January 31, 2006

That Polka-dotted Tie

?We live or die, as God?s new people, by our ability to listen to these texts without killing the preacher for speaking them.?
--William Willimon

1503 page5 caphe number of persons from whom most of us will accept straight, unvarnished counsel was never large, and is professionally limited: the doctor; the guy who fixes our brakes; the calm voice at the other end of the Poison Control Hotline; our tax preparer.

The few individuals to whom we will listen with some high probability of believing what they say and doing as they recommend are almost all of them unsurprisingly connected with our desire for safety. We don?t argue with the physician who notices the golf-ball-sized mass on the X-ray and recommends further tests. We don?t quibble with the advice that urges, ?Drink milk: Do not induce vomiting.?

For our safety?s sake--so that we may live longer, stop at red lights, or emerge unharmed from an IRS audit--we will allow virtual strangers with whom we have no warm and fuzzy relationships to speak candidly, even bluntly, about our circumstances. By an act of will, or at least toleration, we give these persons greater access to the hidden chambers of our lives from which spring our thoughts, our feelings, and ultimately, our behaviors.

Did it strike you too, as it did me, that when you made your own mental list, ?preacher? wasn?t necessarily there?

1503 page5?Well,? you say, ?it all depends. What if his theology is new, her manner too authoritative, his tie chronically mismatched with his suit? What if he isn?t warm and ?pastoral,? or quick to smooth the ruffled feathers of the flock? What if she isn?t committed to the ?right? kind of worship music?

?Surely all of these things have an impact on the preacher?s ability to be heard. Sometimes, Bill, his life shouts even louder than he does. He hasn?t earned my trust yet.?

And more?s the pity, friends, for in that long and dangerous process by which we regularly evaluate the success of the preacher in meeting our standards, much may go by that God intended for the safety of our souls. Like it or not, we still receive God?s treasure in earthen vessels--often flawed, sometimes narrow, occasionally brittle--and we will miss the life-giving water if we wait until we are entirely satisfied with the container.

There can be no excuse for preacherly arrogance, for poor planning, for the failure to practice common courtesies and civility. This is not a defense of pastoral behaviors that must be confessed, repented of, and by God?s grace, overcome. But neither is it a defense of our usual tendency to dismiss the message when we dislike the messenger, to ignore the teaching of one who seems unschooled in things we think important.

In the end of it all, it probably shouldn?t matter much to me whether the person who warns me that my house is on fire speaks in gentle tones or loud, whether he or she ?meets my needs? with inoffensive suggestions or drags me bodily from the inferno. If I will only listen to the counsel of the one with whom I identify, who works untiringly to make his or her preaching relevant to my needs, I will, in the end, perish in the fire.

The solemnity of this observation should cause us to listen with a new attentiveness whenever God?s Word is proclaimed. This moment--here in this not-too-well-padded pew, beneath these garish 1970s light fixtures--this moment may have eternity compressed within it because God?s Word is being preached just now. If I allow myself to be distracted by the minor and mundane, by the preacher?s mannerisms or polka-dotted tie, I may miss the urgent call of the Spirit and lose what I cannot afford to lose.

I pray for an open mind, an honest heart, whenever I sit in a pew these days, even as I pray for the grace to overlook the gracelessness of some who handle the Word.

Of this I am increasingly certain: God will still find me in and through His Word, even if the preacher loses me.

Bill Knott is an associate editor of the
Adventist Review and Adventist World, and recently defended his doctoral dissertation in American religious history at George Washington University.