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spiritual practices for preachers – lynne baab

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I had the enormous privilege of being a keynote speaker at Carey Baptist College’s recent conference on preaching, alongside William Willimon. I loved Will’s talks. He portrayed God as wild and free, always surprising us, always speaking to us in ways we aren’t expecting. He told great stories to illustrate the ways God had spoken to him and to others. He said the biggest challenge in preaching is that this God, revealed in Jesus Christ, is not always the God we would have chosen.

My talks at the conference centered around spiritual practices, the things we do to make space for this God to speak to us: many forms of Bible study, many forms of prayer, and other practices like Sabbath keeping, fasting, journaling, walking a labyrinth, pilgrimage, spiritual direction, simplicity, hospitality and service. I pointed out that all Christians engage in spiritual practices, so these practices are not just for the extra spiritual people. The language of “spiritual practices” helps us think about what we do in the life of faith and why we do it.

Here are some thoughts about the why question. These practices help us draw near to the God who already loves us. In The Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen writes, “Every time you listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply. It is like discovering a well in the desert. Once you have touched wet ground, you want to dig deeper.” We draw near to God because we are loved, not to prove ourselves worthy of love or to get God to do our bidding.

Nouwen continues, “The word ‘digging’ might not be the best word since it suggests hard and painful work that finally leads me to the place where I can quench my thirst. Perhaps all we need to do is remove the dry sand that covers the well. There may be quite a pile of dry sand in our lives, but the One who so desires to quench our thirst will help us to remove it.” Spiritual practices help us return to the well over and over. They help us remove the dry sand. And, as Nouwen points out, the “One who so desires to quench our thirst” helps us return to the well and remove the dry sand. We don’t engage in spiritual practices apart from the God who loves us, calls us to draw near and empowers us to do so.

I suggest to preachers and to all people in ministry that it’s helpful to think about having two different sets of spiritual practices. The first set of practices serves our ministry: studying the Bible for the purpose of preaching or leading groups, and praying for the people and issues in our congregation. The second set of practices is just for us, as a child of God. For me, memorizing scripture and then reflection on the passages I have memorized is just for me. I have seldom preached or taught on the passages I’ve memorized. Those passages simply help me draw near to God as a beloved child.

The Sabbath is another spiritual practice that nurtures my life as a beloved child of God. The Sabbath allows me to set down the tools of ministry even though the work isn’t finished. In doing that, I remember week after week that the ministry belongs to God, not to me. In fact, God is God and I am not. The Sabbath inscribes that truth on my heart in an experiential way.

I hope that these spiritual practices “just for me as a beloved child of God” also help my teaching and preaching to be more authentic and real. But I hope I will continue to do them simply because God made me, Jesus redeemed me and the Holy Spirit draws me into the great dance of the Triune God. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

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