As you get older, your self-perception changes. My fiancé will tell you that I tend to regale my former athletic accomplishments ad nauseam, because now to look at me and the way I move you could scarcely believe that I have any. These days I live with a constant reminder that “my outer nature is wasting away.”
So, I now have a category that is increasingly defining life in ways that exclude me: “that’s a young man’s game.” And preaching is a young man’s game.
Now there are all kinds of sociological reasons for this. Congregations like young, energetic preachers with young, beautiful families. I know, because I used to be one and I’ve been replaced by one. But my sense that preaching is a young man’s game has nothing to do with that.
Preaching is so physical. It’s embodied. It’s not just giving a speech or making a presentation. It’s a projection of ethos and pathos as much as it is logos. It comes from the toes and you feel it in your spine and its orchestrated with your hands and projected in resonance with a voice. And these things are slipping away from me.
I’ve written here about my tremors and recent surgeries to help reduce them. I’ve had to make adjustments along the way to keep my trembling hands from being a distraction to both me and my listeners. The surgeries have helped with that, along with the overall sense of my body and head trembling. But one thing the surgeries don’t address is the way my voice is affected.
I don’t know how all of this works, but there are days when my voice is thin, reedy, and shaky. It simply has no resonance. I can’t project, and the longer I talk the worse it gets. There’s no rhyme or reason to it that I can detect. Somedays I have a good voice, somedays I don’t. And the days I don’t are becoming far more numerous.
Some of my best friends are youngish preachers who are growing into their voice. In other words, they are physically becoming present in a way while preaching so that voice, posture, and message go together. And I am so proud of them. But watching them also reminds me that I am losing that.
When I play basketball these days (which is rare), I still see the things I used to see. I see the opening in the lanes. I can still even see myself taking a dribble a step and getting to the rim. But I can no longer accomplish what I see. I’m no longer a basketball player. I’m someone getting exercise. I have a similar relationship with preaching these days. I know what it feels like to have message, body, and voice all in alignment, but I can’t get my body and voice to respond the way they used to. Am I still a preacher? Or am I just making speeches?
I’m not writing this in despair or to have my readers feel sorry for me. There are many things I do better now than I’ve ever done them before, including living my life. And I know that I still preach a good sermon. I’m simply marking the change in my self-perception and noting that I’m having to come to a new sense of myself, and of what I do and how I do it.
Two reasons for hope, one tangible and one in prospect. When my tremors were at their worst, I could no longer hold anything while I preached. And since I don’t stand behind a pulpit when I preach, I decided that adjusting meant memorizing my text for each sermon. And I discovered two things: I was good at memorizing. And reciting a text is so much more powerful for the listeners. My weakness led to an adjustment that dramatically improved the experience of my sermons for listeners. So, weakness does not necessarily mean diminishment. I am hopeful that the loss of resonance in my voice might lead to an adjustment in how I conceive sermons and preaching, and that this will similarly add to the experience of the listener.
Here’s the hope in prospect. Paul suffered comparisons in preaching style with Apollos and others who in the preaching moment traded on what the NRSV translates “plausible words of wisdom.” I think the point here is that some of the Corinthians equated wisdom and rhetorical skill. Instead, Paul came “in weakness and fear and in much trembling,” but precisely because of these things his preaching was a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom (read rhetorical brilliance), but on the power of God.”
So, I hope to discover in my weakness the way that I have depended on human wisdom, read a certain kind of preaching ability, and consequently glossed the power of God. And I want to be clear about this. My weakness won’t simply be a getting out of the way so that God can be strong. Rather, my weakness will be the way God is strong. And I have a few ideas about how that might be.
Here’s what I’m trying to believe–that the way I used to preach is a young man’s game. But there’s something better that the way this young man used to preach and my “wasting away” actually serves the better thing that is coming.