10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons–Lesson 4

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’m doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

If you’ve been following this series of posts so far, one of the things you’ve noticed (and perhaps are frustrated with) is how little I’ve said about things like actual sermon prep, using good illustrations, delivery, and all the other technical stuff about preaching. Instead, I’ve tried to focus more on “big picture” philosophical issues, and within them, the issues of personal formation as a preacher that I think are central to any attempt to speak meaningfully about preaching as a task and vocation. I promise I will address some of the technical stuff (look to coming lessons 6-10 on that), but for now I want to continue to talk about the kind of life we must live if we are to not only last but thrive in this beautiful and daunting challenge of opening up windows to the kingdom for the people of God each week.

And with that, Lesson 4:

A basic discipline for the preacher is the discipline of whole-life attentiveness.

One of the things that used to baffle me when I was a kid was the sheer volume of really poignant content our pastor was able to come up with. And I’m not talking new biblical or theological content either (which is easy to come by if you’re studious enough). I’m talking about the kind of content that might, in a different time, been called “testimony”–i.e., stories and examples from his own life and the lives of people in our community that illustrated just how God was actually present and at work. That always amazed me. In fact, it sometimes made me wonder if he lived a more romantic, exciting existence than the rest of us.

Then I started grappling with my own call as a preacher. And some of the things we’ve been talking about over the last few weeks started coming into focus. And as I journeyed with God and became more deeply acquainted with what the nature of his activity looks like as it is recorded in the Scripture, my vision sharpened up. And before too long, I started seeing God everywhere, in everything.

It really didn’t matter what I was doing. I could be reading a book. I could be jogging. I could be watching a movie. I could be sitting in a counseling session with someone. I could be walking around downtown. I could be making a new friend. I could be holding one of my babies, or laughing raucously with my wife over something silly. I could be dealing with an interpersonal conflict, or weeping in prayer over some injustice in the world. It could be anything.

But in it, I would see God and Gospel and Kingdom at work, and all the nuance and subtlety of the biblical world gradually became the nuance and subtlety of my own lived existence–the drama of redemption playing out at every moment in my own life and experience.

You just have to develop eyes to see.

It takes time, though, to develop such eyes. I remember being really impressed the first time I read through Annie Dillard’s masterful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In one of her chapters she describes the experience of some of the first recipients of the newly pioneered surgery for cataracts around the turn of the 19th century. Folks that could not see at all were suddenly given the gift of sight. BUT–and here’s the interesting part–when light first flooded their eyes, they didn’t see what you and I see. Their experience of sight, as they recorded it, was that of near blinding light and shapeless color–like newborn babies, it took time for them to begin to make sense of what they were seeing. A wooden chair, for instance, may feel one way to a person that cannot see. But beholding the chair is an entirely different experience–at first glance, a nearly incommensurate experience to that of feeling the chair. Of course, eventually the two ways of perceiving become synoptic, and one experiences the world with a newfound depth and power. BUT, again… it takes time. To be able to interpret the light one sees and categorize it meaningfully requires both the strengthening of our sight and the requisite wisdom to be able to know what one is seeing.

That’s really an apt metaphor for the whole life of the disciple, which, as I contend, is what the preacher is before they are anything else. We–all of us–are like the blind man in Mark who begs Jesus to heal him. When Jesus spits in his eyes and lays hands on him, the man receives his sight, but only partially. “I see people,” he says, “they look like trees walking around” (Mk 8:24). And so once again, Jesus places his hands on the man’s eyes, and his sight was restored fully.

That, I think, is just how it is with us. As we journey with Jesus, he keeps placing his hands on our eyes and healing our ability to see, so that increasingly we see with eyes healed by the kingdom, in order to perceive the kingdom.

It’s not hard. But it does take time. This is probably in part what was behind E. M. Bounds’ saying that it takes 20 years to make a sermon, because it takes 20 years to make a man. As our character develops and matures in the sight of God, so also does our ability to behold the work of God in and around us. We begin to perceive it with a nuance that would have been impossible when we first started. And when we stand up to preach, again, we’re not just parroting abstractions at people. We’re speaking out of the depths, right into the depths. Because, of course, the depths are all around us, just waiting to be named.

Sometimes when I’m telling some story or giving some illustration during a message, I fret a bit that my listeners will think that my life is more charmed or interesting than it really is. I fret about it because the truth is that my life is probably, on the surface, far less charming or interesting than many of their lives. I’m a busy pastor in his 30’s with a wife and four kids. My life mostly orbits around those primary obligations, and there’s not a lot of room for superfluous intrigue. I wake up early. I work. I come home. We eat and put the kids in bed. I read some. We watch TV for awhile. We fall asleep. It’s really as hum-drum as it comes.

AND.

