Preaching to an Empty Room Part Two: Preaching What You Practice

by Alyce McKenzie
Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor and Director, Center for Preaching Excellence

Linda Clader in her book Voicing the Vision: Imagination and Prophetic Preaching, points out that, while we are often told that we should practice what we preach, it’s just as true that we inevitably preach what we practice. What am I going to practice this week in preparation for preaching to an empty room, preaching in the absence of real, live bodies?

I’ll be preaching to an empty room Wednesday, March 25 at 11:30 a.m. to the weekly Perkins School of Theology Chapel service, to be held on zoom this week. I going to preach on Proverbs 3:5-8. The sermon title is “Faith Amid Our Fears” Between now and then I’m going to practice what I’m going to preach. I’m going to practice cultivating my faith, in every way I can think of in this Coronavirus confinement.

I’m going to practice making soup. Beef barley to follow the chicken noodle and split pea I made earlier this week. I’m not going to practice baking anything, because I have no defenses against baked goods in these anxious times. Making soup could be a metaphor for creating a sermonic recipe that is homiletically nourishing, but it could also just refer to some really good soup.

I’m going to practice gratitude, for loved ones, food, shelter and clothing, and meaningful projects I can work on from home, including the exegesis of the text and context for the sermon on Proverbs 3:5-8.

I’m going to practice intercession- prayers for those who are physically and economically vulnerable and for their dependents.

I’m going to practice having a routine:

  • Making my bed
  • Doing my morning devotions and journaling
  • Working on my sermon
  • Exercising every afternoon whether I feel like it or not.
  • Making a contact with a friend or family member to ask how they’re doing.

I’m going to practice looking for the joy and even humor in everyday life. I’m currently writing a book with my colleague at SMU, Professor Owen Lynch called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Pulpit: Preaching and Humor (Westminster John Knox Press, 2021). I’m going to practice looking for humor (not cruel or flippant, but appropriate) and being grateful for those who are generating wholesome humor for these fearful days.

  • If you buy 30 rolls of toilet paper, tithe 3.
  • If you roll your cart out of CVS with 10 bottles of hand sanitizer, have you forgotten that for you not to catch Covid-19 other people also need to sanitize their hands?
  • In three weeks we will know what color hair everyone really has.

And much, much more …

I’m going to continue to practice the presence of God in the routine activities of each day of this Corona confinement. I’m inspired by the story of Brother Lawrence, a 17th century French monk, who wrote the spiritual classic The Practice of the Presence of God. Born Nicholas Herman, he served as a soldier in the Thirty Years War and sustained a serious injury that left him with chronic pain. At mid-life he entered a newly established monastery in Paris and took on the religious name Lawrence of the Resurrection. He became the cook for the community which grew to over one hundred members. After fifteen years, his duties were shifted to the sandal repair shop, but even then, he often returned to the busy kitchen to help out. Throughout his life he practiced conversation with God during the most mundane of tasks, like mending sandals or chopping potatoes for beef barley soup! Brother Lawrence developed the ability to converse incessantly with God throughout the entire day, regardless of what he was doing.  Henri Nouwen, when he encountered Brother Lawrence’ thoughts for the first time, considered them to be simple, naïve and even unrealistic. But he gradually became aware that the cultivation of God’s presence “is not just a nice idea for a seventeenth-century monk but a most important challenge to our present-day life situation.” Nouwen, Henri, J.M., Foreword, The Practice of the Presence of God, trans. John Delaney (Image, 1977):10.

This week, whether making my bed, preparing soup, or crafting a sermon, I’m going to practice what I’m going to preach, be it on a Wednesday or a Sunday: recognizing and trusting in the Presence of God.

More from Dr. Alyce McKenzie:
Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor and Director, Perkins Center for Preaching Excellence.

Read Part 1 of Dr. McKenzie’s blog: “Preaching to an Empty Room”

Listen to Dr. McKenzie on the Louisiana NOW Podcast: “Preaching to an Empty Room, A Conversation with Alyce McKenzie
The Louisiana NOW podcast is hosted by Todd Rossnagel, produced by Mary Burleigh and sponsored by The United Methodist Foundation of Louisiana.