Saturday, May 2, 2009

Who are you and what have you done with my seminarian?

Ok, so I failed miserably in my Lenten effort to spend less time on Facebook and more time here. For the few readers that still check here to see if I've popped my head out of the ground, you'll be happy to hear that I have T-minus 7 days until the end of the semester. I have one final class on Monday, 3 papers left to write for Friday, and then I'm loading up the Subaru and heading back to CT for the summer. Woo Hoo!

This semester has been a blast, and I know after a few weeks of decompressing at home I'm going to miss my new family up here. I'm going to miss eating with them 3 times a day, attending classes together, worshiping together, and walking down the hill to get ice cream. I'm going to miss how a 2 minute walk across the quad to drop off a paper in the office takes 20 minutes because inevitably I run into 2 or 3 people I know and we end up exchanging the usual "how are you, what are you doing today, how many papers do you have due, what are you doing over the summer" pleasantries.

I'm going to miss the students whom I've come to know and love and who'll be graduating in 2 weeks and I may never see again. And believe it or not, I'm even going to miss Systematic Theology. As mind bending as it was, it was my favorite class, and because it lasted two terms it gave me a sense of continuity in the midst of all the new challenges that I took on this semester.

I managed to get pretty decent grades on my papers in my two hardest classes, Systematics and Christian History; and I made it through my dreaded “Preaching without notes” class unscathed. In fact, I did much better than I expected. We each had to preach three 10-minute sermons without a manuscript, an outline, or notes of any kind. This was a format that was entirely foreign to me and I really struggled with how to even write a sermon that wasn't going to be read but rather spoken, partly from memory and partly extemporaneously. But somehow I was able to do it.

Part of the scariness of taking a preaching class is having to endure the critique that follows each sermon, as not only the professor but one’s fellow classmates have the green light to offer brutally honest criticism, constructive or otherwise. But while my classmates came out of each class feeling pummeled, by the professor and each other, I experienced a sort of detached euphoria. I did not receive a single negative comment, from anyone. In fact, the professor said I had a natural instinct for phrasing, use of illustrations, and sermon construction; and he held up my delivery to the rest of the class as “a wonderful example of effective preaching.” I was floored.
The only comment that came close to being negative came from a student who mentioned that the end of my third sermon, while strong, wasn’t as strong as my previous efforts (I had run past the allotted 10 minutes, so I shortened my intended ending).

The ‘detached’ part of the euphoria I experienced after hearing all this praise, comes from not knowing exactly who this person is who gets up in front up people and belts out these sermons. As someone who has spent most of her life hovering in the background being ‘the quiet one’ I don’t know how I suddenly came to have the ability to stand up in front of people, make full eye contact, and PREACH.
I don’t know where the words come from, I don’t know where the confidence comes from, so when people start pouring on the praise I can’t help but swivel my head around to see who it is they’re talking about.

I of course, think they’re all either delusional or are just trying to be nice (although they seem to have no qualms about offering criticism to everyone else in the class) and I still find myself obsessing over the smallest mistakes. Halfway through my second sermon, I lost my train of thought and forgot what I was going to say next. Panic set in. After pausing for what seemed to me be an obvious “oh my god I forgot what I was going to say” length of time, I wandered over to the table where I had left my Bible and took a peek at the text to jog my memory. I thought I had screwed up in a major way but amazingly none of my classmates noticed! Afterward, they praised me for including a “dramatic pause” that allowed them to “mull over” what I had said previously (ha!). My professor was the only one to notice the peek I took in the Bible and he praised me for “handling the glitch in a professional manner” and for “not panicking” (double ha!).

The biggest lesson I’ve taken from this class is the realization that nothing about good preaching is ‘easy.’ Two of the best preachers in my class (both African American), make it look so easy when they get up there and string words together that can’t help but move the Spirit within you, but they consistently talk about how “nervous” they are in the pulpit and how inadequate they feel when delivering God’s message. Neither of them is new to preaching - one is an ordained DMin student and the other has been preaching in her home church for years. I’m starting to realize that nervousness and feelings of inadequacy in the pulpit are not signs of an insecurity that must be overcome, or symptoms of being a ‘newbie’ that one outgrows as time goes by.
We’re all scared to death up there, and as one of my professors put it, "If you’re not scared to death you probably have no business being up there!"
It’s not just about making oneself vulnerable by presenting a creative work that will inevitably invite critique from the listeners – its’ about delivering the message of the “Good News” – a message that is in its very nature subversive, counter-cultural and not always easy to hear - God loves everyone. God saves everyone through Grace. No one is excluded. No one is to be hated. No one it to be left behind. This is the message that God sent through Jesus.
It is a message that is comforting to some and threatening to many.
It’s no wonder that preachers who ‘get’ what it is they’ve been called to do are shaking in their boots when they preach God’s Word.

….but this preaching without notes thing? That’s a little too nerve wracking.
I’m going back to the manuscript…or at least an outline..for now.


Matt said...

This is Matt Braddock from Trumbull Cong. Church (and on the FEA C&M Committee). Are you doing Summer guest preaching? If interested in coming to Trumbull, send me your Email and I'll run some dates by you.

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