The Art and Athleticism of Preaching

When I was six years old, I drew a picture of a painter and a painting. On it I wrote, “I wot to be a artist.” A few years ago, when my parents moved out of their house, they gave me all my childhood papers. I threw many straight into the recycling bin, but I couldn’t get rid of this one picture. Instead, I posted it on my refrigerator so I could look at it daily.

“Is that still my ambition?” I would wonder.
“Am I an artist?”

Another question I have been wondering is, “What is art?”

This week, I read an article (here) about how the Arnold Arboretum redesigned their rose garden. For the redesign, they hired the Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio (JMMDS) to envision a new layout. The geometric pattern of the rose itself inspired the new shape that JMMDS created.

Prior to this renovation, JMMDS and Yo-Yo-Ma had co-designed the Toronto Music Garden. According to the article, “they used Bach’s Suite no. 1 in G Major for Unaccompanied Cello as a musical template. The resulting garden is a celebration in six movements—prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, minuet, and gigue— all rhythmically expressed as wooded paths, great spiraling landforms, bee-filled plantings, and oversized grass steps.”

Whoa, I thought. Garden design can be art! Just like improv, public speaking, and – of course – preaching.

This week, I reached out to my artist friend S and asked him, “What makes someone an artist?” He responded, “I think if you create because it brings you joy, you are an artist.”

S told me that six-year-old Joy, drawing that original picture, was already an artist. He added, “I think we look at art the wrong way. It’s taught to make money or market but more than that it is a part of us. It’s what we are supposed to do and enjoy.”

Art is a part of us. It is a part of me. A part of you.

Art to me is a waste of time. Please let me explain. Wasting time is my highest value. To me wasted time is time used purely for being, for love, for beauty, for life. Wasted time sets our hearts on fire.

Writing sermons sets my heart on fire. It is my favorite art form. Something about the process shatters all facades and illusions. I peer behind the curtains within me, others, and the world, to discover that which truly hums and vibrates with life. What is life really about? How do we get there? In my process of meditation, all else burns away until at last the precious metal of wisdom is the only thing that remains.

It’s funny; sermons used to be wearisome to me. I used to think, “I have to write another one again? What will I say?” However, my friend C reminded me that we have to get to a certain level of proficiency in our art before we can truly enjoy it. It’s like learning to surf or run – you need a certain underlying set of skills and muscles before you can really enjoy those sports. I can relate. I have built up my skill level and now look forward to the writing, learning, praying, and preaching process each week. It’s exhilarating.

I enter into the presence of God again and again and again.
I don’t leave encounters like those unchanged.

In addition to changing my life, the art that I create changes, too. I have started collaborating with a colleague weekly as we intimately share about where the Scripture intersects with our lives. I have received preaching coaching for content and embodied delivery. I am now receiving vocal coaching.

There’s always a new way to level up to a master artist – to focus more on content, writing, or oral delivery. What makes my art so fascinating is that I deliver a new piece of art every week so I can never get too stuck on one creation. I do the best that I can and then I move on. However, like preparation for a big race, I think seriously about my art each week. I do daily (when I remember) vocal exercises which include breathing exercises, lip and tongue stretches, tongue twisters, and specific vocalizations. I practice my sermon via video so I can watch it back and write in stage notes for my body movement and vocal delivery. I pray. I do a spiritual inventory of myself, my community, and the world. I read the Scripture and related commentaries. I listen to commentary podcasts. I practice my physical stance. I ask deep questions. I quiet myself to hear the answers within and around me. I pray again. Then I start my rough draft.

It’s a humbling process. It requires me to have a willingness to grow and be formed, even as I strive to put my best spiritual, athletic, and creative foot forward. Yet, S tells me, “To give [art] freely and create it freely is an expression of love.”

Yes. I create because I love. I love you. I love my congregation. I love God. I love the earth. And I love myself.

Here’s to the journey.

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