Saturday, January 16, 2010

Labor, Art or Sacrament? - Lessons from a Year of Preaching (Part 1)

I am preparing a post on lessons I have learned from my first year of regular preaching.[1] The first point, however, kind of spun out of control and became its own post. The second has too. So I have decided to make it into a series. Here it Part 1.

The first major question that emerged as I struggled to produce frequent, quality, pulpit content was one of taxonomy. What was it, precisely, that I was doing? Was it a labor, an art or a sacrament? Unsurprisingly, the answer is yes. But it is a result I am still coming to terms with.

At the heart of this categorization is the question: “To what extent is the effort expended correlated with the outcome?” It is pretty clear that in most cases, preaching quality has a strong functional relationship with preparatory effort expended.[2] To this extent, it is a labor. Work produces results. But the infuriating part is that effort is not fully predictive. In other labors I engage in, be it programming, engineering projects, chores, exercise, studies or even a backpacking trip[3], the effort expended is strongly predictive of the quality of the result. But I gave talks that required 20 hours of prep that were better than talks I sunk 60 hours into.

In this way preaching feels like an art. While most great artists are extremely disciplined individuals,[4] it is the field where effort seems least correlated with effectiveness. One thing I have heard creatives of all kinds talk about is the capricious and fragile nature of the creative process. When it is there, it is there and when it is gone, there is no amount of work you can do to retrieve it. They live in constant fear that they will wake up the next morning and it will be gone. They don’t exactly know what has generated the creative gift and so they have no promise that it will continue. It is a fearsome and tenuous existence. I experienced some of these same feelings in the pursuit of excellent preaching. The main difference is that I can talk to mysterious source of inspiration who joins his power to my effort to determine the efficacy of the outcome.[5] And in that way, preaching is a sacrament.[6]

In, Imagine: A Vision for Christians and the Arts, Steve Turner said, “The power of effective preaching isn’t a question of art.” It was a disappointing statement in an otherwise very good book. To relegate creativity as the image of God to the musicians and fine artists, we impoverish our imaginations about what preaching could be. But Turner’s basic point has some weight. Preaching is, at least in some ways, a mystical sacrament. I expend rigorous labor and creative effort in the preparation process to honor God’s self disclosure (the Scriptures) and attempt to make it culturally clear. But there is a sense in which I would not expect effort to be strongly correlated with outcome.

I am, after all, participating in a gift. The tools are not mine. The raw materials are not mine. The primary passion is not mine. The results should not be mine. By my evaluation, my best outing last year came in a week that I felt underprepared.[7] Some would use this as an excuse to put less effort into the preparation. This would be an error…a kind of ‘convenient calvinism[8]’ that disregards God’s proclivity for inhabiting human efforts. And it is worth noting that while success is not highly correlated with effort, dismal failure IS highly correlated with lack of effort.

But there is a sense in which I would find it offensive if the success of this endeavor was a deterministic predictive function of effort. If preaching is something I can simply learn how to do and then bang out like spread sheets and journal articles, it becomes self refuting. Only in its laborious, creative, sacramental form, where there is genuine terror but there is also divine access, can it really be a conduit of the transcendent.

This post was prepared while listening to Fall/Winter by Jon Foreman
[1] Though I am well into my second year, so I might have to change the name.
[2] This, of course, is not universally believed. I served under a youth pastor for a while who believed that evidence of a teaching gift was the ability to teach on any topic with no notice. This, however, demonstrates insufficient esteem for the scriptures or respect for the listeners, in my opinion.
[3] And, to some extent, even relationships.
[4] This is one of the myths of ‘the arts.’ Shiftless bohemians use ‘the arts’ as an excuse for aimless reflection and dabbling. But the vast majority of artists I have heard describe their work describe a life of discipline, order, regularity, and long, long hours. I applied to colleges as an art major with the vision of a life of leisure in front of me. But good art is some of the hardest work out there.
[5] Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of all time, puts this well: “None are so able to plead with men as those who have been wrestling with God on their behalf…Most preachers who depend upon God’s Spirit will tell you that their freshest and best thoughts are not those which were premeditated, but ideas which come to them (in prayer), flying as on the wings of angels; unexpected treasures brought on a sudden by a celestial hands, seeds of the flowers of paradise, wafted from a mountain of myrrh.” Lectures to My Students (p45)
[6] I can’t help it…one more Spurgeon quote: “All our libraries and studies are mere emptiness compared with our closets…If you dip your pens into your hearts, appealing in earnestness to the Lord, you will write well: and if you can gather your matter on your knees at the gate of heaven, you will not fail to speak well.” (p43)
[7] Though, paradoxically, it was the week I had spent the most time preparing for.
[8] Which is far more like Gnosticism than and form of robust Calvinism.


