I taught a class on preaching last week. As we began I said, “Good preaching begins with good listening.”
I think of preachers, the good ones, as scouts and watchmen, poets and explorers. They’ve been given the work of listening. Listening deeply in a world where mostly we don’t. We seem often like the flocks of starlings that descend periodically on my backyard. They clack and yammer, strut and preen, then hurry off en masse to their next stop.
A good preacher is like an owl who sits quietly, turning his head this way and that, listening to catch the slight sound of the broken twig, the turning leaf.
I understand that this is not the way most people think, if they think at all, of preachers or preaching. The more common notion would, I expect, be that a preacher is someone with a gift of gab; someone for whom talking comes easily, who can’t stop talking. I distrust such preachers.
I trust the ones who don’t speak easily, the ones from whom words are wrung like so many drops of blood. Their need to get the thing straight in their heads before they presume to say it is the people’s best assurance.
Lately I’ve been reading more on the internet. I look at Daily Dish, Slate and Daily Beast, Commonweal, Faith and Leadership and half a dozen others. It’s amazing: the array of blogs and videos, commentators and perspectives. “You could spend your whole life on the internet,” I said to my wife last night. “Yes,” she answered, in a way that suggested that it might not be a good use of one’s life.
Most of it is so rapid fire, so quick on the uptake and reactive to the newest news or pseudo-news that there isn’t much listening going on here: a lot of chatter, some posturing, a good bit of shouting. You can change the technology, but human nature abides.
“Look,” I tell my preaching students, “for what is wrong in a biblical text or story.” They look back at me as if I’ve said something slightly off-color. I direct them to this week’s gospel reading, from John 2, the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turns water to wine. There’s so much that’s wrong here that it should have yellow crime tape looped around it.
When, for example, Jesus’ mother says to him, “They have run out of wine,” his answer is wrong. “Woman, what does that have to do with me?” Sounds lippy, don’t you think? You’ve dragged the kids to church to learn respect but here’s Jesus mouthing off at his mother. What’s up with that?
For whatever reason, Jesus decided to help out, but his help may seem the kind you might just as soon do without. Yes, he turned water into wine, I say to my students: But notice the quantity. Listen to the text. Pay attention to what’s odd here. Like the fact that Jesus turns 180 gallons of water into a robust, complex red. Wine is flowing from every fountain. They are awash in the finest wine. Not a bottle or two to finish out the carefully planned meal, nor even a carefully selected case. Its 180 gallons of the stuff. Something is wrong with that, surely.
Often it’s what’s wrong or odd, what doesn’t fit the way we’ve always or already explained things that helps us to listen deeply, to pay attention, to notice, and to wake up.
A friend says that what he finds lacking in sermons these days, and in church for that matter, is mystery. By asking my students to listen for what’s wrong, strange or odd, I invite them to encounter mystery.
In her new memoir, Lit, poet Mary Karr recounts her first timid ventures to church, reporting on one as follows: “The sermon — on justice to one's fellows — has so squeezed out any mention of God or Jesus, maybe to sound modern, there’s no sense of history. The pastor asks for peace and give thanks for plenty, but the homily might come from Reader’s Digest.
“Looking for something to say to the pastor, I ask him how he deals with evil, and he says, We don’t believe in it — a phrase so obviously untrue, I wonder how they sell it. It’s like a Rotary Club meeting where everybody’s agreed on the agenda in advance and is only waiting for the Danish to come out.”
I listen for those things that delight me and for those that disturb me, the things that send a chill up my spine or get under my skin. I probe them as I might a splinter in order to see what’s there. Sometimes a splinter of light that breaks forth.
In her book, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard muses on reading. “Why are we reading, if not in the hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts?
“Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking. We should amass half dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.”
Of her seven sentences, five are questions. Listen for the questions. Often, they tell you more than the answers. Often they open onto mystery.
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