Preaching Lessons Learned From Surfing

A recent USA Weekend edition in the Minneapolis newspaper included an article about Laird Hamilton, surfing legend, father of two, and husband of pro-volleyball player Gabrielle Reece,

entitled “Life Lessons Learned From Surfing.”1 Hamilton credits the ocean as “one of the greatest teachers” because “simple laws and philosophies can be traced to the purity of the ocean.” The ten lessons Hamilton attributes to the “wisdom of the wave” have become the principles by which he guides his life. In many respects, this professional surfer listened to and learned from the water much like a preacher should listen to and learn from the biblical text. The ocean is his profession, but he also has let it shape his vocation and how he experiences life. Hamilton’s ten life principles are ten lessons preachers would do well to remember.

1. Know that you are a speck on the water. “The ocean’s vastness reminds you of your insignificance…The humility you learn from being in the ocean is a constant reminder of your vulnerability.” God’s Word is equally immeasurable, incalculable, and immense. Once we think that the word of God can be limited or if in our preaching we have done so, we allow our words to eclipse God’s Word.

2. Go big or go home. Hamilton says, “You can’t kind of catch a wave. You either catch it or you don’t.” The same is true for sermons. You really can’t “kind of” preach a sermon because both you and your congregation will know it. While there may be occasions for candid reflections on the text, hesitation is not an admirable trait in the pulpit. Claim the space, claim the text, proclaim the good news as if your life depended on it, for the Lord, our God, has made sentinels for the sake of God’s people (Ezekiel 33:7).

3. Listen to your gut. “You have a feeling about things…The more you listen to your instinct and then react to it, the more you awaken the spirit.” Of course, preachers would call this principle the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the entire sermon process, but it is worth reflecting on our own reactions, feelings, and thoughts about the text and consider why they are there and where they come from. The preacher’s self is an integral component in preaching and while getting to know oneself is risky business, good and responsible biblical preaching begins with self-awareness. If preaching is re-incarnating the Word into the lives of our parishioners, then our personal predispositions and preconceptions are always part of a larger community of interpreters which allows for a structure of checks and balances on our own agendas. Our instincts interact with the needs of our congregations and the immediate contextual reality of the world in which we live. We trust that the Holy Spirit is in the midst of and awakened again in this process so that every Sunday is Pentecost — the real presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the proclamation event.

4. Understand you’re not in control. “Being a human, you want to think you can control circumstances…The ocean reminds you that you really don’t have control: It’s in control when you are in it.” This is one of those life lessons that we’d like to think we know, especially as preachers, but we don’t. There is a reason that we seem to need its repetition. “Let go and let God” is not a platitude but a very true statement of our human nature. For the preacher, this means, “Let go and let the Spirit. Let go and let the text. Let go and let the people. Let go and let the Gospel.”

5. Get wet. “We just don’t have any idea of the magnitude of what the ocean provides us.” We tend to have the same notion of the biblical text, that the Bible, in the end, is not sufficient for the substance of the sermon. Dive in deep. Too many preachers float on the surface of the text, bob up and down on a few small waves, then coast into the shore of life application, leaving behind the breadth and depth of God’s Word.

6. Put things in perspective. “A problem is when you are 80 miles offshore and have no way to get back.” Putting things in perspective for preaching means being aware of imbalances in the pulpit. Perspective is out of focus when we put all of our theological eggs in one basket (the sermon) and do not remember that the sermon happens in a liturgical context. Or, things are off kilter when we do not trust that our preaching takes place in the setting of pastoral ministry. The good news of God’s love can and will exist outside of the pulpit.

7. Keep learning. “The more I learn, the more I don’t know. That’s an ocean lesson.” That is also a preaching lesson, a Bible lesson, a God lesson. Good preaching requires ongoing learning — about the craft of preaching, trends in biblical scholarship, effectiveness of delivery, yourself, your congregation, your community, and our world.

8. Be determined. “You go out and get hammered by a wave and then by another one and another one, and you think, ‘OK, I’m still here.'” What preacher has not had this feeling preaching week after week? There is some sense of determination in this process and this vocation to which we have been called. The act of preaching necessitates resolve and fortitude (sometimes more than others), because what we are preaching and whom we are preaching about is scandalous to the world.

9. Don’t get stale. Recently, Luther Seminary offered a continuing education course called “Preaching Days.” Each participant was at a different stage in ministry and attended the class having in mind particular aspects of preaching in which to improve. However, a commonality among the group was a recognition that their preaching and preaching in general can become old, past its “sell-by date”, and worn out. Preachers should regularly nurture opportunities to refresh, replenish, and renew their preaching.

10. Don’t judge. “One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that we’re all equal before a wave.” For Hamilton, the ocean taught him to be non-judgmental. For preaching, this life principle can be applied in several ways. In many respects, all preachers are the same as we stand before the Word of God week after week. We would benefit from drawing upon the energy and mutuality that is inherent in this communal aspect of our profession. Of course, we must be vigilant in knowing the difference between a word of judgment from God and our own judgmental predications. Finally, it is our human tendency to judge ourselves and this trait is heightened in the very public nature of preaching. In God’s wisdom, God’s mercy that we proclaim for our congregations is also for us.

1Melanie D.G. Kaplan, “Wisdom of the Wave: Laird Hamilton Shares 10 Life Lessons Learned from Surfing,” in USA Weekend, July 4-6, 2008, 10.