As a boy I was a firm believer in the old wives' tale claiming that if you put a white pebble under your tongue in a long foot race, you greatly increase your stamina. As the pebble slicks down and warms up, so the legend goes, it takes away the stitch in your side and gives you your second wind.
Now, as a gospel minister at the peak of my career, and with a reputation for good exegetical preaching, I was desperately searching for such a pebble. How could I go on? I had run out of things to preach, I felt I could not produce even one more sermon. In fact, overnight I had become a homiletical mute.
The most disturbing symptom of my problem was a radical, deep-rooted, indifference toward the Scriptures. Months had gone by and I had not so much as touched my Bible. I did not understand this strange phenomenon that hit me, other than to grasp the fact that like the disciples I was in a Gethsemane stupor, unable to watch with Him even one brief hour.
Someone precious to me was being ignored while I was unable to open my eyes. How could I possibly keep preaching? How could I possibly give spiritual leadership to my congregation? How could I find life again?
You'll be okay, Hon
"You'll be okay, Hon," my wife said empathetically, "It's just that you know the Bible so well that you've gotten a bit bored with it. You'll get interested again." My initial reaction to her remark was to move the decimal point one space to the left so as to find a more realistic assessment of affairs, because I have come to understand her remarkable capacity to put a positive construction on all things negative.
On second thought, however, I knew she had a point of sorts. I was very familiar with the Scriptures. I knew the theme of every book in the canon, even the Minor Prophets.
The four Gospels were not one big mish-mash flowing together as one indistinguishable narrative to me. I knew how the Gospel writers use the same story to make different points. I could walk you through most of the New Testament chapter by chapter by memory.
I knew the stories in the Bible scrambled, poached, and over easy. I had unraveled Paul's arguments one strand at a time down from his first "since" to his last "therefore," and a few years ago I had read the entire New Testament in Greek, with relative ease and without aids, even though I must admit I got bogged down in Hebrews and skipped ahead.
My wife was right, I knew the Bible, and I was bored with it; but not because I knew it. Simple familiarity had not bred contempt. Other dynamics were at play.
Something subtler than mere comprehension of the Scriptures was causing my problem. This was more than the ho-hum-pass-the-potato-chips experience that accompanies television reruns and bores you out of your wits.
The best way to describe it is to say I had unwittingly assumed a position of dominance over the Scriptures.
It is a simple fact that we seek to control what we master intellectually. My mind had done its hard work and won; it had gotten the mastery. I was in charge of the materials. The knower had become more powerful than the known.
I now often sat in judgment of the Word and it seldom sat in judgment of me. Such intellectual control deprives the Bible of its power to move the heart. It is I believe, one way of snacking on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil between meals. A Scripture not allowed to evaluate, neither transforms nor invigorates the soul, and mine was dying, but how to solve the matter I did not know.
I felt anxious about the Bible
Believe it or not, I still prayed and often,but my prayers were rapidly becom ing more desperate and lonely. "Lord, help me!" I cried in the sleepless night, but no help was forthcoming.
It is my practice to sort myself out by prayer in the safety of the presence of God. Prayer is, among other things, a form of self-analysis, a type of therapy for me. I have found real health on my knees. In the midst of such a session something that should have been very obvious to me surfaced to awareness, namely, I felt anxious about the Scriptures! I realized to my utter dismay that for years an aversive conditioning against the Bible had been going on within me. Jesus would probably have come directly to the point and said, "Jon, the weeds have grown up around your soul and have choked you to death." That notion rang an inner bell, and a light came on for me.
Years of controversy over Scriptural issues had taken their toll. I realized I was sick and tired of preaching grace and having the Neanderthal right hear only that I was preaching license to sin. I was sick and tired of having every sermon I gave on justification perceived as an attack on the law. I was sick and tired of one-eyed evangelicals who saw me as selling out the Gospel whenever I preached on sanctification. In my experience, the Scriptures had become a hornet's nest.
What was I to do with myself?
