Writing Your Way Home in Preaching, Teaching, and Soul-Tending
by Kent Ira Groff
Do you ever think, “I’ve got to write this”? But other times, “I get to write this!” Sometimes duty takes over: Sunday’s sermon, newsletter deadline, persistent e-mails. How can we move through “got to” into “get to”?
During a writing funk, two things occurred to me.
First, if I find bits of grace in the grit of duty, then obligation morphs into invitation.
Second, even if my words get rejected, what matters at the end of a day is if I’ve written myself an inch closer home to my true self and God.
Writing can help us appreciate ministry. Preaching, teaching, and soul tending extend an invitation to pen our way home and out into the world’s need—the tides of contemplation and communication.
How dare I preach the Word unless I first let the Word preach to me? If I lose my passion, my words are hollow. How can we keep coming home while writing—and preaching?
I constantly remind myself: “Pause… to fall in love again with the Word beneath your words and with the people who ache for you to let them in on your sacred ideas, fears, and dreams.”
Sometimes I trick myself home by writing what I would say if I could. Once all I could think was nothing.
I write about
Ah! No thing really matters,
Other times I keep writing page after page even if it feels like junk—then: Pause… I tell myself, there must be inklings of grace in all this grit. So I go back and highlight the inklings (prune my junk) and I’m home again.
I tell myself to “story the sermon,” oxygenating theological ideas. A pastor conversed about preaching new insights regarding Advent. We paused… She began telling of a lone child who wandered into worship. Into the synergy of silence dropped this poem prayer.
*To cradle a new insight or give*
**birth to anything everlasting**
***wrap your truth in stories.***
We can practice “contemplative exegesis” by looking at a biblical story from new angles. French artist Claude Monet painted the same cathedrals and bridges in different hours of day, seasons, or weather. What happens when I reposition the easel? Does the subject change? Or do I?
A minister retold the overworked “Prodigal Son” story from the neighbor’s viewpoint. “Let me tell you about this dysfunctional family next door. Young brat was spoiled rotten. Insulted his dad. But guess what that father did? Yep. Let his son run off with big family money. And that mother—she was invisible—just grieved inside the house. Older brother worked 24/7—felt no thanks from Pop. What happened when that wasted brother came home? Did he get a beating? No. Pop threw him a party. Did that cool older brother blow up!”
By shifting the easel to the neighbor’s voice, the pastor reconstructs original tensions in the story. The father and mother (aspects of God?) seem weird like their kids.
Sometimes I need to pick up my easel and go to some far country to come to myself—arise to return home for the first time again. The sermon prepares the preacher; the preacher prepares the sermon.
How dare I teach unless I learn some new thing? “When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear,” goes a Zen saying. If the pupil of my eye and heart is wide awake, I can be digging or diapering or delving into books and my teachers appear out of nowhere.
Someone turned the saying on its head: “When the teacher is ready, the pupil will appear.” How can I explain the thread of providence that brought students and seekers across my path when my life was ready?
Sometimes a troubling person is my teacher. A bright pastor contributed insights in a seminar I was leading. The last night he got angry. I awakened early and conversed with him in my journal. Through my fingertips I heard: “It’s so frustrating—when I go back to my Kentucky mountain church I can’t talk about Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky the way I’ve done here.” Trying on his moccasins changed me. We conversed at breakfast and I enlisted his help in the final class to explore students’ re-entering back home.
How dare I tend others’ vulnerable souls if I don’t tend my needy soul first? Prayer helps me show up to God with my hurts and hopes to be safely present to another.
An impulsive letter or e-mail from a tide of anger can “kill” a relationship. Yet as Abraham Lincoln knew, that same letter, written but never sent, can prevent or restore a broken relationship.
One time I scheduled lunch with a friend I thought had failed to support a common project. I felt so fussed I wrote three-pages till I got to God’s desire beneath my anger—then shredded them. When we broke bread I was free: we found ways to support one another.
Without tending our souls, we endanger our selves and our ministry. Words can guard one’s soul: a pastor stays free of porn by imagining Jesus repeating: “Come here… don’t go there.”
A journal helps me get surprised. I play with words and ideas—pray my pain and anger. After my father died, unresolved grief reared its head. By writing in dialogue about his verbal non-responsiveness, I began understanding him and that non-responsive part of me. I realized he was a master at communicating through intuition and gestures! I celebrate those gifts in myself.
Writing creates a way to tend another’s soul. Jon flew 3,000 miles to his home state to be with his comatose father. The next morning he read his father a note penned by his own twenty-something son, Sean. Minutes after “hearing” his grandson’s words, Jon says his father’s breathing began to ebb into a peaceful death.
For the next e-mail or card to contratulate or sympathize, try composing your own simple “prayer poem.”
Whether you write for love, labor, or learning—or blessedly all three—every form of writing can call forth the Word that unlockss the treasure of your life’s purpose.
KENT IRA GROFF is a spiritual companion, retreat leader, and writer living in Denver, Colo. He is founding mentor of Oasis Ministries, Camp Hill, Pa. This article is adapted from his book, Writing Tides (Abingdon). For Active Spirituality (Alban) and other resources for ministry see http://www.kentiragroff.com