I love preaching. I hate preaching. The best description is Jeremiah's: it is like fire in the bones. It is holy work and dreadful work. It exhausts and it exhilarates, kindles and consumes.
On Mondays, I am charred remains. The hotter I burned on Sunday—the more I preached with fiery conviction and bright hope—the more burned to the ground I am on Monday. I'm restless, but I don't have initiative to do anything or, if I do, the energy to sustain me in it. I'm bone-weary, suffering what the desert fathers called acedia: an inner deadness from the hot sun's scorching.
Worst of all, Monday is lived with the knowledge that I am called to do it all over again next Sunday. Mondays are the days I would rather sell shoes.
But then Sunday comes, and the bones burn again. I am once more a firebrand freshly hot in the hand of God. If I don't preach, I am left with an ache like sorrow. I chafe worse from not preaching than from preaching.
"But if I say, 'I will not mention him or speak any more his name,' his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary holding it in; indeed, I cannot" (Jer. 20:9).
So I love it, and I hate it.
The surprise is that ten years of preaching has not diminished this. It has, instead, heightened and sharpened it. Every Sunday there's the passion if I preach, the aching if I don't. On Monday, either way, there's a daunting road both too long and too short that I must walk to next Sunday. Preaching is not a job. It is fire.
How shall we live with this rhythm of fire and ashes and fire again?
What brings fire alive
Ron Howard's movie Backdraft is the story of firemen. But the movie is really about fire: its devastating power and alluring promise, its intricate patterns and bewildering surprises, its terrible hypnotic beauty. Backdraft refers to the phenomenon when a fire subsides because it's burned up all the oxygen in the room—then, if somehow the room is breached—a door is opened or the roof bitten through by the fire itself—oxygen-laden air rushes in and sparks an explosion. Fresh wind meets a dying fire, and all again is fiercely ablaze. That's a backdraft.
Backdraft is a good metaphor for the preaching call. It is exactly what I have described: the fire that burns the insides out and almost burns itself out; then, the fire meets fresh wind and breaks out anew. Knowing that this is the shape of the rest of my life, I have become desperate for disciplines to help me live with it. Here are three.
1. Obsess us, interrupt us. The Sermon has the hypnotic power of the seductress. It woos me, commands me, compels me. "Come and be with me," the Sermon whispers. When that fails, it gets surly: "Come here now! Or else." It often inhabits my sleep, a vague anxiety scrabbling at the edge of my dreams. Uncontrolled, the Sermon becomes an obsession.
I have no great tale of personal victory to relate here. The best thing I've found is to practice trusting God with my time.
Jesus was always being interrupted—by blind men, lepers, Pharisees finding him at night, desperate fathers with demonized or dying children, sinful women caught in adultery or pouring perfume on his feet. And he was always interrupting others—tax collectors counting money, fishermen mending nets or hauling them up, persecutors riding to Damascus. Much of his life-changing ministry came via interruptions.
Too many of us who preach are the priests and Levites in Jesus' story of the good Samaritan: we're so grimly focused on our temple duty that we miss what God has for us at the roadside. The only cure I know is daily and deliberate commitment to look for God in the interruptions.