And then, somehow, I turned into a preacher, or lady-preacher, as my BFF once called me.
As a sophomore at Harding, I dated a guy taking preaching. We spent all evening once in the lobby of Cathcart dorm, he wrestling with writing a sermon for the next day that would meet the established criteria, I trying to, well, help write it. It wasn't quite "three points and a poem," but it was old-school. Particularly onerous was the requirement of an illustration for each point. Finally, for lack of a better (and original) idea for a needed illustration, one of my suggestions was adopted--it was close to curfew, time was running out. The next day I attended the preaching class, as moral support. I was invited to fill out a peer-critique form, but asked not to speak. The peer critiques from the other would-be preachers were pretty harsh--but pretty much uniformly, regarded the bright spot in that sermon to be my illustration. We didn't let on.
(It's an interesting historical footnote that the other would-be preacher in that class who preached that day did a good job, even without my help. Brent preaches an even better sermon today--with or without my help.)
The next year, as a junior, I took "religious speaking for women." We couldn't call it preaching, but our text was Tom Long's The Witness of Preaching. We learned about exegesis and commentaries. We learned about the different styles of preaching. And we preached--if only to each other, in that small crowded room full of eager females. I worked hard on my first sermon, writing, re-writing, feeling stupid while reading aloud but in the process discovering the utter necessity of that discipline, timing it just at the limit. I don't know what went wrong there, because I was a good 10 minutes over. But no one stopped me; I don't think anyone could have.
One of the girls in that class began the semester wearing a headscarf as part of her daily dress. She chose as her text 1 Corinthians 11. The day of her sermon, she arrived without it.
I didn't preach again until 2004, at the West Islip Church of Christ, where Lance Pape and Katie Hays were then the ministers. They were away; Brent and I stayed at their house that Saturday night. I think I remember leaving flowers on their table as a thank you. What else can you do to thank people who've given you, not just a place to stay the night, but that place to go you'd always needed?
I was nervous. Terribly, terribly nervous. It had, after all, been years since my "religious speaking for women" class. And this was the real thing. I would have to walk up to an honest to God pulpit.
And the preparation for this, my inaugural sermon, was done in the aftermath of what I can only describe as a homiletical ambush. Just the week before, visiting the home church of a dear, dear friend, I listened to a sermon which went beyond simply the assertion of Church of Christ orthodoxy on the role of women into slanderous territory, naming names: Lance Pape and Dale Pauls and gal328.org, impugning motives: selfish, willful misrepresentation of the Word, to a chorus of amens and laughter at the mocking punchlines. It was like taking a soccer ball in the stomach, that awful sick prolonged moment when you can't draw a breath, when I realized it was all for my benefit. I'd been asked by the preacher if I was going to be there; at the time, googling my name brought as the top result gal328.org/forum. I sat and listened to that sermon, the whole damn thing, with my friends beside me, apparently insensible to my trembling, my near-hyperventilation. It was impossible to discipline my body's outrage even while I disciplined my mind to listen, consider, analyze, evaluate. After, I went and cried in the bathroom. After that, I went and ate sandwiches at the sandwich supper. I cried again till 2:00 am in my friends' living room, never able to say in how many different ways I felt betrayed by both the words and the silence. I cried again on the airplane home, writing and rewriting a letter which I never sent, and remains on my hard drive even now. For years I would cry in the shower, that sacred place where no one can bother you or see you, remembering it, thinking about it. Last year, I cried while blogging about it.
(Perhaps St. Francis of Assisi was onto something when he, perhaps apocryphally, said, "preach the gospel. use words if necessary." In our churches, a woman might preach effectively just by placing her female body behind the pulpit, and saying nothing at all. Just stand there. Let them see you there. Let them wonder, what's this about. Let them ask, why don't we see this more often. Shall we stage a protest, a silent pulpit stand-in?)
A week after that first sermon I received a card from Katie, telling me she'd heard the sermon tape (which, I have to say, I still have not, despite David Fritz's prompt supply of one for each sermon I have preached there) and that I'd done good. I still have that card. Of course.
Still later, I preached my first sermon at CCfB. I discovered how different it is to preach to people you know well. Not that there isn't honor in the hometown--just that the communication is weighted with so much more personal knowledge and intimacy and nuance. My weakness as a preacher is also my strength as a theologian: my sermons tend to be all about ideas. But preaching to CCfB has taught me that playing with ideas is not enough in a sermon.
A sermon has to communicate the basic truth that God loves. You. Me. Messed-up people, and with-it people. Know-it-alls and dumb-asses. Straight, gay. Needy, secure. Party people, lonely people. Moms, dads, babies, people orphaned or disowned from their own families.
Men who do what's expected of them. And women who don't.
God loves. God loves us all.