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You Are Not the Sermon

As a writer as well as a preacher, I read writing books as well as preaching books. And several years ago I marked this section in Natalie Goldberg’s classic writing book “Writing Down the Bones” as particularly applicable to preaching. I keep coming back to it as helpful in keeping my preaching in perspective. Almost every place she uses the words “writing” or “poem”, you could put “preaching” and “sermon”.

I look back on the sermons I preached a year, five years, fifteen years…good grief…twenty-five years ago and want to apologize to the people for the sermons. But in reality, they were appropriate for the time and season. I have always gotten good feedback on my preaching. But it fit where I was at the time and where my people were at the time. But none of those sermons are me. I am in a totally different place of life and ministry and walk with God. The Word of God passed through me at that moment in time and I was privileged to be able to share that Word of the Lord for the congregation at that time, but none of those sermons WAS me.

That is why the “sermon barrel” (such an antiquated term) is so dangerous. It presumes that what the Holy Spirit wanted to say through you and to a specific group of people at a specific time is still what God wants to say to you to people–probably different people at a different time. And even YOU are different. How in the world can that message fit without major reworking?

Natalie Goldberg is an outspoken Buddhist and compatriot of Jack Kerouac, but I find her words inspiring none-the-less:

We Are Not the Poem

“The problem is we think we exist. We think our words are permanent and solid and stamp us forever. That is not true. We write in the moment. Sometimes when I read poems at a reading to strangers, I realize they think those poems are me. They are not me, even if I speak in the “I” person. they were my thoughts and my hand and the space and the emotions at that time of writing. Watch yourself. Every minute we change. It is a great opportunity. At any point, we can step out of our frozen selves and our ideas and begin afresh. That is how writing is. Instead of freezing us, it frees us.

The ability to put something down–to tell how you feel about an old husband, an old shoe, or the memory of a cheese sandwich on a gray morning in Miami –that moment you can finally align how you feel inside with the words you write; at that moment you are free because you are not fighting those things inside. You have accepted them, become one with them. I have a poem entitled, “No Hope”–it’s a long poem. I always think of it as joyous because in my ability to write of desperation and emptiness I felt alive again and unafraid. However, when I read it, people comment, “How sad.” I try to explain, but no one listens.

It is important to remember we are not the poem. People will react however they want; and if you write poetry, get used to no reaction at all. But that’s okay. The power is always in the act of writing. Come back to that again and again and again. Don’t get caught in the admiration for your poems. It’s fun. But then the public makes you read their favorites over rand over until you get sick of those poems. Write good poems and let go of them. Publish them, read them, go on writing.

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It is very painful to become frozen with your poems, to gain too much recognition for a certain set of poems. The real life is in writing, not in reading the same ones over and over again for years. We constantly need new insights, visions. We don’t exist in any solid form. There is no permanent truth you can corner in a poem that will satisfy you forever. Don’t identify too strongly with your work. Stay fluid behind those black-and-white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you. A moment you were awake enough to write down and capture.”

Natalie Goldberg, “We Are Not the Poem,” Writing Down the Bones, pp. 10-11.

The Preacher

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