resonate

Back in 2023 Micah & Amaliya helped me shelve all my preaching books.

With teaching preaching being a common denominator (almost) throughout my working life, building a library of books has been a serious endeavour. There was some serious joy that flowed last year when they were all brought together, finally—and in alphabetical order, of course…

One of the key skills to nurture in preachers is an observation of the biblical passage. Carefully. Fully. Slowly. It is the difference between what you see when you drive through your neighbourhood compared with when you walk through it (an image from Jared Alcántara). Preachers get started by walking through a text, attentive to the details of the passage.

“For what are we looking?”, I hear you ask?

A Vision for Verbs

Well, lots of different things—with the activity in the text, or the verbs, near the top of the list. While I’m sure Lisa Washington Lamb would agree with me, in Resonate she has an extended vision for verbs—”language’s sprightliest part of speech” (xviii). In search of a deeper connection, or resonance, between the Word and the listener, she finds an answer to lie in drawing nearer to the verbs. “Pay attention to your verbs” (xvii) is her advice—and it is a serious attention as we glimpse here:

Preaching is a dynamic speech act. It trades in verbs as it promises, declares, warns and inspires. It plays furtively with tense and time, asserting that events from centuries ago carry meaning for today. It claims that events yet to happen can exert shaping force on us this week. It nimbly shifts mode as it describes, invites, and even commands. It names the passive and active dimensions of transformation into the image of Jesus Christ (xviii).

Given that most people freak-out at the mere mention of anything grammatical, focusing on verbs seemed a big risk to take. And yet, here I am interacting with it—because the book works. At times, more than I may care to admit, the books on my shelves can feel like retreads, recycling the same stuff and needing to be retired. This book is fresh. There is a verve and energy in the way she writes. The pages are well-lighted with image, story and word picture—and she is writing from within covidian times which adds its own resonance for the reader.

A Periodic Table of (Verbal) Elements

To appreciate the flow of the book there is no way to avoid asking about the elements of the verbal form:

Person: Is it in the first person (“I”), the second person (“you”), or the third person (“he/she/they”)?

Tense: Does the activity happen in the past, the present, or the future?

Mode [Hmm, I always thought the word was ‘mood’, not ‘mode’?!]: Is it in the indicative (describing what is, a reality), the imperative (making commands), or the subjunctive (imagining what could be, might be, or should be)?

Voice: Is it active (with the subject of the verb doing the action), or passive (where the subject receives the action)?

That was not too painful, was it? Eleven features of verbs to put in the ‘tool kit’, each ready to be used at the right time and for the right purpose.

Making Cool Stuff

God made cool stuff in creation by combining elements in the Periodic Table [Yes, this is my desperate attempt to demonstrate the value of the fact that I did study Chemistry at University]—and here Lamb makes cool stuff with these verbal forms which are, in part, “metaphors for dimensions within preaching, starting points for conversations about frequently missed opportunities for resonance” (xx).

I wouldn’t normally head straight for the Table of Contents, but on this occasion it so quickly illustrates what she is doing. However I am going to flip the order in each chapter title so that you see the verbal form with which she is playing first—and then its implication for the identity of the preacher:

  1. The Power of First-Person Speech: the preacher as witness and host
  2. The Promise of Second-Person speech: the preacher as shepherd
  3. Declaring God’s Goodness with Third-Person-Singular Verbs: preacher as proclaimer
  4. Teaching Wisdom with Third-Person-Plural Verbs: preacher as sage
  5. Fueling Faith by Narrating the Past: preacher as storyteller
  6. Discerning the Word of God in the Present: preacher as priest
  7. Walking into the Future with Hope: preacher as visionary prophet
  8. Choosing and Using Modes of Influence: preacher as leader
  9. Sparking Transformation in the Active and Passive Voice: preacher as catalyst

Do you see the verbal form each time? What about the resonance with an aspect of the preacher’s ministry?

I reckon it works well.

Adding to the Required Reading List

When it comes to books/articles on preaching, the biggest endorsement I can offer is to ask, “From all those books on my shelves, would I make this one, or a few chapters in it, required reading for students?”

And, yes, I would with this book. Two chapters stood out for me. Maybe it is because I am fascinated at the moment by the Amos-Amaziah conflict in Amos 7, with a renewed awareness of the priest and prophet in the purposes of God today—but chapters 6 and 7 stand out for me.

  1. Preacher as Priest: Discerning the Work of God in the Present

The chapter opens with a reference to a question her pastor (Jack) used to ask in response to news, especially of crisis and conflict: “I wonder what God is up to now?” (70).

About this question, Lamb writes:

I came to appreciate his disciplined practice of holy curiosity … His question reframed the discussion from fearful reaction to prayerful response, from damage control to discernment of the mysterious work of the risen Christ in our midst (70-71).

