A Sermon By Any Other Name

Susan McCaslin

Susan McCaslin is a prize-winning poet and author of eleven volumes of poetry.

by Susan McCaslin

This is the first in a series of Susan McCaslin’s reflections on her new book, Arousing the Spirit: Provocative Writings (Wood Lake Publishing, Oct. 2011).

I have a confession to make. Some of the pieces in my new book of essays and accompanying prayer-poems or poem-prayers began as (wait for it!) “sermons.”

I didn’t wish to highlight this ghastly factoid about sermonizing when I wrote the preface to the book (and in my own mind always called the little pieces “spirit talks”). Goddess forbid that I might admit to my non-religious but spiritual buddies that I had been engaged in the aforementioned nefarious activity on certain Sundays while they were happily doing yoga, meditating, or walking contemplatively around the sea wall at Stanley Park.

So, you might ask, how did a poet and English instructor who up until 2001 had little use for institutional religion come to write sermons in the first place? For me, who came from a long line of Presbyterian ministers on my dad’s side and another long line of Southern Methodist ministers on my mom’s, preaching was the last thing I ever aspired to do.

Models of preachers in my background were the likes of Billy Graham or the fictional Elmer Gantry, and all of them happened to be men, not women.

My mom, who had mental problems, kept the many radios in our house piping in fundamentalist missives from a preacher man in Alabama who called himself “Brother Shamrock.” I used to joke that the emphasis should be on the “Sham” syllable of his name.

As an English instructor at a community college in New Westminster, BC, I was accustomed to a lectern, but a pulpit (what an old-fashioned word!) conjured up images of Rev. Dimsdale in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter ranting about adultery while being okay with his partner in “sin” wearing a red A emblazoned on her chest.

So when Bruce Sanguin at Canadian Memorial United asked me to give a “little talk” during the service while he was away, I felt waves of “the cringe factor” ripple through my entire body. Yet now I’m exceedingly glad that I stepped up to the metaphorical plate (i.e. pulpit).

Here are some reasons why:

  • As a poet, I often work alone and then venture forth to read my poems at small gatherings of (I hate to admit it) mostly other poets. When speaking to the Canadian Memorial crowd, I experienced the privilege of working with liturgy, a word meaning “the work of the people.” I got to figure out how the theme of my talk would fit with the music, the prayers—the entire sacred enactment that is liturgy.
  • As a poet and former academic, I was offered the opportunity to connect with a living, breathing, thinking, feeling, live audience, rather than just speaking in books to literary types. At Canadian Memorial, I found people of all ages who happened to be interested in progressive spiritual issues and ideas.
  • By contributing to the living enactment of words, thoughts, meditations, and prayers that constitutes a spiritual service, I got to be more than a “talking head.” I had to think a lot about my own spiritual practices and how new concepts have to be integrated into a person’s lived experience on a daily basis.
  • As a “layperson,” a member of the congregation, and not an expert in theology, I was able to get immediate feedback, enjoy dialogue, and engage in real conversation about the issues arising from the service, of which my contribution was only a part. This process was creatively and spiritually enriching.
  • Hey, historically, women weren’t allowed to or encouraged to preach. St. Paul said so. So to be a woman in the pulpit, although quite common these days, had a certain edgy appeal in my mind.

I’d like to leave you with a few questions for your consideration. And I’d love to receive your thoughts and insights on these questions. Perhaps you have questions of your own.

  • Are “sermons” still relevant in contemporary society, or part of the past, a dying form?
  • Should we toss out the word “sermon” because of its history of negative associations, or can the word be redeemed? If not, what phrases or words would you put in its place? “Message,” “homily,” “Dharma talk,” others?
  • In Protestantism, has the sermon been given too prominent a place in the order of service? Do we need to move away from featured speakers and talking heads to more interactive and contemplative modes like meditation, centering prayer, reciting sacred texts, or chanting?
  • Would you have bought this book if you had known some of the pieces had started as “sermons”?
  • If you do think sermons or some form of spiritual reflection uttered by a speaker should be presented as part of worship, what should it look like?

What’s coming up?

The next blog will be based on Chapter One of Arousing the Spirit called “The Problem with Perfect.” I’m planning to reflect on “perfectionism” in our culture versus the desire to progress through various stages of spiritual growth to maturity.

Susan McCaslin is a prize-winning poet and author of eleven volumes of poetry. Susan is Faculty Emeritus of Douglas College where she taught English and Creative Writing for twenty-three years. She lives in Fort Langley, British Columbia. Visit her website at www.susanmccaslin.ca.

