Tag Archives: sermon

Pre-sermon nightmare

I preach tomorrow morning on a weepy passage from Jeremiah, which I have found difficult to carry over into modern meaning.

Today, in my fitful early morning, post-alarm sleep, I dreamed that I had neglected to finalize my rough notes and to go over them before delivery. At some point I realized I was preaching to a group of impoverished women and children in muddy ocean-side caves. The tide was rising.

It was a disaster on so many levels. Incoherent due mixed up notes; irrelevant to the audience, who, as a result, were not at all paying attention; my pastor standing there taking it all in and looking at me with deep disappointment.

What a nightmare.

On preaching…

For me, the paradigmatic experience of preaching is not the good sermon, but the failed sermon: when you’re trying to speak God’s Word, but you’re looking out at a sea of bored, distracted, yawning faces, people furtively glancing at their watches – when you yourself, the preacher, are glancing at your watch and wondering when it will all be over. Anyone who has to preach regularly will know this experience. It is an exemplary experience, because it’s here that you encounter the real nature of preaching: the fact that it arises not from the preacher’s fullness, but from an unbearable emptiness; the fact that it is always bound to fail – it has to fail – unless some miracle occurs, unless God speaks.

The most beautiful vases are often made to look unfinished; there is something incomplete about them, a kind of beautiful, beckoning lack. In the same way, I think preaching should be performed in such a way that it never seems quite finished, never perfect or complete. When you stand up and begin to speak, you are marking a vacant spot, a need, a prayer for something else, something other to occur.

(read the whole thing)

Reflections from an untrained beginner on preparing and delivering a sermon

I’m exhausted.  I was up at 6:15 this morning and spoke in our church this morning and then we spent the afternoon with some old acquaintances/new friends.  No Sunday afternoon nap means I probably won’t do any heavy reading tonight.  Instead, maybe a little light reading and some Hebrew translation.

I’m reflecting back on my sermon this morning.  It certainly wasn’t my best sermon. Other than accidentally missing some of the stuff in my notes–useful, clarifying stuff, but not a deal-breaker–I think the presentation of it was ok (but not great).  But I did learn some lessons–and I am still a student of the sermon.

Earlier this week I was talking to a classmate about the homiletics (“preaching 101”) classes he took and what kinds of things he retained from those classes.  He noted specifically that one of the most valuable things he learned was that you need to have a clear concept or point you are trying to express–in other words, make sure your sermon is focused, much like it’s good to have a clear thesis statement when writing a paper (something which I’m pretty sure I’ve never had).  That may not seem profound, but strangely enough, lack of focus was my biggest problem this time around.  I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn’t say it clearly and so the message may have come across rambly and disjointed.  As I was preparing, I kept thinking I was heading towards focus, but I never really got there.

I need to learn to filter out the extraneous material.  It is sometimes tempting to cram as much material in as you can find. Even if the material may be relevant or applicable to a passage, it may not be useful to communicate a particular message.  In fact, too much material may actually obscure the message.

Also, I think early in the preparation I should not hold too tightly to what may seem at the time to be  a good idea. If an idea gets cemented in my mind as a good idea too early in the process, it may actually derail the rest of the process because I will feel compelled to force all other ideas to fit with or around the original idea.  That usually doesn’t work.  To a degree, I think that was the case this time around.

The second thing which became apparent to me is something which I’m not sure how to resolve.  I became aware this morning that I was not really “present” as I spoke, and thinking back, I’m not sure that I have ever been.  By this I mean that I am speaking but not really self-aware that I’m preaching; using my notes but not really being aware of using my notes (in fact, shortly after sitting down I wondered if I had missed a page); looking at the listeners but not really seeing them.  Does that make sense?  I don’t like getting to the end of a sermon and realizing that I wasn’t really present for 20 minutes or more of speaking.

Maybe the solution is simply to relax and try to engage the listeners.  Perhaps it would also help to be more familiar with the sermon you’ve prepared–that is, have it more or less done a day or two before it is to be spoken and then run over it several times.  And then maybe use a very rough outline of the sermon when speaking, rather than referring to a manuscript.  I tried using an outline this morning, but I went back to the manuscript fairly quickly.  That was, I think, a combination of nerves and not being familiar enough with the material.

