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Meeting the Spirit while writing a sermon

Sermon-writing day is rough. It’s painful, boring, heart-wrenching, soul-draining, and it makes me whine a lot. Most weeks, I’ll come home one day and be moody, agitated and despondent, because that’s what sermon-writing day does to me.

I try to look forward to it. I’ll get a big glass of iced tea (or a mug of hot tea, depending on the season), turn on my favorite music, and get comfortable for what I know will be long hours of sitting at the desk. I try to pick a day relatively free of distractions, when I’ve gotten the week’s biggest tasks out of the way, so that I can have a clear mind and a clear schedule. And sometimes, if things go just right, the sermon will essentially write itself. I’ll sit down, start typing and 15 minutes later a complete outline has appeared.

Most weeks it doesn’t go like that. Most weeks I sit down at that computer staring at the blank screen and the void starts staring back. I’ll go back and forth between the Bible and a commentary and journal articles and old sermons and Facebook and YouTube videos, and then suddenly I’ll start wondering why I’m on YouTube and what a video of someone tickling a cat has to do with Romans 12. Anything to get away from that blank page.

Eventually, though, something always gives. If you want miraculous proof of God’s existence, look no further than the fact that I’ve had something to say every single Sunday that I’ve been asked to preach. Sometimes the first break in the dam is small: a word or a phrase that leads to a paragraph, that leads to a section, that leads to the whole sermon. Other times, it feels like I’m throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks, and I write thousands of words just to get to the first real concrete idea. Sometimes I get the whole outline in a day; other weeks it takes me a few nights of sleeping on it for something to materialize. But God always provides.

What I find strange is how I feel afterwards. Sermon-writing day almost always makes me feel awful. I’ll get home and instantly my wife will know exactly what I spent my day doing. Lack of facial expressions + monotone voice + inability to make decisions = Sermon-writing day. I used to try to explain it to her, but now all I have to say is, “I wrote a sermon today.”

I say that this is strange because, well, it could be worse. I don’t have to do brain surgery, or launch a rocket, or put out a house fire, or lift heavy things. So why do I feel as worn out as a rocket-launching brain surgeon who is also a volunteer firefighter coming home from the gym? Answer: I probably don’t actually feel that bad. Can you imagine how exhausting that would actually be?

I do feel exhausted, though. Partly, I think this is because writing itself can be difficult work. (Ernest Hemingway said: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”) But I also believe it’s partly because writing a sermon is tough emotional and spiritual work. Few things put the fear of God in you like the responsibility of preaching the Word. I don’t have much to compare it to, because preaching is generally the only public speaking I do, but there’s a decent amount of fear and trembling that comes with the task that doesn’t seem to be mirrored in many other situations. But maybe I need to get out more.

Preaching has always seemed to me to be a two-part task: the preparation and the event. I spend energy during the week doing research, praying, and writing down my thoughts, but the main task is giving the sermon itself. That’s where the Holy Spirit speaks to the whole congregation in a living voice. My words become something more than ordinary speech produced by an ordinary person as I move aside and let God speak to me and everyone else listening. The anticipation of this event is nerve-wracking and awe-inspiring, and it often makes me feel completely inadequate.

John Calvin writes in the “Institutes of the Christian Religion” that it is a “singular privilege” that God designs to consecrate the mouths and tongues of people “in order that [God’s] voice may resound in them.” I understand his sentiment completely. And somehow, knowing that I’m doing all this research and prayer and writing for an event where God will consecrate my mouth so that God’s voice resounds in me overwhelms me. The completely mundane nature of writer’s block seems so far removed from the Holy Spirit making God’s voice “resound” in me that, at least at times, writing a sermon seems like a hopeless task and any effort I put in seems inadequate. How could I ever prepare well enough to be God’s mouthpiece

Of course, the answer to that question is that I couldn’t ever prepare well enough! Who could? If perfect preparation for speaking was really necessary, Moses wouldn’t have ever stood before Pharaoh. I’m reminded of Fred Rogers’ story he shared at the 2001 Christopher Award ceremony: “A substitute preacher had come to our church and, in his sermon, went against every rule that we had been taught in class. As he finished, I was ready to give him my unspoken failing grade; but I happened to look at the woman who was sitting beside me. With moist eyes, she turned and said, ‘That preacher said exactly what I needed to hear.’” Some Sundays, I’m that preacher. I might forget most of what I learned in seminary, but the Holy Spirit still speaks. That’s one more miracle, if you’re counting. An effort is required, but the outcome doesn’t entirely depend on me. What good news!

And so, I arrive at a tremendous contrast between the good news that the Holy Spirit speaks despite my flaws, and the complete inadequacy and exhaustion I feel when preparing to preach (and also afterwards!). On one hand, I’m emotionally drained because of my anxiety over saying the right words, which stems from my own pride in my speaking ability. On the other hand, sometimes I get a little inkling of how amazing it is to be part of the movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of others, and it just sucks the wind right out of me. And I keep trying to find that sense of divine wonder as I prepare — it’s so much better than the self-interested unease I’m normally stuck with.

Stephen King wrote: “The wind blows and the story comes. Then it stops blowing, and all I can do is wait, same as you.” I’m waiting for a specific wind, the same one that came on Pentecost. Maybe getting my own wind knocked out of me is exactly what needs to happen so that a new one can enter. It’s not always a pleasant process, but I keep coming back to it, hoping that I’ll get to hear something more than my own words echoed back. It’s worth the effort, every time.

ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.

 

 

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