Writings by Cole Huffman


The Glorification of the Worm

During my candidacy at the church I pastor, I was asked by a member where I would position myself on Sunday mornings post-service. The recessional tradition of walking from the pulpit to the sanctuary’s back doors after the benediction ceased during my predecessor’s time. My questioner lamented this, believing the pastor stationed there was “comforting” to the congregation.

 

Since those walking out the back of our sanctuary are actually leaving campus before our morning together is done, I told my questioner I’d want to use the moment to discomfort: Why aren’t you staying for Sunday school!? I was only half-joking. But it wasn’t to be anyway. I now have to get to the next service in another part of our facility posthaste, so I miss the backdoor handshakes. 

 

How much real ministry value is there in this tradition? Is it a thing to be endured or engaged? Prayer requests get whispered in this receiving line, introductions made to visitors, and the close personal contact with many in the congregation is, although brief, better than none at all. It is comforting to many. 

 

But for me, not so much. I mostly endured the back-of-the-sanctuary receiving line. It seems most well-mannered people feel almost obligated to offer compliments on their way out, like a verbal tip jar. I’ve wondered what would happen if I held an offering plate in my free hand, or placed one conspicuously at my feet as I greet the congregants filing past. How about some Sunday lunch money tossed in as generous words are tossed out?

 

Howard Hendricks calls it “the glorification of the worm ceremony.” We “who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17) do a worm’s loamy work. Earthworms burrow and tunnel, loosening soil for plant roots to extend deeper, for air and water to penetrate. Isn’t a good sermon doing the same? Preaching is the Spirit’s tiller, churning up the heart-soil to receive “the implanted word” (Jas. 1:21); “digging out” the ear (in the Hebrew word-picture of Psalm 40:6) for the wisdom of God to penetrate.

 

Worms are organic instruments of growth. Preachers too, yet “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7). What happens when the earthworm emerges topsoil to bask in the sun? It bakes in the sun’s glare and heat. The back-of-the-sanctuary receiving line can be a worm-on-the-topsoil experience for the preacher.

 

I pour a lot of time into my sermon preparation each week, being influenced to it by preaching greats like D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who was emphatic in his homiletics conviction:

“A mechanical explanation of the meaning of words, etc. is not preaching. Scripture has to be fused into a message, with point and power—a sermon has to be something that is moving and which sends people away glorying in God. We have got to bring a message… The whole notion of a message needs to be recaptured. The hardest part of a minister’s work is the preparation of sermons. It is a trying process. There is agony in it, an act of creation.”

 

This is why I bristle a bit when someone (and nowhere in the building is safe from this) responds to my preaching with, “I enjoyed that!” There is too much agony in the work. Joy also, yes. In fact, in a November 2007 Time magazine poll clergy scored highest in vocational happiness: 67% of all clergy surveyed reported being “very happy” in their work placements. I can say this too, except if my placement is the back-of-the-sanctuary receiving line. It is not my happy place.

 

In his book A Stranger in the House of God, John Koessler articulates why. He remembers standing ecclesiastic sentry at the sanctuary’s back doors when he pastored. Most of the time the conversation there never varied:

“I stood at the door. The congregation passed by. We shook hands and recited the same words to each other. There was something reassuring about the empty phrases that passed between us, comfortable and dull, like the words of a familiar song.”

 

Empty phrases in the narthex. Small talk in the vestibule. Chit-chat in the lobby. What has the hour together in the sanctuary wrought that this kind of speech punctuates it? As my friend and fellow pastor Ronnie Stevens wrote in an online blog:

“A Christian leader who never comments on my sermons rushed forward to congratulate me for quoting Steve Martin in my opening remarks a few Sundays ago. (A banjo was featured in our worship that morning.) That kind of thing happens quite often. People are more likely to talk about something not related to the exposition of Scripture. A wonderfully effective women’s teacher once confided to me that nearly 100% of the women who wanted to speak with her after she taught were seeking counsel on personal and family problems. They almost never registered interest in implications and applications from the text. Of course, if we hope to help anyone with their problems we’d better be ready with implications and applications from the text. It’s always amazed me that if I mention a film or a line from a song it almost never fails to elicit comment.”

 

Is most every Sunday a recapitulation of Soren Kierkegaard’s parable of the duck church? The ducks waddled in to the duck church where the duck preacher exhorted them: “God gave you wings—fly!” They could even soar up high like eagles, the duck preacher told them. And the duck congregation was stirred by the powerful message of the duck preacher. They quacked, “Amen!”, and waddled home. And—my altered ending—shook the duck preacher’s wing on the way out and quacked, “I enjoyed that!”

