September 28, 2020

Arrested by The Word

There was a moment in last week’s House, M.D. that really reached me. (As this show often does. Its portrayal of the human soul is consistently remarkable.)

House has been forced to deliver a eulogy at the funeral of his father, whom he not only hated, but has concluded is not his biological parent. House begins to rip into his father’s faults in front of the gathered funeral congregation, acidly observing that if the test of a man is “how he treats those he has power over,” his father failed the test. His father, says House, was a tyrant over others, “incapable of admitting any point of view other than his own.”

And then, mid-sentence, House realizes that he’s describing himself. (Or it seems that’s what he realizes. You’ll have to watch the show. You’ll get no spoilers out of me.) He is a tyrant over those under him. He is incapable of admitting any point of view other than his own.

I had to identify with the moment. I’ve had it dozens and dozens of times in my life. As a parent; as a husband; as a minister and a teacher. It’s that moment when your own words come out of your mind and your mouth, then stop about a foot from your face, turn around and say “Are you listening to what you’re saying?”

The longer I work with words, the more I realize that the power of words comes in combination with other levels of reality. Moments of divine providence. The intersection of life, vulnerability and honesty. And, of course, the power of the Spirit to apply the Word of God to all of us personally.

Christians constantly make claims to the significance of what they say. We say our words are true. We assume God is using our words. We pile words upon words, page after page, sermon after sermon, as if the sheer weight and volume of our words will add up to the Word of God. But those moments when the power of God owns our words are relatively rare.

And particularly, those moments when we realize that our own Words have become the Word of God to ourselves are rare. As Christian communicators, we live in the irony of speaking words we know have truth and power, but we constantly exempt ourselves from the relevance of those words. We apply them to others, but we avoid them when the target is our own lives.

The world doesn’t fail to take note. Those outside of our bubble hear our constant verbiage, and they see our avoidance of the Word. They see our dozens of Christian television networks and hundreds of radio/television programs. They see our massive book sections and bookstores in every mall. They hear us talk and talk and talk…about them, their lives and their happiness. They hear our claim to have God’s answers. Many of them believe that if the Word does speak, and if it does have power- if we really do have God’s truth, then its claim on us should be utterly life-shaping and thoroughly life-shaking.

But we don’t seem to quite believe that ourselves. We believe we can have the Word, hear the Word, speak the Word….and remain very much unshaken and unshaped. One might occasionally suspect that we doubt the power of the words we speak, write, hear and read to really change us.

When I was a teenager, I made dozens of vows of silence. I grew tired of arguments with my dad, words that got me into trouble in relationships, and words among Christians that I knew almost never came from or made it to the heart. I knew that words were a blessing, but also a curse. They were life and death and I knew enough about life even as a teenager to believe I should speak less and mean what I say.

When, as a teenager, I became a preacher, I started to learn how to use words to accomplish my own goals and to make my way in life. I learned that the right words would make me popular, and that the proper arrangement of words, well delivered, would gain me a reputation.

I became, like Merton, a man of too many words and most of them spoken against the wisdom I held in my soul.

I learned that words were moldable, that they were cheap, and that even if my words did not apply to me, there were still valid to speak in church. I acquired the “language of Zion,” and became proficient in providing the soundtrack to Christian gatherings and worship.

But on occasion, my own words rose up, and in the power of the Spirit, apprehended me. While they may have fallen like so much noise on the ears of my congregation, they took me into the presence of God and showed me the holiness of God and my own duplicitous heart. The power was there, and I held a genuine responsibility to hear the words I spoke in my own soul first.

I love to visit the worship services of my higher-church brothers and sisters. The words in worship are more measured. Scripture dominates, if they are serious, the liturgy uses words carefully and respectfully. Unlike the atmosphere in so much evangelicalism, there is at least the remnant of memory of the power of words owned by the Holy Spirit.

But in my own tradition, there is an aspect of preaching that I greatly value. It is the application of the preached and proclaimed word. It is a tradition practiced by the Puritans and increasing rare among evangelicals. Mark Dever once said that it was the tradition of asking searching applicatory questions once the Word is laid out and explained.

And at the heart of that tradition is the understanding that the one saying “these are the words of God” will seek to experience the power of those words personally. The preacher, teacher or communicator is “in the grip” of the power of God’s word him/herself even as they bring the Word in words to others.

The authenticity of being confronted by God’s word in your own words does not have a particular look, form or style. In my tradition, tears, shouting and histrionics are common, but a person would be foolish to believe this means the word is powerfully alive in the personal experience of the communicator. Proclaiming the word can be a role played with drama, pathos and intensity, but still never rise above being a role.

What will happen when we begin to stop in the midst of our own teaching; our own messages, because we are gripped by the power and relevance of the words we are speaking?

What will happen when the world sees us taking our own words seriously? When we speak them less often, and mean them more honestly?

What will they happen when life and words are together as God intended, instead of words inhabiting a universe of falsehood and illusion?

