Preaching from the Overflow

(originally published in More Power in the Pulpit: How America’s Most Effective Black Preachers Prepare Their Sermons, ed. Cleophus J. LaRue)

As I have tried to make conscious and intentional that which I do almost automatically in preparing a sermon, I have noticed a change of perspective that has ineradicably changed my sermon preparation.   I believe that this fundamental shift in orientation has infused my preaching with new power and taken it to another level. When I began preaching, I thought of preaching as an event, an act, a moment. It was something that took place at a certain time and in a certain place. And while this is indeed true, this “blocking out” of the preaching moment into this discrete moment of time caused me to miss the myriad of connections between preaching and other aspects of my life. To be sure, preaching was always connected to my intentionality in seeking to live out in my daily life the gospel that I proclaim. What it was not connected to was my care of self, the greatest resource, second only to the Good News, which God had given me.

During this season of intermittent nagging from the Holy Spirit and seeking God to understand what God was getting at, I sensed that God was challenging me to invert my view of preaching and its preparation. I knew that God could use broken and broke down people in amazing ways—God was using me! Yet, what I felt God pushing me to do was to live in such a way that I could preach primarily out of the overflow rather than the emptiness.

The realization that there were many ways in which I was not caring for myself, yet trying to care for others occurred after my father’s death. I was grief stricken and about 30lbs. overweight. I used food to help me handle the final stages of his cancer. Actually, I had used food to handle all stressful situations. My father’s death did to me what death does to many. It forced me to consider my own mortality: how I wanted to live and what legacy I wanted to leave behind.

I began a process of self-examination or perhaps better described as life examination. I began to look at myself spiritually, physically, socially/emotionally, and financially to see how I cared for and considered these parts of myself. I reflected on whether these parts of me were full or empty, what strengthened and what depleted these areas, and what I could do change what I did not like and what I had to leave in God’s hand work out.   My list was longer than God’s.

As I began the process of self-evaluation and improvement under God’s management, I began to notice how strengthening these areas of my life was strengthening my preaching. Indeed, God was calling for a prepared Word but God was also calling for a prepared preacher—someone who, in the process of taking care of God’s vineyards, had not forgotten to take care of her own (Song 1:6b). Therefore, my preaching preparation began with preparing the preacher spiritually, physically, socially/emotionally, and financially, and then preparing the Word out of the overflow that comes from tending my vineyard. So in the pages to follow, I would like to humbly share my sermon preparation process that is becoming more of a lifestyle and less of an event. I do not present this as something that I have mastered but as a journey that I have undertaken and continue to pursue.

The preparation of the preacher can be summarized in one word: discipline.  To discipline a person or a group means to put them in a state of good order so that they function in the way intended. Discipline, in spite of a popular misconception, is not inherently stern or harsh. Bible translators chose “disciple” as an appropriate term for one who learns by following.[1]

Discipline, used in this way, is not about punishment but training. It is the instilling of certain practices and behaviors that helps one to accomplish certain goals, achieve a particular end, or fulfill one’s purpose. I believe that effective preaching and effective living both require discipline.

Spiritual Discipline

My best sermon ideas have been birthed out of regular, consistent, daily Bible reading. My Bibles are a diary of my walk with God through the Word. Around November or December, I choose a Bible and read through it during the year. I find a Bible in one year plan that allows me to read from a single book or letter each day so that I can maintain the narrative flow of what I am reading. As I read, I underline the verses, phrases, and/or words that speak to me. In the margins, I write my questions, comments, or one-line prayers and mark each with a date.

I do a combination of formational and informational reading. I read formationally, for my own spiritual development, to hear how God wants to address me through the Word. I read asking God the following three questions: (1) “What is my Word?” (2) “What are you saying to me or my particular situation?” and (3) “How do I apply this to my daily living?” Sometimes, my attention focuses on a particular verse that I commit to memory and see its application at a future time. At other times, I receive the insight I needed, the answer to a question, or some strength to deal with a particular issue. More often than not, I am simply refreshed from my time of listening and reflecting on the Word.

