Preaching

I believe I mentioned (a few posts ago) that I’ve been reflecting on and re-thinking my perspective on preaching… wondering why and how and in what way I believe it should be done.  I remember listening to my father preach during my growing-up years. I connected with his style. He is passionate about exegesis and about teaching both theology and praxis, mapping out what the author and The Author are doing in a passage so that we can grasp it and live into that truth. He’s an academic and an intellectual (little wonder I connected with his style, eh? 🙂 ).

Over the years, I have heard many other preachers as well, both men and women.  I’ve heard the three-point preachers (this is what it means, go and do this in your life, ultra-practical), the soap-box preachers (every topic is political in nature, they’ve got the answer to every current controversy), the scare-tactic preachers (who either want to scare you into heaven or out of hell or out of your current sin), and the the feel-good preachers (God loves you no matter what, you don’t need to change a thing).  I’m obviously over-generalizing these categories… and to be honest, each one of these stereo-types has its strength. There is reason to be scared. There is reason to feel very safe and secure in God’s Love. Christian faith IS political, and scripture IS of course practical to our lives.

I am struggling, though, to figure out who I am as a preacher. I am partly all of these things: an intellectual, a political activist, practical, passionate, compassionate… and on top of being this strange mix of things, I also have a growing conviction that when we as preachers do the practical application FOR our listeners, we can actually make lazy disciples. Lord knows, we don’t need any more of these. Every person should be doing their own application, because the application will be unique to each of them in their own personal context.  So bottom line– I cannot hear myself preaching as any of those aforementioned preachers, and not exactly like any of the preachers I have had the privilege of hearing over the course of my life (those some of those have connected very closely with me and my style). I want to be uniquely me when I preach. I simply haven’t figured out how to do that yet.

Beyond the question of ‘how do I, Kris Anne, preach’ is another more general struggle. I am having my doubts about how preaching for 30-40 minutes is helpful to the Body of Christ. No one listens for that long (I believe studies have shown that the longest anyone can listen is about 10-15 minutes). So why do we keep going on for another 15-20? I know it is vitally important to teach scripture. I recognize the role that scripture plays in shaping the people of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit. I love working with scripture and delving into it WITH people! And that is exactly the problem. Preaching isn’t done in conversation… it’s the preacher talking about what they think, what they believe, what they alone hear the text saying. It’s a very narrow perspective, though I’m sure they hear a message from God that is important and truthful. I know I’m called. I know I’m gifted… as of yet, I’m just not comfortable with that kind of monologue. Part of it may be that I just need practice, but another part of it is that I do not believe preaching a 30-40 minute sermon from behind a podium, in front of a gathered congregation in the pew, is what preaching was in the Old or New Testaments.

My pastor and mentor at Highland Park Community Church gave me a book on Sunday. I started reading it immediately, because my next sermon is coming up at the end of October (yikes!). The book Jayne gave me is called Countdown to Sunday: a daily guide for those who dare to preach by Chris Erdman. I am devouring it (almost literally! … I have to give this copy back to her, though, so I am trying to refrain). Erdman talks about the life and ministry of pastors, and doing preaching “on the run.” This does not mean short-cutting the study. He believes in hardcore exegesis! What it does mean is that the old-school pastor’s schedule (spend the entire morning in study and sermon-prep, spend your afternoons and evenings with people) does not apply. Study of scripture is sprinkled throughout the pastor’s life; meditation on what you’ve studied is done in the car, by the bedside, during the meetings.  I haven’t finished the book yet, but I also gather that “preaching on the run” is done without a manuscript, or even extensive notes.  The information and the scripture have marinated inside the preacher all week, as she has lived and worked among the people– thus, when she gets up there in front of her people to preach, all the things that she needs to include, to fill out and support her BIG IDEA, come naturally forth.  Not to say that no planning has been done… her big idea (or main point) is firmly fixed. She knows where she’s going. What she allows to be born in her in that moment, is HOW to get there. That part is not planned ahead of time.

I’m playing around with this idea. Is this the kind of preacher I am? …not sure yet. So far it feels right, though. Totally scary, but right.  As I often do, I offer some quotes from the book, in closing. Let me know what you think.