What I’ve discovered is that the life God has given me (and each one of us) is chock full of glory. There’s more than enough there. It is sufficient for a communion with God, a manifestation of the glory of God, that is as robust as any of the great saints and mystics ever had. That is how God has set it up.

We just have to develop eyes to see.

And the only way we do is by walking with God. Every moment, every hour, every day… until the days pass into weeks, which pass into months, which pass into years… and before long, the words of the Psalmist go from poetic rhapsody to a straightforward description of how we experience the world: “the unfailing love of YHWH fills the earth…

Probably no one I know has expressed this better than Frederick Buechner. He writes:

If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. (from Listening to Your Life, p. 2)

If you learn to do this, you’ll always have more than enough to say.

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10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons–Lesson 3

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’ll be doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

When do you “prep” to preach? Probably for all but the very most charismatic among us, there is a definite time and day that you sit down each week and begin to work on your coming message (or messages, if you’re one of those annoying folks capable of planning multiple weeks and months out 😉 ). You open your Bible or pull out your computer at, say, 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and get to work. So in your mind, sermon prep began on Tuesday at 9:00 a.m. and ended whenever you stood up to deliver your message. Basically. Most of us could probably measure our “prep” time in hours–5, 10, 15, etc., and oftentimes we feel better or worse about our messages (heading into Sunday) based on how much time we invested.

But is this really the best way to think about “sermon prep”?

My experience has taught me that it is not.

We’ve talked already in parts 1 and 2 about how the preacher needs to have a clear idea of what they are doing (opening a window to the kingdom), and how they need to make sure that their focus is not on “applying the text” to our “everyday lives” but rather on making plain how the text is already a description of the one beautiful and vexing life we now live before the face of God. But how do we become preachers capable of doing this?

I know one thing–thinking of something called “sermon prep” simply as a discrete moment that happens at regular intervals in your pastoral schedule ain’t gonna get the job done.

It’s just not big enough.

A text that has always been formative for me in my own ministry has been this one, out of Ezra 6. The restoration of the city is underway, and Ezra the scribe has been sent to help with the project. The favor of God, according to the text, is clearly upon him, and the narrator puts forward this explanation as to why:

For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to practice it, and also to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel. (Ezra 6:10)

This is so fabulous to me, and brilliantly instructive. Note the order–Ezra has “set his heart” to:

  • Study” Torah (the Heb. is “seek out” Torah, which I love)
  • Practice” or “do” Torah
  • Teach” the statutes and decrees of Torah in Israel

The priority here is clearly upon Ezra’s commitment to seeking out the wisdom and purpose of Yahweh in Torah and then figuring out just how to put it into motion… how it works… what it does… how it opens up vistas of understanding… how it binds and looses the human experience… and then, and ONLY then, can he “teach Yahweh’s statutes and decrees in Israel.”

It seems to me that the first call of the preacher is to live with God, in a dynamic interface between the nuance and texture of Scripture on the one hand, and their lived experience with God on the other hand. We are explorers in the frontier of faith, guided by our sense of who God is and how his world works through a careful and continual study of Scripture… a sense which is continually tested against what we’re actually finding out on the frontier. We move back and forth, in our own lives, in our families, in our interactions with neighbors and coworkers, between text and the “context” of our lives, seeking to understand how it all works.

And then here and there, out of our own experience of God, we stand up before the people and bring a fresh word.

That means, obviously, that the preacher must be, above all things, a disciple, a learner, an apprentice in the task of following Jesus. What we bring to the people of God when we stand up to preach is not (God forbid) some clever new interpretation of a text, or some purely academic or poetic twist on truth, or some clunky abstraction that requires 10 pages of notes to talk through… but rather the fruit of a lived experience with God, rooted deeply in, tempered by, and in fact made possible through the text of Scripture, which is our “norming norm” and the prism through which we’re called to perceive the one life God has given us.

Think about it for a minute. The messages you’ve heard preached in your life that were the most powerful, the most transformative… didn’t you get the sense that those messages came out of a whole life lived with God? That this wasn’t truth newly acquired, but truth that the preacher had gotten friendly with over the years? And when you heard that message, didn’t it have a ring of depth and authenticity to it that made it so compelling?

Then ask yourself… where does that come from?

I contend that it comes primarily through an Ezra-like commitment to be a disciple first, and a teacher second.

(At least) two things will immediately start happening to you when you begin to understand your call as a preacher this way:

First, “sermon prep” will go from something that happens at discrete moments on your weekly calendar, to something that is basically happening all the time. Now of course you will likely STILL sit down at set times to do work germane to the assembly of your sermon… but when you do, you’ll no longer be entering into some activity totally alien to the normal ebb and flow of life, but rather you’ll be sitting down to reflect on what the Lord is graciously showing you as you walk with him. Of course, the text of Scripture will often challenge you here. There will be times that the “window” being opened through this or that text is one that you’ve only barely begun to put your head through… or one that scares the living crap out of you! That’s ok. Be honest about that. Your listeners will thank you.

