Not long ago I was preaching to a group of folks, and the experience was – well, less than what I would have hoped for.
That always bugs me. I feel like my main contribution to the world is words. And when that’s not working quite right, it drives me up the wall, and the endless analysis begins: Why did that happen? Was it the content? The people? You? Were you tired? Emotionally drained? Physically spent? Is your creativity running short? Are you not attending well to the soil of your life? All the questions…
On this particular occasion, I woke up in the middle of the night and realized exactly what had gone wrong. I had told Mandi before we went to bed that for some reason I felt disconnected from my words. Waking up several hours later, it dawned on me that I felt disconnected from my words because I was disconnected, emotionally and spiritually, from my words.
This can happen, in my experience, for a number of reasons. It can happen because even though we knew we were supposed to emphasize THIS aspect of the text or teaching, out of some strange sense of obligation to bygone seminary professors, we emphasize THIS OTHER aspect, or a WHOLE BUNCH of aspects, leaving us with preaching that is driven by “oughts” rather than by holy fire. It can also happen when we’re talking through a text and remember what so-and-so said about it and how they delivered it. For some reason, when the moment came to talk about it, we felt like we were channeling so-and-so, and we feel fraudulent. Other times it happens because we’re sharing something that AT ONE TIME was a container for holy fire for us–a story, an insight, whatever–and when we come to the moment we think we’ll recapture that moment… but what we wind up giving is an empty container that once held the fire, but no longer does. And again, we feel fraudulent.
Preaching is a discipline that grows up out of the soil of a total life, and is intimately related to the NOW. What is God doing in me NOW? What is he saying to me NOW? Where am I–ME, with all of my oddities and glories–in the story with God NOW? What is he doing in this community NOW? It is a discipline of the moment… of being able to capture a sense of the Qol Adonai, the voice of the Lord, for this moment. It is NOT the communication of “timeless truths” or a simple exposition of “the meaning of the text”. It is fresh bread, fresh fire, a fresh word.
As such, we preachers are required (and this would go for the poets and writers, singers and artists, and anyone else who spends their life trying to TELL the world something, trying to open up a window to another world) to live deeply connected to our hearts, for it is the place wherein the Spirit of God dwells to speak a fresh word to the world. And to do that, to stay connected to our heart and the living voice of God resounding in it, in my experience, requires deep sacrifice. It COSTS you something to live there.
My preaching is at its best, I think, when it is borne out of the struggle NOW to hear God and stay faithful to him in all of life, when it dwells at the intersection between Scripture, my story, my heart, and this moment with these people. Preaching like that is costly. But it is the only way a fresh word is heard.
In any event, after that ugly and disconnected experience, I wrote a little free-verse poetry (which I NEVER do) to summarize the lessons learned. I share them with you–in particular, those of you who labor each week to see to it that among your people, the “word of the Lord” is not “rare”.
Blessings to you.
I’m old enough now
To know that the promise
“I’ll never do that again”
Has a shelf life.
Nevertheless, the bitter taste
in my mouth serves
As a sign.
You felt off, awkward, out of sorts
Because you WERE off, awkward,
Out of sorts.
More than that,
You committed the cardinal sin
Of your craft–
You spoke words that
There is a reason that
The bitter taste in your mouth
Tastes like something else you’ve
Known well in your life:
Lying, and well you know that “thou shalt not bear false witness.”
Speak your truth.
Tell the truth. Be honest.
Forsake the duplicitous way.
And my God, if you can help it–
Don’t ever stand up in front of people
A stranger to your heart,
For you will always feel disconnected
From words that don’t emerge from
The Center that has come to
Dwell in you.
Stay rooted in your voice,
Your story, your history with God,
And all will be well.
He’s not asking you for much–
Loaves, fishes, words.
But at a minimum he is asking
That whatever it is you offer
Be completely and uniquely yours,
The gift acceptable according
To what one HAS, not according to
What one DOESN’T have,
And I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God
Burnt offerings that cost me nothing.