The Preacher’s Weekly Offering

Teri McDowell Ott, in her insightful reflection in a June issue of Christian Century, “Firm Ground for Ministry: Between the ego’s demands and the urge to hide”, set me to pondering, once again, the mysterious anomaly of preaching. From the earliest days of the church, preaching, proclamation of Gospel has been at the heart of Christian witness and community. Sometimes preaching has been, and is today, eclipsed and overshadowed by liturgy, administrative demands, pastoral responsibilities, and contemporary cultural preferences and practices. Yet, in my mind, it remains at the center of things. Three years after retiring and, learning to live without the rhythm and weekly demand of preaching, I am still pondering the mystery of it.

Teri Ott, with integrity and eloquence, describes not only the pre-sermon nervousness the preacher feels, but also the exhilaration when it is over. We are so invested intellectually, emotionally, and physically that preachers, including this one, are notorious for Sunday afternoon exhaustion and napping. After an effective preaching event “I feel magnetic”, Ott confesses, “soaring on the preacher’s high.” The preacher greets the people after worship and Ott says, employing an unforgettable image, “My ego continues to lap up kudos like a thirsty dog at the water bowl”. Honest preachers know exactly what she means. It is intoxicating. It can be addictive. It can also tear the soul out of a faithful ministry.

What a mystery. I love the way Barbara Brown Taylor describes her vocational decision: “Being a priest seemed only slightly less dicey to me than being chief engineer at a nuclear plant. In both cases, one needed to know how to approach great power without loosing great danger and getting fried in the process.” (Leaving Church, A Memoir of Faith, Harper, p.31) The pastor lives and works close to the heat: the passion, tragedy, exultation, the pain, loss and indescribable joy of human life. People invite us into their lives at a level not accessible to anyone else. They tell us things they tell no one else, things we must never tell anyone, even a spouse, things we carry around in our hearts the rest of our lives. They call us when they lose their job or a spouse dies. They come to see us to tell us that sex is no longer interesting, that they can’t believe in God any longer, that their teen-age daughter is doing cocaine. They come to us to bury their loved ones and marry their children. They want us at their bedside when they are critically ill. They invite us into the most intimate space in all of life – the time when it comes to an end. They tell us they love our preaching so much they turn us into addicts, hooked on post-worship compliments, and they devastate us with criticism when we are most vulnerable. They watch our families and discuss our compensation. They know what kind of car we drive and where we go on vacation. And, remarkably, they not only allow us into their lives, they come week after week and sit quietly and listen to us talk. If there is a more astonishing fact and more unlikely honor than that, I cannot imagine what it might be.

Teri Ott wonders if she will know “if my ministry is shape-shifting into being more about me than the people I serve, the word I preach, or about the God who honored me with this position in the first place.” Simply to ask the question is, of course, a kind of answer. The preacher lives in the tension between the temptations of ego and the call to self-emptying and self-giving in the service of the Gospel and the people, and should place a copy of Ott’s penetrating question where she/he can see it every single day.

Retired clergy are sometimes asked if we miss our work. The answer, for most of us is, “of course”. I’m not sure there is another profession where personal identity and sense of self is so mixed up with the work we do. What I miss most, I have discovered, is not so much the preaching itself but the preparing, the rhythm, the demand and discipline. We develop a weekly routine, most of us do: Bible study, historical, theological, literary research, making connections between the text and life. Text leads to serious biblical inquiry which leads to what the theologians have said which leads to literature, poetry and the daily newspaper. I now know that it was my spiritual discipline, my devotions, in addition to the work of preparing. As I worked I thought, struggled, wrestled, prayed in desperation, sometimes with tears in my eyes at the profundity and beauty of what I was reading and pondering. And I now conclude that the sermon, weak, flawed and so very human, is the preacher’s weekly offering to God, the work of our hands which the Psalmist suggested, God just might prosper. (Psalm 90)

Comments

  1. Just yesterday, I was remembering how you and Dana visited me in the hospital after my mastectomy. I was in pain, scared and my faith was shaken.
    When you came to visit, I had overwhelming feeling that all would be well and felt well enough to go cocktail party that night and 9 years later still feeling blessed.
    It is a gift to have minister with insight, compassion and integrity.
    Lives are forever changed and we are inspired to go and do likewise.
    Xo!

  2. Carole Ogden says:

    What a privilege it was to come each Sunday and hear the fruits of your labor and devotion. It has had an effect on my spiritual self that will remain always. Words of appreciation are inadequate to describe the peace of faith with which I was gifted.

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