Crawl Before You Preach: Advise from a Friend on Preparing Your Sermon (and your life)

"It is not enough for us to claim to know people who knew people who once crawled on their bellies before God. Our job is to be one of those people ourselves..."

I read this letter and begin to ask myself, “Milton, are you preaching with the twigs still in your hair and the smell of the earth still in your nostrils? Are you preaching with the dirt on your face?”

Let me set the scene for you. There is a young man, a preacher, with a great opportunity to bring the Word to young people this summer. He senses the soul-stirring thrill when a preacher knows that an open door is before him. He thinks of the possibility of Gospel and even cultural transformation as he would speak into the minds and hearts of those whom God will draw into his “congregation.” What will he say? How should he approach this opportunity? He is a wise young man for he takes his questions to an older brother, a father, really, who is not a preacher, but an able, well-read and thoughtful believer (who knows more about New Testament than many scholars do, and as a pastor’s son, knows more about the pastorate than many pastors). This very successful businessman, who calls me from time to time from London, or Vancouver, or Brussels, to talk about the latest books we are reading (I say that to underscore my friend’s stellar commitment to reading widely and deeply, as well as to seeking out conversation with a fellow believer about what he has read, even if he is three thousand miles away), took the time to respond. I thought his words were not simply worth reading but demanded it. I asked permission to print this and by his kindness, that which I have received, I offer to you.

“Jeff:

I have been thinking about your summer opportunity and want to encourage you to step fully into the opportunity to bring something powerful to those young people this summer. I urge you to take them, their concerns and the claims of Christ seriously. Give them words that will ring in their ears until they are old. I know this is possible. When men like you spoke into my bleary life as a teenager they changed my life for good and helped me encounter a God who loved me.

My caution about Lewis and two of his great works is no charge against Lewis. Rather, it is a voice of confidence in you and the calling that God has on your life and this opportunity. Let them hear your voice. Let them hear your convictions, tested against the realities of your life.

My reference to Barbra Brown Taylor, comes from her work, “When God is Silent” Written to and for preachers she pleads with them to do the hard work of original thought and craft messages that come from their own lives and learning. Here is part of her argument.

‘Some of you know of the poet and naturalist Gary Snyder, who won the Pulitzer prize in 1975. I especially love an essay of his called ‘Crawling,” in which he describes moving on his belly through a forest in the Sierra. Since the forest there is checkered with patches that have been burned or logged and are now almost impassable with thick new growth, most hikers stick to the old logging roads or trails. Pioneer that he is, Snyder preferred the road less traveled and set off through the woods on his hands and knees. Shimmying under fallen trunks and squirming his way through fields of prickly Manzanita, he was always happy to find a patch of snow that would let him slide on his belly for a ways. At one point he came face to face with a pile of steaming bear scat and, a little further on, with a prize boletus mushroom. “You can smell the fall mushrooms when crawling,” he wrote. “You brush cool dew off a young fir with your face.” The trick, he says, is to have no attachment to standing, to trade that in on a desperate desire to explore the world up close.

Reading him, I decided he was a good homiletics instructor. What would our sermons sound like if we approached the text in that way? What kind of revelations are we missing in this world because we insist on walking upright, while so much of life takes place closer to the ground? In a time of famine, our role as scouts has grown more serious than ever. Hungry people have no use for agricultural analysis. They need someone actively involved in the search for food. It is not enough for us to claim to know people who knew people who once crawled on their bellies before God. Our job is to be one of those people ourselves, exploring the territory on our own hands and knees so that we do not miss a single mushroom. When we stand up to speak, it would be good for us to have twigs in our hair-better yet, an alarming shine on our faces-so that listeners know where we have been ( and whom we have sought) on their behalf.’ (Page 108-110)

When I took a group of young people to Banff some years ago I gave the speaker the challenge of getting back to basics. I asked him to answer these questions in his talks. What do Christians believe about God? What do Christians believe about the human condition? What do Christians believe about Jesus? And finally, What do Christians believe about discipleship? He spoke to a group of college students and I was amazed at how few had thought deeply about these things. His words are still played back in conversations years later. He spoke out of his own learning and anchored his thoughts in the Word of God.

When walking the dog down the lane today I was thinking of your opportunity and what I, as a junior high student, needed to hear. These are the ideas that came to mind. First, don’t assume anything. I came from a pastor’s home and had internalized little of what I was taught as a child. Second, speak to them not at them. Give them solid food to chew on. Respect them as thinking human beings capable of wrestling with real ideas. Third, invest for the future. Speak truth and leave it to God to remind and convict well into the future.

Against my own experience in an opportunity like yours I might offer them a broad topic like: “Words with Power: Five ideas to build a life on” and then, assuming a five day camp build in the following ways.

·     The God who is for you.

·     Mind the gap: Not the way we are supposed to be.

·     Take a look at Jesus:  the one whose work is finished.

·     Hope is something we have.

·     No free lunch: The cost of discipleship.

I am back to my original position. Be yourself. Speak from the gifts God has given you in the opportunity before you.

Enough for now. I will be anxious to hear about what God places on your heart for these young people.

Yours to count on

Roger”

Oh, Lord, give us preachers who have crawled on their bellies before bringing the Word.