“Not knowing where you’re going isn’t an excuse not to write.”
Pardon the triple negative. In my defense, it’s not mine.
It belongs to Isaac Anderson, one of the workshop speakers at last Monday’s Bast Preaching Festival down the road at Western Theological Seminary.
And with this triple negative, I write. Not knowing where I’m going.
It’s an honor to be a blogger for the Twelve. But jeepers. Every other Thursday comes around faster than Christmas music after Halloween. At least with sermons I’m given a text to talk about. Here I have to pull something interesting out of the air all on my own.
So to buy me some time, here’s something else Isaac Anderson said about writing. Or rather, something he paraphrased Scott Cairns as saying.
“We think of our work as expression. But if you only think this way, you inoculate yourself to surprise. Writing is also cognition, an invitation to grapple and write towards those things.”
In other words, part of the process of figuring out what you’re going to say is to start saying it, without necessarily knowing where you’re going. Write towards those things.
Which begs the question: what things are those things we write towards?
The theme of this year’s Bast Festival was “preaching in an anxious age.” Anderson described our current culture – beset by both politics and social media – as an “arms race of anxiety.” No disagreement here.
My dear friend Tim Blackmon gave the two plenary addresses, speaking of both the power and perils of a preacher’s public speech. Tim is certainly familiar with the perils of preaching. As chaplain of Wheaton College, he’s had to preach to large, ecumenical gatherings of students, faculty, and staff (and in the shadow of thousands of alum) before elections, in the midst of scandals, after tragedies, and in response to the hurts that can so easily crop up on a college campus.
But Tim also believes in the power of words. And when he talks about preaching, he doesn’t hold back on just how powerful a preacher’s words are.
“A preacher’s public speech,” he says, “is a miracle.”
He goes on.
“A preacher’s public speech is:
• God’s way of being God
• God’s way of doing the text to the hearer
• God’s way of getting God’s work done
• God’s way of gathering a kingdom people
• God’s way of ruling the liturgical kingdom”
That’ll make even Charles Spurgeon quake in his boots.
This, says Tim, is the call of the preacher. Its why preachers can’t bury their heads in the sand in the face of controversy or tragedy or political brouhaha. God does something through our words. Something important. He speaks to our anxieties.
I couldn’t help but comment to some folks at lunch that preaching really is an audacious endeavor.
“This must be one of the only jobs,” I mused, “where the expert is suffering from the exact same malady as his or her patient.”
You wouldn’t ask a doctor to perform open heart surgery while she herself is hyperventilating from an asthma attack. You wouldn’t ask a plumber to fix a pipe in your kitchen while his own basement is a swimming pool for ants.
But every week, when I sit down with the assigned text, and I wonder what it’s going to say, I am just as anxious as the folks I have to preach that text to.
We’re way behind in meeting our church budget.
We’ve had more staff turnover in the last six months than some churches have in six years.
We’re less than a year away now from another probably-really-contentious election.
And, to top it off, I recently discovered that one of my cats has been using a tucked-away-corner of my basement as his litter box…for weeks.
So, yeah. I’m anxious. The arms race is alive and well over in the parsonage.
But perhaps that’s why preaching works.
Perhaps preaching can only be God’s way of being God if us humans are very, entirely, human. With nothing we could say ourselves that would counter the anxiety we feel. No brilliant thoughts week after week, no smug certainty of having life figured out, no carefree, blissfully ignorant smiles.
Just a pen and a Bible and some prayer. And the practice of writing towards.
Writing towards that thing that God needs to say to his people – needs to say to us – that we don’t know yet on a Monday morning. Writing towards whatever it is God is going to reveal to us that will be good news for us.
Perhaps preaching works because our only option – anxious, fragile, timid people that we preachers are – is to sit down and start writing, trusting that God is going to bring that sermon where it needs to go, trusting that in the writing God is working, trusting that he who has called us to this task will equip us for it.
And perhaps this doesn’t just apply to preachers. Perhaps all of us are called to this task of writing towards, of putting one figurative word in front of the other. Just doing the work, starting the day, committing to the long, dusty road of obedience without knowing where it’s heading, but trusting, in the words of the Wailin’ Jennys, that “it’s going to get us where we’re going.”
It’s what I used to say to my Credo classes: “Just write.” Then be willing to throw it away. You don’t know what you want to say until you write your way into it. Write anything. Just write.
Your essay proves the point. Key word for me: trusting. Otherwise I would back away from what feels like an impossible task some weeks, including this one.
Last night a young father told me what stuck with him from Sunday’s homily. It was a thought that occurred to me in my own seemingly unrelated musings but seemed appropriate to throw in at the moment. Huh. There God goes again.
Wow, Laura. I hope you are not serious with this article. This sounds like a preacher that has no idea where he/she is going. It’s sounds like a driver driving down the highway with a blindfold covering one’s eyes. The preaching you describe is the kind that leads to burnout very quickly. This sort of preaching leads ministers to riding a hobby horse to death. I can hear parishioners asking, haven’t we heard this same sermon several times already?
You see, Laura, that’s why the church has lectionaries, to give balance and variety to preaching. Or our catechism is divided into Lord’s Days to give a congregation a theological balance and understanding of the Bible’s teachings. To keep from willy-nilly preaching ministers normally design preaching series. That way those who help plan a worship service have some direction for planning meaningful services.
