Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist. Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed. (Ezekiel 47:4
On this particular Saturday afternoon, I find myself driving up a two-lane road bordering the Washougal River in the state of Washington. The sun is shining, the towering landscape of the Columbia Gorge seems higher than I remembered, and the cascading Washougal River is full of rushing sounds. The sound of moving water has always calmed my nerves, the effect almost baptismal. Finally, not being able to stop myself from at least cupping my hands in the cold spring run-off, I pull over, lace up my running shoes, and amble down the steep riverbank. I am surprised at the age of 44, how the body stiffens after only few hours of driving. As I repel down to the river’s rocky shoreline, my hands grab alder and willow branches, stripping them of their newly sprouted leaves. The constant sound of the river joined with the sight of the roiling green water, gently swirling – inviting the talent of watercolor artists – compels my beleaguered pastoral spirit to dance within.
Over the past sixteen years, while others have often viewed me as a preacher and pastor of a congregation, I have known all along that I am a nature boy at heart. Standing now, alone watching and breathing in the scene, the work of parish ministry is far behind me. With river breezes blowing across my face and neck, the labor and discipline of weekly sermon preparation seems a distant second to creation’s soothing balm. For years, I have preached every Sunday morning, saving hard copies of each sermon and filling computerized bits of memory with my interpretations of the scripture. Folded and creased sermon pages fill two file drawers. Hours of reading, digesting commentaries, and coming up creative approaches to sermon writing are now unremarkably stuffed into labeled file folders. When I was in seminary and then sought to use my continuing education funds to attend several preachers’ conferences across the United States, I never realized how many preachers would influence my own craft: Tom Long, Craig Barnes, Eugene Lowry, Thomas Troeger, and Fred Craddock to name some. On one Sunday, I mount the pulpit with “focus and function statements” roaming around my head while on other Sundays, “the anointing of the Holy Spirit” consumes my soul.
Whenever I preach, I bring to the sermon text many rhetorical models, mostly created by older men who consequently challenged me to believe that The Word still has the ability to move mountains as well as soften stiff-necked parishioners. My professors provided me with many exegetical methodologies which I employed with ebullience and aplomb. If anything, I have always listened to the wisdom of better preachers than myself. My sermon preparation follows a well-grooved regimen: Monday, being my day off, I keep my distance from scripture. I take a day to let my mind and spirit lie fallow, to rest, and to reconnect with my family; On Tuesday, I go to the church office to select a sermon text and then outline the worship bulletin, including the selection of hymns and praise songs, even taking time to plunk out my unfamiliar choices on the sanctuary piano. In those moments, alone at the keyboard, sitting among empty pews and the smell of spent candle wax, I have always have the sensation that I am in someone else’s kitchen – poking my nose around someone’s refrigerator and checking out the leftovers. Wednesday is my pastoral care day, full of home and hospital visits, committee meetings, bible studies, leading youth groups, and then Thursday arrives.
Thursday is my sermon day, the day I retreat to that metaphorical desert island to discover what God has been trying to tell me all week, but I, being too easily distracted by the world, have been too busy to notice. Thursday is dedicated to walking with the text or conversely, allowing the text to walk with me. Wrapping my hands around a cup of coffee, away from the phone and closing my mind to unresolved administrative duties, jotting down ideas on a legal pad, I dedicate this day to questions and reflections on God and Jesus’ words of grace, forgiveness, discipleship, and salvation . . . but not now.
Why not cross over to the other side? I muse to myself. Yes, why not?
I imagine crossing the river and then returning home with a tale of adventure and conquest. Perhaps, I’ll find a sermon illustration in it. I zero in on a series of partially submerged rocks, stepping stones to other side. I no longer noticed the sun shining or hear the rushing rapids. I lose sight of the tender green shoots of spring hanging off tree boughs or even remember that moments ago. The only thing I have in mind now is to step from rock to rock, walking over restless waters.
Five slippery rocks, craggy, black and basalt – will ferry me to my destination. Like all my previous river crossings, the rocks refuse to cooperate in terms of ease. Of course, the first rock is flat and spacious. There is no danger here. On this rock one could choose to abandon all plans of going further, opting instead to playfully dangle one’s toes in the icy water. In terms of homiletics, I would call this the rock Questioning Rock.” Here one begins reading, asking questions ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime, and digging deeper into syntactical and rhetorical considerations. Studies in history and socio-economic context are important here. Standing upon Questioning Rock, there is no threat to the preacher’s faith or ego. It is a private place. Indeed, here the student of scriptures approaches the text with an open mind, a tabula rasa, freedom of thought and imagination. With water rushing cleanly around its rough edges, this step is heuristic and naïve. Here, the preacher’s temptation to dwell on what others might think of us if we actually shared these thoughts publicly will not help the sermon process. The act of narrowing the search for truth too quickly by prematurely speculating on audience receptivity, positive or negative, is bound to lead us farther away from other possibilities in interpretation. I stay on this rock for an hour or so, and then move on.
