Last night we had a bonfire because…well, I cut up a lot of firewood Friday, I haven’t had a chance to have a fire since then, and we’re leaving Wednesday for a wedding and I wanted to actually benefit from my labors instead of just longingly looking at the wood and being sad a fire wasn’t burning.
Holy crap, I love bonfires.
Anyway, as the fire was burning I couldn’t keep something out of my mind. A couple of summers ago I worked with a pastor who has a very intellectual mind. Very organized, very regimented, clean desk and set schedule. This isn’t to say he is horribly inflexible – successful pastors can’t be inflexible and unsuccessful pastors don’t stay at a church happily for 30+ years – but his mind is very much logical and rational.
Anyone who knows me in my personal life could tell you that it was only destined that we would get along very well. We just kind of clicked when I started my rotation at that church. I’m less regimented than him, and I’m certainly not a clean-desk sort of guy, but the logical and rationality he showed in his ministry makes sense to me.
Another thing that worked with just getting along is he is a musician and a fan of jazz. Our lunches would be a sandwich at his kitchen table and then 20 minutes or so listening to jazz
records CDs before we went back to work. I can tell you, there isn’t much in the world I enjoy more than something like that; just listening to even part of a beautiful record like Kind of Blue as a break from whatever work you are doing can reset your engines and clear your mind (especially if you are an introvert).
One of these lunch sessions we got to talking about his violin playing and he mentioned something that a conductor had given as inspiration to the orchestra he as performing with: “Hearts on fire, minds on ice.”
Something about that has resonated with me since that day. An idea that, even in the midst of our deepest intellectual moments, the midst of the coldest logical thinking, our hearts can still be on fire. The fire of passion and desire does not require the brain to be shut off or even reduced at all; in fact, an expression of a heart “on fire” can be a brain working at its fullest and coldest.
Last night it popped into my head because of the fire because the fire didn’t want to start. The leaves were damp, the wood a bit wet, and the wind a bit strong to be conducive to starting a fire in a small fire pit. I couldn’t just have a spark to easily light a fire; it required work, it required thinking, and it required maintenance. It just wouldn’t become the raging fire that burns anything easily; even when it got hot and the wind was making it bigger than the fuel said it should have been, a small misstep could have reduced it to smoldering.
In a lot of real ways, a fire in optimal conditions is better than my fire last night. In optimal conditions, with dry kindle, dry wood, and properly sized logs, you are only limited to the size of the fire pit and the time you want to spend with the fire. It burns bright, it burns warmly, and it just works on every level. It just comes out.
I’ve had sermons like this. You sit down at the computer and suddenly 2000 words are on the page and it flows perfectly. It’s theologically sound, artful, and just a good sermon. I’ve had this happen to me, I’ve had it happen when I didn’t deserve it, and I’ve had it happen when I deserved to have nothing sit on the page because of the lack of preparation I’ve had. Sometimes it just happens that way. Some of it is obviously the Holy Spirit, the flame of our souls, and some of it is the training and experience we’ve had.
A world of change can happen to a sermon between printing Saturday night and preaching Sunday morning. I’ll use a fire I built at camp to explain.
One night I had one of those nights that young, angst-filled college students have. I decided that I needed to build a fire to get through it and it was a darn good fire. Literally, it is one of the best bonfires I’ve ever built. It just burned well, stayed lit, and it was a beautiful fire.
No one enjoyed it. I was alone, and I was angst-filled in particular that night; this beautiful fire seemed wasted because no one enjoyed it.
I’ve written beautiful sermons I was proud of, and I still love despite the need for a couple of tweaks. I can think of one in particular that just felt right. It was artful, different, followed a homiletical style, and I just enjoyed writing it. I had a solid interpretation of the scripture in use, backed up my commentaries, and it was just what the spark of the Holy Spirit lit in me. I was ready to be lauded for my beautiful effort.
It is, in my opinion, lack on small word change, the best sermon in terms of art form I have ever written. And my church enjoyed it immensely.
That C I got on it in Preaching Class showed me exactly how much a good sermon can completely miss it’s mark. The best manuscript, the best delivery, and the best preacher – abstract, not specific in my case – can be heard wrong, suffer from the distraction of those listening, and have a small phrase that is mostly irrelevant to the message of the sermon derail the entire thing. The beauty of that “fire” that I wanted to share ended up putting a sour taste for preaching in my mouth.
If I’m honest, both that fire I built at camp and that sermon I gave in class nearly caused me to quit.