And then this beautiful paragraph about Jack immediately follows on.

Jack was like a wide-awake watcher striding along the wall of an old city—not prowling for enemies so much as eagerly awaiting good news. He was ever on the lookout for the activity of the Holy Spirit in the present moment and could ask his favourite question because he knew God well. Jack was steeped in God’s word and had walked with God for decades, so he could recognize patterns … (He) knew God to be trustworthy to the core, so he could entertain the possibility that in a given dismal crisis his faithful, playful, and endlessly creative God was flipping scripts, twisting plots, and bringing about a much better outcome than Jack could have engineered or imagined on his own (71).

His “calm curiosity and vibrant faith” (71) leads her to the recognition that “we need to cultivate the habit of tirelessly asking Jack’s question” (72). In the rest of the chapter Lamb opens up ‘four variations’ on his question, each of which equips us “to preaching the gospel in the context of present realities” (73):

(I wonder) What is God Up to Now, within Us?

(I wonder) What is God up to Now through Us?

(I wonder) What is God up to Now around Us?

(I wonder) What is the Enemy up to Now?

“What about Relevance?”, she asks (80-83). It is a question I’ve often asked as well. One thing is for sure—no preacher wants to be irrelevant! “But just as cumin can overtake the flavour of chili, relevance clamors to dominate. A desperate quest for that fast-moving target we call relevance can land us in treacherous territory as preachers” (80). She makes a case for ‘the language of discernment’ (using Acts 2) as she speaks into three problems with the ‘relentless pursuit’ of relevance: collapsing the distance, endless to-do lists and a fast fashion mentality.

This leads to a fifth variation on Jack’s question: (I wonder) What Should We Always Do? “(This) sets us free from the need to dazzle or the ridiculous quest for retweets and likes. Sometimes the timeliest word we can offer is the timeless word” (83). Or, as I picked up somewhere from someone along the way: only the eternal can hope to be forever contemporary.

2. Preacher as Visionary Prophet: Walking into the Future with Hope

In moving frequently across time zones, I find that in the ‘Western’ world, hope doesn’t tend to have the profile that it needs to have. That makes sense. If comfort and leisure are a major priority, as they are, then hope will have a minor presence. What need is there for it? “Hope thrives in its natural habitat, which is distress” (Lischer, quoted on 88). What’s more, hope is huge in the Bible. Many years ago I tried to be a bit provocative with a graduation address by giving it the title: “And the Greatest of These is—Hope.” Yes, yes, yes, I know the greatest is Love, but it won’t stop me having a chat with the Apostle in heaven about what happens to love when there is no hope…

In a little purple patch of pages, Lamb discusses the place of hope. “Hope is the capacity to imagine a better future and then move towards it” (85). This is one of the places where the imagery and word pictures flow so helpfully. Here is a sample:

(Hope) ventures out into a valley full of bones, roots around in the wreckage, and then dares to proclaim that these bones live (86)

… Let’s imagine hope as an uninvited traveling companion. She doesn’t say much but instead does something strange—she places her firm hand on our back as we walk … and insists on staying by our side, the companion whose strong hand steadies, orients and guides us … (and) we will fail to arrive without it (87, 88).

[on the biblical image of hope as an anchor] (Hope) has leaped ahead of us into the holy place, from which it is functioning more like a powerful lure, tethering us to and pulling us toward the very presence of God (87)

… a mighty magnet drawing us into the presence of God (87).

To hope is to admit that we receive our future; we do not fashion it ourselves (89).

I like that ‘firm hand on (my) back’ one—and I imagine that hand offering comfort, but also gently pressing me forward into the future as well. And our preaching needs to offer that hand as well. “If preaching is not on some level fueling hope, it has departed from its core task” (91).

A little reminiscent of this famous icon of Jesus with his arm around the back of St Menas, the Egyptian martyr

For years I have wondered about the way Christian communities use the word ‘vision’—alongside the discussions about core values and mission statements. The Bible speaks of values and mission, but what about vision, especially in the way it is commonly used today? Hmm. Not sure. Isn’t the biblical idea in play here the one about hope? Lamb is onto something in the way she sees vision flowing from these convictions about hope. “Preaching hope enlists the future tense” (86). “From Isaiah to Revelation, gorgeous images of the future interrupt our present and declare that it could be different, even now” (94). That is the vision we need to cultivate and, for her, there are six features that will mark such visionary preaching:

Visionary Preaching creates space for lament. Visionary preaching comforts us and helps us to endure. Visions shape priorities. Visions unite us. Visions turn us to prayer. Visions call us to specific actions. (95-100).

