Textual Presence and Sermon Preparation: A Visual Feast
This past Thanksgiving, we were watching The King’s Speech and someone sat on the DVD remote. The screen froze, which only added to the king’s problems. While the award-winning drama stopped on the screen, a more mundane drama unfolded in the room. We were getting up, turning on the lights, and looking for the remote. In the midst of this commotion, however, something funny happened. Someone started looking more closely at the screen and soon we were all taking notice.
Without the forward progression of the movie, we began to see small details of the scene. The period costuming. The way the light fell from the window. Instead of passing over these matters as we watched a story progress, we were beginning to meditate upon a moment, examining its rich detail and discovering a new drama unfold. The drama of presence, of being in the moment, of taking time to meditate on what we see and what it all means.
Something similar can happen as we read the texts of Scripture in sermon preparation. Let’s call it textual presence. The ability to pause the forward progression of our reading experience and meditate upon what is before us. To enter more deeply into the nuances and details of God’s word and discover what it all means. Unfortunately, this type of reading does not come naturally to us.
Our daily life immerses us in words. So many words that we have a hard time keeping up. We become adept at scanning an email for something important, sifting through junk mail to find the bills, quickly reading a blog post before moving on. Rapid reading, rapid securing of relevant information, becomes a normal process of approaching texts. Unfortunately, this reading practice can shape how we approach the texts of Scripture. We need to have a sermon ready by Sunday and we only have a limited amount of time to read a text. We are tempted to read it rapidly, find a word, a phrase, something significant that we can preach on and pull that out of the text in order to give the secretary a sermon title, the organist a hymn selection, or the worship committee a theme. Our reading practices prepare us for quantity rather than quality. We read for information rather than formation.
A theory of textual presence encourages us to slow down the reading process and meditate upon the words. Rather than quickly get to the end of the story, we stay for a moment in the middle and contemplate what it means. The forward progression of time is suspended as we stand there with the disciples and think about our Lord’s question, “Who do people say that I am?” Or, we wait with the angel Gabriel for Mary’s answer and slowly begin to realize how all of salvation history is woven into this one moment, this conversation between an angel and a young girl.
Why am I bringing this to your attention? Partly to encourage you to slow down in your textual study. To listen. To observe. For some, this could happen through a tool like Lectionary at Lunch+, where professors will slowly take you through the original language of Sunday’s reading and help you meditate upon its words. For others, it might happen in a more creative, visual way.
Art has a way of freezing time and asking us to see. It could be a representational painting that freezes time for us so that we meditate on only a moment. Caravaggio’s The Annunciation holds us in the tension of one moment, the time when a messenger from heaven speaks to a humble servant on earth. It could be an abstract painting that asks us to see, to really see the nuances of a single color or the beauty of a simple form. Simply put, art freezes time. It stops the progression of daily life and invites us into a moment of meditation, a time to truly see.
A Visual Feast seeks to join the visual arts with God’s word. Artists and writers, poets, pastors, and parishioners are composing brief meditations that join an image with a scriptural text for a moment of holy reflection. If interested, feel free to read about the intentions of the site.
For now, however, I simply want to inform you of the resource. Of course, you are invited to join the conversation, to submit your work for possible publication on the site.
But most of all, you are invited to meditate. To set down the pen, to stop turning the pages, to take a moment to see, to read, to meditate, and, we pray, to behold the gracious beauty of the Lord.