Praying (and preaching) from the heart

June 10, 2011

Rembrandt's Paul. He wouldn't really have been writing in a book.

The problem with preaching a sermon series on Romans, as I am starting to do this Sunday, is that the preacher has to actually understand what Paul is getting at. Don’t laugh! I’m being completely serious! Have you read Romans recently? It’s dense and difficult, and we often have to suspend our disbelief that Paul is making one cohesive argument, rather than going off on a hundred different tangents. (I like N.T. Wright’s comparison of Romans to a great symphony: motifs appear and reappear, often in different keys and with counterpoints, etc. Wright is a classical musician; I am not.)

Of course we all have our favorite verses and passages from Romans. If you grew up Baptist in the Bible Belt, like me, you will no doubt be familiar with the “Romans Road to Salvation” (a quick Google search can’t determine whether it should be “Roman Road” or “Romans Road”), a collection of six or seven verses or scripture passages scattered throughout the book that purport to tell how one “gets saved.” And I’m not implying that those verses aren’t useful shorthand for explaining some part of the process of salvation, but they are incomplete and often beside Paul’s point.

Speaking of which, I’m carefully reading the New Interpreter’s commentary on Romans, which happens to be written by Wright—whom, as my regular blog reader(s) know(s), I already love. Nearly every section of his commentary includes words along these lines: “Of course, my exegesis goes against the traditional Reformed interpretation of these verses. The principle or doctrine behind this interpretation isn’t wrong—and Paul would no doubt agree with it—but is beside Paul’s main point here.” Something like that. No wonder Wright, an evangelical Anglican, has made some enemies among the hyper-Calvinists among us.

Be that as it may, I was reading Wright’s reflections on Romans 3:27-31. In it, he talks about some ways in which Paul’s discussion of “justification by faith apart from works” has been misappropriated by Enlightenment- and Romantic-influenced thinkers over the past two or three centuries, and how, as a result, this thinking has negatively influenced worship. One consequence, he writes, is a deeply Protestant suspicion of anything in worship that isn’t spontaneous—like, for example, scripted public prayer (not to mention liturgy in general). Against this prejudice, he writes:

There is of course great value in the stumbling prayer that comes from the heart as against the beautifully phrased prayer read from a book while the heart is busy elsewhere. But many, perhaps most, of the greatest spiritual guides would regard this as a quite false antithesis. Often somebody else’s words will act as lightning conductors, enabling one’s belief in, and sense of, God’s presence to go down to the very center of one’s being.

As I am a frequent pray-er of prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, I couldn’t agree more. More generally, I strongly reject the idea, as would Wright, that words that are thoroughly thought-through and written down before being spoken are somehow less “authentic,” less “from the heart,” than more spontaneous words.

This bias has infiltrated my profession. I write out a manuscript of my sermon each week (lucky for you, since I post it here). I put on paper exactly what I want to say. If, in rehearsing my sermon, I decide to say it another way, I literally make a change to my manuscript in my word-processing program of choice. I’ve been doing this for seven years (although I might not re-print it now, thanks to the recent gift of an iPad). Of course it helps that I know how to type well.

Writing a manuscript used to be the norm for preachers, but it’s currently unfashionable in homiletical circles. It’s gone the way of classic three-point expository sermons. (There’s nothing wrong with those, either.) To be clear, I’m not arguing the merits of preaching from a manuscript as opposed to an outline or with nothing at all. Whatever works for you, I say. But I strongly disagree with the premise—which I have heard some preacher acquaintances actually say out loud—that preaching from a manuscript makes you less “authentic” or “heartfelt” or “Spirit-filled” than you would be if you preached without it.

“Step away from the manuscript,” they say. “Be yourself.” Spare me! I pour my heart into my manuscript, and it reflects, as much as anyone might want it to, my true self. Of course this doesn’t mean that I never step away from it, deviate from it, be spontaneous, go down a different path while preaching it; it just means that at 10:59 a.m. on Sunday morning, after I have prayerfully and deliberately written and edited it, this is the sermon that I honestly believe that Holy Spirit is leading me to preach. If that wind, which blows where it will, is blowing in a different direction at 11:35, I’ll try my best to tack in that new direction.

What I hope critics of manuscript preaching are really saying is that they don’t like preachers who simply read a manuscript from the pulpit. Who does? Preaching from a manuscript, if you follow good rules of public speaking, shouldn’t mean that! Churchill and JFK, to take two prominent secular examples, used manuscripts, and they were effective communicators. Likewise, I hope these critics dislike those preachers without manuscripts who stumble around from one point to another, ramble off track, constantly repeat themselves, and speak in a drab, artless way. See what I mean? It goes both ways.

Every preacher, regardless of whether they use a manuscript or not, should prepare. And that preparation takes hours if it’s done right. Speaking of which, I have to get back to it!

† N.T. Wright in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 486.

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