review: the write stuff

The Write Stuff: Crafting Sermons That Capture and Convince
by Sondra B. Willobee (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) pb, 123pp
“… what releases of torrent of inspiration in preaching is often not climbing a high mountain to gain some grand and sweeping vista but instead small things – taking an unusual sight line in a biblical text, raising a provocative question, or turning off the computer and paying attention to what is happening around us..” (pp.xi-xii)
“… the only thing worse than listening to a sagging sermon is delivering one.” (p.1)
“When we fail to reach people, it is not usually for lack of conviction or effort or sincerity on our part. Rather … our preaching usually falters for lack of craft. … Weak introductions, vague application, and slow narrative pulse. Too often, pressed by the demands of impossible schedules, we shortchange the process of shaping the message so that it can be heard. This is where writers can help us. Good writers know how to grab and hold our attention. … This book condenses material from the creative-writing shelf for busy pastors. Yes, our sermons must do more than dazzle. … But our people cannot judge the value of our ideas if they’ve quit listening.” (pp.2-3)
“Imaginative exercises used by writers can also help us outwit what I call ‘The Censor’ and ‘the Production Manager.’ The Censor says, ‘You can’t say that. What will people think?’ The Censor shuts down exploration before it’s even started. The Production Manager says, ‘Quit messing around. You’ve got calls to make, people to counsel, and meetings to plan. Come up with something now!’ Pressure from the production manager obstructs the flow of fresh ideas.” (p.4)
“Some preachers worry that too much attention to technique makes sermons calculated rather than inspired. … To dismiss craft, however, is to refuse the gifts of those who communicated the words of God through the ages. Prophets used imagery, plays on words, parables, and proverbs to get their hearer’s attention. Jesus used aphorisms, riddles, and hyperbole, as well as distinctive parables, to cajole and convict. Paul used every weapon from the arsenal of rhetoric to quell his critics and strengthen his congregations.” (p.5)
“All matters of technique have to do, not with the desire to be clever, but rather with the intention to be alive and open to the surprise of the gospel.” (p.6, quoting Eugene Lowry)
“Fred Craddock told his students to assume their listeners almost didn’t come to church that morning.” (p.12)
“For journalists and writers, the opening of an article, essay or story is called the ‘hook.’ A hook dangles something that is important to the listener. A hook incites interest, establishes the speaker’s credibility, sets the tone, and suggests something about the theme. Hooks also tell our hearers how to listen to the rest of what we are going to say …” (p.12)
“If the narrative process is to be followed, the sermon will begin – one way or another – with a discrepancy, a conflict, an ambiguity needing resolution.” (pp.14-15, quoting Eugene Lowry)
“Try this. Read Mark 3:19b-30 or 2 Corinthians 12:11-19. What are the conflicts or tensions within the text, stated or implied? What entities are opposed to each other? What is at stake for each of them? Write a hook that sets out the conflict.” (p.15)
“Whether you open your sermon with a conflict, an unresolved event, a question, a vivid character, a strong statement, an arresting image, or a joke, a well-constructed hook is a form of pastoral care. We pay our parishioners the courtesy of engaging their attention before speaking of difficult matters. We honor them when we respect the fears, doubts, fatigue, or rebellion that almost kept them from worship. A good hook meets our congregations in their need and prepares them to go the next step of the sermon with us.” (p.26)
“The most effective preachers seem to have unusual access to powers of imagination. By ‘imagination’ I mean the ability to enter deeply into the world of another, whether that person is a parishioner or a biblical character.” (p.29)
“… I suggest three ways that we can cultivate our imaginative powers: praying, playing, and paying attention.” (p.34)
“Telling stories is more than a way to entertain distracted listeners. Story is the way faith happens. … Therefore, sermons need to move as stories do.” (pp.44-45)
“Try this. Study the use of the refrain in Psalm 46,80, or 136. Reflect on how the refrain works in each psalm. How does the refrain tie together disparate elements in the psalm or deepen the relationship between similar ideas?” (p.51)
“A file folder of good stories is like a bag of gold.” (p.64)
