A week and a half ago I preached in my church for the first time. Our regular pastor is on sabbatical this summer, and a diverse preaching team is tackling lesser known or lesser read books of the Bible. Mine was Joel, a book I’d frankly never read three weeks before delivering a 25 minute talk about it. Now I’ve read it probably about 20 times and could quote you several passages from memory. One of the first things I did when preparing for Joel was to write a 43 line Python script pulling down 9 different translations from Bible Gateway and turning them into an eBook so I could compare. That web-scraping thing from yesterday at its most noble, maybe.
Writing a sermon was a very different kind of writing from what I’m used to. I’m comfortable talking in front of people. I’ve given presentations at work before, and I’ve sung, taught Sunday school and been the worship leader in my church in recent memory. But figuring out how many words I even needed to write to fill the time was a challenge (turns out for me about 5000 though some people think my delivery was a bit fast). I’ve generally contended that I’m a much better writer than an off-the-cuff speaker,but writing with the specific intention of reading aloud has a different flow. The writing must rise and fall with the rise and fall of your voice. Words that are perfectly fine in an essay on Joel can become unworkable on the tongue.
And writing a sermon should have some application to life, a point you’re trying to get across. I’m not so bad with the analysis and research bit, but this was the point that my wife kept asking me, and I was never sure I had a good answer for it until the night before the actual delivery.
And more than any other piece of writing this was something I was writing not just for myself, but for people to hear. It can be a strange thing to think about writing something as speaking for what God wants to say on a particular Sunday. You can dismiss it as putting too much stock in what people actually hear, and indeed the memory life for even a great sermon can be frighteningly short. But the writing isn’t just in your voice, it means something. This isn’t to say that I felt like I was taking God’s dictation. When God talks through people, they are still speaking with their voice, with their patterns, passions and priorities (something apparent in a prophet like Joel).
I wrote about half the sermon in a coffee shop, and the other half in our empty sanctuary, sometimes with the computer at the podium, typing changes as I practiced delivery. I still went through all the same things I do with a chapter of The Sky Below, research, rough drafts, revisions, cuts, new thoughts, and the eventual pressure of a deadline (one in this case which I couldn’t push). I listened to Moby and Olafur Arnalds which proved to be just as good at aiding the writing of scripture as they are most everything else. But I also had to think about how fast I was talking, waiting beats to emphasize something or let people laugh at the few funny points. I had to make sure I was looking at everyone as I talked while still keeping the text in front of me. And I had to figure out if I was going to stand or sit on a stool, and even how I was going to sit on that stool.
But this kind of writing is oddly energizing. First of all its probably one of the most immediate feedback mechanisms I’ve ever had (even more than blogging). People walk up, shake your hand, want to discuss the text, while your head is still spinning not sure if you even said everything you had written down. It was really interesting to go in deep on a passage, analyzing its structure, its history, its meaning. It was interesting to think about how people would hear the text 2500 years ago, and how they’d hear it that Sunday. And frankly it was interesting to be praying to God about what I was going to say. A lot of writing just happens for me, without a lot of thought about how it applies to the spiritual side. But during a lot of periods of writing this I felt unusually energized, words flying off my fingers. Maybe some of that was the thrill of trying something new. But then again … I don’t know. What I do know is that I want to try this again.
A common piece of writing advice is to write for yourself, not to worry about what others want you to say. But the more I think about it, I’m not sure if this is entirely true. You shouldn’t be trying to follow publishing trends, or writing what you think people want to hear, or what they want to read, what they can handle. But it can be really thrilling nonetheless to think about your audience, to think about how they might hear your words, and what it might inspire them to. You’re not writing or preaching to have people tell you you did a good job, you’re writing to get people to think, to convey God’s word, and to be more than just the words you put down on paper.
My inner censor thinks this sounds kinda hippy-dippy. But I’m just calling it like I see it. Writing that sermon was the most fun I’ve had writing in a while. Now I just gotta figure out how to do the same thing with everything I write.