Limitations of preaching

Things unsaid

Jun 12, 2014 by

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Every Sunday morning, men and women around the planet get up in front of other humans and presume to speak about and for God. And, I suspect, that every Sunday morning, at least some of these same men and women sit down after preaching thinking, “there are a lot things that I left unsaid out there today.”

Things that I could have said, but didn’t.

Things that I should have said, but didn’t.

Things that I could have said differently, things that I wish I had said differently.

Things I didn’t have time to say.

Things that I wasn’t brave enough to say or bright enough to figure out.

Things that, in hindsight, were mere clutter, peripheral noise.

Things that would have been better left unsaid.

I feel this way almost every week, but I’ve noticed it in a particularly acute way over the last few weeks.

I was driving home yesterday thinking about, lamenting the unsaid things. And the more I thought, the more it seemed to me that the problem is far bigger than unsaid things. It’s not only what I could have said, not only that there is never time to say everything that could profitably be said. It goes deeper than this. There are so many limitations built into the task of preaching, of communicating in general, of living, for goodness’ sake! It’s not only that I didn’t say everything that I could or should have, it’s that I can’t say everything that I could or should.

I approach the text through the lens of my questions, my concerns, my hopes, my fears, the things that I want to be true, the things that I’m afraid might be true. There are things that quite literally never occur to me — yet these might be precisely the things that someone out there needs to hear. I bring my own biases, my own dispositions and preferences to each sermon. There are some doors that I never open, not necessarily because I don’t want to but because they simply are not on my radar.

One of my mentors once said that the preaching task is the story of God mediated through the story of a human being. Sometimes this sounds liberating and hopeful. Sometimes it sounds like a terrifying straightjacket.

The preacher represents one story through whom (usually) one text (that is part of a much larger and more complicated whole) is mediated for a few minutes to one group of people on one day. That’s not much.

And even once we get behind the inherent limitations of the task for the preacher her or himself, what about the many stories represented out there? The people who graciously grant their attention — what about the myriad sets of experiences and expectations and questions and fears and hopes and dispositions and needs that they bring to the experience of listening, interpreting, evaluating?

For 20 minutes on a Sunday morning all of this expectation and desire, all of this hope and fear, all of this lethargy and boredom, all of these stories that have been shaped in all of these ways, some of which we are aware, many of which we are not, collide.

None of this is unique to the task of preaching, I know. We could deconstruct any human communication along similar lines. So much conflict is the result of some combination of the factors above rupturing and spilling out over our carefully policed boundaries of discourse. We have such a hard time seeing things from perspectives other than our own. Our selves are all we have, after all. For better or for worse, we all drag this collection of disposition and desire around with us wherever we go.

And yet as I drove down the highway on a glorious spring day, I found myself thinking along other lines as well. I found myself marveling at the wonder that we actually do manage to have meaningful connection with one another, and that — miracle of miracles! — sometimes something of God actually winds its way through the thorny trails between all of these wildly different stories, expectations, hopes, fears — and lodges itself in our hearts and minds and hands and feet.

God speaks through human beings. Yes, I have always believed this. But that word “through” is an interesting one. Does it refer to a conduit — something like a funnel through which the voice of God is channeled? Or does it point to an obstacle that God graciously, necessarily obliterates from time to time — like breaking through a barrier or something? I suspect that more often than not there’s a bit of both going on for 20 minutes on a Sunday morning. Thank God.

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. He writes at Rumblings.

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