“Where do we find good stories and examples if we don’t use prepackaged materials? What pastoral ethics and etiquette guide us when we use stories and examples in our sermons? And how do we incorporate them into our sermons so they don’t sound so contrived? … read widely for quality material … acknowledge your sources … motivate with positive examples … ditch the inappropriate illustration … create your own story … use dialogue to convey character and action … slant the story to express the theme … always ask permission … it’s not about you … make it up” (pp.65,69,71,75,77,79,80,81,83)
“More than 150 years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson complained about a preacher who failed to connect with the lives of his listeners: ‘This man had ploughed and planted and talked and bought and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches, his heart throbs; he smiles an suffers; yet there was not a surmise, a hint, in all of the discourse, that he had ever lived at all.” (p.92)
“We can trust language to do its work. When I asked him what advice he would give preachers, poet Thomas Lynch said, ‘Don’t explain the metaphor, just give it.’ If our our hearers don;t understand the metaphor right away, so much the better. They will mull it over during the week.” (p.96)
“The incarnate word is a deliberate word, chosen, weighed, sweated over. Here is the anguish of revising whole paragraphs, or even starting over. … To put ourselves in obedience to the exact word or the clearest image is a spiritual discipline as demanding as prayer or fasting. It challenges our laziness. It goes against our instincts. We won’t always do it. But when we do, when the words sing together like music, it is worth every drop of sweat.” (pp.99-100)
“When we leave our preparation to the last minute, we deprive ourselves of one of the most effective sermon techniques available: revision.” (p.103)
“… protect time to prepare … break it into small tasks … observe sabbath to refresh your spirit … say it out loud … trim everything that doesn’t advance the theme … review parts for effective order … look at it line by line.” (pp.104,106,110,111,112,113)
“Try this. Pick a random paragraph from a sermon you preached recently. Check for places where you can cut weak words and substitute stronger ones, changing passive verbs to active ones and cutting unnecessary words. Brevity communicates vigor.” (p.113)
I’m a fan of Tom Cruise and Thomas Long. Seeing the title – The Write Stuff – my mind leaped to Top Gun. Reading the top of the cover – “Foreward by Thomas G. Long” – I had to pick it up. Peeling it open to the foreward’s concluding sentence I read: “I cannot imagine a more practical, attentive, useful, reliable, provocative, and thoughtful guide to the delightful play of detail and form in sermons than this volume.”
I was instantly $15 lighter.
Granted, the brief table of contents doesn’t look inspiring, but don’t let that fool you.
  • Introduction
  • Part one – Hook
  • ch. 1: Use a Hook – pp.11-28
  • ch. 2: Inspired Imagination – pp.29-42
  • Part two – Book
  • ch. 3: The Plot Thickens – pp.43-63
  • ch. 4: Finding Stories – pp.64-88
  • Part three – Stone
  • ch. 5: Language of the Incarnation – pp.89-102
  • ch. 6: Time to Revise – pp.103-114
  • Notes
Understand (p.2), the three key words form the structure of this book’s three parts, you will remember the essence of the sermon creation process. Hook means “creating a compelling opening.” Book is about “how to generate suspense through structure.” And Stone tells you how to “arouse interest with vivid language.” Hook. Book. Stone. Got it.
This book is precise. It’s tightly written; there are no wasted words. Warning: if you’re a highlighter, you’ll run out of ink if you one of those who likes to highlight everything you like.
This book is perfectly practical. It’s not just a book; it’s a workbook. It’s not about theory; it’s all about practice. Read it and gain much; work it and gain much, much more. Don’t merely hear fifteen “Try This” exercises  (pp.4-5,15,26-28,40,51-52,58,61-63,78-79,80,82-83,85-86,97-98,100-102,109,113); do them. Put into practice the numerous, solid suggestions. Learn from the complete sermon manuscript (Genesis 32:22-31; pp.53-57). Harvest the abundance of good illustrations. Revel in the practicality of it all.
This book would be tremendous for the newbie preacher. If I taught a homiletics class, this would definitely be a required textbook. However, veterans can benefit from this work just as much as rookies. I know I did. No, I am. There are things in it I’ve forgotten, things I never knew, bad habits of mine that get called out and good habits that find reinforcement in every chapter. And so I’ve put it in my head to re-visit this book once a year to keep me sharpened. Where has this book been all my life?
