This is the second article in a series. See Part 1.
“It is fair to say all writers — seasoned or not, steady or panicked — lose perspective.”1
According to Susan Bell, getting distance from our work involves both a metaphysical and a physical challenge. The metaphysical and the physical are more closely related than we might imagine. Some of the more obvious physical practices:
- Change the font of the manuscript;
- Edit your sermon in a place other than where you wrote it;
- Use the “hang out” or “lay out” method — hang your manuscript from a clothes line or spread it out on the floor in your living room, preferably out of order;
- If you normally type, write in longhand and if using a computer, resist the delete and scroll back.2
While these may seem like small changes, each change introduces a form of distance between how you imagine your work and the work itself.
For the return, however, I would go for practices that entangle the metaphysical with the physical. Read or walk through your sermon in an unusual setting (e.g. a homeless shelter, or at a protest or strike, or perhaps in the lobby of an expensive hotel, at a graveyard, or in a nursing home). Charles Campbell urges interpreters of scripture to get out of the study and into the street. He believes our interpretations are too churchy, too domesticated.3 By taking the sermon into highly charged contexts, we spark a fresh encounter between the sermon as Word to the church and sermon as Word for the world.
Other strategies make the sermon creation process more dialogical, a common expression among preachers. Key to Bell’s conception, however, is that the preacher relinquishes her or his ego. To that end, let someone else read your sermon or, better yet, have someone read your sermon aloud, preferably someone who looks on the world through a different set of eyes than your own (life experience, gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity). Often, we cannot hear what we sound like until someone else speaks our words for us. A variation on this theme: read your sermon to a conversation partner, stopping from time to time to dialogue about the message.4
Resist the temptation to “explain” your work; attend to what they heard not what you meant.
The metaphysical challenge goes to our own connection to the sermon, the sermon being something like the belly button of our soul. However, if we give the sermon up, release it to someone else, another listener or conversation partner, we can begin to hear it and a congregation’s potential response more richly.
While in general friendly, prayerful editors help the preacher, it may not be altogether bad for us to cultivate a more critical congregation as well. Poet W.H. Auden speaks of developing his own “Inner Censorate,” a group of imagined and not always sympathetic listeners: “ … a sensitive child, a practical housewife, a logician, a monk, an irreverent buffoon and even, perhaps … a foul mouthed drill sergeant who considers all poetry [sermons] rubbish.”5 One student writer insists only “philistines” read and respond to her work.6
Two cautions when looking for perspective on our work from either outside or inside the congregation: first, subjective reactions to the sermon — I connected with this, I didn’t follow that — are symptoms rather than causes. We will need to find tools (next blog) to help us move from mere assessment to the formative function of the sermonic edit.
The second caution goes to our innate desire to please our listeners: “Beware of the temptation to pander. If your Censorate overtakes you, stop listening to it altogether.”7 In other words, we need to be sufficiently confident in our interpretation of the text and the claim of the sermon to enter into a meaningful conversation.
This is different than saying the sermon is six feet above contradiction; it means that the sermonic idea is mature, maybe not quite ready to be plucked from the tree, but glowing with potentiality.
Getting to know our inner homiletician can equip us with common sense practices that help form preacher and, indeed, congregation as listening community. In time, not only will we learn to hear ourselves with greater complexity, we may hear begin to hear God more deeply than we imagined possible.
1 Susan Bell, The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007), 12.
2 Ibid., 34.
3 See Stanley P. Saunders and Charles
4 Bell, The Artful Edit, 27-8.
5 Ibid., 26-7.
6 Ibid., 23.
7 Ibid., 27.