12 April 2011

Urgency: friend, and sometimes foe

by Dan Phillips

If we really believe what we are writing, blogging, talking, and preaching about, should it be difficult to find notes of passion and urgency in what we say and how we say it? I think not; yet urgency can be both friend and foe.

Friend. I remember one towering Biblical scholar (no longer with us), a good man, who has generated work that will be useful for years. Yet his writing tends to be dry, dry, dry. Even a work of his meant for devotional reading was solid, sound, orthodox... and fairly desiccated.  No passion, no urgency, just detached discussion of things and facts. Merely stylistic? Perhaps.

I've long argued that Biblical academes should not count themselves exempt from thinking and writing as Christians. (BTW, my previous example in this post was not Bruce.) I do not mean that every work needs overtly to be an evangelistic tract, or to be filled with personal testimonies. I do mean that a Christian scholar/pastor/whateverer should write as a Christian, who believes he is dealing with eternal truths of eternal consequence to the eternal souls who are reading his writing, and who are themselves a literal heartbeat from eternal judgment.

A really fine example would be Jim Hamilton, in his work God's Glory in Salvation by Judgment: a Biblical Theology. Since I plan to review the book within the next week or two, for now I'll just say Hamilton is a model in this regard. His scholarship is thorough, sound, and up-to-date... and Christian. He writes as a Christian. He writes as if what he is treating is true, and matters.

But don't just think smugly of Those Scholars and Their Dry Ways. The problem isn't necessarily aridity nor academics. We garden-variety believers sometimes unintentionally belie our own urgency, and communicate the opposite of what we believe, by bad (or ill-considered) habits we slip into.

For instance, church services should be both somber and joyous, and loving... and urgent. But when we saunter up to the podium and fill time with chit-chat, casually meandering around as if there's no particular hurry in getting to the Word, I think we undercut what we believe. I think we send conflicting messages.

There was a church with a terrific pastor, and sweet, genuine, loving people, plus a sound doctrinal position. Services started off at varying times, in a meandering, wandering way, with chit-chat and this-'n'-that amid general continuing buzz and conversation, followed by maybe 60 minutes or so of choruses and ditties sung a few times through, crowned by about a 25-30 minute sermon. Not bad, far from it. But not urgent.

Whether 60 minutes, 90 or 120, church services or other words given in Christ's name should be urgent affairs. Stephen's hearers saw in him the face of an angel (Acts 6:15). Perhaps that meant he literally glowed with a reflection of God's glory. Perhaps it was that he was a consummate messenger, clearly urgently intent upon what he had to say, as if it were the last message he would ever impart — which, in fact, it was.

Never forget: each confrontation with the Word is a crisis. Crisis comes straight from the Greek krisis, which means judgment. God's word is living, powerful, unimaginably sharp, and it judges us (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus' words judge us (John 12:48). Angels apparently watch (1 Corinthians 11:10; Ephesians 3:10; 1 Timothy 5:21), and wonder (1 Peter 1:12). Souls hang in the balance, lives are at unknown crossroads. This tidy fellow may be on the verge of a heart-attack; that polite couple could be headed for divorce; this young single might be hovering at the brink of a terrible decision; that young lady could be desperately snared in the jaws of a deep, dark, papered-over depression....

It's not teatime on the deck of some luxury cruiser. It ain't Oprah. It's strategy-time, for soldiers under fire, in the midst of a war.

Foe? At the same time, that very urgency, once it grips us, can also work against us us, or dampen our effectiveness.

Here it is too easy for me to dip into the deep well of my own frailties. My late father heard me preach a couple of times, and said "It just amazes me that you can think of things to say every week." I said, "Oh, Dad, the Bible is so rich that my problem is never thinking of things to say. My problem is stopping."

This has always been my struggle. When I was first offered chances to teach or preach, I grabbed at such opportunities as if I'd never have another. Consequently, I would try to say everything in one sermon. And again in the next. And in the next. Because — who knew? So much to give, so few opportunities.

Of course this is wearying to listeners. Folks can only hold so much; I of all people should have known that. A favorite Far Side cartoon of Valerie's and mine is the "my brain is full" one. I'm certain that I've been guilty of overfilling more than one brain, due to excess of passion and urgency. Perhaps some preachers here can identify as well, themselves?

The same temptation attends writing. I have two books coming out, Lord willing. Both are very exciting to me, culmination of years and years' worth of dreams, hopes, preparation, practice and effort.

And they're both not short! But when and if you put your hands on them, please know this: they could easily have been twice as long. In both cases, almost immediately after submitting them, the wincing and the cringing started as I thought of this thing I could have explained more, that application I could have included, this excursus I could have inserted, those passages I could have opened up.

