Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

7/30 2015

Sermon Tips: Dealing with Writer’s Block

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sermon-writers-blockAs a service to our readers, Pittsburgh Seminary continues our sermon writing tips series. This is our second post and we hope you find it helpful. Be sure to look for other tips from faculty, staff, and alums in the months ahead and read our recent post on preaching without notes. Have a tip you’d like to offer or have a sermon issue you’d like help with? Let us know by using the comments option.

The irony is not lost on me that I’m sitting down to write this blog post on sermon writing tips and writer’s block because I’m currently spinning my tires on my actual sermon for this Sunday and I’ve decided the best course of action is to simply avoid it for a while. I’ve done everything I usually do – everything that my homiletics professors and my field education instructor taught me was good practice. I’ve translated the passages ground up from the Hebrew and Greek. I’ve read the commentaries. I’ve thought about it, talked about it, prayed about it. I even came up with a clever title. And here I sit. . . Friday afternoon – late afternoon at that – with about 1200 words of complete drivel. I suppose I should take heart that at least it’s well exegeted drivel with a clever title.

Sermons are elusive like that. Some of them come pouring out onto the page on Tuesday and by Sunday morning are polished and shiny, lovely and poetic, complimented at the narthex door by little old ladies and teenagers alike. “Great story you told, Pastor!” “Reverend, I’ve never understood that passage until today!” “Wow. That really spoke to me.” Other sermons – like the one I’ve just put into time out for a few hours – are a bit more obstinate. They show up on Sunday morning ruffled, dirty, and rough around the edges. Even as I’m delivering these ones on Sunday morning, I’m doing so while subconsciously cringing and thinking of all the edits I should have made.

My sweet, gracious congregation always tells me it was a “Good sermon, Pastor.” even if we all know quite well that it was far from my finest homiletic accomplishment. But every so often, when I have just preached what I’m convinced is a complete stinker, someone will stop me in the hall or come into my office the next day, maybe send me an email, and they will tell me how deeply the message touched them. The only explanation I can come up with for this phenomenon is that God is keeping me humble. “You might think you’re clever, sweet daughter, but remember whose words these really are.” I can just hear God saying, with a kind chuckle.

Before you start thinking that I’m saying we should forget the original languages and ignore the commentaries and just wing it every week, let me state emphatically that I don’t think that at all. In fact, I truly believe that the Holy Spirit works through good planning just as much as the Holy Spirit moves spontaneously. What I’m saying is that the heart of writing sermons, week after week after week, is humility. You can and should plan and read and study. But be prepared for those disciplines to feel empty or fruitless some weeks.

I’ve started to take weeks like this as signs that I’m supposed to do something a little bit different. Maybe more prayer time is just what we need this week. Maybe we’ll take some time to anoint people for healing. Perhaps we’ll lay rocks at the foot of the cross to signify giving Jesus our burdens and sorrows. Whatever it is, it will be a teaching moment for me too. It’s a chance for me to develop my ability to lean on God in the preaching moment. It’s a lesson from the Holy Spirit that I dare not miss or take for granted. I have a feeling that just grunting through this so I have something to say is the wrong approach.

In the spirit of blog posts that are supposed to give some sort of helpful tips about sermon writing, here is my list of sermon writing tips, in the light of my struggles in sermon-land this week:

  1. Have a rhythm/routine. It’s good to play with the different things that your homiletics teachers taught you in seminary. Figure out what works for you and get into a groove.
  2. Be prepared for that rhythm to be upset by the Holy Spirit. I find that these upsets tend to happen just when I’m cocky enough to feel comfortable in my sermon writing routine. God leads me (or sometimes drags me kicking and screaming) to try something new and different: a hands on thing, audience participation, a different sermon structure, etc.
  3. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Take the job seriously. Take God seriously. Take Scripture seriously. But you? You’re a mess – just ask Calvin. Be willing to laugh later about how awful that joke you told was. Don’t sweat it if nobody said anything about the sermon this week. When your routine gets bounced around – as I’ve promised it will – roll with it. That stuff is all you and you are just the mouthpiece.

Fun post script: This week’s wacky sermon involving rocks and audience participation was in fact one where it was clear the Holy Spirit was working. Point taken, God.

Charissa Howe graduated with her MDiv from Pittsburgh Seminary in 2014 and is currently working on her ThM. She serves as pastor of Liberty Presbyterian Church in McKeesport, Pa.

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7/23 2015

Sermon Tips: Preaching without Notes

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Sermon Writing - Preaching without NotesAs a service to our readers, Pittsburgh Seminary is embarking on a sermon writing tips series. This is our first post and we hope you find it helpful. Be sure to look for other tips from faculty, staff, and alums in the months ahead. Have a tip you’d like to offer or have a sermon issue you’d like help with? Let us know by using the comments option.

I have in the past three years preached with no notes. I went to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary where Bill Carl, former president and professor, is a big proponent of sermon memorization. I was in a class where he praised the benefits of sermon memorization. When I get compliments about my sermons, and they are not on the content, they are usually compliments about how much people enjoy how a sermon has been directed to them. How the fact that I look at them while I preach makes all the difference for them.

Here are several steps that I use for preaching without notes.

1. KNOW THE PASSAGE YOU ARE GOING TO PREACH ON WELL IN ADVANCE! This is crucial. You have a finite amount of time in each week. Do not use anytime trying to decide what you plan to preach on. The lectionary helps. However, what I do is spend a good bit of time in advance to map out a year, or a large part of the year. This also gives me the opportunity to take a look at the passage I will preach on Sunday night.

