Clayton Schmit writes,
“I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to go to church no more.”
“Nearly any churchgoer could have said this, and in nearly any period of history. But in this case the listener was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist and lecturer (1803-1882). He went on to explain that “the capital secret of [the preacher’s] profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned … there was not a surmise, a hint in all the discourse that he had ever lived at all.”
“We have all heard preachers with that problem. Their sermons employ an artificial set of communication skills divorced from ordinary human life. These preachers assume that the purpose of the exegesis they learned in seminary is to spring-load sermons with technical data that will impress and subdue listeners. Or they spend all their time working on what to say and no time at all on how to say it.”
In the fall of 2010 I became a full time pastor. I had been an elder, and a teacher, and a mentor. I had been a published writer since turning 21. I had functioned as a pastor in the lives of many, but never had I occupied the formal role of a teaching pastor. Suddenly I was teaching in large gatherings twice a month. I knew there was some distance to be covered between words on paper and words given voice, but I hadn’t had opportunity to explore the difference so regularly and so personally.
A writer has a special relationship with language and words. Depending on his or her worldview, language is used to illumine, to explore, to make holy, and to make whole: to connect things that have been disconnected. James K.A. Smith talks about the writer’s vocation here:
“…You will know you’re on your way to being a writer when you have a love/hate relationship with language: when you can be either thrilled or vexed by the cadence of a sentence or turn of phrase–when you can’t quite leave the paragraph on which you’re laboring because there’s a tic of timing that’s driving you mad. Or when you begin to consider the force of a sentence in terms of its ability to move rather than prove. In sum, you’ll know you’ve become a writer when you consider the sheer play of language to be a country to which you’d gladly emigrate..”
Such is the texture of the art, an art with all the subtleties of painting or making music. As I began to explore the world of communication and language as a speaker, I began to reflect on the difference between the voice and the page. T.S. Eliot said the purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink. In speaching, we’re called to turn ink back into blood. Embodiment is key. I sensed this as I began to wrestle with language and metaphor in a new way. And I sensed the prompting and leading of the Holy Spirit as I wrestled and explored.
About half way through the first year, I came across the article linked above. Clayton identified some of the tensions I was encountering. How much can I share personally before my story gets in the way? How can I not share personally if the Gospel is about participation and incarnation? I was still listening to other preachers, but I was listening for something new. I listened to see how they used inflection and tone. I watched to see how their bodies either added to, or detracted from the message. I listened for the poetic sensibility – how the metaphors added color and richness, and how the beauty of a phrase emphasized this image, or that feeling.
And I listened a lot for feeling, because when feeling is authentic and rooted naturally in the story being told, it connects with the listener in a way that reproduces the world of the speaker. . At her best, the preacher re-enchants the world with her stories, reconnecting truth and beauty. These moments are sacramental: a visible and invisible world meet and the veil is lifted. Suddenly the word is not only proclaimed, it is performed. Clayton Schmit writes,
“In literal terms, the word performance means to bring a message through (per) a form. It is a tool for expression, not a means of drawing attention to the performer. Our suspicions of performance are based on a caricature of the real thing, a performance pathology.
“Ultimately, if the preacher’s words are to become the Word of life, they must be presented in a way that creates a world for listeners to inhabit. This has to do with delivery, but there is more. To truly understand performance requires a theological understanding of human responsibility in the equation of incarnation.”
The preacher must “create a world for listeners to inhabit,” and this requires incarnation: the embodiment of the word. We are created as whole beings: flesh and spirit – body, intellect and affections. Performance requires that the whole person appears for the congregation, at the service of the word. Embodied emotion is critical in this work: we know we are meeting the whole person when they are present to us emotionally.
Two of the most critical components of feeling in speech are pace and emphasis. Excessive speed makes emphasis difficult, damaging the integrity of the message and making embodiment impossible. But these skills can be learned. The role of the Holy Spirit remains mysterious to me. The Spirit can be invoked, but His work is His own. Yet what preacher has not felt the presence of the Spirit as her guide, hovering over the congregation, sovereignly witnessing to the Word.
Not long after writing this post I ran across a reference to a new book by Stratford Caldecott, titled “Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education.” Caldecott builds his argument from a Christian anthropology, which includes the telos of Christ. He builds around the classic Trivium: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. But the Trivium, Caldecott explains, is not so much a field of study or a subject as it is an essential preparation for all subsequent knowledge, the very foundation itself. In a review at the Englewood Review, they note that this is not a call to memorize Latin declensions or read Cicero or Homer, but rather the suggestion that the basis for knowledge and learning are located in the universal practices of Remembering, Thinking, and Speaking. Each is given its own chapter and situated at a particular point in the development of an educated person: “Caldecott’s broad and universal approach allows him ‘to emphasize that we are discussing the fundamental skills of humanity itself.'”
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Entering the Scriptural narrative with others means making the connection to the Big Story.