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Preaching from the Soul
Insistent Observations on the Sacred Art
By J. Ellsworth Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2003 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Take the Bible Seriously
No better thing can happen to our preaching than having a passionate love affair with the Bible. This isn't easy for us preachers. We suffer the burden of familiarity, and in most cases (as a seminary professor, I hate to say it), we also suffer the burden of an education. We become too bookish about the Book, so that we see it as a source of sermons and studies, and we are more taken with problems of scholarship than with the wonders of its continuing power. As for familiarity, I suspect that the Hollywood divorce rate indicates that even glamour becomes commonplace unless it is sustained by uncommon love. We need a grand love for the Bible because it is our basic document. It is not only the particular source of our preaching, but it is also the book that so uniquely understands us, that we gain our understanding of life through it.
But of course we twenty-first century preachers have special problems with the Bible. We may sometimes wish that we could read it as if there had never been the explosion of critical studies, but the fact is, we have lost our innocence. Even those who scorn critical studies acknowledge the importance of these studies by their attacks on them. The effective preacher confronts the issues of biblical criticism like a lover who has seen his romance almost scuttled, but who now loves more knowingly and earnestly than before the period of trauma.
One way or another, the preacher must have a unique relationship with the Bible. For me, it is the inspired Word of God. I see it as unlike any other book, in its origin and in its authority. I meet professional colleagues who think my position is a bit strong, but who honor the Bible as the document of the church and its traditions. Still others, it seems to me, haven't necessarily thought through a personal theology of the Scriptures, but they cherish the Bible for what it has meant in their own life and experience. Although I would rather preachers see the Bible as I do, I want them to enter the study and the pulpit with any devotion to the Book that will drive them to search it, clarify it, and deliver it with conviction. To that end, I suggest some practical rules, some of them quite obvious, but not always faithfully practiced.
1. Believe that the Bible is for every reader, now. Protestant clergy love to talk about the priesthood of all believers, and about the open Bible for all God's people, but we tend to take a professional proprietary interest in it. Intentionally or not, we sometimes give people the feeling that they can never hope to understand the Scriptures as well as we do. It's obviously true that we have an academic edge, since we've specialized in biblical studies. It's also quite possible that at an experiential level, the person in the pew may relate to the Bible better than we do. Our professionalism may get in the way. So while we ought to employ everything we know about Greek, Hebrew, ancient history, and Middle Eastern geography, we want to be very careful not to give people the feeling that without such knowledge their own reading is inadequate. Our preaching receives a high compliment when it inspires people to read the Bible for themselves, both studiously and devotionally. Approach preaching with the conviction that the Bible is God's gift to our human race, and that it is, therefore, intended to be understood.
The "now" in this first suggestion is especially significant. I venture that every effective preacher has tried, as it is so often said, to have one foot in the Bible and one foot in the present. If any particular individual ought to have a feeling for the times in which we live, it should be the preacher—particularly the parish pastor. More than the historian, more than the newscaster, more than the political pundit or the social philosopher, the preacher ought to have a feeling for his or her time. We must somehow know the spirit of the age, yet avoid being either captured by it, or cheaply exploiting it.
2. Know the Bible's every jot and tittle, but read it as if you had never seen it before. I suppose this rule seems quite unrealistic. I confess that I'm giving the counsel of perfection, but I'm confident it is within our reach. This is the attitude of love; but those who have loved deeply know that even the best love has to be nurtured. I've read through the Bible in its entirety several dozen times, and expect to do so again next year. I've been helped to see it anew by using different translations from time to time. I've also been helped by seeing the Bible through the eyes of novelists and poets, as in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, edited by David Rosenberg, and its New Testament counterpart, Incarnation, edited by Alfred Corn. Indeed, whenever I see Scripture approached by a serious novelist or poet, I look with interest. I don't need to agree with their theology, but I do need the stimulus of their thinking.
I remind myself of the ancient rabbis who insisted that the Torah has seventy faces. I find new wonders as I seek with hunger and openness. I remember, too, John Robinson, pastor to the Plymouth Pilgrims, who assured his flock when they left for the New World that there was still more light to break forth from God's holy Word. If there is any limitation to the inspiration and insight to be found in the Scriptures, it is the limitation we bring by our low expectations. Some years ago a reviewer commented that most productions of plays by J. M. Synge, the brilliant Irish playwright, were "marred by the arid hand of the academicians, who revere a play's reputation as a 'classic' without ever understanding the vital impulse that inspired it." Those of us who teach and preach the Bible may well be guilty of the same marring of the Scriptures, which brings us to the next rule.
