Preach Like an Amateur

Photo by  Tim Mossholder  on  Unsplash

The other title for this post?

“A writer, a gymnast, and a scholar walk into a bar….”

In this case, the writer, gymnast, and scholar are Jeff Goins, Katelyn Ohashi, and Robert Alter respectively.

All three are at the top of their fields, and while unrelated, all three have recently taught me the same lesson: how important—and fun—it is to preach like an amateur again.

Be an Amateur: Jeff Goins

First, Jeff Goins.

Jeff is a writer for writers, and I find his blog posts consistently useful. His post this week, Let’s be Amateurs Again: The Secret to Being a True Professional, is about the importance of being an amateur in order to be a professional.

“Amateur,” Jeff notes, comes from the Latin “amator:” lover. To be an amateur means you do what you do for the love of it.

Not because you have to. Not because you get paid for it. And not because you have a deadline to meet.

You do it because you love it.

The “greats” in any craft become great because they’re amateurs first. They pursue their craft with joy, zest, and fascination.

Jeff asks his readers to remember when they first started to write and what it felt like. (And of course, write about it!)

Let me ask you the same question: do you recall when you first started to preach?

The terror?

The exhilaration?

What it felt like during sermon prep God when opened a divine Word and how you hoped and prayed you would offer the same to your listeners?

The process was difficult and heavy with its gravitas, and yet, utterly enthralling. At first we preached for the love of it. We were amateurs.

An Amateur is a Perfect Ten: Katelyn Ohashi

Katelyn is a UCLA gymnast whose recent floor routine has gone viral.

She was a rising star and the American Cup all-around champion in 2013 when major injuries and their surgical repairs sidelined her (See Katelyn Ohashi’s floor routine and read her story here: From 'Tears' to Cheers: UCLA Gymnast Katelyn Ohashi Opens Up About Finding 'Joy' Again in the Sport by Lindsay Kimble).

Despite being told she would never compete again, she wrote off the gloom and doom and began training. But she also told her coach she wouldn’t come back to the sport if it meant being the best again.

Why? There was no joy in being the best.

The pressure to compete for the top was all work and no play.

She wouldn’t compete again unless it was all play—and a lot of work.

Katelyn’s recent floor routine went viral not because she scored a perfect 10 but because her routine is sheer joy in motion.

Katelyn didn’t score a perfect 10 because she worked to be a professional-caliber gymnast. She scored a perfect 10 because she’s a perfect amateur.

She scored a perfect 10 because she rekindled her love of the sport. Her every motion radiates joy.

When you preach, what do you radiate?

Are your shoulders hunched, jaw tight, words rushed to get them over with?

Or do you preach joy in motion?

Is your body relaxed, your breathing full, your face—OK, maybe not radiating (so we don’t go over the top here) but showing your love for God, the people you serve, and the privilege you have to preach?

An Amateur Rewrites the Hebrew Bible: Robert Alter

Robert Alter is as professional as one could ever achieve in a lifetime.

Professor Emeritus of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Cal-Berkeley, an author and award recipient many times over, his seminal, three-volume work, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary* (New York: WW Norton and Company, 2019), has just been published.

It’s as amateur a work as ever I’ve seen. Written over a lifetime, Professor Alter writes he didn’t set out with the goal of translating the entire Hebrew Bible, but translating one book led to translating the next out of sheer love of the language, its poetry, and his frustration with the plodding nature of available translations.

He writes:

Biblical Hebrew, in sum, has a distinctive music, a lovely precision of lexical choice, a meaningful concreteness, and a suppleness of expressive syntax that, by and large, have been given short shrift by translators with their eyes on other goals. The present translation, whatever its imperfections, seeks to do fuller justice to these aspects of biblical style in the hope of making the rich literary experience of the Hebrew more accessible to readers of English.

from: The Five Books of Moses, p. xxxix.

Here is an example of his translation from Genesis 1: 1-5, followed by his commentary on verse 2.

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And it was evening and it was morning, first day.

Chapter 1, verse 2. welter and waste. The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English by alliteration. Tohu itself means “emptiness” or “futility,” and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.

Did you “hear” the poetry in the alliteration of “welter and waste?” The rhythm created by removing the comma in, “welter and waste and darkness over the deep?” Do you hear the difference in cadence with “first day” that follows a simple comma instead of the article, “the?”

Alter writes about this: “Unusually, the Hebrew uses a cardinal, not ordinal, number. As with all the six days except the sixth, the expected definite article is omitted.”

Hearing the poetry of the language, as well as learning anew about the nuances of Hebrew will significantly alter our assumption about the meaning of a story.

Become an Amateur Preacher

One of the suggestions in Jeff Goins’ article struck me as particularly helpful in a way that puts all three of these amateurs to work for us. Jeff’s suggestion is to copy from the greats, word for word.

So here’s my suggestion for you.

  1. Treat yourself to Alter’s translation.

  2. Read it out loud. Hear it. Say a verse that lightens your tongue again and again until it’s memorized.

  3. Next, copy it by hand, word for word.

  4. Feel the beauty of this language filling your bones; let yourself be overcome with awe.

  5. Let this beauty fill you until you preach joy in motion.

  6. Preach like an amateur.

*Backstory Preaching is an Amazon affiliate. Purchasing Dr. Alter’s work through this article helps support our ministry. Thank you.