Musings on Messages, Part One

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The title is really wrong. It should say “Musings on the Messenger,” but I want to keep my options open for further reflections on sermons, the sermonizing process, and the nature of proclamation. However, I must begin whatever musings I am compelled to offer with the messenger himself (or herself, as the case might be). It all begins there, within the inner world of the one offering the proclamation. Messages that mean anything are really the product of an individual who is about being and not merely doing. Such a construct involves the world within the man or woman, that inner-space where character is forged on the anvil of raw reality, typically with the hammer of sanctification. It is true, though I too often hate this truth.

I am weary of the pressure which is the doing of ministry. It seems that seminaries and churches and conferences and journals focus so much attention on the outcome, the end result, the supposedly measurable metrics of function. In a phrase: the image of ministry. Don’t misunderstand me. Numbers are an important measurement, and the structure of sermons and the tools for application, et cetera, are critical to achieving a desired goal. Doing is not wrong or unimportant. Indeed, it is necessary. But being something is so much more important. After all, being shapes doing. If life is the other way around then we become pharisaical, generally devoid of substance and authenticity, driven by appearances and position. Posturing for power and control so that we are ahead of the next guy or church or nation drives us. To live by the principle of doing ministry is to pitch the baseball or swing the bat or run to catch the fly ball in left field without any real consideration for the aura of the game, the smell of the leather glove, the legacy of Babe Ruth, the broken heart of the minor league professional who simply cannot make it to the big leagues. Anyone can throw a ball to some degree or another. But without a pathos shaped by a dream, bruised by losses and injuries and strikeouts, crafted by a heart that beats to the rhythm of the songs during the seventh-inning stretch and the crack of a bat smartly hitting a ball toward the stands, then one is merely a caricature of a baseball player; a pretender. Or, to radically change the analogy toward something any of us who have lived in Texas would appreciate, one is “all hat and no cattle.”

Too many preachers rise to the pulpit or platform or lecturn as ones who are all hat and no cattle. Their sermon structures are precise, their messages memorized to perfection, their cuff-links are well polished, and their facial expressions well-rehearsed. Being messy is not allowed; it would violate the talking points given by the professors years before in seminary. Authenticity needs to be doled out only so that conviction is applied to the audience without any negative repercussions for the messenger. He or she needs to be raw enough, but not so much that the audience might then lose confidence in him or her. Everything is (at least mentally) scripted, sometimes to a point where there is no margin for error. One can almost hear the profs applauding in the background as the messenger knocks the sermon into the upper deck, the messenger returning to his or her office with a sardonic smile, betraying satisfaction that doing ministry brings.

Just the thought of such a world makes me feel spent. And yet, if I am honest, I am weary of the other world too, where God’s crafting of my soul precedes the crafting of a sermon. The fact is I am generally terrified everytime I walk onto the platform. Too often I feel like a little boy caught in the act of trying to make the bed, wrinkles fanning out like mountain ridges across a tattered bedspread, the sheets spilling onto the floor and the pillow not properly molded, mother looking onward with disapproval. I find that my heart has been pulled in every possible direction in the days prior to the proclamation, as if the real sermonizing is about . . . well . . . me! Exegesis and historical research and contemporary evaulation make up every sermon I craft. Theological reflection and consideration of application consumes a significant amount of my time. But the thing that gets messed with the most, week to week, month to month, year to year, is my heart. Like some ragged rock beaten constantly by the surf along some stretch of coast, so my heart is pounded without relief by waves of conviction, fears, insecurity, failure, successes, more fears, and study of the Text that never seems to end. On one hand I love this, am grateful for this, it is who I am and who I will always be. On the other hand it sucks (that is a fancy theological term for “it is really difficult and gets old”). My problem is that I do not for the life of me know how else sermonizing should be. I keep trying to break down the work into neat categories, break down the text into polished statements, break down the ministry into measurable anecdotes, but Master Jesus keeps breaking down me. Evidently he longs for me to be something instead of do something. Frankly, it appears that from his vantage point the messenger who he prefers to use is, in fact, the message.

 

Comments

  1. Adam says:

    I have had to stop and say ENOUGH.
    Last night I was in a room with about 20 christian men watching the Vikings game. (Useless I know)
    Then a man on the Viking coaching staff was on the camera. It was obvious that he had a skin disease. Then men began to make fun of him. I finally stood up and said something. It wasn’t rehearsed or even well said. I just said he is the way God made him. One guy exploded on me and now they all make fun of me.
    The point I am trying to type is this. If I was John Piper, Mark Driscoll, John Calvin, whoever, I would of been well received. But I am not. That only tells me one thing. I will let you decide what it means to you.
    Legalism is a deadly virus, and it comes in many forms.
    The other day I had a few images in my head. One was I was coming to the gates of heaven and God was waiting. When I got to Him I ran passed Him to get to heaven. The other image was the same except I ran to God. This tells me a couple things. I either am doing it for heaven, or God. Works or faith. Man or God. Self or Jesus.
    I pray that I never rely on my self or any man. God alone.

  2. Carol Baker says:

    Matthew please don’t sell yourself short. You have played such a tremendous role in our lives both as a friend and teacher. You have brought us from floundering “wanabe” Christians to Christians with unquencable thirst for more and more knowledge about the Word. Through your teaching we have learned how to find answers to many everyday problems by remembering your biblical enterpretations of passages we read. Your tank has run dry because of your total giving nature. There will always be those who dry up our sense of well being only to move on to the next person compelled to do the devils work. There will always be those with criticism but very unwilling to provide useful suggestions or help. Again the devils work! When our lives run smooth without complications, we must be doing things to the devils enjoyment. You have stated many times how you can’t wait to be with the Lord, to sit at his feet and absorb His Love. When that day comes, you will probably have to work your way through the multitudes of lives you’ve touched in ways you never knew and yes probably even those difficult ones you’re dealing with now. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. You don’t have the responsiblity for the whole world and you are never in it alone. He never leaves your side. And when you see only one set of prints in the sand, well, you remember the rest. We continue to pray for you and your girls Matthew. You have such a strong heart for our Lord and He for you. From Your Sister and Brother in Christ, Carol and John

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