Month: January 2014

Sermon Remix: Grief

It’s probably not surprising that ministers and funeral directors cross paths a lot. I guess it’s probably like produce growers and chefs, or teachers and crossing guards. We’re often in the same place at the same time.  Though I’m admittedly painting with a very broad brush here, in my experience, funeral directors are often deeply compassionate, caring, and empathetic people who view their work as a calling. Day in and day out they sit with people in their deepest hour of grief and pain. I love to ask them about how they got into their line of work, what they most enjoy about it and what they think I can do to help families in my congregation when they are dealing with fresh grief. Time and again, they mention the importance of ritual or symbolism: placing a flower on the grave, placing a stone there, pouring sand over the casket. It’s important, it seems, to do something at that moment, to mark it, to honor it, to make sure it doesn’t just pass by like any other day. One funeral director recently told me about one of the funeral rituals she finds truly meaningful “I don’t know what all of it means,” she said, “But I know that at the end, they come up and everybody shovels three shovels full of dirt onto the grave and then they put the shovel back in the ground. They do that because…” and she stopped and swallowed hard and blinked her eyes quickly and then said, voice cracking “They do that because you’re not supposed to pass your grief on to anybody else” and then she put her head down and let the tears roll down her cheeks for just a second before she wiped them away quickly. “Anyway,” she said “It’s really special.”

Note: Because of the way I preach (sort of a strange hybrid of written manuscript and notes) I can’t really reproduce my sermons on this blog. This post was originally part of a sermon I preached at Northwood, just like this one and this one and this one. I like taking a piece of a sermon I’ve already preached, thinking about it and telling it in a different way. I’m going to plan to do it from time to time, and when I do, I’ll call it “Sermon Remix” so my parishioners at Northwood can start to get used to finding these reflections in this way. Hope you enjoy! 

Masters of Renunciation



This week my friend, colleague, and mentor Rev. Kelly Allen  pointed me to a New York Times opinion piece about leadership. The piece is worth reading in its entirety (link at the end) but I found this portion to be particularly compelling:

“close off your options. People in public life live in a beckoning world. They have an array of opportunities. They naturally want to keep all their options open. The shrewd strategists tell them to make a series of tepid commitments to see what pans out. Hedge your bets. Play it smart.

But the shrewd strategy leads to impotence. You spread yourself thin. You dissipate your energies and never put full force behind any cause. You make your own trivial career the object of your attention, not the vision that inspired you in the first place.

The public official who does this leaves no mark. Only the masters of renunciation leave an imprint, only those who can say a hundred Nos for the sake of an overwhelming Yes. Only the person who has burned the ships and committed to one issue has the courage to cast aside the advice of the strategists and actually push through change.”

What does it mean, as a leader, to be a “master of renunciation” and to close off all of the many options and opportunities that might come your way in order to be supremely focused on one inspiring idea? I think that Mr. Brooks is on to something here. The idea of “playing it safe” and “hedging my bets” really resonated with me. What do you think makes a good leader? 

