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The second shift in my sermon writing and preaching was one of intention and attention. Anything can become a routine, and preaching was often a routine for me–an excruciating, four-in-the-Sunday-morning routine, sure, but still, routine in that I’d lost touch with the reason to preach, the reason people sit and listen to a sermon in the first place. It wasn’t entirely absent; it flared up in my preaching, I’m sure; but in many of my weekly struggles with writing, it had ceased to be central.
Maybe something began to shift back where it needed to be when I began to open every service with an eight-word mission: “to transform ourselves, each other, and the world.” Another thing that brought it back now and then, brought my heart back to what was most important, was others’ great preaching. I would go to a service–typically, someone’s ordination, or the short worship services ministers lead for each other during our retreats–and the preacher’s words would rock my world. I would walk out of the service remembering what my life was about, “This, this!” and know once again, in my bones, that I needed to reorder my priorities to put the people I love most at the center (thank the departed Mary Harrington for her sermon “A Lifetime Isn’t Long Enough”); that I wanted to wake up before my short time was over (thank you, Erik Walker Wikstrom, for a sermon you gave just before your departure from Brewster, MA, in the summer of 2008). These sermons transformed me, personally. This is what I could do for the members of my congregation.
Around the same time, Christine Robinson’s Berry Street Essay, i.e., sermon, spoke to my soul by reminding me that my job was to speak to others’ souls: to allow them to be “touched to the core of [their] being.” She spoke about an experience of holiness she had on a ride at Disneyworld, and I was pressed back against my seat–it felt like 2 g’s–by these words: “The only thing you’ll really have to work with . . . is yourself and what you are willing to share of your own, precious and always threatened spiritual life.” Another wake-up call. Was I sharing of the core of myself, and was I speaking to the core of those gathered on Sundays?
Then I read Kay Northcutt’s book. My congregation, mostly atheists, humanists and naturalistic theists, might be nervous to know the title (Kindling Desire for God: Preaching as Spiritual Direction), but the fact is that whatever they love about my preaching in the past five years owes a great deal to this book. The message I took from it is: whatever your text for the week (and Northcutt, like most Christian preachers, follows a lectionary and has Biblical texts as her reading), prepare for writing by meditating and praying on that text, yes, but even more, meditate and pray on the spiritual needs of your congregation, individually and collectively. What is happening in their lives right now? What is happening in their world? What are they hungry for, frightened of, longing for? These are the “texts” for your study, preacher. Northcutt spends significant sermon-prep time each week contemplating the heart of her congregants’ being, and she says to all preaching ministers, Go and do likewise.
I had forgotten. I had been writing as if my job were to present twenty minutes of coherent and occasionally eloquent argument. Coherence and eloquence are important, but they’re just the craft of writing, and while craft is often underrated, if you’re an artist it’s intended to be the servant of meaning, not the end in itself. In church, the meaning is our lives. A preacher is an artist, meant to create something that is not just well-crafted but beautiful and charged with meaning: something that will touch the core of our being.
I know why I’d forgotten this. It was a convenient amnesia, an avoidance of something that scared me. So what I needed to do, if I were to write and preach in a way that would speak to people’s spirits, was to move through my fear.