Whenever I walk into the sanctuary now, I greet all the people gathered there. “Hi everyone!” I say into the void, “Miss you all.” Sometimes I wave at specific people. Sometimes my gaze lingers over one or two or three faces (the folks having a particularly rough time). These people, though, never talk back. I walk alone to turn on the lights. I set up the camera on the tripod. I push play and then walk in front of the camera to lead worship. I speak alone into the void. All the while, I’m looking at the faces of my church family as pictures attached to sticks and placed into their regular pews.
Yup, that’s me: the crazy pastor, who talks to cardboard cut outs. I suppose talking to stick people is better than talking to no people, right?
This is how I’ve led worship for nearly 6 months now – alone in a sanctuary with a camera, preaching to pictures on sticks. It’s eerie and beautiful. It’s surreal yet very real. Somehow, in the midst of the sadness and separation, it’s also been freeing. It’s unleashed something within me.
I’ve been preaching alone for 6 months, a mom for 3 1/2 years, solo pastor for 9 years, an ordained minister for 12 years, preaching for 15 years, and a bossy big sister since 1983. Which means: I’ve been telling other people what to do for a very long time. Yet, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m really preaching.
That’s quite a statement, so let me go back a bit.
I remember the terror I felt when I first started preaching — the trembling knees as I stepped into a pulpit for the first time with all those (actual) faces in the pews staring back at me. The weight of what I was doing felt heavy. Interpreting the Word of God for the people of God is not something to take lightly, and I did not take it lightly. I poured over commentaries and articles. I read illustration books and other pastors’ sermons. I wanted to say the right and true thing about every passage. I wanted it to be theologically deep, biblically sound, historically accurate, and incredibly relevant to people’s everyday lives. I wanted these ancient words to resonate.
I had done theater and band in High School and college, so I’d had a lot of practice with being in front of an audience. Yet, preaching was vastly different. These were my words I was putting out there, not a script someone else had written. It felt vulnerable in a way I’d never experienced before. In fact, I felt so vulnerable that for my first few years of preaching, I had terrible stomach issues every Sunday morning. I’d be up all Saturday night, writing and rewriting and then mulling and worrying. Then I’d spend early Sunday morning feeling sick. It became my mode of operation. If I didn’t worry and if I didn’t feel sick, then I worried that something might really be wrong. It’s a vicious cycle.
A number of years ago, when I was a few years into solo pastoring and many years into ordained ministry, I met a local clergy friend at a coffee shop to sermon write together. I had hauled in a large stack of books and different colored highlighters. I was reading through them all and then typing the parts I found interesting into a Word document. I put those quotes into a document entitled “Ideas.” Then I took those ideas and strung them into another document entitled “Outline.” Then I took that outline and formed the sermon. At that point, I’d been writing sermons this way for years. My friend, on other hand, had brought her computer. No books. No highlighters. Just her Bible and her brain and her spirit to write. I wondered where her commentaries were — how could she possibly write out of her own head like that? She looked at my stack and said, “I’m a little worried for you.” At the time, I laughed it off, and asked, “Why? I do this every week!”
Though maybe I should’ve been a little bit more worried for me too. I was spending hours and hours and hours reading what everyone else thought so I could figure out what I thought. Where was I? I seemed to be hiding behind the script of others.
Over the years, my commentary stack has dwindled. My outline document is mostly filled my ideas, supported by scholarship. It happened slowly, mostly with life changes. Becoming a wife and a mom meant that I could no longer spend my weekends writing and rewriting and overwriting and over-worrying sermons. I moved my sermon writing day from Saturday to Thursday (which worked *most* weeks…if I was lucky). I became choosier about the commentaries I read and the lectionary podcasts I streamed. Over the years, the writing process took less time and wreaked less havoc on my digestive system. Yet, I still always started with the thoughts of others first.
Yet, in the last 6 months it all broke down. The reading and writing processes I’d hone over all these years was thrown out the window. And with it, my Imposter Syndrome. Somehow, after 15 years and hundreds of sermons, I feel like I’m preaching for the very first time. Now it’s just me, my Bible, my heart, and my mind. It took a global pandemic for me to trust my own words and my own Biblical interpretation. It took a pandemic for me to see that God has indeed given me the wisdom and the words.
There are three reasons for this, of course: First, I have 15 years of biblical scholarship now stored up in my brain. Second, the Bible speaks powerfully in times of crisis, and I have the honor of being able to listen and to speak during the many and ongoing crises that is 2020. Third, I don’t have time to do any of the sermon prep I did for all those years. Every day is a marathon of mom-ing and pastoring and surviving.
For the first 5 months of the COVID-19 crisis, we had no childcare. My husband and I spent our days attempting to work AND attempting to care for our very young children. If I was lucky, I had 3 solid hours of work a day. I don’t have time to read. I don’t have time to think. I must sit down at my computer with an open Bible, a heart open to the Spirit, and fingers ready to type as fast as they can possibly go. I must listen. I must trust the voice God has given me. I must trust the spirit to move.
The Spirit has spoken over these last months, giving me words quickly and powerfully. Some days I feel like I have words pouring out of me with nowhere to put them. I scribble ideas hastily on sticky notes or the Notes app in my phone. I have sermon outlines written on the backs of receipts. Every Thursday morning, I open my laptop, gather the scraps of paper together, and pray that I’ll find the words to speak to the weekly crisis at hand. I open a new Word document with the dreaded knowledge that in just a few hours, I must write a full sermon and pre-record an entire worship service before daycare pick up at 5pm. So, I take a deep breath and I let the words come without worry of them being pre-approved by my seminary professors (I say with deepest apologies).
Only through the grace of God have I been able to write and pre-record worship by nearly every Thursday afternoon. I speak this accomplishment with the exceptions of: The week the power went out. The week I forgot to hit record. The week the sound system kept scaring me with ghostly static noises. And that blasted week the camera battery died 2 times, leaving me to record the 2nd half of the service 3 times, only to discover that in the 3rd take, I’d forgotten to put on my stole and left out a line of the Lord’s Prayer (Let’s face it, I wasn’t doing it a 4th time, so my stole disappeared mid-sermon and we did not ask for our daily bread). Yet … despite technical difficulties, the sermon was always written, and the words were always authentically mine.
I miss preaching to real people. I miss hearing their chuckles at my silly stories. I miss seeing a knowing smile when someone can relate. I miss seeing a confused look when someone doesn’t understand my train of thought. I miss seeing the faces of my church family. Yet, I still look at their faces when I preach. Sometimes when I tell a joke, I look to a face, knowing they’d find it funny. Other times, I look at a face when I talk about a particular difficulty, knowing they are struggling through it. I know the real faces won’t see it as they worship from home, but we are connected, nonetheless. As I preach, I feel utterly ridiculous and completely grateful at the same time.
In the book of Esther, Mordecai speaks to the new queen Esther and beseeches her to use her position to save their people and not “keep silence at such a time as this” (4:14). “Who knows?” He asks her, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this” (v.15). I have zero royal dignity, of course (the pre-recorded worship outtakes are evidence of that), but God has put me here in this place in this crisis “for such a time as this.” So, I too will not keep silent … even if it means standing alone in a sanctuary preaching to a congregation of stick people.