I am finally reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead. I had heard that it is remarkable because she captures the inner experiences of ministry so well. My bookmark sits at page 22, holding my place while I gather these thoughts, because what I heard is true.
The form of the book is a letter written by John Ames, a pastor in his 70s who knows he is dying, to his young son. Robinson has Ames muse on a life spent in the weekly rhythm of preparation and preaching. He thinks about the boxes of sermon manuscripts which sit in his attic, the achievement of steady decades. The pastor recognizes that although he kept all these sermons, he has never gone back “to see if they were worth anything.” He admits: “I’m a little afraid of them.” I don’t have anything like his length of years preaching and I don’t keep the paper, but I do understand that fear.
The Joy of Preaching
What struck me even more was the description of the deep joy of preparing sermons:
“I wrote almost all of it in the deepest hope and conviction. Sifting my thoughts and choosing my words. Trying to say what was true. And I’ll tell you frankly, that was wonderful.”
I too found it wonderful. Having this thing immediately before you each week that could bear the weight of your deepest hope and conviction. The refining process of studying with rigour and speaking with clarity. Sensing you had something of real truth to say.
It’s been a few years now since I’ve had the chance to preach regularly and I miss it terribly. I am always grateful for the chances I get to preach these days, but it is also bittersweet. This is partly because the rhythm of preaching is no longer natural to me. I find myself needing to expend more energy to get back into the right mode. Often I find myself five minutes into the preaching itself when a wave of foreignness hits me. I grieve because I seem to find less of a preacher in myself as time goes on.
Preaching is also bittersweet for me now because the rare chance I get to do so reminds me that this chance is now rare. I have wanted little else in my life than to settle down into some soul-inhabited corner and to preach my life through week by week. As soon as I was old enough to know I would one day need to ‘do something,’ I have known that I would be a pastor. Preaching has been my aim and my joy for much of my adult life but my path has now led me farther from it than I ever thought it would.
Let It Dwell Richly Among Us
My aim has been to see that the word of Christ dwells richly among us. This image comes from Colossians 3:16 and it is my vision still. But now rather than being the preacher who propels the echo of our Scriptures directly in a church, I have taken a step back so that I can chip in toward the increase of other preachers who will be catalysts of the voice of God.
I’ve told this part of my story before, but a major impetus for this move back from preaching was learning that I was standing on a globe. For a time while I was in Burtts Corner, NB, there were three churches with two pastors each. There is plenty of need in Burtts Corner, but when I started to get a better picture of how comparatively few pastors there are serving the Majority World church it just didn’t make sense to be the sixth pastor clustered into such a small space.
So while I still think of myself as a pastor, I am now a missionary. Sent out with my family by Gentle Shepherd Community Church and Fall River Chapel through SIM Canada. I am studying the Septuagint here at Cambridge so that I have some years of thinking long and hard about language, culture, communication. This is in service of finding my way into what happens as scripture keeps learning to speak new languages and churches keep learning what it looks like for the gospel to grow in their own soil.
We don’t have the details worked out for what things will look like when our time here is done. But the aim is to help the church to hear God well where there is far less going on to help them do so. The goal is to see that the word of Christ dwells richly among all of us, so that the good news of Jesus will go out beyond us, where Christ is least known.
This means I will spend a lot less of my life preaching than I thought I would. Frankly, it means I will spend a lot less of my life preaching than I would like. But the hope and prayer is that it will mean many others will get to preach and through them, that even more will be able to hear.
Like John Ames in Gilead, I find preaching absolutely wonderful. But while I lament the sermons I’ve already lost and those I’ll not have the joy of preparing and preaching in the years to come, I rejoice to think that I could be part of enabling many other sermons, in many other tongues, to reverberate through the church.
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3 thoughts on “A Lament for Sermons Unpreached”
Oh man, well written, and thank you both for seeing the greater need and being part of the solution. Love you all. >dee
Very interesting Tyler. I firmly believe that the path you have chosen will further God’s work in this world. May God bless and strengthen you.