Walking Backwards to Christmas: Some Thoughts

imageJust finished reading this brilliant book by Bishop Stephen Cottrell. The cover bills it “The must-read book for the season” and the book is dedicated, in the author’s own words, to “all those who thought they knew the story well”. I’m guessing Bible-reading, book-loving vicars fall into that category, but, in any case, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on this reading experience.

In an intriguing twist on the familiar biblical narrative, the book begins with Anna, and runs, chronologically-speaking, more or less backwards to Isaiah the prophet and Moses. Along the way we hear the voices – eleven in total – of some of those caught up in this story we revisit each Christmas-time. Some are the characters we would expect to find here: Mary and Joseph, one of the wise men and a shepherd. But others are voices whose detail the author has had to create from the wider scriptures and their context. In doing so, I would say he has created entirely plausible characters, who add depth and new or different insights to the familiar story.

In his introduction, Stephen Cottrell suggests the book is best read alone, but that it also lends itself to group discussion after the solo read. To aid discussion, he offers his readers three prompt questions:

Which person in the story did you most relate to?

For me, it wasn’t so much relating to one particular person more than the others, as connecting with insights from particular thoughts or moments in their individual stories.

What surprised, shocked or delighted you the most?

Each story was a delight – I enjoyed them all. There are some shockingly dark and gruesome moments portrayed here, but I felt it was good to be reminded that Jesus’ birth wasn’t the pastel-coloured perfection we often depict it as. And there were surprises on each and every page – those small insights, fresh thoughts or unusual angles I’d never considered before.

How has this changed your understanding of the Christmas story?

It added real depth to the people whose story it is. And the book also reminded me how diverse people’s experiences of Jesus can be. Both of these are good things for a vicar to bear in mind as she prepares to tell the story again this Christmas-time.

First time preacher: John the Baptist

“So, how about you preach at the next training weekend?”

We’re now more than seven years on from the moment when my colleague floored me with this question on an otherwise normal afternoon in the diocesan training office where we both worked, and yet I can still feel the horror that ran through me in that moment! “Me? Preach? But I’ve never preached before, and I don’t know how to.”

“I know,” she said, “but I think you’d be great. Anyway, you don’t have to decide right this minute!”

Long story short . . . ten weeks later I was the preacher at the Advent Eucharist (Holy Communion) at that residential training weekend.  And, just as it was this last Sunday, the Gospel reading that day was the story of John the Baptist.

Nowadays, I preach every week.  Some Sundays I do what I did this past weekend: at the morning service I did the all-age nativity service talk with lively and excited pre-Christmas children,  barely able to sit still and certainly not able to keep quiet for two minutes.  So I broke the talk up into lots of mini-sections with lots of movement and action inbetween.  In the evening, I went back to church to preach a more typical and more traditional monologue-style  sermon on Isaiah at the much smaller and much more traditional service of Evening Worship.  And I didn’t have ten weeks to prepare for either of them.

But whenever this Sunday of Advent rolls around, and John the Baptist reappears in all his locust, honey and camel-hair splendour – threatening fire and brandishing his winnowing fork – I am reminded of that first Advent sermon, of the day I became a preacher. So, how did it happen?  How does a brand new preacher prepare for their first ever sermon?  Well, I can’t, of course, speak for all preachers everywhere, but what follows is my how-to-start-preaching summary based on that terrifying first-time experience of my own.

Step one: pray!  Okay, so that’s every other step along the way too.  But I’m a vicar, so you probably guessed I’d say that and you might be thinking a ‘how-to’ list on Christian preaching doesn’t need to state something so obvious.  But the command still stands.  Before you do anything else, stop and pray!  And while you’re working on the sermon, do so prayerfully – you could even stop and pray intentionally now and again – and that doesn’t only have to be when you’re staring at a blank screen and you can’t think of anything at all to say! And when it’s done you can prayerfully offer it all back to God and start praying about the delivery. Oh, and while you’re at it, pray for those who are going to have to listen to it – that they might actually hear God speaking through the words you’ve managed to come up with.

And so, prayerfully, I began my two and a half months of preparation.  I read and re-read the biblical text, I imagined myself into it; I read commentaries and bible encyclopaedias and other reference books for information I couldn’t have known for myself.  I even checked out New Testament Greek insights when I hardly knew a word of New Testament Greek. In short, I embarked on a long and thorough process of careful research, analysis of the text, a review of the literature written by others – oh, and did I mention – an awful lot of prayer?  I drafted the sermon, and then I re-drafted it, again and again, still making minor tweaks to it an hour or so before the service began.  I practised delivering the text I had prepared, over and over – it was fully scripted, but I could easily have delivered the whole thing from memory on the day.  I preached it to a congregation of one – my husband – to test it out, and I took on board all of his feedback too.  And I’m still amazed it ever happened at all.

