminds us in yet another series of decent one-liners that is thread together into a prayer, it is ultimately God’s work to teach us the Law of love.  As preachers, our task is to do the work of study, to be prepared, and then to get out of the way and let the Spirit to its work through our words in the hearts of the faithful.  Best wishes this week, dear friends.  I’ll be praying for you eight seconds at a time.

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Are you paying attention?

The good folk over at WorkingPreacher’s Sermon Brainwave spend a pretty good amount of time during their Epiphany podcast on a tangent about the stars.  After going back and forth about the delicate way in which a Christian preacher should treat astrology and suggesting that maybe the star is more Garmin GPS than it is horoscope giving future teller, they got me thinking about the fact that these wise men pay attention to the star at all.

They were tuned into stars.  They paid enough attention to the night sky to realize that something new had appeared.  “We saw the star at its rising,” they told Herod, “and we’ve come to pay homage to the newborn king.”  Star gazing isn’t a part of my personal spirituality, but listening for God’s call certainly is.  Whether you are Zoroastrian or Christian, the key to a fulfilling religious life is paying attention.

God might work through stars.  God might work through loved ones.  God might work through budgets or car repairs or the struggles of addiction.  There are myriad ways in which God can come to us, seeking to “wonderfully restore” our relationship with God and with the world He created, but if we aren’t paying attention, if we aren’t attuned to the voice of God, then most likely we’ll miss an opportunity for great things, and the key to paying attention is practice.

As TKT said in his sermon yesterday, a life of prayer is one in which God speaks, something happens, and we respond.  When our response is more often than not to actually do something, to see God’s hand at work and to roll up our sleeves and join in, then we become more and more able to see God in the little things.  We become accustomed to the nuances of the Spirit, the little nudges, the still, soft voice, the burning in our hearts.  Paying attention to God at work in the big stuff, enables us to pay attention to God at work in the little stuff, and allows us the opportunity to see the amazing works of God all over our lives.

Yet the world is full of distraction.  So many things battle for our limited attention.  Often I’m so busy worried about me and my stuff that I forget to look for God in the world around me, and when I’m not paying attention, I miss out on opportunities to bless and be blessed that are beyond my wildest imagination.  As I prepare to preach Christmas 2, while “off” this week and looking forward to 48 hours of nothing but football in the middle of it all, my prayer is that I can pay attention, that my eyes might be fixed on the hand of God, and that I might answer the call to follow his lead, no matter when he calls.