catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 14 :: 2010.07.09 — 2010.07.22


Getting real

Just as you become a good writer by reading other writers, you become a good preacher by hearing other preachers.  Oh, sure, there are other influences, but as I look back on twenty years of preaching, it is the other preachers I remember as catalysts to my own growth.  Like the pastor I met in my youth with the shelf-full of Martin Luther’s writings who preached with that Lutheran lightning-bolt clarity and urgency.   Like Zan Holmes, one of my preaching professors in Dallas, who introduced me to the skilled cadence of African-American preaching.  And even Garrison Keillor, whose Lake Woebegon radio tales drew forth my own stories and helped me to see my father’s storytelling gifts as a resource for encountering truth in narrative form.

I think of my own journey in preaching as a kind of extended adolescence — trying on different identities until my own voice emerged.  I left seminary with a preaching voice overburdened with academic tools.  In general my periods of academic work have coincided with bad preaching.  I spent hours in exegesis – a useful exercise, but one that left me with biblical sermons that didn’t breathe.  A year serving churches in England didn’t help.  My ear was picking up the dense patterns of English speech and it came out in sermons as something like a stiff, upper lip — clever words shielding the display of raw emotion or authentic character.

Moving back to Virginia and having our first child helped me recover a more authentic voice.  I began to write story sermons that allowed me to introduce more human characters who struggled with their faith.  I was following C.S. Lewis’ maxim that “the longest way round is the shortest way home.”  Many of my congregants loved the stories.  I think they appreciated the texture and the humor.  Some of them found the indirect way that the text moved through the story liberating and more accepting of their own doubts and questions.  It certainly felt more authentic to my experience.  But I eventually began to crave a new, more direct voice.

After a side trip through another master’s program where I added Barth and Augustine to the feminist and liberation theologies I had explored in seminary, I found a new “revival” voice.  At least that’s how I thought of it.  I felt a passion for the deep history and wisdom in the Christian tradition and I could now preach it with real conviction.  A new setting in campus ministry helped me do it with fresh language, too, as I worked with students who were introducing me to new modes of expression.

Now, back in a local church, I find that many different styles can work to create a good sermon.  I draw on story, poetry, theology, diverse forms of exegesis and even music to move the sermon forward.  But the key is keeping me open.  For all the influences that have formed me, it is the ability to be myself in the pulpit that I value the most.  I have no better gift to give to a world that needs real people.  So I work on bringing myself to work — my whole self for God to employ as she deems right.

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