The Preacher's Devotional Life

April 30th, 2012

The preacher is a living word about God’s Word before the preacher ever says a word. When the preacher speaks, every word reveals the preacher’s way of life. Devotion to God and neighbor is the primary prerequisite for preaching the gospel.

While the subject of devotion may conjure images of saintly characters on their knees with their hands clasped in prayer, the devotional life encompasses a far wider range of activities than that. To devote oneself to any task, person, community, or ideal is to give oneself wholly to that object of desire. Johann Sebastian Bach was as devoted to making music as Martin Luther King Jr. was devoted to making justice. Dorothy Day’s devotion took her into the streets of lower Manhattan, while Jonas Salk’s devotion tethered him to his laboratory. Mother Teresa’s devotion to the poor people of Calcutta kept her going to a ripe older age, while Oscar Romero’s devotion to the peasants of El Salvador cut his life short.

In the case of religious devotion, the object of desire is God, and yet even here great variety emerges. Abraham and Sarah, our earliest biblical exemplars, embody their devotion by packing up and leaving home to travel toward the promise of a God whose name they do not know. Abraham’s devotion does not prevent him from arguing with God, just as Sarah’s does not keep her from laughing with disbelief, yet their hit-and-miss journey ripens their faith even before their son arrives.

When Isaac finally does arrive, his mother, Sarah, turns against Hagar, the mother of Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. While Hagar’s devotion is often overlooked in this story cycle, she is the forerunner of all biblical women who appeal directly to God after the men in their lives have abandoned, betrayed, or consigned them to death. Hagar’s single-hearted desert prayer not only saves her son’s life but also brings her face-to-face with God.

Such biblical exemplars of divine devotion are often found in the shadows of their more famous kin. One can only imagine what it took for Leah to keep living into God’s promise while her husband, Jacob, gave his heart to her more beautiful sister Rachel. Likewise, look for Miriam in Moses’ shadow, Boaz in Ruth’s shadow, and even Baruch in the shadow of Jeremiah, laboring over his manuscript pages so that the fiery prophet’s oracles would be recorded for all time. More often than not, those who devote themselves wholeheartedly to God can do so only because someone else is devoted wholeheartedly to them.

In the New Testament, Mary is perhaps the most popular icon of the devotional life. Although she has few spoken lines in the Gospels, they hinge on her reply to the angel Gabriel. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” she says, “let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). With far more at stake in her honor-shame culture than most present-day believers can grasp, Mary devotes herself body and soul to God’s purpose. While she tends to fade from view after the annual Christmas pageant is over, she is revered not only for her mothering skills but also for her intimacy with her divine Lover. Again, look for Joseph in her shadow, both protecting her and legitimating her son by making the boy his own.

If Moses embodies engaged devotion to God in the Old Testament, Jesus is the embodiment of that devotion in the New Testament. God calls Mary’s son to a singular purpose, and he responds by donating himself wholly to that purpose. His devotion is not merely spiritual but also physical, emotional, intellectual, and relational. From his devil-wrestling days in the wilderness, through his boundary-breaking ministry, to his self-emptying death on the cross, he holds nothing back. Those who despair of following such an example may still look to the outspokenness of Peter, the zealousness of Paul, the studiousness of Mary, or the servant-mindedness of her sister, Martha, for New Testament models of devotion to God.

While the historical traditions of Judaism and Christianity are rich with exemplars as different from one another as Rabbi Akiva and the Baal Shem Tov, the desert fathers and Marguerite Porète, preachers will also find models of devotion in their denominational traditions, especially among those who supported losing causes. John of the Cross spent the better part of a year in a dungeon for his devoted efforts to reform his Carmelite order. While Thomas Müntzer’s story is eclipsed by that of Martin Luther, his opposition to Luther in the Peasants’ War of 1525 was born of his devotion to the cause of the uneducated laity.

George Fox’s vivid experience of what he called “the inner light,” or “Christ within,” led him to speak out against the Anglican Church of his day, and especially against its clerics. His rebellion led to the formation of the Society of Friends, whose devotion to ministries of peace and justice remains vivid to this day.

In these cases and many more, the point is that true devotion to God does not require withdrawal from the world but more often involves active participation in it.

Whatever form the preacher’s devotional life takes, sermon preparation will benefit from a balance of the active and receptive modes of attentiveness to God. Bible study, journal keeping, spiritual direction, and centering prayer are all time-tested ways of attending to God, but so are gardening, dancing, fishing, and flying kites. The point is to enter a space of conscious availability to the Holy Spirit, where one is more likely to notice the Presence that is always present though often ignored. Whether or not the preacher is involved in full-time parish ministry, the wish to be all things to all people can pull the human heart in so many directions at once that it becomes difficult to find the way home again. One of the chief virtues of a receptive devotional life is the opportunity to spend time attending to one thing instead of everything, to give the self wholly to God instead of bits and pieces.

Such receptive time need not be directly related to sermon preparation. It needs to be directly related only to God for the fruits of this devotion to ripen in the sermon by and by. An often overlooked step in the creative process is called incubation. After a preacher has read and studied, taking copious notes without yet discovering what the sermon will be about, it is time to go for a walk—not to think about the sermon but to listen to the birds. During this fallow time, which may also be described as devotional time, the Holy Spirit works while the preacher is not working, creating the conditions for inspiration to occur. If preachers find themselves short on inspiration, this may be their best indication that they are also short on devotional time.

Because it is important to preach what one practices as well as to practice what one preaches, both the fruits and the general contours of a preacher’s devotional life will show up in the sermon from time to time. One good rule is to include only enough detail to spike the listener’s appetite for closer intimacy with God. Another is to keep the focus of the sermon on the divine object of devotion and not on the self. Preachers who wish to keep a lower profile may also make free use of biblical and historical models of the devotional life, while making clear how many traditional and non-traditional devotional paths are open to those who wish to walk more closely with God.

Preachers who speak the language of devotion may find themselves better equipped to address those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious. At least some who describe themselves in such a way are declaring their hunger for a direct experience of God that eludes them in institutional settings. Preachers with firsthand experience of devotional practice are in the best position to invite such seekers into closer intimacy with God, in the church and in the world.

One pursues the devotional life not to get anything for the self but to give the self away. Busy preachers do not have time to skip the regular practice of devotion, for it is only in this way that they may cease being useful to God long enough to enjoy being loved.

This article is adapted from The New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching, Copyright © 2008 Abingdon Press. The complete digital edition of the NIHOP is included in a subscription to Ministry Matters.
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