Writings by Cole Huffman

Twenty Years A Preacher

In the memoir of his first pastorate, Open Secrets, Richard Lischer remembers his grandfather’s disenchantment with preachers started early:

“My grandfather and his little brother hated it when the circuit rider came to town, because, since their daddy was a deacon in the Methodist church, the visiting preacher always stayed at their house and they had to shine the old bugger’s boots. The circuit rider preached the same sermon every time he came, pummeled the same vices of drinking and card playing, even wiped his brow at the same climatic moment every time. One Saturday night, after the two boys had shined the preacher’s boots, they carefully arranged a half-deck of cards in his handkerchief and put it in its regular place in the breast pocket of his frock coat. The next morning in church, just as the preacher was beginning to work up a sweat against card playing, he whipped out his hankie to wipe his righteous brow, only to have a cloud of playing cards—jacks and aces, hearts and diamonds and jokers too—come fluttering to the floor like leaves on an autumn day. Their father the deacon was sitting in the front pew. As the cards fell at his feet, he arose with great dignity and walked up the center aisle, motioning to the two boys to follow. He had his belt off before he reached the back door. My grandfather said the look on the preacher’s face made the strapping worthwhile and if he had the chance, he’d do it again.”

This autumn marks my twentieth year preaching post-seminary. In two decades what have I learned about this work? (Other than watch who shines your boots.)

First and foremost, I’ve learned the redeemed need the gospel as much as the unredeemed. The point of all exegesis is to draw people to Christ. If you preach, don’t just see John 5:39 on this point, have it tattooed across your wrist. John 12:21 on your other wrist.

I’ve learned the Bible really is living and active. Recently someone told me he groaned when I announced a series through 2 Corinthians—not one of his favorite texts. Paul seems so prickly pedantic in those pages. But then he said God is speaking to him from 2 Corinthians. How many times I’ve heard “that’s just the text I needed” in twenty years of preaching! God connects His Word to His people all the time.

I’ve learned more is happening than I know through the cumulative effect of preaching. Preachers can be easily discouraged and insecure, tempted to believe what we do is of little lasting consequence. But if God’s faithfulness is experienced in His giving me a message Sunday after Sunday, doesn’t His faithfulness also extend to my listeners getting those messages?

I’ve learned to live with a creative deadline every week. “Few people grasp the preacher’s challenge.” Cornelius Plantinga writes in Reading for Preaching, “Where else in life does a person have to stand weekly before a mixed audience and speak to them engagingly on the mightiest topics known to humankind—God, life, death, sin, grace, love, hatred, hope, despair, and the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Who is even close to being adequate for this challenge?” Sunday is a high and low day both; the high of giving the sermon, the low of “losing” it. I have to start all over again the next week, but I’m thankful it’s like this in that it keeps me seeking the Lord.

I’ve learned humor is generally appreciated if it’s natural and not forced, but mocking people’s medications, jobs, schools, fashions, or Amish romance novels (well, maybe we can mock that) is homiletic malpractice. Years later it still pains me to recall a sermon on Matthew 6:25 where I released my inner Jim Gaffigan on a medication prescribed for anxiety. A staff member passing through the foyer found a young woman crying. She was on that medication. I’d driven her from the service, made her feel hopeless about her struggles.

I’ve learned the pulpit isn’t the place to take shots at people. Preach the meat of the Word, not beefs with people’s peccadilloes. A scold in the pulpit is usually beating the sheep, not helping them find pasture. Faithful preaching corrects and reproves but also clears a fast path to the Savior who loves sinners.

I’ve learned to simply say thank you when people verbalize appreciation for my preaching. It’s a little awkward when someone says they “enjoyed” a message on Hell, but shouldn’t I be as charitably spirited toward them after the sermon as I want them to be toward me during it? I’m not looking for boot shiners. Indeed, as C. S. Lewis said happened to him worshipping with people different from himself, you look over at the person seemingly oblivious to the mud on her boots “and then you realize you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”

God has used the solitary work of preaching to whittle away at my solitary conceit. It’s taken twenty years to get a start on learning how much the Lord loves the people He assembles before me each Sunday, how jealous He is for them. I have more to learn still. I’m fond of occasionally quoting Tim McGraw’s songs. To adapt a line from one of them: “Lord have mercy on my next twenty years.”

Posted by Cole Huffman at 9:53 AM
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