When a St. Gregory’s preacher invites people to share experiences that the sermon stirred up, people speak from their hearts.
But when I began noticing how people seemed to avoid explicitly Christian language and that any mention of “God” was tentative or gently ironic, I began to wonder whether our preaching was taking the Christian faith out of our practice. Are Christian prayer and faith—“knowing Jesus” or “being in Christ"-- simply verbal or intellectual interpretations we impose on experience? I am grateful to the College of Preachers for a fellowship that allowed me to begin working on those questions in early 1998.During that month and a half of writing and reading, I asked the people of St. Gregory’s to send notes about how we hold Jesus and what makes our congregation Christian.
More than fifty people offered a wonderful outpouring of questions, faith, uncertainty, and experience, almost a hundred pages’ worth. St. Gregory’s is not a homogenous gathering of “believers,” though it includes many who are believers, devout Christians including life-time Episcopalians, former or still-practicing charismatics, Roman Catholics, and fundamentalists, all looking for a way to have faith with a more open mind. St. Gregory’s also includes some who identify themselves with another religion and practice (notably Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism), and a number of intellectually cautious skeptics, agnostics, and atheists. What makes such a gathering Christian? What’s it got to do with Jesus?
Over and over again in their notes on their encounter with Jesus or the work of God or the Holy or the Other, people came back to our congregation’s shared silences and the ways we listen to one another. Though I had asked about preaching and sharing, both seemingly forms of speech, people’s responses kept returning to our experiences of shared silence and listening to one another. With those responses in mind, I’ve continued to watch and think about the question of how we hold Jesus at St. Gregory’s.
It appears to me that we weave our common faith from this silence and listening. I have come to see this throughout the process of preaching. What we do is share silence in its ambiguity and listen openly. As I read the congregation’s notes and pondered the approach to preaching that has evolved at St. Gregory’s, I heard them saying that this mix of silence and listening points to Jesus. This article is a chronicle four discovery of a preaching that leaves behind telling, explaining, interpreting, and indoctrinating, a preaching that hopes for direct experience and encounter, a preaching that begins in silence and that counts more on listening than speaking.
I. It Begins and Ends in Silence
The first liturgical silence I endured was imposed as a hostile protest in the late sixties. I was a first- year student at Princeton Seminary. Factions within that fractured learning community regarded those outside their group with suspicion or scorn. Chapel wasn’t required, but I was attending daily, which put me in “the chapel group.” At least once a week, one or another senior (none of whom attended chapel) would lead us through a chapel service conceived of as a “prophetic wit-ness” against a gathering of students he considered too conventionally pious.
One such morning a senior walked forward when it was time to begin, sat on the top step to the platform, and stared back at the congregation. He held his gaze for 25 minutes as people squirmed, wondering what was happening. Some left. At last he ended it with an angry “AMEN.” Then he explained that we had just proved that people who came to chapel didn’t understand contemplative silence. With that he walked out. The divisions in the place and that chapel service contributed to my decision to leave. I transferred to General Seminary in New York City, where students seemed to regard daily chapel as one thing that bound us together across theological and political divisions. My second liturgical silence appeared more gently but also without explanation. One morning in the General Seminary chapel, a silence gaped after the first Bible reading. The reader was finished, but he didn’t move from the lectern. Was he waiting for something? He seemed quite still and relaxed. Was the organist daydreaming? I glanced at him and he seemed to be patiently watching and waiting. Between them these two held the flow of our ritual, and both had simply stopped. After a minute or so the organist began and we sang. There was another silence after the next reading.
I tried to like it, but over the coming days, as these silences continued to appear, I grew quite frustrated with myself. I learned how very little I could recall of a reading I had just heard. Even when a bit of it stayed with me, it might not always be particularly apt for meditation. When I caught myself daydreaming, I would try to pray. But sometimes, even when I snagged something to meditate on, I discovered I had more energy for just keeping still or for studying the light and darkness in the carved wooden ceiling so high above us. Two years later I went to work with Rick Fabian at the Episcopal Church at Yale. The daily liturgy that he created there in 1970 began the evolution of practice that led to our St. Gregory’s liturgy. As deacon, my role for the first several months, I was responsible for timing silences after readings. When the reader stopped, I would check my watch and begin timing two minutes. I would end the silence by announcing the canticle and inviting us to stand and sing.