2. Wrestle with a passage early, but by Wednesday know your main point. Don’t change your main point unless it is some rare exception of sudden last minute epiphany. This provides you the opportunity to put on the lens of the passage and its main point when meeting with people. As you spend time with your congregation you will see how your main point needs to be communicated or bent a little to better reach your church.

3. Make outlines. I use Logos Bible software. I start making outlines. The outlines I write in the notes part of the program are reflecting the flow of the sermon I intend to preach. I won’t erase; I will just start another one if I want to change the sermon. The repetition helps me get my flow down. Each time I write the outline I try to use less words. So the first out line will be sizable in content but a jumble of thoughts. The last outline might be 50 words at most. In between I may have 10 outlines I wrote to get to the final outline. The Logos Software is on my phone and automatically syncs. So when I type it into my computer on Logos I have a flashcard in my hand and I can look at my outlines anywhere.

4. I don’t attempt to memorize a manuscript. I don’t write how I talk and I don’t talk how I write. If I tried to memorize a manuscript it would not be natural to how I talk. I realize manuscript memorization is important to some. I just have a tough time with doing it.

5. As I write my outlines I begin to recite in my head how and what I plan to say. This process really cements thins in my brain. It is also a process I can employ while I driving or shop. It is a process that is really a lifestyle. It also helps you pay attention to what you say so that you are not loose with words.

6. Write down notes of delicate things you want to say. If you are worried about phrasing of points, write them down. Don’t let the details of the memorization get in the way of the bulk of the memorization. If you have something worded with delicateness then you need to put it aside and memorize it in a traditional flashcard-type manner.

7. Sit with the passage. Know why you picked it and what you want to say early on. This will drive your process. It will help it reach home. It will hit its mark this way. If you are just getting to your passage on Thursday or Friday, this will not lend itself to this style of memorization.

This blog was originally posted by the Rev. Dan Turis ’12, pastor of Colonial Church of Bayside in New York, on his site: http://danturis.com/. You can also follow him on Twitter @dturis.

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6/29 2015

Climate Change and the Church

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climate-changeI attended the Henderson Summer Leadership Conference that took place earlier this month at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I have to confess that I was more intrigued by the opportunity to see Chef Tom strut his stuff than I was by the opportunity to examine issues of food justice. But as I listened to the presenters describe what is and craft a vision for what might be, I found myself becoming introspective and meditating on a couple of passages from God’s Word.

The first passage that came to mind was 2 Peter 3.7: “… the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the Day of Judgment…” If my memory serves, this has usually been interpreted to mean that the day of God’s judgment will come in an apocalyptic conflagration of cosmic proportions. But now I wonder.

The second passage that came to mind is from the Apocalypse of John:

Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer. When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword. When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!” When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth (Rev 6:1-8).

These fanciful words read like a fantasy novel. Yet here they are in God’s Word. Are they the ravings of a first century acid head? Are they objective truth or etiological narrative? How are we to interpret them? Regardless, they, and the whole of the Apocalypse, trace a vision of horror too profound to contemplate. Since the Henderson Summer Leadership Conference, I have been wondering about them.

Two facts from the conference stood out for me. First, the earth’s climate is going to increase about two degrees Celsius over the next 25-30 years unless dramatic steps are taken now. Second, unless humanity begins to live in a way fundamentally different from the way we now live, the earth’s climate will increase about four degrees Celsius over the next hundred years or so. The most visibly dramatic effect of such an increase will be the flooding of all the coastal regions of the world, rendering them unlivable. But the deeper, more long lasting effect will be the beginning of an irreversible process of temperature increase in the world’s climate.

I don’t believe that the will exists among the political and economic elite of the world to address these coming shifts in any substantial way at the present time. When the world’s coastal regions flood—and I assume they will at some point in the future—it will be the poor and disenfranchised of the world who will suffer, and not the elites. It is easy to imagine that this will provoke a worldwide exodus of proportions unheard of and lead to shanty towns on an unimagined scale. Yet this would only be a blip compared to what would come. If the climate increases by four degrees, as scientists suggest will happen, in time this world will become a barren desert unable to grow food of virtually any sort.

Do you hear the neighing of horses?

Following the passage I quoted above, Peter enjoins the Church to pray to hasten the coming judgment. I can’t do that. In fact, if I had a cat, I would probably crawl into a box with it. But there is an enormous opportunity for the Church here. What if the Church were to take her endowments and nearly empty buildings and sell them and buy farmland and begin to farm in a sustainable fashion and worked to make the אֲדָמָה (adamah) – the soil – more productive and better able to nourish? What if the Church got out ahead of the curve and moved to position herself for meaningful service before the σχύβαλον hits the fan, rather than waiting to react to injustice after it happens? What might happen if the Church were to begin to live her life in true κοινωνία in farming communities instead of 60 minutes at a time on Sunday mornings? Now I don’t think this is something that every present congregation ought to do, but what if all the churches in Pittsburgh (or any other city) got together and decided that some, or even many, were going to move in this direction? If there are 150 years before climate change begins to impact the earth’s ability to produce food, could the church leverage that time and be prepared to minister to a world in crisis? What if . . .

Now I take God at God’s Word. I don’t know what the Apocalypse means, but it is God’s Word to humankind, and is (capital T) Truth in some way, and I trust the Spirit to make that Word clear at the right time. The Henderson Summer Leadership Conference has caused me to wonder . . . Maybe there isn’t a cosmic firestorm in our future. Maybe it’s just four degrees. A mere four degrees brought about by the hubris of humanity.

Jake Horner graduated from Pittsburgh Seminary’s MDiv program in 2015.

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