Digging up the past usually has some surprises. For twenty plus years I have moved around more than forty bank boxes of paper, all kinds of paper: files, newspaper clips, book reviews, book excerpts, book catalogs, notes from conferences, and more notes from conferences, personal journals by the dozens, cards and letters from others, notes and more notes of ideas, plans and reflections, Bible studies, and sermons, perhaps more than a thousand.
In this past year I have gone through all 47 boxes, throwing out, I suppose, about 35 boxes of material. In the process I started reviewing old sermons, some written when I was in my 20s or say, 45 years ago. The first thing that caught my attention was the material I wrote my sermons on. I have been a voracious reader and love studying. But I write my sermons at the end of a week after a week or more of study and reflection and I write in a quick and creative spirit. But my sermons were on legal pads, note pads, spiral-bound notebooks, three ring binder writing paper, all of various sizes. But from there it got more bizarre. For there were sermons of the back of church board minutes, perforated phone-call log sheets, church bulletins, receipts, onion paper (remember those), napkins, and the back of letters, again in differing sizes with the writing at various angles.
My writing was done serendipitously, on the run, rising from inspiration with the anticipation of the stage, a place that always felt like home. For me, preaching feels like having an individual and personal conversation with each person in the room. It was Charles Haddon Spurgeon, one of the great preachers of 18th Century England with a congregation of 10,000, who would study all week, but would not write his sermon until Saturday night, often after guests had left his home, and in one sitting. I identify with that.
But while I found the writing material eclectic, it was the content that troubled me. Looking back now, there were/are three things about my early sermons that humble me. First, there was too much sureness. The older I get the fewer things I am sure of, and those things I am sure of, I am more sure of. For example, the Apostles Creed has been around for 800 or so years, and has been virtually unchanged, despite numerous traditions, debates, and changes in the Christian Church. This says something to me of a core that has stood the test, standing in the clear of day or in the fog of battle. This sureness of which I speak, also reflects a willingness to take short-cuts to truth, often and too easily disregarding the nuances of both Scripture and people’s journeys. When I am with someone who just seems so sure about so much, I wonder, “Why is it essential for them to be right all the time?”
The second thing that troubled me is that I used people’s stories carelessly. I don’t mean I shared things people shared with me in confidence. I mean I found it easy to read the newspaper, see outlandish or unacceptable behavior and make it an illustration without regard to the fact that even if famous, these people were simply people. I recall in the movie Notting Hill where Anna Scott, the world-famous actress played by Julia Roberts is in the travel book shop run by the character played by Hugh Grant and she says, “I’m also just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her.” To see people not as objects, or obstacles, or ideas, but has human-beings tempers and changes how I speak to, speak of, and see people, including adversaries.
Lastly, there was too much “us-and-them” constructs. I recall Abraham Lincoln’s words, in the face of horrendous evil and carnage, “with malice towards none.”
Wisdom Gained Through Reflection
There were a lot of things in those 47 boxes I loved seeing again, like some old letters from my father when I was in college, cards from my wife, sayings I kept because they impacted me. But the things from my sermons are what gave me pause, and helped me reflect on what kind of person I want to be. The Apostle Paul never forgot his past. He recalled that he was “the chiefest of sinners,” the “least of all saints.” Why? He tells us. He persecuted the church. In modern language it at least means, he did things that could not be undone and had destroyed peoples’ lives. While perhaps not as dramatic, I hope my archaeological journey down the labyrinth of recovered sermons leaves me wiser and slower to speak.