Friday, April 3, 2009

Piper: No Necessary Contradiction Between Form and Fire


I am reading through John Piper’s “Brothers, We Are Not Professionals.”  It is a book I have had for a while and had a hard time getting into. (That doesn’t say as much about the book as it does about me).   The book is a collection of essays, all directed to pastors, exhorting them in one way or another. 

One of the paradoxes of life is that I continue to be richly blessed by those with whom I profoundly disagree.  There is much in Piper’s theology that rankles me.  But his insights continue to richly bless me. 

This morning I read the chapter, “Brothers, Let the Rivers Run Deep.”   And the title of this blog post is the gist of the chapter.  There is not a necessary contradiction between form and fire.   Piper uses the book of Lamentations as the basis of his meditation.  Lamentations is arguably the most emotional book in the Bible.  Jeremiah has seen his city destroyed, his family killed and all that was familiar swept away.  And (as the title of the book indicates) he laments.

There is weeping (1:2), desolation (1:4), mockery (1:7), groaning (1:8), hunger (1:11), grief (2:11) and the horrid loss of compassion as mothers boil their own children to eat them (2:20; 4:10).  If there ever was intensity and fervor in the expression of passion from the heart, this is it.  (p. 146)

And yet Piper goes on to observe that Lamentations is one of the most carefully and formally crafted books in the Bible.  All of its chapters are all divided into twenty two stanzas.  Three of the five chapters all serve as an acrostic: each stanza begins with one of the twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.   The third chapter has twenty-two stanzas as well, but is not an in the same acrostic form.  But it is even MORE highly structured.  “Again, there are twenty-two stanzas, but now each stanza has exactly three lines.  The three lines in each stanza begin with the same letter, and each of the twenty-two stanzas begins with a different letter in alphabetical order. Chapter 5 is the only chapter that is not an acrostic. But it still has twenty-two lines in conformity with the acrostic pattern of chapters 1-4.” (p. 146-7)

How do you get such structure and such passion? It is inconceivable that Jeremiah’s lament spontaneously came out in this format.  There was work that went into it.  Thought.  And yet, it remains one of the most personal and emotional books in the Bible.

Piper says:

After reading Lamentations, we can no longer believe that unpondered prayers are more powerful or real or passionate or heartfelt or genuine or alive than prayers that are thoughtfully and earnestly (and painfully?) poured out through a carefully crafted form.  The danger of formalism is real. Prayers and sermons that are read from a manuscript are usually stiff and unnatural and artificial. But the danger of spontaneity is also great. If the heart is without passion, it will produce lifeless, jargon-laden spontaneity. And if the heart is aflame, no form will quench it.  (p. 147)

I believe that this is one of the reasons why I have found reading written prayers so helpful.  Usually, the prayers are well thought out. But (and there are exceptions) the prayers also generally express deep emotion. 

I also believe that this is one of the secrets of preaching I found in my last few months at my last church. The first preacher I served under (in east Tennessee in the late 70’s & early 80’s) wrote out all of his sermons.  And he had the great ability to make them sound spontaneous.  And so I picked up that form.  There were a couple of reasons for that, I believe: one was because I knew the danger of spontaneity. Especially in that southern environment where preaching was judged by two criteria: how loud it was and how bad it made you feel.  If you hit those two criteria it was a good sermon in many people’s minds. As a seminary student, I reacted negatively against that.  But secondly, while I have deep emotions, they often scare me and so I work to not express them publicly.  (Now there’s a psychological study for you!)   And so, reading a manuscript “worked” for me.  Although, I will admit it made me a little dry as a preacher. (And criticism over that was the part of the original impetus for this blog and the first step in in the beginning of the end of that ministry).

But in my last few months at TCC, I began to study more and more on preaching without notes. (If you are a regular reader of these posts, you will remember that I posted quite a bit on that subject last fall).  Reading from a manuscript and preaching without notes are pretty much opposites.  But the clue I discovered was to prepare well, even writing a manuscript if necessary (sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t).  But then leave the manuscript in my office or on the pew or in a folder on the pulpit (there is a slippery slope of failure if ever I saw one).  But DON’T USE IT. 

And my preaching seemed to take off like a rocket.  It has structure and form: that had been hammered out in the study.  But I preached from my heart.  I preached what I felt deeply about and it was incredibly well received.   People were more profoundly affected, and people took note. 

Form and freedom.  They are BOTH necessary for dynamic preaching.  

Piper continues:

Emotions are like a river flowing out of one’s heart.  Form is like the riverbanks.  Without them the river runs shallow and dissipates on the plain. But banks make the river run deep.  Why else have humans for centuries reached for poetry when we have deep affections to express?  The creation of a form happens because someone feels a passion. How ironic, then, that we often fault form when the real evil is a dry spring. (p. 148)

Thanks John Piper.  While I believe that you are seriously wrong about a number of issues, you are absolutely right on target on this. 

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