After only one month of preaching, my senior elder took me aside and said, “Charles, we think we are going to like you a lot, but your sermons are going right over our heads. You should remember that the Lord said, ‘Feed my sheep’ not my giraffe.” I almost responded that I knew about sheep, but I had received no instructions about grubs. However, even though it nearly choked me, I swallowed this criticism and, with great pastoral tact, thanked my elder for his interest and concern. Then I went home, and would have kicked the cat if we had had a cat.
I was new to the sermonizing profession and I was doing the very best I could to honor God and to serve my people. I worked carefully with the ancient biblical text and its modern application to our lives. I tried to employ whatever I knew of literature and philosophy for the benefit of the congregation. And, I admit, I expected some parishioners to appreciate my hard work.
I had long believed the Phillips Brooks’ 1877 definition of preaching as truth through personality was quite wrong. I thought the cult of personality was just the problem. Growing up, I had objected to smiley preachers offering the company of the faithful a cheery “Good morning” instead of an awestruck invocation of the Almighty God. Too often the message I heard was not “Fear the Lord and serve him faithfully” (Joshua 24:14) but “Relax, folks, I’ve got this gospel thing under control. Therefore, in this fold, the eyes of sheep may safely glaze.”
Of course, my judgment of the sermons I heard might well be a compensatory projection for my own lack of personality. However, even our certain confidence in justification does not eliminate our abject humility in sanctification. While the theological tension between the forgiven life and the amended life does not affect salvation, it sure as hell affects self-satisfaction.
Obviously, I still have a lot to learn about preaching, but after five decades I have come to the following conclusions.
First, a faithful Presbyterian minister will believe the miracle that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God (Second Helvetic Confession, Book of Confessions 5.004).
Second, a Presbyterian minister will believe that theological truth is not to be defined as an abstract noun but as the personal name of Our Lord, who declared, “I am the Truth” (John 14:6).
Third, a Presbyterian minister will use the personality that has been justified and is being sanctified for the upbuilding of God’s kingdom with gratitude and humility (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
Fourth, and at the risk of appearing sheepish, I would like to stick my neck out and say a good word for the giraffe among us. The giraffe, like the Presbyterian, is one of God’s most distinctive creatures. The camelopard has only seven vertebrae in the neck (as we do), but at 18 feet tall, they are the tallest of the mammals, and while they do not have a gall bladder, they do have keen sight, smell and hearing. Both the giraffe and the Calvinist often appear ungainly but each can move swiftly when it’s needful. I know this because on a trip in East Africa I was privileged to see a group of them running at 30 miles per hour across open country. I refer to giraffes, not Calvinists.
Like every preacher, I tremble before John Milton’s heavy, savage, latinate denunciation of our profession:
Blind mouths! That scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn’d aught else the least
That to the faithful Herdman’s art be longs!…
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But, swoln with wind and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread . . . .
(Lycidas 119-121, 125-127)
Of course, not all sheep are mutton-headed. According to John Calvin, “no one will ever be a good minister of the word of God who is not a first-rate scholar” (Calvini Opera 26, 406). There are some giraffe among the sheep and the “faithful herdman’s art” extends to reaching up for them rather than trying to pull the wool over their eyes.