Pride sucks and can kill everything about you. It just is that way. Especially when you think you’ve done this amazing thing, no one may notice and it may feel worse after than before.
That isn’t to say that every good sermon – or every good bonfire – that went like that was wasted and caused me grief. I’ve written good sermons, preached them, and they hit exactly where I was aiming. I felt good, the sermon had its message heard, and it was obvious that the Spirit was guiding my lips and the congregations ears. I don’t always fail when the sermon came out easy and came out good.
What I will also say is that the sermon doesn’t always hurt when it is a grinder.
Sometimes the fires in nonoptimal conditions are so much more meaningful than fires in the best of conditions. Last night I just felt good that I got that stupid fire to burn. The flames never got big (expect when the wind blew and they were way bigger than I wanted them to be) and it was hard to keep a flame at all. Yet it was good and mind-clearing to be outside, to feel the warmth of the flames, and to have time with my wife without distraction other than the constant need to keep up with the fire.
Sermons can be like that. There are certain passages that you decide to preach on early in the week (or weeks before) and Saturday comes and the sermon just won’t come out. Even passages that lend themselves to easy sermons just don’t have a message for you every time.
But Sunday morning doesn’t wait for you. At 10:30 I have to have a worship service planned, bulletins printed, and something to say when I get to the sermon. I can’t just say, “Screw it! No sermon this week!”
Okay, maybe I could, but I like not being asked to not return.
It is amazing to me, though, how often those sermons hit the mark they needed to. Even more amazing – and annoying, if I’m honest – is when that mark is nowhere near where I was aiming. It’s not that I didn’t prepare, it’s not that I didn’t try to hit a good message, but the sermon lent itself to another message and another point without my intervention. Often times I don’t even know how it did it, and can’t find it when I read my manuscript again, but it worked on a spiritual level.
The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways. With or without me.
I’ve also been burnt by those sermons. Sometimes you talk for 15 minutes just to have the message, “Jesus loves you and the pastor loves the sound of his own voice” come through. I know it’s happened; my congregation would never tell me, but I know it. It happens.
So what about that quote, “Hearts of fire, minds on ice?” It seems like I got derailed – and I did – but there is a point. The first is obviously that the Holy Spirit can fix my brokenness from the pulpit.
But that isn’t the end. Despite how many times the Holy Spirit has saved me from myself, it always works better when I’m in study and thought about my sermons. There is a definite correlation between my working through a sermon before Friday or Saturday and the sermon coming out good and hitting its mark. And there is a correlation between a grinder sermon actually working out and me having spent time with the scripture.
Compare it to my fire last night. If I had just left it up to what was there without work, I would have burnt some wet leaves and then watched TV all night. If I have no preparation and just grind out whatever will come, nothing will come of it. “Jesus loves you and I love the sound of my own voice” is not a good or useful message. If I had just relied of the little bit of flame I had starting on its own, it would have died.
If I rely on just the Holy Spirit to give me a message without the brain work, I am going to fail as a preacher. Period. I will fail as a preacher if I don’t let my mind be on ice and think through this stuff. Passion, emotion, and fire are all good things in a preacher, but they don’t come together as a whole, cohesive piece on Sunday morning. I offer 1 Corinthians 14 as proof of what I am speaking of; speaking in tongues is a bit different than just standing up and speaking on Sunday without preparation but the whole idea of one just using the heart while the other uses both the heart and the mind stands true.
So here is my interpretation of that ideal, “Heart of fire, mind on ice,” in a ministry standpoint. There are people who believe we should just go out and do and let the Holy Spirit guide on the fly. I disagree. I believe the Holy Spirit guides my preparation, my study, and my thinking. Preparation is holy and good, and can also lead to a refined message instead of a rough one. Rough wood can be beautiful, but refinement can make it shine.
So I guess I’m saying let your hearts be on fire. It requires passion and love to preach the gospel and share Christ’s love. But when the time calls for it, set your minds on ice and allow them to do what they do: process, think, and analyze. Both can, and should, work complimentary, not oppositionally. Let them.
Not preaching this week so you kind of got an extra-Biblical homily. Hopefully I’ll get the second part of the sin series flushed out sometime today (but I wouldn’t bet on it).
To preaching with our minds and loving with our hearts, and also visa-versa,
P.S.: I used four words that WordPress’s writing checker doesn’t recognize. Either I’m brilliant or arrogant…