Before my fifth birthday, my life had already been shaped by three significant events—two of which I can’t even remember. The first was my baptism. I was four months old when Pastor Wayne DeHart drew three wet crosses on my forehead and passed me around the congregation. As I grew, those hands through which I passed at my baptism would become my family. They would teach me of Christ, telling me the most compelling story I have ever heard.
At 11 months, I learned to talk. That this is an event in nearly every child’s life does not temper its significance for me. My mom was a school librarian who read children’s books like a gifted storyteller. I learned to speak while listening to bedtime tales of Anansi the Spider and Strega Nona. A high-school speech class led me to discover a natural gift and love of public speaking. As the lectern gave way to the pulpit, many teachers and pastors nurtured my penchant for storytelling and the power of my spoken word.
But perhaps the most unique of these events occurred when I was four. My parents gave me a toolbox for Christmas. The tools were child-sized but real—screwdrivers, two saws, and a hammer. The box said, “Stanley Junior” and the fine print read, “ages 10 and up.” I was only four, but my parents knew what they were doing. My dad was a woodworker and taught me the basics—how to hold a handsaw, how to pound a nail—and set me loose with his scrap-wood pile. I may have been the only little girl in town who could change the blade on a coping saw. Mom also gave me a sewing kit, taught me to handsew, and promised that when I turned seven, I could use the sewing machine. To this day, my roommates enjoy the frequent hum of my sewing machine; they are less taken with my jigsaw running in the living room. I am grateful my parents taught me the patience and beauty of craft, that I grew up in a home where someone was always about the work of creation.
Baptism. Speech. Craft. These are God’s gracious gifts to me. And at the intersection of these gifts, I now find my life’s vocation as a preacher.
Anyone who has been strangely moved by a sermon—or any preacher who has wrestled with God in the writing of one—knows that preaching is a rather mysterious thing. If Bonhoeffer is correct, the proclaimed word is no less than “the incarnate Christ himself ... walking through his congregation as the word.” Good preaching is hard to define—note Webster’s unsatisfying definition, “to give moral or religious advice, especially in a tiresome manner.” And sermon writing is a difficult process to explain: Well, I pray, read, think, wait, and then it just ... comes? Homileticians often best describe the work of preaching with metaphors. The preacher is variously likened to storyteller, explorer, midwife, or archivist. The sermon is a story, road map, living-breathing organism, or historical record.
But as much time as I spend with sawdust and thread, I inherently approach the work of preaching as craft. A sermon reflects the beauty and complexity of the Word within it, for the gospel is deep and wide. It does not exist in some other world than this world, and it cannot be boiled down to three simple points. Neither should the sermon. Preaching is wholly creative and artistic; it takes beauty as its medium and its message.
In my life and practice, a preacher is a craftswoman. The Scripture her medium, the Holy Spirit her guide, the sermon her craft. I do not mean to suggest that the preacher-crafter makes the sermon ex nihilo, as if the Word of God is not beautiful in its own right. Before the preacher considers crafting a word, the Word crafts the preacher. Artists immerse themselves in the subject matter and medium before anything else. My grandfather, a botanist and woodworker, loves wood—particularly its grain. He has a knack for spotting intricacies and idiosyncrasies in an unfinished board and crafting it into beautiful furniture. He knows which wood to choose and how to sand with the grain, all to reveal the wood’s natural beauty. Grandpa is not a master of the wood but a student and servant of it. Likewise, preachers who are students and servants of Scripture are most free to create beautiful sermons.
The creation part of preaching may not be easy, but it is a gift. When I settle down each week to craft a word for my congregation, the process is uncertain, slow, often frustrating, but riddled with moments of joy. It is like waiting for an idea for the next art project, combined with the tedious work of ripping out seams. People often ask, “How long did it take you to make that?” I can’t help but think, “About ten times longer than you could ever have imagined!” Crafting is time consuming. So is preaching. The text begs a thousand questions of us. What does this text say to my community? What might that look like? And for the skeptic visiting my church today, why does this Scripture even matter at all? There is rarely a straightforward answer to these questions, and so the artist slowly sets to work, unsure of the result. But as the text is run through the loom of people, life, and community, suddenly a pattern emerges, an image comes to mind, a story is recalled. The seamstress weaves together text and context, heaven and earth, until the sermon is formed.
In an era of cheap furniture, the beauty I find in a hand-crafted, mahogany dresser is often unappreciated by others. The tools and techniques of my grandfather’s woodshop were simply never passed down, and much has been lost. And I so often find this true in the church. Few members of my generation in North America appreciate the beauty of the gospel, for its riches were barely passed down or poorly connected with our lives. Many of my dear friends have no faith commitment, and I long to communicate the Christian story to them. I want to strip away our veneered ideas of Christianity, run our fingers again over the grain of Scripture, and invite young people into the apprenticeship that makes real disciples. Preaching is an opportunity to present the Christian gospel in all its complexity and beauty, to finish the board of wood until its grain shines.
Artists are some of the most thoughtful, visionary, attentive people in our communities. They probe the depths, ask hard questions, seek beauty, and cultivate imagination. Craftspeople are not afraid of mystery or messes, and preachers have much to learn from their creative engagement with the world. So, the next time the “sweet torture” of sermon writing besets you, try the approach of the craftsperson. Use your imagination, play with the text, expand your palate, paint a picture with words, ask hard questions, or just keep sanding. And if all else fails, try running a jigsaw in the living room.
Bonnie Scott Delivers the 2010 Orientation Sermon at Duke Divinity School: