The gravity of that responsibility held me back for a long time. Exegesis and construction of the sermon were (and are) vitally important; so much so that I could not preach without my manuscript in front of me. I could not, or rather would not. Now that may not be a problem for some people, but for me it felt like a stumbling block. I continued to feel like I wasn't living up to my potential, and probably wasn't inspiring people like I should. I lived in that place for quite a while and it needled at me.
I realized that it needled at me because I have some skills to bring to the table that I wasn't bringing. My undergraduate degree was in speech and theater. I spent four years developing public speaking skills. I participated in speech competitions and performed on stage. I practiced, practiced, practiced. By the time I finished college I was equipped to present a speech without a manuscript, without note cards, without anything but the information I'd logged into my brain. So why couldn't I do that in my preaching? Fear. Fear of the responsibility I carry. Fear that I would drop the ball, fall on my face, wander in the wilderness, and offer nothing but random thoughts. I felt the weight of the responsibility so greatly that I made the presentation of God's word all about me.
Then we began an evening worship service. This was going to be a very different service. The concept was not a praise service, not a Taize style service; something different. For lack of a better term we call it our "casual service". In this service all we bring for liturgy is the same sheet of paper with an outline of the elements of the service. The prayers are spontaneous and the content is driven by those who attend. Every hymn is chosen by the congregation. We come in shorts and jeans and stay for a potluck supper afterward. Preaching from a manuscript wasn't going to fly here. In fact, people were hoping it could be a conversational style, with the congregation responding and asking questions during the message. 7 years later it has become the favorite service of those who attend. Early on, one of the members of that service, and also an inquirer for ministry, encouraged me to give up the manuscripts and just talk to the people. It wasn't like I didn't have an idea what to talk about, I had a sermon prepared for the morning service, just talk about it. And so I did. It began with planting a seed, asking questions and responding to them, but I always knew exactly what I was going to say in the beginning and the end. Gradually I stopped worrying so much about a structure and just went with the flow. Then something happened. I quit making it about me, and trusted God. Instead of creating a mental outline, I prayed that God would give me the words. I let go - and let God as the phrase goes. It has been an experience that isn't just about preaching, but about truly falling into the hands of God and knowing that God will catch me.
Inspiration doesn't always come with the same burst of energy. I still write a manuscript for many Sunday morning sermons. Sometimes I will prepare a sermon that doesn't feel right. Something about it doesn't feel comfortable. It's hard to say exactly what isn't right. Other times after all the preparation, an idea will come into my head that feels like the direction I need to go. This last week was one of those weeks. A seed of an idea had been in my head but I couldn't quite get it together. I was prepared to go with my manuscript even though it was gnawing at me. It was Pentecost Sunday and as our youth and adults were presenting a dramatic reading of the story I listened to how Peter was inspired to preach. No manuscript, no note cards, just the power of the Holy Spirit. I set the manuscript aside and proclaimed a message about the power of the Holy Spirit that is present in each one of us if we open ourselves to receive it. If you asked me exactly what I said, I couldn't tell you. It's an experience in which I am totally in the moment, the words just come, and when I'm finished I wonder how that happened. It's not about me; it's about God.
The response to my sermon has been a wonderful blessing because people were inspired. Some have said they really felt the power of the Holy Spirit in worship on Sunday. Others said that worship has become fun for them and they look forward to what we're going to do next. And one said that when I go "off book" I am so energized that it energizes the congregation. He said that he feels more connected and really hears what I am saying. God speaks, when I am listening.
The lesson in this is not that I have become some great extemporaneous preacher. There are plenty out there that are far more gifted than I. But my journey is a lesson about faith, about getting out of the way to let God work through you. We all struggle with that. Each one of us has been given a gift that can serve the common good of all. God invites us to use those gifts but too often we hold it so tightly that we squeeze the life out of it or we control it so carefully that the creative Spirit can't fully speak through us. People second guess themselves. I've known people who have powerful stories of faith to share who can't share them in worship because of their fear of speaking in public. Others at the other end of the spectrum are afraid to share their story with just one person. Some refuse to believe God has given them a gift, or that God needs them to use it. We become stumbling blocks for ourselves.
There is powerful energy that comes from trusting God to give you what you need to do the work you've been called to do. I still struggle with sermon content. I am diligent about exegetical work that supports the message. But today I know that if I do my part, God will take me by the hand and use me in ways I could never have expected. God desires to do that for all of us. Jesus promised to send an advocate for us, the creative Spirit of comfort, power, presence. The Holy Spirit is far more powerful than we allow ourselves to believe. If we learn to get out of the way and open ourselves to the leading of the Spirit, God can and will use us to teach, inspire, and transform. Let go....