When people listened to your most recent sermon, what did they learn about God?
What did they learn about God's nature?
What did they learn about God's character?
What did they learn about God's actions within the human heart?
What did they learn about God's saving grace for all?
Our sermons reveal who we believe God to be and how we believe God acts.
How clear are you about your beliefs?
The Backstory Preaching Collective-Plus community received the gift of a wonderful lecture last week by Professor Emeritus, Ronald J. Allen, the just-retired Professor of Preaching and Gospels and Letters, Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis.
He asked us to consider our "embedded theology" (quoting a phrase by colleague Helene Russell).
Our embedded theology is the theology we absorbed without trying.
Our embedded theology is the understanding of God we inherited through our families, churches of origin, schools, community and nation.
It's the understanding we have of God that is accepted, often uncritically.
We believe it's true theology just because it's "true;" it's what we were told, explicitly and implicitly, about God.
Some of the embedded theology I hope you absorbed is true and lasting, like "God is love." But other beliefs about God may not be helpful...or even true.
When we are asked to critically reflect on our embedded theology (for many of us during seminary or formation programs), it can feel like the fabric of our universe is being torn asunder.
When our embedded theology is challenged
What does it mean if the God we staked our lives upon, the one who ordered our days and decisions, turns out not be who we thought!
That's a frightening state of affairs.
We may not know on what or whom we can rely anymore.
We may wonder where to get questions answered.
We may question whether the once-firm ground we stand upon is actually quicksand.
But when we learn that the true God is one who is more than the one we were handed—more gracious, more loving, more forgiving—we are set free from the confining parameters we placed on God.
We can feel liberated and awestruck by God's amazing otherness.
Rewriting our embedded theology
Even though it's usually a very good thing to learn God is more than we previously understood, those early beliefs are still so much a part of our spirit's and brain's very cells, we may nevertheless spend the rest of our lives dissembling ourselves from those early-life "givens."
Here are three unhelpful strands of my embedded theological DNA I'm still rewriting.
God is (exclusively) male.
I've come to learn that God is more than a "man" sitting on a throne. God is also female Wisdom, and Jesus longs to love and protect us by gathering us under her wings, like a mother hen brooding over her chicks (Matthew 23:37). God is intimate, vulnerable Spirit who so feels our needs and pain that when we are too weak to pray ourselves, she takes over "with sighs too deep for words" (Rom. 8:26).
It's liberating to see myself as female who was also made in God's image. And yet the truth is, to refer to God in male terms is my "first language," and to reference God in any other way is awkwardly to translate into a second one. It pains and saddens me to know the latter will never be my native tongue.
Jesus isn't always compassionate.
I have come to believe Jesus is always compassionate. He is always willing to suffer alongside us, to endure our hardships with us. However, that doesn't mean my gut doesn't sometimes still react and feel shamed by Jesus, as if I'm back in junior high being chastised by the teacher when class got out of control: "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?" (Mt. 17:17).
I can't help but imagine myself having those words directed at me by Jesus; it makes me shrivel inside. I have to expend some mental energy to finish the story and recall that Jesus still went on to heal the boy the disciples failed to cure.
God forgives everyone—except me.
God is more than forgiving: God stays with us while forgiveness sinks in. God goes with us to the depths of Sheol, stands next to us while we refuse to join the party, and makes night as light as the day while we try to force the sun to rise.
I know all this, and just the same, I still sometimes feel like I'm the exception to the rule.
My embedded theology may sometimes say otherwise, but life experience and careful reading of scripture tell me God is more than male, God is always compassionate, and God forgives everyone, including me. I probably won't ever write completely over my unhelpful embedded theology, but being aware of it makes me very careful with the God I present in my sermons because I don't want to accidentally let my unhelpful and untrue embedded theology slip out over my true beliefs about the actual God who is always more than I can imagine.
How about you? How aware are you of your embedded theology? What do you do to ensure your unhelpful beliefs don't accidentally slip out in your sermons?
Who did you say God is?
At Backstory Preaching we talk a lot about the God we present in our sermons to make sure we offer the attributes and actions of God we truly believe.
I invite you to join me for a deep dive into your theology of preaching during Sermon Camp for preachers.
Runs for six weeks, August 5th to September 11th.
Based on our e-Course Craft an Effective Sermon by Friday, you'll work with me and your peers to reflect not only on your theology, but how to pray a sermon into being so God feeds you spiritually in the process.
Bonus: You'll learn how to get your sermons prepared before the weekend so you also have time to play!
Enroll by Sunday, July 29th, to take advantage of our Early Bird discount.