Tomorrow is our church staff meeting, and I have to lead a discussion on prophetic preahing. Each time we meet we close with a ten minute ditty or so on a different topic for our own edification and learning. I'm going to share about when I was in James Forbes' preaching class at Yale. At the time, we was still the pastor of Riverside Church. To say that the class was wholly transformative is still an understatement. My text for the class was James 4:4-10 and the assignment was to preach a text that would usher in the next American Great (Religious) Awakening. Forbes gave us a masterful sample sermon one class session in which he relied on Ezekiel redressing the skeletons of dry bones way down in the valley to describe what it will be like when we awaken from our religious slumber here in America. It was five years ago now, and I still remember his command of the room like it was yesterday. I still feel the pulse of his energy--fabulous!
This has me thinking about lots of things. First, I don't think that we are necessarily in need of a huge revival as they were led by George Whitefield, Charles Finney, and Jonathan Edwards back in the day. And not that that was what Forbes was advising, but there still seemed to be somewhat of an "us vs. them" mentality in the class. Us Christians, us social do-good-ers, us seminarians vs. you ???? losers who need religious help ???. Anyway, I approached my sermon text with this framework and automatically set myself for some intense criticism without even realizing. "Friendship with the world is enmity with God." --that's part of the James pericope. ha. Well, I took it and ran with it...ran it right into the gound rather than into the hearts of all my listeners.
Granted some of my classmates were a bit snobby--we were at Yale after all, and a few of them were just so dang liberal they didn't even know what hit them (or the books of the NT in order for that matter-the horror!), while the others just obligingly sat there as I embaressed myself for a full 15 minutes thinking I was going to be the best damn prophet they'd ever witnessed (aside from our professor of course!).
One guy on the class response sheet handed it in blank except for a brief fragment at the bottom reading, "I don't believe in anything you said." WOW! How's that for sharing the love of Christ through some peer-to-peer constructive criticism?! I can honestly laugh at it in my reflections now, but at the time, I was pissed beyond words. Not hurt or intimidated, just stark raving mad. Who did he think he was---plus he sucked at his delivary. But lest I needlessly get lost on that tangent, I'll get back to my point-I do have one here. The class had been shocked that I would make such bold claims as I did in that sermon. And to be honest, when I reread it now I am a bit surprised by my doctrinal confidence as well; I'm no where near that person today. Yet, on the other hand I still find the sermon inspiring on a certain level.
Yet, leave it to the master. After I finished preaching, Dr. Forbes had me reread the scripture passage for the class. Instead of approaching it with a vengeful or dramatic disdain, he had me read it with remorse and longing. You could have heard a pin drop when I finished reading it the second time. Ahh....it was more safe for them to listen at that point. I started to get it. On the other hand, as I near the end of my time in evangelical Fuller world, often a place where people are not bashful about dropping a judgment bomb or critique from God, I find myself more in the middle. I don't want to sugar coat harsh teachings from the Gospel to spare feelings, but I also don't want to alienate people needlessly. It's a very, very fine line.