I’m reading a book on preaching, for the first time in a long time: Preaching as Testimony, by Anna Carter Florence. My friend and colleague Meg Hess recommended it. Florence says that she doesn’t mean by testimony simply using personal illustrations, but this: “we tell what we have seen and heard, and we confess what we believe about it.” She uses the examples of several women who were preachers though not ordained, including Anne Hutchinson, and reflects deeply on the meaning of testimony for all preachers.
Some quotes that have struck me: in speaking about these women who preached she says, “the authority of their witness convicted them and others. And their engagement with it — how fully they gave themselves over to their testimony — proved to be more powerful than any other skill or asset. In fact, the more engaged they were, the less they feared what would happen to them.” ( p. 67)
And this: “Too much restraint leads to preachers so fearful that they never speak up, even when they want to and believe they should. Testimony, meanwhile, calls to the deep-seated human longing to be real, for once; to say what we believe and to be honest about what we see and where we are, without fearing what may happen.” (p. 73)
I think there’s a big difference between this kind of testimony and much of what passes for “prophetic” preaching which is “you”-oriented and often judgmental. Testimony is the best sort of self-definition, where the preacher says, “here I stand,” or “I have a dream.”
Florence concludes her book with a fascinating series of suggestions for working with the text in ways that enable the preacher to encounter it more freshly and directly. I’ve been experimenting with some of them, including writing it out on a very large sheet of paper, and a very tiny sheet of paper to carry around, and reading it someplace that makes you feel uncomfortable (I tried it in the middle of a busy store). She suggests coming to the scholars after using some of these other ways of living with it. Then she goes on to suggest some exercises for describing the text, including imaging it, rewriting it, and journaling it.
Finally, she suggests as you write the sermon to think about your listeners, and ask the question, “What do you want to give to these people whom you love?” Seems like a great question for Advent and Christmas sermons.
If you are preaching this month, can you take the time to try one new approach, either in your preparation, or in your presence in the pulpit?
3 replies on “Preaching as Testimony“
I heard neuropsychologist Angelo Bolea say that handwriting accesses a different part of the brain than typing. It may be important for each of us to spend some time regularly writing something by hand. This may be a way to get some of those personal experiences out of our brain and into a format we may be able to adapt for preaching when appropriate.
I read that you are saying that how we come to our preaching, the process of preparation is as important as the act of preaching, or perhaps influences the act of preaching. So, to think about the process in a creative, challenging way may change the way we preach. We, in New Hampshire, ( at least those without electricity due to a severe ice storm) had to write by hand our sermons, if we used manuscripts, this week. When is that last time that preachers did that?
Thanks, Margaret. Sometimes I remind seminarians and preachers who are hesitant and timid about sharing their personal experiences in preaching that, done authentically, it is one way to “teach” people the art of theological reflection. When people in the pew hear the preacher share a personal experience and how he or she wrestled with the theological questions of “where is God in this?” or, “what meaning do I make of the experience,” people can have the “Aha” moment about how to do theological reflection: “Oh, so that’s how it’s done.”
For all our talk about the important of theological reflection in the Chrisian life, we sure don’t teach it often to our congregants.