Preaching out of the overflow

Preaching out of the overflow: the spiritual life of the preacher

An interview with Barry Black, chaplain of the United States Senate.

Derek J. Morris, D.Min., is senior pastor at Forest Lake Church, Apopka, Florida, and author of Powerful Biblical Preaching: Practical Pointers From Master Preachers.

In June 2003, Rear Admiral Barry C. Black, Ph.D., D.Min., (Ret.) was elected the 62nd chaplain of the United States Senate. Prior to this appointment, Chaplain Black served in the United States Navy for over 27 years, ending his distinguished career as the Chief of Navy Chaplains. Chaplain Black is a Seventh-day Adventist.

Derek Morris: Chaplain Black, as you think back over your life, what are some of the influences that God has used to form you spiritually?

Barry Black: One is my humble beginnings. I believe that growing up in the inner city, in the toxic environment of the public housing units where I lived on welfare, created in me an ability to relate to people across the socioeconomic spectrum. God seems to have blessed me with an ability to connect with people who may not have a lot of education, who may not have many material things. They seem to connect with me, and they are encouraged by my story. I've had single mothers say that the knowledge of my background and my roots has been an encouragement to them, and they are more determined to bless their children by investing in Christian education and by insisting on Bible study.

A second influence that God used to form me spiritually was my mother. She was a saint! She had a love for God and a love for His Word. She had a vibrant, robust spirituality, which she transmitted to me. She told me that I was special. She informed me that I was set apart, and she spoke with such power and such sincerity that I never doubted my call to ministry.

Third, Christian schools, from grade one through the seminary, had a tremendous impact in forming me spiritually. I don't think anything was more important than being exposed to biblical principles every day in almost every course. I was mentored by dedicated teachers who also seemed to sense that God had His hand on my life. I was in the world but not of the world. Christian schools provided me with a "cocoon" that enabled me to grow wings and to fly.

And finally, I was blessed to grow up in a very large church—Berea Temple Seventh-day Adventist Church, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Berea was a congregation of probably close to 1,000 members. The most gifted preachers were usually selected to pastor there, so I had an incredible opportunity to be exposed to some of the best preachers God ever produced.

I think that a great deal of preaching is taught, but there is also a lot of preaching that is caught. When exposed to powerful, lyrical preaching early, there is an accent that you pick up that stays with you throughout your life and stamps your ministry. It's not some thing that you'll get in a classroom. It's not something that you'll get in a book. Very often, even now, I hear echos of my pastors while I'm preaching, and I smile. I say, "That's Elder Leon Cox. He would have said it just like that!" Or "That's Elder J. C. Smith. That's how he'd have phrased it." That is a marvelous legacy, a wonderful gift to have! This reservoir of material to draw from—exegetical material, illustrations—they pop into my head while I'm preaching because of this rich heritage. I was a member of a great church for most of my childhood, and each time the door of the church opened, my mother had us there. Early morning prayer service. Wednesday night prayer meeting.

Sunday night evangelistic meeting. Sabbath, we stayed for the whole day! I didn't always think it was wonderful, but it certainly provided me with a wonderful heritage.

DM: So there was your mother and also some of the pastors from your church. Who are some other significant mentors in terms of your preaching? BB: I was exposed fairly early to taped sermons and sermons on records. I must have been seven or eight years of age when I first heard a sermon by Peter Marshall entitled "Were You There?" I just could not believe the lyrical beauty of what I was listening to. He was describing the morning sun coming up over the city of David. I sensed something of the music of preaching and some thing of the possibilities of preaching.

My horizons were stretched. Preaching is not simply lining up Bible verses and proof texting. Preaching is more than the apologetic, convincing someone of the validity of a theological position. Preaching has the ability through the music of language to transport you back into Bible times and enable you not only to see Moses at the burning bush but to be there yourself. To stand on holy ground yourself.

I remember one of the first sermons. I heard by Gardner Taylor, called "Holy Ground." I got a sense for how a message is set up, how you don't show your hand too quickly. How you don't tell the story right away. In fact, Taylor does not actually mention the name Moses until about ten minutes into the sermon. In those days I had a phenomenal memory. Almost everything I heard I could remember, and so it was like programming a computer. It was a wonderful experience of capturing the beauty of language and the power of preaching.