And one quick aside. I recently read, and reviewed, Preaching On Your Feet by Fred Lybrand. The Write Stuff is something of “the other side of the coin” to Preaching On Your Feet; Stuff is primarily about preparation and Feet is all about delivery. It was great to hear these two very different voices almost in conversation. I’d love to see an interview exchange between Fred Lybrand and Sondra Willobee!
In sum: buy, read, ponder, work and keep this rare, little gem. Now. It’s a perfect 10.

review: NIHP

Paul Scott Wilson, general editor (Abingdon, 2008), hb, 506pp
Let me note at the outset that due to the nature and length of this particular work I have yet to read this book in its entirety. Which is the greater lunacy? To review a book yet unread or try to “read through” a reference work? You decide. As to the current method of my madness, I am reading one article in The New Interpreter’s Handbook of Preaching (NIHP) each day. There being 226 articles by 135 contributors, it’s safe to say that I’ll be at it for awhile.
NIHP has been published in very easy-to-read type; would that every book was this easy on the eyes! The format is double-column. Wonderfully (and all too rarely in this age of cutting every corner possible), the margins are more than ample for the scribbling of notes and references to other works in your library. A number of articles make very good use of bold and italic font to aid the reader in following the divisions of, and emphasis on, the thoughts being presented. References to articles that appear elsewhere in NIHP appear in ALL CAPS and the majority of articles contain such cross-references. The paper quality is top notch, as is the binding. NIHP was clearly designed to last a lifetime of frequent use.
Every article is just the way God intended them to be – signed. Almost all articles are followed by brief bibliographies (1-15 entries) that offer excellent guidance toward solid works that explore the subject at hand.  However, I was rather surprised, and greatly disappointed, to find that NIHP contains not a single index of any kind, be it an author, Scripture or subject. This wound, while anything but fatal, was, nevertheless needless and limiting. In fairness, this loss is somewhat compensated for by the inclusion of the cross references (ALL CAPS), an alphabetical list of all the articles (what a great idea!; pp.xxi-xxiii) and a detailed table of contents. Still, in my mind, there is no excuse for the exclusion of indexes in a work of this nature. Following is a listing of the eleven main table of contents divisions along with a sampling of six articles listed under each of the divisions.
1. Bible (17 topics; pp.1-63) archaeology, exegesis, four senses of Scripture, hermeneutics, suspicion, typology
2. Bible Genres (27 topics; pp.65-114) apocalyptic, conquest narratives, laments, parables, Psalms, Synoptic Gospels
3. Ethics (13 topics; pp.115-139) corporate ethics, environmental ethics, moralism, plagiarism, preaching (ethics of), self-disclosure
4. Literary Criticism (12 topics; pp.141-172) cultural hermeneutics, deconstruction, homiletical criticism, new historicism, reader/listener response, social scientific criticism
5. Poetics (19 topics; pp.173-211) film, focus and function statements, illustration and stories, imagination/creativity, metaphor and figures of speech, video clips
6. Preacher (19 topics; pp.213-251) anxiety, appearance, devotional life/lifestyle, long-range sermon planning, preacher’s week, sermon research
7. Social Location (16 topics; pp.253-289) bilingual setting, career path/life stage, preaching to children, pulpit (use of), war (preaching during), worship style
8. Experience (21 topics; pp.291-342) African-American preaching perspectives, merging church preaching, evangelistic preaching, Internet preaching databases, lectio divina, technology
9. Rhetoric (13 topics; pp.343-368) arrangement, memory, pathos/feeling, persuasion, rhetorical devices, technology and the sermon
10. Sermon (31 topics; ; pp.369-431) conclusions, funeral, preparation, sermon series, topical, without notes
11. Theology (17 topics; pp.433-506) Christology, ecclesiology, Holy Spirit and preaching, sin and evil, theology of proclamation, Trinity
There’s precious little about preaching that doesn’t get addressed in some fashion in the NIHP. And of the articles I have read thus far, though of uneven quality and clarity (as is to be expected from a work with well-over one hundred contributors), the average level of them all is quite high.
