I preached at church this morning. Preaching a sermon is one thing I will pretty much always do if asked. That paralyzing fear of public speaking that most people experience has passed me by completely. (This is not to brag of my fearlessness. Ask me to make a simple phone call and I dissolve into a quivering heap of phobia. We all have our issues; public speaking just isn’t one of mine).
My first preaching experience came at a special youth service when I was 13 or 14. Myself and a boy named Bob were asked to preach half a sermon — 10 minutes each. The theme was love and if I recall correctly, I spoke about loving God and Bob spoke about loving others. I put together a very nice sermon and — ok, I will honestly confess this because it’s been nearly 30 years and Bob’s probably not reading my blog — I think I did the better job of the two of us. At the back door on the way out, we shook hands with everyone. All the church members heaped praise and adulation upon us two callow youth who had given it our best shot. To my surprise, several people shook my hand and said, “Good job, Trudy!” and then went on to shake Bob’s hand and say, “You should be a pastor, Bob!”
What a strange reaction, I thought. Was it because his sermon was so much better than mine? I was pretty sure it wasn’t that. More likely, it was because he had some vital body parts that I lacked. And thus was I introduced to gender discrimination in the Adventist church.
I was a little contemptuous of that attitude, but not as bitter as you might expect, since I had absolutely no desire to become a pastor. In fact, although I dearly wish our church would ordain women to the ministry, I’m kind of glad that people didn’t say “You should be a pastor!” to me when I was 14 years old. If they had, I might have been misled into believing that just because I liked preaching and was good at it, I would have been good at pastoral ministry.
I’m glad I didn’t get led down that side-road, because I would have been a truly awful clergyperson — not because I’m a woman, but because preaching is almost the only pastoral thing I could do well. I loathe committee meetings, I hate dealing with petty squabbles among church members, I don’t like listening to people’s complaints, and I hate hospitals and am terrified of visiting the sick. When you think about it, the job requires a really vast and diverse skill-set, and there can’t be that many people who are good at all those things — which, I guess, is why all of us church-goers have experienced pastors who are brilliant preachers but seem to have no interpersonal skills, and pastors who are always there to comfort the sick and dying but whose sermons are lengthy snoozefests … and a number of other points on the same continuum. I don’t know how many people there are who could really do all those things well, but I know I could never be one of them, nor would I ever desire to be.
Interestingly, out of all these tasks, the only one that’s ever going to earn a person any glory, fame or accolades — is preaching. Could that be why I like it? I’m not gonna lie to you … there’s definitely a rush involved when you stand at the back of the church, shake people’s hands and hear how much they liked your sermon. And even though you say that all you want is for God to use you as an instrument to bless someone — well, I’m just not that humble. Even if someone clasps my hand and says, “That was exactly what the Lord wanted me to hear this morning,” there’s a tiny part of me going, “Woo-hoo, yes Lord! You used ME to deliver the message. Good choice!!!”
I’m pretty sure no clergyperson ever gets those kind of accolades from running a good board meeting or sitting by the bedside of a dying person. If you’re going for the glamour, preaching is it.
Despite not pursuing a pastoral career, I have had plenty of opportunities to exercise the urge to preach. The Seventh-day Adventist church very kindly (though perhaps unwisely) doesn’t place any restrictions on laypeople’s ability to preach, and most SDA churches are happy to have someone who’s willing to fill in for the pastor from time to time. I have preached dozens of sermons over the years, most in my home church in St. John’s, but many in other places as well (apparently I’ll soon be preaching in a place called Toowoomba, Australia, which will definitely set my long-distance record!) Strangely, though, the sermons that stand out in my mind over the years are those where I’ve laboured under some kind of handicap or disability while preaching.
There was the Sabbath in Peterborough, Ontario, when I took some Kingsway students there to have the Sabbath service. I had planned to preach on the text: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” On the morning we went to Peterborough I woke up with a raging sore throat, barely able to talk. It was literally painful to say a word, and I somehow managed to stand up there and talk about how God’s power is revealed through our weakness. Appropriate or what?
Then there was the women’s ministries Sabbath a few years back when I’d agreed to preach on … you know, I can’t even remember what the subject was. My friend Donalda was organizing the service. That morning I woke up sick to my stomach — with a really violent stomach flu. I threw up a couple of times and went to church. As we were about to go on the platform, I showed Donalda my sermon pages (I always preach from a completely written-out script, even though I teach English students that it’s far better and more natural to speak from point-form notes). “If I have to run off the stage and throw up, finish the sermon!” I told her. She gamely agreed, but her services weren’t required. Somehow I made it through without hurling.
Then there was the occasion I already blogged about last year when I had to preach and play the piano at the same time. That was memorable, if only because I looked so completely ridiculous dashing back and forth from the pulpit to the piano.
Sometimes I think God deliberately gives me experiences like this so that I won’t just associate preaching with a huge ego-trip. Frankly, I am so prone to self-congratulation that I need constant reminders to keep me humble. Reminders that anything I do — including preaching — is done in God’s strength, not my own.
This morning probably won’t go down along with those epic memories, but I do have a bit of a cold and I had to drag myself out of bed to go do it. I refused to shake hands with people at the door for fear of passing on germs, but I still got a lot of those positive comments as I lightly touched their shoulders and said, “God bless you! Happy Sabbath.”
One elderly man said as he went out, “I always said you should be a preacher!” This man is probably old enough to have been in the congregation when Bob and I did our Youth Sabbath routine almost 30 years ago, and I don’t think he said that to me at the time … I would have remembered that. Who knows how my future career plans might have been twisted and damaged had he said it at the time? This morning, I just laughed and prayed for a little more of that humility stuff. God and I are still working on that.