A few words that shaped my life…

Carol and I celebrated our 20th Anniversary this past May with a trip to Boston.  We spent the week visiting historical sights and eating some very good food.  Two places which we visited had special significance for each of us: for Carol it was the home of Louisa May Alcott and for me it was the Trinity Church, pastored by Phillips Brooks from 1869 to 1891.

If many people are familiar with Phillips Brooks, it is likely because he is the author of the Christmas Hymn, O Little Town Of Bethlehem.  But for me, he holds much greater importance, though I certainly appreciate the song which he penned.

Phillips Brooks was also the author of The Joy of Preaching.  He was an Episcopalian pastor (obviously, our doctrine differs in various areas) and was considered to be an excellent preacher.  The Trinity Church in Boston, blossomed under his leadership.  He was asked to participate in the “Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching,” also known as “The Yale Lectures on Preaching” which were delivered at  Yale Divinity School in the 1870’s.  These lectures where the basis for the book The Joy of Preaching.

Here’s the story.  I did not have a dramatic call to ministry.  I just knew that I was God’s servant to do with as He pleased.  I don’t have a magnetic personality or a dynamic eloquence.  When I went to college to begin my training for ministry, I was shy, scared, and not at all sure what kind of preacher I would be.  When I considered some of the preaching abilities of some men I admired and compared myself to them, I felt very inadequate – to say the least.

My home church in Missouri supported a retired missionary to India, by the name of Bob Cooper.  Bro. Cooper had an enviable library, of which I was blessed to receive several boxes of books when he passed away.  But, before that, for my ministerial preparation, he gave me a book titled, “The Joy of Preaching.”  Handwritten in the front was the following note,

“Dear Levi,

Awesome is the charge; awesome is the privilege; awesome is the responsibility of your office.  May the following pages be helpful as you prepare for your High calling.  Abandon your life to God.

In Christian love, Brother and Mrs. Cooper

I didn’t actually read the book until it was a reading assignment for one of my preaching classes.  I first read Brooks’ definition of preaching in the biographical sketch of his life, written by Warren Wiersbe at the beginning of the book.  Then, the first chapter explained that definition in greater detail.  He said “Preaching is the communication of truth by man to men.”  He abbreviated that definition to “truth through personality.”  When I read that phrase, it gave me pause to evaluate my own perceived inadequacies.  Had not God made me to be who He wanted me to be?  Why was I setting unnatural expectations for myself?  Was not each of the apostles and other New Testament ministers different from one another in their character, nature, and personality?  The conclusion hit me like a breath of fresh, cool air on a hot, summer day – God wanted to use who He had made me to be as an instrument to communicate His truth.  I didn’t have to mimic someone else’s personality, or voice, or charisma – I was just supposed to let God use me as He had designed me – that meant the personality which He had created in me.

I’ve been pastoring and teaching for around 20 years since I first read that definition and nothing else I’ve read, other than the Scriptures, has been more liberating and energizing to my participation in the high calling to proclaim the truth of God’s Word.

Over the years I’ve learned bits and pieces about the life of Phillips Brooks.  When Carol and I decided to visit Boston, I put on my to-do list a visit to the Trinity Church which Brooks pastored.  I’m the kind of person who feels history by being where men I admire have been.  I have walked the land owned and farmed by my ancestors in order to know them better.  I may read facts or documents about them, but when I stand where they stood and walk where they walked, when I see with my eyes where they have lived and labored, even if 100 or more years later, that is when I have gained the greatest value from history.  On the same trip to Boston, I walked in John Adams’ garden and sat on his front porch. I stood under the balcony from which Abigail Adams heard read the Declaration of Independence, I stood over John Hancock’s grave, I followed Paul Revere’s trail, and I walked through mansions designed by Richard Morris Hunt.  I need to be where history happened.

So, it was the culmination of my appreciation for Phillips Brooks to visit the place of his ministry.  When I looked at the pews which held the people to whom his personality ministered the truth from the pulpit above me, he became more than an author to me, but a mentor and an inspiration.