When I was writing my second ever sermon, the first draft had most of what I was saying. The four steps of discipleship were there; and the one I was seeing as essential, finding God’s presence first, was there. To pick that up from the Biblical passages that were going to be read was easy enough; although getting that focus might have been slightly less straightforward.

But my first draft was seriously lacking. What wasn’t there was the list of suggestions as to how one could find God’s presence: pausing, receiving communion, praying, etc. That list got included after my curate asked me one very simple question. That question was:

“How do I do that?”


I was quick on my feet. I could give, more or less, the list that made it to my sermon. In short, I knew the answers; but looking back, I fell that list was rhetorical – as rhetorical as the question was. We both knew the answers. The very fact, however, that I hadn’t thought to unpack it means one of two things: either my knowledge of these was only superficial and intellectual, and I did not consider them seriously enough to consider them worthy of dwelling on; or they were integrated enough in my own life that they felt too natural to make explicit. I don’t know which one it is; I hope it is the latter rather than the former. But what matters here, as a preacher, is that for some members of the congregation, neither will apply. For these members, it is crucial that I address the How question – else, the sermon remains theoretical, unapplied, and, ultimately, dead.

Preachers, make sure that your sermon is not a succession of theological points (unless you are trying to inspire awe of God in that particular sermon!), and make  sure that for each and every point that involves your congregation, you answer – even if in some limited way – the “How” question. It can be a list. It can be a testimony. It can be something else – it doesn’t have to be exhaustive (that would just be arrogant and overly ambitious!)

You see, that “How” question is crucial because it allows theoretical, intellectual knowledge – mantras, as it were – to become effective in our lives. I was reminded of that a few weeks ago. I was talking with a friend; and in the course of conversation, I mentioned the image of someone taking on more and more bags upon his back, when he can just lay it down at the Cross.

It is a fairly common image, I’m sure. And when I first heard it, my mind was full of “Amens”. I thought the image was faithful and very well thought of, and I was content to leave it there; filing it away as something I could use later myself.

Then, my friend asked me “How do I do that?”

That was a violent question. It made me realise that I had been paying lip service to this image (which I still think is a good image), but never considered to apply it myself. In answering my friend’s question, I realised that letting go is difficult; and that something that seems simple is, sometimes, just the opposite. That night, I learned a whole lot more.

That was a raw question. In it, the deep, deep desire for my friends to let go of his worries and lay  them down at the Cross was bare. He wouldn’t have asked that question if he wasn’t filled with the all-consuming passion to actually do it. Asking “How” is not an intellectual pursuit, it becomes the outlet of our souls’ rawest desires.

Sadly, asking “How” is not that common, when it comes to spiritual things. Possibly because it makes one feel silly – after all, if it weren’t obvious, wouldn’t it have been explained already? Possibly because it engages us more than we feel comfortable with.

It shouldn’t. So start asking “How?”; you may find you are a blessing to the person who, actually, hadn’t thought to apply what he was talking about.