Timing people’s prayers by the clock felt odd to me. I felt more like a manager or a coach than part of the congregation. I watched the slow sweep of the second hand and glanced up at each little sign of restlessness—one student muffling his cough, another stirring in her seat. The people were still, but I was not. Over several days I timed my own steady breathing, six breaths a minute. Then I quit using my watch and began counting twelve breaths on my fingers as I prayed the Jesus Prayer to my breathing.
Like the congregation, I continued to cough or stir in my seat, but I quit worrying about it. Often my mind wandered. Sometimes I got bored or impatient, but my doing-and-not- doing felt good alongside whatever the other people were doing-and-not-doing. Occasionally silence felt healing or surprising, joyful or full of longing.
In 1976 I became rector of a small parish in Idaho. Among many other changes, I introduced liturgical silences after the readings. The Sunday our bishop visited he cautioned me, “speaking as an old radio man,” that silence in liturgy was nothing but “dead air time” that would drive people away. Over the following weeks, I asked various parishioners how they found our silences. People who disliked the new Prayer Book AND my preaching AND children receiving communion thanked me for the silences. One woman told me that she used the silence to say the Lord’s Prayer to herself, “IN THE OLD WORDS!”
In 1979 I was invited to design and lead liturgies for a conference of Episcopal Christian educators in the Pacific Northwest. I was excited for the opportunity to work with people who would be adventurous enough to try things like unaccompanied singing, congregational dance, and shared silence. In his opening address, John Westerhoff, our keynote speaker, said educators must learn that, “We act ourselves into ways of thinking, we don’t think ourselves into ways of acting. “Perfect, I thought. What better encouragement for our conference liturgies? And people did try things. The liturgies went well.
In the final meeting of our leadership team, a fellow planner surprised me when he commented, “I know you meant well, but those dreadful silences in your liturgies only perpetuate clericalism. Don’t you see? It’s the old church at its worst: Father knows best all over again. We just wait quietly watching you and wondering how long before you let us go on.” He explained that a real leader would announce the purpose of the silence and the exact length of the silence, something like, “Now we will keep a two-minute liturgical silence. Please use that time to reflect on the scripture reading we just heard.” Thinking about his response to the silence and his pro- posed solution through twenty-some more years of liturgical silences, I have found the questions he raises about restlessness and control quite useful, though I come to different conclusions.
Silence demands that we let go of control. Our way through silence is to be still as we can and allow the silence to shape itself. People’s restlessness, coughing, and each random noise from a baby’s cry, a passing bus, or airplane overhead stir others’ restlessness. If most of the people in the group are new to silence, it’s easy to feel the questions,” Should we stop?” or “Are we done?”
Because silence is fragile, we count on a leader to protect its beginning and ending. With the beginning and ending out of our hands, we can follow the silence through what- ever impatience and distractions may come up and let silence strip from all of us our powers of knowing (or figuring out) what to do next. But the leader who has marked the beginning and will mark the ending cannot shape, force, or lead the silence. Leading is only holding the boundaries and trying to keep still like everyone else. Even the leader must rest or at least wait with the group in or through the silence. Between its marked beginning and ending, liturgical silence belongs equally to all. Or perhaps all belong equally to the silence as it claims us.
Through the first part of a St. Gregory’s liturgy, between readings and after the sermon, we share a total of six minutes of silence together. We have learned to mark the beginning and ending simply and explicitly. Our cantor strikes one or more large Japanese meditation bells the moment the reading ends. Our silence begins in the bell’s decaying ring. Newcomers rest into the group’s practiced ease in the silence. After two minutes the Presider strikes a small Tibetan bell, its pure high ringing marks the ending.