 

Most pastors resist thoughtless criticism. Why do we absorb thoughtless praise? “I enjoyed that, pastor!” A curious compliment after listening to my exposition of Hosea 4. But I smile and say thank you. And then I wonder: Are they really paying attention to God? If, as Eugene Peterson says, “The pastor’s exegetical task is in service to the aliveness of [God’s] word,” doesn’t benign receptivity to comfortable, dull, familiar compliments thoughtlessly conveyed somehow betray this task? What do you mean you “enjoyed that”? I want to say, You enjoyed hearing you’re an idolater?

 

But that’s too harsh. I know. People mean well. I know.  They’re like Peter at the Transfiguration—“for he did not know what to say” (Mark 9:6)—and thus said, essentially, “I’m enjoying this!” I know. Be glad they are affirming you. I know. Get over it. I know.

 

But if I’ve got to hear something post-sermon, I’d like to hear, “You’ve made me think today”; “The Lord is using your preaching in my life”; “Thank you for your care with the text”; “Jesus has been honored this morning.” As Lloyd-Jones put it, I’d like to see people sent away “glorying in God.” But how does one draw this from them without resorting to “Four Ways to Better Compliment Sunday Services” messages? For it’s not compliments I want, but thoughtful response indicating real engagement with God.

 

We can’t ultimately control people’s response to our preaching. But we can do a few things, three to begin, that will perhaps condition greater thoughtfulness. The first has to do with how we respond to Pavlovian inanities like “I enjoyed that!” Ask (gently), “What did you enjoy?”, and show interest in an answer. You’ve just thrown off the cadence of the automaton (and the pace of the receiving line!). But if such a response is jarring it is so to hopefully liberate them from their unexamined assumption that listening to a sermon is like listening to a song or a talk show. 

 

“I enjoyed that” or “That was good, pastor” (to which you ask, “How so?”) in response to a sermon is an empty statement, and love for the person should want to expose it as such, but kindly, not trying to put someone on the spot or make intellectual sport of him. I see it as a continuation of the morning’s instruction sans the pulpit. A pastor should be always instructing about God, even this way at the back of the sanctuary. Yes, we listen for prayer requests and other matters of pastoral concern as people file past after a sermon, but let us also listen for that which indicates some of our people may not sufficiently know how to love God with their mind.

 

A second way to condition greater thoughtfulness in response to sermons is to preach thoughtful sermons. Do you truly take care with the text of Scripture, like the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, “weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care” (12:9)? Do your messages provoke thought? Is your message preparation stretching your mental muscles or are you “mailing it in” each week? Anyone can stand and rant about something or, conversely, stand and meander. Droning on in the pulpit conditions drones in the pew.

 

I pray through a slate of verses most every Sunday morning before preaching, including: “Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:16b-17). Before God I want my preaching to register: “for our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5a).  As Frederick Buechner puts it in Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale:

“[If] preachers or lecturers are to say anything that really matters to anyone including themselves, they must say it not just to the public part of us that considers interesting thoughts about the Gospel and how to preach it, but to the private, inner part too, to the part of us all where our dreams come from, both our good dreams and our bad dreams, the inner part where thoughts mean less than images, elucidation less than evocation, where our concern is less with how the Gospel is to be preached than with what the Gospel is and what it is to us. They must address themselves to the fullness of who we are and to the emptiness too, the emptiness where grace and peace belong but mostly are not, because terrible as well as wonderful things have happened to us all.”

 

A third way to condition greater thoughtfulness is to help our congregations cultivate it in themselves. At the end of every year I put in our church newsletter a list of the books I’ve read, knowing that many of our members will read them too. Reading people are usually more reflective people, and I choose books and authors that provoke reflection over a range of interests. I don’t consider myself an intellectual, but I emphasize and model the discipline of study for my church, not just because it is part of my vocational lifeblood but because it is also an act of worship along the orders of Romans 12:1-2.

 

There’s a vignette from the Franklin Roosevelt White House years, told by Mark Buchanan in his book Your God is Too Safe. Roosevelt apparently hated the perfunctory. He especially grew tired of all the prattle and chatter, the trivial, empty talk of the guests during White House receptions. It’s an exalted thing to be invited to a White House reception with the President and First Lady there. But Roosevelt had noticed over time that everyone was more or less listening to themselves and not to each other. 

 

So Roosevelt, as he met the guests in the receiving line, would flash his huge smile, extend a warm and confident handshake, look them square in the eye and say, “I murdered my grandmother this morning!” And they would perfunctorily return his smile and handshake, and say things back to him like, “You’re doing a fine job,” or, “Oh, how lovely, Mr. President!” The one exception was a foreign diplomat who immediately nodded in response, “I’m sure she had it coming to her, sir!”

 

 

That diplomat is my hero.

 

Posted by Cole Huffman at 3:41 PM
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