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…was the title of a Christmas sermon written and never preached in 1993

BBC news reader Martyn Lewis had recently made a statement lamenting the absence of good news stories from the television news, and been lambasted by his colleagues for wanting to feature more “fluffy kitten” stories. My intention had been to preach on the rough and ready shepherds being told genuinely good news by the angels in a setting which was anything but cutesy. In the end this was overtaken by world news events and the sermon was never preached.

This morning I watched with unashamed tears in my eyes as another miner was brought to the surface at the San Jose mine in Chile in a genuinely good news story. A number of things struck me:

  • The tremendous respect shown to the miner’s wife – with everyone from dignitaries to engineers stepping back to give her first hug of her husband.
  • The word “Chile” emblazoned on the top of the phoenix rescue capsule. Chile may have all sorts of questions to answer in the future about mine safety, but right now this is a moment of national triumph to savour.
  • The President and First Lady waiting in line to greet the miner.
  • The transparent pleasure and surprise on the face of the chief rescue engineer when the miner made a point of turning to him to thank him.

Like many preachers I will be thinking about how this story may feature in what I say on Sunday. However, may I share one or two cautions?

  • Don’t hijack the story. This is not in fact a story about Jesus rescuing people even though it may have all kinds of parallels.
  • Don’t recruit the miners to your cause. They may have sent for Bibles to read deep down in the mine, and expressed much faith in their letters sent to the surface. Reputedly one of them even said ‘There are actually 34 of us, because God has never left us down here”. However, don’t turn them into Christian heroes just yet -for now they just need to be ordinary people in an extraordinary setting. Subsequent reflection may bring many spiritual lessons from their experience – but let the dust settle first.
  • Do enjoy this story of human triumph. On the occasion of his best friend’s wedding, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was unable to attend as he was imprisoned. In his wedding sermon, he wrote of his “joy that human beings can do such great things”. This is just such a moment.

Pretty soon the Camp called Hope will be dismantled, the rescue equipment will be shipped off elsewhere, the media will move on to the next story…and many of these men will return under the earth again because that is where the work is to be found. For now as Pastors, preachers…and human beings we should just enjoy the story.

It would great to hear about other people’s concerns or experiences in communicating this story in preaching.

Buried in a pulpit near you

This week will see National Poetry Day marked in the United Kingdom.  It may also see the silencing of a courageous and unusual poet – Victor Zamora. Victor was elected by the Chilean miners trapped in the San Jose mine as their ‘official’ poet. By all accounts his messages are amongst those most eagerly awaited by people on the surface. They certainly have an agonising poignancy to them:

Under the earth there is a ray of light, my path, and faith is the last thing that is lost… I have been born again.

The thing is, great poetry, like great Blues music, is often born of suffering. Will Victor’s poetic voice be lost, I wonder, when he breathes the sweet air of freedom?

In many churches the poetic voice in the pulpit was lost a long, long time ago. It was drowned out in favour of theologically precise, cerebral prose which closes meanings down rather than opening them up. And yet, surely, this has been to everyone’s loss? Prose may feed the mind but poetry feeds the soul. Prose draws borders but poetry blasts a road through the mountains of indifference and borders be damned. Poets choose words for their creative ambiguity and their many-flavoured meaning. In his book Finally Comes The Poet, Walter Brueggemann says that the deep places of our lives  can only be reached  ‘by stories, by images, by metaphors and phrases that line out the world differently.’

Do we fear poetry as preachers, I wonder? Are we uncomfortable with its bar-of-soap-like tendencies to avoid clear definition just when we think we have it pinned down? We should note that in the days of the Exile God’s great prophets rarely outlined any new theology. Instead they talked about the theology people were born with and made them feel differently about it. In order to do this they had to be poetic in their language.

Does poetry have a place in your preaching?

Richard Littledale

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