This carefully framed (clear but not interpretive) invitation into silence’s unpredictability matches other invitations and shared actions throughout St. Gregory’s liturgy. Inviting our numerous visitors and regular members to sing together without accompaniment, to walk together in informal procession of the whole congregation, to speak up after the sermon, to touch the Gospel book, to place a hand on someone’s shoulder as we dance to the altar table, or to dance the final hymn, creates more such unpredictable moments. We have scripted and planned our deacons’ words of invitation and instruction to create a level of clarity and safety that invites people’s patience with letting go of predictable comfort and controlling certainties to risk something together.
So silence is a shared act that moves preacher and congregation toward new trust and more surprising relationship. After silence, unexpected and powerful words may come forth like God’s creative Word at the beginning of Genesis. Silence moves us into Genesis’ chaotic, frightening darkness, the expectant place where creation takes place. In Genesis God speaks a word that opens silence to possibility. Light bursts out and worlds spin into being.
In a moment of speech after silence great beauty and huge suffering become possible. As a word resonates in silence, life meets and embraces both beauty and suffering, and love hints its unspoken presence in both. With silence still near us we may feel or catch a scent of the vast love beneath everything. In the end we face another silence—death—and some- times near a death, we also hear the silent presence of love.
II. Learning to Preach Is Learning to Listen
Structured liturgical silences create a context for speaking while still listening. The power of such speech, formed by silence we have shared, rests in listening and responsiveness more than in utterance. Structured liturgical silences pre- pare us to welcome not just unscripted words, but also unscripted holy moments when the preacher or the person sharing pauses in silence for a moment of not knowing what’s next, waiting in self-forgetfulness to hear their own next words or other people’s encouraging, unspoken questions. Preaching lives and gives life when it is a practice of listening. This discovery was slow for me because I thought I had so much to say.
In three years of seminary I managed to avoid taking any preaching course. I came to seminary feeling wholly ready to preach. Preaching, I was convinced, was not something to study, but charismatic, archetypal, mythic, in the blood. A preacher was anointed or not. I believed I was anointed and imagined I had nothing to learn. For a preacher who had the gift, words, message, and delivery were already in place. All I lacked was a congregation to preach to.
My first shot at one came in the summer of 1969 right after my first year of seminary. I was preaching at the Presbyterian church where I had grown up, preaching from a carefully crafted manuscript, “delivering” the sermon. I don’t remember it and don’t know that any of my hearers did either.
A few days later, while I was visiting my Uncle Ted in a nursing home where he lay dying of cancer, he asked me to read the sermon to him. Ted was my heroic great-uncle by marriage, an engineer and lay missionary who had spent most of his life in the French Cameroon in Africa, founding a trade school, building huge churches, and preaching in them without any amplification. He had faced death threats from the colonial authorities and had suffered grave personal losses over forty years. Now he was old and hurting and frightened, as I would never have imagined him.
I started to read by his bedside. He took my hand and squeezed hard as I continued. His palpable fear almost overwhelmed me, but I finished the sermon. Ted was quiet for a bit. Then he asked me if I’d written it all myself. I told him I had. “Praise God,” he said. Hearing and feeling Ted’s deep fear gave me a freedom to hear others’ fears many times since. Hearing and feeling how Ted welcomed and enlarged my naive, confident words and brought life to them by his hearing is what I hope to remember until I lie dying myself.
Senior year I entered the competition for the preaching prize in complete confidence that I would win. I knew how to write a sermon. So, I wrote a Lenten sermon on the Genesis story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac and the Gospel of Mark’s description of the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness after baptism. I was proud of my text with its dense poetic paradoxes and the mystical refrain, “God wills himself to die in us.” I was one of two finalists. My opponent climbed the pulpit first, preaching to our teachers and me from 15 steps above us. I listened with the fierce confidence that I would win. But as I climbed the steep steps to the pulpit, my knees were shaking badly, and they continued shaking as I struggled to read the text, hardly even looking up. I did not win. Later one of the contest judges, a favorite professor, told me that they had liked my written text but had feared it would be unreachable. They were right.
