I’m a PK, a preacher’s kid. I’ve always thought of it that way, the son of a preacher man. In my mind, my father was first and foremost a preacher. He was, and is, great in the pulpit. The diction, the sensitivity, the transparency, and the power, all his foibles and fineries come together in the symbiosis of proclamation.
At my college we were “given the opportunity” to attend chapel three times a week. By “given the opportunity” I mean we were assigned seats while several of our more enterprising classmates were assigned “chapel checker” duties. Those duties were to sit in the balcony and note who was absent, who was tardy, who was sleeping, and who was generally disruptive. It was difficult not to feel the entire scenario a bit heavy-handed.
But I did, while wilting under the strong arm of that regime, hear a lot of preaching. And given that my assigned checker was particularly scrupulous (and, incidentally, the occupant of the dorm room next to mine), I became a listener. Many of the sermons I heard from my wooden unrest (those seats!) were quite memorable. And to be honest, others were quite forgettable. There were moments of transformation and moments of skepticism. And both kinds of moments swelled into my life outside the chapel.
I suppose, over the course of four years, I heard about every kind of preacher produced by North American Christianity. I can remember a particularly charismatic fellow dangling from the pulpit (although I don’t remember why). I also remember an African-American preacher singing the divine names (I remember why). I recall a beloved professor, witty as always, expounding Deuteronomistic history in ways that startled us all. I recall the missionary whose sermons brought me to my knees at the altar, and whose prayers over this kneeling teenager enlivened me for years to come.
Perhaps it was the environment, but I regularly felt the urge to pray at the altar. I spent a great deal of time on my knees then; the imprints remain on my heart to this day. I have often looked back on those days as days of preparation. God was using my scrupulous neighbor, in spite of himself, to fill my reserves for I-knew-not-what. What that was, it turns out, was graduate school.
Proclamation in itself has power. All preachers, the good and the bad, present opportunities for growth and encounter. On very rare occasions have I heard a sermon that should simply be dismissed or rejected. Much depends on our attitude, our preparation, our expectation.
But there’s something about those truly great preachers. My father was, and is, one of them. There is a certain union of instrument and message in these preachers, a union effected by supernatural grace refined by craftsmanship. I have heard gifted preachers and I have heard crafted preachers. The former sometimes grow wilted with time. The latter always age with power. And sometimes we catch those with both grace and work. These preachers, graced by the Spirit and faithful in their craft, confirm God’s extravagance.
A few weeks ago I was honored to introduce a great preacher and friend, Andrew Forrest, to a group of leaders in the broad Wesleyan movement. It was an opportunity to pause and reflect on what a preacher can do for a layperson like myself. I’m always surprised at the times Andrew shows up in my mind, my prayers, my faith. And so I concluded: “We carry our great preachers around in the corners of our soul. They wait there to surprise us. They wait there to revive us.” That seems right.
We layfolk must not underestimate the value of our preachers. And preachers, do not underestimate the importance of your work. We need you to read our lives, to discern them with the vision of God, to heal us through the proclamation of the Word. Those of us who are understanding recognize that this takes time. Practice patience with yourself, we will be patient with you. We need you to take the slow path, to take the time for reflection, contemplation, prayer, inspiration. We need you to become deep reservoirs of wisdom. We lay people know how long that takes. We need you to say “No” to us sometimes, so that you can say “Yes” to that work. Why?
Because we need you to guide us to our knees, to the altar, to humble hands that receive and feast upon the Word made flesh. Do not underestimate your slow, faithful, sometimes-plodding work. By your labors, you might store up your own treasures in heaven, but all the while you’re filling our warehouses here on earth.