When a pastor stands to preach, he never knows who is listening to him. And if his sermon is recorded or broadcast, he has no clue who will be hearing his words. He will do well to make sure he knows what he’s talking about.
Case in point.
Last Sunday evening, I spent three hours with the deacons of a church near here. At the conclusion of the two teaching sessions, I shared a favorite story.
Ted Traylor, pastor of Pensacola’s Olive Baptist Church, told this story to Leadership Journal back in 2001. For over a year, the pastor had tried to get a veteran staff member to make some needed changes in his ministry. But he refused all offers of help and all attempts to supervise him. The staffer owned this particular phase of the church and no one was going to tell him what to do. So, finally and reluctantly, Pastor Ted terminated him.
The day he fired that staff member, the church held its regular business meeting that night. A lot of people on that fellow’s team were incensed. “How dare the pastor do such a cruel thing!” The anger was palpable. The pastor’s name was mud. For weeks afterward, the bad spirit persisted. People would call the pastor’s home in the middle of the night, then hang up the phone. Women said harsh things to his wife in the store. Pastor Ted says, “Had a search committee from Toadsuck, Arkansas come, I would have gone with them.”
One night, as the pastor and his son were returning home, three men from the church were standing at the edge of the yard, waiting to talk. Traylor sent his son into the house and walked back to where they were standing.
Even though these were among his greatest supporters in the church, Pastor Traylor figured they had come to ask him to leave.
After they greeted each other, one of them said, “Preacher, do you remember 2 Samuel 23 where David wanted a drink of water from the well back in Bethlehem? And some of his men broke through the enemy lines and got it for him?”
“Well, we’ve been on a trip today, pastor.”
“We drove up to Pisgah, Alabama, to see your mama and daddy. Six hours up and six hours back. We left early this morning.”
“We’ve heard you tell about the artestian well there. With water so cold and delicious, you would duck your head in it and drink until you almost drowned!”
“We’ve brought you a jug of water from the well back at home, preacher.”
The preacher began to weep.
“Your folks told us how when you were a teenager, God called you to preach. And you would go stand on the brow of that mountain and talk to God and practice your sermons.”
“And preacher, we’ve broken off a couple of rocks from that place where you used to stand. We want you to bury them in your back yard. Any time you begin to struggle under the load the Lord puts on you, go out there and stand on those rocks, and remember that the God who called you into this work will sustain you.”
One of the men brought out a rusty coffee can. “And pastor, we dug this rhododendron out of the side of a hill to bring to you. A reminder that the Lord is going to sustain you in the rough times of life.” Ted didn’t have the heart to tell the men that what they had done was illegal.
“Pastor, the three of us talked all the way to Pisgah and all the way back. And we want to tell you something. We would die for you. If you will be moral and scriptural and godly, we would die for you. But if you ever do anything immoral or unethical or illegal, we’ll kill you.”
I always end the story by saying, “Pastors would give a year of their lives to have a few deacons like those.”
And then, after the meeting ended, a man came up to me.
“Brother Joe, I was a member of Olive Baptist Church when that happened. I was a deacon there. And I remember that incident like it was yesterday.”
“And you told it exactly right.”
You never know…
Down in Valdosta, Georgia, I was speaking to a county-wide meeting of Baptists and told a story about the death of baseball great Ty Cobb, a fellow Georgian. This Hall-of-Famer put in 22 years with the Detroit Tigers and set a lot of records, many of them still on the books. But from all reports, Ty Cobb was a rude, angry, and generally unpleasant man. He had few friends because he couldn’t get along with people.
The way I heard it, Ty Cobb gave his life to Jesus Christ before he died of cancer. And he sent a message to the men he’d played ball with. “Fellows,” he said, “I got in the bottom of the ninth. I sure wish I’d come in the top of the first.”
I tell that story and ask, “What inning are you in? If life can be thought of as a nine-inning ball game, what inning are you in? The answer is ‘we don’t know.’ The only way to know is to die and then look back. ‘Whoa, I was in the last of the ninth, and didn’t know it.’ That’s why it would be foolish to delay indefinitely the most important decisions of your life.”
