After posting about One, the loneliest number, it appeared that One would be the loneliest blog post. I will pick up the numerical series again, never fear, but first a little theological excursus.
Last Sunday I preached a sermon. You can listen to it online. The main text was Ephesians 4:1-16, and the sermon title was Growing Up Together. In the sermon I suggested that the Ephesians text indicates that spiritual maturity is not an individual thing, but a group thing, a growing up together thing.
Than I read this blog post. The author, apparently theologically astute, represents spiritual maturity as being an individual thing. Yes the local church contributes to an individual’s spiritual maturity, but an individual can out grow a congregation and move on. SO opposite to what I preached. Completely opposed.
We have to get over being church consumers and start getting the idea that we ARE the Church. Now I’m not saying that there are times when God is calling us to move local churches — but to see this as a spiritual maturity thing does not, it seems, line up with Ephesians 4. And to church-hop without plugging in and deeply contributing to a local congregation does not line up with Ephesians 4. Possibly the spiritual immaturity of the North American Church comes from this sort of attitude.
I’ve just come in from a workshop on reading scripture. We spent more than two hours on practical tips, then rehearsing and performing a particular reading. I was working with a team on a reading of Isaiah 6, the bit where Isaiah sees the Lord. It was a good workshop, lots of interesting points. It made me think about how I preach as well as how I read scripture. When I preach, I preach from a manuscript, so it is essentially a reading. I also got to thinking about some discussions and experiences of reading aloud that I’ve had in the past few weeks.
1. Reading aloud — “It slows me down.” My friend, the priestling, who is in her first year of Seminary, told me that she sometimes reads her textbooks aloud because it slows her reading down. She cannot skip over bits of the text, let her eyes slide over words without really comprehending what the words say. I have never actually read aloud to an audience of just myself. I feel a bit self-conscious doing that. I should probably just get over it. If I’m reading aloud at home there’s no one but me to hear it. It isn’t as if I’d try this on the bus or in a library. At times I need to slow some of my reading down, and experience it with more than one sense. I think I’d like to try this.
2. Listening to someone read — details get picked up. I’ve said before in this blog that I find the experience of listening to an audio book substantially different from reading a book. Last week I listened to Pride and Prejudice and found that listening to a book I’ve read a few times to be an enriching experience. I’ve read P&P many times, and thought I knew the story backwards and forwards. Listening to someone else read it highlighted some details that I have never noticed before. This may be part of that whole slowing the book down process. It was pretty interesting. I think I’ll try some other re-reads as a listen next time through.
I’ve got more to say about reading aloud as performance, and thus preaching as performance, not to mention the hideous habit some people have of speeding up when they read scripture verses as if the Bible were something to be rushed through so we can get to what the person themselves has to say. But I’ll stop for now with these two reflections and ask what you’ve read aloud/been read lately?
I’m reading Barchester Towers. Oh, the deliciousness of this book. Rush out and get it if you have not yet read it. Possibly you should start with The Warden, the first of the Chronicles of Barsetshire. I totally meant to do that, but didn’t. People kept saying Barchester Towers was their favourite, so to Barchester Towers I went. I’m not very far in yet, but have found a fabulous rant on sermons which I think as pertinent today as when Trollope wrote it a little over 150 years ago. This is at the end of the sixth chapter of the first volume, a chapter called “War.”
There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries, than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silent, and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips. Let a professor of law or physic find his place in a lecture-room, and there pour forth jejune words and useless empty phrases, and he will pour them forth on empty benches. Let a barrister attempt to talk without talking well, and he will talk but seldom. … A member of Parliament can be coughed down or counted out. Town-councillors can be tabooed. But no one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age … the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday’s rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God’s service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire, no we are resolute, to enjoy the comfort of public worship; but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience; that we may be able to leave the house of God without that anxious longing for escape, which is the common consequence of common sermons.
Excellent. Good preaching is a huge part of picking a church to go to for me. I’ve experienced quite enough of the tedium and heard too much bad interpretation (Trollope hits poor interpretation of the Bible in the paragraph that follows the quote above) to settle for listening to bad preaching as a routine part of church-going.
I am, however, not just a listener to sermons. I also preach. As a preacher I cringe at the description above and aspire to greater heights. I hope fellow preachers will do the same. Platitudes are insufficient. Length does not make a good sermon. Obfuscation, poorly chosen illustrations, bad jokes — all these make this hearer wish to flee. A clearly presented word from God, now there’s a good sermon.
