Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Empty on one hand, noisy on the other

I've sat under some amazing preachers in my forty-five years of walking with Jesus, some so inpressive that when I kneel before the throne, along with every other pair of knees, confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, those preachers will be the reason. Among those who are credited with drawing me to that throne room are a few who came without eloquence, ones resolved to know nothing but "Jesus and Him crucified." And that was exactly what God used to impact my life--and the lives of many, many others around me. I think of the man with the Texan drawl and wide shoulders of a football player (which he'd been) who spent more hours in his week caring about kids, and thinking of ways to share Christ with us, than he did his actual, for-money job. The Texan, who was my very first real pastor, wasn't nearly as good a preacher as my baby-Christian self believed him to be. It didn't matter though. What he taught me transformed my life.

Another example was the  preacher at the church I attended in Eugene, Oregon when I was in college, who discipled so clearly from the pulpit, I filled countless notebooks with his sermon notes.  I no longer remember very much of what this man preahed, but at the time, I not only could have listened to him all day, but always felt a little sad when a guest preacher stood up on a Sunday morning. And, I was so inspired by this man, I actually decided to get re-baptized...because it meant something then. It didn't matter that I'd been sprinkled on as a child. That immersion experience, while the choir sang, "For those tears I died" (Why do I remember such things?) will forever remind me of how much I loved sitting under the authority of this preacher. Years later, when I was a married woman with three young children, I heard that RH had crashed a plane into the side of a mountain. It was as sad as if I'd just heard him the week before...and as happy. Because I knew--I really knew--what he believed about heaven. He'd taught me that.

 And these are only two of the many, some only for a single Sunday, or a weekend retreat, whom the Holy Spirit has used to leave His mark on me.

But there have also been a few such preachers who have been exactly the opposite of life-giving, Kingdom-extending. I once lived through an excruciating period with an interim pastor who somehow thought that YELLING from the pulpit was the only way to make his point. And he had a whole lot of points to make, complete with bulgin veins and red face.  The first time he did it, I felt like we were in a cartoon and all that hot air was blowing our hair straight back from our heads. And I'm here to tell you once he started yelling, I couldn't hear a word over the noise of his voice. Though he seemed to like the sound of that voice well enough.

But more than him, who wasn't very sneaky, have been the preachers with honeyed tones signifying nothing. I'm sure you've met a few of them over the course of your lives. If you haven't, you've been singularly blessed. Thank God for it. These people speak fluently, and before you know it, you've agreed to things you would have vowed you disagreed with walking in.

It seems to me that it's this kind of preaching that Paul writes about in the first words of 1 Corinthians 13. This chapter is easily the most poetic of Paul's writings, and the first three verses with their exaggerations, are hyperhole at its finest. "If I speak with the tongue of men and of angels, but have not love, I am nothing more than a noisy gong or a crashing cymbal," he tells us. Preachers with not merely beautiful words, but even with the perfect words of the mostly heavenly sort. The angelic sort. But here's the thing: we cannot separate this sentence, indeed this entire text, from the preceding chapter. The critical issue isn't that a preacher--or teacher (how this gift is listed in the previous chapter)--can teach, but that his or her teaching is imbued with the 'more excellent way.' A teacher/preacher who isn't in love with those being taught will be merely noise. Using God-given gifts without love mean we are always empty on one hand and noisy on the other. That's the point in these first three verses.

It's easy, however, to sit in a pew and point fingers at preachers, to evaluate sermons, write notes or emails or even criticize them to their faces.  To call them clashing cymbals. And that function--our willingness to point out the flaw in our pastor--is as insidious as the preacher who preaches without love.  So Paul makes it  clear that NONE of us is exempt from the possibility that we take our spiritual gifts and use them for personal gain...or at least, use them without seeking 'a more excellent way.'  Though he only writes of three spiritual gifts  (or perhaps four, if you consider prophecy and knowledge two different gifts),  it's fair to infer that we must place ourselves and our gifts in the mix as well. The construction of these sentences are easily identifiable--cause and effect--and all ultimately come down to the same thing. If you do this, or have this, or practice this, gift without love, you do, have and gain NOTHING. In fact, you ARE nothing without love. That's the point.

You're merely yelling. Blowing hot air. Giving away a whole lot of it. And that means failing.  We often think that the gifts of the Holy Spirit is the most important thing we're given. However, though these are given freely, though they're given at our salvation, the other gift was given then too. I speak, of course, of LOVE. That's what we were given the day we met Jesus, and said yes to Him. We already have Him. If this is true, then we have no excuse for not loving as we extend our gifts on His behalf. Gordon Fee says, "Possession of the gifts is not the sign of the Spirit; love is." The question is, are your gifts merely hot air, or are they saturated in the LOVE of Christ--and therefore, the love of Him for all those you come in contact with?

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