Lessons learned. I hope I remember them next time around.

Church, the sermon and Kant.

…a church [is] a place where the Word of God “is purely preached and heard.”  The good news is that even that puny preacher of little worth can be heard as speaking God’s word; the bad news is that, no matter how good the preacher, a congregation where everyone is daydreaming or asleep is at that moment, in Calvin’s terms, not a church.  Congregations need reminding from time to time that the preaching of the Word of God is not a spectator sport.

– William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God (142)

Interesting.  It’s not unusual, particularly on Christian blogs, to read arguments against the sermon in worship (or the sermon as central in worship).  It is not, they say, a transforming activity; it is one way; it is not community-oriented, but top-down; etc.  I don’t necessarily disagree with them, but I’ve never considered Placher’s (he’s actually paraphrasing John Calvin) angle before: what role does the congregation play in all this?

By preaching Placher means, “present[ing] and interpret[ing] scripture to the assembled people” (whether or not it is entertaining, witty or intellectual).

Is preaching not transformational because preaching the Word of God can’t be transformational?  Or is it not transformational because congregations are not interested and are not listening?

How much of the opposition to the sermon or the traditional form of church worship arises out of the possibly unconscious but pervasive influence of the Enlightenment project (that is, individualism and rationalism)?  “Give me a Bible and I’ll interpret it for you”; “That church is just not meeting my needs”; “that preacher is boring”; “the church isn’t relevant to our culture”; “what’s the worship like at your church? is it good?”; etc.

There is nothing wrong with taste or preferences per se.  I’m just wondering what motivates us in church?  And what motivates those who reject or move away from traditional ways of doing church?  The right answer these days is that the church is not being the church–but why do we think that?  Is it just an excuse to cover an individualistic choice? Is the church not being the church because it corporately functions incorrectly?  Or is it because our underlying assumptions as individuals about the church are wrong?

Just thinking out loud…

What do you say on Easter Sunday?

I’m sitting at the desk in my (temporary) office at the church.  It’s messy.  I should clean it.  That would also clear out my head, I suspect.

I’m trying to work on the sermon for Easter Sunday, but the words aren’t coming.  Words seem to pop in my head just before I put head to pillow and I try to scribble some notes then, but by morning the inspiration–both in terms of ideas and ability to write–is gone.

What can I say on Easter Sunday?

“He is risen.”  For some that’s all that needs to be said.  For others, those three words may make no sense at all.  Who is risen?  And what do you mean by “risen”?  And what difference does it make?  What are you all getting so excited about?

“He is risen.”  If I speak veeeeeery slooooowly, perhaps I can stretch those three words into a twenty minute sermon.

What can I say on Easter Sunday that hasn’t been said before?

That’s the point, I guess.  Sundays are not about original material–learning something new–but about remembering (and worship, but even in worship we remember).  Easter Sunday is no exception.  Sure, we may each put our own unique spin on it, reveal some detail or angle that hasn’t been mentioned before–or probably has been mentioned, but long since forgotten.  But it’s the same story we tell.

And in remembering we are refreshed and renewed.

He died.  He was buried.  On the third day he was raised from the dead.

Seems like such a crazy thing to say in our day.  “Jesus isn’t dead; he’s alive.”  We are such an arrogant bunch, we 21st century-ers.  Those 1st century men were a little loopy–they would believe anything.  ‘Chronological snobbery’ is what C.S. Lewis apparently called it.

I don’t think we have it together anymore than they did back then.  These days some believe and some don’t.  In those days, some believed and some didn’t.

“People don’t rise from the dead.”  Well, that’s the point, isn’t it?  If rising from the dead were the norm, Jesus wouldn’t have been all that special.  “Jesus rose from the dead?  Big deal.  So did my Aunt Lillian.”

Of course, it’s because people rising from the dead is unusual that we have to ask some serious questions about the claim the church makes.  Are we all nuts?  Is what we have here a 2,000 year history of nutcases?  Some would think so.

