Preaching and Iron Chef

December 08, 2014

[By Rev. Dr. Tom Steagald, pastor of Hawthorne Lane UMC in Charlotte.]

I love watching Iron Chef. Many preachers I know watch that show, or others like it: where accomplished chefs, trained in various styles of cooking, and with the help of aspiring chefs and others, are given the same basic (often exotic) ingredients, a tight deadline, and “life-or-death” stakes.

As the culinary frenzy begins, cameras try to keep pace. The chefs and helpers peel, chop, slice, combine; they sauté, stew, grill and fry. All along, no doubt, they are calculating portion-size, considering presentation and, of course, worrying about flavor. And palatability. We, and the judges, watch, anticipating the climax, the end: will there be, as it were, proof in the pudding?

Comes the moment when the chefs’ work is “condensed”: beautiful food served-up on delicate plates, in matching bowls.

Attention falls on the jury: several people sample, take in a bit of it or a lot, to judge the work of the chef. Sometimes I wonder: if they do not like it, is that an indictment of the chef, or the juror’s palate? Either way, and whether any of them would know as much as how to start cooking such dishes, they offer critique and judgment. And most often, politely. Appreciatively. Not always.

There is no show, on the Food Network or otherwise, that celebrates left-overs as leftovers. (Does anyone even remember that term? Transforming leftovers, maybe, but that is different!) When I was a little boy, a favorite meal, whether fried chicken or roast beef, was often followed by days of left-overs. Mom would go to the refrigerator and take out the waxed-over meat and vegetables, plop it back into pans, warm it over, plop it on a plate.

The food was still food, I guess. There was some remnant of the taste, some memory of when we anticipated, instead of dreaded, what we were being served. Now, though… if presentation suffered, so did our appreciation. Nothing to get very excited about one way or the other, for “heater” or eater.

Why would any of that come to my mind when it comes to preaching?

Let me put it negatively: if preachers, in a given week, are content to go to the sermonic fridge and pull out waxed-over offerings, it will be no surprise if the “family” is less than excited. They’ll eat, probably (though don’t be surprised if they go to the “restaurant” down the street, or tune in the cooking shows at home). Yes, the leftovers are still food, of a sort—just absent novelty and energy and presentation. When tired preachers exposit the obvious, offer truisms and cliché; when they warm-over prior preparations—and have you noticed? even with microwaves, left-overs rarely get warm at the center—members of the family are left hungry for fresher, better stuff.

But it’s hard work, making a fresh, balanced meal. Time-consuming, too, and all the more because there is a deadline. And urgency. And high stakes. And helpers tripping over each other as they work.

You watch the chefs on those shows and you know what comes out on delicate plates is the product of a real rough and tumble. The chefs have knowledge and training, of course, creativity and experience—call it a “culinary quadrilateral” of resources. These resources enable each one to take the same basic ingredients and “interpret” them uniquely, prepare and present their dishes very differently—if authentically to their own tradition and style of cooking. But it’s hard work. And very satisfying.

A couple of times a year I make space and time to gather with colleagues of various ordination status, location, gender, experience. We take the lectionary, and themes that grow out of the lections, and over the course of a couple of days we become sous chefs for each other. We bring with us our own family recipes, exotic spices, sometimes, our favorite cookbooks, insights and lines we have discovered in our own study. We cut, slice, peel, talk. We prepare enough ingredients to take back to our own kitchens.

We work about six months out, so everything has time to simmer together. Left alone, we each might be like my mother all those years ago—tiredly, at the end of the week, with no real energy left after work and no real inspiration (and knowing there is no real appreciation, either, for the time and work and mess it takes to make a beautiful dish), just pulling-out waxed-over leftovers, heating them a bit, maybe thinking or hoping to do better next week.

I can only speak for myself—but coming away from those days, learning from my colleagues and friends, eager to try new extracts, and knowing that both a Judge and an audience is watching and waiting—I feel like an Iron Preacher!

Studies we read say that inspiring preaching, more than any other characteristic of pastoral leadership, characterizes a vital congregation. So get your apron on!
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