You may be promoting a more spontaneous preaching style with this article. But be careful. It sounds like a pathway filled with more pot holes than is entirely healthy. I do like your writing style though. It just may need a little direction. Thanks, and blessings in your ministry.
RLG, your comments come off as condescending – chastisement with no basis.
The author didn’t say stand up with no ideas or direction on a Sunday morning and start *talking* your way into a sermon (though I fully believe the Holy Spirit can inspire us to speak God’s truth and hope at a moment’s notice).
She didn’t say write whatever comes to mind and that’s your final blog post to be published as-is or sermon to be preached with no edits. A first draft is rarely a final draft (though someone may edit as they go until they reach the satisfactory end.)
She even specifically said that with writing sermons she has an assigned scripture text to start with but with writing for The Twelve there is no set topic.
This was a lovely, well-written, and inspiring essay.
It’s that guy’s job to correct us every time, I guess. Quite a privilege
Thanks, Andrea, for your input, even correction. But did you notice that Laura began her article speaking about writing for “the Twelve?” She says, – “And with this triple negative, I write. Not knowing where I’m going.” – Her introduction (writing for the Twelve) would seem to be an introduction to her dilemma in writing sermons. But then she seems to shift from not having a clue as to what to write, to having a text for a sermon, and maybe with some vague idea, to that of putting her ideas on paper. Following your comments, Andrea, it would seem there is little or no connection between the beginning of this article and the end. But she did say at the beginning that she would write, not knowing where she was going. Somewhere in the middle she got her mojo and found her direction.
Your comment, Andrea, about the Holy Spirit inspiring us to speak on a moment’s notice, may be more true for our speech in conversations, but less likely when it comes to sermons. I knew a minister who tried working with such an idea of the Holy Spirit giving him the right words in the moment for his morning sermon. What were those words? “Let’s sing a few more hymns.” Quite profound.
What I didn’t say – and maybe should have, though I didn’t quite think it necessary – is that of course before you start writing you’ve done your homework. It’s not really just you, a pen, and a Bible – it’s you, a pen, a Bible, a lexicon, and some commentaries. But the idea of writing towards was a helpful corrective for me, one I think will actually stave off burnout. So often I feel like I need to know exactly what I’m going to write before I write it, which usually means I’m not writing until Friday or Saturday, leaving very little time for editing or playing around with what I’ve written. Which, then, often leads to sermons that sound a lot a like. By beginning the writing process before I really know what I’m going to say, I allow writing to be part of the thought process, which opens the door to the Spirit taking things in a different direction than perhaps I had initially thought, and gives space to craft things differently, to be surprised.
By the way, part of the anxiety we’re dealing with on account of social media is the anxiety of anonymity. As a general rule, I don’t open anonymous letters, nor do I respond to comments of “People are saying…” if I don’t know who those people are. Preaching is a vulnerable thing, writing blog posts is a vulnerable thing. I do so with my name attached – you know who I am. I would encourage you as you engage with such posts to extend us the same courtesy.
Thanks, Laura, for this additional comment, which, for me, helps to make greater sense of your article. It sounds like making a sermon, for you, is developing some early thoughts that get fleshed out (and sometimes changed) in the process of sermon development. That’s probably true for most ministers.
I appreciate your encouragement to use my name, rather than a pseudonym. It’s just my initials, which is easier to use than a full name. For Daniel J Meeter, it’s “that guy,” which is fine. If I were writing the article, you can be sure, I’d use my name, like you. At any rate, it’s Roger. Pleased to make your acquaintance.
As a prof of mine in college used to say: “Writing is the most difficult form of thinking.”
Thank you Laura!
Thank you, Laura. In what you have written today I sense my own conviction that the Holy Spirit works quite diligently through our writing and preaching– which is about the only way that a preacher’s preaching or a writer’s writing could ever be a miracle.
This was a marvelous post. So often when I sit down to work on a sermon (after carefully studying the texts from the Lectionary, RLG!), I hear myself singing, “Where shall my wandering soul begin!” (not the original). I once heard a Rabbi say that the Divine Name, the Tetragrammaton, could be paraphrased as “I’ll be there when you get there!”
Oh, I love that! Both quotes are so lovely. And so helpful.
the only thing to add, is that sometimes it’s ok to fail. Writing hack that I am, I’ve found that what stops writing and all sorts of other tasks is that of perfectionism and of memory. Perfectionism, obviously because we fear that we are only loved if we are good or right or something; memory, because past successes can haunt, so tomorrow has to be better than today.
Yes, definitely. Thanks for this reminder. Mary Hulst once told me, “Your job is to feed people. But it doesn’t always have to be thanksgiving dinner. Sometimes it can just be mac and cheese.”
Laura, Those of us in your congregation have never heard a mac and cheese sermon from you. We feel like it’s Thanksgiving every Sunday!
I am always pleased when I see your name as the author of the blog. You have thoughts that are beautifully expressed. You help the reader explore ideas in new ways. You are an excellent writer, and preacher. Yes, I have heard you. I hope you keep finding the time to write this blog. You made an excellent response to the critic. I wondered if he had read the same blog I did.
Laura, you’ve demonstrated your skill and art at using words. Sixteen responses/comments! That may be a record for The Twelve. Looking forward to Sunday morning to hear just what it is you’ve been “writing toward” all this week. Blessings.