In sum, NIHP should find a welcome place in your library. Fast a few meals and acquire a copy. While not “required reading,” it is an exceedingly helpful reference. I give it a 9.1; the lack of indexes cost it .4 in ranking.

review: preaching on your feet

Preaching On Your Feet: Connecting God and the Audience in the Preachable Moment
by Fred R. Lybrand (B&H Academic, 2008) pb, 182pp
“… I believe we need ‘soul-moving preachers’; and yet to be a soul-moving preacher, mustn’t our own souls be moved as preachers?” (
“A sermon must be prepared and drafted word by word. It is certainly true in this instance that an account will have to be given for every idle word. Preaching is not an art in which some are able to improvise while others have to write everything out; it is the central action of evangelical worship in close association with the sacrament. Only a sermon in which every word can be justified may be said to be a sacramental action.” [quoting Karl Barth] (p.viii)
“The claim here is simply that the most effective preachers are those who preach on their feet, and the least effective ones are those who preach on their seats. … Preaching on your seat is the process of working out copious notes or a manuscript or a thick outline in the days ahead of preaching to be practiced and then finally delivered to the audience as a carefully crafted sermon. … Preaching on your feet is what preaching has always been – a real connection to real human beings in a real moment of time. … as Blackwood observes, Jesus spoke from ‘heart to heart and from eye to eye.” (p.2)
“I want to make you know two things: first, that if your ministry is to be good for anything, it must be your ministry, and not a feeble echo of another man’s; and, second, that the Christian ministry is not the mere practice of a set of rules and precedents, but is a broad, free, fresh meeting of a man with men, in such close contact that the Christ who has entered into his life may, through his, enter into theirs.” [quoting Phillips Brooks] (p.4)
“Preaching is joy, but preparing is torture.” (p.12)
“The real question about a sermon is, not whether it is extemporaneous when you deliver it to your people, but whether it ever was extemporaneous, whether there was ever a time when the discourse sprang freshly from your heart and mind. … The main question about sermons is whether they feel their hearers.” [quoting Phillips Brooks] (p.21)
“To the consciousness of the speaker his own mental state is similar to that of one participating in an animated conversation – there being no effort to recollect, no anticipation of what is to come, but entire absorption in the process of evolving, in correct forms of speech, the thoughts intended to be impressed.” [quoting James Buckley] (pp.23-24)
“… three words capture the essential elements necessary for effective preaching. These elements also display who preaching on your feet is the proper mode. … persuasion … earnestness … personality.” (p.27,29,36)
“Preaching on your feet is loaded with advantages … time management … connection with the audience … the possibility of the audience remembering … the example of humility … adaptability … Holy Spirit led … personality trumps plagiarism … preaching becomes and act of faith … growth in confidence … readiness … a walk with God is more intimate to preaching … you become sharper (if not smarter) … fresh delivery … joy in preaching … the audience is expectant.” (p.41,43-54)
“Preaching on your feet is the historically proven means by which the greatest speakers had the greatest impact … John Chrysostom … Augustine … Martin Luther … Huldrych Zwingli … John Calvin … Cotton Mather … John Wesley … George Whitefield … John Newton … Charles Haddon Spurgeon … Charles G. Finney … George W. Truett.” (p.58-61,63-65)
“Perhaps the most incredible passage in the Word of God on the difference between writing and speaking is found in 2 John 12: ‘Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with paper and ink; but I hoped to come to you and speak face to face, that our joy may be full.” (p.73)
“After preparing, praying, and reflecting, thought and language simply bring forth this one powerful truth: If you know what you intend to say, then the words will come if you start.” (p.84)
“Good impromptu speech is just the utterance of a practiced thinker – a man of information, meditating on his legs, and allowing his thoughts to march through his mouth into the open air. Think aloud as much as you can when you’re alone, and you will soon be on the high road of success in this matter.” [quoting C.H. Spurgeon] (p.94)
“Select a theme with which you’re familiar, one that stirs your own heart and has had intimate relations with your deepest experiences. Meditate upon it. Take a large view and mark out some grand divisions … then preach. These basic steps are the essentials of preaching on your feet.” (p.112)
“The key to delivery is not technique, but heart.” (p.125)
“… freedom isn’t doing whatever you want to do; freedom is doing what you ought to do.” (pp.134-135)
Distance is the devil’s weapon of choice as he does battle with preachers. The more distance he can put between us and our Lord, God’s word and the people, life and life eternal, the more ground he gains. He doesn’t care what fosters that distance, his only concern is that it becomes an unavoidable, unsettling fact that hangs heavy in the air.