Formational reading enables me to be in a place where God can deal with me about me. It is my therapy of sorts, allowing me a safe space to gage where I am, what I need, and what I need to do. Formational reading puts me in the “pew” as God speaks to me through the Word. It is my act of consistently reminding myself that there is a Word from the Lord for me. Formational reading instills a level of humility reminding me that I am not exempt from being proclaimed to; that it is not the people who need a Word from the Lord but me. It allows me to receive my Word—to hear it, feed on it, reflect on it, and ultimately embrace it.

In this way, I am fed before I feed others. None of us walk away from the preaching experience empty because a disciplined devotional life that includes the reading of Scripture means my sermons are birthed from the overflow of the Word. Because I have spent time in the Word for me, I do not give my meals away. There may be morsels to share but not at the expense of the preacher.

Informational reading, on the other hand, centers on content. It focuses on the who, what, when, where, why, and how. The goal is to remain familiar with the subject matter of the Bible. I tend to read chapters from a particular book or letter during a single sitting ultimately finishing it. I read to follow the flow of the passages and to become familiar with the author’s style and use of language. In this way, I can pickup on key terms or phrases. I can hear when certain themes are repeated and begin exploring them. I notice the repetition of names or places or actions. I pay attention to phrases, themes or motifs in one book so that I can recognize them should they appear in another. For example, there are interesting parallels between the mariners’ experience on a boat with Jonah and the disciples’ experience on a boat with Jesus. I can then compare them to see if the authors are doing the same thing or building on past images in a new way. These parallels and differences become grist for my sermon mill.

When reading informationally, I seek to hear the author on his/her own terms rather than blend the various witnesses of Scripture together. There’s a reason why we have sixty-six canonical books instead of one. They are not saying the same things the same way. There are nuances and subtleties that can be heard if one will listen. When I read Mark’s Gospel and then turn to Luke’s I notice the differences in the telling of the same story. Exploring these differences allows me to see some things I might have missed by merging these stories together in my mind without hearing the witness of each evangelist. I begin to question why one added a detail or another left it out. I examine the placement of the passages to see if the same material comes before and after the passage or if the authors insert it in different places of their narratives. If the placement is different in each Gospel, I ask why and how does it affect the interpretation?

As I read the Bible formationally and informationally, I remain open to sermon ideas. I listen for passages that will preach. I jot down these scripture references in a preaching journal. If I have any insight or direction about the development of the sermon, I include it. If I already can see the points or have an illustration in mind to illumine the text, I write it. Sometimes, there is only the scripture and a question pointing in some direction for future exegetical exploration.

I use this preaching journal in two ways. First, my preaching journal is my memory book. It is critical as such because my personal devotional time and sermon writing time are two separate and distinct occasions. I use it to recapture points I would have forgotten if I had not written them down when I first had the idea. I have learned that I have to detain ideas on paper until I have a chance to work them through or else I will lose them. If a sermon idea, insight, or point comes during my devotional time, I scribble down as much as of it as I get during that initial spark and return later to fully flesh it out. I also note whether I think this sermon idea is enough for one sermon or can be expanded into a sermon series.

My preaching journal is also my reservoir. All preachers have dry spells. When the revelation and inspiration for preaching seem hard to find, I flip through the pages of this journal to see if anything catches my attention and begin to develop it. I may go back to an idea I had months or years ago and realize that now is the time to preach that word. I have learned tow important preaching lessons from doing this. The first is that sometimes I have had to experience some things before I could preach ideas I had previously gotten. Second, sometimes I have had to get to the other side of certain situations, season, or trials before I could preach some texts or sermon points I had written. My preaching journal and the daily Bible reading from which it springs, prevents my dry spells from forcing me to preach a Word before it or I am ready.

