Let’s face it. Preachers can sometimes experience a good deal of pressure to get that next sermon ready.
Why We Sometimes Fail to Pray the Text
It is easy to hurriedly approach a sermon text asking, “Okay. What’s there to preach here?” We sometimes start by thinking about what we can say in the pulpit. In teaching an introductory preaching course, I find many students expect the whole course to be focused on what to say. They are often surprised to discover that much of the course is focused–not on talking–but on listening. At least half of good preaching is listening. One could argue it is the more important half.
The Importance of Praying the Text
T. S. Elliot once said, “The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.” He used “blood” as a metaphor for the life that great literature captures in printed words–ink marks on a page. Elliot’s comment applies to Scripture as well. When preachers hold a Bible in their hands, they hold nothing more than pages of ink. If the purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink, the purpose of preaching is to turn ink back into blood.
Preaching brings the ink of the text alive–makes it real. The goal of preaching is to hand on an experience of God. In order to hand on an experience, the preacher needs first to have had the experience. Therefore, no matter how much pressure we feel to get a sermon ready, no matter how little time we have to figure out what we will say–we do well to begin by spending some serious time listening.
Obviously, there are many ways to listen to a text. Ironically, one that many preachers confess that they find themselves skipping–often because of the time crunch–is prayer. The following are two very old forms of praying the text that continue to serve preachers well.
This is a slow, contemplative praying of Scripture that encourages listening deeply–to hear “with the ears of our hearts” as St. Benedict states in the Prologue to the Rule. It is a combination of reading (lectio), meditation, prayer, and contemplation.
Steps for practicing Lectio Divina:
1. Prepare. Get comfortable and become silent. Some people find it useful to focus on breathing; others focus on a “prayer word” or “prayer phrase” to become silent within.
2. Read. Read the text aloud slowly. Think of reading it “gently.” Listen for the “still small voice” of God that might be couched in a single word or phrase. Do not expect lightning bolts. It is about listening to what God has to say to you personally in this text. The reading is an invitation to enter more deeply into God’s presence.
3. Meditate. Select a word or phrase from the text. Repeat it slowly to yourself. Let your inner world of memories, thoughts, hopes, concerns, and desires interact with your selected word or phrase. (Don’t worry if you encounter distractions. Simply acknowledge the distraction and return to meditating.) The goal is to take your word or phrase into yourself; let it touch you and affect you at your deepest level.
4. Pray. Interact with God as you would with one who you know loves and accepts you. You can pray with words, ideas, images, or all three. Give God what you discovered in yourself during your meditation. (For example, you could hold up your most difficult and pain-filled experiences to God and then gently recite over them the healing word or phrase you selected.)
5. Contemplate. Simply rest in the presence of God. Let words go, and embrace silence. In so doing, let God embrace you. Anyone who has ever been in love knows there are moments in loving relationships when words are unnecessary.
Luther’s Four-Stranded Garland
When Martin Luther’s barber (and friend) asked him how to pray, Luther wrote a small treatise–A Simple Way to Pray for a Good Friend. Luther said prayer is like a garland of four twisted strands. Each strand is a question that we can ask of a text to better listen to what God might be saying to us. These are the four questions Luther recommended bringing to a text:
1. What is the teaching/meaning in the text for me?
2. What prayer of thanksgiving does this text prompt?
3. What confession or lament does this text evoke?
4. What prayer petition does this text prompt?
One of my homiletics colleagues, Mary Donovan Turner, uses a version of Luther’s Four-Stranded Garland with every text on which she preaches. Over time, she found it was helpful for her to add another question: Is there anything in this text that makes me afraid? Others have added a question regarding anger. You can use Luther’s questions as a beginning place and add additional questions of your own.
Words of Encouragement
When I was a young seminarian, Bill Beener (then the Chair of the Speech Department at Princeton Seminary) was a guest speaker at my seminary. He said five words regarding preaching that have stuck with me for over three decades. He said, “You can’t say nothing well.” It is my hope that his words will continue to encourage preachers to take time to pray the text–to listen prayerfully before even beginning to worry about what we are going to say.