By Way of the Heart: The Seasons of Faith
Canterbury Press, 2019, £14.99. ISBN 978-1786222046
Review by Liz Shercliff, Reviews Editor
Anyone familiar with Mark Oakley’s work will not be surprised by the poetic quality of this set of sermons. Quoting RS Thomas before we even get to the contents page, Oakley makes clear his fundamental belief in the value of good language well crafted:
Poetry is that
which arrives at the intellect
by way of the heart.
In his introduction, Oakley confesses to a dislike of books of sermons, while acknowledging too, that they can profoundly influence thinking on God and the life of faith. His ambition for preachers is that they disengage from power games, and find ‘words that hear the pulse, words that read between the line, words that distil … words from which we can’t retreat.’ ‘The preacher, Jesus-like, can preach of the mystery of God not by resolving it but by deepening it, allowing threads to trail, thoughts to meander, finalities and closures to remain well out of reach, disturbing us into truths rather than congratulating us on reaching a particular one,’ he says. There are so many repeatable gems of wisdom in the introduction that it would have been worthy of its own review! Oakley’s ambition for preachers and preaching is both challenging and inspirational, calling us to reflect not so much on how we inform congregations about theological matters, but how we speak with ‘holy potential.’ His introduction to his sermons reads like a protest against the ‘bland leading the bland,’ and a call to treat our words with the same reverence reserved for ‘the water in the font, and the bread on the altar.’ At this moment in history, words are cheap, and as preachers we need to remember that ‘the challenge is that the same doubtful or gullible ears that listen to politicians, salespeople and news commentators are listening to the Christian, to the preacher.’ ‘Preachers are nothing less than the Church’s poets in residence,’ Oakley says, and moves on to show, by way of fifty sermons, how he, at least, goes about it.
Sermons are not at their best when read - they are written for the ear, not the page, they are formation not information, yet reading sermons can be both personally formative and practically inspirational. This book proves to be both.
Following from the well-argued introduction, that concludes with the words of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1619) that our task is to preach to people ‘not what for the present they would hear but what in another day they would wish they had heard’ is a treasure chest of beautifully crafted sermons in a range of styles.
Preachers might use them as springboards, or models or examples for their own work. Each of the fifty sermons uses a biblical text in some way, either as a theme or starting point or jumping off point. Every sermon is rooted in a reality, an experience that resonates, or a calling to account. Submissive or Subversive begins with the death of a friend; Believing in Poetry starts with Wendy Cope’s powerful poem Names; Truth Decay challenges the reader to take a position. There are sermons for special days, from the tenth anniversary of 9/11 through the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Soren Kierkegaard.
This is an excellent book that should find a home on the desk of every preacher, experienced or just setting out. In it is a wealth of wisdom about preaching in today’s challenging times, and a treasure trove of sermons to challenge our practice and feed our souls.
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