In "Northern Farmer, " Tennyson described one man's perspective on a sermon: "An 'eard 'um a-bummin' away like a buzzard-clock owermy 'ead, And I niver knaw'd whot a mean'd, but I thowt a 'ad summut to say, And I thowt a said whot a owt to 'a said an I coom'd away."
It is quite a tragedy that some 100 years later this bit of verse can be taken over almost intact as a commentary on the relevancy of some preaching today.
Professional competence and a certain pride in that competence is an expression of commitment. A sense of commitment urges me to develop as many skills as God has given me. If I don't have an ability, that's one thing; if 1 am lazy, that's quite another.
The concerned professional will hone certain minimum skills to a high degree of effectiveness. In the same way that the carpenter learns how to drive a nail, saw a straight line, and care for his tools, I too need to oil the tools of my trade and develop the skills needed for it.
There is no guarantee that a carpenter who is professionally adequate will build a good house, but it is rather certain that he will not build one if he lets his skills grow rusty. So I work each week at trying to read the Scripture lessons with greater clarity. I experiment with how to use my voice, how to use pauses, how to modulate, how to express, how to emphasize. Nothing shocks me more than a man who has all the equipment and 10 or more years of experience in the parish, but who still reads the Scripture or preaches as if he were reading the phone book. We who preach must develop competence not only in constructing sermons and filling them with substantial content, but also in presenting them well.
Our concern should extend also to the methodology of preaching. For instance, we should realize that the statement "I have written a sermon" contains a certain contradiction. Writing is one form of communication, speaking is another. We tend to confuse these two forms. We write as though we were speaking and speak as though we were writing.
Read ecclesiastical literature with an eye to that concern and you will see what I mean. Our written materials have a tendency to float around and move from point to point like syrup making its erratic way over pancakes.
Listen to some of the sermons delivered in our circles. Some of our speakers move with the precision of a master fencer pinking a young opponent with expertise and mild abandon--interesting to watch but hard to follow.
Writing can and ought to be logical, sequential, progressive, and balanced in form. But in speaking, one always faces a "now or never" situation, at least for that particular message. Speaking is directed to the ear and has to do with sound. And sounds fade away long before a printed page returns to dust.
The reader sets his own stage for reception; if it is not comfortable, he can close his book and continue reading later or go to a more conducive place. But a speaker must consider things like attention spans, noise levels, comfortableness of surroundings, and age and interest differentiation.
Had Tennyson's preacher been committed to his ministry, technically proficient, and aware of his role, I doubt whether he would have been "a bummin' ... like a buzzard-clock ower my 'ead." Pastoral preaching to people in the parish requires both a sense of commitment and a proficiency that will help us communicate what we mean when we have something to say. --Rex D. Edwards.