on the art of preaching (or, on Russell Westbrook, stand-up comedy, and getting to the inner yes)

           I rarely write about the art of speaking/preaching, for a few reasons: a) I’m a streaky communicator who still misfires from the stage on a regular basis, and, b) my own approach to speaking is too mystical, intuitive, almost shamanistic to explain easily, and, c) speaking is intimate soul connection to me, and thus seems about as appropriate to talk about at dinner with strangers as making love, for similar reasons.  But it dawned on me recently that I preached my first sermon twenty years ago, this Spring. 20 years! So even if my sermons still hit and miss, and my methodology is still suspect, it is in fact my methodology at this point, and I have a few things to say about it.

            I think there are few abstract “principles” that can be easily universalized about preaching, but then again, very little can be easily universalized about anything, responsibly.  There are many styles and methodologies of communication I can and do enjoy and appreciate, but as it is with many things, I have strong, wildly subjective, largely peculiar opinions about all of this. 

            First though, to understand the kind of preaching I’d aspire to, you don’t necessarily have to know anything about any particular preachers.  It would be helpful, however, for you to understand my all-time favorite basketball player—Russell Westbrook, the combustible point guard of my Oklahoma City Thunder.  For the basketball illiterate, Russell Westbrook is a nuclear bomb in a jersey.  He is volatile, explosive, dangerous, disruptive—also, better than almost anyone, ever.  I don’t want to overstate his savage side, because his basketball IQ is high—but the savagery is a big part of what makes him what he is, a trait he shares with a handful of the greats, including Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.

            But as basketball fans know, this man who is the most likely to give you a triple double every night will also give you his share of turnovers on occasion, when the wild stallion runs a bit out of control.  Far from holding it against Westbrook, I love this about him.  There is a risk to his game, a willingness to relinquish control and thus, usually to transcend the game altogether, and occasionally to fail it.  Russell Westbrook is my patron saint of not-playing-it-safe.  This is of course is somewhat a personality thing—there are other kinds of players who are useful, more restrained, also important.  But I would offer a hearty apologetic for Westbrook-style preaching, because even if it’s not the only way to get it done, it is a way, and a way I wish more preachers would go. 

            When a woman or man steps behind the pulpit, and fully embraces the stark-raving foolishness of preaching, there is at least some possibility that the magic might come, and that God might show up.  If God does not appear, there is at least a strong chance that a genuine, real-life human being might show up, which is the next best thing.  Like Russell Westbrook’s game, it is combustible and risky. It is the Apostle Paul himself who acknowledges the foolishness of preaching.  Speaking for God is an unstable and often ludicrous enterprise, full of unstable and outright lunatic people.  And if those who aspire to speak for God don’t start off crazy, taking the task seriously for long enough will almost surely drive them there.

intuition in preaching: more animal than artful

            My philosophy of communication in general, and certainly preaching in particular, is that it is a task more animal than it is artful.  Great preaching comes from the stomach, not the head; more bone and bowel than it is brains.  Hunger, desire, heat, and blood are more necessary than technical skill, which is not to say that technical skill is not important.  I love seminary and training and academia—I have just learned very little about preaching from any of those places.  Preaching involves a deeper drop from head to heart, than most any institution will prepare you for. 

            Intuition in preaching matters more than almost anything, in two different directions—it is as much about being open to what is happening between you and the people, as it is what is happening between you and God.  There is simply no way to discern what is happening with either, without feeling your way through it. Feelings are of course fickle and unreliable of lovers, so they do have to be trained in ways that require time and discipline.  But they are necessary.

            To say preaching mostly requires intuition may sound like a way of saying it can’t be taught, but that is not entirely true. Yes, there are some people who have such morbidly deficit instincts that they will never learn to preach well no matter how hard they try, but I think that mostly overstates the case.  The trick is that it has less to do with learning about preaching per se, and more about learning how to pay attention—to God, to people, to art, to your own life.  People who learn to listen to the world both around them and in them can be excellent preachers, with or without great technical training. 

            Preparation for preaching does have a lot to do with immersion in Scripture, and training does help a ton with that.  You do have to be saturated in Scripture, and hopefully, bathing yourself in language in general, to preach well.  You do have to have the basic chords down well enough to improvise when the time is right.  Scripture renews the mind—poetry, fiction, and music sharpens it—and the mind has an important role in preaching.

            But the mind has less of a role in preaching, than the soul.  Getting your soul to the right place, is more crucial than getting your head there.  That means getting yourself to a place past ego, a place past awkwardness, self-consciousness, and pride.  That means getting to a place of surrender.  In short, that means getting to a deep, inward yes, to the Spirit. 

            There are a lot of ways to get to that yes—all of them involve prayer, some with words, and some without them.  But the definition of prayer here, is very broad.  For my purposes here, I speak of prayer as kind of vital, vibrant soul connection with God, that transcends ego and intellect.  There are a lot of different ways to get there, and unfortunately none of them work all the time—because the process is more organic, more dynamic than that. It is more like surfing, than it is arithmetic. 

            Sometimes I prepare for preaching by fasting, because it sharpens my intuition, and helps me listen to what I need to hear both from God and (inaudibly) from the people when I get into the room.  Sometimes I prepare for preaching by finding a familiar, comforting (or occasionally interesting and unfamiliar!) cafe, because it can get me more relaxed.  Sometimes I prepare for preaching in silence, to create an inward space that is focused on God.  Sometimes I prepare for preaching by talking to others, because it gets me out of my head a bit.  Sometimes I prepare by resting (almost always by going to bed early the night before, if possible); sometimes I prepare by running or working out just hours before, to clear my head.

