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VOICING THE VISION
Imagination and Prophetic Preaching
By LINDA L. CLADER
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2003 Linda L. Clader
All rights reserved.
Shifting Ground in the Sacred Space
It's not that the pulpit itself feels shaky. The one in the church where I most often preach has heavy oak railings to protect me from falling overboard if things get too rough, and it's firmly bolted to the floor. The pulpit stands a few feet above ground level, so the sight lines are good, and most of the time the sound system works. Not long ago, one of the men in the congregation enlarged the lectern so two sheets of printer paper will fit on it, side by side. It's user-friendly, steady, and even somewhat commanding. Seems like a preacher should feel safe there.
And yet all of us who preach know how very unsafe we can feel when we stand on the three or four or nine square feet that define our preaching space. At times, I imagine the floor of the pulpit as thin ice. Sometimes I think about that trap door with the hidden button that someone (God?) can push to get rid of me fast. Now and then, it's quicksand, or tar. On rare occasions, I imagine flames. On the face of it, these fantasies might appear to be just performance anxiety—of course, in a way they are. None of us wants to look foolish, nor do we want to mislead or discourage those who have gifted us with their attention and their trust. But the danger I feel in that holy place is something beyond nerves, something beyond concern about being responsible with the authority that has been granted me for those minutes, in that community. When I let my thoughts run over the images and metaphors our tradition offers us, I sense the danger that goes with sacred space. I see the high priest approaching the holy of holies; I see the upper room at Pentecost; I see Moses disappearing into the fire and smoke on the mountain; I hear Ezekiel shouting the word of the Lord to disjointed bones.
Preaching is a profoundly dangerous occupation. It is dangerous because it often calls us to lay our hearts or our lives on the line. Where is God, our community demands, when a terrorist attack can kill thousands of civilians with four hijacked jetliners? How should a Christian vote on a state proposition reducing an immigrant's access to services? Should our church's doors be open all night so that people can sleep inside? What can our little community do about global warming? What should be the Christian response to war? We recognize that we take a stand on such issues at our peril, and we pray for guidance.
Preaching is dangerous because, fundamentally, it is a shared activity, rather than something we alone control. The times that unsettle us most may be when we think we have made gentle suggestions or vague connections, and one or more members of our congregation respond by setting in motion a new program or a change in direction for the community. We have spoken generally about a condition that might call for repentance or healing, and wounded people and those who care about them pour out of the shadows. We hesitantly name an injustice, and suddenly an action committee forms. We sense that the situation has been taken in hand by a force greater than ourselves, whether we choose to name it group dynamics or Holy Spirit, and we tremble at the thought of being swept away to some place we've never been before and hadn't planned to visit.
Preaching is dangerous because it opens doors to the holy. Whether it occurs in the context of a eucharistic liturgy or a service of lessons and carols, we believe that somehow Christ is present in the Word proclaimed, and that our preaching is part of that proclamation. Whether we are guest preachers in cathedrals or long-time pastors of small churches, we believe that somehow we are called to make God's ways known anew to this group of people at this time. And whether we speak in an informal vernacular or painstakingly craft a piece of poetry, we understand that the words we use are only a small part of the message our listeners receive, and that a large share of that message is entirely out of our control. We can be totally misunderstood. We can touch someone's hot button and spend the rest of the week having to pour water on a brushfire. And sometimes we discover to our amazement that while we thought we were preaching a sermon hurriedly prepared or ill-conceived, one of our parishioners was hearing something life-changing. We can't make that happen, and yet we understand that we have a responsibility to prepare and to act as if it might.
Preaching is a dangerous occupation because it is fraught with mystery, full of elements we talk about confidently and yet cannot control. Every individual human being is a mystery to every other, and here we are, all these mysteries gathered in one place. Beyond the simple unknowns of each individual's soul is the much greater unknown of each one's relationship with God—and beyond that, still, God's relationship with the whole gathering. Our numbers magnify the mystery. Individuals who may feel that their own commitment is shaky come together, depending on each other to call upon God's presence. Do those other worshippers even believe in the same God? The choice to live vulnerably in community is itself an act of faith. When members of a congregation pass through the door into their worship space, they take the profound risk of laying themselves open not only to the mystery that is God but also to the mystery of one another.
This is Holy Spirit territory. The dynamic space where faith can grow, where a creative impulse can engender trust and incite action, where a bolt of electricity can move the unmovable. The mysterious source of courage that bears witness to the truth, of power that heals, of the strength in weakness that makes forgiveness possible.
