In my experience, eighty percent of the fuel for preaching comes from sources outside the study. I do not mean scouring the countryside or the urbanside for sermon illustrations or the discipline of keeping up with the daily news, though both of these may contribute to the content of a sermon. Personally, I do not expend much energy on either—hunting down illustrations or devouring news reports. Both make me tired and grouchy.
What I mean by fuel is the Energy, the Force, the Inspiration of preaching that comes predominantly not from study time or from out-in-the-world time but from desert time, soul time, solitude time, spirit-drenching time, or whatever other name you wish to give it. While a current event might energize you momentarily, a heart-warming story might invigorate you, or a fresh insight into the text might seem to propel you, none of these are fuel; they are only substance.
Fuel, which is Spirit, God, Fire, Passion, does not often come lodged in the pages of a commentary or wedged between your magazine and morning cup of coffee. If you are relying on insights, events, or stories to fuel you, you are barking up the wrong tree. The right tree is the shade of Divine Presence, and there is little you do with shade other than notice it, sit with it, receive it, and appreciate it.
The primary task of preaching is to feed your soul, because every other source will eventually run dry. With enough skill, you can mold and manipulate the material you find in the world and in a text to form a worthy sermon, but you cannot keep up this sham for long. The thing that is meant to carry the sermon out into the hearts of people is nothing short of Divine Power. You are meant to tap into this deeper current that flows beneath the surface. You are meant to spend your time digging, digging, digging the well and then gulping, gulping, gulping its waters. Little else will matter if you do not first drink.
How to feed your soul is not necessarily obvious in that it is not always the overtly religious things that do the trick. How to feed your soul is obvious, however, in that if you pay attention to your life, you will begin to know intuitively what feeds you. Reading a theological treatise or the latest book on how to form small groups in your church may not be the fodder you deeply need. It may help, but is it what you need the most? Perhaps what you need the most is to read some poetry, a good novel, or a collection of short stories. What you need is to paint, to hike, or to sing. You might need to listen to music, admire a sunset, or hold an infant close enough to smell her baby-fresh skin. Maybe you need to go rock-climbing or kayaking or dancing or bird-watching or seashell collecting. Maybe you need to climb a tree or draw with a box of colored pencils or have yourself a good long laugh. You need to do the things that reawaken your sense of wonder, deepen your gratitude, rekindle your imagination, and invite your inner child out to play.
Of course, some preachers are too flippant about the sermon-writing process, and that is neither useful nor responsible. But those of us with a strong work ethic can sometimes overemphasize our study, effort, and editing as the most important thing, then fling up a last-call panic prayer, “And God be with me.” We hope for God to rush in and fill the holes where we are lacking, to make up for what we missed. The Spirit is an afterthought, added on after all our striving. Instead, we must reclaim a way of being that starts with Spirit. What a relief if we can stop wasting so much time on what does not ultimately feed us and start reclaiming what is essential after all.
Preaching is work. There is no way around that if you want to be a good steward of the word you are called to speak. But preaching is also play. Preaching is expression of soul, and if there is no soul to express, you had better stop everything and feed your soul, or your preaching is doomed from the start.
This is all the more crucial when your world is rocked by tragedy in some way, and all of us get rocked on occasion. When I was in the throes of grief, my friend had me use her essential oils.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said as she anointed my wrists with the fragrance. “My marriage is falling apart and you want me to smell oils? Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what I want you to do,” she stated emphatically.
Oh. So this is self-care.
This was a revelation to me, that self-care can be oh-so-tiny. Sometimes from where you sit the sky is falling, and the only thing you know how to do with the next five minutes is eat some chocolate. Pretend you are recovering from Dementors (yes, that’s a Harry Potter reference), or just eat it without knowing how it will possibly help. But if it feels remotely helpful, eat the damn chocolate and don’t you dare count calories.
Self-care also means letting yourself have the struggle and feel the pain. We must stop thinking we are meant to power through adversity. We are meant to be human: to struggle, to feel, to wail, to question, to thrash, and yes, eventually to thrive, but it is fake thriving if you skip all the other steps. The other steps can be horrific, which is why we understandably avoid them, but there are a thousand small things that will see us through if we choose to enter the rugged terrain of our real souls.
Once you’re ready to engage this deep soul work, it can be bewildering to know where to begin. We’ve been stuffing away the shadow parts of ourselves for so long that it sometimes feels impossible to begin—diving in and facing our “muck.” Don’t force it. There is no rush. Just be open to self-honesty, and the path will present itself. Life events will inevitably bring muck to the surface. If you missed the last opportunity to face your suffering head-on, you undoubtedly will be given another chance. Then, when it comes, take it one step at time. Be exceedingly patient with yourself, but do step forward. Your soul will thank you later.
When I don’t have a clue what to do next (which happens to me regularly, not just when tragedy strikes), instead of forcing myself into a premature answer, I try to tend to my soul. Here are some of the things I do instead of forcing answers: make hot tea, listen to a violin, burn incense, light candles, talk to a friend, walk in the woods, make a gratitude list, ask for help, write poetry, go somewhere new, go somewhere familiar, journal, eat comfort food, drink wine. It is absolutely necessary to stop trying to fix things for a while, or it is likely that the solution I conjure up from my anxiety will be a plan that shrinks my soul somehow. And often, once I stop focusing directly on the confusion, clarity catches me by surprise.
You might not know what works for you when you are stuck. You might not know yet. But find what gets you in touch with yourself and helps your soul breathe more expansively. The answers you are looking for will come. The guidance will come. The peace will come. What you need most rarely arrives when you are frantically scurrying, desperately faking it, or anxiously grasping at what you don’t yet have. Slow down. As Christina Baldwin says, “Move at the pace of guidance.” Be attentive to your soul. Not negligent. Not put out. Just gentle and attentive.
I know some of you are thinking, “I don’t have time to go at a slower pace.” Yes, I know. Work, kids, life—it is too much. Maybe before you can say yes to your soul, you will have to practice saying no to other things. Whoever you are, wherever you are, the right pace will eventually be accessible to you if you stay open to it, but of course it will always be hit and miss for most of our lives—sometimes on track, sometimes off. The goal isn’t perfection but awareness and gentle correction. The goal is to be awake and to keep waking up. The goal is to never sleepwalk through life again. The goal is to open your eyes.
A friend recently told me that meditation can be a single deep breath. The goal is to keep breathing deeply, to periodically inhale with purpose so that the oxygen reaches you. Keep stretching out and touching your soul; brush up against it periodically, daily, every time you can.
Originally appeared as chapter 2 in Preacher Breath by Kyndall Rae Rothaus.
Kyndall Rae Rothaus is pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas. She graduated with her Master of Divinity from George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor. She blogs Here and her sermons can be read or listened to Here. Her first book Preacher Breath is published by Smyth & Helwys.