In The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor is interested in reality – all of it. You get the feeling she doesn’t want to miss anything. So she becomes a tourist hoping to see something that she has only previously read about. She becomes a child listening to a pastor’s sermon. She becomes a “detective of divinity” looking for signs of God everywhere. She becomes a student of Hebrew and Greek feeling like she is the first reader in the world to discover the meaning of words in scripture.
She seems to approach preaching as the woman in Luke approaches the lost coin. She is looking under everything, moving things out of the room, lifting up heavy objects, all in the hope to find what she is looking for. If she doesn’t find it the first time, she makes it a practice to look twice. So at first glance she looks at Luke and sees a doctor with a bag full of medicines and bandages. But after another look, a bag full of gospel stories with the power to heal.
Brown Taylor desires “To look inside every sentence and underneath every phrase for the layers of meaning that has accumulated there.” She is like a gold miner, panning for precious metal. She is like Cyrano de Bergerac passing love poems between God and congregation. She is an imaginative realist. Always attempting to see what is there but not obvious at first glance.
Fred Craddock says about Barbara Brown Taylor that “she talks about what she does and then does what she talks about.” He also claims to be reminded of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I like the comparison and think that often when Dillard is writing one could often substitute “preach” for “write.” For instance, how would it affect preaching if we made that substitution in the following quote? “Preach as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you preach for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.”
A repeated theme in The Preaching Life is that preaching is not solitary. “It is to examine my own life and the life of the congregation with the same care, hunting the connections between the word on the page and the word at work in the world.” Preaching is something the whole community participates in. Week after week listeners are invited to see the world as the realm of God’s activity. Preaching is “a way of approaching the world, and of gleaning God’s presence there.”
She acknowledges how unusual preaching appears in our culture. People are used to props and sound effects. People are accustomed to texts and Facebook and television. The odds are against a preacher. “If the topic is not appealing, there are no other channels to be tried. If a phrase is missed, there is not a replay button.” Preaching is risky business. It is “an act of creation with real risk in it as one foolhardy human being presumes to address both God and humankind, speaking to each on the other’s behalf and praying to get out of the pulpit alive.”
Brown Taylor does not want to hand out sacks of wisdom for listeners to take home and consume during the week. She prefers to discover something and then “haul it into the pulpit and show others what God has shown me, while I am still shaking with excitement and delight.”