Thursday, April 25, 2013

What You Gonna Do When Your Well Runs Dry?

I try to write now and again because writing helps me think and gets the creative juices flowing.  I think I write sermons more efficiently when I have something to blog about first.  Usually, I blog about a bee in my bonnet --but maybe there are less of those now than there used to be, or maybe I just have said everything that can be said about the things that bug me most!  

So what do you do when you feel driven to write but you don't have anything cooking in your mind and heart to write about?  I think about Harper Lee, who wrote one great novel.  One.  Nothing else.  When asked by a friend why she never wrote again, she said, 

"Two reasons: one, I wouldn't go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again."

Reports are that Miss Lee is now aged, frail and forgetful.  She will not write again.  Some suggest that her perfectionism kept her from doing more, that she started projects but never finished them.  As an aside, it just struck me that this is my second post in a row (in a time of very sparse posting) about someone walking away from that for which they were well-known.  I don't want to read into that.  But, I digress, which is maybe why I shouldn't write.  Too many digressions...

If a pastor is worth anything, he is involved in a great and exhilirating and frustrating and nerve-wracking creative enterprise likely more than once a week. His work requires heavy spiritual, mental and emotional investment.  He has to keep grazing over a lot of material that is not germane to his immediate task, to keep his reservoir of creativity full.  If he does not do this, he will become boring and repetitious.  This is above and beyond saturating himself with Scripture and theology and the primary and important things.  He must read and watch and listen and observe to understand people.  What is their cultural currency?  What are their deep aches?  What things plague them?  What are their idols?  

The great danger in this is being superficial --treating sin as if it is a matter of mere behavior and not epistemic rebellion deep within us that we may hate, but find impossible to root out ourselves, for instance.  Or, erecting straw men and then burning them down, to the delight of his congregation, who are thus confirmed in their self righteousness.  Or, denouncing all the sins of which he himself, and his hearers, are likely not personally tempted to do --once again, feeding the furnace of self-righteousness within every hearer.  The temptation to be plastic and simple is a strong one. You can satisfy yourself that you are thoroughgoingly orthodox.  Your hearers will love you because you're against all the right things, and you've simply affirmed everything they believe.  You've become an afternoon talk radio host with a Christian veneer and a simplistic gospel tacked on the end of your message.

The danger on the other side is viewing a sermon as a literary set-piece, a work of performance art, art for its own sake, carefully crafted and spoken but utterly lacking in connection or reality --the sort of sermon that might read well in a book in fifty years (assuming that anyone would read a book of sermons, particularly yours, fifty years from now).

And the danger on yet another side is that, in seeking to be prophetic and real, you become overly gritty and offensive, either because you are trying to shock people awake (which only works so many times, as the movies find, the first curse word shocks , the five hundredth  one isn't even heard), or because you are trying to slap people upside the head whom you perceive to be indifferent, and you, if you accomplish nothing else and may awaken to find your bags packed for you when you return home for Sunday lunch) at least grabbed their sorry selves for a moment and perhaps made them think.

And I'll refrain here from critiquing the sort of preaching that reduces the plain sense of the Biblical text to a gnostic puzzle, sorted out by the indispensable mystic cleric, and from which Jesus is conjured out of every rock or sneeze.

None of this is good.

So what then should you try to do?  You should try to say what the text says in the way the text says it, in such a way that the hearer is drawn in, and brought along to his own conclusions, which are the right conclusions because they're the conclusions pressed upon your soul from the text, without manipulating him into getting there.  That seems to me to be how Jesus preached.  And let me tell you, it is impossible.  it's one of those perfect things like a chimera on a distant hill, that you see for a moment, and grasp at it, and then it's gone and you're back to three points and a poem.  You hear it in the voice of others, and you want it desperately for yourself.  

Preaching is too rarely viewed as an art, as a craft.  The pressure of doing it every week forces the preacher to think far more about content than form.  Yet, form is the vehicle for the content --and the ideal form recedes completely into the background, so that the hearer cannot escape hearing the Divine voice, and have impressed upon him in that one existential moment --a decision.  Whether believer or unbeliever, he is faced with an inescapable decision.  He is brought to a fork in the road, and he must say "All the Lord says I will do," or "Do not let this God speak to us again."  He is always faced with the choice --towards life by the narrow road that is difficult and which few find, or to death by the broad and easy road.  

The believer faces this, not with the danger of losing his salvation, but with the choice of the abundant, godward life that comes from humble contrite following of Jesus, or the choice to dine in the sewer of the world and its rotting delights, and to starve himself.  

The true preacher preaches because he can't but preach.  Many times he would far rather make rivets than preach.  Many times he sits at his desk, proverbial pen in hand, writes, and then grieves because he doesn't have it --he hasn't yet grasped what the Spirit would have him grasp, and it is agony.  Many the preacher has said "I love to preach, I loathe preparing to preach."  Alas, often true.  Handling holy things with dirty hands makes one feel dirty.  The truth works you over before you employ it to work others over.  There are texts I would rather avoid preaching because I fear that I will live out whatever temptation or struggle they addresses.  God works his prophet over to keep him humble, and so the sermon is not just a matter of academic interest, but has captivated his whole being.

Well, I guess I did have something to say after all...Thank you for your time!


  1. I wonder sometimes, Pastor, if the reason it seems that art is gone from preaching is that there are so many other seemingly important activities vying for the preacher's attention. I would not deny that the activities have value to them, but sometimes "good" can be the enemy of "best." Or I could be wrong.

  2. Pastor as CEO, figurehead, one responsible for making it all happen, at every event, hand in every pie? No, not a problem at all :)