My (Panicky) First Sermon

I was sweating. My vision was blurry. And I had death grip on the podium. Was this what I'd signed up for?

This essay originally appeared on Beliefnet in 2000.

I preached my first sermon last Sunday. It is highly unusual for first-year seminarians to be allowed to preach, and at the seminary you aren't permitted to open your mouth until your second year. However, the priest at the parish I'm assigned to, St. Nicholas, doesn't go for rules like that. He asked and I obeyed.

He gave me three weeks to prepare. The Gospel reading was the account of the demoniac and the pigs, which summed up basically how I've been feeling lately as a student: I need the insanity purged from me. So I wrote a sermon and emailed it to Father Matthew.

"Needs work," he said the following Sunday.

I rewrote and re-emailed. He approved.

I read it to my wife, Barbara. She didn't.

I rewrote and reread. Now, I didn't approve. I rewrote it again. Finally I gave up.

Sunday arrived. The Gospel was read. They brought out a podium and a mike, and suddenly I was looking at 150 blank faces.

I froze. I looked at my notes, and noticed that my eyes weren't focusing properly. I looked up, and the people were beginning to get fuzzy. At that very moment, I found myself suffering from hysterical blindness.

All was silence. I tried my best to smile and say, "Good morning." The mumbled response wasn't heartening at all, and so I tried looking at my notes again. Blurry white sheets.

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I started off by trying to recite the opening lines from the sermon as I remember having written it. I also remember how little I liked it, so I started to wing it. I attempted to maintain a single strain of thought without divergence and maintain eye contact with the audience (which is hard to do when you can't see anything to begin with). Occasionally, I turned pages to make it look like I could see.

At several points some of the text became clear, just enough to show me that I was following my outline and not stuck on the same page for the entire sermon. However, when the faces started to become clear, I saw the same dazed stares I had when I started. The fog of panic returned. I was certain that I was as clearly understood as a Danish poet reciting verse in a Shanghai restaurant.

Midstream, I noticed my death grip on the podium. I tried to let go, but my fingers weren't responding. I then tried to relax my grip and push the podium away gently. The podium, which was not secured to anything and which weighed less than 30 lbs., began to rock forward and back. Then it started to pull me over and push me back as I tried to steady it. Terror set in as I found myself preaching blind with a shifting podium. My notes almost slid right off. I got up on my tiptoes to straighten my arms a bit more and press the podium down into the carpet. I must have been quite entertaining. Perspiration ran down my forehead, and I could feel my shirt sticking to my feverish skin.

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