Tuesday, February 21, 2017

“Surprises are everywhere in life. And they usually come from misjudging people for being less than they appear, not seeing them as God sees them.” ― Brownell Landrum

           It was 1984, and I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, to work a half-day high-school career event on a Sunday afternoon, recruiting for the College of Engineering at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.   I had only recently begun going back to church to please my wife.  It was early Sunday morning, and I was driving around to find the high school having never been there before.  I was hours early and noticed a Methodist Church that was just about to start services.  I thought, “This’ll make my wife proud of me,” so I turned in the parking lot and slipped in the back just as things were starting.”  It was okay until the old pastor climbed up into the pulpit.  As soon as he started, I knew it was going to be bad.
          The old minister began his sermon with a faltering voice in a deep Southern accent and proceeded to tell an obscure story that made no sense to me at all. I was quickly lost and bored.  I wanted to be engaged and enlightened, but I knew right away that this sermon was going to be one of the worst ever. The man seemed unprepared, vague, and detached.  In addition, his grammar was horrible.  I couldn’t believe this man had been ordained.  So, I tuned him out, and started fuming inside my head. Slowly I became more and more angry.  "Why didn't he prepare better?" I thought, “If Christianity is weak, it's because the sermons are so bad!"  There I sat, stunned, practically grinding my teeth with every grammar mistake. If I had been sitting any closer to the back, I would have snuck out.  After what seemed an eternity, the old minister ended his thirty-minute plus sermon. I was really upset and that’s all I remember.  I remember nothing of what he said; he was that boring and that bad.  For the rest of the service, my mind wandered elsewhere, counting the lights and the windows.  After the service, people tried to greet me, but I would have none of it.  I shook no one’s hand, and I walked past the old pastor without shaking his hand either.  I walked to my car in the parking lot.  As I walked, I complained out loud to a man walking beside me, "What did you think of that sermon?"  The man walked in silence beside me, lost in thought. Then he gave a gentle reply, "That was the most beautiful sermon I ever heard."  I was stunned, and looked up at him, expecting to see him grinning sarcastically.  To my astonishment, I saw that he was weeping. His face was tear-stained, and his eyes glistened in the noon-day sun.  Suddenly embarrassed, I asked what he meant.  He thought for a moment, then responded with a smile, "I've spent most of my life estranged from God, going my own way, and doing my own thing. Last year I found Him, or rather He found me, and now I find Him speaking to me in the most wonderful ways. Like that sermon we just heard. It was all about waking up, and listening, and hearing God in new ways. That describes my life, and the love I have found."
             In the face of this man’s words (I would later call it a “testimony”), I was speechless. I shook his hand sheepishly and thanked him. "He may not speak to me, but he speaks to thee," I thought.  As I drove to the high school trying to get my thoughts back on recruiting for the College of Engineering, I marveled at how God could use such an old, dull, and ordinary minister to speak in such an extraordinary way to one of His beloved.  What had been meaningless for me to hear, and a cross for me to bear, were the words of life to someone else.
           Now, after decades in the ministry and twelve years as a missionary, having preached more sermons than I can remember,  I am a more humble and appreciative listener to other’s sermons. Ever since that experience decades ago, I cannot hear a boring sermon without imagining that someone, somewhere out there in the congregation may be wiping a tear from his or her eye and smiling.  They may be hearing the voice of God speaking directly into their heart, with healing words raining down on them like a spring shower on a dry and parched land.  I remember now the times I thought I had preached a really bad sermon, one for which I had not really prepared, and yet found someone afterwards moved to tears by it.  The words are never the preacher’s but always God’s and always meant for someone who is ready to hear.  Same way with these blogs, I just never know to whom God is using me to speak.  Guess, I’ll just keep writing, remembering that man moved to tears by the worst sermon I ever heard—guess I just wasn’t really listening.
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