In recent years, I’ve come to develop an appreciation for the art of tattooing. The styles, the techniques, the history, the culture — it’s all fascinating to me. But perhaps what I find most intriguing about this oft-maligned (yet increasingly mainstream) art form is the profound paradox that exists at the heart of it. A well-done tattoo has the ability to bring together two seemingly incongruous realities and fuse them into one intricate picture of harmonious beauty.
Let me explain.
On the one hand, tattoos are known for their permanence. This is precisely what keeps many people from getting them. “I might like it now,” they reason. “But will I still want it when I’m gray-haired and wrinkly?” That’s a legitimate question. After all, tattoos stick with you. Short of an excruciating removal process, the tattoo you get now will still be on your body when you die. So you’d better like it.
But on the other hand, tattoos are a truly unique form of art, because they do die. If you’re a sculptor, you can make a magnificent piece of art that may still be admired centuries after you’re gone. If you’re a painter, your creation can be preserved for generations to come. But tattoo artists create on canvases that are destined to be eaten by worms. A tattoo’s life is never longer than the life of the person wearing it.
So here we have these two competing realities. Permanence and fragility. Resilience and death. Longevity and limitation. In the same piece of art, both of these seemingly contradictory dynamics are at work. A tattoo is something that’s inked into skin, meaning it’s there for the long haul. But at the same time, it’s something that’s inked into skin, which means that the long haul ain’t all that long.
Thus, a paradox.
Now I realize that my tattoo artist friends will chuckle at this, but in my more whimsical moods, I fancy us as kindred spirits. At the very least, I like to think that I’m employed in a line of work analogous to their own – a line of work that involves artistic creation of a similarly paradoxical nature. No, I don’t use needles and ink. But as a preacher, I am charged each week with the task of creating cultural artifacts that are defined by this same tension of being equal parts enduring and temporary.
On a typical Sunday morning, I spend some forty minutes attempting to weave together Scripture and story, word and worship, exhortation and encouragement. Forty minutes may seem like a lot – especially for those who have to sit through it. But in the course of a 10,080-minute week, that’s really not much time at all. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the average person spends more time over the course of the week picking his nose.
What this means at a practical level is that any given sermon is remarkably short-lived. It’s like one of those pop-up rain showers on a hot summer day that comes along and makes everything wet for the moment. But then the rain moves on, the sun comes back out, and within a few minutes, the ground is completely dry again.
If you’re a church-goer, you can test this hypothesis pretty easily. Just go around and ask a few different people this Sunday morning to recount the previous week’s sermon. The stammering half-summaries and vague generalities will tell you all you need to know. It’s not that these people slept through the previous week’s message. Nor is it that they listened with a sense of indifference. But life is busy. And in the course of a normal week, it’s hard to recall the details of a brief speech someone made to you seven days ago.
In that sense, a sermon is like the tattoo on a body that will soon be buried and decompose. It’s a momentary, short-term creation. And it leaves most preachers feeling about as productive as you feel when you do the laundry. Sure, it’s a great achievement — for one fleeting moment. But no sooner do you wash a load of dirty clothes than you find that everything’s dirty again and it’s time to start over.
Sounds pretty pessimistic and futile, right? But not so fast. Because when we give the matter some more thought, we find that this isn’t the whole story of preaching. Not everything is as fleeting as it seems. As any preacher can tell you, sermons have a mysterious way of sticking around.
While it’s true that much of a sermon’s content may get left behind in the pew on Sunday, the sermon’s impact is a completely different matter. You see, the heart often remembers what the mind forgets. And in the most elusive and unexpected ways, those forty minutes have a way of transforming lives more dramatically than one might realize.
Looking back on my own life, I can remember very few distinct sermons that I have heard. (And trust me, I’ve heard plenty!) But at the same time, any honest self-assessment would reveal that I am who I am in large part as a result of the cumulative effect of those countless hours of faithful preaching I’ve absorbed. To return to a previous analogy: the rain from all those pop-up showers may not have completely evaporated in the summer heat after all. In the final analysis, some of it must have managed to soak into the ground. And over time, that steady rhythm of rain and sun, rain and sun, rain and sun, has produced certain spiritual growth that would otherwise never have happened.
Sermons do this. I’m not entirely sure how. But at some strange subconscious — or rather, spiritual – level, sermons do long-term, enduring (dare we even say eternal?) work. The sort of work that leaves you as a different person in the end. Sermons fade quickly. And yet they don’t.
Thus, a paradox.
As a young preacher, I’m learning to embrace this tension. There is a unique beauty here that I want to celebrate. It’s easy focus on one side of the paradox at the expense of the other. But to fully come to terms with the vocation I’ve been drawn to, I realize that I must receive it in all of its complexity.
I have been called to speak to a particular people at a particular moment in time. My points will be forgotten. My illustrations will grow irrelevant. My most passionate exhortations will lose their punch as soon as the back doors open after the service. It’s all part of the job.
But then again, it’s just part of the job. Because even in the impermanence of my words, God is at work to bring about eternal results. He is cultivating faith. He is confronting darkness. He is creating spiritual life. Even while the sermon’s few insightful moments are evaporating into thin air, God is at work, shaping and molding people into citizens of his kingdom. And, if I can be honest, I think that’s pretty stinkin’ cool.
There are those who will tell you that there is no higher calling than that of preaching. Personally, I don’t buy it. (I happen to think that the highest calling is whatever God has called you to, be it preaching, engineering, landscaping, or anything else). But I will say that there’s something mysterious and endlessly intriguing about this particular work. It’s tedious and challenging and frustrating. But never boring. Never predictable. Never stale.
I consider myself blessed. Even though I find myself laboring each Sunday to make a lasting impact with words that are destined to be forgotten, I wouldn’t have it any other way. For it’s here at the intersection of short-term memory loss and eternal spiritual transformation that I find a place to call home.