Most of us are familiar with the notion of ‘Chinese whispers’, where a specific thought or sentence is passed, one by one, along a series of people, with the end result being that the original meaning is entirely changed by the end of the process. Such as: “Fred left the house unlocked this morning” somehow becomes: “Ted got the drain unblocked yesterday evening”! This of course indicates how different individuals hear, perceive and relay messages, and underlines the complexity of human communication.
Preaching – which we could define as the proclamation of spiritual messages – is of course a form of communication, and certainly has to obey the rules and the complexities of communication. But I would argue that it is in many ways a special case, perhaps even a ‘funny thing’ in that it has, or should have if it is authentic, an even deeper level of potential complexity: another speaker is involved – God. It might even be that God is speaking through the preacher’s efforts… or even in spite of their efforts!
I clearly remember from my days as an active Catholic priest one particular incident that taught me a valuable lesson. It was at a morning mass during a parish mission in Scotland. I had preached a short sermon (I can’t actually remember on what!) but a woman came up to me afterwards. She was very excited and proceeded to thank me most profusely. What a wonderful sermon I had preached, and how it spoke to her of God!
I’m sure I glowed in the warmth of her appreciation but I was taken aback as she proceeded to explain how my ‘message’ had struck her so forcefully: she had been struck by what was almost a throw away remark, if indeed I had actually spoken the words she ‘heard’. The truth was that she had heard something that resonated with what was already churning in her spirit – but, nothing really to do with what I had been speaking about! My words had simply been the occasion for what was a fertile seed to suddenly sprout! As she went on in delighted vein, I realised that she wasn’t talking about what was my message at all, but if anything what had been a very peripheral point. Maybe the sermon had merely been a sacred space for her to hear God speaking directly to her heart?
What had she heard? Most likely not much to do with my wonderful sermon. Possibly at most a word or two of mine, but likely taken out of my context and inserted into her own truth. I suppose that can happen with any oration or even in an informal conversation between two people. We tend to hear not so much what the other is saying but rather what resonates with where our mind and attention currently is. We might even be having a chat with someone but actually thinking about our lunch. Perhaps you’ve had conversations with someone and begun to realise that they are ‘somewhere else’?
People who attend services and listen to sermons will always come with an agenda – by that I mean that they will have joys, sorrows and divers other issues on their minds and hearts. The preacher may often fail to realise that his or her audience is not a blank canvas just waiting to receive his / her wisdom. The very service itself may be that sacred ground where God can, and does, speak His Word on all sorts of levels.
For God will make use of any means or occasion to plant His Word in the human heart. The problem is usually that people are not receptive, and then they complain that God is silent. Or they start by listening but other thoughts spawn in their mind.
As I say, preaching is a ‘funny thing’ – it is a very subtle and mysterious communication. I shudder sometimes when I think back on the responsibility of even trying to be a conduit for God. But He often makes up for our poor efforts.
I hope and pray that this short blog post enables you to hear His truth for you today on whatever level you need. The subject of the blog may not even matter for you!
His will be done in all things,