Wednesday, May 8, 2019

How LBJ's Biographer is Helping my Preaching

    I continue learning how to preach from unlikely tutors. Robert Caro, the Pulitzer prize-winning biographer of Lyndon Baines Johnson, recently put out a little book (called Working) about how he researches, thinks and writes, and why. I kept circling this and that, prompting fresh thoughts about how I preach.

    Caro is maddeningly slow, turning out a volume about LBJ about once every nine years. Preachers can’t afford such a luxury – but I realize I’ve prided myself in churning out sermons more rapidly as I get older. Maybe that’s not such a good thing, even if I feel it’s good enough, or done enough. Caro is a perfectionist, always looking to uncover one more fact, or to recraft one more sentence so it evokes just the right mood.

     When Caro was writing about Johnson’s childhood, he felt he wasn’t understanding all he hoped to understand. So he not only visited the area. He and his family moved to the Hill Country of Texas for three years. Mind you, this makes me think of God taking up residence among us for… yes, three years. I also wonder: How do I go there in preaching? I’ve been lucky to visit Palestine, Turkey and Greece. With video, online photos and virtual stuff you can find, any of us can go to the wilderness of Judea and notice it isn’t flat sand but a rocky, sandy zone with steep hills. The Jordan River is a muddy creek.  You can even see an artist's rendering of Caesarea Philippi and realize that it was before the Cave of Pan and a thicket of imperial temples that Jesus asked, "Who do they say that I am?"

     Caro is the master of what he calls the “sense of place,” “helping the reader to visualize the physical setting in which the action is occurring: to see it clearly enough, in sufficient detail, so that he feels as if he himself were present while the actions is occurring.” Caro’s next thought intrigues me when I think of preaching, and creating this sense of places: “If a reader can visualize them for himself, then he may be able to understand things without the writer having to explain them; seeing something for yourself always makes you understand it better.” Might I, in preaching, describe a place, its texture and temperature, its light, color and shadow, and my listeners will grasp more than I know to tell them?

     Places, as we all know, evoke emotion. So, “the better the place is envisioned, the more the reader might feel the emotion.” Speaking of emotion: when Caro went to the Hill Country, he found it took a while for the people to trust a guy from New York. Eventually they opened up. Very old women described what life was like before electricity. The dark. The loneliness. The labor required. One woman handed him a heavy bucket of water and asked him to carry it up the hill to her house. He did. What was life like for Mary? Or for Sarah? How dark was the sky at night (or how bright, as they could see millions more stars than we can)? How lonely did Abraham or Elijah feel in that place? Was there a breeze? A multisensory depiction of a Bible scene should be far more fruitful than me trying to “make the Bible relevant today.”

     I love this: Caro asked Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson, to go with him to visit the LBJ childhood home. He asked him to sit at the dinner table, in the very seat where he sat growing up. He waited a long time in the quiet before Sam began to talk about the toxic, harsh relationship between Lyndon and his father. Interviewing people is the key to Caro’s work – and he explains that in interviews, “Silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it.” His notebooks are full of notations and comments – and regularly you can find in big letters SU. “Shut up.” While interviewing, instead of filling a quiet moment, he reminds himself to SU. Eventually the interviewee begins to say more.

     I am thinking I should never preach without interviewing some people. And observing the SU counsel. I might interview a Bible character. Howard Thurman famously asked Jesus what he was thinking on that Palm Sunday as he jogged along the back of that donkey. Talk to Elijah: how did it feel during that crackling, scary storm? Ask Peter how it felt to be engulfed in the water. Ask Paul what Silas’s voice sounded like in the Philippian jail.

     Or interview some live people. Phone up a scholar at your alma mater and ask a hard question. If you have a neighbor who’s not a churchgoer, ask him what he thinks about David dissing Michal. Talk with a pregnant woman in your church, or a mom who lost a child. And SU. Listen. Marvel. And ask more questions. Caro was advised by his first boss to “turn every page, never assume anything.” So often in preaching we assume we know things – about the text, about the Gospel, about our people. But ask questions. It helps them to tell you. And you learn amazing things. That was the Cappadocian way, right? You ask questions about God, and instead of getting answers, you get three more questions.

     Caro only appears to be a slow worker. He actually works long hours, every day – and he’s in his eighties. His rule is that he writes several pages every day. The more you write, the better you write. Lots of it gets thrown away. I know my best preaching decisions are when I toss something out. It might be a really good idea too. Caro researches relentlessly. Then he pictures his entire thousand page book in a short outline, with summaries of his key points, and then he fills in. Whatever doesn’t fit that pre-arranged structure doesn’t make it into the book. Preaching would be wise to adhere to such a discipline.

     Caro taps away on an old Corona manual typewriter – which is charming. But he only does so after writing several drafts in longhand. That seems charming as well. He does this, he says, in order to slow him down. With a pen and legal pad in hand, he thinks a long time before writing, and as he writes. I did my sermons pen on paper for years. I am going to go back to that, at least for a season.

     Finally, back to the idea of going to the place and creating the sense of place. Caro interviewed several people who reported that when Lyndon first came to Washington in 1931, he would show up for work early, walking from a tiny, shabby apartment near Union Station. A couple of folks oddly reported that he was often spotted running as he passed in front of the Capitol. Caro thought this was interesting, but couldn’t figure out why he ran, since he wasn’t late for work. After taking careful notes, he decided to walk from Union Station to the Capitol along that same route at the same time in the morning. What he noticed was the stunning way the rising sun gleamed on the white face of the Capitol at that very hour. Johnson, thrilled by the beauty of the light, broke into a run out of sheer joy and enthusiasm.

     If I’m preaching on Psalm 8, I’d best go outside at night out in the country somewhere and stare upward for a while. If I’m preaching on Genesis 32, I’d be wise to unroll a sleeping bag and sleep up in the hills outside my city. If I’m preaching on Jesus’ Baptism, I might wade into a stream nearby and feel the water. Then my people might be awed that the God who strewed the stars across the night sky is mindful of them, and that a sleepless night is a night in God’s unexpected presence. They might feel the rush of the water, and a breeze, and sense God’s Spirit. For at least this next season, I’m going to imagine Robert Caro going to work with me as I prepare to preach.

    {My weekly lectionary preaching blog will try to incorporate some of these approaches in the coming weeks!}