C. D. Brooks also had a tremendous impact on my life. He was a very young preacher when I was first exposed to his preaching. I saw in him, and in Charles Bradford, very creative preaching. They made the Word of God come alive. Brooks would preach sermons like "The Age of Methuselah" and "The Virtue of Being Chicken," and you would have to ask, "What in the world is he going to talk about?" I just marveled at his creative ability.

Bradford had an amazing ability to tell a story. It was like sitting down and watching a movie. I learned the importance of dialogue in preaching. Not simply talking about what people say but letting them say it. These were my mentors—some formal, official mentors and some unofficial mentors. Leon Cox was my pastor for several years when I was in my teens, and he took a special inter est in me. In fact, he took a number of us under his wing. He would invite us home and say, "What did you think about the appeal?" And then he would mention books to read. There was an intentionality to what he was doing. He was one of the smoothest preachers. He had a wonderful vocal instrument.

I remember a sermon that he preached called "The Cup." His first passage was the one that described Joseph placing his cup in the sack of Benjamin. And then he moved over to the New Testament where Jesus said to James and John, "Can you drink of the cup?" And so I learned how to use parallel and related pas sages in the construction of sermons and to be more creative in my homiletical structures.

Calvin Rock, an outstanding preacher, also mentored me. He invited anyone who was interested in becoming a preacher to spend time with him during a week of prayer at Pine Forge Academy. He talked with us about preaching and poured out his heart.

So long before I ever read a homiletics book or was exposed to preaching literature, I was being programmed.

When I finally started reading the literature, it awakened in me what was already there, half asleep in my own consciousness. Intuitively I had picked up on these things, caught these things, and so I found myself validating the literature or disagreeing with it based on what I had seen work in the crucible of human experience.

DM: What a blessing! And what a challenge to us as preachers to have a part in mentoring the next generation of preachers! In your own comments about preaching, you have spoken about "preaching out of the over flow." What are some of the ways you have of being filled up so that you can preach out of the overflow?

BB: I get through the entire Bible three or four times a year. The way I do this is I listen to Scriptures. I have a 45-minute to one-hour commute to get to the Capitol. That gives me an opportunity to listen to CDs of the Scriptures. Right now I'm listening to the New International Version. You can listen to the Bible in 70 hours— the complete Bible! When I'm commuting, or when I'm flying on an airplane, I always have the Word in my CD player. I keep a pad of paper on my passenger seat, and although I'm not listening to find sermons, sermons find me! Fifty lifetimes would not be enough to preach out of that amazing reservoir of Scripture.

I get enough sermon material for five to six sermons a week easily. So I am constantly being fed from the Word. It's an amazing experience. It's something that I look forward to. I can't wait to get in the car because I'm going to listen to the Word! You receive so much wonderful material • when you expose yourself to the Word. Then, when you get up to preach, you are literally preaching out of the overflow.

DM: I've noticed that you quote Scripture from memory when you're preaching. What process do you follow for hiding God's Word in your heart?

BB: I was blessed by being exposed to the Word when I was young. We were poor. We didn't have a TV, so we were in the Word and we were in the church. My mother gave me my allowance based on learning my memory verses! So from five or six years old, my siblings and I memorized Scripture. I just love the Word. I listen and I remember. Occasionally,there will be a passage of Scripture that is of such beauty that I write it down a couple of times, and then I can remember it. But in general, I just love to listen to the Word.

DM: What is the place of prayer in your preparation and delivery of sermons?

BB: I cannot preach without praying. I cannot study without praying. I cannot live without praying. I had a dramatic experience with the Lord 15 or 16 years ago, which took my spiritual life to another level. It took me to the place where I began to be aware of the constant presence of God. And so I talk to Him! He is my Companion. He is there. And He talks to me.

That experience had a transforming impact on my personal life and on my preaching. When I get up in the morning, before my feet touch the floor, I swing out of my bed on my knees. From that moment on, there are not many seconds of the day that I am not aware of the blessed presence of my Companion.

