09 February 2015

"Preacher Man"

Every week, I preach.

On Sunday morning, I stand before my congregation. I take a shaky sip of water and then a deep breath. I pray the same grounding prayer every time: “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of each one of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer.”

And then I preach.

I am burdened by it. I am blessed by it.

The sermon is always on my mind. Ruminating and pondering is not a 9-5 activity. The longing for an angle, an insight, a point of contact never disappears. It ebbs and flows, rises and falls, day and night. Imagery and analogy swirl ‘round my heart and mind, like tendrils of early morning mist, hiding as much as they reveal, as I run 5 miles, as I wash the dishes, when I stare out the window, as I lie awake in the pre-dawn hours.

I didn’t become a pastor in order to preach.

I do not enjoy having 175 (or 50 or 300) pairs of eyes on me. After many years, I still am gripped by the anxiety of “public speaking.” Except, when I preach, it’s not just the speaking in front of people.

It’s the vulnerability.

It’s the self-disclosure through personal stories and cherished ideas and deeply held convictions—where it all touches me (whether said with words, the visible lump in my throat, or the catch in my voice).

It’s gotten easier, but it will never be easy. The responsibility to offer grace-filled words that bless, that heal, that challenge…it is unrelenting.

And yet, when I have a Sunday when I do not preach, why does it feel as if something is missing? And not in that vague “I-should-be-doing-something-right-now” way, but in a way more deeply connected to my own spirituality?

Weekly preaching, when I am faithful to it, invites my deep engagement with scripture, wrestling with Biblical stories of grace and love and pain and devastation and forgiveness and sacrifice and compassion. Preaching that isn’t superficial requires my full engagement with the joy and the tragedy of the world around me. To preach, I need to observe, listen, experience, feel. I need be aware of the implications of the pulse thumping in my neck. I need to be fully alive and fully human.

I want to be alive. I want to be human.

Preaching calls forth the creativity within me. Not always. Not predictably. I’ve preached more than my share of clich├ęs and clunkers. And yet, in the chaotic throes of the process, the creative impulse will offer her gems—a metaphor, an image, a story, an insight…the Word for this moment.

In the vulnerability is an indescribable experience of the Holy Spirit at work. My words? Not exactly. In that sacred space between the movement of my lips and the meditating hearts of the people, she does something marvelously and mysteriously thrilling. I am merely the instrument.

Preaching keeps my ego in check. Every Sunday, before I enter the sanctuary, I pray as honestly as I can, “It is not about me. It is not about me. It is not about me. Help me get out of the way, O God.”

Preaching strengthens my sense of self, my confidence, my God-given identity. For at least the first six years of weekly preaching, my Bible was open to the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

God said to me, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” I said, “Oh, God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But God said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you…

There are many negative stereotypes of preachers: Bible-thumpers, judgmental hypocrites, divorced-from-reality geeks, know-it-alls, egotistical, money-grubbing, self-important narcissists, or perhaps worst of all…deadly boring.

I hope that I am not stereotypical.

Every week, I preach.

I am burdened by it. I am blessed by it.