The next step feels is a reach. Thus far, I have felt safe. I am still in that part of the river where pools of water collect and fill the spaces between rocks. This next step is a movement into the river itself. I take a quick hop. This rock is also firm, perhaps not as flat and secure as the last, but still I find enough room for both of my feet. Let’s call it Insight Rock. After reviewing a variety of opinions from scholars I trust and respect, diving into language studies, and asking questions, I find my thoughts going down a single path. Of course, I realize there are many sermons and hermeneutical possibilities here, but somehow I feel strangely attracted to a single idea that beckons me to come. On Insight Rock, the work of homiletics takes the form of courting, albeit wooing a sacred notion into fruition. Before stepping onto this rock, the text has tested my curiosity and now opens a door I had not noticed before. On Insight Rock, there will always be many doors to open, and behind each door, wonders and miracles readily available for the preacher, but then like all prophets called to speak, we are not called to preach everything that is on our minds. Not every cherry on the tree is ripe for picking. We must choose, or should I say, we must allow God’s Word to choose us. There are two sensations I feel at this juncture: elation and dread. In other words, while I find that insight can be personally edifying, initially gratifying for my own spiritual growth, if I choose to communicate the Good News to others, I must begin the work of making authentic insight available and understood. Anticipating the preaching act on Sunday morning, how does one re-create the feelings and thoughts which led to insight? The dread is essentially the struggle to take a precious pearl and multiply it. It is the act of taking a loaf of freshly baked bread meant for single meal and a few days later, feeding five thousand starving children. Sometimes our sermons feed, while at other times, our proclamation creates hunger. How does one capture “the hop,” the transition from a rock sunk in the mud and surrounded by still waters to a rock which almost appears to be moving up stream?
At this point, standing on the edge of flowing waters, one may be tempted to stop and move onto Sunday morning. Add a few stories, make a few announcements, practice raising and softening our voices for emphasis, practice pausing, and smile a lot. I would call this the stopping place for creating sermons which are composed of three points and poem. True, we’ve done some real work up to this point, at least enough to get by, and if we’ve stayed with a congregation long enough, they will forgive us, perhaps even secretly thank us for not probing the inner dilemmas of the soul. But if we choose to proceed, to forge the river, this next step will land us father out: where whirlpools swirl and steelhead and salmon run.
I didn’t notice it before, but now instead of one route to the other side, I see several possible footholds, undetected before. I reach out to test the rock closest to me, but it teeters under the slightest pressure. There are many options here, dry places for my feet, but then I also perceive that there are some rocks barely lodged below the surface. A thin stream of water flows over these rocks. This is the place for testing, setting out in a different direction. I still have an idea, an internal direction or compass, a purpose, but I am clearly unsure about the means of passage. This next rock begs for the demanding discipline of writing. If this step is clearly not your hobby or passion, then call this rock, Ouch Rock or Why Me Rock or Resistance Rock. Now, I know I have just lost a majority of preachers for asking them to place their heel, indeed both feet on a rock calling for both muscle and balance. Leaning on wisps of the wind and the ability to extemporize, some may view my suggestion of putting pen to paper as anathema. I can hear the comments now:
Henry’s metaphorical approach to sermon preparation really broke down when he asked me to write – I’m not a writer. Aren’t the best preachers those who work from an outline anyway?
And yet, hear me out. Writing Rock is the place of testing, thinking, and formulating ideas. Venturing to step out on Writing Rock means committing ourselves to the disciplined act of making connections between the internal world of the preacher and the external world encountered each day by his/her flock. Without the purposeful act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, preachers run the risk of forsaking the possibility of encountering God at a deeper level, one of introspection, solitude – the place where preachers encounter both God’s presence and absence in the corners or their hearts and minds. Perhaps our resistance to writing out initial drafts of sermons stems from an innate fear of questioning deeply felt convictions or a confession of our own disobedience. I would liken the act of writing a sermon to using a power washer to blast away the soot and grime off a driveway, but in this case, the spiritual tarter of pastor’s soul is stripped away. When we write out our homilies we commit ourselves to distilling platitudes spoken with good intentions, but lacking pastoral sensitivity to that person who desires genuine spiritual guidance more than simplistic answers. All writing, especially employed to inspire others, brings depth and wisdom born out of the pastor’s struggle. Unfortunately, Writing Rock never shows itself willingly.
