“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.”