Monday, January 23, 2012

Monday Morning Preacher: Me and my best bud, Phillips Brooks

Today is the feast day of Phillips Brooks, most well-known (rather condescendingly I feel) as, "The priest who wrote, 'O Little Town of Bethlehem'." But as I was looking into him a little more, I stumbled across his series of Lectures on Preaching, delivered before the Divinity School of Yale College in January and February, 1877, and I thought, "Brother! Dude! Where have you been all my life? Speak to me!"

Take, for example, his snarky critique of those preachers who love, as he calls it, the "bric-a-brac of theology": "I suppose that all preachers pass through some fantastic period when a strange text fascinates them; when they like to find what can be said for an hour on some little topic on which most men could only talk two minutes." Isn't that fabulous?

Or his take on personality, which he thinks is one of two elements of preaching (the other being Truth with a capital T): "Be yourself by all means, but let that good result come not by cultivating merely superficial peculiarities or oddities. Let it be by winning a true self full of your own faith and your own love."

The longer I preach the more I think one of the most important tasks of the preacher is to deal with your own stuff. Only I generally don't think "stuff." (In the presence of Phillips Brooks I feel I must show some propriety.) And by that I mean, the issues that are raised in your own life by the texts that week in the context of your situation. What does this bring up? What do you really believe? What is your genuine reaction and response? How does this affect you?

You deal with your stuff not on the congregation or through the congregation, but through the hard work of "winning a true self" before you even step in the pulpit. And in so doing, you can bring yourself to the sermon in a way that is not needy, or vain, or self-promoting, or self-avoiding.

So often when I go to hear others preach, I get the sense that they were not willing to go there, to deal with whatever their stuff is, and so they end up preaching, as Brooks calls it, through "criticism."
By the tendency of criticism I mean the disposition that prevails everywhere to deal with things from outside, discussing their relations, examining their nature, and not putting ourselves into their power...There are many preachers who seem to do nothing else, always discussing Christianity as a problem instead of announcing Christianity as a message.
I can understand the tendency, as "going there" can be very hard work.  Much easier to find something interesting in the commentaries and link it to the news than enter into our own issues and frailties, subjecting them to the light of the gospel.

I certainly felt that way this week.  It was a difficult week for me, preaching-wise, as I clearly found myself in the gospel's power.  The gospel text--the call to the first disciples to "follow me"--was the very first gospel I ever preached on, 12 years ago when I was in seminary and thought I knew what my career in the church was going to look like.  It hasn't turned out the way I expected.  At the same time, I believe that in all the zig-zags and reversals, I have been following Jesus as best I know how.  I feel I am doing what I am called to do.

 And so it was a very odd experience, seeing myself 12 years ago and thinking, "You have no idea," and seeing these disciples leaving their nets and thinking, "You have no idea." It was unnerving, in fact, and as close to an out-of-body experience as I've had. But the thing for me was that I both had to deal with my stuff and also bring my self to the preaching. And can I tell you, that was not easy. Not my best sermon either, but still one I feel good about, largely thanks to Phillips Brooks' encouragement and the sense I get from him that I was at least on the right track.

As he says,
The gospel you are preaching now is the same gospel that you preached when you were first ordained, in that first sermon which it was at once such a terror and such a joy to preach; but if you have been a live man all the time, you are not preaching it now as you did then. If the truth had changed, your life would have lost its unity. The truth has not changed, but you have grown to fuller understanding of it, to larger capacity of receiving and transmitting it. There is no pleasure in the minister's life stronger than this.


Anonymous said...

First of all, I can't believe it's been 12 years since you were in seminary! So many of those stories are still so vivid in my mind - it's hard to believe that over a decade has come and gone already. Although, on the other hand, when I think about all the different things you've done since then, 12 years doesn't seem like nearly enough time to have gotten them all in!

Second, then, will you ever post your own actual sermon? I'd love to read it.

Third, thank you for this post on preaching, which I've been reading and re-reading as I prepared a particularly tough sermon of my own. One of my best and oldest friends died unexpectedly at the end of December, and I miss her immensely - but as I have been preparing for a guest preaching appearance in February for a young college congregation that never knew her, I have known that I would have to find ways to set my grief aside long enough to speak to them out of a place of love, trust, and hope. Thank you for keeping me company in this difficult but worthy process.

LKT said...

I know! I can't believe it myself.

I'm afraid I won't be posting this sermon; the notes were sketchy to begin with, and the specifics are gone, gone, gone. You'll just have to imagine that it was fantastic. Well, above average, anyway.

Good luck on your sermon prep!