Craft of Preaching

The Power of Empty

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I had sketched out in my mind an article for today on the conflict and negativity we pastors experience in the church today.

I had expected I would be sitting at my keyboard with furrowed brow and clenched jaw as I tackled the somber task of charting a path through tiresome and disappointing reality to some glimmer of hope that would render the battle worthwhile or at least tolerable.

God blue-penciled that last night.

I found myself listening to Anne Ryder speak about her fascinating career in television journalism that included an interview with Mother Teresa. It was an event I would not have attended had my wife not encouraged it.

I had nothing to do with this night. I'm always better off when I have the sense that God chooses topics and agendas for me rather than when I think I'm completely on my own. The message I heard last night was of the peace that comes from emptying yourself.

So I'll go with that.

Empty yourself is especially good advice for us introverts in pastoral situations. In dealing with crises, emergencies, grief, death, and illness, we introverts have a tendency to evaluate our responses. We critically analyze our behavior from start to finish and look (sometimes desperately) for some evidence that we are doing more good than harm for those in our care.

This is not the way to do pastoral care, an act in which the sole focus should be on the person in one's care. I've found that the best, and perhaps only way, to counteract my harmful, introverted self-awareness is to empty myself.

Easier said than done, of course, and I'm not always successful. But the more I can empty the situation of my presence or consciousness of my presence, the better I can serve. The less I can be concerned with my status, my pride, my desire to help, or even my dignity, the better off we all are.

This need is less pronounced for extraverts, for whom relative lack of self-awareness may be a strength as well as a flaw, but it's still there.

I don't know if I've heard this same principle applied to preaching, but maybe it should be. It seems that the best way to preach is to empty ourselves in the sermon. Just lay the message out there and don't worry about how it's coming through or even how people are reacting or might react. Just say what needs to be said.

At first, this seemed to me that this violated the cardinal communication rule of "know your audience." But the emptying I'm endorsing refers to preaching a sermon, not writing it. The sermon preparation should be full of self-critiques and examinations of the interaction between speaker and reader.

But once the preparation is over, just bring it. At this point, it's not me who speaks; it is God. That is not the same as declaring that God imparts special knowledge and wisdom to me and that I have created a flawlessly crafted message.

It simply means that this sermon is what God has given me to do. If I have faithfully carried out my tasks in preparation then all that remains is to preach, empty of personal involvement. While I am in the pulpit, my reputation is not at stake. Neither is my pride, my desire to be a good person, good pastor, or good preacher. I have no personal stake in how the message is received.

Because for those moments, these things do not exist. 

I can analyze and evaluate all I want later. (And because I'm an introvert, we all know that will happen in spades!) But during the sermon, the only things that exist are the people who have come needing to hear a message that will bring more abundant life, and the message I have that can do that. 

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