I knew that sabbatical would generate some deeply needed, overdue lessons for me and the first lesson struck me earlier than expected. I was in Nairobi, Kenya just a few days into sabbatical and was hit with it while preaching at an outdoor crusade.
Usually when I preach it is after a long time of study, reflection and prayer. I almost always come into a pulpit with much more material than I plan to use and because I believe in God’s Spirit’s leading as I’m preaching, I can draw from a simmer of options and directions, prompted (I believe) by God’s Spirit. But this time as I was preaching I reached for this pot of bubbling resources and found that not only was it empty, it wasn’t even there!
Now granted, an outdoor Kenyan crusade with an interpreter is a preaching challenge at the best of times. I have, at times, preached to more goats than people in Kenya, and once I even preached to people who were beating a goat which added to the challenge for me and for that poor goat. But this time the challenge was heightened by this overwhelming feeling of “there is nothing there.”
I preached the crusade message as best I could and when I wrapped up, the interpreter looked at me accusingly and said, “That’s it???” I tried not to laugh at the absurdity of it. Kenyans are incredibly polite to westerners, the message had to be pretty bad for him to offer that uninvited critique. It was pretty bad. So was the next one and the next. I preached 6 times in Kenya and didn’t find my rhythm until 4 sermons in. That’s a rough average by anyone’s measure.
It turns out I had turned the stove off and didn’t realize it. Actually, I hadn’t just turned the stove off, I’d dumped the water and put away the pot. In my defense at the time I didn’t realize there was a stove, or a pot. But I know now and I’m trying to wrestle with what to do about it.
It turns out I keep a pot of preaching water simmering on the stove all the time and when it is time to preach, I ask God to speak through or in spite of me (God is happy with either way, apparently.) I turn the heat up to get the boil going and off we go.
God’s Spirit plus a dose of adrenaline plus my constant, never-turn-the-water–off simmer of study and rumination.
I learned on Sabbatical just how much of my “off time” thinking is dedicated to the looming sermon. When I’m not preaching and even when I’m not preparing, rather than turn the stove off, or empty the pot and put it away, I keep it constantly simmering, 7 days per week. Even, say, on Sunday afternoon, the pot of water stays simmering because no matter what my week is like, or what has transpired the pulpit is looming with a deadline. This translates to some pretty psychotic behavior, like reading everything with one eye on a book and one on the pulpit, listening to podcasts for content that may help a sermon, watching the news for possible stories and even finding myself in personally embarrassing situations that I know could make a good sermon story sometime.
Normal people don’t think like that. Normal people just read for enjoyment or to learn, they watch the news to learn about the news, not for some other agenda. Normal people are embarrassed in embarrassing situations. But not a preacher – for better or worse we tend to add a layer to every experience and that layer is material for a sermon. One eye on the experience, one eye on the ever looming pulpit.
There are other ways the pot stays simmering too. After a while, a preacher’s entire thinking pattern adjusts to thinking sermonically which is to say our whole thinking pattern starts to resemble a sermon outline. Have you ever met a preacher who has trouble with simple dialogue? I’ve spent time with more than a few preachers who have been at it so long they don’t know how to dialogue anymore. They have been “on” so many years, they are “on” even in the wrong setting – like a casual chat over coffee. You don’t have dialogue with this kind of preacher, you get well crafted monologue, complete with the lesson at the end of the story. Its weird. When I first started preaching regularly, I made a vow not to become that person, but sabbatical has shown me how we’re all at risk of this if we keep the pot on the stove.
Sabbatical was a gift of relief from this. For the first time in over a decade, I watched news to learn about the news. I read to read. I listened to podcasts for their own enjoyment and it was wonderful. No one was looking to me for a theological thought. I could enjoy dozens of theological thoughts for their own end, not for anyone else. It was amazing. On Friday, September 2nd, I put the pot back on the stove. For the first time in 13 weeks, as I was reading, I paused to write down what I’d just read. It had triggered a thought in me that I knew would be helpful in a looming sermon. And here I am now with a little simmer going….
I’m not saying this is a bad thing, nor am I suggesting that only a preacher faces the pressure of ongoing deadlines. Please don’t mistake this for self pity, every vocation has its own struggles and challenges; this is simply one for a preacher.
Keeping a pot of water simmering 7 days per week is a poor use of energy. At the risk of stretching the metaphor, bringing a pot of water to boil should only take minutes of heat, but this constant trickle of heat was taking a toll and as I return to a regular deadline again, I’m interested in seeing if I can change this dynamic.
I suspect things will be different. After 9 years of being the primary voice in the pulpit, Discovery now has a wonderful associate pastor who preached a lot in my absence and we will share the pulpit, so my looming deadline will not circle around as often as it used to. But also, I learned that slowly over the years, my reading and listening time all became potential for sermon prep time. I need to reclaim sacred time that, even if I read something that would fit for a sermon, I refuse to use it. Balancing the simmer with the pure enjoyment of learning for my own learning. I’ll be interested to see how it goes.
Oh, and if I ever start monologuing over coffee, or if I ever talk to you where everything I say has points that start with the same letter, please, please hit me upside the head.