When: Last semester of my senior year of college before achieving my Bachelor's Degree in Nursing
Where: UW-Madison, Environmental Ethics class, final exam
What: "Write on two essay topics from the choices listed below."
At Stake: To get an 'A' in the class I had to get an 'A' on this final exam.
How: To prepare for the exam, the students were given a list of essay questions in advance. If we prepared four essays from among the many choices, we were guaranteed to find two on the test.
Sure enough, two of the questions I had prepared were on the exam. Whew! Safe! I wrote the first essay. Done! Then I looked at the second essay question...and the other choices. I had not prepared the others because I hadn't even understood the questions; I still didn't. I had no idea how to answer any of them.
The Conflict: A related experience in high school had taught me that sometimes, essay exam grades are based more on writing finesse than substance. Just for fun, could I write so compellingly on a topic I knew nothing about that I would still be believed? If not, did I really care if I got an 'A' in this class?
Faced with this exam, the last essay exam I thought I would ever write (Ha! Didn't know seminary was ahead!), the challenge was too compelling and the 'A' wasn't enough to lose. I picked a question at random and started writing, using persuasive syntax and the right lingo, none of which I truly understood.
Exam Result? 'A.' Course Result? 'A.'
I exulted in my triumph for years. I had discovered I had an ability with words. However, my exultation turned to holy fear when I got to my preaching class in seminary. There was far more at stake in the Gospel being spread than getting an 'A' on a test. As a preacher, I would be placed in a position of authority. What I said would be trusted. I would be asked to use my skill with words to move people to believe The Good News—while knowing the flip side of that skill was the ability to use words to manipulate without firm substance.
In other words, I could look and sound like a preacher, using my words, vocal inflections, and body language to perform the role. I also came to realize that I could add to the performance if something more than not looking like a fool were at stake in the pulpit. For instance, if the parish budget were at stake, I could dress like I just stepped off the page of a clergy-wear catalogue to impress a wealthy parishioner. If I felt my reputation as a writer and preacher were at stake with the retired English prof in the congregation, I could spend extra time word-smithing at the expense of sabbath time. If I wanted to avoid getting listeners angry with me over my understanding of respecting the dignity of every human being, I I might know a "raise the rooftops" sermon was needed but preach a sermon that placated instead.
It put the holy fear of God in my heart to realize I had the ability to perform the role of a preacher and be believed and trusted when I shouldn't be. I had skills at the ready to inflate my knowledge of scripture, embellish its presentation to appeal to certain people, or protect myself with silence. So what would guide me to ensure I wouldn't perform as a preacher, but enter the pulpit as a preacher of integrity regardless of the stakes?
Here are three "examen of conscience" questions to ask ourselves as we prepare to preach.
1. What do we believe?
Genuinely, sincerely, in our heart of hearts, what do we believe is true about God, the Church, people, and scripture?
Is the Good News real? What tells us so? What doubts do we harbor?
Is there reason to hope? Why? Are we all forgiven? To what extent? Does forgiveness include even us?
Let's wrestle with the angel all night long if we have to, but we must tell the truth to the extent we know it.
2. What's our motivation?
When we preach, are we motivated by fear, imagining how we think others will feel about us, or are we motivated to praise God?
Are we motivated more by avoidance of failure or by the call to be faithful to the task of preaching set before us?
Are we motivated to offer a good sermon out of perfectionism or out of genuine wonder about who God is and how God acts toward us?
What's more compelling as we prepare: receiving praise from our listeners or giving voice to a genuine encounter with the Gospel?
We need to ask ourseves, down deep, what do we really want?
When we have that answer, then ask whether that desire is placed there by your ego, or by God? If it's the former, confess, pray, ask for help if needed, and start over with the sermon prep. If it's the latter, give thanks and keep going.
3. Is the sermon a prayer?
The Book of Common Prayer says that prayer is a response to God in words and action.
Is our sermon a response to God? Are we responding to God to magnify the Lord? Or are we responding to and magnifying another voice? Might we be responding to and magnifying fear, control, intolerance, or maintenance of the status quo?
Ask whose voice the sermon responds to and whether that voice deserves to be magnified? If that voice comes from anyone other than God, the answer is no. Go back to the drawing board, starting with the glorious gift of the scripture text.
If this tension resonates with you, I invite you to download free the first chapter of my new book, Backstory Preaching: Integrating Life, Spirituality, and Craft (just published by Liturgical Press) for further exploration. Entitled "Preaching Isn't Performance, It's Prayer," this chapter will offer more insight into the "performance" temptations preachers face and how to maintain a holy, healthy perspective. (You'll also receive the Forward, Introduction, and Table of Contents).
I'd love to know what you think!