You might enjoy this little interview with Lisa Washington Lamb, in which this book is discussed…

Advice for the Journey

[Just a little reminder that I treat my blog as a way to collect resources/insights that I don’t want to lose. The ‘Search’ function has become a dear friend…! Then I delight in the opportunity to serve others by sharing this stuff with them—but it does have a way of creating long posts. Sorry!]

With an eye on advice for the teaching of preaching

Every chapter has sections entitled Ask This and Try This in which probing questions are asked and practical exercises are suggested. This enhances the usefulness of the book with students.

In an age which celebrates authenticity and transparency, knowing how much we should share of ourselves in the sermon is an FAQ today. Lamb’s ‘five tips’ (7-10) is the best counsel I can remember encountering—including the need to watch out for “stuffing Scripture’s stories into the small stockings of our own misadventures” (9).

Preacher as Witness and Host is such rich imagery. “When we preach, we are hosting … ‘We‘ language sets the table of the sermon and invites us to take our seats for the meal ahead” (12).

“On a delivery note, if you preach from a manuscript, know that it is especially critical to abandon those notes in the ‘we‘ moments. Let carefully crafted phrasing go in favour of presence and connection” (16).

What about direct speech, or using ‘you’ in the sermon? It is always among the FAQs in a preaching class! Her advice? Use it to ‘promise … warn … bless’ (20-26)—which leads to this final flourish of a sentence: “When you preach, promise a lot, warn a power-packed little, and bless extravagantly” (26). And then in the Try This section: (With a recent sermon), “where could three more sentences of direct address have added potency?” (27).

“I am confident that you can preach wisdom, even early in your ministry, in part because you are not the source of that wisdom” (43), followed by ‘ten stepping stones’ to preaching wisdom (47-55).

I almost put ‘Preacher as Storyteller’ in that ‘recommended reading’ list as well! “How do we preach the biblical past so that it fuels lively faith? We tell its stories, and we tell them as stories.” (59). And three qualities of an effective story (60-62) are followed by five skills of storytelling (62-68). She likes lists, doesn’t she? Me too.

Storyteller-Priest-Prophet and the way they deal in past-present-future tenses is such a helpful framework.

Linking leadership with using—or better still, knowing when to use—the indicative, imperative and subjunctive well is full of potential discussion. The indicative and imperative occupy the extreme ends of the ‘indirect to direct influence spectrum’, while “many languages offer us a fascinating liminal space between the two, called the subjunctive” (110)— the would, could, should, might, may and shall :). And yes—surprise, surprise—the three tasks for which the indicative is especially suited (103-107) are followed by five ways to use the subjunctive well (110-116).

There is the ‘intertwining’ of the active and passive voice in this truth: “we act as we are acted upon” (119).

In such a nice touch, something I’ve not seen done before, Lisa Washington Lamb concludes her book with an ‘extended blessing’ (133) in which she returns to each chapter and crafts a benediction-paragraph for her readers.

I wrest my case. I am teaching preaching next semester. On my ‘To Do’ list for today is to write to the librarian and ask if she could order the book for me. Alongside that Alcántara book, methinks I have a couple of fresh, new tires on my shelves…!

nice chatting

Paul

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About Me

paul06.16

the art of unpacking

After a childhood in India, a theological training in the USA and a pastoral ministry in Southland (New Zealand), I spent twenty years in theological education in New Zealand — first at Laidlaw College and then at Carey Baptist College, where I served as principal. In 2009 I began working with Langham Partnership and since 2013 I have been the Programme Director (Langham Preaching). Through it all I've cherished the experience of the 'gracious hand of God upon me' and I've relished the opportunity to 'unpack', or exegete, all that I encounter in my walk through life with Jesus.

5 Comments

  1. Fred on May 13, 2024 at 11:28 am

    It’s on my list! How often I hear myself saying in a sermon, “this is what my old teacher called a ‘doing word’.” 🙂

    Not specifically related to preaching, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn McEntyre, Eerdmans – is a beauty for the preacher. And although first published in 2009, it’s more relevant and needful than ever. From the back cover: “Language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants. Today more than ever, language needs to be rescued and restored.”

    • Paul Windsor on May 13, 2024 at 11:43 am

      Yes, Fred — that is a lovely book by Marilyn McEntyre. In fact I think I may have engaged with it on this blog at some point. I shall go and have a look and come back to you 🙂

      Voila! Not much of a review, it must be said—but almost ten years ago now.
      https://paulwindsorblog.com/2014/10/words-and-word/

      Hope you have a good week — thanks for lunch the other day.

      Paul

  2. Peter Anderson on May 13, 2024 at 12:10 pm

    Very helpful and insightful, as usual. Thanks Paul. Enjoyed the YouTube link too.

  3. Fred on May 13, 2024 at 7:08 pm

    retreads… needing to be retired.
    Pun intended? 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • Paul Windsor on May 14, 2024 at 11:09 am

      Of course — you know me 🙂

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