3. Be properly skeptical of yourself . Each of us approaches the Bible with our own prejudices. William Blake put the matter humorously, as he noted our inclination to see Christ's image in our own image: "Thine has a great hook nose like thine / Mine has a snub nose like to mine." I take the Scriptures with all seriousness, but I try to be much less serious about my own understanding and interpretation of Scripture. The pastor ought always to preach out of his or her heart; one's preaching ought surely to have soul. But we preachers must also remember that we can too easily fixate on themes that reflect either our prejudices or our struggles, and that we need therefore to come under the discipline of the teachings of the church, perhaps the structures of the lectionary, and the guidance of some insightful, honest friend.
4. Don't be afraid to wrestle with the Scriptures. Frederick Buechner is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has devoted most of his ministry to writing. As a result, he has sat in the pew more frequently than do most of us preachers. He has found it an unsettling experience. He says of the preachers he has heard, "There is precious little in most of their preaching to suggest that they have rejoiced and suffered with the rest of mankind"; "they tend to become professionals who have mastered all the techniques of institutional religion and who speak on religious matters with what often seems a maximum of authority and a minimum of vital personal involvement." But Buechner gratefully recalls sermons by "a man named Robert MacFarlane." Those sermons, he said, "had spaces in them, spaces of silence as if he needed those spaces to find deep within himself what he was going to say next, as if he was giving the rest of us space to think for a moment about what he had just been trying to say last." Buechner feels confident that the man was laying out "a faith that, even as he spoke it, he was drawing out of the raw stuff of his own life."
Sermons like MacFarlane's have soul. They are not just scholarly investigations or interesting topics to be explored, but a personal wrestling. Still more, it is not only that the preacher is wrestling with this text because of what the text means in his or her life, but that, as a pastor, there is a wrestling on behalf of all the people. I no longer have the pastoral role, but on those frequent weekends when I am preaching somewhere around the country, I seek to have a pastoral heart. This is a heart that recognizes that everyone is compelled to do a fair share of wrestling—some occasionally, and some through all of their struggling lives. It is part of the preacher's calling to wrestle vicariously on behalf of the people who will eventually hear the Word. Because we spiritually wrestle for others, we examine the Scriptures, then preach them, in a manner that is both dreadfully and wonderfully affirming of existence.
5. Practice psychological exegesis. I'm afraid of this term being misunderstood. By "psychological exegesis," I'm simply urging that, in our reading of the Bible, we seek to get inside the characters. Perhaps this desire is behind my enthusiasm for the insights on Scripture that come from poets, novelists, and playwrights. Paddy Chayefsky gave me insights on Gideon, in his play of the same name, that I didn't find in commentaries, because Chayefsky had looked into Gideon's soul.
I remember, in a sermon about the man whose son would often convulse and foam at the mouth (Luke 9:37-43), a student who gave us a moment to feel the pain of the father, and as he did we were able to feel the father's poignant sorrow and despair as he appealed to Jesus to do for his boy what the disciples had proved unable to do. There were no histrionics; such pain needs no embellishment. The student simply took us inside the father's heart for a moment, and helped the story engage us. In feeling the father's exquisite pain, I entered a whole new dimension in the story of the boy's healing.
The Bible is wonderfully candid about the lives of its characters. It never gives us plaster of paris saints. We need to follow the Bible's lead in examining the fears, frustrations, joys, and displeasures of its personalities. The book of Psalms, by itself, has enough varieties of emotions to occupy a stable of soap opera writers for a decade. Paul's epistles are packed full of doctrine, but Paul's emotions are woven in, through, and around the doctrine. He reasoned with his congregations, but usually with a hot pen; for him, doctrine was always blood and sinew.
I realize that a lazy preacher might take my words as license to push aside research and engage instead in undisciplined imagining. I'm not urging that we fill our sermons with what Paul, David, or Peter "must have felt"; a little of that fare goes a long way. But we do well to invest our souls in the souls of the biblical writers and characters in the hope that we may get new light for the text itself. Scripture passages are rarely, if ever, cold statements of fact; they are stories and convictions born in experience.