            The point of any of it, all of it—the only point, the only thing that matters—is getting to that yes.  Getting to that place of letting go.  Arriving at a place called surrender.  There are no other goals.  There are no other destinations.  This is everything.  And whatever gets you there, from wherever you are standing, no matter what route you have to take—is wholly good, and right, and appropriate.  Unless of course it’s not, in which case you need to preach humble and repentant and probably incorporate it into the sermon--but really, we are always supposed to preach from a humble, repentant place.  

my only die hard rules for preaching

            I only have a few die hard, inviolable rules for preaching.  One is that preaching should always have a sort of tenderness running through it, like a beam underneath the sermon from start to finish.  Even if it is bold, wild-eyed and prophetic, it still has to be tender.  Anger is occasionally useful in preaching, even if often misused—though the only way you can channel anger well in the pulpit generally, is if you tap into the heartbreak beneath it.  One of my mentors, Dr. Rickie Moore, says you know God is speaking because his is the voice that “always breaks your heart,” and I find that a sermon preached from a place of heartbreak is almost guaranteed to be a sermon worth preaching. 

            The second rule is that you have to a reverent posture toward the essential holiness of the people you are preaching to—less humble and reverent than your posture towards God,  of course, but only slightly and by degree.  All preachers are required to believe, or at least want to believe, that persons (if not crowds per se) are essentially smart, decent, open, and want to do the right thing.  You are allowed to not think this in moments of extreme hurt, but you must be careful not to preach from that place.  People are holy, created in the image of God, and your heart has to bow to them, even if your words must challenge, provoke or incite them. 

            A little bit of swagger and bravado is only allowed if it’s the swagger and bravado of a fool, fully aware of the ridiculousness of what you are trying to do and how foolish you look, glorying in the absurdity of the cross.  There is a swagger that is actually a half-step past ego, when you know what a fool you are, but you are high enough on love and God’s goodness to fully own the moment you are in.  That kind of confidence is demonstratively different than pride and bluster, and people will know the difference.  It is the confidence that lies beyond self-consciousness, only found again in the land of the yes, the place of total surrender. 

            Here is my only bit of technical advice: some of you have been in schools of preaching where someone has told you to tell an audience exactly what you plan to teach them at the beginning of the sermon, and then take the next 30 minutes to explain your points.  Everyone who has ever told you to do this is disastrously wrong.  I would tell you to take those preaching books swiftly to the used bookstore, but someone else might read them—so build a bonfire for them instead, like a fundamentalist burning their AC/DC records at youth camp. 

            It is communication suicide.  It violates every sane instinct in any medium of storytelling.  Noele Jones, speaking at a seminar on preaching, once differentiated between white preaching and black preaching this way: white preachers get up and tell you what they are going to say, and then they say it.  To illustrate black preaching though, he told about how he was a boy watching the tv series The Fugitive.  Every week, he said, they watched the show on the edge of their seats, even though they all knew that Dr. Richard Kimble would find a way to escape by the end of the episode, instead of getting caught.  But every episode attempted to get Dr. Richard Kimble in as much trouble as possible, before he would escape. And in the same way, Jones said, the people in your congregation know that Jesus is going to escape by the end of the sermon.  But the task of the preacher is to see just how much trouble you can Jesus into, before he gets out in the end.  That, my friends, is the most genius thing I have ever heard on preaching, and the notion that most underwrites my own.  Preaching should be narrative, high drama, full of suspense.  Don't tell them exactly where you are going to go.  Just put them in the car, tell them to buckle their seat belts, and take them somewhere.  Sometimes, to borrow words from Jesus to Peter, you may even need to take them to places you yourself "would not choose to go."  

            This is most everything constructive I know to tell you about the art of preaching.  Although, as the organist comes, and you stand to your feet, and the kids are getting restless in the nursery by now, I will close with a handful of things you must avoid in preaching, at all costs:

Please--in the name of all that is holy, avoid these three things like the plague, and facebook debates: 

Faux vulnerability: You know what I’m talking about.  Pastor Bob tells a story, about how even he, yes even he, as called man of God, found himself raising his voice in the car with his wife and kids the other day.  Pastor Bob is a real-life flesh and blood human being to be sure with demons that haunt him, but this story does not illumine them, or much of anything.  That’s not vulnerability, that’s an attempt to appear vulnerable, to sound like one of the boys.  I’m not saying to open up a sewer that should only be opened by another priest or therapist, but if you’re going to risk being human in front of those people—you’ve got to go deeper. (For the record, I use a gendered/male example because I find women preachers are frankly less likely to attempt this nonsense)

Preacher funny: The reason you have to avoid “preacher funny,” is because there is no such thing.  Something is either funny, or it is not.  What is almost never actually funny is some anecdotal Reader’s Digest/cute tale from a 1952 sermon book.  If you want to learn how to be funny, don’t try to learn it from other preachers—only a handful of them, and I do know a few—are really, really funny in the pulpit.  Watch stand-up comedians instead, and try not so much to imitate their content as to internalize their rhythm.  When it comes to communicating with humor, jokes are not everything—timing is. 

Condescend to the crowd: If you, on a regular basis, condescend to the people you speak to, you are a danger to yourself and others, and need to check yourself out of the game immediately.   Let life give you a thorough beating again before you return to preaching.  If you are the sort of person who says something like, “Well, it sure sounds like Paul condescended to his audience sometimes,” you both: 1) prove my general principle that no one should be allowed to interpret the Apostle Paul without a license, and 2) prove that you don’t need to be doing what you are doing, or your pompous ass would not be comparing yourself to the Apostle Paul. Get out of the pool, now. 

            With every head bowed and every eye closed, not looking at your neighbor—this moment is between you and God.  Is there a preacher under the sound of my voice who has been guilty of these sins?  Yes, thank you…I see that hand