In high school chemistry, I remember struggling with the "charge-cloud model" of the atom. Earlier high school texts apparently relied on a model of the atom (the one we still see on various atomic energy logos) in which tiny spherical electrons flew in neatly defined orbits around a spherical nucleus. We were told that our chemistry text was much more advanced, because the model of the atom we were being taught was much less defined and therefore more true. We learned that the "cloud" model was an attempt to represent the general area where an electron might be operating. Maybe it was a particle; maybe it was something like a magnetic field or an electrical current. But it was lurking somewhere in that cloudy "space," and its existence was only determined by its activity, not by our being able to see where it was.
Can we imagine the Holy Spirit in terms like those? A cloudy area circumscribes its territory, but not who or what exists there. Like a high-flying aircraft, sometimes it leaves contrails behind it to show where it's been. Many people have experiences now and then in which they understand that the Spirit is upon them and within them right at that moment; but many others recognize its presence only after the event itself is past. Neither an entity you can look at directly nor simply a vague, impersonal force, the Spirit is the wonderful mystery that gives life, moves prophets, and makes church.
And that is the strange and dangerous medium in which and by which preaching happens. The Spirit speaks in the proclamation of the Word of God. The Spirit authorizes the preacher and opens the ears of the listener. The Spirit fills the worship space and causes the whole to add up to more than the sum of the parts. The Spirit enters the hearts of the community and guides them to action. And the Spirit acts and moves and energizes on its own, in ways that surprise and delight and sometimes enrage and frighten us.
If we are honest about what we are doing, preachers have to admit that we practice our vocation on this exciting and uncertain terrain. The question is, then, how are we going to gain confidence about being there? We could choose to try to hang on tighter, to seek to control whatever small corner of the turf we think we really understand. We can craft our sermons more artfully; we can make extensive use of reliable sources; we can stick to techniques and approaches that we are sure will "work." And although we know we cannot contain God's power, we can attempt to make sure our listeners only recognize it in the terms we give them. That way, of course, is not only dishonest and boring; it could even be called blasphemous or diabolical.
Another option is to embrace the uncertainty and to commit ourselves to following wherever the Spirit leads. We can decide that we are willing to take the risks that may allow unexpected results. We can pray to be open to the Spirit as a guide, and to recognize the Spirit's voice when our congregation responds. We can take intentional steps to enhance our own willingness to be open to the Spirit's creative voice, and we can learn ways to help our listeners become more open and grow more attentive.
Preaching with imagination has never been about simply decorating a sermon to seduce people into listening. In a sense, it has always been about allowing space for a kind of playful energy that can delight and surprise us out of the places where we are spiritually stuck, that can kindle and strengthen hope. It has always been about flinging open windows for the light of the Spirit; about setting doors ajar for God's holy Breath. And it seems as urgent as it has ever been to set those doors ajar today.
We human beings always seem to have to think about things as either-or choices, as black and white, as one or another extreme. I suppose that's because we are biologically two-sided: you know—two eyes, two arms, two halves of our brains. The ancient Greek language had two words that meant "on the one hand ... on the other hand ..." and the Greeks were so deeply influenced by that two-handedness in their language that they could hardly speak without framing their ideas as a contrast. Our English language doesn't exactly work that way, but our thought still seems to. And it's indisputable that getting stuck in either-or thinking causes us all kinds of unnecessary misunderstanding and conflict, from the level of two people having an argument to two nations or two cultures tearing each other apart on the field of war.
We Christians know that somehow or other, we are called to "think outside the box" regarding the problems that confront society and the world, but we don't always know exactly what the box is or how to go about thinking outside it. And preachers know that, to the degree that we identify ourselves as prophets, we are called to offer exactly the kind of slightly tilted or inside-out vision that can allow us to name the box and loosen its hinges. But to the degree that we see ourselves as prophets, we also need to keep in mind that the key, the naming, the solution to the impasse is not actually ours to give, but only ours to hand on. Our job is not to manipulate or direct our hearers into seeing things "our way," but to playfully nudge them or gently lead them or humbly offer them a means to see things "God's way." Perhaps the most important element we have to offer may be the gift of slowing down, of taking the time. In the end, the surprising answers to the challenges facing a community will come not because of our brilliantly polished sermons, but at the initiative of the Spirit, and on the Spirit's schedule.
Preaching in harmony with the Spirit is not a skill that preachers achieve or a technique that we perfect: fundamentally, it is a gift. But it is a gift that we can commit ourselves to receiving and nurturing—and passing on to others. Our own spiritual discipline, then, grows and extends to the creation of a greater preaching community where eyes and ears are constantly opened to the Spirit's presence, where hearts are teased by glimpses of possibility and hope, and where ultimately voices are empowered to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.
This book will explore two moments in this process of preaching in harmony with the Spirit: receiving the Spirit's gift to us and discovering the means to offer it to our congregations. I am attempting to be consistent in using the word "inspiration" to refer to the first of those moments, and the word "imagination" for the second. In real life, of course, these two moments are not distinct, and inspiration and imagination whirl about in galactic spirals. It is my hope that, rather than being frustrated by the imprecision in these distinctions, we will do what we can to be clear, and then relax and enjoy the dance.
Playing at Creation
This book is not intended as a workbook, but it does suggest some experiments we might try in exploring inspiration, imagination, and prophetic speech. It is possible to try these techniques or approaches when we are feeling frantic, angry, or self-critical. But it will be far more profitable to embark on them in a spirit of playfulness. Play loosens the joints in things, after all, giving our imaginations permission to try out something that might seem wild and crazy—to risk something for fun that might be too dangerous to try in public, or for real.
Have you ever wondered why God decided to create the heavens and the earth, and to fill them with all kinds of rocks and rivers and living creatures? Have you ever wondered why God made the galaxies swirl in those outrageous spirals, or why God gave jellyfish those tiny hairs that that move like marquee lights when they swim? I remember running around as a child, playing cowboys or something with other children, and we would stop what we were doing and say, "OK, let's say that ..." and then the storyline of the game would continue in a new direction. How different is that from those lines in the biblical tale of creation: "And God said, 'OK, let's try making a human being ...'"? Could we see the universe as the result of God at play?
But maybe we are too serious to imitate God's playing with the stuff of creation. We are probably hampered by all kinds of inhibitions about our sacred calling as preachers. So it may be necessary to take on a kind of spiritual therapy program—to find a discipline we can count as "work" but which will help loosen up the bonds that hold us in check. Here are two that have worked for me, when I actually stick to them: keeping the Sabbath and consciously cultivating a willingness to be an amateur.
Keeping the Sabbath
If we really want to place ourselves at the disposal of the Holy Spirit, the most fundamental discipline we can commit to is finding a way seriously to keep Sabbath-time. It is also, to my mind, the hardest aspect of a preaching program to maintain.
It's no secret that most preachers do not keep the Sabbath. I'm not talking about Sundays: of course they aren't days of rest for pastors. Even if you leave the church as early as 1:00 P.M. and go home and collapse, you have probably been at work since about 7:00 A.M. (depending on when you put in the last licks on your sermon), so you've been working six hours without even time to catch your breath. And the "day off" we take in order to catch up on other chores doesn't count, either. That, also, is work. It is not lolling on the lap of the Lord.
At my seminary, the faculty are all encouraged, if not required, to stay away one day of the workweek, in order to read, do research, write, and think. I depend on that day to get caught up on my preparation for my courses, current and future, and to plan my homilies. We teach our students headed for parish ministry that they should be sure to have a similar "study day" built into their contracts. When we plot out this kind of time during the week, we are really trumpeting how important study and preparation are to our ministries as teachers and pastors and preachers. But if we are using those study days to grade papers or even to write Sunday's sermon, then they aren't Sabbath, either.
One of the great privileges of the academic life is the sabbatical, and many parish clergy are now contracting with their parishes for longer study leaves on a regular basis. Obviously, the words "sabbatical" and "sabbath" are related. But most of us do not make a sabbath of our sabbatical. Parish clergy go off to libraries or seminaries to pursue a degree or work on a project. Faculty members at academic institutions typically feel under some pressure to do research for eventual publication. Even the most benign parish council or board of trustees wants to know what you are going to do with your time that will enhance the program of the institution. I do not disagree with their concern.
But we are pastors, priests, and preachers, and if we think about how we use our "off" time to "enhance the program of the institution," I submit that we need to be taking Sabbath more seriously than we do. The Sabbath described in the Ten Commandments is not a study day, and it is not a day to stay out of the office so you can clean the garage. It is rest—holy rest.
Excerpted from VOICING THE VISION by LINDA L. CLADER. Copyright © 2003 Linda L. Clader. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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