Chapter 24

Backdraft Preaching

You've got to reignite the flames Sunday after Sunday

I love preaching. I hate preaching. The best description is Jeremiah's: it is like fire in the bones. It is holy work and dreadful work. It exhausts and it exhilarates, kindles and consumes.

On Mondays, I am charred remains. The hotter I burned on Sunday—the more I preached with fiery conviction and bright hope—the more burned to the ground I am on Monday. I'm restless, but I don't have initiative to do anything or, if I do, the energy to sustain me in it. I'm bone-weary, suffering what the desert fathers called acedia: an inner deadness from the hot sun's scorching.

Worst of all, Monday is lived with the knowledge that I am called to do it all over again next Sunday. Mondays are the days I would rather sell shoes.

But then Sunday comes, and the bones burn again. I am once more a firebrand freshly hot in the hand of God. If I don't preach, I am left with an ache like sorrow. I chafe worse from not preaching than from preaching. "But if I say, 'I will not mention him or speak any more his name,' his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary holding it in; indeed, I cannot" (Jeremiah 20:9).

So I love it, and I hate it.

The surprise is that ten years of preaching has not diminished this. It has, instead, heightened and sharpened it. Every Sunday there's the passion if I preach, the aching if I don't. On Monday, either way, there's a daunting road both too long and too short that I must walk to next Sunday. Preaching is not a job. It is fire.

How shall we live with this rhythm of fire and ashes and fire again?

Backdraft preaching

Backdraft refers to the phenomenon when a fire subsides because it's burned up all the oxygen in the room—then, if somehow the room is breached—a door is opened or the roof bitten through by the fire itself—oxygen-laden air rushes in and sparks an explosion. Fresh wind meets a dying fire, and all again is fiercely ablaze. That's a backdraft.

Backdraft is a good metaphor for the preaching call. It is exactly what I have described: the fire that burns the insides out and almost burns itself out; then, the fire meets fresh wind and breaks out anew. Knowing that this is the shape of the rest of my life, I have become desperate for disciplines to help me live with it. Here are three.

Look for divine interruptions

The Sermon has the hypnotic power of the seductress. It woos me, commands me, compels me. "Come and be with me," the Sermon whispers. When that fails, it gets surly: "Come here now! Or else." It often inhabits my sleep, a vague anxiety scrabbling at the edge of my dreams. Uncontrolled, the Sermon becomes an obsession.

I have no great tale of personal victory to relate here. The best thing I've found is to practice trusting God with my time.

Jesus was always being interrupted—by blind men, lepers, Pharisees finding him at night, desperate fathers with demonized or dying children, sinful women caught in adultery or pouring perfume on his feet. And he was always interrupting others—tax collectors counting money, fishermen mending nets or hauling them up, persecutors riding to Damascus. Much of his life-changing ministry came via interruptions.

Too many of us who preach are the priests and Levites in Jesus' story of the good Samaritan: we're so grimly focused on our temple duty that we miss what God has for us at the roadside. The only cure I know is daily and deliberate commitment to look for God in the interruptions. (As I wrote this, God brought three interruptions into "my schedule." Two were phone calls, one from a man at the edge of saving faith and needing a little extra attention, the other from a man of another faith interested in doing some work for the church. The third was a woman seeking bread. She and her children had nothing to eat. "I came to you hungry," Jesus said. "Did you notice?" In my busyness, I almost didn't.)

Living a theology of interruptions opens my soul to the fresh wind that reignites my fire.

Seek silence

There is a beautiful line in Carl Sandburg's biography of Abraham Lincoln that describes Lincoln's early years and the secret of his later strength: "In wilderness loneliness he companioned with trees, with the faces of open sky and weather in changing seasons, with that individual one-man instrument, the ax. Silence found him for her own. In the making of him, the element of silence was immense."

Our world is not like Lincoln's; it is cluttered with image, clattering with sound, ceaselessly busy. Wilderness has dwindled away and sanctuary has been crowded out. Now, those who wish to keep silence must seek it out.

Not far from where I live is a river that pours out of a large lake. The river curves labyrinth-like on its way down to the ocean. This is where I go for silence. In summer I swim. In fall, I fly fish. In winter and spring, I walk along the sandy bank. There I listen.

Like a dark night allows the stars to shine brighter, so dwelling in silence gives words sharpness and brightness. I go to that place word-weary, but emerge ready again to hear and to speak a word in season.

Connect with the elements

Preaching is elemental. There is water, wind, earth, fire. Preaching comes from the fire. That fire is fed, not doused, by the water of the Word, stoked by the wind of the Spirit, and then mixed into the earthiness of flesh and bone. To live with the rhythm and texture of fire requires that I live also with earth, wind, and water.

My seeking silence at the river in part serves this. But there is more. I work with wood. I ride my bike. I garden. I swim in swift cold rivers and surging oceans. I touch the earth, immerse myself in water, go into the open spaces where wind caresses or pummels. I reconnect my insides with my outsides, my mind with my body, and my body with its surroundings.

Gardening is wonderful this way. The words "human," "humility," and "humus" share the same root. Gardening is Adamic, touching of the humus from which we were made. It is humbling and humanizing.

There is something about putting seed and bulb in the earth, cutting back branches to the white wood and watching a bead of sap form at the cut, turning compost and seeing the worms writhe in the pungent, steaming dirt, smelling clipped grass or burnt leaves, eating carrots freshly pulled or peaches just picked—there's something about all that that helps me to accept again my humanness.

And there is also something in all that which helps me to meet again, unexpectedly, the risen Christ, like Mary Magdalene thinking he was the gardener.

It doesn't, of course, have to be gardening. Fishing, walking, making bread, building birdhouses, or mudding drywall: it's anything that reconnects our minds to our bodies, and our bodies to the elements.

Monday's embers

I write this is on a cold Monday in winter. Before I began, I built a fire in the wood stove near my writing desk. I shaved an inside rind of sap-crusted fir into thin kindling, laid that on last week's crumpled newsprint atop a thick bed of white and gray and black ashes (the remains of many fires), and I struck a match to it. Once I got the fire going, I laid several pieces of fir and yellow cedar in a criss-cross pattern, shut the stove doors, and tightened the dampers.

Then I got down to writing. When I was almost finished, I noticed the room had cooled down. I got up to check the fire. I opened the stove and at first looked into blackness and dark smoke. I had tightened the dampers too much, and the fire was almost out. The logs sat there, charred, inert, smoking. But that only lasted a moment.

Wind from the open doors swirled in, breathed on the wood, and set it to glowing. All at once, it ignited: flames jumped up, and the wood cracked with the heat of it.


It's Monday, but Sunday's a comin'. I'm not ready. In fact, right now, I never want to preach again. I feel like charred wood on cold ashes. But I don't worry about it. I know God will open the doors again, let the wind rush in.

And me? I'm going out to cut wood.