steve said...

cool thoughts Stanford. Question (I am serious here). How do you find time for all of this? Between work, classes, reading, preparing, other events that take time i.e., church, college life, soccer, etc. when and how do you make time for your family and friends? I always want to read more, reflect more, study more, but where is the time? I have thought for some time that you are a robot, but this cant be true, i am sure. please give some insight.

Dave Everson said...

I love this comment: "The main difference is that I can talk to mysterious source of inspiration who joins his power to my effort to determine the efficacy of the outcome. And in that way, preaching is a sacrament."

There is an approach to creating art that would say the same thing. In fact, as I read and re-read your post, the distinction between preaching and art became less and less clear. My hunch is that you don't give your sermon writing enough credit as artistry, and that maybe you don't give traditional artists enough credit as sermon-writers. Does God inhabit the human effort of artistic expression differently than he inhabits the human effort of sermon writing? (I hope that doesn't come off as an attack. I can be terribly blunt, even as I'm trying to be encouraging.)

Also, your description of the dread that artists experience when they consider the loss of the creative gift brought to mind the dread of Christians who fear a return of the "dark night of the soul." Having known the dryness and despair of both, I think they are more similar than they are distinct (although I could never claim to be a particularly disciplined artist or Christian.)

stanford said...


...if i had a nickel for every time someone accused me of being a robot...I think I'd be up to a nickel.

That is pretty funny. Mostly I think the answer to your question is that my wife isn't currently working outside the home and is personally invested in most of the things I do. She makes them happen by protecting my time and keeping my life in order. I am left with a relatively narrow set of things I have to think about. But I have a few other principles that I have found helpful.

1. I got this from my friend Tiffany in Grad School: wherever I am and whatever I am doing, I try to be totally there. I try not to let work or ministry bleed into family time and Amanda and I try to protect my study time, so when I am doing that, it is undistracted.

2. This might seem like a competing principal, but I seldom do one thing at once. I listen to MP3's while I’m in the lab, while I exercise or while I drive. I investigate music while I write talks. The explosion of free, quality, mp3 content on the web (I'll do a post on this sometime) has revolutionized my study life. Since MP3 players are ~$10 now, I have several: one loaded with theology classes, one loaded with classic I can easily pick up where I left off with whichever I am in the mood for.

3. Because my interests are so diverse, doing one is 'rest' or 'Sabbath' from the other. So I generally get 8 productive hours in on weekends during kids’ naps...but consider it rest because it is fundamentally different than what I do during the week and, truly what I want to be doing.

4. I keep an ideas journal and try to capture 90% of the ideas I generate. Dan accused me of having 'a particularly fecund mind' yesterday. I don't think that is true. I suspect that I just have a process for capturing a high percentage of my imaginative production and then review and categorize it later.

5. I generally write over long periods of time. Right now I am preparing 3 talks and have a dozen or so blog posts or essays in various states of completion. I find that I am good for about 3 quality sentences or ideas on a given topic a day (though rarely I will find 'the zone' and pump out a few pages). So I try to write and study a little every day on several topics. If I start far enough in advance, I can write based on what strikes me rather than what is urgent. My second 'what I learned from preaching' post will be mostly about this process.


...I think you are so right. Preachers would benefit from viewing their task as art in addition to sacrament and artists would benefit from seeing their task as sacrament in addition to art. Part of the problem you are sensing is that the sacred-secular split is mostly artificial.