Sometimes he uses that weapon with such stealth that we are unaware that are throat is almost slit. At other times, he deliberately makes a show of his power with a display of shock and awe so as to try to persuade us to flee our post in fear. How we respond to the spectrum of Satan’s tactics to smother us is determined in large part by our training.
Fred Lybrand’s book, Preaching On Your Feet, is not a boot camp on the whole of preaching. It is rather a snapshot of one, specific aspect of your training in your spiritual warfare that is preaching, namely, how to properly hold and fire your weapon down range. And in regard to this one particular aspect of our deadly vocation, it is difficult for me to even imagine a better instructor.
Now every drill instructor has “their way” about them. Some trained us to outline our sermons in detail and to memorize that outline, to know it by heart. Others trained us to manuscript our sermons, to write them out word-for-word, perhaps even taking it into the pulpit with us, perhaps even reading from it at times. But, however we were trained, most of us typically enter the pulpit with a fairly well-planned strategy as what we want to accomplish and how we’re going to get there. While Lybrand’s work is not about diminishing preparation or strategy, it is about not losing or veiling our passion and our connection with people in the process. It is about freeing us up to fire effectively what we have prepared to shoot. Or in the words of a song from years gone by, it pleads for us “to hold on loosely, but not let go,” with emphasis on the former.
Rather than reproducing this book’s table of contents here, let me steer you to its place on Once there, click on “search inside this book” and you’ll be able to view not on the table of contents and an excerpt from the first chapter, but you’ll also note that it is fully-indexed by author, subject and Scripture, something rather (all too sadly) rare for a book of this size. Here’s the hyperlink to do so.
God is about connection and intimacy. Anything that limits such, impoverishes us of God. And so, the riches of your preaching rides on your boldness to stand in the gaps and call for the closing of the ranks. It is determined by your determination to be as transparent in godliness and earnestness toward the people as our God is holy and passionate toward us all. Anything less is to display our God as a lesser being than he truly is. As we refuse to distance ourselves from God’s people, including in the way we preach, we magnify God and glorify him as we should. And it is precisely then that Satan drops his weapon and flees.
In sum, buy this book and make it your own. You will not be sorry. Highlight it and dog ear it. It should be “required reading” for all who publicly present God’s word. It is death on the bane of too many preachers, preaching or teaching “from a distance.” Every preacher or teacher whose goal is “not to get through a book of the Bible but to get a book of the Bible through the people” (p.152), be they fresh meat or a hardened veteran, would benefit from the reading of it. On a scale of 0-10, I give it a 9.7, the only points being off that I think it could have been written slightly more compactly.