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“The truth is costly. It is not safe. It runs up against the powers of death that would sooner have us cocooned inside safe, gated communities or behind safe, gated sermons that comfort people and assure them that their desire to live long, wealthy, and healthy lives is just what the gospel wants them to have– all the while living lives locked inside a banal existence, terrified by death, and supporting anything and anyone that will promise to keep us safe… The prophets rarely said what the powers wanted them to say; instead they dropped their masks, opened a vein and bled for God… and blood heals, in more ways than one” (p. 21-22).

“I am free to live in the moment, with the sense of God with me and me with God. I am free to trust in the truth of God and therefore free to preach more humanly. To be me. To celebrate the creative Word. To utter these words with wild abandonment to their own power. To trust that my fragile words have a creative power that is not my own. All God asks is that I speak lovingly, daringly, and as truthfully as possible, dropping my masks, opening a vein, and bleeding” (p. 26).

“Preaching for me invariably falls flat, is too much work, and fails to be honest and free when I am too self-conscious– when I’m worried and anxious about the task of preparing the text and hosting it among the people, when I’m worried and anxious about how I am doing and if I’m right enough or good enough or relevant enough. After many years at it and among various congregations, preaching is at its best in me precisely when I am LEAST self-conscious, when I am absorbed in the moment, when I care as little as I possibly can about how I’m coming across to the congregation; when I am engaged, present, absorbed in or actually inhabiting the text as if lost in rapt attentiveness and adoration” (p. 32).

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O God, please reveal to me who I am as preacher. Teach me how to faithfully “host” the text among your people. Teach me how to inhabit the text in the moment of preaching… and to truly see the people who are seated before me in that moment. Help me to bleed.  Amen.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jayne W.
    Sep 29, 2008 @ 21:58:52

    KAS … You know the saying, “Love God and Do What You Want” from a thirteenth century saint? We mostly read that with our eyes fixated on the part about Doing What We Want; the part that makes our hearts leap. But the truth is that it is secondary to the first part, the harder part, the part that demands of us a lifetime of commitment in discovering how to Love God. Once we have that under our belt … uh, right. … then doing what we want is only what God wants us to do anyway. It is the fruit of us Loving God.

    What does this have to do with your post? ReRead Eerdman. Particularly the first chapter. Your heart is leaping at the kind of prophet you long to be, but that is secondary to the life it costs (or death, to be more precise) to shape the prophet God uses. It is his whole point.

    Eerdman starts the paragraph on ‘bleeding’ with the point of “relinquishing our masks”, or our falsehood. “It’s about dying to all that makes us false, letting the Sunday text strip us down, carry us under the waters of our baptism, and rising newborn—witnesses of a w/holy different life.” We bear all the cost of preaching… in our own souls.

    If we must fixate our eyes anywhere, it is here on our own death. Then—only then—do we become God’s mouthpiece. I read this book when I encountered the depth of my own frailties as a preacher — which became my own death. You are reading this with several more rungs to fall.

    Don’t ask for help to bleed. Ask to die. If you dare. SMILE.

    love you, j.

    Reply

  2. Mike
    Sep 30, 2008 @ 23:11:45

    I remember this same question—well a variant of it, anyway—as I struggled to find my identity as a teacher. Or maybe I should say “as I struggled with my identity as a teacher.”

    What does it mean to teach? What does it mean for me to teach? What does it mean for me to teach what I teach? What does it mean for me to teach what I teach where I teach it? This was me, for a long time.

    Still is.

    But here’s the funny thing that popped into my head as I was thinking about my struggle with my identity and it hearkens me back to your idea of working with a congregation in preaching just as I work with students in teaching.

    With is a word with an interesting history. In the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) language, there were two distinct words that have been subsumed by our Modern English with. One was myd, a word that meant what we usually mean when we say “with”: side-by-side, among, together. But the Modern with also subsumes the meaning of the Anglo-Saxon word wyð (which is pronounced mostly like Modern with): against, in contention, struggling.

    Like we will often say we “fought with” someone, or are “at war with” some nation, or “struggle with” our identities.

    I guess I’m wondering here, how we can have a both/and relationship with with; or more germanely to your post, how we can struggle not against so much as within. How can we take an active role in understanding our identities, as much as being receptive to revelation? How can we define, craft, shape, and hone our own “style” in ways that still answer our vocations and meet the needs of those around us? How can we shape our message to our classes and congregations, yet still remain faithful to what we’re there to do and to ourselves?

    Lots more questions than answers here. But I’m wondering now what it might look like to struggle and question within rather than with our faiths and values, beliefs and vocations, training and contexts.

    Hmmmm….

    Reply

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