#PreacherProblems Pt. 4: “Prayer vs. Study”
This is a short blog series from me and a few of my preacher friends. Since many preachers spend Monday mornings replaying their sermons– figuratively or literally–I figured this would be a good time to reflect on the weighty and complex task we’ve agreed to undertake each Sunday. Read Part 1 on the tension between precision and simplicity HERE; read Part 2 on how the congregation is a collaborator with the preacher in deciding what a sermon ‘means’ HERE; read Part 3 on how preachers can paint a narrative arc to help with biblical illiteracy HERE.
I have been fascinated with preaching my whole life, and have been preaching myself now on and off for the better part of the last 15 years. I think during that time, I’ve gotten better. If I have, it is because some convictions have formed in me that keep my process, from knowing that “Sunday’s coming” to delivering that sermon, true.
What originally fascinated me and captured my imagination (and what ultimately, I think, laid the groundwork for my feeling called to this peculiar and beautiful craft) was watching my pastor preach when I was a kid. There was something so now, so alive, so in the moment about his particular address to the congregation. Or at least it was so when it was good, and that was often. There was a moment of transcendence, an almost supernatural awareness, a gravitas, that drew you in and caused all sorts of beautiful ruptures and fissures in your soul, opening you up to God and his world in fresh ways.
I should mention that I grew up charismatic. That I have described the preaching I sat under the way I have described it is probably not surprising, for at its best, charismatic preaching banks on this mysterious element that is sometimes called “the anointing”–it is that moment when words become more than words; when our particular words are taken up, transformed, transfigured, by the Incarnate Word who lives and walks among us, Christ the Lord, now speaking to and ruling over his people. But how does that happen?
When I went to seminary, it was simply taken for granted that one should pray while one is studying and preparing to preach. And so, in the midst of exegesis and looking through this or that commentary and coming up with a thesis and a main point and subpoints and application points and making sure it was all properly Christological and whatnot, please do, if you can, take time to, you know, pray. Invite God into it all. But the study–that is the real thing. If you get that right, you’ll have a good sermon.
After now having preached hundreds of sermons and worked through this process hundreds of times, I can say on good authority that such a conviction is total nonsense. Over the years, if I had to reflect on what has changed about my process, I would say somewhere along the way, the line between “study” and “prayer” has virtually evaporated (meaning that I am now more charismatic as a preacher than I have ever been), and thus, what each of those (only artificially distinct) elements yields and brings to the table now bleed into and mutually inform one another, with the result that I am far more capable now than I have ever been of staying attuned to the “qol adonai”–the living voice of God for the congregation, channeled through my own unique voice. I do not look up Greek words and then later on, sometime after “working hours” have ended, pray over what I learned. No, no, no. While the Greek word is in my hand, I lift it up, look at it, pray over it, and try to listen to my heart, where, we are told, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Word, dwells. Is there something on this word, this phrase, this concept, this story, that feels like “it”? Does it carry an energy? Does it hum? Do I feel like God is speaking to ME through IT, NOW?
Every piece of my process now works through that (admittedly) very spiritual grid. And it allows me to do several things:
It allows me to keep my process connected to my heart.
It allows me to be okay with not emphasizing this or that word, or this or that piece of the text (after all, if what we’re gunning for is not mere “exposition” but for this bit of text to become the living word of God for us NOW, and we only have 30 minutes, how ever could we say everything that needed to be said exegetically on every piece of the text?–there’s an inherent selectivity to the process that more preachers would do well to pay attention to).
It allows me to stay in the moment with God and what He is doing and saying over me, and us, NOW.
This, I think, is a huge part of what distinguishes good preaching. There is a “from somewhere else”, to use Walter Brueggemann’s memorable phrase, that the preacher lives out of which allows him to speak a fresh word, NOW, for the congregation, connected to our own words because we are connected to the Living Word who dwells in us. For such preaching to occur, there cannot be a line between study and prayer. It’s all part of a single spiritual movement, a discipline of attentiveness through which we strive to attend to the voice of God.
Some time ago I preached a sermon in which I neglected this discipline (or perhaps I wasn’t mature enough yet to know it as one). The result was disastrous (or at least it felt so for me). I woke up in the middle of the night and penned a little free-verse poetry, capturing both my reflection on the sermon that had passed and my resolve to live in such a way that my words would more regularly erupt out of the Holy Center. I share it here with you to remind and challenge you that if you want your words to have an impact beyond the mere transference of information, you will have to live differently—prayer and study will have to be a seamless whole for you, and that is both beautiful and hard.