I was up early this morning in order to beat the traffic on my way to my weekly chemotherapy treatment. It was dark, reminding me that the sun is working its inevitable way towards the southern hemisphere. On the way out the door I remembered to grab something to read while waiting for my treatment. A dog-eared book on my shelf called out, its binding no longer any use, with the pages falling out - "Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation" - Walter Brueggemann's 1988 Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale Divinity School. It is not uncommon for me to seek inspiration - to be reminded of the reason that I take up the call to preach - in the midst of the full weeks of ministry that arrive in September. The tattered state of my copy of "Finally Comes the Poet" reminds me that I have returned over and over to its pages. It is not alone among published volumes of the Beecher Lectures. Three others in my collection are underlined, dog-eared and well worn. I remember being captivated by Frederich Buechner's "Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale". Reading it again now I can see the arc of my ministry prefigured in its pages. Along the way my apprenticeship included learning from Fred Craddock whose Beecher lectures were published as "Overhearing the Gospel: Preaching and Teaching the Faith to Persons Who Have Heard it all Before". Then in recent years a new favorite came along in the form of Richard Lischer's "The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence". These books are trusted companions on the way, friends that remind me of the challenge and gift that is the call to preach the good news of the gospel in this time and place. In the midst of what may seem a time of dispirited decline in the church these voices remind me of the vitality, energy and wonder that is present among the company of preachers for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
When I opened "Finally Comes the Poet" once again this morning I was not disappointed. For one thing, I had forgotten that the first chapter - "Numbness and Ache: The Strangeness of Healing" - is an extended meditation on the way in which Jeremiah provides preachers with a model of poetic speech that opens the community to the painful yet needful path to healing. Reading Jeremiah, chapter by chapter, in our Wednesday morning breakfast conversation is, at once, painful and instructive. We are tempted to turn away from the harsh rhetoric and, yet, are drawn in by the longing and grief of God. But, before chapter one's meditation on Jeremiah, Brueggemann situates his argument in this way in the Introduction ...
"The preacher in U.S. culture deals with a claim that is commonly accepted as the truth by the listeners. That is, we preach mostly to believers ... The gospel is too readily heard and taken for granted, as though it contained no unsettling news and no unwelcome threat. What began as news in the gospel is easily assumed, slotted, and conveniently dismissed. We depart having heard, but without noticing the urge to transformation that is not readily compatible with our comfortable believing that asks little and receives less. The gospel is thus a truth widely held, but a truth greatly reduced. It is a truth that has been flattened, trivialized, and rendered inane. Partly, the gospel is simply an old habit among us, neither valued nor questioned. But more than that, our technical way of thinking reduces mystery to problem, transforms assurance into certitude, revises quality into quantity, and so takes the categories of biblical faith and represents them in management shapes. Or, if our technical reason does not pervert the truth of the gospel in relative naivete, our unwitting embrace of social ideology distorts the news so that it can be accommodated to a variety of social ideologies, of the right and of the left ... There is then no danger, no energy, no possibility, no opening for newness Preaching among us happens in this context in which truth is greatly reduced. That means the gospel may have been twisted, pressed, tailored, and gerrymandered until it is comfortable with technological reason that leaves us unbothered, and with ideology that leaves us with uncriticized absolutes. When truth is mediated in such positivistic, ideological, and therefore partisan ways, humaneness wavers, the prospect for humanness is at risk, and unchecked brutality makes its appearance. We shall not be the community we hope to be if our primary communications are in modes of utilitarian technology and managed, conformed values. The issues before the church and its preachers may be put this way: Is there another way to speak? Is there another voice to be voiced? Is there an alternative universe of discourse to be practiced that will struggle with the truth in ways unreduced?" (pp. 1-2)
"To address the issue of a truth greatly reduced requires us to be poets that speak against a prose world. The terms of that phrase are readily misunderstood. By prose I refer to a world that is organized in settled formulae, so that even pastoral prayers and love letters sound like memos. By poetry, I do not mean rhyme, rhythm, or meter, but language that moves like Bob Gibson's fast ball, that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion, and pace. Poetic speech is the only proclamation worth doing in a situation of reductionism, the only proclamation, I submit, that is worthy of the name preaching. Such preaching is not moral instruction or problem solving or doctrinal clarification. It is not good advice, nor is it romantic caressing, nor is it a soothing good humor. It is, rather, the ready, steady, surprising proposal that the real world in which God invites us to live is not the one made available by the rulers of this age. The preacher has the awesome opportunity to offer an evangelical world: an existence shaped by the news of the gospel." (p. 3)
"I shall argue that the continuing practice of this artistic speech voiced in the prophetic construal of the Bible is the primary trust of the church and its preaching. This speech prevents our reduced world from becoming brutal and coldly closed upon us. This speech, entrusted to and practiced by the church, is an act of relentless hope; an argument against the ideological closing of life we unwittingly embrace." (p. 7)
Reading this again as I awaited my weekly injection I was reminded of the excitement that I had when first encountering Brueggemann's call for daring speech. It brought back memories of heading south to Atlanta to study with fellow preachers and with Walter. And it gave me cause for both excitement and for worry as I open the scripture again this week, daring to preach the audacious good news of Jesus Christ.