Pastor’s Friday Comments (01.17.20)

Linda and I have been doing a little death-cleaning. Don’t be alarmed. Nothing imminent (we hope). It’s just the idea that, as much as possible, you should get rid of stuff you no longer need now, rather than making someone else do it after you’re gone. Recycle, give away, pass on, trash — whatever it takes, clean out. Believe me, it’s a great feeling to see a clean, empty space where once there was clutter.

For me, among other things, that means tackling eight file boxes, each about three feet long, that contain everything from old seminary notes to typed sermon manuscripts to newsletters from the four churches I’ve served over the past forty-odd years. You could look at it as the written record of four decades of ministry or as the forgotten detritus of events and efforts long past and no longer needed. For the most part, I’m choosing the latter option.

However, before I toss anything, I’m going through the box, making sure I don’t dispose of anything worth keeping, and reliving the two-thirds of my life that has been spent in ministry. Last week I tackled one of the boxes that was mainly filled with files full of notes from my days at the former Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (I say “former” because what passes for a seminary on that campus today is nothing that I recognize.)

The practical criterion by which something got tossed into the recycle pile was, if I haven’t looked at it in forty years I probably don’t need it now. That meant almost everything in the box, including the box itself, got put out with the recycling. But not before I offered a silent prayer of gratitude for what those files represent — the men who were my professors (they were all men back then) who have had a lasting impact on my life.

Every sermon I preach is built on the foundation of rhetoric, biblical interpretation, and homiletical construction that I learned from great teachers of the practice of the pulpit. Strict adherence to the plain meaning of the text, integrity in the use of illustrations, gentle persuasion as opposed to bombastic manipulation – these are things that I don’t have to think about too much today because they were drilled into me during those formative years. Their influence goes so far that I don’t go into the pulpit without polishing my shoes because one of my professors insisted that people wouldn’t hear what you had to say if they kept looking down at dirty shoes.

Whether engaging in thoughtful discussion with people who are serious about their Christian faith, teaching a Sunday School class or Bible study, or engaging in dialogue with someone over a point on which we are not in total agreement, if my thoughts are logical, organized, and coherent, it’s because I learned systematic, biblical, and historical theology from some of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever met, scholars who would not accept fuzzy thinking or incoherent expression.

And I learned a deep appreciation for the process of biblical study known as the historical-critical method. I have always loved the stories of the Bible, but they came to life for me when I was led to the clues about their deeper meaning, and why they were included in the canon, and the contexts in which they were produced and in which they were passed on. Far from being the disparagers of the Bible that I had been warned that these professors were, they were Christian gentlemen with a profound reverence for the holy word, but who could also enlighten us on the humanity behind its compilation.

I could go on and on about the lessons I learned at Southern that have held me in good stead throughout my ministry, but they mean more to me than I could communicate to you. I’ll simply say that I owe whatever effectiveness I have ever had in ministry to the dedicated scholars who, with patience and brilliance, helped to form the impressionable minds of my classmates and me. Going back through those notes made those great memories come flooding back.

In today’s religious environment, when it seems that the only things required for ministry are a charismatic personality and a good business plan, I’m grateful that there are still places where Christian scholarship is practiced and taught. The future of the Church depends upon it.