For Further Reading: The Leadership Revival

On Kids Making Their Own Valentines and 5 Underachieving Valentines Ideas

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Psssst. Lean in. I’m talking to you, mother or father or guardian of small children. You’re doing a great job. I know you’re really, really tired sometimes, and part of the reason is that it’s exhausting to do a bunch of little mundane but very important things like cut the grapes in half I mean quarters so your kids don’t choke on them. I know it’s hard to keep track of “pajama day” and “crazy hat day” and “bring this form back with two dollars and fifty cents for pizza day.” That’s why I want you to give your children and you a gift this year. Listen closely, because I think it’s a secret you might not know: you don’t have to make elaborate valentines for your child’s class. You don’t! It’s not in the law or in the handbook for “the only way to succeed as a parent.” I promise. I’ve seen dozens of really really adorable ideas on Pinterest that you could make, but you don’t have to. You don’t have to glue little masks on tootsie pops (I swear this is a thing. Google it.)  or make individual baggies with 3 marshmallows, 4 chocolate chips and a piece of licorice cut up into tiny hearts. In fact, I would argue that by making valentines for your children’s classmates you might be taking away the opportunity for them to do it themselves. I hereby decree, therefore, that staying up late into the night making valentines for the class is not something you need to do and that the pressure you might feel to do it is something you can (and must) let go of. It’s ok. Go against the culture and have confidence that if you do, if you say “nope, my child will make his own valentines and sign his own name on them” (gasp!) you are giving your child a wonderful gift that is at least as valuable as the gift you would be giving him if you made him a bunch of beautiful valentines to hand out to the class. Give it a try! Don’t know how to do something this revolutionary? Check out these
5 “Underachieving Yet Authentic unValentines That Children Can Actually Make with Limited Parental Involvement”
1. Index cards I: on the front draw a picture, on the back write a heartfelt reason the child is glad to know his or her classmate. If the child is too young to write, he or she can dictate to the parent.
2. Index cards II: on the front, a sticker. Yep. a sticker. Just one. Ok, maybe two or three. Just… stickers. The child picks it off the sheet of stickers and sticks it on the front. On the back – a note or even just his or her name signed.
3. Heart sponge: cut out a heart shape from a sponge (parent can do this) – kid stamps some hearts on pieces of construction paper and signs his/her name.
4. The supreme “un-valentine”: give your child whatever supplies you have on hand: paper, feathers, crayons, paint, doilies, sequins, — whatever — and let their imagination run wild.
5. The “It’s not a cop out, I promise your chid will be fine” – Go to the local drugstore, get a pack of the fill-in-your-name ones and have your children fill them out. Done.
You can do it! Easy valentines for everyone. You might even decide they look good enough to put on Pinterest!

6 thoughts on plagiarism, creative expression, and sermon writing

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I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity recently as my book inches (and simultaneously sprints) toward the finish line. The whole process of coming up with ideas, letting them take root in my mind, writing them down, spiffing them up and sending them out into the world (with a team of people) has been hard work, and it has been a very personal process. I’ll write more about how the publishing process has intersected with my personal and professional development, but right now I want to weigh in on some thoughts about sermon writing, creative expression, and plagiarism. This is a topic that comes up a lot ministry circles, usually when someone gets busted for ripping off someone else’s work. As always, these are my thoughts and opinions, and don’t necessarily represent the thoughts and opinions of any institution I’m associated with.
1. Preachers have to be idea factories which is both invigorating and draining at the same time.  Pastors who preach every week are called to come up with new, fresh, and relevant information to speak to their people for at least 10 sometimes up to 30 or more minutes every week. That’s every seven days. The invigorating part of this is that our brains are always turned on to creative stories. We’re constantly looking for snippets of things that can be woven into sermons. Sunday comes, whether we’re ready or not. The invigorating part about that is that we always have to be plugged in to the creative energy within ourselves, we have an “excuse” to go browsing through current news stories and the New York Times Sunday section. When I want to relax and watch TED talks or browse what’s current on Twitter, I feel like even my “down time” can be useful. The draining portion of that is the exact same thing. Sometimes I feel like I can never turn my brain off.
2. Imitation is flattery, plagiarism is an insult. I think preachers need to be very clear on this point: if you rip off my work I will not only be insulted, I will use any means available to me to make sure that it never happens again. My own opinion is that this is not a usually grey area. I shake my head when classically trained pastors claim to not know it is wrong to steal someone else’s work. We know. We went to graduate school. We know the difference between imitating someone’s style, retelling their stories in our own words and straight up plagiarism. Preachers should never shy away from using someone else’s ideas or stories or inspiration, but they should always always acknowledge when they have done it. When they heard a story “somewhere” but aren’t sure where, they should just state that: “It didn’t happen to me, but I remember hearing a story one time about a…” Google is a preacher’s best friend.
3. Preaching and sermon writing is a creative work and those who preach are regularly giving away pieces of themselves. I could write about this one for a long time, but what I’m getting at is simple: be gentle and don’t take it for granted. That goes for both the writer and the hearer. Preachers take their ideas, they mull them around, and they offer them to communities of faith, with great hope that their words will make a difference in the lives of others. Certainly preachers also believe that the Holy Spirit is at work through the whole process and that the preachers is often just a vessel for something greater. Still, when a preacher is getting up in front of you, she is painting a picture, singing a song, building a bridge. The takeaway, I think, is simple, be gentle.
4. Some sermons are great; some are terrible. Oh well. Except for instances where a preacher has unlimited time for sermon preparation and research and/or is exceptionally gifted for the work of preaching and teaching (Hi, Rob Bell! I heart you!) there are weeks when the sermon isn’t the work of art everyone was hoping it might be. The best advice I ever got on this I got from the Rev. Doug Learned, PCUSA pastor and mentor who probably got it from his mentor: “Feed the people, Traci, that’s your task. Some weeks they’re getting a steak dinner and sometimes it’s PB&J, you just have to feed them. That’s your task.” I live with this analogy every week. I told it to my congregation the first week in the pulpit: “You’d better get ready for some PB&J weeks,” I told them, “but it’s my prayer you never leave this place hungry.”
5. Preaching is a two way street.  Rob Bell talks about this in his lectures on preaching, and I relate to it all the way down to my toes. He says that when people say to him “You did a good job” he wants to respond, “And how did you do?” Preaching is about conversation. It’s talking and listening. Good preaching inspires something in the listener. (Incidentally, on this, I am the first “listener” of my own messages…)
6. The question we should be asking about preaching isn’t “is it good?” but rather “Is it effective?” or “Does it inspire change?” Again, I think the art analogy is a useful one here. When I think about the types of art pieces that have changed my life for the better, it’s hard to say that it was “good.” I think of a piece I saw once in the San Antonio Museum of Art… it was a beautifully framed pair of ballet slippers with the title “desaparecido.” The artist was Colombian. It spoke volumes, but it was terrifying. I was drawn to it and I’m thankful for it as a work of art, but I can hardly call it “good.” What do we mean when we call preaching “good…” do we mean entertaining, or funny, or easy to stomach, or do we mean something else?
I think I could easily come up with six more but I’ll save that for another time because, well… I have a sermon to write.

