Wendell Berry taught me to preach | TC Pastors
I was a poet long before I wanted to be a preacher, but when I entered the ministry I thought poetry was a distraction, something to be set aside for serious pulpit work.
What I didn’t realize was that good preaching requires poetic vision, the ability to speak to the heart and discern what lies beneath the subtext of life. The skills and sensibilities I had developed as a poet were also necessary to make me a good preacher. By giving up poetry, I lost my ability to see beyond the superfluous and into the human heart.
Famous Caribbean poet Derek Walcott said, “I never separated writing poetry from praying. I grew up believing it was a calling, a religious calling. The poet and the preacher share more than they realize, and the preacher has much to learn from the poet. Wendell Berry’s poem “How to Be a Poet” outlines what it takes to be a great poet and in turn sheds light on what it means to be a great preacher.
“Make a place to sit down. Sit. Be quiet.”
For many preachers, silence is a void waiting to be filled. We are used to being the dominant voice in a room, and as a result we spend most of our lives thinking that we are perpetually in the pulpit, much to the chagrin of our friends and loved ones. This need to fill quiet spaces with the sound of our own voice seeps into our spiritual lives.
But what happens when our well dries up, when the words don’t come, and Sunday looms over us like an invincible peak? It is in these moments that we begin to realize that we have come to the end of our words and that despite all that we have poured out, we have done very little to receive.
Here, in these first lines, Wendell Berry calls us to re-examine our relationship to silence. Our desperate need to fill the void grew out of a deeply fractured relationship with silence. To speak is to control. Silence is letting go (Ps. 46:10). By sitting down and being silent, we take our hands off the reins and give the Spirit the freedom to fill the silence with his presence. It is from this deep well of silence that the preacher draws his inspiration. We cannot afford to miss what God is saying to his people.
At some point, our minds will fail us, and if we haven’t cultivated the habit of listening carefully, we risk regurgitating dead sermon points to the dying. Preaching must begin in the vacuum of silence. Our silence is our admission that the task to which we have been called requires divine help.
“You must depend on affection, on reading, on knowledge, on skill – more of each than you have.”
The task of preaching often seems impossible. Anyone who has ever stood behind the pulpit immediately knows the feeling of immense weight that accompanies opening the mouth to proclaim the mysteries of God. We often feel overwhelmed.
No amount of seminary training, theological study, or cultural awareness can completely alleviate preaching anxieties. And that’s kind of the point. Like the poet, we are charged with relying on more than we alone possess. Our words are often insufficient, we never know enough, and our skills constantly compete with the changing tastes of the times.
But preaching is not a solitary affair; we are not lone rangers shooting at the edge of civilization. We are a fellowship of men and women linked across space and time (Mark 12:27, Heb. 12:1). Our work is shared by others whose life experience, educational background, ethnic identity, and temporal location give them a unique relationship with Scripture. They see things we don’t, and if we want to, their views and ideas are available to help shape our own.
We must depend on the skills, knowledge and affection of others. Only then can we fill in the gaps that mark our preaching. We must remember that we are part of a holy Catholic Church. Our universality is our strength and isolation is only a drawback.
“Avoid electric wires. Communicate slowly.
We live in reactionary times. We are constantly pressured to express our opinions at all times, lest we miss the cultural zeitgeist. Our phones serve as portable pulpits, a place where our unfiltered thoughts and ideas live rent-free. Our itchy fingers are just as deadly as our itchy ears. We lost the ability to communicate slowly.
Berry’s wire is representative of the dangers of instant access and spontaneous response. Quick communication often requires little thought. Rather than taking the time to dwell deeply on a question, we rush to respond and, in doing so, offer superficial criticisms that do not feed, equip or encourage those in our care.
If we are not careful, our preaching will be dominated by poorly thought out words rather than deeply formed thoughts. Our job as preachers is to offer a contemplative voice, not a reactionary one. Communicating slowly requires careful contemplation and prayer. The Church and those called to be her voice do not bow down to the changing winds of the times. We are the still, small voice of culture, communicating slowly, avoiding the instantaneous and pointing to the eternal (Eph. 4:11-16).
“Live a life in three dimensions.”
There is nothing worse than preaching disconnected from everyday life. Theological abstractions do very little for the thirsty souls in our pews, and any theology disconnected from life, history and place is antithetical to the Incarnation. The incarnation of Jesus is not merely the taking of human form, but rather the full entry of Jesus into the state of human affairs through which the Eternal Word makes Himself present in time and space. (John 1:14).
Our preparation and preaching must be rooted in a “three-dimensional” life. Our preaching must drink from the well of history and place, a source that feeds and is fed by the local congregations we serve. The apostle Paul did his theology in the context of local communities. Its articulation of eternal truth was scented and shaped by the soil in which it was planted. This does not mean that the temporal trumps the eternal; rather, it is an invitation to anchor infinity in a local habitation, a space where the gospel intersects with everyday life.
I started writing coffeehouse sermons when my wife and I got married and lived in a small apartment in Brooklyn. What began as a practical decision eventually led to deep spiritual practice. The gossip at the table across the room, the flier-filled community board, and the brief chat with the barista all help me remember who these messages are for. By beginning our preparation in the presence of people, we begin to write for them and not for ourselves. We learn to see the gospel at work in places and in ways we could never have imagined locked away in our studies.
“Make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it comes.”
Any good course in pastoral theology teaches that the preacher should put his agenda aside when he preaches; at that time, he is a spokesperson, an oracle, one called by God to announce his Word to his people. But if we are honest, our sermons are often dominated by our personal agendas, our vendettas and our opinions. Rather than preaching what we have received from God in silence and prayer, we step out of the script and preach what serves us. We are all guilty. There is a fine line between our words and God’s words, and often that line is more permeable than we realize.
Our job is to make sure that what we preach does not disturb “the silence from which it came”. It forces us to be introspective and ask the tricky question, “Is this from God or from me?” It could also mean inviting wise, Spirit-led men and women into our preparation. It serves us to question our own objectivity, especially when it helps us discern whether we are hearing God clearly or torturing the text to suit our own purposes. What we receive in silence is sacred. He doesn’t need our help. God knows what he means. We just have to step back and let it be.
In his poem “Station Island XI”, Seamus Heaney advises us to “read the poems as prayers”. I often read Berry’s poem. His poem reminds me that I am not a rhetorician who prepares to win a debate, nor a philosopher who pontificates abstract truths. I am a preacher. I am called to remain in deep silence and, like David, to call my soul to be silent and wait (Ps. 62:5). Berry teaches us to rely on the voices that have gone before us. He implores us to avoid our keyboards and reminds us to weave the story of Jesus into the story of our community.
Ryan Diaz is a poet and writer from Queens, New York.