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Private Public Lives

It will be a pity if Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s biopic of the iconic American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, is only remembered for the row over whether Bernstein should have been played by a Jewish actor.

Bradley Cooper, who both produces this film and acts in the leading role, decided that he needed some prosthetic help to accentuate his nose to make him look more like the Jewish Leonard Bernstein.

I am reminded of the comment about ‘method’ acting made by Sir Laurence: “Haven’t they tried acting?”

The film explores the meteoric rise of Bernstein in the middle of the 20th Century. He conducted the whole range of the classical repertoire and composed in many genres, but is perhaps now best known for his musical West Side Story.

This piece, so full of dramatic intensity, represents so much of the tension in Leonard Bernstein’s own life. Issues of race and sexuality introduce his own conflicted emotions. In fact, it is the passionate nature of Bernstein that made the greatest impression on me in the film.

He loves life, music and performing. He often says in the film that he loves people, not least the dopamine hit of a huge audience offering him their applause and adulation. Yet, alongside this very public experience, is the isolated and painstaking task of composing. In one scene Bernstein is seen emerging from his writing den trailing the full score of his latest musical composition in search of some approving connection.

This reminded me a bit of the creative process of preparing and preaching a sermon.

For many preachers preparing Sunday’s sermon(s) is the main focus of their working week.

This can mean many hours working on the biblical text, sermon structure, beginning and endings, and flow. Throughout the process there is the awareness that this sermon has to land in a particular place and a particular moment in time.

The danger of this approach is that the sermon making process is like a long lonely tunnel from the preacher’s study to the pulpit steps. This can accentuate the tension between the private and public worlds of the preacher.

The preacher can feel that it is only worth the effort of isolated effort of preparation if there is the payoff of an affirmative crowd.

Could too many preachers feel either imprisoned by their weekly preaching task or happy to be isolated for most of the week and just about manage to squeeze themselves into the public glare once a week?

Some preachers do their preparation in public spaces like open plan offices or coffee shops. For them this reduces the isolation factor in preparation and serves as a reminder that the sermon is being prepared for people.

Preachers need to learn how to relax more.

There should be as much joy in the preparation process as the act of preaching.

Perhaps it is about learning to love people more and never losing sight of the fact that preaching is all about learning how to love God and love people.

Like Jesus, this will mean knowing when there needs to be time spent alone and when we need to really be with people, not merely as a payoff for our preparation, but because people matter to God and to us.

Photo by Maksym Harbar on Unsplash

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