Writings by Cole Huffman

Speaking for a Living

In his book The Grand Weaver, Ravi Zacharias relates a traumatic hospital experience to his maturation in ministry. Zacharias had major back surgery and needed to be carefully turned onto his side in his bed. The call button he pushed summoned a nurse unfamiliar to him, who insisted that she could turn him singlehandedly instead of getting assistance. Before he knew it, the nurse placed her hands directly under Zacharias’ back—right on the surgical site—and pressed to lift him. Zacharias almost blacked out from the pain.
“What’s all that padding you have on your back?” the nurse said as she roughly withdrew her hands. “The surgical site!” Zacharias snapped, tears streaming from his eyes. “I thought you had a hip replacement,” the nurse said. “I didn’t know you had back surgery!” When Zacharias’ doctor learned of it later he was outraged.
A similar thing happened to my dad after his first knee replacement. The day came for the staples suturing the incision to be removed. But the nurse assigned to the task might as well have employed a chimpanzee to do it. She ripped each staple off his leg as Dad wailed. It was such a harsh experience for my dad that after his other knee was replaced he took the staples out himself—cutting each staple in the middle to pull out the points without ripping his skin. His doctor didn’t blame him after what Dad went through before.  
My own unfortunate-experience-with-a-nurse story involves vasectomy. We won’t go there.
But here’s where Zacharias goes in his book:
“The nursing staff was supposed to assist the healing process and aid in the recovery, yet this nurse didn’t even know the nature of my injury. How could she be of any help in the healing process? I couldn’t help but think of my younger years in ministry when I carelessly uttered words of castigation against certain persons, things, and behavior, acting like that nurse as I plunged verbal blades into already sore spots. It’s so easy to lash out and cut and condemn with prophetic zeal. Pulling someone down is easy; building someone up is difficult. It takes a mature and patient heart to heal with a tender touch without compromising one’s convictions.” (p. 139)
That’s the kind of heart I endeavor to display in preaching. I too can remember, painfully, times when I used words to pulverize persons, places, or things that didn’t gibe with my reading of the Scriptures. Or times when I was just insensitive, like the Sunday years ago when I stood behind a lectern and took pot shots at a certain anxiety medication. I had the congregation howling as I mustered my best rhetorical flourish to wonder aloud why anyone would subject themselves to side effects that seemed to create more anxiety than salve it. Now you’re worrying about diarrhea! Why not just try not worrying as Jesus prescribed in Matthew 6—duh!?
It was a small congregation, 120 folks or so. I noticed one of our ladies excused herself. Later I learned she went to the foyer to cry. You guessed it—she was on the medication I was pillorying for cheap laughs before I made my “more serious” spiritual point. She told the woman who found her there that she didn’t want to take the anxiety meds, but after all she’d been through…. (She had witnessed her ex-husband murder her father.)
I felt lower than low. I made her feel that in swallowing a little white pill every morning at breakfast she was disappointing Jesus. She was gracious to receive my apology that afternoon. But I learned something valuable that day, albeit at her expense. I learned that a preacher is not primarily a comic but a minister. It’s fine to make people laugh—laughter can be good medicine (Prov. 17:22)—but I crushed her spirit with my mocking missives. I’m putting this purposefully paradoxical, but my own depression diagnosis in 2007 cured me of insensitivity to people’s pains.
Currently at First Evan I’m preaching a series on the church. Yesterday’s message was on Matthew 16:13-20 and I took time to note the different conclusions Roman Catholics and Protestants have reached on Peter’s role among the apostles. After one of the services an elder expressed appreciation that I took evident care to present the Catholic position fairly and without rancor. He told me that his Catholic niece had once attended an evangelical church service in which the preacher savaged Catholicism, mostly by erecting and destroying straw men. My elder’s niece was so upset she made an appointment with the pastor to find out why he was so keen on misrepresenting what her church taught. He told me, “I’m going to send her your message as an example of how it should be done.”
I’m grateful to God for his words because they’re progress markers. I have intentionally worked to temper my pulpit tone through the years, even as my convictions have deepened. In fact, the more my convictions have deepened the less need I feel to prove them. And so I’ve made it my homiletic practice to be fair to opposing views as I present mine. I also check the desire to scold the culture for being ungodly. Sin is sin and I’m obligated to point it out. Some immorality and/or doctrinal erosions are worth denouncing and correcting with prophetic zeal. But rubbing people’s faces in it is tantamount to enjoying the fact of human depravity.
In this vein I remember back to another years-old Sunday. A cousin of mine, not an evangelical, was in town and attended our church to support the family. At the time, the movie Dogma was out. I railed against it during my message, galled that Alanis Morissette could be cast as God. God didn’t take such offenses against Himself lightly, I thundered.
Afterwards, my cousin asked me if I’d actually seen the movie. Picture me standing there with my cousin, who had seen the movie and liked it, while he corrected the details in its plot that I miscommunicated in my rant for righteousness. I could tell he thought I lacked credibility; that he would have more readily allowed my displeasure with the film if at least I’d seen it. And he was right. Rather than piquing his interests in the gospel, I repelled him. Our congregation had nodded in approval as I derided the makers of Dogma. But what my cousin heard was a preacher being dishonest to art in order to defend God’s honor (which God doesn’t need me to do).
Everyone verbally stumbles, James says (Jas. 3:1-2)—right after saying not many should become teachers! Even yesterday, late in the afternoon while taking the garbage cans to the curb, I suddenly remembered something I said in our third service and was immediately conscience-stricken, wondering if a certain couple I know were possibly affronted. It was an offhand comment made toward the end of the message. But it touched on a life situation for that couple, and they could have easily misconstrued my words. Hopefully they gave me the benefit of the doubt.
In moments like that I reproach myself and wish I could go off on a silent retreat for a month. Such are the occupational hazards in speaking for a living. But more hazardous perhaps is living to speak, because then you must have your say and be heard. Like Zacharias’ inept nurse, such preachers are sure they can move people themselves even though they don’t know what they’re doing, and so they can press on people’s pains as well as create new ones, supposedly in the interests of truth. This doesn’t make preaching more divine. It makes it less human.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 9:20 PM
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