In 1972, when I went to work as Rick Fabian’s assistant at the Episcopal Church at Yale, I was still delivering sermons from a complete manuscript. Writing one took me about ten hours of careful preparation, drafting, and rewriting. I had consciously given up writing fiction or poetry to save my creative energy for crafting sermons. At Yale, Rick preached sit- ting, just as we do at St. Gregory’s, with people facing one another to the preacher’s right and left, choir-style, and he preached without a manuscript or notes. He asked me to do the same. I liked sitting to preach, but was very reluctant to sacrifice my finely shaped phrases and simply speak into the people’s listening. Rick insisted I try, so I began distilling my finished texts into “notes and quotes” that filled both sides of a 4x6 index card. Gradually I got my notes down to both sides of a 3x5 card, and then to one side of a 3x5.Finally I had only my quotations on the card.
My literate quotations from Dostoyevsky, Simone Weil, and William Blake didn’t impress Rick. All he seemed to hear was that I read the Bible as though everything in it were newsreel and eyewitness reporting. I wasn’t particularly attached to literalism, but I had taken no Gospel criticism courses in seminary, thinking that such courses, like preaching, were some- thing I didn’t need. So my introductory Gospel criticism course was two years of listening and learning from Rick’s preaching ease in identifying what Jesus probably did and didn’t say. My intermediate course began when I finally asked him to recommend some books that I could read so we could talk about critical skepticism and lively faith.
After four years I left Yale to lead a small- town church in Idaho. My first couple of Sundays in a pulpit, I felt trapped in that odd little fortress that hid from sight the preacher’s heart and everything below it. I started preaching from the center aisle of the church, where I could hear and see and feel the people. People who liked it said my pacing and turning to face particular people gave the sermon a life that they valued. I got one of the best compliments I’ve ever received as a preacher, when a parishioner told me that though my predecessor was a much better preacher than I was and had preached beautifully, she liked my sermons because she understood them. She’d never understood a word of his. Coming to St. Gregory’s in 1980,I found it hard to re- adjust to preaching from a chair. After pacing as I spoke, sitting felt confined. Hearing myself preach, I heard sermons that were constrained and heady. Partly it was a president’s chair that I found quite uncomfortable. After about a year, we found a new preacher’s chair that Rick and I both liked (our Thai howdah). Its height felt much better to me than the old chair’s and I discovered to my great relief that when I felt more at home in my body, life and energy returned to my preaching. In a more comfortable, lively posture, my words and voice seemed to come from closer to my body’s center. A more natural physical presence allowed me to preach more personally, and a greater freedom brought deeper ease with uncertainty and with listening. I found a new freedom to stop speaking for a moment and listen to the congregation and to the silence to find the next words.
When we participate in a listening silence our speech becomes a sharing between preacher and congregation. When I arrived at St. Gregory’s, what we call “sermon sharing” was already the norm, though it wasn’t clear yet what it would become. From 1978 to 1980 Rick and our tiny congregation struggled through such predictable pitfalls as people attempting discussions of theology, arguing points of scriptural interpretation, and helping and comforting other people who had shared. We were still looking for something.
Then one Sunday Mark Oldstrom, a member who was also a priest in training as a hospital chaplain, preached a heart-rending sermon like none of us had heard before. When I wrote Mark recently he supplied his own recollection of that startling sermon from twenty years ago: “I had always been told that my father and my mother had been married, and that he had suddenly died of a heart attack a few months before my birth. Then in Clinical Pastoral Education (the chaplaincy training program) I began to grieve the loss of never having had a father. My search at first was to learn more about him. As I pursued that, my mother resisted my efforts and then finally, just days before I preached that sermon, she revealed that my father had broken off their relationship after learning my mother was pregnant with me—and that I was born out of wedlock.”
