The art of the fine line

God, through His own emissary, speaks afresh in every worship. We dare not forget the fine lines.

J. Grant Swank, Jr., is the pastor of the Church of the Nazarene, Windham, Maine.

While listening to a fellow preacher the other evening, I noted that just before his mes sage he said to his parishioners, "Now, I don't plan on going more than an hour tonight."

I concluded that if his sermon was truly gripping, even an hour would go by quickly. Instead, the proceedings were rambling and disjointed; scraggly thoughts were somehow taped together. His eye contact was not all that good, although he could project his voice well. At times he lost his place in his notes or could not efficiently locate a passage of Scripture from which he sought to make a point. Thankfully, he was good-natured, genuinely loved people, and smiled a lot. This helped us get through that hour.

When I got home I remembered a clipping I had saved that spoke of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin as men of few words. After Franklin returned from France to sign the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend: "I served with General Washington in the legislature of Virginia before the Revolution, and during it with Dr. Franklin in Congress. I never heard either of them speak 10 minutes at a time, nor on any but the main point which was to decide the question. They laid their shoulders to the great points, knowing that the little ones would follow of themselves."

Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address was but 266 words, and the Declaration of Independence, which contained a new concept of freedom, was completed in 1,321 words. The evangelist Luke summarized all the circumstances connected to the birth of Christ in 284 words.

Carving the fine lines

It is possible, then, to carve out the fine lines, to concentrate on the main points. The more we preachers work at perfecting that skill, the more the years will reward us. Theodore Parker Ferris was the rector of the famed Trinity church in Boston. He told his preacher-students that he spent hours lifting his weekly sermons from his own heart into the hearts of his people. No wonder the large sanctuary was filled week after week, and not only in the mornings, but evenings as well.

That man was dedicated to regarding the message as a molding of the divine truth. Worshipers around the world received the weekly mailings of those sermons delivered from that ornate pulpit in Copley Square. For years Dr. Ferris was looked upon as the high example of God's craftsman, a man of God consecrated to perfection, along with warmth and excellence, and coupled with caring.

Not given to affected or ornate language, this preacher could express the most profound postulates of Christianity in the simplest terms. However, with each sermon there was such concern that one felt as if the very song of heaven was being played for one's own spiritual deepening.

Yet how long according to the clock did it take for this pastor to give each message? It was said of the duration of his sermons that the time flew; they did not know how long his sermons were, though they listened to him frequently. When they could not get to his sanctuary to hear him preach, they read his sermons. One person said that when the sermons came to his mailbox, he devoured them as soon as they arrived. In point of fact, Ferris rarely went more than 25 minutes. So the people heard him gladly.

But more, he converted his work into an art, as if it were a holy vessel from the temple laid before the throne of the Holy One Himself. One never thought of Dr. Ferris as hurrying through his sermon preparation, simply throwing together some thoughts on religion in order to get through a service. That would have been blasphemy to him.

Scotland's George H. Morrison was yet another masterful carver of godly words so that various journals of his day praised his abilities as one who understood what to say and what to leave unsaid, what to press and what to touch on lightly. Others said that few sermons made better reading than his, and that he had the gift of writing with wisdom and interest about life and its lessons, and all of this in the light of Scripture. Still others wrote of the striking originality of Morrison's sermons, which combined earnestness and fluency with a practical spirit.

Preaching with precision

It is with precision that the Lord speaks to Noah and Abraham and Moses. It is with skill that God breathes upon David in the Psalms and Solomon in the Proverbs. It is with careful deliberation that God's angel explains to Mary her gracious lot as the called forth woman for the Messiah's destiny on earth. It is with special carvings that Christ communicates with John on the Isle of Patmos. So it is that the preacher reminds himself that he is struck from the image of God: precisioned, skilled, careful, and deliberate.

So it must be with every preacher. The man or woman of God is to step into that pulpit with caution. That is holy ground. It is from that desk that the everlasting communication is interpreted. God, through His own emissary, speaks afresh in every worship. Do we dare, then, to forget the fine lines?

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J. Grant Swank, Jr., is the pastor of the Church of the Nazarene, Windham, Maine.

January 1997

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