The Art of Preaching

It’s a Saturday night, and the words still aren’t coming. I wonder if I should just go to bed and wake up before dawn to finish (spoiler alert: always a bad idea). In every room of the house, it seems, I have left a ring of Bibles and commentaries on beds and floors, with an empty space in the middle where I sat crosslegged with the laptop. Ever since I started preaching, this scene has played out. While my wife and the dog hide out in the bedroom and the cats scramble to get out of my way, I pace the length of our vintage apartment, grumbling to Jesus about the inconvenience of homileticist’s block. (“You have not, because you ask not,” he responds. “I’m just sayin.”)  I walk past the bookshelf and my preaching textbooks from seminary catch my eye. “Maybe I should just re-read one of these,” I wonder to myself, barely recognizing how ludicrous it is to “brush up” on my homiletical skills when I have half a manuscript to write and it’s 12 hours before go-time.

For awhile, I have been telling myself, “If only I were preaching every week, I wouldn’t have this problem. I would get into a regular routine.” Or “I wouldn’t have this problem if I had a full-time ministry job. Being bivocational (or pan-vocational) takes up so much more time and emotional energy.”

These are excuses, of course, the same sort I have always made to distance myself from the fear that I have nothing to say, or that I cannot say it well. It is always more comfortable for me to decide that I do not have control over the outcomes of things. If there is nothing I can do about it, there is no way I can fail. This why I have quit almost everything that has been important to me when it became clear that success or failure depended upon my efforts and not any external circumstance or inborn talent or skill. This immense responsibility without any scrap certainty clenched my spirit into a tight fist of terror, a fist so tight it could no longer reach out and hold the things I once grabbed onto with exuberance and joy: music, poetry, writing.

I have to keep preaching, though. It’s not something that I can quit the way that I once quit music or writing. I can’t stop loving it the way I stopped loving poetry. I’ve already tried that, and God relentlessly pursues me with dreams and signs and wonders. She won’t leave me alone. So I am stuck with preaching for the foreseeable future.

For the past several years, I have tried to tame it by approaching it the way I approached all of my papers in seminary: sit down and by sheer force of will hammer out 1500 words about God, church or justice. Insert a pertinent anecdote or popular culture reference. Don’t re-read or revise. Finish an hour before deadline, print it off, and dash out the door. Each time it happens, I am convicted by the knowledge that I am not doing right by the people to whom I hope to proclaim the Gospel of Peace. I repent and promise to do better. Then, I do it all over again. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate …. I’m a miserable human being. Who will deliver me from this dead corpse?” (Romans 7:15, 24. Common English Bible)

Who indeed?

During the month of July, I found myself preaching three weeks in a row. This almost never happens to me. The first two times, I played out my assigned role in the scene described earlier in this post. Somewhere along the way, I ran across a pastor in Oklahoma City who has stopped drafting manuscripts and started drawing his sermons instead. This intrigued me. I stopped hammering at the computer keyboard and started doodling instead. At the same time, that fist began to unclench. I started reading novels again, old ones that I used to love. I started listening to music again. I began moving my body out in the world. I started talking about things. I kept doodling. I finished my sermon by 5 p.m. on Friday and went out to the movies with my wife and a friend.

I spent that Saturday doing things I loved doing, sleeping in, buying things for the apartment. While we were out shopping for throw pillows Saturday afternoon, I dragged my wife into Blick Art Supplies. I walked up and down the wall length display of notebooks and sketchbooks. I was looking for something in particular. Finally, I settled on a large, blank notebook and some new colored pens. The notebook was thin, with a gray cardboard cover. I loved the way it smelled, and the smooth ivory of its blank pages. Early Sunday, I woke up and crept out of our bed. I pulled out the smooth sheet of copy paper on which I had drawn my sermon, and I transposed it onto the larger area of a two-page spread in my new, beautiful notebook, using my new, beautiful pens. I inhaled deeply. One of my college professors, a kind and passionate redhead who loved Chaucer and Radiohead in equal measure, used to tell her students nearly every day “Art saves lives.” I remembered that, and my unclenching fist was able to extend a finger and poke those words. They shimmered.

Photo credit: Rev. Liz Jones

Photo credit: Rev. Liz Jones

In the pulpit, I started to feel the heavy panic of that enormous control. Of knowing that I had done my best work, and fearing that it was not enough. I looked at that room of folks whom I love, and prayed that I was doing right by them. I remembered that they loved me back, and I felt the fist unclench more.