review: fresh air in the pulpit

Fresh Air in the Pulpit: Challenges and Encouragement from a Seasoned Preacher
by D. Stuart Briscoe (Baker, 1994) pb, 189pp
“When spiritual dryness attacks a preacher it may be the result of downright disobedience … but more often it is the result of busyness – well-meaning, good-hearted, earnest people who are too busy.” (p.18)
“Never put your head on the pillow at night if you haven’t had your nose in the Book during the day.” (p.19)
“Let us rejoice with one another that in a world where there are a great many good and happy things for men to do, God has given us the best and happiest, and made us preachers of His truth.” (p.27, quoting Phillips Brooks)
“What matters? The chief thing is the love of God, the love of souls, a knowledge of the Truth, and the Holy Spirit within you. These are the things that make the preacher. If he has the love of God in his heart, and if he has a love for God; if he has a love for the souls of men, and a concern about them; if he knows the truth of the Scriptures, and has the Spirit of God within him, that man will preach.” (p.40, quoting Martyn Lloyd-Jones)
“Agitators break your heart, while intimidators tie your hands, and adulators swell your head. By the time you’ve dealt with all these pressures it may just escape your mind that you were there to be faithful. And therein lies the problem.” (p.51)
“The problem for the preacher who rightly aims at relevance is that the more the preaching moves in the direction of the hearer’s interests, the greater is the danger of the preaching being irrelevant. It is the unique distinctiveness of the gospel which makes the difference in people’s lives. But if the preaching has become so ‘relevant’ that it differs little from the kind of discussion that fills the weary hours of the talk shows, questions people may legitimately ask are: ‘Why should we bother with this message called the gospel, which seems to be little more than a religious-version of talk-show babble? ” (p.57)
“… the old joke that a minister was six days invisible and one day incomprehensible …” (p.60)
“A preacher’s motives matter more than a preacher’s methods.” (p.72)
“Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to His purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.” (p.80, quoting William Temple)
“Preaching that costs nothing, accomplishes nothing. If the study is a lounge, the pulpit will be an impertinence. ” (p.98, quoting J.H. Jowett)
“Remember, if cases are made in chambers it is equally true that sermons are crafted in studies.” (p.120)
“There are three things that the preacher should try to incorporate in each God-centered, people-related sermon: (1) it must instruct people about who God is and what he has said, (2) it must identify with the human condition, (3) it must indicate an appropriate behavioral response.” (p.126)
“Preaching is like throwing a bucket of water at a row of bottles. Some of the water goes in some of the bottles. But personal application ensures that all of the bottles will be filled up.” (p.139, quoting, most likely, Charles Spurgeon)
“Some sermons are like golf balls, which have a tendency to roll on after they’ve stopped.” (p.158)
“Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.” (p.167)
This book’s greatest strengths are its accessibility, clarity, practical wisdom and balance. This book is exceedingly easy to read; arguably the easiest I’ve ever read on the subject of preaching. It’s vocabulary does not get in the way; I didn’t have to “read around” anything. Anyone can read it, read it quickly, and still “get it.” Thoughts are consistently boiled down to utter simplicity for the sake of memorability. For example:
“We would do well in all our preaching to keep these four things in mind: (1) proclamation, (2) explanation, (3) application and (4) implementation.” (pp.122-123)
Briscoe’s years of experience in ministry truly engaged with life shines through on every page. Read this book and you’ll catch yourself raising an eyebrow, giving a smile and snort on occasion, for you can identify with a passage here and there in very personal ways, ways that come only from hard-earned experienced. For example:
“There is little doubt that often the criticisms of a congregation are as ill-advised as they are ill tempered. This means that while careful consideration must be given to what congregations say, even more care should be taken to evaluate their reasons for saying it. Only in this way can the validity of their statements be assessed. … It is the task of the preacher to recognize the preoccupations and to identify the presuppositions and then to evaluate them according to the preacher’s mandate.” (p.67)
The book attempts to cover a lot of tremendous amount of real estate in a single work, but is well-organized and balanced, as is evidenced by merely a glance at the table of contents:
Introduction – ch.1
Fresh Air in the Preacher – ch.2-8
Fresh Air in the Pews – ch.9
Fresh Air in the Study – ch.10-15
Fresh Air in the Pulpit – ch.16-17
Suggestions on Additional Reading on Preaching
Briscoe’s style shines through as he reveals what an outline of a preaching series through the books of Hebrews might look like (based on Hebrews 4:16):
Where to Find Help
1. Where to Find Help Cleaning Up Your Life (Heb. 1:1-4)
2. Where to Find Help Coping With Your Fears (Heb. 2:14-18)
3. Where to Find Help Facing Up to Your Frustrations (Heb. 4:1-13)
4. Where to Find Help Dealing With Your Temptations (Heb. 4:14-16)
5. Where to Find Help Seeing Beyond Your Problems (Heb. 5:7-6:12)
6. Where to Find Help Handling Your Insecurities (Heb. 6:13-20)
7. Where to Find Help Clearing Your Conscience (Heb. 9:1-14)
8. Where to Find Help Strengthening Your Faith (Heb. 10:19-39)
9. Where to Find Help Running Your Race (Heb. 12:1-13)
10. Where to Find Help Developing Your Worship (Heb. 12:14-29)
11. Where to Find Help Improving Your Attitudes (Heb. 13:1-6)
12. Where to Find Help Following Your Leaders (Heb. 13:7-25)
Hey, I’ll likely “lift” that outline for use as a basis for a “Summer Series” on Wednesday nights or as a simple series on Sunday nights!
