Chapter 25

Why I Pace Before I Preach

Understanding the weekend panic

On the night before I preach, I pace—back and forth in my room, mumbling sermonic thoughts, testing them, scorning a hundred thoughts, exulting in one or two that shine like coin, investing those.

I grow breathless when I pace. I make strange noises. But the house must be as silent as death. And the mighty God must stand by me to save me, because there surely will come great waves of doubt to drown me, and then I will splutter, "Help me. Lord!" and gasp: "What do you want me to say?"

Not all the scriptural interpretation in the world will save me from this nighttime ride on stormy water: I'm going to preach, and I get scared. In the few hours I sleep, I dream. In my dreams I arrive at church too late, and people are leaving. I can't find my vestments, my clothes are shabby, and people are impatient. Or (the second greatest horror) smack in the middle of preaching, I notice that I'm in my underwear. Or (the worst) I've forgotten totally what I'd planned to say.

I wake at 5 a.m. I don't eat because I can't. My internal self is as unstable as water. But when I meet the people, my external self has donned a smile, speaks softly, touches everyone, and moves to worship with aplomb. And lo, I preach.

And on any given Sunday, I succeed. No one expects a pastoral collapse. Everyone takes this sermon for granted, while I breathe secret reams of gratitude to God. But when Saturday comes again, I pace again, wild-eyed and terrified.

You too? Does success astonish you, as well, since the prospect of preaching had cut you at the gut?

When I was young, I thought experience would calm my fears. It didn't. For years I prayed God would grant me a pre-sermon peace. God didn't. And I accused myself of faithlessness.

But now I wonder: Perhaps the fear goes with the office. Perhaps, because this task requires the whole of the preacher, our entire beings become involved in the tension of preparation, and so our tummies start to jump.

It is—but it is not only—a function of our intellects to preach. We are doing more than passing pure thought to the people. Our souls are required of us, that we believe what we say. Moreover, to believe means that we have ourselves experienced what we declare: it's a part of our personal histories, real in our suffering and joy, real in our sin, in forgiveness and grace and freedom. So we become a standing evidence of what we preach, and the whole of us—soul and mind and body and experience—participates in the holy moment of preaching.

It is Christ who saves. But in human community, it is this particular vessel whose voice, whose person, and whose preaching proclaim that Christ. No, I can't hide in my cape of authority and still persuade the people of a dear, incarnate, near, embracing Jesus.

I can never abstract my self from the preaching, nor ever be wholly nerveless before it, since the very purpose and the passion of the task involve my love. I preach because I love, love twice. These two loves define my being.

For I love the Lord my God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my mind. I've nothing more important in all the world to communicate to anyone than the One I love completely. This is a stupendous responsibility. And it is my own, because I can't divide my beloved from my loving, nor my loving from my self. When I speak of God, my passion is present: in passion do I make God known! But the glory of the Lord makes me self-conscious. Am I worthy to whisper the name?

I have no choice but to try. For I love this people, too—these faces, these eyes—with a sharp, particular, personal love. The best that I have to give, I must give to them. To them, in their language, for their individual lives.

And on Saturday night, I worry: Will they hear it? Will they let the hard word hurt them, the good word heal them, the strong word lead and redeem them? Will I speak it so that they receive it from me? 0, people, people, the depth of my love is the depth of my fear for you!

So I pace.