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)
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.
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.”