Practicing the Personal Art of Preaching

When I was in junior high school one day my friend, Jay Wiley, said, “I feel like Taco Bell for lunch.” I stared at him like he was from another planet. We were in Middle School. We weren’t allowed to leave the school grounds for lunch. And I was a good kid. Mostly. I certainly wasn’t a kid who broke major rules like this. And yet…Taco Bell sounded amazing.

I can remember feeling my heart pounding in my chest as we just walked away from the school and disappeared into the surrounding neighborhood. I was sure every car that passed was going to stop and make a citizen’s arrest. I was terrified…and exhilarated. When we finally made it to Taco Bell and the FBI hadn’t descended with helicopters with the S.W.A.T. team in tow, I started to calm down and realized something.

There was an entire world that existed outside of my tiny, narrow, little life.

There was an entire world going on around me that I knew nothing about. There were cars rushing around. There were people out walking and talking and buying things. And none of them could care less that a couple of middle school kids were out walking around and buying lunch. They didn’t even notice us! I don’t know what I thought happened when I went to school, but I will always remember that day when my world suddenly felt very small and incredibly vast all at the same time. That was the moment I learned how I would have to figure out my own way through this life.

The first poem of David Whyte I learned was Start Close In. I love the laconic economy of David’s language. Every word carries weight. There is nothing extra; nothing unecessary. And I love the way David names that each of us has to find our way, unique path- no one can offer it for us. This is close to what Whyte means when he talks about personal artistry as another foundation of conversational leadership- our own personal way of entering into the conversation.

 

START CLOSE IN

Start close in,

don’t take the second step

or the third,

start with the first

thing

close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

 

Start with

the ground

you know,

the pale ground

beneath your feet,

your own

way to begin

the conversation.

 

Start with your own

question,

give up on other

people’s questions,

don’t let them

smother something

simple.

 

To hear

another’s voice,

follow

your own voice,

wait until

that voice

becomes a

private ear

that can

really listen

to another.

 

Start right now

take a small step

you can call your own

don’t follow

someone else’s

heroics, be humble

and focused,

start close in,

don’t mistake

that other

for your own.

 

Start close in,

don’t take

the second step

or the third,

start with the first

thing

close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

Whyte, David (2007-01-01). River Flow: New & Selected Poems (pp. 362-363). Many Rivers Press. Kindle Edition.

Preaching is the main medium of my personal artistry. Nearly every week for the past fifteen years one of the most important parts of my job has been to steep myself in the stories of the Bible and listen for something honest, meaningful, and beautiful that has meaning for me and for the people I serve. While I love preaching, it has also offered me some of the most painful moments of my life.

In fact I almost didn’t survive learning how to preach. The awful thing about learning how to preach is that you have to stand up in front of people mostly unknown to you and pretend to have a clue about what you are doing when of course you don’t. You have no clue because you have no idea what your voice is yet. You can’t. Because you can only find your voice over time as you preach or practice whatever form your personal artistry takes. And then, what nobody tells you, is once you do find your voice, you continue to grow and change…which means you lose your voice again, and you have to wander through the wilderness again until you find your new voice. And since Sunday doesn’t care whether you know who you are or are confident in your voice there are many, many days preachers have to wander out there in front of everybody and just hope and pray that the Holy Spirit really is able to speak through what feels like hollow and broken words.

I remember the first time I found my voice. It happened after reading Bob Dykstra’s Discovering A Sermon. I had been a pastor for a few years at that point. And I was beginning to get over the anxiety of pretending to know what I was doing when I totally didn’t- and I was started to get bored with the act. In David Whyte’s lexicon I was getting very tired of myself, something he feels is a prerequisite for true growth. So I was at this perfect place when I cracked open Dykstra’s book.

When I learned to preach I was told to always use the best, most rational exegetical methods to study the texts, to be careful not to isogete, or read anything into the scriptures, to DEFINITELY be wary about sharing anything personal, and to DEFINITELY, DEFINITELY avoid humor.

Being the good kid I most was, I really tried hard those first few years to be a faithful preacher in that mold. I tried hard to avoid being personal. I tried to be as exegetical and factual as possible. The problem is this just isn’t who I am. Not even close. I knew it, and I’m pretty sure the few people who were somehow managing to stay awake knew it.

Discovering A Sermon basically reverses everything I was taught. Dykstra knew all of the “right” homiletical teachings, but being a pastoral care professor (and an outstanding preacher in his own right), Bob was encouraging preachers to be more fully human, and to trust God was big enough to handle us finding our own way of starting these preaching conversations.

Instead of leaping to what scholars tell us are the main points of the text, Dykstra encourages preachers to just sit with the texts and discover what’s interesting to them. This is hard because preachers are people who tend to be so interested in others we become blind to our own interests and needs. Preachers can become adept at guessing what we think others want rather than in pursuing what fascinates us. The rub, according to Bob is that interesting people are interested people. People who are passionate about something engage us simply because of their passion. Their enthusiasm carries us along even when we aren’t particularly interested in their topic.

So, instead of starting with good, solid, rational exegesis to find out what the professionals think is appropriate, Bob encourages preachers to just sit and daydream and explore our own imagination. He encourages preachers to read the text and just let your mind wander unconcerned with whether the connections you make are theologically appropriate. He notes that interesting perversion is more faithful than boring orthodoxy anyway.

This book basically invited me to find my own way into the conversation with the text and ultimately the sermon itself. Dykystra welcomed me to trust the pale ground beneath my feet and to stop allowing the voices of others to smother the simple, beautiful questions that were arising for me.

Does this mean every sermon prepared like this will be wonderful? Nope. I’ve walked some mangy dogs in my day, and I will in the days ahead, too. But at least when I offer up a sermon that isn’t quite fully formed or isn’t exactly what I was hoping for- it’s now my sermon. It’s my voice; my humble, imperfect gift. And week in and week out I have found that people aren’t hungry for perfection; they are hungry for honesty. And if we offer ourselves, if we start close in, by the power of the Holy Spirit this will be more enough.