Thursday, September 18, 2008

Lines on Spiritual Nudism

When I was a kid I used to have the dream about falling and floating. Apparently, it's a standard one that loads of people have and there is (allegedly) some profound psychological meaning to accompany the phenomenon, but I can never remember what. It is also reported that many people dream about being found naked in a public place. I remember once dreaming about taking part in a fun-run only to realise half way through it that I was the only runner wearing the proverbial Emperor's New Clothes. (I realise, gentle reader, that this is not an image upon which you will wish to dwell for long). Such dreams are said to be revealing of inner self-doubts and profound insecurities, and they may well be so; (providing of course that the dreamer's response to discovering their nakedness in the High Street isn't to begin singing, dancing and making an exhibition of themselves!) Shame, embarrassment and frantic attempts to restore decency would seem to be a healthier response than exhibitionism - yet I will not bore the reader with an account of which extreme dominated the finale of my particular dream. Suffice to say, the peculiar emotional experience of the dream is something I have experienced repeatedly of late.

My experience of preaching (of which I seem to have been doing rather a lot lately, hence the reduction in blogging) is that it is somewhat akin to the stark-naked dream! There is something about standing and delivering a message from both the text and the heart, which is deeply and uncomfortably revealing of ones-self. It is not a controlled self-disclosure either, as one would manage in a private conversation, but a laying bare of the soul as much as the mind, in front of a group. The group consists of many people, some who you know, some you don't; people who maybe inspired or dismayed in equal measures. That inspiration or dismay is not just an intellectual critique of the message, either - it is a reaction (at least in part) to the disclosed self! The great irony of this vulnerability of preaching is that the aim of the exercise is neither to wince with embarrassment nor to indulge in exhibitionism but to draw attention away from ones-self to God, via the medium of the Biblical text.

Perhaps at this point you wish to object, 'there should be no self-disclosure in preaching, simply the study and application of the message'. That, however desirable, can never be the case and doesn't even happen in the intellectually controlled environment of a theology lecture - still less in a sermon! Two preachers, with identical theology, handling the same text will not produce identical presentations. They will differ in emphasis, illustration, development of the argument, application; and the difference between the two is personality - and it is this that is laid bare before the congregation. Is a point to be forced home with illustration, or an question left nagging for an answer? How are the full implications of a text to be explored, if they need to be moderated by contrasted with other texts and theological formulations? Will the words flow fluently and compellingly or 'die on the lips?'; will controversial subjects be handled with tact or with gaffe's of Boris Johnson proportions?

For me, all this takes place in the context of having struggled and wrestled with a text for many days while studying it and trying to work it out myself. The delivery usually takes place in front of many people who I know who are at least equally struggling to outwork such things in their lives. A remark that makes one person smile, or nod with approval and fills them with hope and encouragement - can be exactly the same one that makes another head bow in grief. The question is this - was the remark accurate, was it carefully worded, or was it off the cuff and foolish, an intrusion of the self in to the meaning of the text to be regretted, or was it a faithful application of difficult truth to be affirmed? Every one of these questions is akin to a spiritual striptease in from of a congregation, in that every decision that is made, often very quickly, is deeply self-revealing. The real rub however is the final struggle, that despite all those concerns and considerations, despite beginning with grappling with text, language and context; despite praying deeply through the pastoral consequences of what is to be said; the aim is to win the approval of God, not the congregation. The congregation is always that, a gathering of worshippers; it must never become an audience - especially in the preacher's mind.

My parents vicar once said to the congregation, "I had a horrible dream in which I stood here preaching, stark-naked; still it could have been worse - you could all have been naked!" Unless the preacher is just an actor, the act of inhabiting and presenting a biblical sermon is the most vulnerable thing I know. It is followed by the twin dangers of excess dismay if the message is not well received, or undue pride if it is. There is also of course the awful knowledge that one's own sins, follies, failures or mistakes might actually hold others back in their spiritual lives. The positives are that when it goes 'well' people say they are helped in their lives (sometimes you get such feedback over a year later!), and that if it goes 'badly' you probably won't be invited to preach again for a while! That will mean you get a Sunday off, to escape the dreadful sound of your own voice and go and enjoy some decent preaching somewhere else!

1 comment:

AnneDroid said...

Good stuff. I like your win-win scenario at the end, too!