In his classic book on the vocation of teaching, Dr. Parker J. Palmer offers sage counsel that applies to the preacher as well as to the educator. Read this quote and apply it your life and ministry as a pastor:
“Kindergarten teachers often understand the craft [of teaching] better than those of us with PhD’s, because students in the ‘lower grades’ are like the child in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ They do not care what graduate school you attended, who chaired your dissertation committee, or how many books you have written, but they quickly sense whether you are real, and they respond accordingly. The discerning innocence of young children deepens my conviction that at every level of education, the selfhood of the teacher is the key.”
When you and I stand in front of the congregation, read the Word of the Lord, pray, or rehearse the centering theme of the Christian faith, “This is My body given for you, take and eat and do this in remembrance of me. This is the blood of the new covenant shed for the remission of the sins of many;” the most discerning members of the congregation are the most innocent. These are the parishioners who are less impressed about which seminary gave us our degree as they are about what books have had the greatest impact on our lives. They care even less about who was on our dissertation committees or who comprised our Presbytery examination committees as they do about the answer to the simple question,
“Has this man been with God?” Or, ” Does this preacher believe what he proclaims? Does He live it?” “If I am sick, will this man come with cookies and happy maxims, or will he dare tell me the truth? Will he be a ministry of God’s presence in the mystery of suffering without trying to explain it?”
They only care about what God may be saying to them through his Word. They are listening for God’s Word to them spoken through you. What we begin to learn across the years of ministry is that these expectations are healthy. For our vocational satisfaction is located in our vocational identity as mere shepherds, messengers, and loving earthly and spiritual fathers to God’s own children.
One kindergarten teacher put it like this, “The children always, always, know. If the love of teaching is not in you they will know it and begin to drift. You can lose them in a second once the truth shows. No, you have to have the call. Then, you have to have the courage to be transparent. No more technique. Just you, the real you. Just the moment, the real moment. Then, in that moment, you teach. You teach out of the center of who you are, that deep, hidden place where your vocation is fed by the spiritual springs of life and purpose. In that moment it works.”
I pray we, too, find in the One who called us, that most potent of instruments in the divine arsenal: ourselves. Preach, then, out of the core of what Christ has done for you. And they—God’s elect little ones—will know.
“Lord Jesus, give us the courage to preach.”