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Saturday, August 09, 2008

A Preaching Experiment

Preface: I have discovered that preaching is one part prose, one part poetry, one part theology, one part performance - and all of it must come from a place of truth in the preacher.

This last part is the most important part. If the preacher isn't preaching her truth, the congregation will sniff it out within the first ten seconds, listen politely with half of one ear and dismiss the rest as more hooey from the church.

Even if the preacher has a high doctrine of the word and preaches a very dense theological statement, the congregation may not understand, completely, but they will appreciate the truth. They can tell when the preacher is a liar.

St. Paul is a prime example of knowing his audience and tailoring his message accordingly.

Because of all this, I am enormously intimidated by "extemporaneous preaching" - sometimes known as "preaching without notes."

For me, it's more like "preaching without a net." I think what I fear most is that, without notes, I will begin to rely on performance and that, fueled by anxiety, will come less from a place of truth in me and more from a place of "persona."

I am in awe of preachers who can preach like this effectively.

I've been challenged by a sister colleague to try to "preach from a prepared heart" - To write out my sermon, but then to put it aside and just preach.

Yesterday, I did just that.

I was at a skilled nursing facility to preside at a eucharistic liturgy to celebrate the life of Helen, a woman who has been a member of St. Paul's for more than 50 years who died three weeks ago. She moved to this facility eight years ago at the age of 90. It had been her home. Her two sons decided to have the service there so her friends and the staff could attend.

I wanted to keep my message simple but clear and bring them some solace. I don't know how to do that without being able to move among the elderly and make eye contact, which, I have discovered, is a very important pastoral act with this generation.

It seemed like the right time to give 'preaching from a prepared heart' a chance.

You can't tell how I did, but these are my notes. As is my style, I called up Helen's two sons, Richard and Robert, in the midst of my homily to give witness and testimony to her life and then ended by repeating the one message of the gospel I wanted them to hear.

I think it went well. I wasn't half as nervous as I thought I would be. Looking into ancient eyes, eager to hear a word of comfort and solace, was a little gift and blessing I gave myself.


Jesus said, "In my father’s house there are many rooms." (Jn 14:1-6)

I want to begin by asking a question: How many of you here had their own room as a child? Raise your hand. Quite a few, I see.

I suppose I did, at least for the first four years of my life, but I don't remember that room. I am the oldest of four children, all born approximately 2 years apart. As a young child, my parents and siblings and I lived in a three bedroom apartment. Which was fine, when there were three of us.

When my sister Diane was born, she had the nursery, and my sister and brother and I shared a room – my sister and I sleeping in a twin bed and my brother in his small bed.

One Christmas, a little after Diane had turned two, we came home from school to find that our bedrooms had been completely reorganized. My sister Madeline and baby sister Diane shared a room with two twin beds. The nursery had been completely redone as my brother’s room.

I was so excited about the changes I didn’t notice at first that there was no place for me. It suddenly came to me in a burst of anguish and I started to weep. “There’s no place for me,” I sobbed, and collapsed in a heap of despair.

My father came and picked me up and cradled me in his strong arms. “It's okay. Don't worry. Dry your tears and take my hand. I've prepared a wonderful room for you."

I had no idea where we were going, but I knew we were headed toward the attic. When we got to the top of the stairs, and he opened the door, I couldn’t believe what I saw.

There, right in front of my very eyes, was my own room.

My father had plastered the walls and my mother had put up wallpaper. If I close my eyes, I can still see the pretty pattern with tiny pink and white flowers with a delicate green vine connecting them.

All my toys and dolls and favorite books were there, and there was even a brand new bed with beautiful new sheets and pillow cases and a beautiful new quilt, guaranteed to keep me warm at night.

It was almost too good to be true.

That’s what I think it will be like when we get to heaven. Jesus says, “In my father’s house, there are many rooms.”

I believe our dear friend Helen now has her very own room in heaven and as lovely as her room was here, and as happy as she was living here with you all, this new room is beautiful beyond her wildest imaginings.

I think it is our experience of 'heaven on earth' which prepares us to inhabit our heavenly rooms which are prepared for us by Jesus.

I’m going to ask Robert and Richard, Helen’s two sons, to come and tell a little bit of her earthly story before I tell you a little bit more of what I think might be Helen's heavenly story.

(Richard puts her life in context of historical events - born 45 years after the Civil War and a few years after the Wright Brothers flew their plane. Robert spoke of his mother's graduation from college (a huge landmark for a woman of that generation), and how she loved her work as a librarian, but always called her sons the 'lights of my life.' After they finished, I continued:)

I don’t know this for certain, and I can’t say this as a matter of actual fact, but I believe with all my heart that when Helen's time came, when she finally gave up her spirit, Jesus came to her. I believe she wiped away all her tears as Jesus stretched out his hand to her. I believe Helen took hold of the hand of Jesus and followed him to the room he had prepared for her in his Father’s house.

May we all hear the words of Jesus when he comes to us to say, "“It's okay. Don't worry. Dry your tears and take my hand. I've prepared a wonderful room for you."



KHR+ said...

HAH!!! Fun, wasn't it?


Fran said...

This is so beautiful - it made me cry.

Thank you!

And I so love that graphic!!

PseudoPiskie said...

I have a friend who is a postulant. A couple of weeks ago she had to prepare a sermon on short notice and was finishing it on the computer when a storm shut down the power. She said she saved it but she never found it again so she wrote notes. I went to hear her. She was much better preaching from notes. Last Sunday I heard another woman preach from notes only. Both women love to preach. It shows in their faces and their words.

Try it more often, Elizabeth. I'm sure your parish will appreciate it even if you get off topic and ramble a bit. As my postulant friend says, the rambling may just be the Holy Spirit helping you reach a special person you might not otherwise.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Yea, KHR+, about as much fun as you must have flying a plane. Or, truth be told, I had jumping out of one. Scary fun, humbling and thrilling, all at the same time.

And, I knew my audience would be very, very forgiving.

Kirkepiscatoid said...


Not that I am any great expert about preaching in any form, (but I have had to give the "extemporaneous speech" now and then) what I will say is that extemporary or from skeleton notes is easier when you are personally invested in the topic....and this is one in which you were very invested in the topic!

I had to give an extemporaneous speech at an award dinner once (the main speaker didn't show) where the person was getting the "guardian of Hillel" award from his Jewish congregation. I went out to my truck and got my golf rule book out of my golf bag (the award winner was an avid golfer) and for seven minutes explained the goodness of this man by reciting and commenting on some key golf rules, particularly the rule "When no rules exist, you should rule in equity."

The attendees practically forgot the "real" speaker didn't show up!

Elizabeth, I am sure your first attempt at preaching from notes was better than "fine"!!!!