Archive for October, 2008

Preaching did not come easily for me; at least not in the beginning. When I first started out in ministry in 1992, preparing a sermon was a bit like anticipating a final exam on which the entire semester grade was hinged. I could study and prepare for days but in the end the grade came after the sermon was delivered. I would stress about the process and worry about whether or not I would have enough to say to fill the allotted time. As I progressed through divinity school and served my student placements I juggled school, a full time job and a part time church position. There were times that I wouldn’t physically have time to prepare a sermon; especially not using the standard of 1 minute of sermon is equal to at least 1 hour of study & preparation!


On several occasions I prayed that God would give me the right words to say and then I stepped out into the big top like a trapeze artist without a net. It’s called “extemporaneous preaching.” In some seminaries a course in extemporaneous preaching is required. Assignments usually go something like this: arrive at class; professor draws scripture from a hat: 10 – 20 minutes is allowed for scripture study by students; professor draws student name from a hat; chosen student preaches for 20 minutes; class and professor critique sermon. Wow!


At Brite Divinity School I did not have such assignments. We were to use the lectionary and keep a notebook in which we made notes and outlines for the coming 6 months to a year. We were encouraged to take a week of retreat for sermon planning each year. Good idea, but my usual preaching schedule has been assigned by a senior minister maybe a month in advance of a single Sunday.


My student church experience did provide numerous opportunities for preaching. And more times than I care to count I preached off the cuff or from sketchy notes. There are several dangers to preaching this way. 1) You may say something that you don’t mean or that isn’t quite correct factually or theologically. 2) You may speak yourself and your audience in circles. 3) You may lose track of time and either preach too short a sermon (which most people don’t mind, especially if there’s a ball game coming on) or you may preach too long a sermon (in which case you may put people to sleep, lose your and their train of thought, you may make too many points or uselessly unclear points, and the roast may burn). 4) Your sermon may have no relationship whatsoever to the text at hand. These are just a few of the dangers.


Recently I was reading a discussion thread of ministers on ravelry.com in which a PW (Pastors Wife) was talking about her husband preaching extemporaneously from notes. It seems he came out of seminary believing that it was a very bad thing to do, or at least he felt extremely uncomfortable and perhaps unprepared to do so. Well time and years had gone on when he was encouraged by another pastor to try it, so he did. He discovered that he quite enjoyed and felt he could do it well and that his congregation responded positively when he did. So he’s been preaching that way ever since. Now mid you, he doesn’t just stand up in the pulpit and ask someone to throw him a text to preach on. He prayers over the scriptures and asks God to guide him as he prepares the notes or outline for his sermon.


Reading that post and feeling a bit busy for the week, I realized that by Friday I was working up to having the guts to preach without a net. Yes, I’m one who usually writes out a full manuscript of my sermons and preaches it word for word, maybe sometimes adding another thought here or there as I go, just so long as it doesn’t disrupt the flow or my ability to keep going with my script. I was preaching on the 10 Commandments and World Communion Sunday. Two things I should know very well. I prepared notes and outlined a plan. I pulled in resources for all ages; note the funky finger motions to remember the 10 commandments written by Presbyterian minister Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, thank you so much!


I was a little anxious as I approached the big top, er, the sanctuary; but I figured it was worth the risk. Every pastor delivers a dud once in while, right? So if this one absolutely sucked eggs, someone was bound to scramble or fry them and find something useful to eat from it. So I grabbed on to the bar, er, the pulpit, and I jumped right in! Actually in early service I only vaguely used the floor podium. I kind of felt like a younger Joyce Meier as I taught the lesson. And though I preached again from the pulpit in second service, I really think my first attempt was the best. Maybe because at 8:30 am when I’m preaching I’m still half asleep and still clinging closer to God!


I proved to myself that I can still do it if I have to. I don’t have to stress out about it. If I have good notes and an outline it’s as good as having a map. So, while I may not want to do it that way every week, it was a good experience and the local college religion professor had some really helpful feedback in regards to my content, which I very much appreciated. Preaching without a net, what a rush!


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Passing On

Over the weekend my parents lost one of their dearest friends. Howard Martin McMahon, 81, of Marrietta, GA. Dad met Howard when Dad cane to the US to be a guest lecturer at Georgia Tech in 1964. They were both researching and teaching in the field of aerospace engineering. Howard was originally from Canada (earned his PhD at Caltech) and felt a strong attachment to his ancestral home of Ireland. He and his wife Pat had 5 children (2 girls, 3 boys). Howard is 6 years older than dad, but they had so much in common; espcially the joy of company keeping. Howard and Fran had 5 kids because they love a crowd, and they’re Catholic! I have many fond childhood memories of visiting their home on Beverly Wood Court in Chamblee. It was a great house; 2-story colonial with a finished basement. The basement was where we usually ended up because it had a billiard table and other games. One thing about visiting the McMahon’s, there was ALWAYS candy! We barely walked in the door and to the kicthen and Fran was offering some yummy treat from the bottomless candy bowl on the kitchen counter. We looked forward to departmental parties at the McMahon’s because we’d all be spoiled.

Mom is close friends with Fran. I remember many times accompanying Mom to visit with Fran. No doubt Mom will continue, especially now that Howard is gone. I have a vague recollection that Mom & Dad sent me to stay with Fran & Howard for an overnight. Probably a little getaway for Mom & Dad. (Note that I was the only one to go; it’s hard to find someone who’ll agree to keep 4 children when 3 of them are rambunctious boys!) I think there was a time or two that Fran kept me while Mom did some errand or task.

Howard and Fran were/are the kind of people who will give you the shirt off their backs. They never lacked for generosity or faith. When I had my surgery last year they arraged a novena on my behalf. A few weeks later I was in Atlanta, and that was the last time I saw Howard. He and Fran have been living in a condo in Marietta for several years. Mom and I took my boys to see them. Robbie and John had a great time playing the piano (Robbie had just learned “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”). I talked with Howard and probably had the first real adult conversation with him that I’d ever had. He showed me all the assistive devices he was then using to overcome his macular degeneration. His brilliant mind would find a way to keep stimulated!

It’s interesting now as I approach middle age to think about my parents friends. Looking back I don’t think I could’ve told you how important their friends were to me. But considering that we had no relatives in the area, my parents’ friends filled that role. We shared holidays and family celebrations. The thing that most disappointed my mom about my wedding not being in Atlanta was probably that it meant some of their friends wouldn’t be able to attend. Howard and Fran did attend. ANd in my wedding pictures I have a really nice photo of the two of them dancing together. What great memories!

Howard, you were a rare jewel! You will be greatly missed.

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