Monday, January 09, 2006

January 8, 2006 - Intoxicated By My Illness

One of the classic definitions of preaching I learned in seminary was that put forth by the 19th century preacher, Phillips Brooks. He said preaching is "truth communicated through personality." His point is not that preachers are some sort of prodigies in the personality department, but that preaching is quite a different activity than most other forms of communication. In the pulpit, for good or for ill, who the preacher is and what the preacher has to say are strangely commingled.

Even so, I’ve always been hesitant to inject too much of my own personal experiences into my sermons. It usually feels presumptuous to talk about myself in that setting – even though, on the infrequent occasions when I do, I nearly always get lots of positive comments at the church door. People seem to appreciate this sort of sharing, as long as it’s not overdone (and believe me, I’ve heard more than enough sermons in which it has been).

In times of personal crisis in particular, I find that my own personal narrative nearly always finds its way, eventually, into the larger narrative of the pulpit. Such is the case today, as I spend the last several minutes of my sermon talking about the difficult news I received on Friday (the revised grading of my cancer from indolent to something more aggressive). I had earlier decided to scrap my plans to preach a two-days-late Epiphany sermon on the visit of the Magi, and talk instead about the Sago, West Virginia mining disaster that’s been so much in the news this week. That story seemed to offer a natural opportunity to discuss the theological problem of suffering.

But after Friday’s news, I realize that I myself am suffering – not from any physical pain, but rather from the emotional blow of hearing that word "aggressive" applied to my malignancy. It would be impossible to address this topic without sharing something of my own story. I do, and it seems to work out OK.

The late writer and literary critic Anatole Broyard writes about something similar in his book of essays, Intoxicated By My Illness (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1992). Broyard wrote this little book as he was struggling with the advanced prostate cancer that would eventually take his life. Here’s what he says, from his perspective as a writer, about the therapeutic power of narrative:

"Just as a novelist turns his anxiety into a story in order to be able to control it to a degree, so a sick person can make a story, a narrative, out of his illness as a way of trying to detoxify it.... I felt a bit like Eliot’s Prufrock, who says, ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,/ Come back to tell you, I shall tell you all.’ Like a convert who’s had a vision, I wanted to preach it, to tell people what a serious illness is like, the unprecedented ideas and fantasies it puts into your head, the unexpected qualms and quirks it introduces into your body. For a seriously sick person, opening up your consciousness to others is like the bleeding doctors used to recommend to reduce the pressure" (pp. 20-22).

Funny that Broyard uses the word "preaching" to describe his feverish, late-in-life essay-writing...

Bringing my own narrative into the pulpit still feels like a risky thing to do, so I don’t think I’ll preach that kind of sermon all that often. (Besides, it may be a moot point anyway – because once I’m deep into chemotherapy, I may either feel too sick to preach, or be ordered to stay away from crowds so as to shelter my compromised immune system.)


Anonymous said...
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Mary Beth said...

Although I missed the live event of your preaching that sermon, I eagerly read it on-line, (the best thing ever!) and thought that it was tremendous. I admire your courage in sharing all this personal stuff with such a large audience. Talk about vunerable! Be strong. MB

Carlos ("Carl") said...

(First comment was deleted at the request of the author, who accidentally sent it before having time to finish it.)

Anonymous said...

Carl - You have opened a window on your journey, which gives your congregation a means of sensing God's presence in this difficult time. As for your concern, you didn't even come close to the misuse of the pulpit that you and I have both experienced on occasion from the pew! The sermon was woven together with clear seams delineating personal and theological, and it was delivered with grace. Actually, the tide of sermon wisdom seems to have turned toward more self-revelation, rather than less (obviously within limits!), asserting that it is both natural and positive, so you're just staying on the cutting edge! Yesterday morning's sermon allowed me to enter into worship, an experience that is all-too-rare for those of us charged with leading worship and hoping to experience worship from the chancel. The hymns were perfect and gave strength and courage to your message. It was moving and authentic, and I thank you. Robin