Preaching at its best must cultivate a relationship with panic. That is to say, preaching takes trust, and trust is scary.
My typical week as a preacher looks something like this: 1) open the text; 2) once again find I have a major discontent or doubt about what is written; 3) accumulate distress; 4) worry what would happen if people could hear my heretical thoughts; 5) breathe; 6) lean into the objection/doubt/question; 7) discover an insight; 8) find, “Oh! So this is God.”
Every week I find I have to move through fear before I get to faith, to adventure, and to voice. Panic before pulpit, every time for me. A preaching professor of mine used to say, “If you aren’t nervous, something is wrong.” If I haven’t been afraid yet, I haven’t engaged the text truthfully yet.
When working with Scripture, I always start here: What are my objections to this text? What am I curious about? How am I feeling if I really listen? What doubts and struggles does this narrative awaken in me, and if this is the doubt/struggle it evokes for me, might I trust a similar inner turmoil would be unleashed for many an honest reader of sacred text, and thus it would be wise to begin the sermon there, at the point of my angst?
I have to get stark before the text, and fear always tries to put an end to this risky level of exposure. “It will do you in, to get this real!” my fear protests. “That’s the point!” I retort whenever I can keep my wits about me and remember my comeback line. “If I’m not willing to be undone, how will I possibly convince anyone else to unravel into grace?”
I find it is true what John said, that perfect love casts out fear. The deeper you explore the divine love, the braver you grow. Love has this indescribable power to expel the fright and see you through to the truth. But the fear is there before the fear is cast out. You know how demons always started babbling and crying out as soon as Jesus approached? Fear is like that. Exorcisms are no quiet affairs. Fear will make a fuss, a fury. Fear will raise its fists and bare its fierce teeth. Your first attempt to open your mouth will be drowned out by the sound of your fear’s unrelenting protest.
The closer you get to the heart of things, to the God within, to the meat of what you’re meant to say, the more all your residual and deep-seated fears will rise up in a last ditch effort to defeat you. But fortunately for you, because you have love, every midweek (or end-of-week) confrontation with your fear is bound to end in a sort of fearless and love-worn proclamation.
Moving past fear to truth is not important just so you can preach a pretty little sermon that impresses your listeners. No, it’s much more serious than that. You are demonstrating not only how to preach but how to live. You are exemplifying how to move beyond fear to authentic love and vulnerable truth-telling. You are showing, with your body and with your words and with your tenacity: Here is what it means to speak from the heart. This is not a one-time event. It is a way of life, and thus it is likely the fear will rise up weekly, with reliable attempts to shut down your life.
May you listen deeper than the fear, find the truth lurking behind the demon, then recover your guts and speak! Preach on.