As a new pastor, I’ve learned that Sunday comes more quickly than any other day of the week. As part of this realization, I have developed a reoccurring nightmare about the coming Sunday. In this nightmare, I step into the pulpit to preach, but I can’t for the life of me remember what I am going to say. Panic sets in as I look down at my notes, but my notes are nowhere to be found. Or, in another variation of the dream, my notes are there, but I have suddenly lost the ability to read. I stammer along as best as I can, but I simply can’t make out the words on the page; it’s like trying to read a foreign language. Or, I’m in the church office, and the printer isn’t working. I’m trying every option possible – but worship has already started and everyone in the congregation is just sitting there waiting on me because it’s time for the sermon.
I know lots of students who have a reoccurring dream that it’s the day of the final exam and they’re not at all prepared for the test. I guess my dream is the preacher’s version.
Granted, the part about losing the ability to read is probably a little far-fetched, but the other parts of the dream are somewhat realistic. I could legitimately lose my notes – and printers are definitely known for breaking down at inopportune times.
However, the truth behind these crazy dreams is that I actually do begin to experience a mild level of panic if by Thursday evening I don’t have a good grasp of where the sermon for the following Sunday is going. Because Sunday is coming (again!) and I’m going to be expected to step into this pulpit and attempt to deliver a meaningful word for my beloved faith community. But, what if that word doesn’t come by Sunday morning? What am I going to say then? These are the moments when the nightmare hits a little too close to home for me.
You see, if I’m not careful, I can be tempted to believe that this whole preaching thing is dependent on me – my gifts, and my abilities. Yet each and every time I have preached over this past year, without one single exception, a word has always come to me from somewhere other than myself. An idea about the text that I had never considered before. A question I had never asked before. Sometimes the words jump off the page of a book I’m reading. Sometimes, I see them play out in the world around me. Sometimes they pop into my head while I’m on a walk or falling asleep at night or driving my car, and I have to stop whatever I’m doing and write them down, because I know these words aren’t mine.
One of the most important things I have learned in my first year as a pastor is to trust that God will always provide a word. Like bluebonnets that bloom in early spring or fireflies that show up on the first nights of summer, a word always comes.
Sure, it does not always come on my timeline. Sometimes it comes late Saturday night when I am settled down on my couch with my computer. Sometimes, the final words are falling like manna from heaven as the sun is rising on Sunday mornings.
I have developed a craving for the sacred space of sermon writing as I wait for the manna to fall. It’s a time that feeds my soul before I pour myself out for the congregation. On Sunday, when I stand in the pulpit to preach, I am completely amazed that my job – my calling –is to share the life-giving words that will carry all of us through another week. And I am always in awe that God has done it again, because a word always comes.
Mary Alice Birdwhistell is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Waco, Texas.