This week we asked the Outlook bloggers to share a “ministry hack” they’ve learned. Here’s what they shared.
Oscar Wilde once lamented to a friend that he was so busy that he had to write a long letter. I don’t want to deliver a Wilde-like, lengthy message from the pulpit. My desire is to shape the sermon into a kind of spell, an invocation and incantation that picks us all up on Sunday morning and carries us somewhere new, or perhaps somewhere we’d forgotten that we knew. May the Spirit breathe through my words, not my long-windedness.
I don’t know if what follows is a “hack” per se, but rather a helpful, creative exercise.
I once workshopped an essay that was all over the place like the attention of a foraging squirrel or like how my 1-year-old daughter eats lasagna. Musing over the mess I’d splattered upon a great number of pages, the wise author Lauren Winner suggested that I try to summarize my ideas in one single … sonnet. After regarding her with a look deer generally reserve for oncoming headlights, I did the strangest thing: I tried it. I’ve since done the same in sermon preparation.
Only 14 lines, a sonnet is “a little song.” You and I are not contemporaries of the Bard, so we can be quite free with Shakespeare’s famous rhyme scheme. Even so, it can be helpful to limit yourself to a prescribed pattern — paradoxically, a strict structure can be freeing. The impeded stream is the one that sings, Wendell Berry points out.
With only 14 lines at your disposal, you should come to a sense of the major movements of your sermon: where you are trying to go with your congregation, and so, what needs to go from your text. In your “little song,” you might discover words that sing, melodious phrases that could be used at various points in your sermon or repeated as a refrain. Maybe even your title!
And here’s something else: a formal sonnet includes a volta, a “turn” in Italian referring to a turn of thought or perspective. The volta is a yank on the steering wheel or a gentle waft of a new scent. It may be jarring or subtle, provocative or soothing. It may be that you wish to have a volta moment in your sermon. When traveling, even the slightest turn can make all the difference.
Many of my “little songs” are never finished. The form is a means to an end, such as when I get dropped off by the Uber and move on, never to see the vehicle again. But I do love just the right turn of phrase, a turn which can sound in my ears like either a thunder clap or a child’s mischievous laugh. Every now and then, such an epiphany seems to find me.
Epiphany, Bright and Burning
There were not three, nor were they wise, nor kings.
Not to scuttle the Nativity play
(or prove a Scrooge the following Sundays)
but to learn from the Magi’s offering,
look beyond their gifts to the faith they bring.
These traveling sky-gazers, that star blaze
was not the sole brightness that led their way.
What drove them through long nights was hope unseen.
Tell us, have you sensed such a light within?
A bright thought that will not fade? Try as you
will to forget, do you keep returning
to trace that urge like a string to the end?
Perhaps nothing will come of it. Still, new
Epiphanies found, hearts bright and burning.
ANDREW TAYLOR-TROUTMAN is pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church, a congregation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and has a certificate in narrative healthcare. His recent essays have been published online at Mockingbird and his poetry at Bearings. He and his wife, Ginny, have three children.