Apart from this pressure from "out there" there was a greater pressure from "in here." I had seriously over estimated my capacity for ambiguity of thought. A scholar has the capacity to hold things in tension. It is, I knew, the mark of a mature mind to hold a question in suspense, but the suspense was killing me.
The issues surrounding the atonement, creation, miracles, the nature of reality, and the wrath of God, to name but a few, remained an enormous chunk of unfinished business within me, and conditioned me against the Bible without my being aware of it.
The small child who holds a white bunny in the presence a sudden loud noise, of which it is instinctively afraid, becomes afraid of the bunny, and of all things white, and of all things soft. So, without any conscious decision on my part, I had become anxious about the Bible, preaching, and the whole Christian enterprise.
What was I to do about myself? Grace continues to amaze. It seems that God understood my scriptural and homiletical flameout and took the initiative to help me. He did so by presenting me with a serendipitous encounter at the point of Scripture.
I was sitting at the coffee table in our living room in the morning casually trying to make a decision. Before me lay three books, they were a magnificent book of art, an intriguing tome on mythology, and the Bible. Which one should I read, art or Greek mythology?
I reached for the heavy art book, but had to remove the Bible in order to get to it. As I gently lifted the Bible my hands instinctively opened it. It fell open to Luke's gospel, which is the place to which over the years my Bible has broken in. By that I mean a used Bible is like an old baseball glove—it gets broken in. In the case of the glove, it softens and breaks in to fit the owner's hand. In the case of the Bible, it breaks in to fit the owner's heart. Luke was therefore the most likely place to which my Bible would open. I began to read from the beginning.
First came the prologue to Theophilus. Yes, yes, been there, read that. Then, of course, the extended nativity narrative starting with the birth of John the Baptist followed the prologue. Nothing fresh here either.
I began to rapidly scan the story of Zachariah in the Temple but in my haste, I ran right in to a divine trap set for scriptural and homiletical flameouts like me. I slowed right down for the story addressed my existential situation and deeply moved me.
Coming to understand
Here was a man who had rotated through the schedule in God's house for years. I could identify with that. On this rotation, however, the routine was broken because he was elected by the drawing of lots to burn the incense next to the altar. I too have been called for special duty. The story drew me in ...
Zachariah and his wife had both prayed that she would conceive and bear a son, but he did not believe it could ever happen because of her age. I liked this man's skepticism. Suddenly the angel Gabriel appeared at the right side of the altar and declared that their request was to be granted, Elizabeth would give birth to a wonderful boy and they were to call him John (which means God is gracious).
"How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years," he objected.
"I am Gabriel," the angel replied, "I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not be able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time." These words struck me with percussive force.
I felt at a depth that God had spoken to me. This shoe fitted my ugly foot perfectly. I understood that my preaching paralysis, my muteness had the same root cause as Zachariah's, namely, a refusal to accept the authority of a Word from God on its own merits, and an insistence that what God has said must be empirically verified before it can be believed.
I also understood that my reluctance to continue preaching grace because it is often controversial was a sin plain and simple and that the Spirit would not empower any com promise on grace. I must boldly name my child John, i.e., God is gracious, and raise him for God.
Although this was a word of sharp rebuke to me, it did not condemn, for it was filled with too much hope.
God's purposes would go forward, John would be born, and speech would return. My spiritual logjam, I felt, by God's grace, would not be for ever.
That encounter was a turning point for me, although I do not claim to be out of the woods yet. I am see ing a therapist who is helping me work things through. Nevertheless, important pieces of the puzzle are now in place.
For one thing, I know that God has not rejected me for He has spoken to me in love, albeit on the tough side of the love equation. Moreover, I have clearly rediscovered the Bible as a place where I can encounter God. He is there and He is not silent. Thank God, my sense of anticipation when I open the Bible is back. I am preaching the Word again but with more than a touch of humility to be sure.
After Jesus had delivered the hard sermon on eating His flesh and drink ing His blood, many turned back and no longer followed Him. He therefore asked His disciples with a gentle note of insecurity in his voice, "You do not want to leave me too, do you?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." Yes, indeed, where else shall we go and still have life?