For the second post in a row, I’m sending you off to read a little Books & Culture. Go read that review linked in the previous sentence. Done? That was Lauren Winner’s review of Fleming Rutledge’s book of Old Testament sermons called And God Spoke to Abraham. Since it came out, I’ve been receiving that book into stock regularly at the theological bookshop where I work. Every time it comes across my desk I think about buying it. I haven’t yet. There are other collections of Rutledge’s sermons I’d like to get first. I’ve been eyeing The Bible and the New York Times for some time.
Back to Winner’s review of Rutledge. It amazed me that Winner admitted to defaulting to the gospel reading when she preaches. Of course, loads of people do this, but I didn’t expect that Winner would. It made me smile to think she’s only preached once from the Psalms — and I used a section of her Girl Meets God to justify preaching a sermon on Psalm 103 on Pentecost last year. Oh the irony.
I preach the Psalms quite a lot — in fact, the Psalter is my default book to preach from, not the gospels. Why? you might ask. As always, I’m happy to tell you. Most Psalms are neat single-sermon-sized packages. They are complete in themselves, so there isn’t a lot of exegetical work to figure out if you’ve got an appropriately complete section of Scripture to preach from. Most often, I preach single sermons scattered through the year. If I have a few Sundays in a row, I might do a mini-series, but for a single Sunday, a Psalm is nice and complete and tidy. I also like the challenge of preaching from poetry. I like the dense structure of Hebrew poetry. I like unpacking the way the words are put together. I like seeing the layers of meaning.
It felt a little experimental the first time I preached a Psalm. Now I wonder if I’m turning there too often. There’s such variety in the Psalter though! I certainly haven’t begun to preach what is possible there. I have been jumping around a bit randomly though — which is one of the benefits of preaching in church that doesn’t use the lectionary. I’m thinking about trying to be more systematic in preaching the Psalter, but I’m not sure I want to start with Psalm 2 (I’ve done a sermon on Psalm 1 already) and march on through as opportunity arises. Maybe I’ll take a peek at the lectionary for some direction about which Psalm to choose when I preach next month. That has some sort of system to it.
(In case you are interested, here’s one of my Psalm sermons.)
Read this article on why preachers should read.
Why should preachers read? Diction. Word choice, word organization, the felicitous phrase, the well-tuned ear. Preachers need to know how this sentence will sound when spoken, not just to an empty room, or to a mirror, or a window, but into a microphone, amplified, to an audience.
It seems to me that more folks need the skill of diction than preachers. Anyone who wants to make an argument aloud, sell something, or prove a point needs to know which words to use and when to stop talking. Maybe lawyers should read more. And car dealers. Teachers. Politicians. Need I continue?
You’ll communicate better.
On Sunday at church the guy who preached took a risk. He spoke on 1 Kings 19, where Elijah runs away from Jezebel to the Mountain of God and encounters God there. The Lord appeared not in the wind, earthquake, or fire, but in silence. Preacher guy announced that we don’t like silence and that we are always trying to fill silence with noise. Then he walked off the stage. The rest of his message came via powerpoint as we sat in silence. We could hear the silence. Pews creaked. That electrical/mechanical background hum that is always present in powered buildings became obvious. He gave us more than 5 minutes of silence sometimes without words on the screen. I didn’t time it. I kind of liked it.
I like silence, audio silence, as I’m noise-sensitive. But I realized in the silence Sunday morning that, as much as I seek soundless silence, I fill the soundlessness with something else. I fill it with words or pictures. The voice in my head doesn’t shut up.
Also, I like silence, but I like to be alone in silence, or at least with comfortable friends. Being with a lot of people at church in silence was odd.
I’ve been wondering what other people fill silences with. Upstairs, my landlady fills silence with random noise. She makes noise as she works at things. She doesn’t use words, just makes audible sighs. I don’t know how else to describe what she does. It drives me crazy. I want to yell SHUT UP! But I don’t think she even realizes what she’s doing. She’s just filling silence.
I talked about the filling of silence with my spiritual director. She suggested, and I think that she is right, that even if we like exterior silence, it takes a lot of time and practice to shut down the interior noise so that we can hear God. Being truly silent is hard work even if we can shut down the exterior noise, the sounds all around us of music, chat, machines, the city. Internal silence is much more challenging for me to practice than external silence.