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robyn mellar-smith: when it doesn’t write right

A little while ago, I was preaching through a series in the book of Psalms. I decided to speak on Psalm 73 because it is one of my favourites and because it typifies ‘reorientation’ as I understand it (from the Brueggemann typology).

I was looking forward to getting into this psalm a bit deeper & duly spent a chunk of Monday (as is my practice when preaching weekly) doing the exegesis and thinking through what might be important to say, especially in light of the two psalms we had considered the previous Sundays (24 and 88). My study Monday was a bit interrupted, but I went home with a sense of excitement, encouraged by the movement in this psalm from a dark place to a place of reliance on God, as the psalmist moved his focus from other people to God.

So when I sat down to start writing my message I didn’t anticipate any problems. But it just wouldn’t write right!! Everything sounded trite and false. I thought of a story from my own life, and then discounted it because it was a bit too personal. Nothing seemed to work.

I laboured on and off for two days trying to finish the message. I ended up giving up and heading off to my day off Friday just trusting it would come together. I went back to it Saturday morning in hope but, no, it still wouldn’t come together. So not knowing what else to do, I decided to let the congregation decide what they thought it was saying. I went on Sunday morning with an introduction, three green Frisbees, some questions to ask & a few brief comments (which did grow once I was on my feet :-).

In the end, the message went very well, but…

My question to you who have been preaching longer than I have (which is probably most of you) is this: what do you do when this happens? What do you do when everything you write is not working and you are under time constraints?

Yes, by God’s grace, the sermon flowed in the end and, yes, my congregation love giving input, but the writer’s block was sheer torture for those couple of days.

I would really value your suggestion, thanks.

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Robyn Mellar-Smith is a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, and the pastor of Epuni Baptist Church in Lower Hutt.

6 Comments

  1. What would I do? Well, recently I did almost exactly what you did for similar reasons! Only without the green frisbees (Why didn’t I think of that?!?!) My preaching blog here: http://tbc-sermons.livejournal.com/15107.html#cutid1 tells the story. That’s happened for me a few times and while I hate it at the time, I think it is a real gift of God that we can feel so dissatisfied by the gap between the Word and our words, that we take some risks. God bless that frustration! And in the meantime, we do the work. We wrestle with the text, with our own experience, with the ornery English language, and whatever angels are sent our way. Without that wrestling, we can’t do our job. I think that effort put into pursuing God like that, though so often ‘unsuccessful’ gives God something he can really work with when it comes time to stand up and preach.
    Good on you for having the guts to change course and go with something less structured and risky, and good on you for enduring the ‘torture’ that made those risks possible.

  2. For my two cents. I think getting out of writing mode and in to talking mode is always helpful, after all the sermon is more talk than write. chat to a few different people about the passage and aboutyour sermon, let them give you feedback and let the experience of sharing a text and its message with individuals shpae your sharing a text and its message with the congregation.

    could you explain the green frisbees thing? sounds fun.

  3. Grant Harris says:

    It’s just a hard place to be sometimes! My issue is that because of the amount of people at WP who don’t speak English as their first language, having a written text in front of them is a prerequisite – some of them read it before I speak so they don’t get left behind, and lots of people follow along as I speak. I find this really hard work because a) I have to have the text finished, and b) I can’t deviate too much for the sake of those who are struggling to understand. So the pressure on having the text written is quite high for me, which normally means a lot of what you write Robyn – wrestling!, including normally quite an early Sunday morning! Sometimes I’m not satisifed with the text, and end up in a position of ‘this is my offering God, take me out of the picture and use it for your glory.’ Seems to happen more often-than-not!

    1. George Wieland says:

      Good on you Grant for making that costly effort to enable people who struggle with English to be part of the one community, and to receive the message. Providing full text might not be the only way to achieve that outcome, however. When you’re trying to operate in a second language (which I did when living in Brazil) what you want is not necessarily a word-for-word translation but a way of keeping on track with what is being communicated. Reading a text and listening to a live presentation are different modes of receiving input and if you’re head-down following a script while trying to listen to the same script being presented you might miss other aspects of the communication (gesture, facial expression, eye contact). I prefer a both-and approach – both something on a page that people can read through at their own pace, with the main points and an outline so that it’s possible to track through the oral presentation, and the freedom to look and listen and pick up meaning and emotion and eye contact and feel engaged with the speaker.
      Last weekend I had to do six sessions (talks from different sections of Acts) at a training event for church leaders of a different denomination to my own. After I’d agreed to do it, the organiser said that some of the participants found English difficult, so could they please have copies of my talks six weeks early so that they could translate them in advance. Well, I never have a full script because I can’t speak from one – for me it impedes directness of communication and two-way sensitivity – so there was no way I could write SIX scripts and stick to them. So what I did was, for each session, provide a short prose summary (200 words) of the crucial information, and a set of bullet points giving the teaching/preaching/application points I wanted to make. That seemed to do what was needed. They got a more diverse group of participants than they would have had, and for those with struggling English there was the “safety net” of key points should they need it. And I had liberty to roam!
      Another idea is to get ppt slides dubbed in a second language – again, just helps to keep on track, and catch the steps and points.

  4. Robyn Mellar-Smith says:

    Thanks guys for your comments. Wow Grant that would be a pressure!

    I think it’s one of the hardest parts of the job, that wrestling to shape the words. I love the exegesis & mostly love the delivery but find the part in the middle very hard sometimes! I’m hoping it will get easier with time & practice???

    The Frisbees were visual representations of orientation, disorientation & reorientation (not to be thrown!!) I set them up up the front. The first one had a smiley face. The second had a frown. And I left the third one blank until the end of the message & then asked the congregation what they thought should be on it. In the end we settled for a smiley face with lots of wrinkles to show that it’d been through some stuff 🙂

  5. Myk Habets says:

    I recall reading that Spurgeon often had this problem (of course he prepared his sermons on the Saturday!) and when it happened he would revert to preaching a Gospel talk – he preached Christ – and he said this never failed to get his spiritual juices flowing and was always a good move. He would then revert back, with more time, to what he was going to do. Also, I believe he never advertised his sermon titles so he could change at will.

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