Every time I preach, there is an internal movement from optimism to holy anticipation. The only problem is that between those poles there is fear, despair, and hope. I have learned to navigate the emotional roller coaster of preaching through specific practices that accompany each feeling.
There is excitement before I am charged and privileged to bring the Word of God. The Word of God is powerful and effective. The Word of God works on me in preparation. I know I will come to hear the story of God, once again, in my own life, before preaching the Word to my church, but I cannot let excitement delay preparation. Paradoxical though it may sound, a sense of excitement can keep me from beginning preparation promptly. As part of a teaching team that utilizes series for preaching, I am often aware of my passage/topic well in advance, yet rarely do I begin diligent preparation before the preaching week. Because Monday is my day off, I need to be ready to prepare diligently on Tuesday. This includes marking out a preliminary reading list and printing off the passage(s) for inductive study. Then, on Tuesday, I spend time in inductive study and then hermeneutical study—consulting sources, commentaries, sermons, etc.
Inevitably, the excitement of preaching and digging into a fresh topic or passage turns to fear. The preaching point or generative thought of the passage is not forthcoming. All my inductive and hermeneutical study has yielded insight, but I am not writing a research paper; I am preaching a sermon. And, at this point, I simply do not know how to preach this passage. I am afraid I will have nothing to say on Sunday and, in response to the fear, I keep studying. Is there another sermon someone has preached? Is there another word study to perform? Is there another translation that might spark an insight? Preaching is not about me having something to say; it is about God saying something. God is more interested in addressing his people than I am. In response to fear, I keep studying.
Study is not usually effective at relieving fear. In fact, it can heighten it. “Sunday is getting closer, and I spent valuable time studying instead of writing!” I think to myself. Now I begin to feel despair—I will even consider starting all over again: A new passage or set of passages on the topic just might present a clearer message.
At this point I start writing. I force myself to write. I might write a paragraph that summarizes what I’ve learned. I might pick a homiletical style (Eugene Lowry’s homiletical plot, for example, or Paul Scott Wilson’s four pages of the sermon) and begin creating an outline in that style. I might craft a Facebook post to see if it sparks with my friends. In response to despair, I write.
Like a fever, at some point the despair breaks. Hope takes over. I will have something to say! More importantly, God will have something to say. At this point, I finish writing the sermon—often quickly—knowing that the sermon will get rearranged in my head. I try to take at least two prayer walks through my neighborhood, alternating between praying and preaching the sermon. Between the walks, there is rewriting of the sermon. The best way to try out a sermon’s flow is to see if it flows in my thought process. I try to match what’s on paper to how my mind unfolds the sermon. I response to hope, I pray and walk and re-write.
At some point, almost always, there comes a sense of holy anticipation: I cannot wait to preach. God wants to say something and I’m anticipating sharing it. I’ve already heard the good news to me and I want my church to hear it, too. Sometimes this comes on Friday and sometimes on Saturday. Most often it comes on Sunday morning’s final prayer/preach walk between 5:00am and 6:00am. Sometimes it never comes. But regardless, I preach. While it is a joy to feel a shift—a move that I have gone from being in control of the sermon to the Word being in control of me—God has something to say regardless of my feelings.
Even after going through this process hundreds of times, it can still catch me off guard. I still want to quit the current sermon and start all over again. I still wonder if I will have something to say. I still get excited at the shift from being in control of the sermon to the Word being in control of me. Practices—a rhythm—help me deal with the anxieties and fears and process. Do you have practices that help to form your preaching rhythm and deal with its anxieties?
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