From the beginning (p. 10), Graves reminds his readers of the ancient wisdom of Irenaeus: “The glory of God is a human fully alive.” He draws us to Irenaeus because he observes that many preachers seem to be conflicted about taking pleasure in the goodness of creation. One theory of atonement, that the one must suffer on behalf of the many, leads some preachers to believe that it is their lot in life to be miserable.
In the face of such a perceived need to suffer, Graves offers a hope that preachers will lighten up a little–and that such levity will restore the preacher’s passion for preaching. Certainly prayer and the devotional reading of Scripture enliven us, says Graves. But what about playing golf? Or eating ice cream? Or reading poetry? Or restoring antiques?
Or watching a baseball game? Don’t these activities also remind us of the goodness of God’s creation and lead us to feel more alive when we’re doing them? Assuming that preachers do pray and read Scripture, preachers also need to find and participate in activities that are life-giving and soul-restoring–and to do so regularly and intentionally.
Graves does offer guidance on the preparation of sermons. The “spine” of his book is his vision of a familiar four-fold process: studying Scripture, brainstorming for stories, making connections, and delivering the sermon. All four are important for a sermon to be good. Without the faithful exegesis of Scripture, a sermon is devoid of substance; without illustrative stories or other modern-day connections, a sermon can be boring or irrelevant. In the absence of connections that give a sermon a sense of “flow,” the listener can become easily lost or confused; if the good news of the gospel is not somehow embodied in the actual preaching of the sermon, what is communicated can be monotonous. While Graves breaks little new ground herein, he gives much wise counsel.
But between and betwixt this “spinal” material on the stages of sermon preparation and delivery, Graves offers the “nervous system” of practices for the renewal of the preacher, which he intentionally calls sacraments. “I call these entries sacraments of renewal, and I do not use the term sacraments lightly,” he says. “I intend it in the sense that these are God’s good gifts to us, means of embodying grace in our lives, taking grace into our bodies” (p. 13).
At the end of each of these ten “sacramental” practices, he recommends several ways that a preacher might pursue them. For the sacrament of “looking,” he encourages the use of a telescope, or a magnifying glass, or a slow stroll through an art museum. For the sacrament of “playing,” he suggests taking up a hobby (boat building, anyone?), playing a game of tennis, playing in the rain with kids in the neighborhood, or playing hooky to spend a day with someone you love. For the sacrament of “reading,” he invites preachers to spend half a day in a bookstore until the right book finds us, or to read a book to a child, or to read a classic novel. Other “sacraments” include walking, napping, friends, music, movement, bread and wine. Some preachers may take particular delight in his final sacrament, that of dessert. His final counsel here is to “enter a cake-baking contest; better yet, volunteer to judge one” (p. 158). Sagacious advice, indeed.
Graves doesn’t deny the need for the hard work of sermon preparation–in fact, he encourages it. But he does so believing that the joy and refreshment of these “sacramental” acts will provide renewed energy for that essential part of a pastor’s vocation. Perhaps the most hopeful part of Graves’ suggestions here is that these are practices that can easily be done in “ordinary” time — not just vacations or sabbaticals. They don’t necessarily require time away, but can be incorporated into the week-to-week life of the preacher if the preacher will make time to do them amidst a broad array of pastoral responsibilities. I’m fortunate to know a few preachers who do make time for such life-giving activities. They are “alive” in the way that Graves describes, and the churches they serve are thriving places of gospel ministry.
As the reader can certainly sense, this is not a ponderous, weighty tome. It is a refreshing read: great for a preacher to read alone (Graves punctuates the book with multiple opportunities for personal prayer and reflection, lectio divina-style), or to read with colleagues. Either alone or with others, take and read, live a little, and preach!
Randy Harris is pastor of Pickens Church in Pickens, S.C., and book review editor for The Presbyterian Outlook.