Ever since I began preaching in 1984, I’ve had a recurring nightmare. I get to the pulpit, look out over the congregation, open my Bible…and find no sermon notes. I panic. I can’t breathe. I can’t think. I have nothing to say, and I stand, humiliated, and have to confess my ineptitude to the people gathered. What happens from there, I’m not sure, because I usually wake up in a cold sweat and realize I am dreaming.
I haven’t actually had that dream for a very long time, but it was frequent when I was a new pastor. I’ve always prepared a full manuscript of my sermons and carefully consider every word in the document. The process of writing typically takes me six to eight hours, and I can get a little edgy when it’s not coming together. I might whine about the time it takes to prepare a sermon, but I love the process of preparation. It becomes something God has given me to share with others.
By the time I’m done writing and editing and have a printed out manuscript, I’ve mentally preached the sermon three or four times. I’ve never felt comfortable with just an outline or sketchy notes in the pulpit, and I’ve never had any good reason to attempt to preach without notes. I envy those who can do so with confidence (and not just ramble), but I’ve always known that style is not for me. I am a stronger preacher when I know what the next thought, the next story, the next idea, the next sentence will be. My memorization skills are not good, so it helps to be able to glance at the manuscript to remember a particular turn of the phrase, or to glance ahead to the next thought. The physical manuscript helps me connect the dots and present a sermon that, while hopefully blessed in some way by God, has a sense of flow and movement to it that helps take the hearer from thought A to thought B.
It didn’t work that way on Sunday. The nightmare became reality.
It had been a hectic week, with a short work-week due to the Memorial Day holiday and the addition of two weddings and one funeral to the already tight schedule. With the extra services, I had prepared two brief wedding homilies and a funeral sermon as well as the regular sermon for Saturday night and Sunday morning. I was feeling rather proud of myself for getting everything done, even though I’d had a much shorter-than-usual block of time for the regular sermon preparation. Still, it was done–and, hot off the HP printer, the sermon manuscript went with me to the Saturday evening service. All went well.
On Sunday morning, I gathered sermon, reminder notes, bulletin, inserts, communion liturgy and prayer concerns, tucked them in my Bible, and headed to the sanctuary. Mid-service, in the pulpit, I opened the Bible to read the Gospel and realized that the sermon manuscript there was the one from Thursday’s funeral, eulogizing dear Mrs. Pitts. I had no sermon.
A thousand volts of brain activity kicked in. Some of the thoughts that zapped across the synapses within a split second: “What can I do? Can I excuse myself, run up the stairs and down the long hallway to the office, unlock the doors, find the sermon manuscript, and run back to preach? Would anyone notice? Would they think I was ill and call an ambulance? Would they think I had lost my mind and run away? I’m glad the children have left for Sunday School…they won’t have to see the pastor have a breakdown. Should I ask the organist to play a hymn to buy some time? What is that pounding noise in my head? Could I just try to remember what I had written and preached the night before?”
I don’t like extemporaneous speaking. Maybe I’m too tight and controlled, and maybe I need to trust the Spirit more, but I trust the Spirit plenty with a manuscript in my hand. I can deviate from the script. I can add a spontaneous thought or phrase. I can work in a personal anecdote. I can edit my own writing as I preach, and often do. But I cannot make up a sermon on the fly.
I stumbled through the Gospel reading. Honestly, all those thoughts were bombarding my brain while I was reading. I know my face was flush, as I felt the redness creeping up even as the sweat began dripping down. And, by the end of the short Gospel lesson, I felt my throat constricting, my tongue drying up. I said, “Let us pray”, breathed deeply and eeked out the prayer I usually use before the sermon, “O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.” I never meant it more.
The Spirit said preach. Just do it. Frankly, I don’t remember what I said. I got the beginning, mumbled through the middle, moved through the thoughts as they came to me, felt mildly pleased when I remembered something important and then…I was done. I simply had no more thoughts. There was no slick way to wrap things up, summarize, or re-state the main theme. I’m not even sure there was a main theme, as it was. So I just said something that sounded final. Done. Over. Finished. And I sat down. Sweet relief! I had lived through my worst nightmare and survived!
Since church was finished in 55 minutes–even though we’d had communion (which typically adds extra time to the service) and presented Bibles to the second and third graders–I imagine the sermon clocked in somewhere around eight minutes. There certainly were no complaints, as it got everyone to the coffee hour in record time.
I confessed my nightmare-to-reality scenario to several parishioners, including two clergy who were in church that morning. All said they hadn’t noticed. But thank goodness, no one said “Best sermon yet, preacher!” I’d have considered early retirement.
One friend, having heard the story of my nightmare experience, responded, “At least you had your pants on.”
Yeah, it could have been worse.