Prayer is another essential component of spiritual discipline. I keep a prayer journal. My journal is predominantly dedicated to me. It is where I enter into conversation with God by baring my thoughts, feelings, wishes, and desires. My journal is not a place of traditional or formal prayer but rather an open conversation where I invite God into my time of personal reflection on the day that has past and prepare for the day ahead. My journal is the place where I can be truly honest with God and bring myself into God’s presence without pretense. It is an uncensored work where I am not trying to say the right things but tell it is like it is, at least from my perspective. I just am when I journal and from I there allow God to do whatever or say whatever God wishes to me.

My prayer journal is a record of my journey. It provides tangible evidence of prayers prayed and prayers answered. It helps me to discern the voice of God because it allows me to keep track of what I heard or thought I heard and judge if I heard right. Most importantly, my journal is an essential preaching tool because it provides a safe place for me to be naked and vulnerable so that I can be appropriately transparent in public. It provides a place for me to house my frustrations and disappointments without spewing it from the pulpit on people who have their own issues. Ultimately, my journal is a place for me to uncover my wounds, mourn my losses, examine my pain and invite God in to heal me so that God can staunch the blood before I “bleed” on others.

Daily worship is another aspect of spiritual discipline that aids in sermon preparation. By worship, I simply mean taking the time to adore, honor, and reverence God for Who God is. During my personal worship time, I take the time to turn my petitions of “will you” into the praise of a “thank you.” Worship keeps me grounded. It reminds me that I am not the center of anything including the preaching endeavor. When we are overwhelmed and overworked and under-appreciated, it is easy to think that we are doing people and God a favor by being faithful to call on our lives. Worship not only reminds me that there is a Someone greater than me that I can depend on but that preaching the gospel is a privilege.

 

Physical Discipline

I used to take better care of my truck than I did myself. I was careful what kind of gas I used (what I fed it). I took it in for regular maintenance. Meanwhile, I was living off of fast food and take-out and rescheduling doctor’s appointments because I was too busy (that’s code for too big). With a family history of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and various forms of cancer, my doctor wanted me to lose weight. She wasn’t mean or cruel about it. She just stated the facts and let me know that I could greatly reduce my chances of developing these conditions by simply dropping a few pounds. I hadn’t done that and wasn’t working that hard to do it. After all, I told myself, in the grand scheme of things, I am not that big. But my spirit was troubled.

One day the Lord made it very clear to me. I was sitting in my office having just completed the sermon found in this book. I said to the Lord, “This sermon is asking people to step into whatever You told them to do. What do you want me to step into?” As clear as day the image of my treadmill appeared in my mind’s eye. I sensed that the Lord was telling me that I would literally have to “walk into my [next] season.” I began to exercise sporadically at best. A personal trainer from our congregation came to me not knowing my struggle and offered his services because “the Lord laid it on his heart.” I delayed a little while longer.

Then the connection came. I realized that I was preaching before I even opened my mouth. From the moment I entered the pulpit, I was saying something about my relationship with God through the care (or lack of care) of my body which is God’s temple. I began to ask myself, “What am I saying with my physical appearance?” and “Is it getting in the way of what I am preaching?” My goal was and is not to achieve some societal ideal of beauty but to honor the body God gave me and keep it in working order for as long as possible.

Moreover, I continually pray for the power to preach God’s Word. Yet, I had to ask myself, “Can you handle the power?” In other words, if God were to honor that prayer and grant me the power I desired, could I physically withstand it? Consequently, I began a program that included both cardio and weight training. I needed my body to preach. I needed physical stamina to say it like I felt it. Therefore, physical discipline in the form of exercise, eating better, and getting proper rest became an act of sermon preparation because they cannot hear without a preacher (Rom. 10: 14) and the preacher cannot preach outside of her body.

 

Social/Emotional Discipline

It was odd for me to begin thinking about my personal relationships in terms of a discipline. However, I began to recognize that discipline, “putting [my relationships] in a state of good order so that they function in the way intended”[2], was necessary. Like many preachers, my life was dominated by the ministry. Everything and everyone else were secondary. My planner told the story. Preaching engagements were highlighted with a yellow marker that could not be erased. Everything else was written in pencil. Opportunities to fellowship with family and friends were usually the first items cut when ministry required more of my time.

