Anne Emile Zaki on Preaching and Teaching in Today’s Egypt

After becoming a seminary professor in Egypt in 2013, Anne Zaki discovered two things about preaching that she hadn’t learned in the North American context.

In this edited conversation, Anne Zaki talks about the challenges and surprises of preaching—and of teaching preaching—in the context of modern Egypt.

You grew up in Egypt, came to North America for your formal theological education, and returned to Egypt during the Arab Spring, with all its hopes and disappointments. How has that context affected your understanding of what preaching is, how you think about preaching, and even what you preach?

My journey with preaching began when I was in junior high. I was raised in a small urban church. We had only 40 members, but we served 150 neighborhood children. So as soon as we finished sixth grade, we were trained in how to lead devotions and how to teach Sunday School. It was like an apprenticeship program.

My formal training happened at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich., and it was a preaching class there that convinced me to switch from pursuing a PhD in Christian Education to the MDiv program. What I learned at Calvin was precious to me, and I will always be a student of the four-page sermon as a way of exploring Scripture and then emerging from Scripture with relevant teachings for our lives.

But what I discovered—and didn’t realize this until I went back to a different Egypt, a very hostile, violent environment—is that in my training at Calvin I lacked two aspects of preaching. These are things that I learned when I returned home.

What was the first thing being back in Egypt taught you about preaching?

It was this: As much as it is true that preaching announces—it announces God’s grace and it announces forgiveness and truth and beauty—it also denounces. It’s this prophetic voice—not a judgmental voice, but one that pushes back injustices and hostility and the enemies of reconciliation and of peace and of human dignity. This denouncement of evil powers was lacking in my preaching, and quickly I knew that I needed to learn this and embody it in the pulpit.

I’d never approached the pulpit that way before, and I had to grow into the acceptance that the pulpit is an appropriate place for that. It doesn’t make it a violent pulpit; it makes it a righteous pulpit.

What was the second thing you learned?

“With these attacks on churches, I found myself at that intersection of hope and pain. . . . It was at that point that I saw the cross in a completely different way.”

The second aspect was also a surprise, because I had never lived in a context that demanded it before—not in Egypt or Canada or the United States—and it’s the idea of preaching as lament: meeting people right where they are and being there. I didn’t know how to bring that into the pulpit.

This really hit me on December 11, 2016. On this day there was an attack on the Orthodox cathedral in Cairo. A suicide bomber entered the cathedral and placed a bag of explosives in the section of the sanctuary where the women and children sit. More than seventy women and children were slaughtered during Mass that morning, and that shook us all.

This had never happened—never in that location, the seat of the pope, and never during a regular Sunday-morning Mass. And the fact that it was on the side of the women and children made it that much worse—not that the killing of men is less violent or more acceptable, but there’s something about the innocence of children. It doesn’t make sense.

This happened Sunday, December 11, and I had to preach an Advent sermon the following Sunday. I sat there the whole week, having no idea where to go with my sermon. How am I supposed to talk about Advent and Christmas when this just happened?

My sermon was going to be on Matthew 2: the visit of the Magi, and Herod, and his deception of “I’d like to worship him too,” and then the angel who comes to Joseph and says, “Take the boy to Egypt.” And it ends so neatly and nicely: “This is to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’” (Matt. 2:15).

Egyptians love this verse, and we usually stop there. But as I read, I found myself moving on to verses 16 through 18, where it says Herod got so mad that he ordered the killing of all children under two years old because he was threatened. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Christmas sermon about those verses even though they’re part of the Christmas story.

That Sunday those verses were part of our story.

The Christmas story is so violent, but we don’t preach that way. So that Sunday evening I sat with those verses and what they mean for us—what it means for us as a church to live in the shadow of a crazy ruler who’s so power-hungry and so threatened because his identity is wrapped up in dominion and oppression of others, who saw children under two years old as a threat to his throne. And how in the midst of that, God protects his Son and the Son conquers, and it’s his throne that still lasts to this day. And how in our lament the Christmas story happens—the darkness and the light together.

With these attacks on churches, I found myself at that intersection of hope and pain. And I think that intersection is the best place for a church to thrive. It was at that point that I saw the cross in a completely different way. Those two sticks intersect right at that spot of hope and suffering, and it’s right from that spot that the church emerges.

The challenge is, how does my preaching meet people right there, as a preaching of lament?

That’s a beautiful illustration of how context changes how we read and receive Scripture. It changed how you understood what you saw in Scripture. It changed how people heard the passage. And it changed how they responded.

Honestly, I felt like God was rescuing me that Sunday. I had no idea how I was going to get up and face the people and at the same time hold them. But I felt as if God was saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll give you something to say,” and he gave me the most horrific scene. But this is exactly what our scene was.

How do you think teaching preaching is different in Egypt than it is in North America?

The differences are there, but they’re much more superficial than what we hold in common. One of my greatest challenges with my students is to revive in them a faith in the Word—that the Word of God has the power to transform not just individual lives but entire communities. That a sermon can create a movement. That the Word of God can redeem culture and rescue an entire people from injustice and suffering.

Unless the preacher believes this about his or her sermon, I’m not sure how the people are going to believe this. I’m still trying to figure out how, as a teacher of preaching, to instill or revive that faith in the Word, in preaching. And I think this may also be a challenge in North America.

What have you learned about teaching preaching in the last couple of years?

That it’s an indescribable joy to see students finally finding their own voices. There’s nothing like it—I get so excited. I see our students each year of their schooling, throughout that journey. It’s so good, when they get to their fourth year, to see things clicking. Because you can’t find your voice if you can’t find yourself, and it takes a journey to get there. Then you’re comfortable in your own skin, and because you’re comfortable, we’re comfortable around you.

I’m starting to notice the factors that lead to that, and a key factor is teachability—a teachable spirit, a humility to be instructed and corrected. The students who have this are thirsty for knowledge and thirsty to be formed and thirsty to be better, not just for themselves but for their families and for their churches and for the church worldwide.

If I’ve learned anything about teaching preaching, it’s that this is not about education; it’s about formation.

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