My dearest and most beloved students in our Lord Jesus Christ:
I am praying for you now as I am thinking about our time together in our coming class. You now have your passages that you will be working on throughout the remainder of the semester. I am dreaming a little this morning; dreaming beyond the class to the days when each of you will stand before generations yet unborn to speak forward the life and love of God in Christ according to His Holy Scriptures. I’m dreaming about all of the glorious work that is before you, but especially the work of proclaiming the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ to broken people. I am unashamed to say that my heart leaps within me as I think of you and the ministry God has called you to.
A number of years ago I recorded a song on one of our albums, Follow the Call (Music for Missions, December, 2015) entitled, “Only the Word.” I composed the folk song after conducting the Funeral: A Service of Witness to the Resurrection (Book of Common Worship) for a suicide victim. Somehow the trials of this Soldier’s life accumulated, unreconciled, untreated, and unseen, forming an insidious and deadly legion on his soul. The spot, undetected, metastasized and spread. Within months, this fast-growing spiritual cancer infected the physical. The Soldier, at length, sank below the unknowable line of despair, with horrible self-violence following. Since then, I have ministered to several others like this poor soul. Recently (in my ministry as an Army Reserve Chaplain), I have ministered to the families and friends of four suicides in six months. One of those I spent many hours with after a first attempt, before she succeeded in a second plan. The losses have impacted me profoundly. In that first instance, I wondered what I would say to his young widow and four little lambs before me, in what seems, now, so very long ago, I remembered my seminary professor’s words: “only the Word” can meet the deep existential needs of the human soul. He spoke words that are forever true:
“Nothing else can do. For the Word is supernatural and has the heaven-ordained, miraculous power to traverse far beyond the shallow places our words or most studied therapies might go.”
He taught us that there is mystery present. But leave the mystery alone. Let the holy Word of God face the mysteries. Do not think it kinder to withhold the Word in catastrophic times, thinking it somehow more humane to speak our own words rather than God’s Word.
That charge from my old professor stayed with me. It shaped my response to that difficult day and, I might add, many similar days hence. I want to share that Word with you now to remind you that the Word of God you will be preaching is sufficient for every great challenge before you. Indeed, what an honor for Christian shepherds to be there during those times and to bring the Word of God to the flock of the Nazarene and to the God-fearers who might hear. Let us pledge to remember that this is why we gather to study: that behind our technical study of introductions, transitions, propositions and conclusions is a little girl sitting before you in the first pew, looking at you, maybe even past you, and listening to your gentle pastoral presentation of the Word of God as she is struggling to make her parents’ faith her own. You realize that so many things separate you from that child, yet you pray, Oh, Father, help me to help her. There in the rear of the church is an old gentleman (an usher for many years, but no longer), who has lost his wife of sixty years to a devastating disease that robbed her of knowing his presence at her side in death. You watch him as the choir offers a choral prelude. His sad countenance and lost gaze seems directed towards the attractive, young couple sitting across from him. Your eyes well up in tears and you form the unhappy, unavoidable conclusion: my old friend is thinking that he was once where that couple is, sightly closely, two-as-one, a life of dreams before them, but is now wondering how he can go on another day with this nightmare reality. Or, there is a middle-aged couple smiling as you preach—they smile intentionally to encourage you—yet they are holding hands tightly, trying to make sense of God’s promises as they worship on this day after having wept through yet another tearful night for their prodigal son. You see them, while the silent prayer of preparation blankets the congregation with a silence that betrays the painful cry in your own thoughts: How do I reach them? This is the sanctuary of souls in private storms looking up to the pulpit. What shall we do? Dear students and pastors, I see the image of One walking on the water in the storm bidding us to follow Him.
This is really what we are doing together in Preaching Class. We are only preparing to meet those dear people. We are studying, pouring ourselves out so that we can reach out in Jesus’ name and touch them:
Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory (2 Timothy 2:10 ESV).
So, if I get a little wound up about why your exegetical statement must be better formed in an expositional argument or I challenge your conclusion’s urgency, I am just seeing that sweet little girl and that dear old gentlemen beyond the technicalities of your homily. I see them and I want to reach them with a voice whispering a healing Word from Another World; and you are that voice. Through you, I (and the generation of Christians today who will not be there in your mature years of ministry) can possibly reach hurting, sinful, and needy people around the world and through the generations. Thus, do I cherish you for your place in the Kingdom. But, mostly I cherish you for you: gifted, strong young men who could give yourselves and be spent in many other ways more financially profitable, but you pour out your lives to the gloriously noble task of proclaiming Christ and Him crucified. How I admire you. How honored I am to be a small part of your vocational training and your theological inquiries.
So, I must stop dreaming, now, though I don’t want to. I want to keep dreaming until I awake to find that the dream is true. Thus, I look forward to seeing you in our next class, Lord willing.
I share the song, Only the Word, as a sort of “soundtrack” for our prayerful preparation. I composed the song after that funeral I mentioned for the suicide. I sought to capture several vignettes from life and repeat what I was reminded of in that time; that in the pastoral ministry, indeed, “Only the Word” will do. The song may be streamed for no charge below.
Commending you to Christ and to the Word of His grace, I am
Listen to Only the Word by Michael Anthony Milton on Apple Music or here: