Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Talk to yourself

This week at last I'm able to concentrate reasonably (hooray for life sans co-codamol) so have moved on from reading PD James & Phil Rickman to the more reflective pleasures of Gilead.
I realise that I must be the only person I know who didn't read this two years ago at least - but I'm glad to have got to it now, as it is perfect to drift in and out of, & contemplate gently.
With a less than perfect temporary cast (that was the short-lived#4 - I'm intent on getting full value from the NHS) I found myself awake & readin at 3.00 the other morning. Even at that uninspiring hour this struck me with some force

A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard in that way There are three parties to it of course but so there are to even the most private thought the self that yields the thought the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought and the Lord

That sounds both wise & admirable, until you find yourself preaching into an almost entirely unresponsive context...here you are not at all sure whether nyone has in fact heard you at all. On Sunday, for example, I felt that from my side I was truly trying to initiate a passionate conversation. After all, there is not much about which a priest might feel more passionate than the prayer life of her church but, without indulging in a full-scale pity-party, it doesn't seem as if that passion is being passed on...I suspect that neither congregation (and I preached the same sermon in both churches) is used to providing any sort of sermon feedback - and I appreciate that this isnt always easy to give or to receive. The sermon feedback forms which were part of training were rarely occasions of deep joy - but they did at least furnish a few clues that the sermon was heard, that maybe just once in a while it might even have been useful -if only as an irritant.
I have an ambivalent relationship with preaching. I rarely give it the time I'd really like to, and too often there is a period in which sermon writing feels very close to getting blood out of a stone...but nearly always by the time I actually find myself in the pulpit there is a sense that at least some of these are the words that need to be heard. It would be reassuring to know that this was happening, and if anyone felt moved to join in a passionate conversation -well, that really would be rather wonderful.


Sally said...

I understand your problem when you speak about preaching into an unresponsive context, no matter how much prep, or passion you deliver the blank looks during and cursory nods at the end of the service say it all... passion is easily dampened ( at least it is in my case)

Hope you aren't awake at 3am too often!

Graham said...

I have an ambivalent relationship with preaching for the same reasons!

I've always thought of it like the physics professor who came to his lecture theatre and did nothing for 2 hours but repeatedly flick paper at a large suspended weight. At the end of the lecture, the weight had slowly begun to move....

I keep that in mind when it just feels like flicking paper at a dead weight!

And I keep this in mind when I get too puffed up:-

I remember hearing a story about one of Wesley's travelling preachers complaining to him that his congregation were resistant to the gospel. Wesley went to hear him and is supposed to have said 'When I heard him I realised why they were resistant to the Gospel!'

I like your sermons and one recently set me thinking and I remixed it as an all age thingy. Keep going!

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

There are times I've preached when I think my words have sunk gently into a cloud of cotton-wool.... and other occasions (the terrifying ones) when you know you could tell your congregations that white is black and they'd believe you - for that moment, at any rate.

Song in my Heart said...

One thing I miss about the synagogue I attended is that the shiur (which is, essentially, a sermon) was almost always given with the expectation that the congregation would discuss it, immediately, before continuing with the liturgy. There were a lot of questions. At times there were arguments. But I learned a lot from these discussions even when I didn't participate, and even though I was an outsider and unfamiliar with much of the material my own contributions were taken seriously. There wasn't usually any direct feedback on the lecture itself, no "That was a really good shiur" or "Not up to your usual standard today, Rabbi," but certainly the Rabbi seemed happiest when people engaged with the subject, whether that was adding additional arguments to a point he had made, or picking apart his own arguments.

I wonder how much of the existing structure in the Christian church, of putting a sermon in the middle of a service, comes from a context where the congregation may not have had the education or literacy to engage in debate and instead needed help with interpretation. If that's the case, I'm not sure it seems so appropriate now when most can read, and when most who come to church are probably actually interested in God rather than just attending because it is the done thing.

I'm a relative newbie at church; as a child, I learned not to give much feedback on my stepdad's sermons. But one thing that does strike me is that I'm not always sure when to give sermon feedback. After church seems more like social time than a time for any sort of serious debate or questioning. By the time I've formulated my thoughts well enough to put them in an e-mail, it might seem too late, and I'm never sure whether it's appropriate. So I guess my question is, do the congregation know how to get in touch if they do want to respond? How would you like them to provide feedback?

To be fair, most sermons I hear are at Church on the Hill where I only attend Evensong and have only been going for a short while. I don't know the clergy there very well (though they're friendly enough), and I don't know how they'd respond to me, non-Christian, somewhat cynical, picking holes in their sermons based on things that they are able to accept as basic premises and I am not. Most of the other sermons I hear are at Leafy Suburb Church, where a much-admired friend and mentor of mine is Deacon. I've only heard her preach once, and it was very good. I did tell her that I liked it, and I did tell her about five or six days later that I was still thinking about what she'd said. But I didn't go into a lot of detail and probably won't: at this point in her curacy (and indeed later on) I think she could do with a few friends who see more than just the dog-collar. When I've heard the Vicar at the same church preach I haven't had as much to think about or discuss but still got something out of the sermons, but I really don't know her very well at all, and run into the same problems as with Church on the Hill; I'm a little more comfortable with the response I might get but I would still be asking questions out of context and I still wouldn't know which is the right forum for asking them.

I don't know if that's any help, but I hope it is. As a performing musician I also like to get feedback, and one of the things I am learning is that in order to get feedback I have to make myself available and be very clear that I'm open to criticism as well as praise.

Tony said...

Alas! how I long to change lives with my preaching, too. After all, Peter managed it on the day of Pentecost, and he hadn't even been to Cranmer Hall :-)

But after 30 years I've come to face the fact that wanting to change your congregation by talking at them is a bit like trying to change your spouse the same way. Dream on, buddy. It's more a case of them changing you, and all of you slowly being changed by your living together. With faith and prayer and hope, this will turn out to be changing in a good way...