The movie The King’s Speech caught me completely off guard. Having struggled in a similar way with stuttering for the first 10 years of my life, the movie was, at times, painful to watch. As I re-assess my experience of viewing the movie, however, it occurs to me that this early childhood experience has been deeply formative of my later life and work. Several things have become clearer for me these days about how preaching is best learned and taught. Here are a few:
1. We preach best from a “voiced” place. In their book Saved from Silence: Finding Women’s Voice in Preaching, Mary Lin Hudson and Mary Donovan Turner encourage a classroom exercise that I have used off and on over the years. They suggest that preachers should try to recall places and times when they felt most “voiced,” and image those moments when preaching. This, of course, also suggests that we learn preaching best in safe spaces where we feel voiced – which, sadly, is sometimes not the case in homiletical education.
2. Finding words that will work for you is a crucial aspect of learning to preach. It is not always easy to connect one’s inner voice with one’s outer voice as a preacher. I can recall what it was like to have tremendously important thoughts and ideas that I could not vocalize. The same is often true for preachers. Part of the problem here is the pressure to perform perfectly or at least competently within a more or less standard idiom or “King’s Speech.” It’s not that the stutterer doesn’t hear, experience, or know what this idiom is, it is the fact that some of those words and patterns of thought just won’t work. Alternatives must be found, and time taken to shape difficult sounds and ideas. For the preacher, this means seizing and trusting what we can articulate, and not worrying so much about what we can’t. I won’t be able to say it the way homiletical royalty such as Fred Craddock or Barbara Brown Taylor do. I may not even be able to say it the way the preacher down the road with the fast-growing church says it. But I have to put that out of my mind for now, and take hold of my best possibilities for articulation right now.
3. All homiletical speech is, to some extent, stuttering speech. There is nothing wrong with uttering our love for God in whatever sounds or gestures can issue forth best from us. God has been known to honor and use all kinds of “speech.” I’ll never forget one Sunday more than a decade ago when Dougie, a young child in our congregation, sensing that I was sad over the recent death of my father, curled up in the pew with his head on my leg, and was sad with me for about 10 minutes. A pretty amazing sermon – and not one word spoken! When teaching homiletics, this translates for me into a certain amount of generosity for the sometimes idiosyncratic or idiomatic ways that students often speak. Increasingly, I find myself asking “What is this preacher trying to get out? What is he or she trying to say?, and how can I help her or him say it better;” rather than saying “This makes no sense at all,” or “This is not good “King’s Speech.”
4. Learning to preach requires endless creativity. In the King’s Speech, the speech therapist used music as a way to connect the King with his voice. The same was true for me. As a child, whenever I sang, I felt loquacious! Words were no longer hurdles to jump over, but turned into liquid flowing freely and happily. I could say amazing things when I sang. As you learn to preach, there may be creative options for getting the words out that you have never considered. Many of these are connected to the arts (literature, music, drama, visual art). Don’t be afraid to explore these creative methods. I think that my recent return to music as an analogy for theological “invention” (deciding what to say) in my new book, Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention, is one way for me to begin to explore such options.
To summarize, I suppose what I am trying to say is that learning to preach is not simply a matter of learning “the King’s Speech.” In the end, it involves imaging ourselves as truly voiced by God, entering a safe, un-pre-judged space for homiletical production where we can find words or other expressions for the gospel that will work for us, seizing and trusting the voice we have right now, uttering our love for God and neighbor in whatever sounds or gestures issue best from us trusting that God will honor and use them, and engaging in endless creativity (yes, even singing!) to get our homiletical expressions flowing freely.