It is a great blessing.
It is a great curse.
It is my highest privilege
It is an albatross around my neck.
It is something I look forward to.
It is something I dread.
Lots of folks do it now and then. But the unique set of women and men who do it week-in and week-out is really relatively small. When I was an associate minister and was only allowed to preach now and then, I always felt my sermons were incredible. Heck, almost anybody can craft a sermon, it if you give them virtually no time constraints, and all the time in the world to practice. But there’s something about the week-in and week-out preaching gig that is extremely challenging.
In fact, I really know of no other gig like it. You can compare it to other things. But it’s never entirely a “one-to-one” comparison. I know of no other speaking profession where someone is asked to come up with 15-20 minutes of entirely “new material” each week.
It’s sort of like a politician giving a “stump speech.” But, even though the length is about the same, most politicians recycle lines, anectodes — and sometimes entire speeches– over and over again.
It’s a bit like playing a live concert of your own original songs (a comparison I know something about…). But most performing musicians do same songs over and over each night. They might throw in one new tune every few weeks, but certainly not a entire new set of songs every seven days.
The closest thing I can think for comparison-sake is a newspaper columnist. (Folks who write a twice-weekly “byline” piece in papers and magazines). The deadlines are similar, in that they come around each week. And, assuming they go to press twice weekly, the amount of “copy” they produce is probably analogous.
But, columnists are rarely called upon to *speak* their columns out loud; to take that final step of turning a written page it into inspiriting *verbal* communication. The act of writing something to be *read* is really quite different from the act of writing something to be *spoken;* not to mention time spent practicing what you are going to speak.
So, there’s a lot in the culture that’s comparable to the task of preaching, but nothing exactly like it.
Once a week, I’m called upon to stand up and deliver a message that both honors the history of a 2,000-year-old tradition, but is also “relevant” to the modern world. I’m called upon to connect with, and interpret, ancient Bible passages, and modern events in the news. I’m called upon to not just speak some word I need to hear, but to try and discern what others might need to hear. Or even more precisely: to allow God to speak a word through me (God willing).
There are Sundays where there is nothing easy about this task. Maybe something’s going on in my life that is distracting me. Maybe I just didn’t get enough sleep, or stayed up too late. (Very likely…). Maybe I had a fun Saturday night, and my mind’s still on that. Maybe I liked what I said last week and just don’t feel like adding anything else quite yet. The point is, there are often Sundays where I am the Grumbler in Chief about the task itself.
Why me? And why again so soon?
Then, there are those other Sundays when the Word has lept off the page, when the interpretation lights up every synapse in my brain, and where I can’t wait to share it with others.
Then finally, there are moments of true Grace, when I think, “Well, this one really stunk it up today.” And invariably? That will be the Sunday somebody comes up afterward to say “That was so helpful to me.”
Sometimes, you can tell they really mean it. Those are surprisingly special moments.
Yesterday was one of those good days. I really liked the sermon I had to offer, and it not only fit the texts, but I think my own personal life and experience added some unique depth.
You can listen to it here. (Note: in about six months, this link will likely no longer work…)
You never can know, of course, how others will take your words. They might totally “get” what you thought the point should be. Or, they might totally miss it and hear something else entirely.
My classic example of this phenomena came many years ago, when I’d preached about the need/right for every person to interpret the Bible through the lens of their own insight and experience. You don’t, I preached with some fierceness, need anybody else to tell you what to think about the Bible…no preacher…no Pope…nobody. God, as John Calvin once said, has given each of us our set of “spiritual spectacles,” with which to do our reading and study. Think for yourself. Ready for yourself. Don’t just take the word of so-called “experts.”
So, having preached this sermon on the autonomy of the individual, I was met at the door by by very animated man who said, “That’s one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard! This is a message we all really need to hear right now. And there’s nobody out there saying it…except you…and Rush Limbaugh!”
After I pealed my lower chin off of the floor, I realized something: What people “hear” in what I say is not ultimately up to me. Everybody brings their own experiences, insights, history, baggage, etc. Sometimes, they take home what you want them to. Sometimes, God helps them take home something you could have never intended. And sometimes, you’re not quite sure how they got what they got.
There are Sundays I am not grateful that this task falls upon me. But when I am in my right mind, I do realize what a special gift it is, and how much I’d miss it if it ever went away.
That’s why the gift of preaching is today’s “daily gratitude.”
(During this year, my goal is to find something new to be thankful for every single day, and to add that thanksgiving as a blog entry, under the title “My Daily Gratitude.” I started this kick back around Thanksgiving, and it’s already resulted in a favorite new song of mine. The goal of this ongoing spiritual exercise is to see if doing such a thing might inspire even more gratitude within me, and to foster general awareness of life on a deeper level.)