You see, I’ve never been at my best up-front in the public gaze (even if it was only a friendly and supportive congregation of 30 or so ordinands – all themselves in training for ordained ministry, many of them still preaching novices themselves). I was never, shall we say, the most forthcoming or socially interactive of children, and I remained painfully shy until well into early adulthood. Standing up to deliver any kind of monologue in front of a group of people was never my forte and would never have seemed like the best career choice for someone like me. And yet, my love of learning had driven me to find my way into the world of adult education.  So, although I was a novice preacher that morning, I was, by then, an experienced teacher.  That meant I was at least used to standing up and speaking to a group of people gathered in front of me.  But it didn’t explain away how sick I felt, nor the nerves and shaking that consumed me as I waited for my moment at the lectern.

I had been on such a steep learning curve to reach that moment of fear and helplessness that Advent Sunday morning.  Hours and hours at my desk in careful thought, seeking to craft words that made sense and frequently crying out to God in the madness of it all.  I felt so inadequate.  I had so little self-confidence that I could actually prepare and deliver a sermon.  But I persevered.  And I did that because, in the deepest part of me, I sensed it wasn’t my colleague who was asking me to do it, but God himself.  And I knew then, and have come to understand far better since, that, without God’s calling, my own efforts – however thorough – wouldn’t have been worth very much at all on their own.

Preachers reading this will by now, I imagine (I hope!), be nodding vigorously.  Wannabe preachers who sense it’s what they’re called to do but are yet to prepare and preach their first sermon might also connect with what I’m saying here about that sense of God’s calling.  Christians reading this who don’t feel it’s their own call to preach, but who sit through sermons every week, might at least find it encouraging that we preachers do feel called by God to that ministry.  They might even be interested in how preaching happens, what it feels like, and how that initial calling becomes lived out in the sermons prepared and preached each week.  If you don’t share my Christian faith, you might simply be interested in finding out how it is we preachers go about creating the ‘boring sermon’ slot so many think (or actually experience) church to be.  Or it may be that I’ve just turned you off this post completely because preaching just isn’t your thing and you’re not interested in how it came to be my thing (or anyone else’s either).  Or perhaps the title of this post misled you into believing you’d be reading about the wonderfully weird and wacky John the Baptist, and learning to preach isn’t what you came looking for here.

So, for anyone still with me, and interested in a little more detailed guidance, here’s what I did after I got up off my knees in that first prayer.

imageFirst of all, I read a book.  It was a superb ‘how to preach’ book that I would still recommend to any and every beginner: A Preaching Workbook by David Day.  And from this detailed workbook (and one or two others), I compiled my own checklist of questions:

  • What’s the passage about (create a list of the events, characters and issues)?
  • What can I see, hear, taste, touch, or smell?
  • What are the characters thinking or feeling?
  • What is God saying to me through this passage?
  • What’s the literary form of the text?
  • What’s the context (list what’s going on in the preceding/following chapters)?
  • What’s being said in the key speeches and who’s speaking?
  • Is there any authoritative narrative here and, if so, what do we learn from it?
  • Are there any repetitions?
  • What sort of plot progress or direction is there here?
  • What is the text trying to do?
  • What insights are there from the Hebrew or Greek of this passage?
  • Find the surprise (what jolts us out of our complacency in this passage)?
  • Where am I standing in this text?
  • What specific questions does the passage ask of me (list them all)?
  • What’s the main point of the passage?
  • Where is the passage going?
  • Where or How does the passage connect with the world today?
  • What human need does this passage address?
  • Where’s the problem with it (any objections/anything difficult to accept)?
  • What does that all mean for me (what’s the relevance, yes but, so what)?

Yes, I know, it’s a very long list of questions! Sometimes it seems too daunting to me to plough through them all, but I almost always do.  Over the years I’ve stuck with this list and it’s pretty much unchanged from when I first put it together.  Sometimes I hesitate to use it, stupidly thinking I just don’t have enough time to answer all these questions, because I need to get the sermon written pretty damn quick! But it is always time well spent.  I think that’s because the depth of engagement with the text, its context, and also with the context into which it will be preached today all combine to bring new insights and perspectives.  As a ‘system’, it’s not a quick-fix, but it’s never yet let me down.

