One day, I had a conversation with a friend who was seeking to discern whether the Lord was calling him to pastoral or pulpit ministry. As he discussed it with me, he noted that he had mentioned this matter to me several times before without comment from me. He was right. I hadn’t responded. And I sensed that he was waiting on a response this time.
So I prayed an emergency prayer to God about what to say. And what came to my mind is what my father said to me some twenty years ago about whether I should continue in the ministry: “If you can keep from preaching, do it.”
I was about fifteen years old. And my father had given me the opportunity to preach his 11 AM service. I remember two things about that sermon.
It was the hardest I had ever worked on a sermon.
It was also the first time I received direct criticism about my preaching. First from my dad. As he made his pastoral remarks, he reminded the congregation of our afternoon fellowship with a sister church. He informed them (and me) that I would be preaching the afternoon service. He then promised that I would not preach that long in the afternoon service. This was his only comment about my sermon. Ouch. Right after service, one of my dad’s associates was first to greet me. He told me how “long-winded” I had become (a polite term used for those who speak too long, I guess). Double-ouch. Then, as I sat in my dad’s study after service, my sister ran in to kiss my cheek. She said she would see me in the next service, and apologized for rushing out, but she was in a hurry because I had preached so long. Triple-ouch. And strike three.
In comparison to the criticisms I have received about my preaching in later years, this was nothing. Absolutely nothing. But these remarks knocked me off my feet that day. And though I was able to preach that afternoon service, I was swallowed up in a black hole of discouragement the next several days. I couldn’t eat or sleep. And I would stay up at night, reading, praying, and crying.
One of those nights, my father came into the front room and heard me crying. He demanded to know what was wrong. I told him about what happened and how I felt about it. And I concluded that I didn’t know if I wanted to preach any more.
When I finished my rant, my father said he understood and that he would not sit up with me all night. “The only advice I’ll give you is this,” he said as he got up to head back to bed. “If you can keep from preaching, do it.”
He continued, “If preaching is something that you can get into and out of when you want to, it’s a sign that the Lord did not really call you. So if you can choose whether you are going to preach or not, I recommend that you don’t preach.”
That was all he said. He then turned and disappeared into the darkness of the hallway as he went back to his room.
I was angry at how seemingly unconcerned my father was. I was also surprised at how his advice (or non-advice) was exactly what I needed to hear. By the Lord’s gracious help, I was able to pull myself together. And I continued to preach. And I am still preaching more than twenty years later, to the glory of God.
By the look on my friend’s face, I am not sure he found my father’s advice to be very helpful. But it definitely helped me. Again.
As I wrestle with frustrations over my need to grow as a preacher, and as I face the various, inevitable challenges of my pastoral assignment, I need to be reminded that my calling is not my choice.
I keep preaching because I do not have a choice. And I pray that I will never have a choice in the matter. May the Lord gracious choose to continue to use me to herald the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.
“For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” – 1 Corinthians 9:16 (ESV)