I Gave Up Manuscript Preaching for Lent

On Monday mornings, I review my sermon video from the day before. (The churches I serve are 40 and 20 in regular weekly attendance, and I use the Zoom Q2HD in the first service, which is at the larger church. This is not some high-budget televised or even live-streamed thing, so don’t use the excuse that your preaching assignment is too small to be worth recording and reviewing. Regarding expense, the Zoom plus memory card was sub-$200, and I use a free video editor, a free audio editor, a free podcasting service which iTunes picks up and lists for free, and then post the audio on a free Facebook page, so even the smallest church can be sold on this investment in good preaching.)

My notes range from: “good emotions in announcements” to “energy ebbs at…” to “the sermon is too long because…” to “shave your face before next week.” For almost the entire time that I have been doing this (July of last year), I have been annoying myself with lack of eye contact, and months ago I realized that using a manuscript was keeping me from actually learning how to preach.

Transitioning off of manuscripts is a cold turkey process. Knowing that, I kept putting it off until some utopian week when I would have extra time to prepare and then make the jump. (N.B.: Those weeks don’t exist, and somewhere in my heart of hearts, I’ve known that the whole time.)

Finally, I picked up Preaching on Your Feet: Connecting God and the Audience in the Preachable Moment by Fred Lybrand because it was really cheap on Kindle one day. It’s not a great book, but it is a great kick in the pants. And so I decided to give up manuscript preaching for Lent.

The thought of this scared me so much that I started a few weeks early, and I did it not just without manuscript but without notes at all. I hated the results the first week, and it was hard to believe it would improve, but I was committed. Consider how in Mario Kart everyone who is good uses the Manual Mode, but if you start out on Automatic, you will experience a dip in your abilities when you make the switch to Manual. I definitely experienced a dip going from manuscript to no notes. But…no one in my churches noticed (or if they did, it wasn’t any worse than any other dips I’ve had for other reasons).

This week, however, I think I may have preached better than I have ever preached in these two churches. Yes, I went long. (Quick! Can I modify Communion without messing up something important? No. Quick! Which verses of the closing hymn should we cut? The middle ones, for no good reason.) I also was so much more present to the congregation, and I can see it on the video. It was so encouraging, even as I already know enough about preaching that it is never going to be just up-and-up-and-up.

It’s Monday again. Better start sermonizing.

If you’re going to die, do it like God did.

Yesterday morning I had the privilege of looking a bunch of people in the eye one-by-one and smudging up their foreheads a bit as I called them by name and told them, “I just want to remind you: you are going to die. Soon.”

Okay, no, I didn’t say that. I said it the proper, church-y way: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But, because I had mentioned in my homily how much preaching an Ash Wednesday service reminds me of preaching a funeral, and that that is exactly what the words and the ashes mean, I did have one of my parishioners smile back at me and reply, “Yup. Sooner rather than later.”

Laughing at death in a church. I think that’s exactly where we should laugh at death, because, no, it doesn’t seem right to laugh at death at a funeral. There is, after all, a time to grieve. But we do laugh and rejoice in the face of death, not because death has no power, but because it has no ultimate power (Life:Death::Lightning:Lightning Bug). There is a certain amount that Christians really do need to “Eat, drink, and be merry” in the face of death’s nearness.

It’s a combination of preaching week after week for all but four Sundays since last July plus spending some time lately with the Apostolic Fathers and now Justin Martyr that makes me see just how deeply strange is this thing we call Christian life. All the stories are strange, but old stories from any source are always strange. No, the strangest part of this Christian life is not those old stories but how we say they are not old–they are new and they are our story.

The things Christians do and call faithful worship evidence their truth in the reality that if we are not pointing to and participating in the Truth, then we are an ornate, expensive, time-wasting, needlessly painful circus act. Early Christians knew this as they gathered together and shared the Lord’s Supper, still repeating “This is my body. This is my blood.” They claimed his Body and Blood were true food and drink, fully aware that they were being accused of cannibalism. They sang songs and found joy and peace and hope in their loser God-Man (which is what again?), fully aware they were being called godless for rejecting all their culture’s gods in favor of this one god who was weak enough and dumb enough to get killed.

But for those early Christians, and for twenty-one Copts this week, and for each one of us who worships Jesus Christ, we believe that the God Who Has Died is the only god who can meet us even in death, the only god who has any right at all to tell us about Life.

Dead Jesus