By: Pat Bills
Love is a strong word. It’s a word that can be raw with emotion or empty of meaning. And it’s also a word that gets thrown around a lot. I use the word to describe how I feel about my wife’s homemade pie. I also use the word to tell my children how much they mean to me. So when I tell people that I love preaching, most wait for the punchline to this absurd (and obvious) joke. . Seriously? How many preachers have you talked to that honestly “love” their job? I’m not sure about you but when I have conversations with other preachers “love” is not the operative word. The words that usually surface carry WAY more baggage and deep hurt. When talking shop preachers typically use words like “tired,” “burned,” “frustrated,” and… well I can’t even repeat some of the words! So, what I’d like to offer to this conversation may be completely and totally naive. Even more, it’s worth noting that I don’t hold a grudge against my faith tradition or current context. In fact, I don’t even wake up each Monday wanting to quit my job. Are there difficult aspects of my job? Of course! Do
I get frustrated with unfair expectations placed upon me and my family? Sure. But I want to confess that I honestly and totally love my work as preacher. It is the most tiring, exhilarating, and wonderfully exhausting work I have ever done. (By the way- you should also know that I am married to a preacher’s daughter and she loves that I love to preach.) So am I just a young whipper-snapper who hasn’t experienced the real world of church work yet? Maybe. But what if I don’t have to hate preaching? I think love is the word I’d like to use. Let me give you a few reasons why.
First, I love preaching because I deeply love people. When I entered ministry some 18 years ago at a tiny little church in Bradford AR, I wasn’t on a journey to climb some corporate ladder from youth ministry to the “big show.” I entered into ministry because I loved people; students just happened to be the ones I picked to love intentionally at the beginning. And now that my calling has expanded to a church context including five generations, there are all kinds of people to love! And one thing I love most about people is they are absolutely and wonderfully weird. But I have come to appreciate weird. I love getting a bear hug from my friend Kerry who once took his Harley-Davidson embossed prosthetic leg and let me “hold it.” I love walking through our worship center and being embraced by Mrs. Gail who cannot wait to tell me what God has told her in a dream. I love how one of our children in a 4 year old class was asked to lead his favorite “church song”- and he chose Gangnam Style. I love to watch the twinkle in the eyes of Ms. Wanda when she asks me if I want to wear her scarf covering her bald chemo-ridden head. Weird huh? But as John Ortberg has so rightly said, “Everyone is normal until you get to know them.” And I consider getting to know my church as one of the greatest privileges I have ever received. Because I believe God created weird and it erupts within community – my community – and we get to be weird together. I once heard a preacher joke, “I’d love my job if not for the people.” I didn’t laugh at his joke. For me, people are not a joke- they are at the heart of my job; and I love them deeply.
Second, I love preaching because it allows a space where humility is not a choice; it is a requirement. What I mean is the preaching event, the space where I announce the good news on a weekly basis, is the place where I discover there is something WAY bigger going on than what I could ever plan or orchestrate. I realized this my very first Sunday to preach (full time). Before I spoke that morning I was given a very generous introduction (actually it was over the top ) and my mother and father were there to hear the wonderful promotion of the “new preacher.” I knew the pressure was on to perform but I felt my father’s hand on the back of my shoulder because he had something he wanted to say before I stepped into the pulpit to speak. I was glad he had something to say because I was about to wet my pants- I needed some serious affirmation and encouragement. But this is what he said: “I’ve been praying all morning that you recognize that this is not about you.” Boom. Not exactly what I wanted to hear but it was the very thing I needed to hear. And that word of encouragement sits with me every Sunday, every funeral, every wedding, every Easter, and at every hospital visit. And I love that space because it doesn’t have to be about me. It is the space that God does his best work in spite of my inadequacy, brokenness, and sin. I love to think that God is using me the same way he used Rahab, Moses, Jeremiah, Mary, and Saul (who became Paul). Because God does some pretty incredible stuff through people who are willing to admit and recognize “It’s not about me.” As the great Thomas Merton said, “Our lives should be about a simple and natural awareness of our dependence on God.” And that is why I love to space preaching affords- it gives me the opportunity to be dependent on something greater that is within me.
Finally, I love preaching because it allows me to tell a story that is true and filled with hope. Several years ago I was attending a conference and was able to pick a seat for a dinner conversation. I surveyed the room and found the wisest preacher I could. I was looking for some advice as I began my preaching career. The brother I sat next to had been preaching for well over 30 years and had been in one church for over 25. I think he had a knack for this preaching gig. So I asked, “If could go back and tell yourself something when you first started preaching what would you say?” He didn’t hesitate. I don’t even think he had to think much at all. He looked at me and his eyes began to moisten. And he said with deep wisdom: “It’s all true. The story of resurrection is true. And when I stand before my church each Sunday I get to tell them that the story is still true.” I was so shocked by the simplicity and profound wisdom of this statement I was undone. I couldn’t get my emotions together because I felt like the apostle Paul himself had spoken to me over a chicken dinner. But that conversation has forever changed me. The story is true and worth telling. And I get to be the one to tell that story in the most creative God-honoring way that I can. I love standing before a couple on their wedding day and lead them in repeating their vows- because the story is true. I love weeping with a man who has finally committed his wife of 71 years to Alzheimer’s care- because the story is true. I love the honor of standing before a broken family who has lost their father and “Papa”- because the story is true. And I love the challenge of walking with a man who struggles with his life-long attraction to other men- because the story is true. Thank God for Easter. And I thank God that I get to proclaim a story that is most certainly true.
As one of mentors likes to say, “As preachers we are to invite our listeners into a world imagined in scripture.” And the world for my church, as I imagine it, deserves every ounce of love that I can muster. May those who have ears to hear, hear the love from their preacher.