Ah–but look at me: here I am sermonizing on my blog.  I better reserve something for Sunday morning.

A plain post about regular things.

Well, Dixie is on her way back home from The Field.  I expect her home in two hours or so.  Apparently she’s a changed woman.  So would I be, after a good number of days in a Field, with miles of nature in every direction.  Well, not a changed woman, but changed or at least renewed.  I’m glad it was a good trip for her.  Hope they arrive safe and sound.

Dixie and I have both wondered when in the next 6 months or so I could possibly find time to make use of my birthday present–the weekend away at a solitary/silent/spiritual/what have you retreat.  I’m looking forward to it, whenever it may happen.

The week-ish with the kids went well.  It was broken up with some help from family–Uncle had the older kids for an afternoon; Gramma and Papa had all the kids for a morning and Olivia for a couple of nights.  At the beginning of our alone time I was stressed about this and that, so I probably was edgier than I should have been with the kids.  Sometimes it feels like my only recourse with the kids is yelling, even though I know that doesn’t do anything except upset them (and me).

Saturday morning we went to the mall to see Safari Jeff and Shannon.  Madeline and Luke seemed to enjoy it.  It was a very slick presentation with some real animals (alligator, some kind of monitor, albino bull snake, albino reticulated python, etc), but there was probably more information presented than the kids could retain.  Other than that, we didn’t really do anything special.  I got some studying done–nearly done all the lectures!  But still an enormous amount to do!–and a little cleaning (not as much as I would have liked).

I led worship at church this morning.  I always find this stressful for some reason–more stressful than preparing and “presenting” a sermon.  I imagine that’s because it’s an organizational thing: songs here, announcements there, scripture here, prayer there, etc.  Organization isn’t my strength.

We’ve been having some trouble with the sound card on the power-point computer, so I had a friend do some work on it this week.  It seemed to be working fine, but at practice this morning the computer kept freezing during or immediately after bootup and it would reboot as soon as I put my USB memory stick–where the lyrics for the powerpoint were kept–on the port.  Eventually the computer booted up propertly and I got everything going (in roundabout ways), but the remote for the slideshow wouldn’t work.

In practice we prepared for the worst and ended up reworking the order of service, changing it to an all-hymns-with-the-hymnbook service.  It went well, I think, all things considered.  There’s nothing wrong with hymns, of course, but it was a bit odd to see everyone standing there with hymnbooks in hand.  And the service was a bit rough around the edges.  But that’s OK.

But I definitely need the powerpoint to work next week, because I’ll be leading worship alone (all the other instrumentalists are female and will be away at a retreat) with my guitar.  Hymns and guitars generally don’t mix for this ol’ fella.  Next week will probably be all choruses.  (Of course, I’m of the opinion that the difference between hymns and choruses is essentially fictional–it’s simply a matter of how they’re presented.  “Shine Jesus Shine”, that classic chorus of the early to mid 90s is now in the hymnal, for pete’s sake.)

It’ll be a very busy week, I think, and I’m not sure how I’ll get everything done.  My real estate co-worker is on holidays and it’s month end this week.  I have a sermon and service to prepare for next Sunday and some other church stuff to do (including that ornery computer).  Plus all the usual things of school and life.  I’m not complaining. Honestly, I’m not.  But it will be a busy week.

Today Yesterday

Things went well today yesterday, I think, other than a few mishaps and distractions.

I was inspired by the Wendell Berry-inspired workshop at last week’s conference to speak about the implications for creation care that arise out of scripture.  The Bible does not have a green agenda; if it has any agenda, it’s a redemptive one, and there are implications for our view of creation in that.  My main points:

1.  Genesis 1: God looked at everything he created and saw that it was “very good”.  He never took that back.  The natural world isn’t just incidental to our creation, but is good in and of itself.

At the fall human relationship with the rest of creation was broken, which may well be why we find ourselves where we are environmentally.

2.  The created world is in some sense the voice of God (see Romans 1:18-20–“general revelation”).  I wondered if our current abusive approach to nature isn’t a new way of “suppressing the truth” about God.

