Insights into preaching come in the strangest ways. Knowledge that they are true insights comes from a familiar place, that core out of which the preacher creates. Here then are four strange ones. Strange, but true. The first is…
"THE FIRE FALLING"
I am a big Elvis fan. The fascination is lifelong. Every so often I try to discern exactly what it is that captures me. It isn't his life, or even his rags to riches story. It isn't his stage show, although it does set my feet tapping. The costumes are campy, the musicianship excellent, but it isn't that either. In his video, That's The Way It Is, we travel with Elvis towards his first performance at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. On show night, he is stressed to the limit. He paces back stage, feeling very small in a lonely world of stardom. Then the lights go down. He strides out into the waiting crowd, The lights come up and there it is. The fire falls. There is a moment of presence, a moment of longing and satisfaction that occurs before anything is said or sung. It is a moment of meeting and it goes deep enough to last forever. That moment may be present at the time of preaching. I don't quite know what goes into it, but when it happens, the table is already set for a feast to follow. The fire falling is a gift. It is rare in my experience, but man, is it mighty!
The second is
"SEEING IS BELIEVING"
Preaching is a visual medium. It is the engagement of an actor with an audience in the richest sense of theatrical tradition. It isn't about ideas alone. It isn't a social commentary on the times. It isn't a news report. Preaching is a shared experience of sacred enthusiasm. Every gesture danced between preacher and people is part of the gift. Therefore the preacher must be seen. After coming home revved up from a conference on architecture and acoustics, I realized that the only carpeted place in our sanctuary was the pulpit. In a flash, we installed a heavy wooden riser in the pulpit to improve the sound for speech and dropped the pulpit deck six inches to reveal head, shoulders, chest, arms and waistline. It is a whole piece given to a whole people. It must be seen to be believed.
The third insight is called
"CAROL AT THE POPS"
Sometimes these things jump out at you when your flat on your back with no pencil in sight. Flipping channels some years ago, I found Carol Channing dressing to conduct the Boston Pops. Neither of these stars is ones with which I would normally spend time, but I sat riveted to the screen as Carol Channing began to sing a familiar song, tried and true, to that Boston Audience. They were with her. One camera swing through the crowd revealed them hanging over the balconies, their voices lifted in full flight. I leapt up and found that pencil. I wrote what I saw. The preacher is the conductor of the orchestra, the congregation. Each week the preacher opens the ancient score and calls on the musicians to play it. Each one brings his or her life, his or her instrument, to the piece. The blend, the volume, the performance is different Sunday by Sunday. All who hear the music experience aged greatness, freshly spun through the lives of those working and loving to play it. The action of preaching takes place in the space between the preacher and the people. The congregation is the site of the sound. The making of the music, the preaching, belongs to the orchestra.
The fourth insight is called
We have an eldest grandson who has grown on us from day one. My wife has become "The Grandmother of Legendary Proportions." She loves the sight, sound and scent of this boy, and laments when he has gone to his proper home. The other day we took him for a walk in his stroller. At 20 months, he has a few solid words and an inextinguishable passion for trucks. We stumbled onto a construction zone. The boy went wild. Machines churned and dug and lifted and dumped. They were dusty, and noisy and guttural. He loved every minute. Later on he and I were going over the day. I asked if remembered what we had seen and proceeded to recall each piece complete with sound effects. As I ran the gamut, I suddenly noticed he was hanging on my every word and expression. His eyes were wide open and stuff was going deep. This stopped me cold. He was really listening. He was trusting my judgment, and enjoying my recollection of our shared experience. People listen to the preacher.
Even if we second guess ourselves and know too well our own limitations, people trust us enough to open up and take it all in. What a gift. What a humbling thought. As we prepare and ponder and sweat and imagine our way through text and life, wide-eyed children of our sacred acquaintance are waiting to take us seriously.
Malcolm Sinclair is Pastor of Metropolitan United Church in Toronto, Canada.