(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’m doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)
If you’ve been following this series of posts so far, one of the things you’ve noticed (and perhaps are frustrated with) is how little I’ve said about things like actual sermon prep, using good illustrations, delivery, and all the other technical stuff about preaching. Instead, I’ve tried to focus more on “big picture” philosophical issues, and within them, the issues of personal formation as a preacher that I think are central to any attempt to speak meaningfully about preaching as a task and vocation. I promise I will address some of the technical stuff (look to coming lessons 6-10 on that), but for now I want to continue to talk about the kind of life we must live if we are to not only last but thrive in this beautiful and daunting challenge of opening up windows to the kingdom for the people of God each week.
And with that, Lesson 4:
A basic discipline for the preacher is the discipline of whole-life attentiveness.
One of the things that used to baffle me when I was a kid was the sheer volume of really poignant content our pastor was able to come up with. And I’m not talking new biblical or theological content either (which is easy to come by if you’re studious enough). I’m talking about the kind of content that might, in a different time, been called “testimony”–i.e., stories and examples from his own life and the lives of people in our community that illustrated just how God was actually present and at work. That always amazed me. In fact, it sometimes made me wonder if he lived a more romantic, exciting existence than the rest of us.
Then I started grappling with my own call as a preacher. And some of the things we’ve been talking about over the last few weeks started coming into focus. And as I journeyed with God and became more deeply acquainted with what the nature of his activity looks like as it is recorded in the Scripture, my vision sharpened up. And before too long, I started seeing God everywhere, in everything.
It really didn’t matter what I was doing. I could be reading a book. I could be jogging. I could be watching a movie. I could be sitting in a counseling session with someone. I could be walking around downtown. I could be making a new friend. I could be holding one of my babies, or laughing raucously with my wife over something silly. I could be dealing with an interpersonal conflict, or weeping in prayer over some injustice in the world. It could be anything.
But in it, I would see God and Gospel and Kingdom at work, and all the nuance and subtlety of the biblical world gradually became the nuance and subtlety of my own lived existence–the drama of redemption playing out at every moment in my own life and experience.
You just have to develop eyes to see.
It takes time, though, to develop such eyes. I remember being really impressed the first time I read through Annie Dillard’s masterful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In one of her chapters she describes the experience of some of the first recipients of the newly pioneered surgery for cataracts around the turn of the 19th century. Folks that could not see at all were suddenly given the gift of sight. BUT–and here’s the interesting part–when light first flooded their eyes, they didn’t see what you and I see. Their experience of sight, as they recorded it, was that of near blinding light and shapeless color–like newborn babies, it took time for them to begin to make sense of what they were seeing. A wooden chair, for instance, may feel one way to a person that cannot see. But beholding the chair is an entirely different experience–at first glance, a nearly incommensurate experience to that of feeling the chair. Of course, eventually the two ways of perceiving become synoptic, and one experiences the world with a newfound depth and power. BUT, again… it takes time. To be able to interpret the light one sees and categorize it meaningfully requires both the strengthening of our sight and the requisite wisdom to be able to know what one is seeing.
That’s really an apt metaphor for the whole life of the disciple, which, as I contend, is what the preacher is before they are anything else. We–all of us–are like the blind man in Mark who begs Jesus to heal him. When Jesus spits in his eyes and lays hands on him, the man receives his sight, but only partially. “I see people,” he says, “they look like trees walking around” (Mk 8:24). And so once again, Jesus places his hands on the man’s eyes, and his sight was restored fully.
That, I think, is just how it is with us. As we journey with Jesus, he keeps placing his hands on our eyes and healing our ability to see, so that increasingly we see with eyes healed by the kingdom, in order to perceive the kingdom.
It’s not hard. But it does take time. This is probably in part what was behind E. M. Bounds’ saying that it takes 20 years to make a sermon, because it takes 20 years to make a man. As our character develops and matures in the sight of God, so also does our ability to behold the work of God in and around us. We begin to perceive it with a nuance that would have been impossible when we first started. And when we stand up to preach, again, we’re not just parroting abstractions at people. We’re speaking out of the depths, right into the depths. Because, of course, the depths are all around us, just waiting to be named.
Sometimes when I’m telling some story or giving some illustration during a message, I fret a bit that my listeners will think that my life is more charmed or interesting than it really is. I fret about it because the truth is that my life is probably, on the surface, far less charming or interesting than many of their lives. I’m a busy pastor in his 30’s with a wife and four kids. My life mostly orbits around those primary obligations, and there’s not a lot of room for superfluous intrigue. I wake up early. I work. I come home. We eat and put the kids in bed. I read some. We watch TV for awhile. We fall asleep. It’s really as hum-drum as it comes.
What I’ve discovered is that the life God has given me (and each one of us) is chock full of glory. There’s more than enough there. It is sufficient for a communion with God, a manifestation of the glory of God, that is as robust as any of the great saints and mystics ever had. That is how God has set it up.
We just have to develop eyes to see.
And the only way we do is by walking with God. Every moment, every hour, every day… until the days pass into weeks, which pass into months, which pass into years… and before long, the words of the Psalmist go from poetic rhapsody to a straightforward description of how we experience the world: “the unfailing love of YHWH fills the earth…”
Probably no one I know has expressed this better than Frederick Buechner. He writes:
If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. (from Listening to Your Life, p. 2)
If you learn to do this, you’ll always have more than enough to say.