Recovering the Sermon Pt. 3: The Sermon As A Work of Art
This is the third installment of the blog series that I am doing--recapping a recent preaching workshop I facilitated, and adding a bit of content to what I shared then.
Today, we're going to explore what it means when we say that the sermon is a "work of art."
To begin with, there is a loneliness to the act of creation--at least at the outset. I think all artists experience this. At least in the first stages of creation the idea, the dream, the imagery, the vision of what is to be created exists only in the mind of the artist. And more often than not, the ideas, dreams, etc. may not be all that fully formed.
I think the loneliness we feel at this stage of creation is our own finite taste of what caused God to create to begin with--a desire for connection, to see see our creation live, breathe, move, appear. The desire to create is powerful, and so the loneliness we often feel in those early moments can be powerful as well.
Which is how it should be. The preacher should care deeply about what she is about to preach. It should matter to the point that the desire to create what comes next is very nearly overwhelming.
"...the reason why you are supposed to care about [the sermon] is so you can help other people start caring about [the sermon]..." - Rob Bell
The moment that it becomes a chore that must be done in order to get through the week, or to go on to the next task is the moment the sermon has ceased to be a work of art--ceased to be work at all. Further, at the moment the sermon ceases to be art, it becomes mundane, pedestrian and altogether uninteresting.
So loneliness in the beginning of creation serves to stir the preacher to action--the fire in the belly, so to speak. This fire helps the preacher shift from seeing his task as one where he has to say something to one within which he has something to say.
It's at this point that we need to pay attention to the details--because they matter.
"Everything about your life affects what you are making." - Rob Bell
I remember when I was attending one of the CraftLab workshops with Rob Bell that he spent a great deal of time talking about how important your work space was when you are creating. "The details matter," he told us. He encouraged us to think about what was on our desks, to ask if they were cluttered, to think about what photos were on them, what books you surrounded yourself with as you wrote, or thought or sermonized.
As I write this right now I am at the kitchen table in my house, looking out over a beautiful patio full of plants and color. The sun is shining just right through the trees and I can see the sparkle of a lake in the distance. The table is clear except for a book by N.T. Wright, I am reading, my glasses, a pen and my phone. There's an old key card from our recent stay at a hotel lying there that is actually bothering me. I don't like clutter when I work.
More often than not, I find myself surrounded by clutter, though. I recently did a huge purge of my desk area in my office, which is where I do a lot of writing. I like to look at things that interest me, photos of family, portraits of people who inspire me.
Believe it or not, I have all of my seminary degrees and awards displayed just opposite of my desk. You'd think that I'd have them where parishoners, or people who I am counseling would see them, but they are only in my line of sight. I guess I set it up that way so I could remind myself I am somewhat qualified to do whatever it is that I am doing. The lighting has to be good, too--soft lamps to beat back the glare of fluorescence.
I also enjoy writing at my local Starbucks. There is something about the smell and taste of coffee that stirs my creative juices. I tend to put in my headphones, though, and listen to music if I am writing at Starbucks--mellow, mostly instrumental stuff from bands like God Is An Astronaut or Hammock.
I also try to maintain a schedule to my writing and sermonizing, although it gets interrupted from time to time with pastoral duties. I have particular days when I study and take notes from Scripture and commentaries, another day when I work on my outline and the narrative, and still another when I'll put finishing touches, work on the flow of the worship services and make whatever last changes I need to make.
Gustave Flaubert once wrote, "Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work." I rather like that quote.
"To be generous, you have to take really good care of yourself." - Rob Bell
The above quote was part of a larger conversation about self-care and how it affects your work. In particular as it relates to your ability to resist boredom and cynicism.
Boredom is when you lose the urge to make things, when you don't find it interesting any longer. Cynicism is when you don't think that anything new can be made or if it is made that it will be destroyed.
The moments when I have struggled the most to resist boredom and cynicism have been when I am stretched too thin emotionally, physically and spiritually. When I am exhausted or have gone too long without a day off--I can far too quickly become weary of sermonizing, uninterested in giving it all that I have.
Or when I feel frustrated, attacked or unappreciated it's altogether too easy to become cynical about what I am doing--and decide it's probably not worth it.
When I am being "regular and orderly" in my life, however, it makes a difference in how I view what I am creating. When I am managing stress, resting as I should and being real about my critics, I am able to stay focused on the joy of creating, writing and sermonizing.
It's in these moments that I also find myself thinking more globally about what I'm about to preach. While it may begin with my own interest, and desire to say something--the sermon should eventually become less about what I desire to say, and more about what I desire others to hear.
The preacher who gets to this place in the sermonizing process should find themselves asking, "What can I create each week that my people will want to stick on the wall of their cubicle?" Or in other words, "Is what I am about to say going to make an impact? Will it be memorable? Relevant?"
At this point, the preacher might actually find himself/herself ready to write, create, outline or story board the sermon. In our next entry, we're actually going to be talking about all of these forms of sermonization---so stay tuned.