One of the gifts that God has given me is preaching. Usually I preach with energy, passion, strength, confidence, insight, and clarity. Across the life of my ministry, the feedback consistently has been that I have been a high-quality preacher. All of a sudden, I noticed that my preaching was not uplifting and inspiring to me, and if not uplifting and inspiring to me, in all probability it was not to anyone else either. At first I thought it was a couple of off Sundays, and I rationalized that we cannot always preach our best sermons, but the same feeling persisted in me for several months. I thought that I was in a preaching slump, because my experience is that preachers, like hitters in professional baseball, can go into a slump, and I thought that I would come out of it like hitters in baseball eventually come out of it.
A year later, I was still in the slump. I was not energetic in my preaching, but lethargic. I came to the awareness that I was subject to feelings and emotions that were outside of the pulpit that I brought to the pulpit with me. I was allowing what was going on outside the pulpit, my interpretation of it, and subsequently how I felt about it, to diminish my energy levels to the point of feeling helpless and hopeless in my preaching and leadership. I was a victim.
About this time, a friend gave me a book by Joan Chittister for my devotional reading. At this point, I was sinking into depression, if I was not already there, and I asked God to help me make another choice about my interpretation and feelings. I read this paragraph from a chapter entitled “The Gift of Endurance,” and the full extent of my victimhood hit me squarely in the face:
There is a kind of pseudo-endurance, a neurosis of the spirit that warps our personalities and numbs our souls. We complain but we will not quit. We sulk but we do not change. We bear up but we do not enjoy. We miss the point entirely. We confuse endurance with sloth and drag our feet through life and expect the universe to thank us for the sacrifice we do not want to make. But endurance is not misery, not martyrdom, not spiritual masochism. Endurance means that I intend to survive the worst, singing as I go, and knowing as Jacob did [Gen 32], that I have seen the face of God and survived. (p. 77)
I cried profusely after reading this. What Chittister described in this paragraph was exactly what was happening to me. I complained, but I would not quit. I sulked but would not make any substantive change. I bore the weight of ministry, but I did not enjoy it. And I did expect people to thank me for a sacrifice that I did not even want to make. I was in misery, martyrdom, and spiritual masochism. I was a victim to and subject to feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, and helplessness, so much so that I could not operate out of one of my most gifted areas. I repented to God. I apologized to God, who had given me the gift of preaching, but because of my victim interpretation about life, I was neglecting my gift. I told God that I was wrong.
From that moment on, I determined to make a different choice. First, I said that I would never again allow anyone or anything, including myself, to block the free delivery of a gift that God gave me, namely preaching God’s Word. I did not care what was happening or what was going on outside the pulpit or inside me. I was going to freely share my gift of preaching with energy, passion, strength, confidence, insight, and clarity. Second, in reading Matthew 5:38–42, I determined that I was going to be generous with my gifts in ministry and, if someone forced me to go one mile, I would go two miles. I was not a victim and, if someone took my outer cloak, I would give him/her my T-shirt as well. Nobody could take my gift, but I would make the choice to lay my life down. I would be generous with my gift in my preaching, and generosity would allow my gift to flow without hindrance. Realizing that the overwhelming majority of hindrances are internal, I determined to be unhindered in the pulpit.
Subsequently upon making the choice to be unhindered, I learned that when a God-given gift flows unhindered, and in generosity, the people who receive the gift are unusually blessed. The anointing of God flows through the gift around the room and the people experience themselves as unusually blessed by God. In response to my shift, the people experienced themselves as unusually blessed by God. And from the day I made this choice, I preach every sermon as though it were my last.
This post is an excerpt from Frank’s new book, The Choice: Living Your Passion Inside Out (Indianapolis: Hope For Life International Press, 2013), pp. 32-34.
Frank A. Thomas is the director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration at Christian Theological Seminary and the Nettie Sweeney and Hugh Th. Miller Professor of Homiletics.
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