Preach to Mirabelle Mercer

Preach to Mirabelle Mercer

For a writer, reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead can be a bit deflating.

Not because it’s bad, but because her countless perfect sentences—so simple yet so penetrating—are enough to make almost anyone despair of what they’ve written.

In Gilead, we read the letters of a dying pastor (Rev. John Ames) to the young son that he will leave behind.  In one of them, Ames tells of preaching during the carnage of World War 1.

In his attic, there are boxes of old sermons.  Yet:

One sermon is not up there, one I actually burned the night before I had meant to preach it.

THE ONE THAT BURNED

At the time, the Spanish flu had broken out in the midst of the Great War, killing millions. Hence many young men were dying before they even made it to the trenches.

As Ames writes:

It was a strange sickness—I saw it over at Fort Riley. […] They drafted all the boys at the college, and influenza swept through there so bad the place had to be closed down and the buildings filled with cots like hospital wards, and there was terrible death, right there in Iowa.

Now if these things were not signs, I don’t know what a sign would look like. So I wrote a sermon about it.

I said, or meant to say, that these deaths were rescuing foolish young men from the consequences of their own ignorance and courage, that the Lord was gathering them in before they could go off and commit murder against their brothers.

And I said that their deaths were a sign and a warning to the rest of us that the desire for war would bring the consequences of war, because there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord’s judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears, in contempt of the will and the grace of God

Now the part that I care about:

It was quite a sermon, I believe. I thought as I wrote it how pleased my father would have been. But my courage failed, because I knew the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could stand to be and no more approving of the war than I was.

So he burned the sermon, despite the fact that it seemed like the most honest thing that he had ever written.

As Ames puts it:

It might have been the only sermon I wouldn’t mind answering for in the next world. And I burned it.  But Mirabelle Mercer was not Pontius Pilate, and she was not Woodrow Wilson either.

APPLICATION: PREACH TO THE PRESENT

My point here is not whether Ames was right about God’s hand within in the Spanish flu. In fact, I tend to detest such claims to omniscience when it comes to God’s judgement via natural disasters (see here).

My concern is with a more common problem amongst preachers, myself included.

That is:

The temptation to preach to those who aren’t present, rather than the ones who are.

After all, it’s easy to condemn the Woodrow Wilsons and the Pontius Pilates when they do not sit in front of you.

It’s easy to decry those “soft” and “lazy” millennials to a room of aging baby-boomers–or to a room of “superior” millennials (see here). It’s easy to bemoan liberal rot to a room of midwestern conservatives; or conservative fundamentalists to an educated group of East Coast mainliners.

It’s easy.

But what good is it?

It’s like railing to poor Mirabelle Mercer about the Kaiser’s war policy.

To preach to those who are present is more difficult, not least because you might step on the toes that sit beneath the pews. It forces us to ask about our besetting sins, which are always the ones we’d rather ignore.

The well-known Dallas Baptist, Matt Chandler, notes this tendency within his own context:

If I preach the sermon out of the book of Isaiah on justice, my inbox would fill with their glee that I would broach the subject. But if I applied it to the subject of race, then all of a sudden I was a Marxist or I’ve been watching too much of the liberal media.

If I spoke on abortion, I was applauded as courageous, as a ferocious man of God, and yet when I would tackle race I was being too political …

If I quoted the great reformer Martin Luther … never did I get an email about his blatant anti-Semitism. But let me quote the great reformer Martin Luther King Jr., and watch my inbox fill with people asking me if I’m aware of his moral brokenness.

His point is that it’s not just preachers who prefer the sermon to convict the absent, it’s often the parishioners too.  “Lord thank you that we are not like those people.”

CONCLUSION

In the end, if there is a lesson here from Gilead, it’s that sermons must connect, convict, and encourage the audience that will actually hear them—not the one that won’t.

In short: Preach to those present.

Preach to Mirabelle Mercer.


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“Pull the goalie” — What preachers like me can learn from Malcolm Gladwell

“Pull the goalie” — What preachers like me can learn from Malcolm Gladwell

“Preaching,” said the late, great Haddon Robinson, “is like playing the violin: it’s easy to do badly.”

If you’ve tried it, you know.

I teach preaching to college students. Yet I am acutely aware that I am still a novice. Like many pastors, I often sit back in my seat after the message with that line from W.E. Sangster running through my head: “Next time, I shall preach!”

Even so, the fact is that we preachers can learn a lot from the communication habits of non-preachers, like Malcolm Gladwell in his fantastic podcast: Revisionist History .

One of my most popular blog posts (here) was on another episode of Gladwell’s podcast. But this piece is on his most recent episode, entitled: “Malcolm Gladwell’s 12 Rules for Life.”

gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell; p: kris krüg

TWELVE RULES FOR LIFE

The title is misleading.  Because while Jordan Peterson offers a dozen rules for living, Gladwell has only one:

“Pull the goalie.”

Without spoiling the episode, Gladwell’s basic point is this: In order to make wise decisions when others won’t, you need at least two things:

  1. The willingness to follow data where it leads.
  2. The stubbornness to be profoundly disagreeable.

Most of us have neither.

Hence, like the majority of hockey coaches, we refuse to “pull the goalie” till the very last minute, when tradition and opinion dictate–and when it’s already too late.

You’ll have to listen to learn what Gladwell’s rule has to do with

  • hedge funds,
  • poker players,
  • home invasions, and
  • the life expectancy of NRA members.

I won’t ruin it.

BACK TO SERMONS 

My point is that preachers (like myself) could learn a lot from Gladwell’s podcast—and from this “puckish” episode particularly.

Here are seven lessons:

1. One point to rule them all

The first takeaway involves the elegance of a single, simple big idea.

Gladwell doesn’t give his hearers a list of points as I often do in sermons — because lists aren’t memorable (including this one).

Instead, he gives them one intriguing big idea: “pull the goalie.”

For as J.H Jowett argued:

No sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express [it] in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as crystal.

While this doesn’t prohibit a good sermon from having points (I’m working on one now for Sunday), it does mean that those movements should come in service to a single, simple big idea.

2. Short but pregnant

“Pull the goalie” is just three words.

But the phrase is “pregnant” because it demands unpacking.  Its brevity gives birth to a variety of explanations and applications.

3. Enigmatic till explained

In fact, it needs unpacking because the phrase is enigmatic till explained.

Its meaning isn’t obvious (outside of hockey). In my experience, the best big ideas are often opaque at first blush.  They require elaboration, despite their “stickiness.”

“Unless you hate your father and mother…” would be case in point.

4. Counterintuitive, not counterfactual

In preaching, as in life, “boredom is a form of evil” (another Haddon Robinson quote).

Thus the value of a counterintuitive message is its ability to get people interested.  Getting someone to say “Huh…!?” means they’re listening.

“Blessed are the poor and persecuted…” does that.

But “interested” isn’t enough; the statement must also be true.

For Gladwell, the counterintuitive use of “pull the goalie” is supported by a mass of evidence from hedge funds to homicide statistics.

It’s “moneyball” for life.  And while the strangeness is designed to suck you in, the data is designed to convince you once the “Huh?” wears off. 

5. Applied specifically

While Gladwell’s research is often esoteric, he never fails to make it matter.

Hence “Pull the goalie” is applied to far more than hockey.  As he argues, it could be the difference between life and death.

(Pay attention if you own a handgun.)

6. Qualified appropriately

In some cases, the difference between a fascinating preacher and a “fired” one is the ability to say something provocative and then move to qualify it appropriately.

One must anticipate the objections of the audience and then answer them in the sermon, as opposed to waiting for a series of angry emails (or board meetings).

Jesus didn’t always do that.

But he was God.

And also, they killed him.

7.  Repeated

Unlike many of my mediocre sermons, there is no doubt about what Gladwell’s big idea is—because he repeats it with emphasis on more than one occasion.

“Pull the goalie.”

“Pull the goalie.”

“Pull the goalie.”

And by the end, it’s not some trivial bit of Canadian appropriation (though Gladwell is Canadian); it’s a rule for life–and preaching.

 


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