That's what prayer is all about. First Thessalonians 5:17 says, "Pray with out ceasing." Each morning when I open the United States Senate with prayer, I am praying while I am praying. And when I am preaching, I am praying while I am preaching. While I'm going along, I'm receiving instructions, I'm receiving guidance, I'm practicing the presence of God. That's what prayer is to me. Prayer is not just something that you do. It's something that permeates who you are.

DM: You mentioned that you pray while you are preaching. How does the Holy Spirit instruct you and guide you while you are preaching?

BB: I want to be in serious contact with God before I stand up to preach. I describe that as the "pray yourself hot" portion of sermon preparation. You can study yourself full and think yourself clear, but then you need to pray yourself hot! Without the Spirit of God, you are not going to be able to accomplish anything. Ask the Holy Spirit to go before you, to make this message live.

Enter the pulpit prepared to be used in whatever way the Spirit of God desires to use you. You should be so connected and so focused that when you step into the pulpit, you are ready for delivery! It is critically important that a preacher not try to use the Holy Spirit. We need to trust the Spirit of God to have His way, and to realize that the Spirit manifests Himself in different ways. But while the Spirit blows where He wants to, we have to learn how to set the sail. It's important to learn how to ride the wind.

Some preachers waste an awful lot of energy trying to be the wind instead of learning to sense what the Spirit is doing in a worship setting and cooperating with the Spirit. The preacher is simply a flute through which the Spirit of God is passing to make His music and touch the lives of His people.

DM: That's a beautiful concept! To what extent should preachers be transparent about their own spiritual journey, including their struggles and challenges?

BB: I would encourage judicious self-disclosure. It can be very therapeutic to share how God has enabled you to meet a specific struggle or challenge. One of my favorite Bible passages is in 2 Corinthians 1 where Paul says, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all com fort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we our selves are comforted by God" (2 Con 1:3, 4, NKJV).

I hear in that passage that there is an appropriate place for judicious self-disclosure. I think that the preacher has to be very careful in the use of personal illustrations. I don't like personal illustrations in which I'm the hero. But I find that self-deprecating illustrations are very helpful. I talk sometimes about the struggle that I had with profanity, growing up in the inner city. I picked up that habit. I wrestled with it. When I share about that struggle, people see that the minister is a human being. And they hear that the grace of Christ can liberate us from the chains that shackle us. That kind of revelation, the kind that brings glory to Jesus Christ and what He is able to do—those are the kind of personal illustrations that I would encourage preachers to use.

I would discourage preachers, particularly those who have had a prodigal-son pigpen experience, from making a career talking about what happened in the far country.

DM: What encouragement would you give to preachers who are feeling spiritually depleted?

BB: I would encourage preachers to expose themselves to the Word of God in as many creative ways as possible. It's that Word that ultimately brings us out of the fog. We do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. It was a word from the Lord that straightened up Moses time and time again. It was a word from the Lord that got Elijah back on track when he was suicidal. It's the Word that clears up the misconceptions—it's the manna. For me, the sweeping view of Scripture that you get from listening to the Bible multiple times per year is a tonic like nothing else I know. That will bring a harvest.

Second, I would encourage preachers to expose themselves to the fellowship of other ministers. There are some wonderful ministerial conferences that take place around the world every year. Going to a conference which is designed to build us up can be a wonderful tonic.

And third, if you don't already have a friend to whom you are accountable, preferably another minister, with whom you can be transparent, someone who can pray with you and for you, I would recommend that you find one. The Bible says that one will chase 1,000. Two will chase 10,000. There is a synergy and an energy in that kind of relationship that will help you in those plateau experiences, those arid wilderness experiences that we inevitably go through.

DM: What counsel would you leave with preachers who long to experience a deeply spiritual ministry so that they can preach out of the overflow?

BB: I used to be frustrated with great preachers when I would ask them what made them so strong. It seemed to me that they didn't take my question seriously. They talked about the importance of taking time with the Word of God, and that seemed so pedestrian to me, so bor ing. But the longer I live, the more I realize that they were telling me the truth. We need to put the time in, exposing ourselves to the Word of God. Sermons are born there. But more than that. As we take time with the Word of God, we are born anew on a daily basis

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Derek J. Morris, D.Min., is senior pastor at Forest Lake Church, Apopka, Florida, and author of Powerful Biblical Preaching: Practical Pointers From Master Preachers.

March 2004

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