Typically (since our gatherings at Bloom are in the evenings) on Sunday afternoon, after all my preaching preparation is done, I’ll try to grab one final hour alone to process through what’s about to happen, wrestle with the text a bit more, pray, etc etc. Those are good, centering hours.
Yesterday I found myself journaling as I prepared my heart to preach. It is good, I think, sometimes to step back and ask all the questions all over again. I find that in the midst of the weekly pressure of “Sunday’s comin”, it is easy to lose touch with one’s deepest passion and ideals. We humans depend on remembrance for our very lives.
So I journaled through what I think are some primary questions for the spiritual formation of preachers. After writing them, I thought they may be useful reflections for others who labor in the “ministry of the word” as it is called. So I offer them to you who weekly serve God’s people with your speech. Be blessed, and encouraged. What you do matters.
Why do I preach? Why am I a preacher?
One doesn’t, I think, choose this so much as one is chosen by it. I preach because I cannot do otherwise. I preach because this God has grabbed me by the heart and yanked me–continually yanks me, sometimes against my will–into it. I preach because I feel, right or wrong, that to walk away from this would be to walk away from God. He burns in me. It burns in me–“it” being God’s speech, his word, his heart, for his people. I feel, I really feel, his pain and passion. I have to speak. I cannot do otherwise.
What is preaching?
To preach is to open a window to a new world. Modern life presents to us a very narrow range of possibilities for being a human. The text on the other hand invites us into a vast and variegated range of potentialities for living life in deep, profound, beautiful, life-giving ways. It beckons us to imagine that death is not the final word (in spite of much evidence to the contrary), that justice will win the day (in spite of much evidence to the contrary), and that there is a Holy Presence at the center of life that lights all things up with love (in spite of much evidence to the contrary). Preaching is standing between the people and the text, allowing it to be such a window, and saying to them, “Have a look.”
What are the critical elements of preaching?
Attentiveness. Imagination. Patience. Love.
Attentiveness because I cannot preach without first having attended to the text, and to the God the text points to, well. Preparation for preaching is largely and perhaps singularly an act of attentiveness. What is happening in this text? When I set it against other portions of what is written, what sorts of resonances go off? What is happening in this congregation? In modern life? What is God doing in me, right now? What is he saying? Our singular attentiveness at the intersection of all of these questions (and more) is where the Qol Adonai, the voice of God, is heard.
Imagination because I cannot preach without a lively curiosity, a mind and heart capable of seeing the manifold connections between this text and this moment and these lives, right here, right now. Imagination is not simply something that some are given and others aren’t. The imagination can be kindled, stoked. We train ourselves to see our lives through the lens of the text, to imagine our lives anciently, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, to hear the prophet Amos bellowing at us now, to see modern life under the critique of the Sermon on the Mount. Without imagination, I cannot preach.
Patience because insight and imagination may come in a flash, but they are not quick, cheap, or easy. I will have to bleed over this coming moment. I will have to sometimes study and pray and still find myself empty on inspiration, desperate for that “aha” moment that puts it all together–a moment that I cannot manipulate, manage, or wave a magic wand over. I will have to be disciplined enough to wait… and wait… and wait… and when I thought I’ve done enough waiting, to wait some more.
And I absolutely cannot preach without great love because this is not a performance (even if it has “performative” aspects) and I am not doing this to make a name for myself and because preaching is always about THIS word for THIS people at THIS precise moment, and I cannot speak to them as I ought without a certain “affect” in my heart for them.
What do I fear most in preaching?
Feeling that I spoke, but God was absent. That is the feeling that strikes fear in my heart more than any other, for the critical thing in any message is this: did God pick up my speech and do more with it than it would have done on its own? The longing for transcendence, connection, for Fire, for the Breath… that longing is the thing that drives the preacher to his or her knees, for the preacher knows that YHWH’s unique presence and voice in a sermon is not reducible to formulae or strategies; He will not bow to our systems or to the so-called “tricks of the trade”; he resists subjection and pigeonholing. He is no jester, no dancing monkey. He will not be mocked. He is Holy God…
…and yet, He is so kind. “Oh don’t leave me!” I cry out from the center of myself each Sunday. “Stay with me; speak through me; elevate my stammerings to the level of your gentle guidance for your people, and may they through it be blessed and helped.”
And I find that He does. Often in spite of me as much as anything else. He craves encounter with His people, knowing that they depend on His speech for their very lives. So He will do his talking, one way or another.
But that feeling… “Oh don’t leave me!”… and the joy that comes when we find that our speech really has been so elevated… there, right there, is the pain and passion of the preacher. And they, I think, if they’re really called… they simply cannot do otherwise.