Thursday, February 7, 2013

thinking and sermonizing

My normal process for writing a sermon is messy.

In my heart, I feel that good pastors and missionaries must write sermons in a better fashion.  Certainly pastors of large churches have some system where they pick scripture months in advance, do exegesis on Monday, write an outline on Tuesday, finish the sermon on Wednesday, pray about it on Thursday, and put finishing touches on it on Friday so that they can go fishing on Saturday.

This is the idea that I have, and it is the way I wish I did things.  I spend about an hour preparing for each minute of preaching time.  I read the text out loud, I scribble some notes, I write a sentence and a story and then I wait for the rest.  I jump from side to side to break things loose in my head.  I paint or translate poetry.  I cook a big meal for friends and play with ideas.

When my sister and I spell words out loud, we always spell the whole word in one pass.  Most people break it up into syllables and pause intermittently.  We've always done it this way.  After ten or more hours of thinking and scribbling, I will usually sit down and write the entire sermon in an hour or two.

I have a friend who writes his whole sermon on Sunday morning.  I have a friend who fits his entire sermon on one regulation size post-it-note - five words and no more.  I had a pastor who meticulously wrote each sermon word for word before memorizing it entirely each week and stepping into the pulpit without a note.

These are things that would kill me.

If I have time, I spend an hour or two going over my sermons line by line with a fine-toothed comb looking for things that wouldn't fit culturally.  I excise idioms and restate complex sentences.  I take out sentences that highlight differences* and think about possible cultural illusions I may have missed.

When I preach in the states, I spend these last few hours removing pronouns in reference to God** and look for alliteration and other devices so the sermon sound sweet to the listeners ears.  

All of this happens at completely unscheduled times.  Scheduling a block of time to complete a sermon is a strong guarantee that I will not get anything accomplished.  This is one of the most frustrating things in the world for me.  I always keep pen and paper handy, and if I was less self conscious I would keep a tape recorder handy.  When I was in the states, I would often call my sister and ask her to type something I dictated while I was driving - or I would pull over and send myself a text message with the idea.

I feel like "real" pastors have a much cleaner system for these things.  I had a pastor who would write up a whole sermon and then each week the Holy Spirit would guide him in a different direction and he would walk away from the manuscript entirely.

I occasionally preach a sermon in Ukrainian these days.  At the student center, I will always preach in English with translation.  The students like it that way, they like hearing a translator do her thing, and it is so much easier.  At the Sunday morning service, we decided that sermons should be in Ukrainian.

I sit with my language teacher and henpeck the Cyrillic letters on my keyboard.  First I say a sentence in English, then I guess at how I would render it in Ukrainian, then my language teacher helps me put it in the right structure or gives me a better word.  Often the way I want to say something just doesn't work in Ukrainian and we think about how to say it better.  It is a time consuming and challenging process.  I limit myself to five new words per sermon - everything else has to be a part of speech that I have learned and should be able to use in Ukrainian.

I think what is hardest for me, is that I am incapable of being creative in Ukrainian.  In English I love to play with words and sentences, and that's just not possible in my second language yet.  I frequently have to stop and switch to English to work out problems and to see where I am going next.

I practice all of my sermons out loud at least twice.  It's only when I hear the words with my own ears that I am sure that I really believe them.  I often get to some sentence and realize that it doesn't fit my theology at all and I take it out or replace it.

I try not to read my sermons, but to preach them.  I try to just keep the manuscript there to prompt me.  If I only practice it once, I end up reading the sermon instead of preaching it.

I spend a lot of time praying about sermons - but my biggest prayer times come long before I write and after I am done writing.  I pray my way through the lectionary and pray for guidance in planning out sermons weeks or months ahead of time.  And before I preach, I always pray one final prayer, "Lord, that thing that you do between my lips and their ears, do it again today." Amen.

*at the family center, a mission site for troubled families and teens who live on the street, one American seminary student's sermon included the line, 'you shouldn't spank your children, you should send them to their room'

**I think that God transcends our notions of male and female and that our pronouns are much too limited to encompass all of God, but in normal speech and writing I often use pronouns without thinking about it - in Ukraine I use all the pronouns because the grammar doesn't allow for gender ambiguity of any sort.  Fun fact.  If you meet someone and you aren't sure if they are male or female you have to pick a gender and go with it or completely bypass the past tense. Awkward.      

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