In the seconds before I started to preach, I hit “record” on my iPhone’s voice memo app. I listened to it the next day, and in a sudden fit of boldness and honesty, I emailed it to a friend. I needed confirmation of my suspicions: that I had poured myself into it and had not failed. She wrote me back. She doesn’t believe in God; even so, between the lines of her email, Jesus teased, “I told you so.”


Sunday Scramble: Emotional Fragility Edition

Here’s a compendium of links that resonated with me last week. Grab an iced coffee and enjoy.

How to minister as an introvert (without burning out) by Craig Greenfield

I am still figuring out how to manage my energy, especially when it’s spread out among three to four different settings. At the same time, there’s a strong temptation for me to hide behind my introversion, use it as an excuse not to engage with people. Craig Greenfield’s three strategies are helpful reminders of ways I can use my own natural ebb and flow, while at the same time challenging myself to build relationships when I would rather stay home and read 🙂

What White Christians and White Churches can do about racism by Tracey Michael

I’ve been preaching a lot of frustrated sermons, it seems like, ever since Treyvon Martin. And I get mad at myself because I’m just talking, usually to a group of white Christians who either 1) already get it or 2) think they already get it, so they can’t listen. I am trying to recommit to doing more than just talking. I’m starting by working through this #Charlestonsyllabus compiled by Keisha N. Blain.

13 Cards Your Anxious Friends Would Seriously Appreciate by Anna Borges

A little Buzzfeed fun, sure, but also some good advice on how to love your anxious friends well. Trust me on this one.

May you experience rest, restoration, and yes, resurrection, on this Sunday.



Jesus Loves Me

This video has been making the rounds on Facebook. It is a clip from a documentary called “There is a Bridge,” which aired on PBS in 2007. The film was produced by Memory Bridge: The Foundation for Alzheimer’s and Cultural Memory (  below is what I said when I shared it (somewhat edited for clarity)

The video

I try not to share strongly emotional videos for the sole purpose of eliciting an emotional response, especially when they are videos about illness or disability. Too often, these videos become emotional porn, making people with a serious illness or a disability into objects designed to elicit a particular feeling in the viewer. Because of this, I try not to post this kind of thing. Except this time.

A couple of things strike me about this clip.

1) The imperative to build these kinds of spiritual memories in the children of our congregations. We don’t sing “Jesus loves me” just to sing it, because we think it’s cute when children sing it, or simply because we think the message is sweet. We do it to create a core memory (thanks again, Inside Out… I get a lot of mileage out of you), so that “Jesus loves me” becomes part of the essence of who they are, an essence that remains even after everything else is stripped away.

We don’t use the Godly Play curriculum at the church where I sometimes work in the children’s ministry (although I hope we do someday). However, every chance I have, I use the sentence “Once was someone who said such amazing things and did such wonderful things that people began to follow him.” I use it when I’m preaching to adults, and when I am teaching children. I want them to internalize it, to turn toward the story of Jesus naturally when their brain becomes full of clutter or fear or anxiety.

Second, in CPE we had lots of conversations about how to effectively offer pastoral care to patients with wildly differing faith backgrounds and practices from our own. Everyone in my CPE group was Christian, ranging from Catholic to Pentecostal. A couple of them from more evangelical traditions wondered repeatedly how they could provide pastoral care without sharing the Gospel with people, or at least without making explicitly clear what they believed. Of course, in the theoretical environment of a discussion group in the chaplaincy office, this brought on a great deal of anxiety. But as we scattered across the hospital, walking slowly from burn unit to cancer ward, from peds to psych, tiptoeing into the NICU to pray over isolettes, rushing to the heart hospital to respond to a code… we slowly figured out what it looks like to provide pastoral care.

Do you want to know what it looks like? This is what it looks like: a white Jewish woman singing “Jesus loves me” to an African American Christian woman with Alzheimer’s disease. I would wager that “Jesus Loves Me” is not a part of Naomi Feil’s religious identity. But she enters into Gladys’s religious identity, learns the language, and uses it to make a meaningful connection, to remind Gladys of who she is and Whose she is.

Third, is an answer to the question “Why faith? Why, given all of the evidence and the generally poor track record religion has in re: violence, oppression, all the dreadful -isms.” It relates to number 1, but also to loneliness. C.S. Lewis never actually said “We read to know we are not alone” … it was written for him in the biopic “Shadowlands”. I would say that we sing to know we are not alone. We pray to know we are not alone. We eat the bread and drink the wine to know we are not alone. Even when we don’t feel it, even though when we’re certain it does no good, we keep trying, so that we know we are not alone. And at the end of our life, that most lonely of moments, we would remember that, (in the words of the United Church of Canada’s “A New Creed”,) “in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.”

