As a weekly preacher, here are 10 Things I’ve Learned About Preaching:
- I’ve learned that prayer is the most essential work for a preacher. A sermon that has not been prayed into existence is a sermon that will miss the target.
- I’ve learned that my angsty preacher jitters about will this sermon sing? and will it dance with the Spirit’s creativity? decrease in direct proportion to the vitality of my prayer life.
- I’ve learned that there is a difference between exegeting a text and discerning what the Spirit wants to do among a particular people through that text. I may think I know what a text is trying to say/do, but that doesn’t mean I have tapped into what the Spirit is up to right here, right now, with these people. Both are necessary: exegesis and
- I’ve learned to keep a note pad with me at all times because you just never know when that creative lighting is going to strike.
- I’ve learned that regular exercise is crucial. If I’m not careful, my mind will obsess over the sermon, but it is hard to obsess over a sermon when you are putting your body through the ringer. When I circle back to the sermon after exercise, my mind is clear.
- I’ve learned that after all the preparation has been done—the commentaries, the translation, the sketching, the memorization—the best thing I can do is sit with my own thoughts. At this stage in my preparation the only thing I have in front of me is a pen and a legal pad, usually a cup of coffee, and some burning candles. This is holy ground and no screens are allowed. Having a screen in front of me at this moment feels like a threat because it represents access to everyone else’s thoughts. To pull myself away from every other voice is to make myself ask myself: So who am I? Why does this text matter to me? How have I seen it worked out in the soil of my own life? Where does this text scare me? Where does this text make me want to weep? And how does this text make my heart thrill and delight and come alive to the beauty of God’s holiness? Without this, I have not made the sermon my own, haven’t internalized it yet.
- I’ve learned that not every sermon will be a Home Run. What does that concept even mean? And who gets to determine if it was a home run? The preacher? The people? The home-run-sermon metric is fickle. Sometimes what’s needed is a solid single up the middle or a double down the line. And let’s all be honest: trying to make every worship service rise to the level of a World Series Game 7 is exhausting.
- I’ve learned that often the best thing I can do is take time off from preaching. Preachers, pace yourself. Use your vacation days. Attend service as a worshipper. You can’t be creative if you are exhausted.
- I’ve learned to often write a note to myself at the top of my sermon notes: “God is with us. These are my friends. I love them. They trust me.” Rooting ourselves in these simple truths helps us settle into the work. Take a deep breath. We are going to be fine.
- I’ve learned that God cares more about these people hearing His word than I ever could. He has more skin in the game than I do. This work is ultimately His to perform, so trust the Spirit to do the heavy lifting.
This weekend, many preachers will preach a sermon tailored towards mothers. That is wonderful and beautiful. And this weekend, many preachers will follow the lectionary—the Church-appointed scriptural texts that follow the trajectory of the life of Christ. That, too, is wonderful and beautiful. But any preacher in the First World West would be unwise to overlook the fact that Mother’s Day weekend is, in fact, a sort of “liturgical” holiday for the society in which we live. We’ve got it stamped in our collective calendars to take some extra time to celebrate, honor, and remember our mothers.
But today I just can’t get it out of my head. I’ve been thinking about the pain that so many will carry into the sanctuary with them this weekend. So how do we lead our services and preach to those for whom this weekend elicits the kinds of emotional-and-relational groans that words just can’t express?
Here are a five things I’d encourage every preacher to consider this weekend:
- There will be people in your congregation whose mothers have died. On a day where so many are dressed up and smiling and taking pictures and celebrating by giving flowers, let the grieving know you’re so very sorry for their loss. Let them know that you’re sad there will be an empty seat at the table at lunch. Let them know that you’re praying for the comfort of the Lord to wash over them this weekend, and that you’re praying that the memories and moments of joy, laughter, and delight that they shared with their mother—the bedtime routines of reading, back-scratching, and lullaby-singing, the family vacations, the holiday cooking, and the many happy Christmases together—would come rushing back to mind. Let them know that you sincerely stand with them this weekend as they grieve, remember, and work to hold on to those delightful moments.
- There will be moms in the congregation who have had children die–from miscarriage and stillbirth, a prolonged sickness, a heart-breaking and accidental death, suicide. Their will be women who have aborted. Their children are all they can think about on days like this. And though there is nothing we can say or do to remove the sting of loss, can we give them a place to remember and grieve, a place where they can feel the strength and support of the congregation of believers?
- There will be women in your congregation who desperately want to be moms and it just hasn’t happened yet. There are those who have visited fertility specialists, spent incredible amounts of money (that many of them have taken out loans to acquire), and, still, they lay in bed at night without a child developing in their wombs. Many of them are pursuing adoption, only to hit the same wall of financial difficulty. Will you say something to them that acknowledges that pain? And then there will be others who come to worship with you who grieve. Yes, while many women have joyfully taken “holy orders,” have embraced the holy vocation of a life of singleness—and I call it holy because I believe it to be precisely that!—there are just as many (if not many more) that presently mourn their singleness. They want to be married and they want to have children, but it just hasn’t happened yet. What if we took the time to let them know we see them, we hear their cries, and we genuinely stand with them for the desires of their hearts to be fulfilled?
- There will be people in your congregation who have sorrow because life was difficult with mom. Maybe it was a drug addiction that stole their mother away from them; maybe their single mother was scrambling so much to keep the bills paid—nobly working 2 and 3 jobs—that they never had the gift of much face-to-face interaction; maybe the attention they got was the attention they never wanted—physical abuse and loud screaming. Preachers, will you take the time—even if it’s just 15-seconds that helps them feel seen—to give voice to the guttural cry that’s resident in so many hurting children? And will you also help them lift their heads to the God Who nurtures, cares, feeds, addresses, and loves us? The prophet Isaiah (49:15) presents us with a God whose love far outstrips even the gentlest, most nurturing breast-feeding mother. I pray that people leave our churches this weekend having encountered such a God.
- There will be people in your congregation that have caused deep grief for their mother. Many of them have ignored the sins of the past and failed to apologize and repent to their mother. If Proverbs 10:1 is true—that “a wise child maketh a glad father, but a foolish child brings grief to a mother”—then the next right thing to do is to repent. Will you challenge people in your congregation to make things right with mothers (with parents!) that are still alive? To pick up the phone, to buy the plane ticket to go out and make things right? And will you comfort the people in your congregations that carry shame from their grief-inducing offenses committed against their deceased parents? For, indeed, as the prophet Micah said, we serve the God who has “compassion on us; [He] will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).
Pastors, please hear me. I’m certainly not suggesting that these five things are mandatory to address this weekend. Not in the least. But if our services this weekend are only happy and upbeat and tailored to moms for whom life seems to be working at the moment, then we risk alienating and overlooking so many tender hearts that will be in the room. If we are called to preach the good news to human beings living in God’s good world that has been severely marred by sin and pain, and if it’s true that Mother’s Day elicits a wide range of emotions within people, then we ought to work to anticipate what those emotions are and do our best to proclaim a word of Good News that brings hope to people right where they are.