Yesterday, as part of my Lenten discipline of writing for forty days about my pastoral ministries, I wrote about preaching. I wrote that I didn’t even care for the word. Later that day, Fred Craddock died. I refuse to believe his death was anything but a coincidence. By all accounts (or almost all), he may have been the best preacher of our generation. So they say, those who knew him, studied under him, read his books, and heard him preach. My guess is that he didn’t mind being called a preacher.

Today, I continue with my thoughts about how my own proclamation of the good news matured, thanks to two experiences related to my tenure at the Bon Air Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Va. One experience was working with the Rev. Bob Busey, the pastor under whom I labored as Associate Pastor for Liturgy and Congregational Care. The other experience was my annual participation in the Montreat Worship and Music Conference over a period of maybe 15 years, or more. (I lost count.)

Let’s start with Montreat, that Presbyterian Mecca in the Smokies of western North Carolina. Joan, my wife and certified church musician (with whom I never shared a pastorate) and I used our respective continuing education allowances for that week-long summer experience at Montreat year after year. Joan went for the music, and I went for the  seminars and classes related to leading worship. A highlight of every conference was joining together in the Adult Choir, sometimes as many as 800 voices singing challenging music under nationally-prominent choral conductors. Another chief focus for me was learning more about liturgy and worship than cursory seminary classes had taught.

When we first began attending the Montreat conferences, I was still in my media-oriented non-parish ministry. So, for years before my call to the Bon Air church, I just absorbed the festival worship experiences and seminars as opportunities for spiritual growth and educational nurture. But when the Bon Air church position opened up (the mid-1980s), I saw a place to put into practice what Montreat and its teachers had instilled in me.

The call was extended and I became the liturgist on most Sundays and the “preacher” (there’s that word) once a month. It was a wonderful church, rich with music, creativity, and solid theology in Bob Busey’s sermons. Montreat had advocated for the use of the Revised Common Lectionary, and Bob was a “lectionary preacher.” So, I became one, and never looked back. Bob was not an emotional orator; he was more the level-headed teacher. This is not to say he was without passion, though. His focus on social justice and contemporary issues reflected his serious reading of current books, newspapers, and scripture. He was a fan of Niebuhr, a veteran of civil rights struggles in North Carolina, and an unabashed liberal. No doubt, he still is.

Under his leadership, and with Montreat learnings bubbling to the surface in my own preparation each week, I took that Sunday morning gathering of the congregation-at-worship very seriously, and I enjoyed, truly enjoyed, not only designing fresh liturgical content each week, but shaping my monthly sermons from first reads of the passages for the week to finding the right words with which to proclaim the Gospel. Every sermon was written out, word for word, with the exception of occasional blank spaces into which I would tell an extemporaneous story, conversationally, just to vary the rhythm a bit.

I remember especially one of my first forays into story-telling sermons, extended parables, if you will. The sermon was entitled “Christmas along the Appalachian Trail.” I told of my friend Matt and me hiking the trail and discussing elements of the familiar Christmas narrative as we climbed, camped, and commiserated about wintry conditions as we hiked. It was, I thought, an inviting framing device into which lessons about the Nativity might be shared. I still like that sermon after all these years. But when the service had ended, a young woman who knew Matt asked when we had done the hike. I told her I had just made up the story. She was disappointed and said, “How will I know when you are telling the truth from now on?”

The truth. Sermons must tell the truth. What is it that is said about novels, myths, and parables? It is the truth…and it might even have actually happened. But it is the truth.

When I left Bon Air to go to my first “solo” pastorate in Vermont, I began the weekly joyful labor of sermon writing and preaching. I often began the process on Monday or Tuesday, taking a first look at the four lectionary readings assigned to that coming Sunday. Wednesday I would have to focus on one reading for my sermon text. When Joan and I walked each day, I’d share my ideas with her, sometimes an outline, other times a story. Thursday and Friday I’d still be studying, and writing a few thoughts on legal pad or computer. Saturday was writing day. And sometimes, I admit it, Saturday night the sermon wasn’t yet ready for prime time. Jeffrey Procrastination Kellam. But I took writing and oral delivery seriously, and found that many folks in that Vermont congregation enjoyed  — or at least tolerated — my occasional creative touches.

There was the sermon where I spoke as a neighboring farmer/friend of the father of the “prodigal son.” There were the letters Mary and Martha wrote to their mother, each sister complaining about the behavior of the other in the presence of Jesus. There was the sermon that described a symphony built around the cantus firmus of the Reformed Tradition. And the Broadway show, complete with un-singable lyrics, about Jesus healing a blind man. Then there were the countless less-than-memorable sermons that provide fodder for mildew in the filing cabinet in our garage.

I was gratified when Vermont summer visitors asked me to print out my sermons and put them in the mail to them through the winter months. I was also pleased when, at both my full-time solo pastorate churches, people whom I so respected gave me positive feedback about my versions of the “proclamation of the Word.” I have made my share of confessions about my early attempts at this art but I also celebrate the fact that I like most of my sermons, I think I “preach” well enough to redeem the 15 minutes or so the captive audience allows me at worship. Thanks be to God!

I know I’ve grown. I hope to grow some more. I may not be a Fred Craddock. Nor, a Fred Buechner. But for a guy not named Fred, I’m doing my best.

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