A preacher's nightmare

Like many dreams, the details began to fade very rapidly, only a few of them sticking, but the vivid impression remains.

In this dream, I had (I presume) been invited to preach. I knew the building, more or less. It housed a congregation that I was a part of at some previous point of my life, and yet it was something more, or less, or both, than I remembered. If I recall correctly, there had been some kind of event during the afternoon, and I was due to preach in this building in the evening. For some reason I walked there, and for some reason I needed to use my hands for walking, climbing awkwardly up a slope to get to the place. Arriving, I needed to change to preach, so I went to the gent's to get suited and booted. There were a number of people I recognized, but it was not where I would have expected to see them. Worst, there was a lady who was very insistent that she be allowed to use the bathroom for something, leaving all the brothers slightly discombobulated, to say the least.

As a result of this kerfuffle, it took me a long time to get ready. Incompetences multiplied, and the time to begin the service sailed by. I could hear the congregation singing to fill the time, and then the beginning of some extravagant children's contribution to the service (I told you it was a nightmare). Eventually they came looking for me, and it still took me another five minutes to get near the pulpit.

They were kind and welcoming, but frazzled. I got out my Bible and looked for my notes. They were there, but for some reason, in addition to the usual single sheet, I had a collection of other stuff, including a large picture one of my sons had drawn. I put it all on a lectern, looking up to discover that they were trying to move or perhaps even dismantle the main pulpit so that I could put the lectern in the centre, which I did, pulling out some cabling as I went. Somebody was asked to pray, and did, and I waited for the signal to begin, only realising that I had had it when someone in the congregation told me to get on with it. Beginning to preach, I discovered that I was still wearing some additional items of clothing; no wonder the tie felt lumpy. Getting them off (yes, apparently I had two additional upper garments entwined about my person) caused further havoc in the pulpit.

My text was from John's Gospel. In the dream I knew it (I remember preaching the sermon), but it has gone. I can tell you that I could not find my text nor coherently read it. Trying to preach, I kept getting the note sheet lost in the other junk on the lectern. Eventually I tried to put the bulk of the other material down, turning back only to discover that I had put my notes down as well. Could I find them again? I have a vague sense that after five minutes scrabbling through the papers, I discovered them in my Bible all along. Incidentally, that lectern which I had commandeered was unstable, and between its rocking in the uneven place I had put it and my antics, it kept shifting. On more than one occasion it almost went over the edge of the platform, which I now recall was unusually precipitous.

I had no rapport with anyone in the congregation. There were others with me in the pulpit, and I could sense them whispering, wondering if there was some way to put me out of my misery (not literally, but it might have been). I even remember going through that weird detached level of thought that preachers have in the pulpit, the one several levels up that enables you to keep preaching while noticing that Mrs Jones has just left the room for third time, that the noise from the nursery is increasing, and still allows space for you to wonder about where this sentence is going, what you are about to say . . . and then that extra layer that begins to assess the preaching as it is happening. Well, it was that layer and - shame to say - what I was wondering was whether or not I should just claim to be ill, and then another layer in which I began to wonder if I was ill, and didn't realise it. And all the while the sermon was heading south at an unusual rate of knots.

I could not think for the sermon, speak a coherent sentence, follow a logical train of thought, communicate a single clear notion, or press home a remotely helpful application.

Now, some might say that elements of this preacher's nightmare are not too far removed from the truth of my experience, whether I realise it or not. Indeed, it is quite possible that many congregations amuse themselves through my sermons by imagining ways of putting me, and - incidentally - themselves, out of our collective misery. Perhaps I should also make clear that I do not tend to dream about preaching, and that I do not take this as a portent of any sort. However, it has left an impression, and some painful reminders, but not the one that springs to mind about getting an insight into the life of Levy.

First, I am reminded that I am always somewhere along the spectrum of inadequacy. Though I may not usually be quite this far along, it is always true that, in some way, more or less, I fall short of a full and accurate proclamation of the grace and glory of God in Christ in my preaching. And, though the Lord can use our most stumbling efforts, it is still a painful thing to be a preacher.

Second, this is what I could be at any given moment. I do not claim to be a great pulpit orator, but I think I can genuinely say that I am not usually quite as bad as my dream painted me. Yet I could be, easily. If ever I am anything more than this, it is because of the goodness of God. Whatever natural gifts I have are bestowed by him. Whatever competence I may enjoy in the exercise of those gifts is granted by him. Whatever profitable clarity of thought and word I manifest is because of the Spirit's help. Whatever coherence of pulpit presence and action I demonstrate is his kindness. Left to myself, I am nothing, a human wrecking ball smashing up the divine revelation. I depend entirely upon God. Our sufficiency is of him.

Thirdly, and at face value more prosaically, I am reminded to be prepared. There is a difference between the spiritual expectation of divine help in a moment of genuine need and a carnal anticipation that you can wing it and the Holy Spirit will act as your safety net. Timeliness, orderliness, preparation of self and substance in dependence on God - none of this is to be ignored or overlooked as the preacher readies himself for his labours.

The most gifted of Christ's servants may stumble. (I recall reading of Spurgeon preaching in Scotland to a vast crowd, and confessing - as he meandered painfully and haltingly along the way - that the chariot wheels had fallen off, an experience that sent him to his God, and - interestingly - to the notes of previous sermons, as he decided to ride a well-broken horse for a day or two.) The stumbling dents our pride and teaches us what we cannot learn apart from adversity and failure. I only wish I could learn it all from dreams.