The Rev. Dr. Wes Avram, senior pastor at Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, shares both his thoughts and his experiences
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — With help from Hartmut Rosa’s book “Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World,” the Rev. Dr. Wes Avram, the senior pastor at Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the director of the church’s Center for Faith and Life spoke Wednesday as part of the Synod of the Covenant’s Equipping Preachers series.
In “Resonance,” Rosa discusses the impacts of four alliterative words: Acceleration, Amplification, Accumulation and Alienation. Avram invited the nearly 30 participants Wednesday to “think together abut how to be impactful preachers” in cultures shaped by those four forces.
Rosa says churches and other organizations can be impacted by what he called dynamic stabilization. “If we’re not expanding, we’re contracting,” the thinking goes here, according to Avram. “Our life will be better if we manage to bring more of the world within our reach. This is the mantra of modern life.”
Avram said increasingly, people come to church “looking for something — not for church, but for confirmation, a place where they won’t be challenged. When they’re challenged, they go somewhere else.” More and more people “have less tolerance for being with people different than they are,” he said. “I find it harder and harder to make a point [during a sermon] that might make someone uncomfortable.”
Avram asked those in attendance: Where are we as preachers? Where are our congregations as hearers? Where are our churches as agents?
While “our communities are fragile,” we “want to claim a space and be a word of grace and confidence and be agents in the world. How can we do that?” Avram asked.
“I see my task as offering a prophetic alternative, to paint a picture of what living in the kingdom of heaven is,” said one participant, adding, “I think people are feeling that pessimism” that Avram and Rosa spoke of.
“There is a streak of pessimism here, but we have the antidote. We are living it,” Avram said, sharing with the group the story behind a letter he received from a parishioner. “I didn’t know her well, but I had the impression this was an intact family doing well,” Avram said. “This letter was eye-opening for me.” The woman wrote that when she first started attending the church, she was experiencing depression and aimlessness. “I was lost in so many ways and didn’t know where to go,” she wrote. “Slowly over time, the church healed me and my family.”
“I need to know more about people’s lives and more about the slow work of the church, which has an impact,” Avram said.
As the pandemic was coming to an end, a member of the Pinnacle staff “was relentless about saying, ‘We just need to be together. Let’s throw food at people. Who cares how much it costs?’”
“She was absolutely right,” Avram said. “Sometimes irrespective of all the calculations, we just act.” There are plenty of scriptural accounts of the results of such action, Avram said.
One participant, a commissioned ruling elder in training who’s new to preaching, said he’s looking for “relevance and resonance” when he takes to the pulpit. A mentor advised him “not only to analyze the Scripture, but the congregation” before writing his sermon. “What is wonderful,” this participant said, “is that they see hope in me.”
“Building on our comments on anxiety, I also think there is an underlying sense of shame,” one participant wrote. “In my progressive members it shows up as despair and in my conservative members as anger. To talk about the difficult things and name them, I feel like I need to constantly be aware of both anxiety and shame — trying to find the common ground while speaking faithfully to the Gospel in our time and place.”
“The cross is the antidote to shame,” Avram said, “and that’s been done already.”
In his own preaching, Avram said he’s asking more questions of late and offering fewer answers. “I wonder if the right question might open up the logjam for people. What difference would it make if you heard the text this way? I know a question might evoke some creative wrestling inside of them.”
Earlier this year, Avram’s mother died at age 92. She left behind an impressive library that included five boxes of cookbooks. “She didn’t cook, but she still collected cookbooks,” Avram said. Wondering why, Avram said, “I realized for her cooking was a mystery. There was always more to learn. She would buy a cookbook at a used book sale because it promised something new.” Even if she never tried even one recipe in the cookbook, “it was there as a promise. For my mother, it was not about cooking. It was about having the world available in her kitchen.”
The next speaker in the Equipping Preachers series is the Rev. Dr. Aimee Moiso, the associate director of the Louisville Institute. Moiso’s talk, set for 10 a.m. Eastern Time on Aug. 2, will be on “Caring for the Preacher’s Soul.” People living outside the bounds of the Synod of the Covenant are welcome to attend. Learn more and register here.
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