After the meeting, an elderly woman came up and said, “I was Ty Cobb’s nurse in Grady Hospital before he died.” Then she added, “Well, I was one of his nurses. He was there several days.” And then, “He was the sweetest man. So kind and gracious.”
I said, “If he was, it would appear he got that way after the Lord saved him, from all reports.”
I was thrilled to meet this lady and hear this report.
You never know…
Doyle Bailey, retired missionary, speaks to a lot of senior citizen groups and often begins with a little joke. “It sure is good to be here. By the way, did you see the news this week? The inventor of the hokey-pokey died. And it took three days to bury him. They’d put his right foot in and he would take it out and shake it all about and….”
It’s a cute little joke, but it’s been around for a time. Anyway, Doyle was speaking to a church group in Alexandria, Louisiana. They introduced him and he got up to speak.
“It sure is good to be here in Alexandria. Oh, by the way, did you see the news this week, where the inventor of the hokey-pokey died?—”
A little white haired lady on the second row saw, “Mr. Crenshaw died?”
Doyle said, “What, ma’am?” She said, “Mr. Crenshaw. He was our neighbor in Shreveport. He invented the hokey-pokey. I didn’t even know he’d been sick.”
Doyle said, “Ma’am, it’s just a joke. Just a joke.”
You never know. (Oh. Btw, do a little research and you’ll find out the origin of that little dance/ditty is in dispute. But this is how Doyle tells the story, and it works for me.)
The point being, make sure you know what you’re talking about, preacher.
A few weeks ago, I sat in a congregation and heard the pastor butcher a World War II story. The point he made from it was valid, but the historical event didn’t happen anywhere like what he said.
As a history major and WW2 buff, I happened to know that story and was not impressed at the way that preacher mangled it.
A few years earlier, I heard a well-known preacher speaking at a gathering of Baptists from across our state do something similar. He told how during the Second World War the coal miners of Britain were striking and Churchill assembled their leaders and talked to them. According to the preacher, the Prime Minister told them that one day they would all stand before the Lord Jesus and He would ask them what they did in the war. And he went through the litany of what they would say to the Lord on the throne of judgement. The fighter pilots would say “We gave our all in the defense of liberty.” The soldiers will say, “We faced the enemy and risked everything for our nation.”
And then, according to this preacher, Churchill went on: “The coal miners will come before the King of Kings and He will ask, ‘What did you do?’ and they will say, ‘We cut the coal.'”
Not so. Churchill said nothing like that.
I went home and pulled out my book of Churchill’s speeches.
The speech was delivered on October 31, 1942 in Westminster’s Central Hall. A brief speech, it can be read in 5 minutes. As Churchillian rhetoric goes, it wasn’t much. There was nothing really memorable about the speech until the final paragraph. And here is what Churchill actually said to those coal miners…
“We shall not fail, and then some day, when children ask, ‘What did you do to win this inheritance for us and to make our name so respected among men?’ one will say, ‘I was a fighter pilot,’ another will say, ‘I was in the Submarine Service,’ another: ‘I marched with the Eighth Army.’ A fourth will say, ‘None of us could have lived without the convoys and the Merchant Seaman; and you in your turn will say, with equal pride and with equal right, ‘We cut the coal.'”
I come from a long line of coal miners. My dad and his brothers, their father and his brothers, all were miners. I’m not sure how far back that tradition goes, but it’s an honorable one. I suppose this is why I remembered the Churchill story in the first place. This is holy ground for me, so to speak.
Churchill aside, pastors, some day you and I will indeed stand before the Lord and give account of our words. And I’d hate to think that our sloppy sermons with their corrupted quotes and inaccurate histories will be put on display. The Lord deserves better than this.
Let’s give Him our best. Don’t tell a story unless you have done your homework and know what you’re talking about. It’s the least you owe the people in the pews, much less the Lord of Heaven and Earth.