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Categories: Art and Music, Books, Christian Life, Susan McCaslin, Uncategorized


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21 Comments on “A Sermon By Any Other Name”

  1. Jan Janzen
    November 25, 2011 at 3:53 am #

    I have no issue with the word “sermon” or even the fact of one, unless it’s meant to dominate and control the listeners. Sermons are just another form communication, neutral of quality except by the content and intent of the particular sermon. I just read the sample “essay” or “sermon” on the publisher’s website. Excellent, can’t wait to read the rest of it. Was going to buy a copy, but with shipping, it’s too much for me right now (saving for a trip). Maybe I’ll pay for an e-copy. Whichever way I get to it, I’m looking forward to it. I’ll send more feedback then. Thanks, Susan, looks like a winner!
    Jan Janzen

    • December 8, 2011 at 2:26 am #

      Thanks, Jan! Yes, the dominating and controlling aspect of sermons is just what I wanted to avoid. Maybe the term “reflection” is best. I like the idea of a dialogic reflection, one that encourages dialogue. The Quakers or Society of Friends don’t have preachers, but each person speaks from within. That’s something worth exploring. I’m planning to look at George Fox as a Protestant mystic who shared spiritual insights. Yet the richness of John Donne’s “no man is an island” meditation and some of his “sermons” are parts of the literary tradition that have left us enriched. And George Herbert, the Anglican poet, is one of my favourite poets. So I got lured in.

      I’ll save you a copy and we’ll figure it out.

  2. Eileen Curteis
    November 26, 2011 at 10:22 pm #

    Your kind of sermon isn’t about dry, stale material. It’s about fresh new insights that put one into an evolutionary third millennium spirituality that definitely arouses the Spirit.

    Sr. Eileen Curteis

    • December 8, 2011 at 2:29 am #

      That’s a heartening remark, Eileen. If we’re not evolving, we’re going backwards, so I figure I don’t have a choice. Or maybe I do! I like the notiion that God is evolving.

  3. November 28, 2011 at 2:55 am #

    I love the fact that you’re open to options, not “stuck” in the ways that led me to leave my solid Protestant background for being far too stiff. It’s easy to be angry these days, to see anyone the least bit different as “Other.” So what a relief that your talks (and thanks for being open about the name) challenge and include. Thanks!

    • December 8, 2011 at 2:34 am #

      Hi Kate! My wish is that this book will appeal to people across the board, not just Chritians, or even those who consider themselves religious or spiritual, but to seekers and those who are open to mystery, the unknown, possibility. The kind of “othering” you speak of is the cause of religious warfare, ethnic “cleansing,” pogroms, and so much suffering. It’s time to realize we really are all one, interconnected. I too had to reject the kind of Christianity that made you leave your solid Protestant background, but I discovered there are other ways of exploring my Christian roots, and the way in for me was the mystical tradition.

  4. December 27, 2011 at 10:46 pm #

    Hi Susan. I just ordered Arousing the Spirit today. I am really looking forward to it! In regards to the word “sermon”, for any of us who have become somewhat disenfranchised with institutional Christianity, “sermon” can definitely carry the cringe factor. I think when it comes down to it, its really about the spirit in which the messenger carries the message. True love and meekness is discerned in another from a mile away. It comes with one’s presence, even when words aren’t spoken. When one carries the Spirit of Love, mercy, and compassion into a room, any term can be used as far as I’m concerned — whether it be a sermon, message, homily, or Dharma talk. My heart perks up with anticipation to receive from anyone who carries the true Spirit of Love, mercy, and compassion. Its undeniable!

  5. December 28, 2011 at 11:55 pm #

    Thanks, Ben . There’s a chapter in the book called “From the Prision of Fear to the Palace of Presence” that reflects on this very issue of what kind of presence one brings to the room, the world. Getting past the names and labels to the exprience is the issue alright. Love, Mercy, Compassion, hummm, yesssss! They need to be embodied.

  6. Aaron
    February 8, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    Having attended the Festival of Homiletics, and heard people like Barbara Brown Taylor preach a sermon, the word to me is beautiful. If I heard enough bad sermons, I suppose I would want to do away with the word, but hearing excellent people give uplifting sermons, I’m all in favour of them.

    • February 8, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

      Thanks for the tip about Barbara Brown Taylor. I’ll check her out. I just looked up the etymology of the word “sermon” and noticed one derivation is from “serere “to join.” Nothing wrong with joining minds and hearts, unity, bringing together, a sense of belonging to something larger, the community. Hmm.

  7. December 9, 2012 at 3:54 am #

    Very energetic post, I enjoyed that bit. Will there be a part 2?

    • December 10, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

      Hi Edwin,
      I’ve written about 11 blogs on chapters from my book Arousing the Spirit. I won’t be writing specifically on the art of giving sermons that aren’t didactic or “preachy” but my next one will be on the Chapter called “Open to Mystery” about the possibility of the miraculous in our daily lives. Right now I’m involved in a campaign to save an old rainforest in Langely, BC.

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    • December 17, 2012 at 6:18 pm #

      Thanks, Reuben. You made my day! I don’t have a background in theology but in poetry, though I’ve always been intensely interested in spirituality and theology.

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