As I recall, Mark also told us how, as a kid, he comforted himself by thinking that Jesus too had grown up without a father. Mark described that constant obsessive imagining of what his father had been like. Through all this, no matter what he imagined him to be, his longing to know that father wouldn’t go away. He concluded the sermon with an abrupt announcement of his commitment to find his father, promising to keep at it until he either succeeded or concluded there was no hope of finding his father. If he could conclude there was no hope, he would let it go.
Our sermon sharing that Sunday was electric. All of our own uncertainties hung in the air, and no one dared offer an easy out. No one tried to help Mark feel better or take a more reasonable course. No one promised Mark that he would certainly find his father. Instead people shared difficult stories of great personal hopes and longings. Some described moving forward through fear. Others told of choices they were still living out. Some talked person- ally and specifically about risking and experiencing huge disappointments. It was the first time I remembered seeing tears at St. Gregory’s. Our love and our prayers for Mark were palpable. We knew that something holy had happened among us. The next day Bob Shearer, another clergy volunteer at St. Gregory’s, called Rick and me and said,” You heard the sharing. What Mark did yesterday is what St. Gregory’s preachers will have to do to make this work. What if all of us preachers agree to include some unfinished personal sharing in our sermons?” We decided to try it.
Rick shaped Bob’s proposal, adding that St. Gregory’s sermons would begin with critical commentary on scripture (the ongoing work of freeing the Bible from red-letter “Jesus said it so it must be true” literalism). After unshackling the text, we’d look for an immediate, living question that we heard in the particular scripture, and then tell an open-ended personal story that struggled with the same question.
Mark’s sermon transformed our preaching as well as our sermon sharing. We began from our experiences of uncertainty and not knowing. We had entered territory where conclusions were premature because God was at work. Preaching with the questions and from experience wouldn’t take us to a settled conclusion.
What we began to leave behind was a more conventional use of experience to “illustrate a point.” I’d call that preaching “with” experience, finding an experience that can guide people to the preacher’s concluding point or principle. Preaching “with” experience begins at the conclusion and looks for its illustration. When we really preach in or from experience, our lives (and the scripture) begin to break free of our need to interpret and to control by interpretation. Sermons (and the sharing after them) become alive and unfinished.
Hearing the ambiguity in the Bible, hearing even the earliest Christians struggling and arguing to make sense of Jesus, and hearing the preacher’s open-ended personal sharing of experience invite people into a dynamic present beyond the settled comfort of an interpretative conclusion.
The pattern and process we developed from Mark’s sermon continues every Sunday at St. Gregory’s in our 10 a.m. service. The preacher offers a critical exploration of Scripture and an open-ended personal story that parallels a question in the text. We sit together in another silence. Then people from the congregation share their own open-ended experience. In all this we listen for God present in our joys and our suffering, our choices and our surprises, our uncertainties.
As a teacher Jesus used everyday experience, apparently preferring to teach from experience instead of quoting scripture, making logical argument, or invoking official authorities in witness. His parables and sayings pushed people to consider what they actually did and felt in particular circumstances. Consider the ordinariness of these two instances: “If someone keeps banging on your door in the middle of the night, do you ignore them?” or “What parent among you would give your child a scorpion or a rock if they asked you for bread?”
Jesus our teacher asked his listeners to cut through what they had been taught, what they had figured out, and all their careful doctrinal constructs and formulations to meet God in the wildness and immediacy of life. Preaching at St. Gregory’s we follow our teacher’s pattern. We are not telling one another how to look at life or how to think about the hidden or underlying truth that seemingly contradicts our life. We ask each other to listen to our lives as they are—and feel, see, hear, intuit, and move our way to God’s dynamic presence.
The things we do following Jesus mark our assembly as Christian, whatever opinions, interpretation, and even experience we bring to that assembly. These core practices—hearing Jesus’ teaching and sharing his feast, imitating his work of teaching and creating his welcome to the messianic feast where all are welcome—are enough. In them God acts among us. Donald Schell is rector of St. Gregory’s Church and a fellow of the College of Preachers in Washington, D.C.