And if you’re curious as to how Briscoe sees the lay of the preaching land these days (remember, this book was penned in 1994), one passage in particular gives us a clue:
“… I recognize that there are many different ways of preaching. There are all kinds of starting points and there are many valid ways of communicating the truth. But for there to be a proper balance we must insist on the centrality of God in all our preaching. … If [our preaching] … does not deal with life situations by presenting the Lord of life as the key to life, it is not adequate preaching. My concern about some of the modern trends is that the approach appears to be dangerously close to being people-centered and God related. … I fear that sometimes people get the impression that God’s prime raison d’etre is that he exists to meet our needs.” (p.125)
In sum, on a scale of 0-10, this books earns a 7.9 from me. I’m glad I read it. I gained several things from it and was either reminded of, or had reinforced within me, some things I already knew. It challenged me in some ways, too, in which I needed to be challenged. Nevertheless, at my age (50 years) and with my experience (30 years), I’ve become quite ruthless with my books; they must be either great (i.e. – not merely good) or unique (i.e. – they fill a niche nothing else does) in order for me to be persuaded to keep them. This is a good book that is not unique. Consequently, I’m dropping it in my box that is destined for Half-Price Books.

review: the preaching life

by Barbara Brown Taylor (Cowley Publications, 1993, pb, 175pp)
“God has given us good news in human form and has even given us grace to proclaim it, but part of our terrible freedom is the freedom to lose our voices, to forget where we were going and why. While that knowledge does not yet strike me as prophetic, it does keep me from taking both my own ministry and the ministry of the whole church for granted. If we do not attend to God’s presence in our midst and bring all our best gifts to serving that presence in the world, we may find ourselves selling tickets to a museum.” (p.5)
“The one true turning point in a person’s life is when he or she joins the body of Christ … It was part of God’s genius to incorporate us as one body, so that our ears have other ears, other eyes, minds, hearts, and voices to help us interpret what we have heard.” (pp.23-24)
“… many who sit … at church … hear the invitation to ministry as an invitation to do more – to lead the every member canvass, or cook supper for the homeless, or teach vacation church school. Or  [they] hear the invitation to ministry as an invitation to be more – to be more generous, more loving, more religious. … [They should be] introduced to the idea that [their] ministry might involve being just who [they are] and doing what [they] already do, with one difference: namely, that [they] understand [themselves] to be God’s people in and for the world.” (p.28)
“Faith is the enduring ability to imagine life in a certain way. … While it may seem more respectable to approach faith as an intellectual exercise or more satisfactory to approach it as an emotional one, our relationship to God is not simply a matter or what we think or how we feel. It is more comprehensive than that, and more profound. It is a full-bodied relationship in which mind and heart, spirit and flesh, are converted to a new way of experiencing and responding to the world. … It is a matter of learning to see the world, each, and ourselves as God sees us, and to live as if God’s reality were the only one that mattered.” (p.38)
“… the Bible remains a peculiarly holy book. I cannot think of any other text that has such an authority over me, interpreting me faster than I can interpret it. … This, I believe, why we call the Bible God’s ‘living’ word. When I think about consulting a medical book thousands of years old for some insight into my health, or an equally ancient physics book for some help with my cosmology, I understand what a strange and unparalleled claim the Bible has on me. Age does not diminish its power but increases it.” (p.52)
“No place that is human is too messy for God.” (p.67)
“Watching a preacher climb into the pulpit is a lot like watching a tightrope walker climb onto the platform as the drum roll begins. … They both step out into the air, trusting everything they have done to prepare for this moment as they surrender themselves to it, counting now on something beyond themselves to help them do what they love and fear and most want to do. … [but] the sermon proves to be a communal act, not the creation of one person, but the creation of a body of people for whom and to whom one of them speaks. A congregation can make or break a sermon by the quality of their response to it. An inspired sermon can wind up skewered somewhere near the second pew by a congregation of people who sit with their arms crossed and their eyes narrowed, coughing, and scuffing their feet as the preacher struggles to be heard. Similarly, a weak sermon can grow strong in the presence of people who attend carefully to it, leaning forward in their pews and opening their faces to a preacher for whom they clearly expect a receive good news.” (pp.76-77)
This book is composed of two parts. The first half describes Taylor’s walk as a preacher; some of her perspectives and experiences, discoveries and surprises. The seventh chapter (and final chapter in this section) – Preaching – is simply one of the finest things I’ve ever heard or read on the subject. The latter half is a collection of thirteen of her sermons, five-to-seven pages in length, all but one based on some account in the Gospels. The sermons and their texts are:
One Step at a Time (Mark 5:38-39) “It takes a lot of courage to be a human being.”