3.  The redemptive work of the cross of Christ is for all of creation (Colossians 1:19-20; Ephesians 1:10; Romans 8:19-23)–if we expect to come out of the future resurrection with transformed bodies and yet still be ourselves, it’s reasonable, I think, to expect the same for creation.

It didn’t take long to realize that this was a HUGE subject and a couple of hours of preparation wasn’t giving it nearly enough and it was probably too much to cram into one sermon (especially when I had less time than usual).  It deserves a series, but that’s difficult to do when I only speak twice a month and in the very near future I will start to be bumped from the schedule for candidating pastors.

Oh well.  Live and learn.

I was thinking this week and again after this sermon about what pastors do if they realize they have spoken in error in a sermon.  I made a modern-day analogy a couple of weeks ago when speaking on 1 Corinthians 8 (the “strong”, the “weak” and meat sacrificed to idols) and it occurred to me this week that perhaps my analogous example was a poor one (I’ve decided it wasn’t).  After Sunday’s service I was talking to Phil and realized that perhaps I had made some lazy word choices that might have negative implications (it didn’t help that I was trimming the sermon as I spoke).

Now both of those instances are minor.  But what about a more serious error?  Do you just ignore it?  Bring it up next Sunday?  Issue a retraction?  Fix the error with the following sermons?  An interesting question.  (It is for me, anyway.)  Of course, I’m learning that not everything can be said in one sermon (or even a couple of sermons), so perhaps it’s possible to develop a progression of thought that deals with whatever has gone before.

(Have I ever posted about a sermon before?  I’ve been reluctant to do so.  Still am.  But I felt like posting something.)

Monday Mix

Watched Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events the other night.  It got mixed reviews from the critics and its domestic (U.S.) gross didn’t make up the film’s production budget.  But I enjoyed.  Jim Carrey was excellent as Count Olaf.  I was worried that he’d play Count Olaf in a too Jim Carrey-ish way, but he did quite well.  The humour in the role was more quirky than rubbery, if you know what I mean, and he did well.  Quite a dark film—could’ve been directed by Tim Burton (but it wasn’t)—and not sure what to make of the ending, but still…3.5/4

Of course, I’ve always thought Jim Carrey was a fine actor.  The Academy has a hard time with crossover actors, at least at first (Tom Hanks has broken that barrier, though).  One day Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell will get their due acclaim.

* * *

Looking at some of my site stats, particularly country of origin for hits.  Lots of 1 and 2 hit stats from all over the world, which I consider flukes or bots or spam.  The number spikes in the UK, but I know I have at least one regular reader there.  Canada is the majority source for hits, with the U.S. in distant second. But there is an oddity: a significant number of hits from Switzerland.  Enough hits to not be accidental.  Who could that be?  Swiss reader: show yourself!

* * *

The worst part of writing a sermon?  It’s impossible to include everything without taking up an enormous amount of time, turning it into a lecture and losing everyone in the process.  I wonder if any sermon ever feels complete to some degree.

* * *

My favourite song ever?  “The Pink Panther Theme” by Henry Mancini, for several reasons:

1. Apart from everything else, it’s a fantastic song.

2. It moves me, probably because

3. It’s steeped in memory.  As a young boy in Holland I must have seen a episode of the animated Pink Panther at some point, because I remember seeing a number of opening credits when they played the Pink Panther movies (starring Peter Sellers) and getting excited.  The opening credits always involved the animated Pink Panther character and the animated Clouseau character in hot pursuit.  I loved those opening credits, which included the theme song, because I thought it was an episode of the Pink Panther.  But I was always disappointed when the “episode” ended and the live action film began.  I appreciate Inspector Clouseau much more now than I did then.

* * *

I anxiously await Phil‘s review of the Bob Dylan concert in Regina.  I’ve heard Bob Dylan’s concerts can be quite “tempermental”: sometimes they’re fantastic, sometimes they’re terrible.  Here’s a review by my seminary course “instructor”.  I take his review as “mixed”—good because it was Dylan, not so good because of poor sound.  He links to the setlist, which is largely made up of post-1997 material.

