March 11, 2014
Samuel Johnson is one of my heroes. I was introduced to him by my eighth grade English teacher (thank God for early English teachers!), but it was many years later that I came to feel kinship with him, when I learned that he was a devout Christian, passionate in his desire to become a more exemplary believer.
It was still later, however, that the preacher in me came to appreciate Johnson. This was partly because Johnson - author of our first “complete” dictionary of the English language — was a master of words, and words are the preacher’s stock in trade. Perhaps it was because Johnson was such a master of language that, though devout, he found most sermons hard to listen to, tedious and seldom to a point.
Nevertheless, as a journalist Johnson was close kin to us preachers. He had to meet deadlines, whether for the publisher of his dictionary and his notable biographies, or for the periodicals for which he wrote throughout his lifetime. He learned that to be a writer he couldn’t live by moments of inspiration. Whether he felt like it or not he had to have something for an editor or a printer at a given day and a given hour. This made him like us preachers, who are expected to have a word from the Lord by a set time, usually at a particular hour on Sunday morning. Even the most spiritual of congregations won’t put up long with a preacher who announces at intervals, “I didn’t feel any inspiration this week,” just as an editor isn’t sympathetic with the writer who pleads that she’s suffering from writer’s block.
Samuel Johnson had convictions about writing, and they’re good for us preachers. “A man may write at any time,” Johnson said, “if he will set himself doggedly to it.”
The 2014-era preacher will answer that Johnson didn’t deal with the distractions that plague us. True, he didn’t have a distraction plugged into his ear or fastened to his belt, nor did canned music follow him through the markets or pubs of London. Nevertheless, he struggled endlessly with the greatest of all distractions, his own temperament. He was a man who loved conversation, so he stayed up too late at night to talk with friends, and then he loved sleep so that he remained in bed too long in the morning. The trivial constantly enticed him away from the significant. You realize this when you read his birthday, New Year’s and Easter prayers of rededication. He was always fighting the trivial.
But above all, Johnson knew this: He could write if he would set himself doggedly to it. Beyond self-excuses, natural weariness, and the clamor of other voices, he knew that the choice was his. And his faith told him that God was on the side of his dogged perseverance.
That’s the way Samuel Johnson met his deadlines. And that’s the preacher’s secret, too.
Ellsworth Kalas is senior professor of homiletics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky. He is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and the author of many books, including Preaching the Calendar (Westminster John Knox, 2004) and Faith from the Back Side (Abingdon, 2011).
Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 2:35 PM