The Fourth Watch (Mark 6:48-50) “He was not supposed to be there at all, and so they did not see him. They saw a ghost instead …”
I Am Who I Am (John 8:25) “We cannot nail him down. We tried once, but he got loose …”
The Tenth Leper (Luke 17:12-17) “‘Where are the nine?’ We are here, right here. But where, for the love of God, is the tenth?”
Do Love (Luke 10:36-37) “This is not a sermon about doing more. It is instead a sermon about not confusing the knowing, understanding, feeling, thinking, or saying of love with the doing of love.”
The Opposite of Rich (Mark 10:22-23) “There are days when threading a camel seems easier than following Jesus.”
The One to Watch (Mark 12:41-42) “… that is why he noticed the poor widow in the first place. She reminded him of someone. It was the end for her; it was the end for him, too. She gave her living to a corrupt church; he was about to give his life for a corrupt world. … It took one to know one.”
Knowing Glances (Matthew 25:37-38) “We can do this because we are one flock, tended and well fed by the Good Shepherd, who is also, I suspect, the Good Goatherd.”
The Voice of the Shepherd (John 10:25-27) “… the way true believers believe is the way most of us believe: valiantly on some days and pitifully on others, with faith enough to move mountains on some occasions and not enough to get out of bed on others.”
The Lost and Found Department (Luke 15:4-5) “I think of God ignoring those good folks in favor of the one sinner who says, ‘I’m sorry,’ and I want to sue God for mercy.”
None of Us is Home Yet (Matthew 6:26) “What that means for the church is that homelessness is not an ‘issue’ for us that we attend to merely out of social conscience; it is our primary identity, and when we forget that we forget who we are and whom we follow.”
The Prodigal Father (Luke 15:11-12) “Here is where the loving father earns his title.”
Surviving Eden (Genesis 3:6) “Paradise is lost and what was, or what could have been, is gone forever. How do you survive something like that?”
Each of these sermons affords abundant evidence of Scripture well pondered and applied. Imagination and immersion are two words that leap to my mind when I consider the construction of her words.
As to Taylor’s writing overall, an observant eye, a creative flair, a pondering mind and an honest, transparent way are her trademarks. Fred Craddock says it best in the book’s foreword:
“She has the rare capacity to sit on her own shoulder and report what she sees and hears herself doing and saying. She talks about what she does and then does what she talks about. … one is reminded of oneself, of what it is like to trust and to doubt at the same time, to be inside and outside at the same time, to love an activity more than anything and at the same time welcome the chance to be free of it.”
In short, read this book in private, for you will laugh aloud and perhaps even choke up more than once. Read it at your peril for it will cost you time and money. Time, in that you will find yourself returning to it again and again for the encouragement and inspiration of a friend who understands and speaks openly from their heart. Money, in that if you lend it out, you will likely not get it back. So read it and buy an extra copy or two to give away. To someone considering preaching. To someone ready to bail out of preaching. To all who are engaged with preaching or who simply love the life of the church and ponder the dynamics of things.
Yes, it’s that good. On a scale of 0-10, I give it a perfect 10.