Wednesday 28 March 2012

Dialogue, the Purpose of Preaching and the Toothless Walrus.

Recently I have been experimenting (prayerfully - I hope) with how I preach.

For me preaching is a life long journey, and with preaching comes the opportunity to experiment creatively, but also to break your back with false aspirations.

At times I have preached from full scripts.

At other times I have preached from scripts much more weighted in the style of popular theology books.


Sometimes I have preached using only three words as markers.

Markers in the sand. (OK, enough with the pop. theology style....
..... For now.)

Sometimes, when I haven't been able to prep a sermon and only have a post-it note to preach from I have felt like kicking myself.

But then, that's idolatry.

What matters is the motive, and the discernment, and the hope, and the prayer.

Recently I have been thinking through the interaction between blogs and preaching.

Occasionally I will post a sermon on this blog after I have preached.

I generally only do this if I have a full script written (if that's right or wrong, who knows, another question to contemplate).

But the point is, when do I post these blog sermons? Usually, after I have preached them in church.

And that's interesting, I did that by default. I do that by default.

I preach and then I post the preach.

But ultimately I want a dialogue about my sermons, about God. I want to talk to people about sermons. But by posting the sermons after the preach.
After they have happened. I naturally limit the dialogue.

In an ever moving culture especially a digital fast paced blogosphere (see how outdated that feels already, "blogosphere????") people move on to the next thing.
If I blog post a sermon I preached yesterday, why should I expect people to engage with it?

And if I want a person to person conversation (whatever that means) with a blog reader then it will always be after the preach has occurred. After the "final word" from the pulpit,  "six feet above contradiction" is preached.

Two things happen off the back of this:

1. the first is that a conversation partner's voice is always heard after a message is given to a wider audience in the act of preaching. Therefore, the discussion naturally becomes something of an addendum, or an appendix to the preach.

2. the second is that, as a preacher, I implicitly close myself down to being shaped by the input of others. Basically I present a, "yes I'd love to hear what you think, but not in a way that might shape what I think, and actually, what I will say in my preach." I am closing myself off from the other, but doing so, whilst appearing to be open to embrace the views of the other.

But only one of our speech will be publicly shaped by this for the immediate time.

So why don't I blog my sermons before I preach?

Mainly because I like the sting in the tail, I like the surprise, the twist, the anticipation. I like to challenge people to think differently, to be gripped, to be excited by the word of God. Which itself, is not a bad thing.

But two things implicitly come from this as well:

1. the first is that I fear that if someone knows what is going to be said, they won't engage. That they'll be like, "yeah this is the bit when he says that the triumphal entry is a disgrace, yadda yadda yadda."

But surely there is a lesson to learn from theatre here (@nedlunn ?). When you go to see the production of a play at the theatre, in many cases you know how it ends. And not only that, in many cases, you know the precise words that will be used to get you to the ending.

But you are still excited. I remember seeing a theatre adaption of Orwell's 1984, it was a touring production and an adaption. I knew what was going to happen in the end (as ultimately we do with sermons - in the bigger story at least - Jesus? Restoration? Forgiveness?).

But actually, in the case of 1984, how the playwright got us to that point, the words used, the choreography of actions and words. That was all unexpected.

But even in a play that you may know word for word, like, Romeo and Juliet, the theatre director and ensemble still have the power to shock, and surprise you, they can still draw you into the story.

2. the second is that if a visitor to church comes to church on an off-chance and hears the sermon (they probably wouldn't read the blog or even know about it), but I speak to them from a position of relative power: not that I am a powerful preacher. But because I have had time to pray, read commentaries, lectio divina, live the passage, ask questions about it. And distill into the allotted time a reflection on this.

Now the hearer could check the lectionary/sermon series and research the passage and so be informed of the passage. But they wouldn't get chance to see my reflections on it - like being told the resulting data of a scientific survey, but without being told the conclusions and actions that come from it.

But in the case of the spiritual seeker who may have stumbled across the church, what I am doing is modelling a way to engage in discussion from a point of power. I am refusing to actually engage fully in their legitimate questions, and instead I am very definitely avoiding deep conversation and their research and genuine queries, in the hope of a simple, uncomplicated, conversion where I don't give them opportunities to ask the real questions on their heart.

So what about the toothless walrus? Well, perhaps I am scared of being the toothless walrus, stood in the pulpit, with everyone knowing what I'm going to say next (not that many folk read this blog!)
Perhaps I am scared that folk won't engage properly. Perhaps, I am scared that my already-read-once-words would appear flabby and without real conviction. That the "power" would have gone from them. That I can't just breeze people in to believing something without chance to either reflect on the words, or talk about them.

And that's where I am the real toothless walrus, and deserve to be named as one. When I am too afraid of discussion, in case I might be shaped and my views challenged.

Long live the toothless walrus.


Ned Lunn said...

Nice reflections.

You already know the answer to the question you posed to me. The answer is all about engaging in a story; the character and narrative. (Just reading Hauerwas discussing which takes precedent the character of the narrative but I digress) The connection between people can never be replaced by an individuals interactions with a text. The embodied text is the only thing that gives that sucker punch. I may be able to read the text but I can't read your character. Even if you're a fantastic writer (which you are) there is something in being present (both spatially and temporally) with you that connects us and engages us together. THe dialogue happens, silently between our eyes and our bodies. There's an excitement about me being acknowledged or the potentiality of acknowledgement. Rowan Williams suggests,

'We are led into the knowledge that our identity is being made in the relations of bodies, not by the private exercise of will or fantasy.'

As a preacher, it is important that you respond to the dynamic of having the gathered people there. If you just read the script with no interaction between yourself and the other then it is a perversion of relationship. Williams, because he is discussing sexual practices, uses overt sexual language but suggests that rape, pedophilia and bestiality are perversions because they are,

'sexual activity without risk, without the dangerous acknowledgement that my joy depends on someone else's, as theirs does on mine'

Your sermon is worthless without a hearer. If you refuse to allow the gathered body of people to impact the words then you refuse them to shape you and therefore you remain in control and refuse the vulnerability of interaction. Live theatre, at its best, engages fully in vulnerability of allowing something outside of yourself shape and mould you.

Or at least that's where I'm up to at the moment but as you say...' it's a journey'.

BeatLiturgist said...

Helpful comments Ned. I am with you regarding the danger of refusing "the vulnerability of interaction" in the last paragraph.

I wonder though, whether there is also a place, whereby accepting vulnerability, is at times, simply to read the script. To recognise in vulnerability that at times, that, in weakness, and also, in valued words, that is all there is to give.

Helpful comments.

I also love the thing about the "embodied text".

Thanks for the comment: comment is such a pithy word.

Ned Lunn said...

The vulnerability of just reading the text still requires a physical presence.

BeatLiturgist said...

It does, and it requires a physical presence that may be embodied vulnerability. Actual vulnerability. Or perceived vulnerability. Or enacted vulnerability.

The physicality of a person reading to others is an incredibly powerful instigation of thoughts and movements of the heart, quite often defying logic and poetry and passion. But still powerful.

Helpful stuff.