Paying Attention to Life

I heard a sermon this morning on the famous “Widow’s mite” narrative. The preacher took care to tell us the story in a way that had us leaning forward. We were completely gripped by his imaginative handling of the details of this woman’s story. From there he moved directly to a personal story about his three-year old son who was willing to part with his hard-earned money to help a homeless man that he encountered in the street. You kind of had to be there to appreciate the power of these two stories told in parallel. I know that I won’t soon forget it.attentive

We might want to say that this was one of those almost-magical moments where the story of our lives and the story in the text matched perfectly. I suspect, however that this kind of opportunity is there for us more often than we think. The Bible is written to address the stuff of life. If we can’t see the connections to the lives we lead, it is only because we haven’t been paying attention.

Paying attention to life is a significant preacher-skill. It is important that we be attentive to the things that are going on around us, which might offer examples, metaphors, or clues to the meanings that we want to preach. When our sermons can be seen in life, they take on an increased power.

This means we can’t start preparing just the night before. If we want to notice these illustrative and applicational opportunities, we need space in life for these connections to be recognized. A longer gestation period for our sermons will be helpful so that there is time for us to pay attention. Our minds focused on the direction of our sermon will be able to find those points of connection if we are able to give it just a little time.

The preacher I heard this morning, might never have noticed anything special in his son’s response to the homeless man, if it were not for the fact that he had his sermon on his mind. For days he had been contemplating the deep truths of his text such that when he saw an example in life, the connection was readily evident.

I have written before that one way to manage this sort of thing is to work on more than one sermon at a time. For example, you could do your exegetical and interpretive work for the next week’s sermon and also your sermon construction work for the current week’s sermon in the same week. In that way, you can give your sermons a longer gestation period without adding any hours or minutes to your preparation.

If we had time to pay attention, we might find a great number of things that can take us deeper into the truth of our sermons. It only takes intention – and attention.

The 500 Word Manuscript

So how much manuscript should a preacher use? Does a sermon manuscript keep a preacher from rambling into irrelevance, or does it stifle and inhibit communication? A more oral and in-the-moment approach can keep the sermon from feeling like it has been canned or packaged. On the other hand, a manuscript can keep the sermon from feeling like the preacher is making it up as he goes.

computer

My own preaching has utilized both methods to varying degrees. I do love the communicative power of extemporaneous preaching, even though it sometimes feels a little undisciplined and imprecise. Some have suggested the preparation of a manuscript that is left behind and not utilized in the actual preaching of the sermon. While this sounds like a great way of integrating the two approaches, I have often found myself paralyzed while preaching by this method, trying to remember the exact construction that I laboured over in the writing of the manuscript.

My solution has been to move to a 500 Word Manuscript. Having done my sermon research and construction, I write the sermon in 500 words or less – basically the sermon on a single sheet of paper. 500 words is not enough words for even the shortest of sermons, but it is enough to communicate the basic substance and structure I intend. It also doesn’t require as much time to prepare. Consolidating the sermon into 500 words forces me to focus and sharpen the sermon, requiring me to make important choices about better and best. I can then easily commit the resulting structure to memory without worrying about falling into a deadly recitation in the preaching of the sermon.

There is a delightful freedom in preaching the resulting sermon. The sermon feels fresh and focused. I am not bogged down by pre-fabricated constructions, nor am I struggling to discern direction. I don’t bring my 500 words with me to the platform. I don’t need to. I know what I am doing and where I am going, but I am free to use language that seems organic and unforced as it emerges in the moment.

One thing I know about myself is that I can talk. I am seldom stuck for words when I have clarity about my purpose. I suspect that the same could be true about any of us who preach. The resulting product might not look eloquent if published, but no one is publishing our preaching anyway.

The 500 Word Manuscript is a way if having your homiletical cake and eating it too. People love it when we can look them in the eye and communicate with them directly without the interference of our manuscripts and notes. But they also want us to be coherent and to not waste their time. My 500 words is enough to help me give them what they need.