Thank You Dr. Dennis Kinlaw

Dr. Dennis Kinlaw was a college president, an Old Testament professor, a chancellor, an author, the founder of a society. But many of us will remember him as a preacher. In the religious arena I was raised in, holiness preachers were giants. Dr. Kinlaw was considered a giant among giants. When he preached you were sure of two things; he was serious about the biblical text AND he loved the listener. I remember sitting in a college classroom when our professor looked out at young preachers and said “we want to shape you into preachers like Dennis Kinlaw.”

Kinlaw would not have said anything quite like that. In his Preaching in the Spirit he says “it is part of the miraculous work of God that he uses the likes of you and me, not to mention the likes of our sermons…” Kinlaw goes so far as to say “the greatest problem in preaching is not the preparation of the sermon but the preparation of the preacher.”

I once heard Kinlaw preach a sermon that included an active conversation between members of the Trinity. I am not sure how often he used that as a homiletic tool but he includes another of these conversations in Preaching. “There are some days when I know I have not acted as I ought… I can almost hear the heavenly Father ask Jesus, ‘Son, how did that Kinlaw guy do today?’ I hear the Son respond, ‘Well, Father, he did not do so well today.’ I quake as I hear the Father say, ‘Shall we give up on him?’” Kinlaw goes on, “I see Jesus lift two scarred hands to the Father and say, ‘No, Father. We have a substantial investment in him.’” Kinlaw claims to have a love affair with those scars.

Kinlaw provides excellent counsel when he says things like “I am a Wesleyan in theology, but I need to be very careful that when I read the Bible my concern is not to find what Wesley taught, but to discover the Word of God. If Wesley opens windows on the Word of God… three cheers for Wesley; but the important thing is that the Word of God comes alive for me, so that I can share it with others.”

It is holy week as I write this. I am reminded of Kinlaw’s conversation about the followers of Jesus following the crucifixion. Jesus had died and had been buried. Disciples were feeling some strong feelings. Ad then, on Sunday, some strange stories were being told. And “As the shadows lengthened into night, those who knew him best sought out one another; when they had found each other, they locked the doors…” Then “the miracle occurred… He was there, the Living Lord in their midst… Death had not really contained Him. He was alive!

Of this we can be certain; Kinlaw would want us to continue telling these strange stories.

Remembering Fred Craddock

At the end of the year when magazines talk about notable persons who died in 2015, it is possible that many will overlook Fred Brenning Craddock.  Yet preachers and congregations will long be indebted to the influence he has had on many sermons.  Nearly every time I have read something about him it includes a line like “he is unassuming.” I have heard him preach and it is true.  It is not a coincidence that he titled an early book As One Without Authority.  I consider this good news for all of us, not one of us bring any authority of our own into the pulpit.

Craddock claimed his early attempts to teach preaching did not go well.  At that time he was encouraged to read Soren Kierkegaard and was struck by the line “There is no lack of information in a Christian land; something else is lacking, and it is something one person cannot communicate directly to another.”  This line became a text of sorts for the Beecher Lectures at Yale which were later published as Overhearing the Gospel.

Craddock helped us to respect the listener.  While some have debated whether he removed too much authority from the preacher, we can probably all agree with his desire to create a dynamic conversation with the text.  Craddock desired sermons to create space for preachers to ask questions and for listeners to respond with yay or nay.  At the very least, this is a realistic place for a sermon to be.  He believed that in order for the listener to have a genuine response, yes and no must be real options.

We can also appreciate that he never removes authority from the text.  The dynamic conversation insists on the text having a say.  In his book Preaching, he states that though he starts with attention on the listeners “If one wishes to begin with the text, no objections come to mind.  The two will meet on down the road anyway, with neither one claiming to have had a head start.”

His legacy certainly includes preaching, but also teaching preachers.  Upon retirement from formal teaching, he started The Craddock Center.  Preaching workshops are among the core programming of the Craddock Center.  The workshops are offered at no charge for active preachers who serve small churches in Southern Appalachia.

I recall reading somewhere that he considered all of his preaching to be “semiautobiographical.”  I suspect the same is true for all of us.  The final paragraph of his Reflections on My Call to Preach says, “As for me, I believe God called me to preach; or, to put it another way, I decided to be a preacher.  Or, as Paul might put it, ‘I seek to lay hold of him who has already laid hold of me.’”  We are grateful and listeners to our sermons are as well.

Another Thank You

When we think of Calvin Miller, many of us may think first of The Singer Trilogy. But he has contributed significantly to the craft of preaching. One of the things that has always stood out to me was the way he was able to unite zeal and art in sermon. To speak with urgency and with beauty is a rare gift indeed. Calvin Miller had that gift. It is our loss that Calvin Miller died this past year.

I rather like the way that he talks about preaching and the role of preacher in Spirit, Word, and Story. “Preaching first came as a shout of hope.” He goes on to say that “The Messiah had come at long last! Hell, eternal as it was, had been confronted by life… The sermon, born as a desperate reply, was created by two words: the rhema (rhetorical word) that disclosed the logos (incarnate word). Both words, however, were silent without the critical bearer of the news: the preacher.”

Spirit, Word, and Story contains a chapter titled “The Word as Art.” A peculiar chapter title since in it he prefers to speak with urgency about urgency (though admittedly, he does so artistically). “The desperation of first-century sermons needed neither reason nor art… Why outline or exegete or illustrate when the theater is afire?! Humankind was perishing and needed neither an artistic word nor a scholarly word. Only a desperate word was needed. Urgency takes no time for irrelevancies. John the Baptist would not even answer the simple question, ‘What is your name?’ ‘My name… My name… What matters my name?… I am a crying voice – Flee from the fire.”

He preached like a hayfield worker from Northern Oklahoma. “I think there is a time when the secular grime sticks to us and gritty, itchy boredom clings to us and we turn our eyes to Jesus Christ and reach for the tap that washes our obscene egos away. We look imploringly to heaven and cry out, ‘Please, God, I wanna get washed!’”

He preached like one who was familiar with the characters in the text. “Who was Habakkuk? According to some, his name means “Babylonian house plant.” Since I have never appreciated being called a house plant, I can only guess that it wasn’t much of an ego boost in 607 B.C. Habakkuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah, but neither of them wrote poetry that caught on while they were alive. They must have presented quite a pair: Jeremiah crying all the time, and Habakkuk consoling him, “Now, don’t take it all so hard, big fellow. God isn’t listening anyway! Besides, Jerry, how would you like to have Dan Rather call you a Babylonian house plant every night on the 5:30 news!”

Miller is critical that “some contemporary sermons are little more than moral speeches that tip their homiletical hats to God. The fearsome trumpets of fiery desperation have settled into chatty liturgy.” Miller would rather we speak with urgency. Yet, he would desire us to attempt it in ways that grip and hold attention and cause others to remember. His sermon language is both urgent and artistic. Miller knew that urgent truth is not watered down when it is made beautiful. Perhaps, no one knew that better.

Thank you Calvin Miller.