Wendell Berry Taught Me to Preach

Lessons from “How to Be a Poet.”

I was a poet long before I wanted to be a preacher, but when I entered the ministry, I thought poetry was a distraction, something that needed to be put to the side for the sake of the serious work of the pulpit.

What I’d failed to realize was that good preaching requires a poetic vision, the ability to speak to the heart and discern what is hidden beneath the subtext of life. The skills and sensitivities that I had developed as a poet were also needed to make me a good preacher. In abandoning poetry, I lost my ability to see past the superfluous and into the human heart.

The Caribbean poet Derek Walcott famously said, “I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation.” The poet and the preacher share more than they realize, and the preacher stands to learn a great deal from the poet. Wendell Berry’s poem “How to Be a Poet” outlines what it takes to be a great poet and in turn illuminates what it means to be a great preacher.

“Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet.”

For many preachers, silence is a void waiting to be filled. We are used to being the dominant voice in a room, and as a result, we spend most of our lives thinking we are perpetually at the pulpit, much to the annoyance of friends and loved ones alike. This need to fill quiet spaces with the sound of our own voice creeps into our spiritual lives.

But what happens when our well runs dry, when the words don’t come, and Sunday looms over us like an unconquerable peak? It’s in these moments we begin to realize that we have come to the end of our words and that for all our pouring out, we have done very little to receive.

Here in these …

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