Reading for Preaching

Not long ago, Layne introduced me to a little book by Cornelius Plantinga Jr. called Reading for Preaching.  I find the idea excellent and am glad that Plantinga puts words to the idea.  It is an interesting book that may change the way we read (and preach).  This is not reading in order to gather content for sermons.  The author is interested in joining a discussion about language and style.  He is interested in putting preachers in conversation with others who are skilled at communication.  The subtitle says it well, the preacher in conversation with storytellers, biographers, poets, and journalists.

While God does gift some with natural skills of putting words together, most of us require outside help.  Plantinga suggests that reading good storytellers is one way to sharpen these skills.  He acknowledges that “some of the things that make sermons work cannot be gotten directly from written prose and poetry, but some can.”  Skilled writers can help us gain a feel for sentence rhythm, word selection, clarity and word economy.  Skilled writers demonstrate for us what it is like to make the listener want to keep up with the movement and become curious about the story.  I, for one, need all the help I can get to evoke wonder and get the listener to become curious.

Plantinga directs us to Barbara Brown Taylor as a preacher who knows how to evoke wonder.  I have had opportunity to hear her preach and have witnessed her ability to make a sermon move.  In a sermon titled “Home by Another Way” she tells us that Matthew’s Magi were “glad for a reason to get out of town – because that was clearly where the star was calling them, out.”  Plantinga notes that she is neither stuffy nor slangy.  He calls her style “upscale colloquial” and adds that this is a style that appeals to most listeners.  It is “formal enough to be serious and casual enough to be comfortable to wear.”

Brown Taylor does not use more words than necessary, does not give us “empty calories in a sermon.”  Instead, she uses her words to make the sermon move.  The Magi are headed out and we know this because she tells us.  They are “glad to get out.”  The “star was calling them out.”  “Out from under the reputations they had built for themselves.”  “And so they set out.”  We have no doubts that the Magi are headed out and we are going with them.

Plantinga wants to try to tune the preacher’s ear.  But he also warns that preachers should not try too hard to cast a spell on listeners with the power of words.  Not try too hard to flood the room with their brilliance.  Like trying too hard to make a friend or to go to sleep or to make a good impression – trying too hard to woo the congregation with words may be unsuccessful.  Perhaps the reason I like Plantinga’s book best is because he knows that as important as working on a sermon is, as many skills as we develop along the way, a good sermon remains more gift and discovery than achievement.

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An Interest in Reality

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.”