Practicing my art

Part of my attraction to the church and to the vocation of ministry came from falling in love with multi-layered stories and complex thought. I enjoy the kind of stories that have multiple meanings and from which multiple conclusions can be drawn. I am amazed and delighted that the stories of our people are the stories of very complex concepts and ideas, many of which took generations to develop. An idea such as monotheism might be presented by some as a simple truth, but there is nothing simple about it. To truly believe in one God means to turn aside from other deities. It requires a careful examination of priorities and loyalties. Civil religion, with its symbols and rituals can often lead one astray from the ultimate authority of God, yet it is preached and practiced in churches as if it posed no threat to the concept of monotheism. In some cases civil authority is preached as if it were religion. The concept of the divine right of kings has been applied to representatives, senators and presidents.

I grew up in a family that practiced engagement with preaching. My father got deep enjoyment out of discussing the sermons that were preached in our church. He loved to invite the preacher home for dinner after worship and would pepper that preacher with questions throughout the meal. He was interested in learning and he was interested in using the tools of conversation to advance shared knowledge and ideas. Sometimes his penchant for conversation was an embarrassment to me, especially when I was a teenager and I thought that some ideas could be dropped. Looking back, I realize how much I have adopted his love of the interplay of mind with mind.

Yesterday, as I took a few minutes alone to reflect on the morning’s sermon, I realized that I have been feeling a bit sad about my preaching lately. It wasn’t just yesterday, but on several occasions since we returned from our summer’s sabbatical, I have been disappointed with my preaching. Yesterday’s sermon was particularly glaring in my mind. I had prepared a careful examination of Jesus predictions in the 21st chapter of Luke. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” We live in a time when too many are weighed down by the worries of this life and I felt that examination of these ideas and the parable of the fig tree would take a lift time and a few stories to communicate.

But the sermon isn’t all that there is to worship. And I am not the only one who has input into how our time is to be used. Yesterday’s service was particularly cluttered. Our choir director has been distracted by rehearsals for an upcoming cantata and so we began the season of lent with the introit and benediction response that the choir had prepared for the end of the Pentecost season. Both are lovely, but both are longer than typical. Then there was the anthem, with four string players and its added complexity. In addition, the library committee has insisted recently that reading club awards be presented in worship on communion Sundays, I’ve tried to convince them that a less crowded worship service would be preferable, but they are not to be deterred. And, yes it was communion Sunday and I had prepared a liturgy that was just a little longer than usual because I wanted the sacrament to be fully developed in the light of the fact that we had guests from the Seventh Day Adventist Church with us in worship. I had written out a mission moment and a pastoral prayer with care prior to the service with an eye towards time, but also with an eye towards important issues in our congregation. I realized early in the service that there was no time for the sermon that I had planned. I scrambled to figure out some way to simplify the ideas to say fewer words and take less time. I took a section of the planned sermon that addressed our impatience and how it can lead to worry and ran with it. The result was an incomplete idea. The service still ran over it allotted time.

The Bells of the Hills presented a lovely concert in the afternoon and I spent much of the concert sitting in the pews stewing about my poor performance as a preacher in the morning. It was the opposite of being present to the music and allowing it to lift my spirit. The fact that I woke in the night still stewing about it is a sign that I am not practicing the Gospel in my own life. The “worries of this life” have caught me “unexpectedly like a trap.”

We live in a culture where we often fail to take time for complex thought. Blogs are supposed to be much shorter than this journal. Some people excel at the 280 character limit of Twitter. Short, pithy aphorisms are preferred to complex arguments. As I reflect, I can see why so much of the Biblical prophets’ ideas are expressed in poetry. Poetry is the art of using few words to express depth upon depth. It occurs to me that this particular Advent, which has begun with a pace that is all too hectic, may be the perfect season for poetry. The problem is that I am a rambling storyteller and not a poet.

It is a bit of a surprise to me that 40 years into my career I am struggling with my preaching as much as I did when I began. I want to discover the right words for the moment. I can be very self-critical. Preaching is not so much a skill that can be mastered, but rather an art that needs to be practiced.

It is clear to me that I still have much to be learned. And I have a sermon each week to teach me.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!