In February I wrote, "God has invited me on a different type of Lenten journey...improvised. Give up preoccupation and preparation. Embrace the moment. Embrace deep listening. Embrace the Spirit at work in the present...Let's play..."
As I have reflected over the past month about my improvised journey through Lent, seven important lessons emerged:
Slow down, notice more, and trust the Holy Spirit - It seems like common sense, I know, but common sense isn’t always very common. Improvised preaching (preaching in the moment with no preparation on the assigned text) during Lent forced me to slow down to become more aware of what was happening around me everyday. The world around me was fully of gifts (a conversation here, an observation there) that could be used in the sermon. While I've always seen every day life as fodder for a sermon illustration or two, my hyper awareness during Lent moved me toward seening life as preparation for the sermon and not studying the Scripture more.
Silence the inner critic - One sermon during a midweek worship service early in Lent was particularly bad. Soon into the sermon, I panicked. My inner critic began to talk to me, "You're not making sense...You're losing everyone. Are they listening? They aren’t! This is going badly! Abort! Abort! Abort!…” I had gotten into my head and my inner dialogue with the inner critic stole the focus and the sermon languished. We all have an inner critic. Learn to shut it out during preaching. If I would have been able to do so, the sermon would have flowed easier in the moment and made proper sense.
Find a phrase and chew on it - On the Friday after Ash Wednesday I officiated a memorial service and was invited to preach. My colleague asked, "Are you still going to improvise this?" I said, "It is my discipline during Lent to do so, so yes." As I listened to family and friends share remembrances about the deceased, one word rang over and over in my mind, "Investor" The man was an investor in people. I chewed on that word like a cow chewing its cud and a sermon emerged that tied to the Gospel lesson for the service and honored the deceased man.
Be in the moment and focus on the words coming out of the mouth - Forcing myself to preach with no preparation sharpened my focus on each and every word that emerged from my mouth. Just as an improvised scene is created moment to moment to moment by improvisers, so a sermon is improvised in the moment word to word to word. As words are connected, broader themes emerge and ideas take shape in the moment.
Respond to the nudges - When I would enter the day with no concrete plan in place, remaining open to the Spirit's lead, I would at different times feel a holy nudge to say something, go somewhere, and/or engage in a particular task. We all receive nudges from time to time. It's one thing to recognize them. It's another to respond. Respond and see what happens.
Connect with the people - Because I didn't prepare a sermon by writing thoughts out either as a manuscript, an outline, or as a few thoughts jotted down to keep me focused, I was free to connect more fully than normal. There was nothing between me and the congregation and nothing to steal my eyes away from seeing the people to whom I was speaking. I was able to connect in a stronger way with people than I normally do in preaching.
Trust that God’s grace is sufficient. The improvised journey through Lent was far from perfect. Just as failure is inherent to the art of improv. there were times of struggle, a failed sermon (see #2), and the occasional lack of trust on my part in the Spirit's activity in and around me. God's grace and forgiveness proved sufficient again and again.
Thank you for sharing the journey with me. I hope that what I learned might inspire you to lead and preach led by the Spirit...to let go of control and embrace the moment where God is at work.