Once I’ve worked through the whole checklist, I try and leave it a while – a day or two at least if time allows.  And then I return to re-read both the bible passage and the answers scribbled all over the checklist.  Oh yes, I forgot to mention, this is still a pen and paper job for me – the questions are printed on two sides of a single sheet of A4 and I cover it in notes and extra annotations and quotes and references and ideas from commentaries and other sources too.

As I revisit the bible reading and my earlier notes, I try to do so with a sense of what I feel prompted to focus on and to include only what seems important in that moment.  And then I write.

Some preachers just jot down a few notes or a list of bullet points.  I tend to write a fairly full script though I don’t always preach it in its entirety.  But, for me, writing a full script helps me to feel the flow of the sermon from its introduction right through to its conclusion.  Also, I often preach in a narrative style.  And this style, more than any other, demands very careful use of well-chosen words and phrases.  That’s something I would find difficult to manage if I was working from just a few notes jotted down, and I rarely have enough time for the luxury of committing it all to memory.  Writing a full script also helps me to avoid repetition and waffle.  Having a full script in front of me means I avoid awkward moments mid-sermon of trying to think what it was I wanted to say about that point I’ve noted down.  There is much debate among preachers about notes versus full-text preaching.  This works for me and I’m happy if notes alone work for you.

So, that’s my ‘how-to’ for first-time preachers.  Preaching remains part and parcel of church life across all denominations and traditions, whatever name is given to the resulting output (sermon, homily, talk etc).  And, if you’re going to have a slot in a church service when someone preaches, then you have to have a preacher.  And for every preacher, there will always be a ‘first ever sermon’.  I hope this guide might help any feeling the way I did when asked to preach that first time.  And I hope it might also help all those of us who feel called to preach to reflect on how we undertake this ministry of great privilege and huge responsibility.  It’s important that, however we prepare ourselves, we need to do so in a way that will help us bring God’s Word to these people he’s called us to serve, in this place, at this time – each and every time we’re called to do so.

So, how about you? How do you prepare for preaching? Or what would you do differently from me if you were asked to preach for the first time?

Just ten – Exodus 16

So the challenge is to freewrite for exactly ten minutes – not a minute more and not a minute less. Sometimes I love freewriting and I use it to sort all the big bundle of thoughts messing up my head in that moment. But I would never, ever hit publish having done a freewrite and no editing. So this could be interesting if I follow the rules of the game. The most obvious thing to write about is what I’ve just been doing because it’s really got me thinking.  I’ve spent the last couple of hours looking in detail at the Exodus reading I’ll be preaching my sermon from on Sunday.  It’s a reading that comes just after the event we call the Exodus (Moses and his big stick raised, God parting the waters, and the Israelites safely escaping to the other side before the Egyptians get drowned as the waters crash back in).  The great escape of the Old Testament, God’s rescue of his people still celebrated in the Passover festival in Jewish tradition. But Sunday’s reading is a little bit further on in the story – the second month after the big rescue – and the people of Israel are complaining – complaining a lot – because there’s not enough food and they wish they’d stayed back as slaves in Egypt after all, or been mown down by one of the plagues that got the Egyptians while they were still there.  Far better that, they complain, than being dragged out into the wilderness by their wonderful leaders, Moses and Aaron, to die of starvation. Of course, whenever any of us reads anything, we read it from our own perspective.  The Exodus is the great narrative of both Jewish tradition and is the essence of liberation theology in 20th Century Christian tradition.  I read this narrative here today in my sunny office (yes, sunny in Manchester) as a church leader.  Of course there’s a whole lot more to my identity than my role as Rector, but that’s the main reason why I’m reading this Bible extract this afternoon – because the congregation expects a sermon on Sunday (whether they want one or not is quite a different question) – there’d be at least surprise and shock, and, believe it or not, possibly even complaints if I didn’t preach one.  Yes, really! So, what has my afternoon of study shown me – what is God’s message in this text, for these people, in the parishes where I minister, on this coming Sunday?  Well, now there’s a question and my ten minutes are up . . . ! [Talk about out of my comfort zone! Ten minutes of freewriting, a couple of minutes correcting typos and putting in a bit of punctuation here and there and I’m about to hit ‘publish’ – unthinkable but true – this blogging thing is changing me!]