Ten Things Parents of Teens are Doing Right

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Recently an old post (from 2010) called “Top Ten Mistakes Christian Parents of Teens Make” started making the rounds on Facebook again. While I don’t know much about the author, I’m deeply interested in the subject matter. Encouraging parents as they raise faithful children is a passion, and I wrote the book on it. (Ok, a book. Ha!) One of the things that frustrated me about the “Top Ten Mistakes” post was the way it was all couched in negative terms. From the start it’s labeled as “top ten mistakes” and then each bullet lists something parents of teens aren’t doing right. I’m not the parent of a teen, but reading through the article left me feeling deflated, inadequate and hopeless. I thought of all the parents of all the teens who I’ve been privileged to work with as a youth pastor and pastor and all the stories I have heard as we’ve worked together to try and instill a sense of faith and wonder in their teens. I decided to write a post of Top Ten Things Parents of Teens Are Doing Well for all of them. I hope that all parents of teens find something useful here.
1. You love your teens. Deeply and insanely. Why don’t we start here? You, parents of teenagers (not just Christian parents… all parents…) really love your teenagers. It oozes out of your eyes and drips off of your lips. I feel how much you love them when you look down at my toddler boys and say “I remember when…” Or when you nudge your teenager in the side and say “Can you believe you used to be that tiny?” Your love for your teenagers is long and high and wide and deep.
2. You are praying for them. A lot. Here’s the thing: I know this because you ask me to pray for them too, and I do. You ask for prayers for your teens more than you ask for prayers for yourself. You worry about their health, their sanity, their pressure, their workloads. You want them to know God, you want them to be happy, you want them to succeed. I know you, moms and dads of Christian teens, and I know you pray.
3. You are working hard to provide for them.  You’re juggling demanding jobs in business, education, law, medicine, retail, hospitality and a myriad of other industries. Some of you work the night shift so you can spend time with your teens during the day. Some of you work two jobs. I see where you spend your money: you spend it on them. If you can, you are saving it for college, using it to support extra curricular activities, making your home. I don’t see you spending money on lavish things for yourselves.
3. You brag about them. I read your Facebook posts and spy on your Instagram photos. I see you talking about that lunch you had with your teen and that touchdown he made. You’re proud of your kids and they know it.
4. You remember their past and envision their future. You tell me stories about what they were like when they were little and share your dreams of what you hope they will become. You’re thinking about these things, constantly. I know, because you tell me. You tell me how your little boy used to splash in the tub and you say things like “I know she’s going to make a difference in this life.” You can’t believe that they’ve grown up so fast and to you they are still so young, so little, so unprepared to step out in to the world. Yet, you bravely lead them there, to where they need to go, and you pray. A lot. (Remember #2?)
5. You support their interests and endeavors. I’m talking to you Mamas of Eagle Scouts and Papas of Viola champions. I see you in the grandstands and the ceremonies. You skip church meetings for their games and their practices, and I’m proud of you for that.
6. You are keeping track of “what’s next.” You missed church last Sunday because you were on a college tour, and your teen can’t come help at church activities on Saturday mornings because she’s got a college prep test, or school work, or other school activity. You’re working hard to make sure when your child graduates from High School she’s academically prepared for what is to come.
7. You care about their spiritual well-being. You manifest this care and concern in different ways. Some of you drag your teens to church by their ears when they don’t want to go. Some of you have deep, engaging conversations with your teens around the dinner table. Some of you feel at a loss for how to connect your kids with faith and belief, though it’s deeply important to you. Maybe I can help you or point you to resources that might be of assistance, but the last thing you need is a lecture that you’re not doing it right.
8.  You are looking for help. You are reading parenting books, asking for parenting advice, seeking out communities that can share ideas. You aren’t satisfied with the status-quo; you want to be excellent. My pastor’s heart sometimes feels burdened for you, because I worry you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Parenting is hard. Parenting teens is really hard. You already know it, but it’s a good reminder — no book or blog post is going to give you everything you need.
9. You are helping them with moral and ethical decisions. When you come to me, the questions are usually complicated and the answers are not clear cut. You have to help your teen make choices about boundaries and sexuality and respect for their own lives and you also have to help them make sense of the brokenness and chaos of the world around them. It’s an impossible task, and you bravely take it on, because you know your teen needs you most of all.
10. You’re doing the best you can. Despite all of your efforts sometimes things don’t go smoothly. Your teens are sometimes in trouble, you are sometimes in trouble, and you almost always blame yourself when this happens. I wish you wouldn’t. It’s not that you are blameless (nobody is). It’s that in the overwhelming majority of cases you’re using every tool available to you. Maybe someone has some more tools they can share with you, but piling on guilt and feelings of inadequacy won’t help you to be a better parent. Be gentle with yourself, remember #1, and ask for help when you need it.
Good job, Mamas and Papas of teens! I’ll be giving you a call in about 12 years.