“O Lord, I speak too many words. I am paid by the word. I throw them out by the gallon and think almost nothing of where they land or of what they say. I fear the application of the Word of God to myself, but I plead with others to apply that Word to themselves. It’s been far too long since I felt the truth and power of God’s word come to me in the midst of my own words; come so powerfully that I simply had to be quiet. Find me, Lord, when I hide in midst of my own words. Apprehend me in my foolishness, and press the truth of your Word into my own mind and life. Demolish my superficiality and make me an authentic communicator of all the truth that matters, not least because it has arrested and reshaped me.”

Comments

  1. Imonk Have you ever been hurt from the pulpit? Or from the man in the pulpit? Have you ever hurt someone from the pulpit? Or used the fact that you are PULPITMAN to drill a hurtful point home? Not accusing, just asking. We all need to take the Doctor’s oath. “First do no harm.”
    We undershepherds have a role a lot like House’s. Some come for healing, some to learn from us. It is a position of power. We who will be twice judged may be judged once for what harm we have done. Scares me, how about you? I hope you will freely give me the above prayer, else i will steal it and that just isn’t right.

  2. Just watched that episode this morning. It is another reminder that if ever I’m to preach something, it has to apply to me too.

  3. Amen.

    May this prayer be for me as well.

  4. As I read your post, I thought of something I listened to just day before yesterday. I’m not sure exactly why it struck me as applicable. It’s a recording of a Divine Liturgy which was connected to an Orthodox Missions and Evangelism meeting. There’s a lot to it and since it includes a baptism, it’s particularly long. However, what comes to mind is the sermon or homily (whichever term people prefer) given by a Romanian priest (who also spoke at the conference). His father was a member of the secret police under communism. His mother resolutely took them to church every week. His story is powerful. And then the way he speaks about the text of Holy Scripture hit me in ways that I’ve not yet fully processed. If you care to listen to the sermon (whether or not you listen to all the rest of the Divine Liturgy), perhaps there is a reason that came to my mind so strongly as I read your post. I don’t usually make or share such connections, especially when I don’t particularly understand them myself. But this time I felt I should.

    http://audio.ancientfaith.com/specials/me2008/me2008_liturgy.mp3

  5. Rob Lofland says

    Mr. Monk( I really like this appellation since I saw it a couple of days ago)didn’t even Paul beat himself up for not living his own preachings?
    That doesn’t mean we should not still apply the words and admonitions to ourselves.
    In fact, the most powerful messages I have taught have come from my own, and many, shortcomings.
    Go figure. Someone else must be involved.
    I do wonder however, how you keep a job in a Baptist seminary/school. It must be a very unusual school.
    Thank God.

  6. >I do wonder however, how you keep a job in a Baptist seminary/school. It must be a very unusual school.

    Would you like to elaborate on that comment a bit? (And could you include how long you’ve been a Southern Baptist in your response, please? Thanks)

  7. ScottM no way that was a homily, nope that was a sermon. wow, was that a sermon. Thanks for sharing. Now I’m gonna go listen again. Thanks

  8. I acquired the “language of Zion,” and became proficient in providing the soundtrack to Christian gatherings and worship.

    Oh how I relate… Jesus said if we would give a cup of cold water in his name…. How I wish I had handed out more water and kept my mouth shut more.

  9. IMonk,
    Was just in conversation with another blogger about the often heard, but seldom followed, phrase of St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.”

    I have come back to the faith after a long absence- the Hound of Heaven just won’t let me be- but I am still very wary of how the “Good News” is communicated to people today, especially in America. This notion of silence as communication, of truly serving the Other without talking them to death, is of supreme importance if we as Christians seek to follow the will of Christ

  10. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear” is an old saying. Listeners, no matter how carefully we prepare, will “get” what their hearts are ready to hear. Often, I’ve found what lesson I’ve painstakingly worked on for Sunday School is discarded – so that our discussion can then center around something students need or are ready to learn. In this way I wonder if being a pastor is like the story of the lion tamer: find out what they need – and give it to them.

  11. Mr. Grumpy Guy says

    Is it fitting that it takes 1,314 words to say what has been said in this post?

  12. Willoh,

    I suspect that many of us have been hurt from the pulpit. In my last Baptist church, I wasn’t hurt by a sermon, but tried to take it up privately with the pastor, to prevent other, more vulnerable women from being hurt. Our conversation about that, left me battered and broken. I, honestly, don’t know what I would have done, had I not been attending Mass, also. I may have very easily been one of those Christians without a church.

  13. Anna I am so sorry that one of those, who should be safe with, hurt you. The order was “Feed the sheep”, not Flog the sheep. I praise God for your healing. In my church we have a few gentle souls hurt by priests and healing up. Now that is ecumenical, we will heal each others mistakes.

  14. Rob Lofland says

    Monk,
    I am an ex-Southern Baptist and like you love much about my former home. I also miss much about what it once was so I’m a hypocrite of the worst order.
    I am also not a professional minister and never will be. Your job is too hard for me. I am a coward.
    My musing about your employment comes not necessarily about this post but the whole iMonk experience.
    Please do not take offense. None was meant.
    I would credit this site with at least being used to point me back to Him.