Tag Archives: preaching

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…

Man of the Cloth, part 3: Getting my feet wet.

I’ve been holding off posting about this, but Phil W. kind of outed me in his comment on my previous post, which is perfectly fine, since I had no good reason not to post about it.  I’ve simply been holding my cards close to my chest again.

So…I’ve been hired by our church to work there on a temporary, part-time basis.  I haven’t signed anything and we haven’t worked out the details (but presumably I’m still hired, even after yesterday’s sermon).  The short answer, since I don’t know all the specifics yet, is that I’ll be doing a combination of administrative things (from answering the phone to organizing the worship schedule) as well as speaking somewhat regularly. The position doesn’t have a title—the word “pastor” will not apply, at any rate—I will simply be the administrative, pulpit-supply guy.  I figure I’ll be kind of like a seat-filler, except I’ll have significantly more responsibility (rather than just sitting in a chair).

The idea, as I understand it, is two-fold: first, to have some continuity in terms of the going’s on at the church, between Randall and Lauralea’s departure and the arrival of the new pastor; second, to give me an opportunity to try things out a bit in a church setting—an opportunity for some further discernment about our future.  It’s quite cool.  (When they asked me, I said, “This is crazy.  Do people do this?”)  I’m excited and I hope it goes well.  I presume that I’ll be starting late October or early November, but as I say, we haven’t worked out the details.  It’s open ended and could last anywhere from 1 month (or less even?) to several months.

What an interesting, bizarre, unexpected year it has been. I’ve written before about going to seminary and moving in the direction of “formal ministry” (I’m not sure what else to call it), in Part 1 and Part 2 of the Man of the Cloth posts.

I’m on the brink of enrolling in a seminary class.  I’m not sure what’s stopping me anymore.  I was holding off until I got a sense of how things would go at the church, but I think I’ll start with a distance learning course, which I can finish in up to 8 months.  My plan right now is to take a class on the Patristic Fathers.  Linea is taking a Greek class, her thinking being that she may as well start with a doozy of a class to give her some clarity on whether or not to walk this road.  This makes sense, and she had me wondering if I should do the same thing, but Patristic Fathers sounds interesting and I can take 2 classes without enrolling in a specific program, so I’ll save Greek and Hebrew for when I fully commit to seminary.

So…life is in transition, along with everyone else.

Sermon #2

I’m speaking in church again on August 10 (a week and a half from now).  I don’t want to say “preaching”, because . . . I don’t know, it makes me uncomfortable.  “Speaking” sounds less . . . well . . . preachy.  I don’t want to preach at people; I want to speak with people (even though, I guess, I’m doing most of the talking).

I’ve been using the Revised Common Lectionary as the starting point for a passage on which to base the sermon.  The lectionary sets out a couple of Old Testament Passages, a couple of Psalms, a Gospel passage and something from an epistle.  What I did for the first sermon was read through all the passages a couple of times and see if anything comes to mind, if I feel inspired in some way about one of the passages, and then I run with it.

There’s no magic to it, folks.  As far as I’m concerned, I could open the Bible at a random spot, eyes closed, hoping against hope that it will not be Galatians 6:11 or Psalm 137:9* or something, and try to make a go of it with whatever passage my finger lands on, but there’s too much chance in that for my tastes.  The other option is to just pick a passage, but I’m to indecisive for that, so I use the lectionary to narrow my options.

In a strange twist of fate, the Gospel for August 10 is Matthew 14:22-33, in which Peter tries to walk on water.  This is the passage on which John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, is based, and you may recall that I had a hard time with this book and that it put me into a melancholic mood for some time.

For a while I had the sense that maybe I should speak on that passage, even though I didn’t really want to—that maybe God was trying to force to examine this subject with which John Ortberg had kicked me in the nuts (or at least tried).  Was it coincidence that the lectionary Gospel for the date I was scheduled to speak was Ortberg’s basis for his offending book?  Who knows.

Plus: 1) this is only my second sermon, so the Psalms were out; 2) how do I preach on an Old Testament passage, Psalm or otherwise?, so the other passages from the OT were out; 3) Romans, from which the epistle for August 10 hails, is quite possibly the scariest book in the Bible in terms of understanding, so that was out, too.  What choice did I have, but to go with the Matthew passage (or, I suppose, forget the lectionary altogether [see above])?

As it happens, it was one of the Old Testament passages which inspired me most, so that’s what I’ve been working on.  Thank the Lord.  (That Matthew passage may still come back to haunt me, though.)

*For the record, I think Psalm 137, properly understood, is beautiful psalm.