Second, you will begin to understand in all kinds of fresh ways the “light yoke” that Jesus spoke of… as a preacher. I know a lot of preachers who live with continual anxiety about Sunday. I was one of those guys, and honestly still struggle with it from time to time. But as I’ve walked with God and clarified some of this business in my own heart, the anxiety is starting to evaporate. I’m not getting up on Sundays to do some song and dance to entertain people. I’m not getting up to try to give some elaborate explanation of a so-called “truth” that is beyond my present experience, or the experience of my congregation.

I’m getting up to try to tell them what I’ve come to know of the God who is speaking through that text, and what that might mean for us. I am free, in fact, I am encouraged to draw on my own experience in doing this, since my own experience, after all, represents the training ground in which God is working his beauty in my life. And because in my whole life I am committed to understand what it means to live in the kingdom, everything in my life is fair game for “sermon material.” There is no shortage, for I am always living with and knowing God. Anything that makes the cut on Sundays is surely “run-off”, overflow out of the abundance.

At it’s best, I’ve come to understand a sermon to be a rhetorical act that combines biblical and theological insight stitched together with the very stuff of life. And once again, if what I’m saying is accurate, then the “narrative” or “personal vignette” moments of my message are not incidental or complementary to the “real thing” of the sermon (the biblical or theological exposition), but they also are the “real thing”–living testimony to how the glory of God is actually shining through.

I’ll get into how this notion of sermon prep effects actual sermon prep and organization of content in following posts, but for now I’ll leave you with this challenge:

If you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety about preaching each week, chances are you haven’t entered into the “light yoke” of discipleship as a preacher.

You’re trying to do too much, or you’re doing it in the wrong way, or your life and your preaching are disconnected. Whatever the case, I’ve come to understand that the Abba of Jesus does not lead us into that soul-crushing, toxic anxiety that stifles generosity of soul even as it eats us alive. He wouldn’t put that on us. He’s better than that. If we’re feeling that pressure, it means somewhere we’re out of sync with him.

What’s been your experience with this? Do you resonate?

10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons: Lesson 2

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’ll be doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, “This is a beautiful and compelling truth; now how does it apply to our everyday lives?” I would be a rich man.

Not that trying to figure that out is a bad thing. When, for instance, groups of friends get together to discuss the Bible or theology, one expects such questions to arise naturally–it’s all part and parcel of trying to understand how our lives are implicated by what the Scripture commends.

BUT.

When I hear preachers, especially in their sermons, ask that question: “Now how does this apply to our everyday lives?” I want to run out of the building screaming. I once told my staff that if they ever–EVER–heard me say such a thing in one of my messages, they should shoot me on the spot. An aggressive bit of hyperbolizing, no doubt, but my seriousness was sincere. And here’s why: to ask that question is to totally misunderstand the nature of God, the world he loves, and the good news the Church tirelessly proclaims.

For underneath that question is a sort of Enlightenment, dualistic mentality most aptly stated by the German philosopher Gotthold Lessing, who several hundred years ago said this:

Accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason…That, then, is the ugly, broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.

In other words: there is an uncrossable chasm between the vicissitudes of history and the so-called “necessary truths of reason”–the things that all people, everywhere, must necessarily believe.

I hear Lessing’s “ugly, broad ditch” at work in the “how does this apply to our everyday lives” question–it seems that we also are operating under the assumption that what the Bible and theology are MAINLY doing are describing some ethereal, pure, spiritual world, which here and there, you know, sometimes touches our material, impure, unspiritual world, and that it is the job (and man, it is a hard job!) of the preacher to try to bridge the gap in their preaching.

HOGWASH I SAY!

The thing that one immediately notices when reading the biblical text is that it has almost no interest in disembodied “truths” about God. Instead, it thrusts us right from the outset into the welter of life–“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” This is no abstracting discussion about divine impassibility or omnipotence, but a narrative in which we will see how the glory of God, indeed the designs and purposes of God, are made manifest in space and time. This total lack of interest in abstractions is carried straight through the entirety of the narrative, where all of life is seen to be the arena of Yahweh’s interest and power. In fact, it’s almost embarrassing to note the level of interest Yahweh takes in human life. I laugh every time I read through Deuteronomy 23 and the instructions regarding what to do, for instance, with one’s excrement. A very routine and ordinary task is given a theological dimension: “so that Yahweh will not see anything indecent among you and be displeased…” HA. And on and on like this it goes… power, money, sexuality, joy, pain, children, disillusionment, eating and drinking… all of it is brought underneath the gaze of our loving God.

