Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More Preaching...

I have been reading "Samuel Longfellow: Memoirs and Letters," which was edited by Joseph May and published in 1894.  It is a remarkably good read, comprised mostly (so far) of letters from Longfellow to his collaborators and colleagues.  Chief among them are Samuel Johnson and Edward Everett Hale.  So far--in the vein of very old gossip--it appears that he wasn't so fond of Theodore Parker as a person.  He does seem to have still been impressed with Parker's ideas and was willing to preach at his church when invited.

The passages that I have found most interesting up to this point have been the ones where he describes his early attempts at preaching.  After his first sermon (preached in Dedham, MA) he told Johnson that "on the whole, I liked it very well...Still, I felt no seriousness or solemnity about the matter, that I must tell you."  This appears to have been an early concern of his.  He seems to have been expecting (good transcendentalist that he eventually became) to be moved himself by the sermon.  Joseph May in his commentary says it best, and reflects on this general tendency early in a preaching ministry:

"The genuineness of Longfellow's sentiments is intimated in his disappointment at the effect on himself of his early essays in preaching, the importance of which, as spiritual experiences, a sincere beginner naturally magnifies in his youthful anticipations, not realizing that these first occasions must needs be matters of form, largely."

I think what May is trying to say here is that one must crawl before one walks and that issues of style and form take precedence early on and then fade away as the preacher becomes more comfortable.  That makes sense.  I would add that revisiting performance issues is a good and responsible task for the parish minister, otherwise preaching becomes repetitive and stale.  I also wonder how he expected to be moved. 

I know some preachers who seem very impressed with their own composition.  This leaves me as a listener out in the cold.  Perhaps he meant that he was having trouble being moved by the topic or the preaching text?  This, I think, is a greater concern for many of us.  More than one of my preaching professors in the DMin program emphasized that we should choose texts that connect with us personally.  In my project paper I cited works by Jana Childers, Theodore Jennings, and Henry Mitchell on this.  Preachers; of these I would seriously recommend Mitchell's book "Celebration and Experience in Preaching".

Of course, R.W. Emerson's Divinity School address has that oft-quoted segment about the preacher and the snowstorm which hits the same note.  Emerson's concern here is similar to Longfellow's and to many others as well.  How do we develop ways in which we connect intuitively and emotionally to a text or topic?  Also, how do we convey this connection to our congregations?  I will say that it wasn't clear that this was the question my first time through seminary.  Emerson isn't so sure it was part of the curriculum in his day either. In school we read Emerson's address, made fun of the poor, now-dead preacher who served his church the best he knew how, had a conversation about how these things are important, then moved on to more cerebral topics.  I don't think my experience was unique. 

I honestly believe that preaching is something that can only be learned by doing.  Modes of communication are often determined by context and our understanding of that context happens over time as we live with (and in) a specific community.  Still, it is good to know the question as we try to answer it for ourselves.  Longfellow ended up becoming quite the preacher later on.  These sorts of questions and the self-doubt they reveal must have helped him to improve over time. 

This all any of us can hope for, by the way.  Every once in a while I find a sermon that I preached some years ago and I am usually a bit embarrassed that I once thought it was worth saving.  No doubt (I hope!) I will feel the same way about what I am doing now.  My prayers are with all of my friends and colleagues whose job it is to preach and to lead worship.  It is an honor and a challenge.  May we all grow in the doing.

An Update: I found this description of Longfellow's preaching written by Mays.  "His  power in the pulpit lay in reaching individual hearts with truth, more than dealing with abstruse and difficult questions of philosophy and theology."


It is hard to find things on Joseph May, but here is a brief bio (scroll down) from his old church.

The others are more easy to find....

Theodore Jennings Jr.  is more of a theologian than a preacher.

Jana Childers' work focuses on those performance and style issues.  Her book, "Performing the Word: Preaching as Theater" is excellent.

Henry Mitchell is probably better known and more widely read, but if you haven't, you should!

 And here is a link to Emerson's Divinity School Address.  Honestly, I don't think it is his best work...

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