I am continuing to (slowly) work my way through Extemporaneous Oratory by James M. Buckley (1898). For whatever it is worth, I am finding it very fascinating.
In his book, Buckley has a chapter on “The Value and Tyranny of Reminiscences.” In preparation for preaching without notes, or more specifically, “extemporaneous preaching” he looks at the subject of memory. He differentiates the three types of memory listed in the title of this post: Reminiscences, Remembrance, and Recollection.
He differentiates them in this way:
Remembrance is the ability to recognize that we have had a thought or experience when reminded of it by others. It does not necessarily come to mind spontaneously, but when “reminded” of it by another person,or event, we have the ability to remember that the event occurred. We may not be able to remember the details or all the facts about the event or thought, but (generally with an outside prompt) we remember that it occurred.
Recollection is “the art of sending the mind to rummage the brain, as one might search a library for a book which he knows is there.” (p. 118) I remember that my parents took me to the School of Ministry at Milligan College in upper east Tennessee in the early 1960’s. I remember certain things about the trip, but they are disjointed and have no particular meaning for me other than I can remember that they occurred. I don’t need prompting. I very definitely can pull up isolated memories of the event.
Reminiscence is a deeper experience than either of the previous two. It is “a narration of the circumstances, sensations, and reflections of individual experience…. [It is] habitually dwelling on the incidents, characteristics, events, within one’s own knowledge, including the books that he has read and the conversations he has had.” (p. 118-9) (Yes, brother Buckley lived before the days of politically correct gender neutered speech).
Buckley stresses the importance in reminiscence as necessary preparation for extemporaneous preaching.
As we reminisce about what we have felt, seen, smelled, tasted or heard, it does several things. It helps us prepare to recount those experiences in a more impactful way rather than just telling the mere fact that an event happened. It helps the audience understand the power in the moment, the tension in what was experienced. They can identify the emotion as being familiar to similar emotions they have felt in other experiences.
It also helps us synthesize experiences. As I reminisce about one experience, the emotions, smells, etc. can remind me of another. As I then compare and contrast those two situations/experiences it can lead to deeper understanding and insight.
But specifically for extemporaneous preaching, it allows these memories to be held so that they can be raised on a moments notice when something in our preaching suddenly brings back the particular reminiscence, thus making our speaking more interesting, more insightful and more impactful. I guess I like to think of it as putting another building block in the pile that the Holy spirit can draw from as he leads me in the act of preaching.
“the primary source of originality of oratory, poetry and conversation. Their specific character accounts for the ever-varied and fresh manner in which real orators are able to treat the same topic, and in a series of meetings may entrance audiences by eloquence upon a subject which, to the common mind, would not seem likely to furnish the materials for an hour’s good speaking.”
Of course, this demands several things. It demands that we actually pay attention to our surroundings! We must become more sensitive both to what is happening around us, and also to the smells, the sounds, the sights, the connected emotions, etc. How would I describe this situation that just happened five years from now to help someone relive it?
Second, the use of an indexed journal is critical as well. Not just a journal. But a journal that is indexed as to the types of experiences that are in it so that even though we have forgotten all of the details of an event, we can use the tools of “remembrance” or “recollection” to point us to recapturing the reminiscence.
There is a balance needed, however, stresses Buckley. By using reminiscence in excess we can fail to focus on today. We can be so captured by the lessons learned from our past experiences and so enamored by our re-telling of them that we fail to make the connection with how the principles learned “back then” apply or relate to our situation and problems today. We have all seen this in what we might call “ramblings” of older men (or women) who tell story after story of “the way it used to be” or what they did “back then” without any relationship to today and what people in today’s culture, setting and situations can learn from the reminiscences of the past.
I think that this chapter in Buckley was/is so pregnant with meaning for me currently because I am boxing up my books and office and saying goodbye to people. A week from today will have preached my last sermon at this church. So much of what I am experiencing raises so much emotion:
- comparing and contrasting leaving this church with leaving the three other churches I have served. Leaving a student ministry after four years of service where I served mostly as part-time education and youth minister. Leaving my first solo ministry after three and a half years of service where I first really learned to preach and to give pastoral care and leadership. Leaving my longest ministry (of 13 years) where we built a strong congregation, discipled leaders, built buildings and sent out scores of preachers and Christian workers. (I really don’t think that that is an exaggeration). To now, being asked to leave a ministry (for the first time in my life) after nine years. I won’t, in a public forum like a bog, air dirty laundry, but the contrasts are stark. And yet there are also points of comparison. Those are the things upon which I need to reminisce.
- trying to capture what lessons and experiences I have learned from this nine-year ministry. While there has been much frustration in this ministry; much has gone right. What situations do I need to reminiscence on a bit more to settle them in my mind or to get down in my journal so that they can be shared in appropriate times in the future? And there have been many precious people with whom I have had the privilege of serving and being served. What lessons and experiences do I need to capture so that they are not lost. That includes #3:
- whether I move into another preaching ministry, or ministry of another kind, or teaching at the college level, or secular employment, or whatever, I don’t want to waste the experience I am currently having here. I read an article (referred to me by a Timothy of this congregation who was at death’s door a year ago with a life threatening health condition) on not wasting your cancer. It is an article by John Piper and I may reflect on it at a later time. But the point for here is that I very much don’t to waste the experience of leaving this church under stressful circumstances. That includes both leaving under duress, but also doing so with a fresh diagnosis of cancer. It would be easy to cast stones & paint myself as the victim of a lay leadership gone amuck. But that is not totally true or the complete picture. I must not waste this current experience. So what events do I need to reminisce about to capture them for future learning?
What about you? Do you reminisce in a helpful way? You don’t have to be a 52 year old veteran of 30 years of ministry to be able to reminisce. From your first experience in ministry on…actually from your first experience in LIFE on….you have the fodder for helpful reminiscing.
I think it is called the building of wisdom. Let’s do it wisely. Not only that we may preach better…but that we may LIVE better.