Lisa Nichols Hickman: If you cannot preach like Peter

When you don’t have a Mary Poppins’ bag worth of sermon ideas.

The second stanza of “There is a Balm in Gilead” pronounces the best preacher of the first century: Peter. “If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul.” Whether this affirms a biblical fact or is a statement made solely for the purpose of rhyme, we remember Peter as the better preacher than Paul.

Perhaps with good reason. Paul's midnight homily in Troas left Eutychus near dead after defenestration by deep sleep. Eutychus falls into R.E.M. mode and tumbles from the third floor, stopping the sermon and causing panic as the crowd wondered whether he was dead. Paul runs to him, and hearing the breath of life pronounces him alive.

I cannot preach like Peter nor can I pray like Paul. Recognizing my own limitations in preaching, I asked a great preacher, Tom Long, his approach to homiletics.

“My approach is pretty simple,” he shared. “I have two tricks. First, I keep a tray on my desk where I throw in any story, quote, question, thought or illustration that might be fit for a sermon. When it is time to write my sermon, I pull a few out and most often the pile I draw can be used for any given sermon alongside the chosen text. Then, I take a blank sheet of paper and draw five boxes. I use the stories and the Scripture to fill in those five boxes, and usually, I have a sermon that works.”

Oh to be Tom Long with a desk tray the likes of Mary Poppins’ endless bag of goodies and a sheet of paper with five blank boxes in the style of Piet Mondrian.

I puzzled for years over Long's advice until I read “The Transforming Moment” by James Loder. Loder cares about the intersection between psychology and Christian theology and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. He describes a five-part pattern of “convictional insight.” This “logic of transformation” allows for spiritual growth as five essential movements in a dynamic process:

1. Conflict in context

2. Interlude for scanning (whether conscious or unconscious)

3. Constructive act of imagination felt with intuitive, revealing force (i.e., “A-ha!” moment)

4. Placement of the self by connecting back into the broken world

5. Application of insight through action in the world

I experienced a transforming moment with those five steps. The conscious conflict I had been living with (how do you take a tray of stories and five blank boxes and create a sermon?) finally had some resolution. I pulled out a blank sheet of white paper and sketched in those five boxes à la Piet Mondrian.

Above the first box I wrote -- conflict; the second -- scan; the third -- “A-ha!”; the fourth -- connect; the fifth -- apply. Five words, five boxes. A new method for homiletical development emerged.

These five words describe the mechanism for spiritual growth in our lives.

All of us experience “conflict,” whether conscious or unconscious, when we read a biblical text, when we try to live faithfully, when we struggle to make a decision, when we try to live by a Christ-like ethic at work, when we wrestle with relationships. Naming a singular conflict on Sunday morning creates a space for the Holy Spirit to enter in and be at work. “Scanning” for insight becomes a form of prayer as we consider and examine possible alternatives.

The beauty and force of the transforming moment arrives in that “A-ha!” moment when a constructive force of imagination culminates in revelation. Here, personal and corporate conversion meet proclamation. How perfect that Loder intentionally chose the word 'imagination' rather than localizing the “A-ha!” into either the mind or the heart. Imagination calls up the wonderful theology of the imago dei. The last two steps (“connect” and “apply”), led by the imaginative insight, propel the self back into the broken world to live changed and renewed.

Once you sketch and name those five boxes the cumulative efforts of exegesis, prayer, reflection and connection to the life of the congregation begin to link with those five steps.

I may not preach like Peter and I hope I do not preach like Paul. But thanks to the insights of others, a blank sheet of paper, some sketched boxes and a few scribbled words, I can proclaim more effectively the love of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection. “A-ha!” moments -- moments of the Spirit -- can happen that way.

Lisa Nichols Hickman is pastor of New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.