Perhaps we sometimes miss the heartbeat of the biblical personalities because we have not ourselves experienced as much as we should of our faith or of life. George Macdonald, the preacher turned novelist, portrays a cleric in his novel Sir Gibbie, who "knew nothing whatever but by hearsay," because he "had not in himself experienced one of the joys or one of the horrors he endeavored to embody." Obviously we preachers can't be expected to encounter all the vicissitudes and glories of life, nor can we travel each pilgrim pathway. It may not be inappropriate to pray for a large share of empathy, for life in general and for our reading of the Scriptures in particular. I doubt that any calling requires a broader and deeper store of empathy, or more ability to communicate it.
Sometimes, as I stand with one foot in the religiously conservative world and the other in the liberal, I get the feeling that some preachers don't really like the Bible that much. On the one hand, there are those clergy who are more often embarrassed by the Bible than inspired by it, because they have become more critic than expositor. On the other hand, I see and hear sermons by some who speak vigorously about their love of the Bible but whose sermons show more acquaintance with books of illustrations than with the Book being expounded.
Margaret M. Mitchell noted in Harvard's 2001 Dudleian Lectures that the fourth-century preacher Chrysostom interpreted Paul not as "a depersonalized, neutral endeavor in which a person (the reader) meets an object (a written text), but rather [as] a conversation among friends." And there was a reason for this. "Chrysostom claimed that he understood Paul so well not because of his own mental acuity, or even his steadfast faith, but because he loved Paul so much."
I won't claim that it was this that made John of Antioch "the Golden-Mouthed" (Chrysostom), but I'm sure it helped. It's hard to be eloquent about things that don't strongly grip us. With that in mind, I urge you: embrace these Bible personalities, warts and all! Lay passionate claim to Cain and Rahab, to Bartimaeus and Nicodemus. They are our spiritual kin, sometimes damned and sometimes holy, and we will understand the Scriptures and ourselves better if we claim this pantheon of belief and unbelief as our own.CHAPTER 2
The Sacred Triangle
I dare to venture this chapter only because when I look at the nonfiction best-seller lists now and then, I am often astonished, and sometimes depressed, to see that the books on the list are so often recitations of what almost everyone already knows. This is true whether the field is business, self-help, or popular religion. We seem fascinated by the obvious, if only the outer garments are in some way new, or perhaps bizarre. So it is that I set out to tell you what, by common sense, you already know.
A good sermon involves a sacred triangle, three great love affairs. They ought to be coexisting and mutually supporting affairs, but like any love affairs they easily become competitive, and easily intrude on one another's territory. That's why I'll present them as a triangle rather than as a trinity. If we are to preach well, all of these love affairs should possess us. They should possess us as we prepare the sermon, as we preach it, and as we live afterward with its fallout.
I hate to number these love affairs, lest I seem to give them an order of preference, and thus to endorse the very danger that frightens me, namely that I make these several loves competitive. So let me say from the outset that, for matters of preaching, one is not more important than the others.
Fall in Love with the Sermon You Are Presenting
This is different from what I said in chapter 1: it isn't a matter of being in love with the Bible in general, or its characters, or its truths. As a matter of pragmatic fact, our general love is likely to be an enemy to our love for the particular sermon that we're preaching, or preparing to preach, on this particular occasion. All of us preachers know that at some point during preparation for the sermon immediately before us, we become fascinated with the possibility of a sermon we will preach later. Sometimes, in fact, we'll even be fascinated with a past sermon. This is a devilish distraction, and the preacher must resist it. Mind you, it may be rooted in truth, because the sermon before us may indeed be tedious. But the secret, of course, is to remedy these faults rather than to yearn for a better day to come or to mourn a better day past. And most of the time it isn't that this sermon is so bad; it's just that we've hit a hard place in the process of preparation.
The issue is still more crucial as we approach the pulpit. At times of a struggling psyche— an experience that comes occasionally to every preacher and that is a constant companion to some—we are tempted to look past this sermon to some future Sunday. Many a Top 25 college football team has lost its rating by looking ahead two weeks to the big game while stumbling into Backwoods State Community College. There is only one Sunday that matters—this one— and only one sermon to be preached—this one. So fall in love with this sermon.
The late Norman Vincent Peale always thought of his father, a small-town Methodist preacher, as an extraordinary man and minister. He recalls how he loved to hear his father preach: "He was thrilling because he was himself always thrilled." We're not likely to thrill others with a sermon unless we are ourselves first thrilled with it.
Excerpted from Preaching from the Soul by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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