Writings by Cole Huffman

Out Walking a Line

A minister from across the pond, in an old book you haven’t read, made the observation that young pastors will try to attain by one jump the height others have reached by a long series of single steps in a quarter century of labors. I’ve been laboring at preaching now a quarter century. That’s not a lot of time as time goes, but enough time to find your voice and know your reach as a preacher. It’s enough time to maybe have something to write for publication.

The risk in writing a book when you’re young in ministry is that your perspective changes as you go, not wholesale usually but enough by turns to consider that edition of yourself going out of print a mercy. Like the feeling I get pulling an old sermon out for reference: I subjected God’s people to this? A preaching career is not made in leaps and bounds, no. It is a long obedience in the same direction.

I’ve come to the point in my labors where I asked our Session (Board of Elders) for a study break. They’ve granted me the month of July. A study break is not because something is wrong. Nor is it a sabbatical. It’s not even a break. I will be at work every day, I just won’t be preaching in July. Weekly sermon prep energies will be put into writing. It’s my hope to take our most recent series in John and turn it into a book.

In an article titled “Green-Eyed Verbs,” Sarah Manguso put the objective of writing this way (her words apply to preaching too): “The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job” (emphasis mine).

The material in John’s Gospel—the way Jesus is presented embodying full grace and truth in power—is to keep people from despair. The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. As I’ve done my job preaching through the seven sign events in John, I’ve found much more than one sermon per sign can articulate. Instead of immediately moving on to the next series, I want to take these texts and sermons out for a longer walk. That’s what Joseph Epstein calls the act of writing: taking a line out for a walk.

A study break also provides sculpting space for future sermon series. I want to reflect on where our pulpit ministry has been and is going. Do you know in a quarter century of preaching I have never taught through the book of Romans? Or Hebrews, or 1 Corinthians, or Luke and Acts, or Revelation? That’s just the New Testament. And books I have taught long ago need revisiting.

To think: coming out of seminary I actually wondered if I might run out of things to teach someday. When I was a kid I asked my dad, driving us down the interstate on vacation with the car stereo tuned to soft rock, if singers would ever run out of songs. He laughed.

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Eccl. 12:12). I’m not weary of preaching and looking for a break. I’m invigorated by it. I’ve simply requested space to create something more lasting from my preaching.

Thank you for your prayers for me in this. A concern the elders have, because we’re realists, is that some may take the occasion of my study break to take a break from our worship services. I hope that isn’t you, dear reader. I know our church is larger than whoever occupies its pulpit. I’ll be here all five Sundays this July, seeking along with you edification from the word of the cross delivered by the Spirit of the Lord through the men who will preach in my stead.

And then I’ll retreat to my study, take up my keyboard like a leash, and stretch the legs of verbs and nouns and adjectives, seeing how far we can get.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 11:07 AM
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