And of course, ever since the Everlasting One became a man, the Lessonian ditch has been completely destroyed. In the God-Man, heaven and earth, nature and supernature, ideas and history, have been indissolubly wed. The truth that is made manifest in Jesus our Lord is forever about the lives we all live, in all of their beauty and grit and complexity, before the face of our Lord and Maker. Nothing is excluded.

This talk of “applying truth to our everyday lives” can really only exist in an environment in which it is assumed that there is an ugly world of materiality that God has come to save us from and into a pure and blissful world of disembodied spirituality that we will live forever in. But man… seriously… the resurrected Christ, according to the Gospel, asked for a piece of fish and ate it in the presence of his disciples. This is what resurrected existence looks like–it includes and dignifies every bit of ordinary life, even as it transcends it, as the cube includes and transcends the square. It does not leave it behind. Neither should our preaching.

That is at the heart of my frustration. It is a misunderstanding of how this whole thing works, which thankfully scholars are beginning to see on all kinds of levels. I’m reminded of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” debates, in which questions of the venerable Reformation doctrine of justification by faith are set within the important socio-cultural questions of the 1st century, in which Jews and Gentiles in the church are trying to figure out who gets to have table fellowship, and under what circumstances. This is about life, folks!!!

Not, of course, that it’s always obvious just how our lives are implicated by this or that bit of biblical text. Some texts (one thinks immediately of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount) make it easy. Others (like, say, the first chapter of Hebrews) take a bit of work. But if one starts with the assumption that this is about life, you usually won’t go too far astray, and your preaching will take on BOTH a theological/biblical depth AND a poignancy vis a vis “real life” that it probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.

There are at least two implications I can think of that come out of this:

First, if you begin to think this way, you’ll approach your preparation differently. Instead of trying to figure out the theological meaning first and then going onto to its practical application (again, think Lessing here), you’ll probably find yourself asking about meaning and life concurrently. I remember years ago doing a series on an utterly ethereal book, Ecclesiastes, and during my study, every single time I felt like the passage in question threw light on something (anything) or reminded me of something (anything), I would write it down in the margin of my notes. A story, a memory, a quote, something that happened with my kids recently, something I saw in the news… I mean whatever. And the funny thing was, the more I wrote those things down, the more energy my biblical and theological study gained. Pretty soon, as I crossed effortlessly between the world of Scripture and my own world, I stopped seeing them as separate worlds altogether, and suddenly the connections started to flow. We weren’t talking about the Bible anymore, with “life” over here on the other side… we were talking about all of it, together, under the gaze of God.

Secondly, if you begin to think this way, you will probably stop privileging “propositional” content over “narrative” or “personal” content in your messages. Again, such a privileging is Lessing’s “broad, ugly ditch” at work. I am under the impression that most of our formal training for preachers, especially that given in traditions committed to the authority of Scripture, operates under the assumption that the most important thing for the preacher to do is simply explain or announce the disembodied “truth” at work in the passage, and then use a personal story here and there to “apply” the truth or make it more personal. I understand that, but also think it’s bad form insofar as it obscures the truth that, again, the gospel is already-always, first-and-foremost, about the actual lives we live before the face of God. So a steady dose of narrative is not mere adornment. It is in fact the place where the glory of God shines through in great depth and clarity. When we begin to talk about our marriages, our kids, our neighbors, our jobs, relationships, ISIS, police brutality, hunting, fishing, coffee, and country music… we are talking about the very things that God in Christ came to save from eternal degradation. We SHOULD be talking about these things, stringing them together in tiny narratives that open windows to eternity. After all, by and large the Scripture itself is a narrative. Not a disembodied announcement of God’s love, but a gracious and soul-stirring “Once upon a time” that invites our little lives into the grandeur of God’s story, dignifying and transforming every little “once upon a time” that gets pulled up into its sweep.

All of this helps address, I believe, the concern raised by one reader last week who said:

I ideally desire practical application from the passages I pick/am asked to preach on. Sometimes [I find myself] running into incredible frustrations when the applications don’t seem very life changing to me, but more so a biblical lecture increasing head knowledge.

If you approach preaching in the way I’m recommending, this frustration will start to dissipate. For there will be less and less “how does this apply?” going on in your preparation–a question, again, assuming that there is “truth over there” and “our lives over here” that only meet once in a great while. Such an assumption is totally false. We are not trying to “fit” God or his truth into our lives. For when God became man, we were forever barred from trying to figure out how we are going to fit God into our lives. God has “fit us” into his life. Every bit of our finitude is radiant with divine splendor, if we have eyes to see it.

(If you’re in the Boulder, Denver, or COS area, you should join me for this–http://www.denverseminary.edu/resources/initiatives/preaching-cluster-groups/. I’ll be leading one. Really reasonable rates. Let’s learn to preach better, together!)