The river swirls below. I’ve made my move, but lingering and teetering upon this rock, the water begins to breech the soles of my shoes. I’m ready for the next step. Writing Rock is the turning point. From this perch, I’ve gained both confidence and courage, a firmer footing. The river water ebbs and flows. Echoing rhythmic white noise reverberates up the canyon. The current is stronger out here. It is obvious now that I have committed myself to going further. If one were to watch me from the bank, either side, crossing at a spot where no one has ever crossed before, he or she might be tempted to think I’m crazy, but not yet.
The fourth rock seems flatter than the others, a sunbathing rock in the middle of a churning boil. There is certainly enough room for two or more on my next perch. This is Storyteller Rock. It is here where intrapersonal communication gives way to interpersonal communication. This is where written rhetoric takes an oral form. I make the jump with ease. I sense I could become quite comfortable here; in fact I have enough time to take my shoes off and sit for a while. Storyteller Rock is the place where we rehearse. We speak our thoughts to an empty room or sanctuary, all the time, assessing our language choices. Alone in an empty room, we try to hear what Mrs. Jones will hear on Sunday. We even venture to sit in Mrs. Jones’ pew and see what she sees. What is her angle to pulpit? Who sits near her? Why has she come this morning? How will our stories affect her? Will she hear the message or will she be distracted by something we didn’t notice before?
On Storytelling Rock, our task is to become conversational, real, personal, sharing our reservations while preparing our audience to hear the disconcerting message of discipleship. Don’t let them fool you. Our congregations want us to deal with difficult issues, even matters of politics, but not in a way that is cavalier or condescending. Two of highest complements I’ve received over the years are these:
I didn’t like what you said, but I had to listen. AND
If I say this was a good sermon, Ken, than I will have to do something about it, right? Good sermon.
On Storyteller Rock, we listen for our own receptivity to the Word. How would we react to the Good News being proclaimed by the preacher? What emotional or spiritual barriers would prohibit us from accepting our own interpretation? How do we tell our side of the story without demeaning or causing others to lose face? Are we preaching to Mrs. Jones because we believe she needs to hear this? Are we venting our own frustration toward people who have disappointed us? Or are we telling a story which beckons personal involvement and spiritual transformation? On this rock, I take what is written, speak my thoughts, and listen. Am I making any sense?
But now I am starting to ready myself for my final stepping stone. Why is the final rock, the one right before jumping to the bank, always the most treacherous? I shift my weight back and forth, hoping my girth will propel me over the turgid waters. This is not the time to worry about my return trip, how I will get back to my car – it’s either jump or turn around. I jump. My body moves out into space like an athlete leaning for the finish line. It’s Sunday morning and I am finally in pulpit, all eyes fixed on me. At first, my footing feels unsteady. What I thought would be firm feels squishy and slick. This rock is clearly not going to hold. I’m going in. I slip. No one laughs at a joke I thought would ease the awkwardness. But then just as quickly, I regain a fleeting balance, just long enough to extend a sinking and submerged leg forward. They are with me. With adrenaline pumping and flashes of hope and despair both racing through my mind, heart beating, I catapult myself to other side. You could hear a pin drop in the sanctuary. Even Mrs. Jones’ eyes are on me. I say what I have come to say, but it’s not a pretty landing. With palms laid out to stop my fall, my right hand hits hard earth even as my left hand disappears into blackberry brambles. With water running down my trouser leg, my hands caked with mud and blood, I stand on the other side. I sit down in the chair set up for the pastor and pretend to thumb through the hymnal searching for the final hymn. Catching my breath, I look back to the rock I was aiming for, but it appears there is none. I look harder. Perhaps, the shadow cast from this side of the river makes it impossible to discern an obvious location. I thought my foot had touched something. Nevertheless, I obviously did not make a clean landing, far from it.
This last rock is Grace. For it is by God’s grace that we write and deliver a sermon and although we emerge on the other side, bloodied and torn, exhausted and relieved, God’s grace enables the preacher to stand up and try again. Thus, we cannot fret over whether sermon went too long or too short or few agreed with our point of view. Remember: All of God’s heralds get soaked and bruised every Sunday morning, and whatever the outcome of our efforts, God’s active and alive, comforting and humbling, cleansing and river roaring grace sustains the preacher’s call to proclaim the Gospel. I have heard it said that each Sunday, preachers tend to dwell on three separate sermons: the one we intended to give, the one we gave, and the one we wish we had given. Yet this kind of second guessing presumes too much. For each Sunday, at every river crossing, one is bound to slip, to stumble, and to balk at the task. All I can say is look for the rocks. For it is not by one’s power that we ferry ourselves to other side, but rather by grace, and such grace is unpredictable and deep.
Look for the rocks!
Ken Henry is Assistant Professor of Speech and Communication at Northwest Christian College, Eugene, OR.