I knew things had to change and one experience in particular drove that message home. I had returned home from the church a little earlier than usual. As I was driving up to my garage, I noticed that the motion sensor on the garage had not triggered the light to come on. When I got out of my truck, I walked in front of it to see if my motion would be detected and the light would come on. I saw the small red light flashing letting me know it had registered my motion, but there was still no light. I began walking into house complaining about another thing I had to fix. Then it hit me: the light was not coming on because it was still too bright outside to trigger it! I was so used to coming home after dark that I did not realize that the light was not supposed to come on. I stood there in my driveway trying to figure out when was the last time I had both left for work and returned from work in the daylight. I could not remember it.

In that moment, I knew that I was going to have to be intentional about developing and maintaining my personal relationships and not losing myself in ministry. I set a goal of at least one social, non-church related activity each week. It may be dinner with friends, a night at the movies, a play date with my nieces, or a family gathering. However, I either have to go somewhere other than church and my house or spend time in my home with someone who does not live there. These times of fellowship are at a minimum given the same level of importance as any church meeting, event, or counseling session. Therefore, I use the same standard for cancelling with my family and friends as I do with cancelling a ministry activity. During these dedicated blocks of time, fellowship is my ministry.

Making time to be in relation with others grounds my preaching in the concrete experiences of life well lived. My interactions with others become fodder for future sermons. I receive great sermon illustrations, first hand anecdotal material, and encounter real life questions that ask if there is any word from the Lord. In short, talking with and sharing life with others gives me something to think about and pray about which may turn into something to preach about. Of course, I never share without permission and guard other’s privacy as I would my own. However, being in the company of others outside of the church allows me to hear how people really feel and think instead of how they feel they are supposed to think. Simply listening and spending time with others allows me to preach in ways that are relevant.

Spiritual discipline feeds my soul. Physical discipline feeds my body. Through social/emotional discipline, I nurture myself through relationship building. This is what feeds my heart.

 

Financial Discipline

My financial stewardship begins with the tithe and includes Spirit-led giving. I pray about what God would have me to give above and beyond my tithes whenever an offering is received. Financial discipline built upon the practice of giving tithes and offerings reminds me that God is the provider and owner of all I have and I am only a steward entrusted to honor God with my resources. Honoring God with my finances means giving my tithes and offerings, paying my bills on time, living within my means, and saving for the future. By consistently doing these things, I avoid becoming stressed out about money.

Financial discipline not only relieves certain financial stresses but purifies my motives in preaching. It prevents me from becoming a “hireling” who preaches for the money rather than preaching as a ministry. Although I do believe a laborer is worthy of her hire (I Tim. 5:17-18), money should never be the determining factor in ministering the gospel. I am often asked if I preach in “small churches.” My response is that I preach where I am invited and God leads. No gathering of believers is too small. Nor does the preparation change. I prepare and preach to 2 as I would 2000.

Financial discipline also helps me to avoid preaching to please people. I want people to enjoy the preaching moment, to feel like it was worth their time to listen. However, I do not feel obligated to “shout” a congregation so that they give more money when the word God sent me with is one of introspection or sacrifice or repentance. Since my sufficiency lies with God, I can be true to the message I have been given and strive to preach to God’s satisfaction. God will supply what I need and open the doors of opportunity.

When we are financially disciplined, our own houses are financially solvent. We can then free ourselves of the temptation to preach for the money. Instead, we can engage in spiritual, social/emotional, and physical discipline because we can take the time to refresh our spirits, relate to those around us, and rest. This is the overflow from which God has called me to preach.

[1]Elwell, Walter A. ; Beitzel, Barry J.: Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Book House, 1988, S. 631

[2] Ibid.

Raquel S. Lettsome, Ph.D.

"Equipping the saints for ministry"

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