I hope that urgency will be plain to each reader; at the same time, it had to be moderated, tamed, formed, aimed, directed... or it would have been undone by a verbal flood. The preacher feels it when he tries five ways to say one thing, or takes 10 minutes to close a sermon (like Spurgeon's mariner, rowing back and forth, back and forth, in search of a harbor). We need to pray, think, aim, select, and fire a single well-aimed shot.

But why the temptation to go on and on? Urgency! I don't know whether I'll ever have the opportunity to write again. What if I take all the rest to the grave undeveloped, unpreached, ungiven?

Bottom-line. In the final analysis, that would be God's concern, wouldn't it? He knows to a nanosecond how long we have left. He'll accomplish what He intends to accomplish through us.

Meanwhile, we who lack such knowledge do nonetheless have the guidance we need (Deuteronomy 29:29). On the one hand lies Scylla's warning against hiding God's investment in a field under pious-sounding protestations (cf. Matthew 25:24-30). On the other stands Charybis' admonition not to risk ruin by excess (Proverbs 10:19; 15:2b, 28b; Ecclesiastes 5:3).

The golden mean is to have a heart aflame with zealous love for God (Romans 12:11; Revelation 3:15-19), and then wisely to ponder, choose, fashion, form, and launch just those words that best convey His truth (Proverbs 15:2a, 28a; 16:23).

Which may be easier said than done — but merits both saying, and doing.

Dan Phillips's signature


Robert said...

Good post, Dan. This is the same reason I used to work through any of my lessons with my wife when I had the opportunity to teach Sunday School. I always wanted to include more than could really fit into an hour. Like you say at the end, God is in control of the time we are allotted. He is also in control of how much people will learn...we just get the responsibility to teach or learn (depending on which end of the pulpit/podium you are on). One of the hardest battles for most of us Christians to handle is submitting to God's sovereignty in all things while still following Him and living up to our responsibilities.

Or maybe that's just me 8o)

Tom Chantry said...

This is so well put. I can't add a thing.

Michael Lawmaster said...

Excellent post.

Stefan said...

Good post.

On urgency as "friend": this is our conundrum, isn't it? Living as if we truly believe what we say we believe. Not just believing the promises of God, but walking in trust of them.

On urgency as "foe": every time I share the Gospel, I end up trying to summarize the whole of redemptive history—you know, for context. Then I had a Bible school teacher do the same thing each class, and I realized how wearying it can indeed be.

Rachael Starke said...

So well said and so true. In my previous life as a communications consultant, I had a very difficult time helping executives who felt that every slide had to be crammed full of data, and used, regardless of the time allotted or the needs of the audience. The end result was the opposite of the intended effect - eyes glazed, minds disengaged.

What you offer is infinitely more valuable and essential, but that's what makes this temptation greater. Some pastors seem to feel that they personally are the ones responsible for imprinting their hearers' hearts and minds with the truth, and not the Holy Spirit. It's well-meaning presumption.

But I share your pain when it comes to saying more, rather than less. Word-limits on blog comments are my friends and helpers. :)

donsands said...

Wonderfully put together. Thanks for the encouraging teaching.

Jack Gandy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jack Gandy said...

I am reminded of a comment Spurgeon once made when criticized for what was considered to be an excessive usage of humor in his sermons: "If you only knew how much I leave out, you would be amazed by my restraint." Few of us who preach ever use all the notes we carry into the pulpit with us. We just share as much as we can as fast as we can, and trust in God to bless.

DJP said...

Varieties among preachers are interesting, no? I basically always use all my notes — because they're what keep me on-track!


(The hacking and slashing comes before I print my final set.)

David Regier said...

Economy is key to urgency, and discipline is key to economy.

WV: ptatedis. I like mine french-fried.

donsands said...

As I skimmed your lesson again, this stood out:

"..church services should be both somber and joyous, and loving... and urgent."

The church needs to learn this about the church.

When we were singing Rock of Ages last week, I was so taken into the Spirit, but it was not simply joy, but a godly sorrow joy. My eyes became quite moist, and yet my heart was full to the brim with love and gratitude for my Savior.

And when we went receive our Lord's Supper, it was the same. Great joy in Christ, and regret for my sin. What a place to be! I love church service. It's always, always a time of growth in Christ's love and truth, by receiving a special grace for grace.

If you never heard Chris Rice sing "Rock of Ages", then be blessed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LpQ6jvk6GEE

thomas4881 said...

While it is today lets serve Jesus Christ with all our heart, mind, strength and soul. We might not have a another day.