P.S.: I feel like there should be a special NSFW label for things that are likely to make you cry. NSFW: weeping.

Stranger in the pulpit

It’s not that I’m afraid of upsetting people. It’s that I’m afraid of upsetting them and never knowing that I upset them. I’m afraid that it will fester, and then explode over some unsuspecting pastor (probably theirs), who will then have to clean up the mess that I managed to make in their church on a hot July Sunday.

Periodically (especially in the summertime), I receive an email or phone call from a fellow pastor asking me to preach in their church while they are on vacation. Because I don’t have an ongoing Sunday morning gig, and because I know that the more I preach the better I get at it, I usually say yes without giving much thought to anything besides how I will get there.

There are two pulpits where I feel decidedly at home. The first is Grace Baptist Church, where the pulpit is actually a borrowed music stand in the fading parlor in the crumbling building of a Presbyterian church from whom we rent space once a month. The Gracies are the folks who have called me to serve, a dozen or so queers and allies who like each other so much that they just can’t quit each other. I’m new, but they like me, and I like them. Preaching to them is like conversations on the fifth or sixth date, when you are half still trying to impress, half starting to let them see who you really are. In the build up, it is frequently terrifying. But in the delivery the exchange is electrifying, at least for me, because I am slowly falling in love with them.

The second is the Community Church of Wilmette. I showed up there on a Sunday in September 2009, to begin an internship. Unexpectedly, I fell in love with the people,  joined the church, and was ordained there. Six years after walking through those doors, I have preached a lot of sermons to that gaggle of suburbanites living in one of the wealthiest villages in Chicagoland. When I speak, I am speaking to people I love dearly, and it changes what I have to say to them. When I make eye contact with John or see Judy smirk at something I say, my heart swells with love.

Pulpit supply, on the other hand, is a risky business. I preached in a friend’s pulpit on Independence Day weekend. I am the worst possible person to give a 4th of July sermon, since I grew up elsewhere and my emotional connection to this country is still rather tenuous. Not only that, the June leading up to this past Independence Day was chock-full of horror and wonder, and reflecting on what those things say about our nation, well, it leads to some pretty intense sermonizing. But what is my responsibility to strangers in the pews? How does one preach both responsibly and prophetically to people with whom one has no relationship? In preaching, as in therapy and in surgery, you have to “close” people, you have help them be ready to back into the world, but unless you know them, how do you know where their tender parts are? Is it ethical to preach about difficult issues in a congregation where I have never been and where I may or may not return, among people with whom I have no relationship?

When I call a strange congregation to repent of and then actively work to dismantle our national sin of racism, I believe that I am being appropriate; all white Americans must be called to this work. But I don’t know what groundwork has been laid, the ways they have been living out this call in their own lives, or the struggles that they have gone through. When I invite them to courageously step into God’s call of radical welcome, I have no idea what other calls they are struggling to respond to in their lives. I don’t know what they need to hear, or how they will hear things, or what they will do after they hear it.

Maybe that’s o.k. Maybe, instead of sending me into a swirl of anxiety, it should move me to rely more on the Spirit’s movements. Maybe this should remind me that “Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Maybe it is a reminder that I am called to a particular preaching moment, to proclaim the Gospel message as faithfully as I am able, and to not insist on control over the rest. These are good reminders, of course.

But I am wary of them, lest they become excuses for treating this enormous calling carelessly. The last thing I want to do is to preach irresponsibly and then chalk it up to “letting go and letting God.” I am extremely wary of the power with which people imbue the pulpit, and the potential for harm, because of the way I and others whom I love have been harmed in the past.

And herein lies the problem: preaching in “strange” pulpits strips away the warm fuzzies I get in my “home” pulpits, leaving me vulnerable to impostor syndrome and to the paralyzing fear that I am not worthy of this calling, and may never be. “Who are you to say this to these people?” a voice whispers in my ear. “What if you’re doing more harm than good?” Or, “If they knew you, knew who you really were, what you’re really like, they wouldn’t sit there listening to you. They would walk right out.” And that dreaded one, “Someone is going to figure out that you’re just a huge con. They’re going to see that you have no idea what you’re talking about and they’re going to tell on you.”

I need to get over myself, of course. At the heart of this is hubris, the need to be validated and feel like my words are important. But even deeper than pride, there is a call to own the voice I have been given, to proclaim the Gospel to which I have been called, and to open myself to falling in love everywhere I go, even to strange suburban pulpits. It is a terrifying call, and a splendid one.