Many of you know, I’ve been working for awhile on a manuscript on the book of Acts, It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us. That is now in the hands of readers. It’s been a rewarding process thus far and hopefully I’ll have it published soon. I’ve got other writing projects simmering which I work on here and there. I’m at a place in my career where I kind of know if my ideas are ripe.
This week, I spent an hour or so seeing if I could express the main idea behind my next writing project. Let me know what you think.
I know the pressures of preaching every week. While I have preached somewhat regularly since I was eighteen, for the eleven years I preached each week Sundays came at me like fence posts on the interstate. It was hard to catch my breath. I would preach a sermon Sunday morning, suffer post-sermon depression Sunday night, and be faced with a blank page Monday morning. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Add to the relentlessness of sermon preparation the pressures of weekly congregational ministry—a mixture of the sacred and numbingly mundane, all of which take on the mask of urgency—and the amount of time for sermon preparation is squeezed even more. I know people who have never done ministry have little appreciation for what it involves from day-to-day. I’ve had people ask me if I spent forty hours a week writing my sermons. What else could I possibly be doing? Truth be told, some weeks five hours on sermon writing seems like a luxury.
Also, preaching is just a high wire act. It takes nerve to say something on behalf of the gospel to a people who are dying to hear good news. The pressures for the sermon to deliver health and life come from all sides. The preaching moment brings together simultaneously the demands related to representing God, Scripture, and congregation. The pressures related to these kinds of responsibilities are daunting to anyone with a lick of self-awareness.
But I also know the thrill of the sermon–the way the preaching moment fills me with something life giving in ways that nothing else does. I’ve spent the past twenty years in the academy, which offers fewer opportunities to preach. I don’t miss preaching much until I do it. Then I remember. I remember what a fulfilling thing it is to connect people’s lives to God through the medium of speech. I remember how my body feels as every fiber of my being reaches for both a word and a real connection with listeners. I know the satisfying feeling of being spent and poured out, and yet of being filled and sustained. I feel alive when I preach.
I remember the way that preparing sermons invites me into creative, imaginative work. I need this kind of creative outlet, which can be elusive in the increasingly bureaucratic world of academia, filled as it is with reports and budgets and assessments of student learning. I need a creative encounter with an “other,” a reality greater than myself, that calls to me and longs for an expression through me. When I write a sermon, I remember my love for how texts move and do their work, and the corresponding task of figuring out how the sermon could similarly move and take up the work of a living text. I remember what it is to be surprised by a sermon as it takes a direction I didn’t anticipate. I love ink on a page.
This book is an attempt to express these two realities related to preaching in the form of a spirituality. Preachers are often torn between the limits of their capacities, and the unequaled sense of fulfillment that preaching provides. As I will point out, both sides of this tension possess temptations powerful enough to undo a preacher. But I also believe that this tension is built in to preaching and, if attended to, both requires and produces a spirituality.
This book is not a spirituality for preaching, though that would be a worthwhile book as well. I am suggesting instead that the practices related to preaching comprise a spirituality. It is possible that the ways we conceive of and practice sermon preparation and delivery can hold our lives before God. The sermon can be a real participation in the life of God.
I know from my own life that I’m in a better place when I’m preaching regularly. My life has focus and shape when I’m preaching week in and week out–focus and shape that are more elusive apart from the regular practices of sermon preparation and delivery. I have found that preaching can be a way of loving God and neighbor that centers one’s life in the mystery of knowing God. It’s not just that preaching involves Scripture or is necessarily speech about God, though these aspects of preaching are spiritually significant. Beyond these realities, I believe the sustainability of a preaching life requires perspectives on the self in relation to God, God’s people, and God’s world that constitute a stance, or a posture, that is healthy and God-centered. And that this perspective on the self has methodological implications. It matters, spiritually speaking, how you prepare a sermon.
It is, of course, possible to be a good speaker and deliver effective messages and be a spiritual wreck. One of my preaching heroes is the British theologian, P.T. Forsyth. In his 1907 work, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, he writes about preachers whose sermons are felt to be “productions,” as opposed to “real doings with the living God.” It’s possible to read texts strip mining for sermon gold and not be seized by them or drawn up into the mysterious worlds they describe. It’s possible to care more about how the sermon reflects on you and your reputation, than to care about the people who are listening for a word of hope.
I’d like to think that this kind of preaching isn’t sustainable over the long haul. I know enough former preachers to think this notion has some credence. But even if it proves not to be the case, who wouldn’t want the practice of preaching to be spiritually enlivening? If the way we approached preaching from beginning to end was a way to attend to God, not just to a sermon, wouldn’t that be a desirable thing?
I’m not offering here “prayers for effective sermon preparation,” or “songs to inspire great sermons,” or anything along those lines. I offer instead a way of moving from text to sermon around the word “form.” The text wants to per-form. The preacher seeks to con-form to the movement of the text, so that the sermon might be an embodied per-form-ance of a living word. This might sound too simple, even contrived, to deliver what I’ve proposed. Maybe so. But I hope I’ve created enough curiosity to bring you into a conversation about preaching as a form of spirituality.