I’m in Washington, DC, this morning, staying at the College of Preachers as part of a 24-hour personal retreat. “The College,” as they call it, is an experience in itself: stone arches and polished woodwork and leaded glass windows looking out over a lush green courtyard called “The Garth.” I came here for the first time in the Winter of 1994, for a week-long preaching workshop with Barbara Brown Taylor, who had just been named one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. We gathered in the common room for the first session and I knew I was in for a treat. The room was paneled in dark wood with ceiling beams, a Persian rug, and (on that bitterly cold day) a cheerful fire crackling in the huge stone fireplace.
I didn’t even know what Barbara Brown Taylor looked like. For the first ten minutes I assumed she was the boisterous African-American woman welcoming us to the College. But eventually that woman turned and introduced us to our workshop leader, the “skinny white woman” sitting next to her. Barbara (as she asked us to call her) wasn’t as loud as our host, but when she started to speak I couldn’t stop listening, leaning in close to savor every word. It became clear to me within a few minutes that she was someone who loved language, and beauty, and truth, and God—not necessarily in that order.
I’ve listened to her lecture a dozen times since then. I’ve read her books and heard her preach. Just yesterday I described to someone what her preaching is like. “It’s like she’s a first grade teacher,” I said, “taking her class on a field trip through a meadow. When they come to a stream she tells everybody to take off their shoes and roll up their pants legs, and then she wades out into the clear, shallow water and starts turning over stones as her class gathers around. ‘Look at that!’ she says, as a crayfish goes scooting backward from beneath a stone, and the children say, “Ohhhhh!”. But it’s not stones she’s turning over: it’s Scripture. And it’s not first-graders on a field trip: it’s people in the pews. But listening to her preach is no less an adventure, and there is no less joy of discovery.”
When she writes about preaching Barbara says she likes to bring something into the pulpit “even when it’s still covered with twigs and mud” and she’s not quite sure what it is yet. I love that idea, that you could find something in the Bible so fresh and new you couldn’t wait to tell people about it. It’s what I strive for in my own preaching. I’d rather be an archaeologist, digging around in this ancient text and making fresh discoveries than a museum curator, showing off the treasures of an earlier civilization for the thousandth time. I may lack the certainty of the curator, but I’d like to think that I make up for it in enthusiasm. I’d like to think that someone out there in the pews would believe there are still fresh discoveries to be made in the Bible, and would open its pages like an archaeologist sinking a spade into the ground.
Thanks, Barbara, for helping me think about the Bible like that, and for always making me want to be a better preacher.