Sankofa, 눈 웃음, and Ubuntu

 © 2014 Traci Smith

© 2014 Traci Smith

Three words were the heart of today’s sermon. Each word is a word that is not easily rendered back in to English with just one word. Today’s sermon felt very personal to me and I shared a lot of thoughts in a different way than I normally do. Hope you enjoy reflecting on these three words with me as well.
The first, sankofa, means “to reach back and get it.” I heard of this concept when researching the meaning behind of The Fray’s compelling song Run for your life.  It turns out that the song is based on the idea that, as the lead singer of the Fray says “If your village burns down, go back to it and pick through the ashes and find anything good and then take it with you and leave and never look back.” ​I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week how, first, it’s hard to go back to the ashes in the first place, to confront tragedy and try and pick out meaningful pieces to take with us. But then, the opposite is true, too, that sometimes once we find something in the ashes of tragedy, we aren’t able to “leave and never look back.” Isn’t it true that we are drawn, sometimes, to return to the same ashes over and over again, hoping that there will be more there, when all the treasure is gone. Sankofa.
The second, 눈 웃음 is the shape that your eyes make when you are smiling and laughing. When I talked about this today, I told some stories of cute things that kids have said about things like kissing and romantic love. So sweet, so endearing and so very guaranteed to make your eyes make that semi-circle, archy, crescent shape either through laughter or smiles. One of my favorites is this one little girl’s answer to the question “what is romantic love?”  Sarah, age 9 said, “Romantic adults are usually all dressed up, so if they are wearing jeans it might mean that they used to go out… or that they just broke up.”  My other favorite was Camille’s strategy for making someone fall in love with you. Camille is also 9, and she says “Shake your hips and hope for the best.” Did you feel your eyes do it?   눈 웃음
The third thing I talked about this morning is ubuntu. The idea that we our common humanity both sustains us and also makes us responsible for each other. “Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”
Sankofa. 눈 웃음, ubuntu.  What do you think? 
For further reading/watching 
Run for Your Life, by the Fray. Story of the song HERE. Studio version HERE. Live acoustic HERE.