* * *

I’m listening to some music samples on BobDylan.com.  Some observations:

1. Why is it that the best artists go through nearly-unlistenable periods in the 1980s?  Bob Dylan and Bruce Cockburn both do and it’s a shame.  I have a large Bruce Cockburn CD collection, but there is a huge gap in there spanning the late-70s and the 80s.  1978-1986 are nearly unlistenable years musically (although I’m sure he remains lyrically brilliant during that time).  And just at the time when Cockburn comes to his musical senses, Dylan dives into his own period of 80s darkness.

Who ever thought that drum machines and synthesizers were a good idea?

2. Bob Dylan’s “born again” albums are fantastic.  Shot of Love is a personal favourite and, based on what I’ve heard on the website, I think both Saved and Slow Train Coming are worth purchasing.  (I’ve said it before, but I can hardly believe that “Gotta Serve Somebody” won a Grammy for Best Song—not because it’s a poor song, but because it’s so overtly evangelical.)

3. I could use more Bob Dylan.  The unfortunate fact of being born in the mid-70s and not getting into Bob Dylan until well into my 20s is that I have a lot of catching up to do.

Sermon and then do nothing.

Well, I guess technically I’m already about a week behind in my seminary course.  I haven’t started reading any of the books or listening to any of the lectures.  But tonight Dixie and I are just going to sit down and start watching Lonesome Dove.  We just need to sit together and do nothing for a while.

Preparing for a sermon takes up much of my spare time, especially the week before, which is why I’m behind in my course (the course material arrived on Monday).  This week is probably the most prepared I’ve felt for a sermon—in the middle of the week I wasn’t sure if it would fall into place, but it did.  It seems that driving is when most of my inspiration comes.  (So if I’m ever at a loss for material, I should just drive around until something comes to me.)

My feelings of preparedness made this morning that much funnier (to me).  I spoke on Exodus 33:12-21, in which Moses asks for God’s presence to continue on with the Israelites after the golden calf incident, and then Moses asks to see God’s glory.  In the passage, God denies showing Moses his glory, telling him that no one can see his “face”—they would die if they did.  And so I talked about walking by faith, not by sight—that undeniable proof of God’s existence (which would have to be a revelation of all his blazing glory) is not an option for us at this point, and that truth is not limited to those things which are measurable or touchable, as some appear to believe.

But two of the songs that we sang before the sermon included references to seeing God’s face and God revealing his glory to us…and suddenly I was second-guessing myself on my sermon.  Apparently no one else noticed this, as the sermon was very well received, but I thought it was funny.

What have I gotten myself into?

The material for my Patristic Fathers seminary course has arrived.  I’m looking at 2,000 pages of reading (which all looks interesting), not including whatever I’ll be reading for the research paper , plus lectures (on CD) and assignments.  I have 8 months to complete everything, but it still looks a bit daunting at this stage.

Then next week I start my bi-vocational life.  On Wednesday and Thursday I’ll be working at the church.  So I’ll be juggling two-part time jobs and all that entails.  My current job I can leave at work; my second job at church will spill over into “non-work” time.  I guess that’s one of the things I’ll face if I “go into ministry”.  There was a time in my life when all I wanted was a 9-5 job, something I could forget about at 5p.m. sharp.  I’d still like that, but it may no longer be in the proverbial cards.

So, two big things landing in my life at approximately the same time.  I can handle it.  I’m looking forward to it.  I’m terrified.  It’ll be great.  I’m feeling like adult responsibility is suddenly upon me (what children?) and it scares me: what if I’m not ready?  (Yes. I know. I’m nearly 31.)  What if I can’t handle it?  What if I blow it?

Now, I would be okay with all of that, because those events and responsibilities will unfold as time goes by.  However, I’m scheduled to speak on Sunday and the sermon just isn’t coming together, which makes everything else seem that much worse.

I’m having university flash-backs.  The knot in my gut because of a looming deadline—4 days until the due date and still no topic.*  Only, I can’t turn in my sermon late or get an extension, now can I?

I should resurrect my old motto again: “All in good time.”  Let’s hope “in good time” means before Sunday morning.

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*I have a topic (or at least a passage of scripture) for the sermon, I think, but you see what I’m saying.