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lynne baab – an interview

Tell us a bit about yourself, Lynne.

I’m a late bloomer. I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister at 45 to serve a church in Seattle. (I’m an American). At 55 I earned a PhD and began a teaching career, which took me to the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of  Otago in Dunedin, from 2007 to 2017, where I taught pastoral theology.

I’ve been preaching for about 30 years, usually anywhere from 6 to 10 times a year.

Two key developmental stages with respect to preaching were: (1) Being in debate in high school, where I learned to speak publicly using notes in a conversational style. No manuscripts were allowed, only notes, and I have never used a manuscript when I preach. (2) Being a student in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (the equivalent of TSCF in New Zealand) and serving on staff for four years with IVCF from age 22-26. I learned so much about Bible study and application.

I currently live in Seattle. I continue to supervise PhD students for the University of Otago, and I write a lot. I get to guest preach once or twice a year in our home church, and I get a huge amount of joy from it. I’d love to preach more often, but that’s not my calling right now.

What was one of the most memorable sermons you heard while in NZ – and why was it so memorable?

Paul Trebilco spoke on the parable of the prodigal son at our church in Dunedin. He wore weird clothing that I assume was supposed to look like first century garb. He acted out the parable by running across the stage. Obviously the clothing and running were memorable, but he also gave some valuable historical background which was new to me about inheritance law and the way fathers and sons usually behaved in first century Israel. He made the father’s love (in the story) and God’s love (in the whole Bible) more real. So he combined the intellectual, the visual, and the spiritual.

Tell us about the main features of your sermon preparation.

I mostly think about the passage. I ponder it when I’m exercising, cooking, and awake in the night. Because I have never preached every Sunday, I usually have the luxury of pondering the passage for several weeks. First, I decide what the “big idea” of the sermon will be, the main point. Most passages have more than one possible main point, and I ask God to guide me what that main point should be for the congregation who will hear the sermon. If there’s something I don’t understand about the passage, I look it up in a commentary early on. The sub-points and illustrations emerge in my mind as I think about the passage. I make some handwritten notes, and in the two to three days before the sermon, I rehearse it out loud several times.

I view my sermons as having “thought blocks.” Most sermons have 5-7 of them. Perhaps like this: (1) an introductory story, (2) some historical overview of the setting, (3) first sub-point with illustration, (4) second sub-point with illustration, (5) third sub-point with illustration, (6) story to illustrate the “big idea” of the sermon, (7) conclusion.

Sometimes one of the thought blocks isn’t coming together, and I’ll go ahead and rehearse the rest of the sermon a couple of times, asking God to help me with that last thought block. And God always does.

What do you find easiest when preaching: explanation, illustration or application?

I love all three! For me, it varies from one sermon to the next which one of those is easiest or hardest.

What do you think is the work of Spirit in the act of preaching?

The Holy Spirit guides the selection of the passage. The Spirit helps me figure out the “big idea” and helps me plan the thought blocks of the sermon. The Spirit brings to mind stories, metaphors, and other illustrations. The Spirit gives me energy for the delivery and joy in describing the great gift of the Gospel. The Spirit helps me to feel God’s presence with me in the preparation, the delivery, the conversations afterwards, and in the let-down afterwards. And of course the Holy Spirit works in the hearts and minds of the listeners.

You are well-published author in the area of pastoral care and spiritual disciplines. If you were to write a book on preaching, what would you entitle it?

I am terrible at titles. I would want to convey that preaching is bringing the Bible to life for today’s world in this place, by the power of the Holy Spirit, so people can encounter afresh the God who sent Jesus Christ to us. See why I’m terrible at titles? It’s so hard to say something significant in only a few words.

What is one of the best pieces of advice you received about preaching?

“The biggest challenge of preaching is deciding what to leave out.” One of my internships before I was ordained involved working half-time in a church for 9 months. The minister there was an excellent preacher, and that’s the one tip I remember from my conversations with him. I’ve referred back to that idea over and over in my years as a preacher. One sermon simply cannot say everything about even the smallest topic. We will have great ideas and stories that we’ll have to leave out.

Sometimes when I start working on a sermon, a wonderful story immediately comes to mind. The story influences the way the sermon develops, but as the date of the sermon draws closer, I can see that the story itself isn’t actually needed in the sermon. Deciding to drop it is painful, but necessary.

What is some of the best advice you would give to preachers?

Memorize as much scripture as you can and ponder it. The best sermons come from living with a passage, and the best way to live with the Bible is to know parts of it by heart.

Remember that you are proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For every sermon, ask yourself, where is the good news in this sermon? Sometimes near the end of a sermon I’ll say something like, “The good news in this passage is that . . .” I want to be so clear that God is gracious, loving, generous, and kind, and I love to name as good news something about God or God’s invitation to us.

Spend as much time as you can in the Psalms in your own devotional life. The Psalms convey God’s invitation to bring our whole selves into God’s presence, all our unruly emotions and disordered thoughts. In our sermons, we need to convey that invitation, that God loves our whole beings. I think it’s often hard to preach on the Psalms, so I’m not necessarily encouraging focusing on them in sermons, but in our personal relationship with God, they lay a foundation in our hearts for understanding the God who desires for us to draw near. And that’s the God we are preaching about.

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