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Wendell Berry Taught Me to Preach

Lessons from “How to Be a Poet.”
Wendell Berry Taught Me to Preach
Image: Amy Wallot / AP Images

I was a poet long before I wanted to be a preacher, but when I entered the ministry, I thought poetry was a distraction, something that needed to be put to the side for the sake of the serious work of the pulpit.

What I’d failed to realize was that good preaching requires a poetic vision, the ability to speak to the heart and discern what is hidden beneath the subtext of life. The skills and sensitivities that I had developed as a poet were also needed to make me a good preacher. In abandoning poetry, I lost my ability to see past the superfluous and into the human heart.

The Caribbean poet Derek Walcott famously said, “I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation.” The poet and the preacher share more than they realize, and the preacher stands to learn a great deal from the poet. Wendell Berry’s poem “How to Be a Poet” outlines what it takes to be a great poet and in turn illuminates what it means to be a great preacher.

“Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet.”

For many preachers, silence is a void waiting to be filled. We are used to being the dominant voice in a room, and as a result, we spend most of our lives thinking we are perpetually at the pulpit, much to the annoyance of friends and loved ones alike. This need to fill quiet spaces with the sound of our own voice creeps into our spiritual lives.

But what happens when our well runs dry, when the words don’t come, and Sunday looms over us like an unconquerable peak? It’s in these moments we begin to realize that we have come to the end of our words and that for all our pouring out, we have done very little to receive.

Here in these opening lines, Wendell Berry calls us to reexamine our relationship with silence. Our desperate need to fill the void is born of a deeply fractured relationship with silence. Speaking is about control. Silence is about letting go (Ps. 46:10). By sitting down and shutting up, we take our hands off the reigns and give the Spirit the freedom to fill the silence with his presence. It’s from this deep well of silence the preacher draws their inspiration. We cannot afford to miss what God is saying to his people.

At some point, our wits will fail us, and if we have not cultivated a habit of deep listening, we risk regurgitating dead sermon points to dying people. Preaching must begin in the vacuum of silence. Our silence is our admittance that the task we have been called to requires divine aid.

“You must depend upon affection, reading, knowledge, skill—more of each than you have.”

The task of preaching often feels like an impossible one. Anyone who has ever stood behind the pulpit knows immediately the feeling of immense weight that comes with opening one’s mouth to proclaim the mysteries of God. We often feel out of our depth.

No amount of seminary training, theological study, or cultural awareness can completely mitigate the anxieties of preaching. And that is sort of the point. Like the poet, we are tasked to rely on more than we alone possess. Our words often fall short, we never know enough, and our skill is constantly in competition with the changing tastes of the age.

But preaching isn’t a solo affair; we aren’t lone rangers gunning it out at the edge of civilization. We are a fraternity of men and women bound across space and time (Mark 12:27, Heb. 12:1). Our work is shared by others whose life experience, educational background, ethnic identity, and temporal location give them a unique relationship with the Scriptures. They see things we don’t, and if we are willing, their perspectives and insights are available to help shape our own.

We must depend on the skill, knowledge, and affection of others. Only then will we be able to bridge the deficiencies that mark our preaching. We must remember that we are a part of a holy catholic church. Our universality is our strength, and isolation only serves as a detriment.

“Shun electric wire. Communicate slowly.”

We live in a reactionary age. We are constantly pressured to air our opinions at a moment’s notice, lest we miss out on the cultural zeitgeist. Our phones serve as portable pulpits, a place where our unfiltered thoughts and ideas live rent-free. Our itchy fingers are just as deadly as our itchy ears. We have lost the ability to communicate slowly.

Berry’s electric wire is representative of the dangers of instant access and spontaneous response. Quick communication often requires little thinking. Rather than taking the time to dwell deeply on an issue, we rush to respond and, in doing so, offer shallow critiques that do not feed, equip, or encourage those put under our charge.

If we are not careful, our preaching will be dominated by ill-thought one-liners rather than deeply formed thoughts. Our job as preachers is to offer a contemplative voice, not a reactionary one. Communicating slowly requires careful contemplation and prayer. The church and those called to be its voices do not bow down to the changing wind of the age. We are the still small voice of the culture, communicating slowly, shunning the instantaneous, and pointing to the eternal (Eph. 4:11–16).

“Live a three-dimensioned life.”

There is nothing worse than preaching disconnected from everyday life. Theological abstractions do very little for the thirsty souls in our pews, and any theology disconnected from life, story, and place are antithetical to the Incarnation. Jesus’ incarnation is not just the taking on of human shape but rather is Jesus’ full entrance into the state of human affairs through which the eternal Word makes himself present in time and space (John 1:14).

Our preparation and our preaching need to be rooted in a “three-dimensioned” life. Our preaching must drink from the well of story and place, a fount that feeds and is fed by the local congregations we serve. The apostle Paul did his theology within the context of local communities. His articulation of eternal truth was flavored and shaped by the soil in which it was planted. This doesn’t mean that the temporal trumps the eternal; instead, it is an invitation to anchor the infinite in a local habitation, a space where the gospel intersects with daily life.

I started writing sermons in coffee shops when my wife and I first got married and lived in a small apartment in Brooklyn. What began as a practical decision eventually led to a profound spiritual practice. The gossip at the table across the room, the community board filled with flyers, and the brief chat with the barista all help remind me who these messages are for. By beginning our preparation in the presence of people, we start to write for them and not ourselves. We learn to see the gospel at work in places and ways we could never have imagined locked up in our studies.

“Make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.”

Any good class on pastoral theology teaches that the preacher must set his agenda aside when preaching; at that moment, he is a mouthpiece, an oracle, one called by God to declare his Word to his people. But if we’re honest, our sermons are often dominated by our personal agendas, vendettas, and opinions. Rather than preach what we received from God in silence and prayer, we go off script and preach what serves us. We’re all guilty. There is a fine line between our words and God’s, and often that line is more permeable than we realize.

Our job is to make sure what we preach does not disturb “the silence from which it came.” This requires us to be introspective and to ask the tricky question, “Is this coming from God or me?” This might also mean inviting wise and Spirit-led men and women into our preparation. It serves us to question our own objectivity, especially when it helps us discern if we are hearing God clearly or torturing the text to fit our own ends. What we receive in silence is sacred. It doesn’t need our help. God knows what he wants to say. We just have to step back and let him say it.

In his poem “Station Island XI,” Seamus Heaney advises us to “read poems as prayers.” I read Berry’s poem often. His poem reminds me that I am not a rhetorician preparing to win an argument, nor am I a philosopher pontificating abstract truths. I am a preacher. I am called to dwell in the deep silence and, like David, call my soul to be still and wait (Ps. 62:5). Berry teaches us to rely on the voices who’ve come before us. He implores us to shun our keyboards and reminds us to weave the story of Jesus into the story of our community.

Ryan Diaz is a poet and writer from Queens, New York.

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