Preaching sermons has never been my favourite thing to do. Pulpits have always been awkward, difficult places for me to fill. It’s an odd confession from a pastor, especially a Baptist and in a church like mine. The sanctuary at Collins Street is old school, grand and built in the 1840s with a solid mahogany pulpit sitting high above the pews. As you mount the stairs of the church under the high Corinthian columns and then make you way into the sanctuary, the 170-year tradition of rousing oratory hangs heavy in the air.
It’s not just the pulpit that’s challenging, nor the space. It’s the business of standing in front of people with an obligation to say something of truth, something that might shift or change things for those who listen. I don’t do it easily nor always well, but it’s part of my job, even my calling.
My aversion to preaching is not common among colleagues. Indeed, I listen longingly as I hear other pastors talk of the things most fulfilling in their work. Invariably, preaching is near the top of the list. I’ve often thought that’s how it should be for me too, but though there are times — moments when I feel something more — for the most part it’s a challenge.
The danger for reluctant preachers like me is that we constantly hunt for models to emulate. Not content with ourselves, we imagine things differently: ‘If only I could be more like him!’; ‘I like her style. Perhaps I could do that!’ It’s certainly true that we have much to learn from others, but perhaps the best piece of advice I’ve been given by a seasoned pastor was this: ‘Simon, be yourself. That’s the gift you have to give.’
In 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the American essayist and poet, addressed the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School. In the midst of a rousing and often biting lecture, and one that reflected his entirely male audience, Emerson said this:
‘Let me admonish you, first of all: to go it alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred to the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, ‘I also am a man.’ Imitation cannot go above its models. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity.’
After twenty five years of standing in pulpits, the challenge of doing so remains. But I’ve been slowly relieved of the burden to do so in ways that are not me and not real. I may never be the preacher I once imagined I should be, and I will always cherish the gifts of others who do it differently, but the words of my advisor from long ago bring comfort and challenge enough: ‘Simon, be yourself. That’s the gift you have to give.’