Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American essayist and lecturer, was quoted as saying, “ ‘I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to go to church no more.’ ” Emerson complained that the preacher in question had never learned to convert life into truth. “ ‘There was not a hint in all the discourse that he had ever lived at all.’ ”1
I have always been a writer. I had my first written work published when I was 21. Fast-forward about 30 years to the fall of 2010, when I became a full-time pastor. Suddenly I was speaking to large gatherings every week. I realized that there was a difference between words on paper and those given voice, but I knew it as technical knowledge. I had not had the opportunity to explore the distinction personally and regularly under the pressure of a listening congregation.
A different world
The Hebrew for “word” (dabar) means both “word” and “event.” The distance between page and voice is more than that between theory and practice—it is a different world. Walter Ong illustrates this when he comments that written words are residue: “When an often-told story is not actually being told, all that exists of it is the potential in certain human beings to tell it.”2
Writers have a certain orientation to the world: that of an observer and exegete. They develop a distinct cadence and style as they stand reflectively on the edge of experience, their own and that of others. Taking what was embodied, they translate it into poetic form with texture and cadence. In the process, they freeze reality with words—their palette is language itself. James K. A. Smith talks about the writer’s vocation like this: “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.”3
Texture and subtleties
All writers have an intimate relationship with language and words. Depending on their worldview, they can use language to illuminate and explore. A Christian writer’s aim, such as a pastor’s, is to make the broken world whole, to reconnect it to the life of God. They enter the mystery of God and the world and invite their readers along on the adventure. Anne Lamott notes that writing and reading “deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. . . . It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”4
Such is the texture of the art, one with all the subtleties of music composition. As I began to explore the world of communication and language as a speaker, I started 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. Preaching calls us to transform ink back into blood. Embodiment is at the heart of the effort. I came to recognize this as I began to wrestle with language and metaphor in a new way. And I sensed the near hovering of the Spirit as I struggled and explored.
Learning from other preachers
About halfway through my first year as a preacher, I came across Clayton Schmit’s article “Preaching Is Real Performance Art.” He identified 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? As I listened to other preachers, I began focusing on something new. I paid attention to how they used inflection and tone. I watched to see how their bodies either added to or detracted from the message. Especially, I waited for the poetic sensibility—how the metaphors added color and richness and how the beauty of a phrase evoked an image or feeling.
And I listened a lot for feeling. When feeling is authentic and rooted naturally in the story being told, it connects with the audience in a way that reproduces the world of the speaker. At their best, preachers re-enchant the world with their stories, reconnecting truth and beauty. Such moments are sacramental: a visible and invisible world meet, and the veil is lifted. Suddenly the Word is not only proclaimed but also performed. 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 is more than] delivery. . . . To truly understand performance requires a theological understanding of human responsibility in the equation of incarnation.”5
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 intellect and affections. Performance requires that the whole person appears for the congregation, but not to draw attention to self—rather, at the service of the Word. Embodied emotion is critical: we know we are meeting the whole person when they present themselves 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 rendering embodiment impossible. Though such skills can be learned, yet that still is not the whole picture. The role of the Holy Spirit remains mysterious to me. Although we can invoke the Spirit, His work is His own. And like the wind, we do not know where He is going, yet we long to see the effect: the presence of the Spirit as Guide, hovering over the congregation, directing the preacher, sovereignly witnessing to the Word.
Proclamation and performance belong together, much like Word and Spirit. The preacher’s real platform is their own person and the life they have lived. The art of preaching requires embodiment, transforming words to life, storying the world so that others can enter in. The final goal is complex and even beyond our power: that our listeners might behold the beauty of God and His world and be changed. Let the beauty we love be what we do!
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.6
- Clayton Schmit, “Preaching Is Real Performance Art,” Christianity Today, May 23, 2011, https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2011/spring/preachingperformance.html.
- Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London, UK: Routledge, 1982), 11.
- James K. A. Smith, “Attention to Craft: Towards Being a ‘Writer,’ ” fors clavigera (blog), March 16, 2011, http://forsclavigera.blogspot.com/2011/03/.
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York, NY: Anchor, 1995), 237.
- Schmit, “Preaching.”
- Rumi: The Book of Love, trans. Coleman Barks (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), 123.