My reflection on Chapter 12 (“Stories That Shape Us”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren.
Several times over my years in seminary, and then as a parish pastor, I have heard the old dictum “One hour of study for every minute in the pulpit.” There was a time, perhaps, in my seminary years where that was possible to live out. I had the luxury of being independent, without family to provide for, and my 24 hours a day were mine. Of course I could spend as much time on sermon preparation as I wanted. And I did.
I recall the day two of my classmates came up to me in the library and lamented that they couldn’t preach as well as I. I was embarrassed by their compliments, but also well aware that I had none of their burdens: Single parents. Holding down near-full-time jobs while in seminary. One raising a special needs child. They were the seminarians to be affirmed—they found a way to prepare sermons. Maybe not as finely crafted as could be accomplished in a few more hours in the study. But still the Good News was shining through. I am humbled today at the thought of their courage going forward in seminary, and their needing to trust God to guide them. How tired they must have been at the end of the day when they put their kids to bed, and there still was a mountain of homework to do!
One hour of study for every minute of sermon? Well, it may have been possible in those seminary years, but that doesn’t happen in my life anymore. (Apologies to my homiletics professors.) But Brian McLaren framed what that process is like for me in Chapter 12 when he writes about biblical interpretation. He says that good interpretation begins with three elements: Science, art, and heart. The science part is the study of the history, language, culture, development of the scripture over time, and so on. The art is the ability to draw meaning from the stories of the Bible which speak of a time long, long ago. One needs to look at scripture as literature, in that case. Finally, McLaren says the heart needs to be involved in interpretation as it remains open to the prompting of the Spirit.
The number of hours spent in sermon preparation (or a Sunday School lesson, for that matter) do not matter so much as having all 3 elements present in the hours one does have. I think about my preaching and sermon preparation over the years, and how all 3 elements needed to be there each week. Some weeks will take more hours than other weeks; some weeks the time is limited and you can’t change that fact. But you need all 3 things—science, art, heart—in order to enter that pulpit and offer a good and faithful Word.
We’re nearing the end of our year-long journey together. Thank you for joining me in any way you did—reading McLaren’s book, participating in my blog, speaking with others about your readings, sitting with me in conversation. You and I are part of God’s story, even as we read the old, old story of His love. May you and I continue to find ourselves caught up in that love, shaped by it, and energized to share it.