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Thinking Out Loud

Costly Preaching

by User Not Found | Oct 11, 2011
This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins. 


Debbie and I went to a movie last summer. That may not seem all that news worthy, but she swears that the last movie we had seen in a theater was not a talkie. We went to see Woody Alan's Midnight in Paris. I'm not a movie critic, but I enjoyed the film, especially the performance of the actor playing the young Ernest Hemingway.

A few days after seeing the movie, NPR featured a segment in which the same actor read the closing of Hemingway's early short story, "Indian Camp." When you have a chance, read this one. It pulses with truth, like many of his early stories (e.g., “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"). The last couple of paragraphs are as true as anything ever written in the English language.

These events conspired to remind me of why there was a time when I read a lot of Hemingway. So I went around the corner to our neighborhood book store and bought a copy of his complete short stories. As luck would have it, this edition included Hemingway's preface to the earliest edition of these stories, where he reflects on his own experience as a writer. Any of us, who share the writing vocation, whether we write sermons, articles, books, or blogs, are likely to resonate with his observations:

In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it to the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.

If there's ever been a writer who took his own advice, it was Hemingway. And he paid a price for doing it. But there's something here about having something to say that we need to hear. Experience is at the heart of knowing.

Years ago, as a young professor, I was visiting with my dean. He asked me what I was writing. I said that I was working on a piece for a magazine, but I couldn't make any headway. He said that in his experience when he was stuck, it was because he didn't really have anything to say on the subject. He didn't have anything to say because he didn't know enough about it, either because he lacked experience, or hadn't done sufficient research or study.

Simple, right?

When it comes to preaching, his advice is especially on target. But it can be very, very difficult to put his advice into practice.

Knowing something – when it comes to knowing enough to preach on it – places our lives in the crosshairs. It is one thing to know enough about something not to embarrass yourself at a cocktail party, and it is quite another thing to know about it in a way that readies us to preach.

Those who hear us preach do not want us to hold our subject matter at arm's length. We have to dive in, get wet, swim around in our subject until our fingers get all pruney, and when we emerge from the subject, our hearers want to see the wet footsteps of our baptism in the sanctuary and the pulpit. There is no template for this sort of preaching. It is as idiosyncratic as the preacher. An Ernie Campbell's or a Jim Forbe's or a Barbara Brown Taylor's preaching is like no one else's, but they are similar in one crucial respect: They know of what they speak from the inside out.

This kind of preaching (this kind of writing) costs! To return to Hemingway's metaphor, it can dull, blunt and bend the writing (or preaching) instrument to travel deep into the faith, to explore, to live, and reflect deeply on life and faith, to allow guilt and grace, mercy and judgment, hope and disappointment in your own life to become moments through which the gospel can shine for your hearers. But those who risk preaching from the lived heart of faith and experience will always find a hearing. We will listen to them because they know what they are talking about. And through their preaching we are invited and inspired to learn for ourselves.

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