Less than two hours after landing in Monrovia, Liberia, a land that had been devastated by civil war, I stood in the pulpit of Second Providence Baptist Church in 1995 to preach a sermon.
As I looked into the faces of people that had waited three hours for us to arrive, I saw the tired, worn faces of people traumatized by war and famine. They were also hungry for words of hope. What words could I say that would make a difference in their lives?
I took a deep breath. I opened my Bible and I began to preach. But for the first time in my ministry I asked myself, “Do I really believe what I am about to tell these people?”
I forged ahead believing that the word of God transcends cultures and every human situation. After all, oppressed people wrote much of the Old Testament during times of the exile. The Apostle Paul wrote many of his letters from prison and John wrote The Revelation while exiled to the Island of Patmos. If so much of God’s word was birthed out of oppression, it could certainly speak to oppressed people.
I had just come from two of the most difficult days as a pastor. I had spent those days with members of my church who had lost three loved ones in a house fire. As the news trickled in about the tragedy, it was discovered that the fire was not an accident. The man had shot his daughter, shot his wife, set the house on fire, and then shot himself.
The members of Second Providence Baptist had experienced an ongoing trauma not unlike those members of my church. The civil war had claimed lives of someone from almost every family in that church. Many of the women had been raped. Everyone was hungry.
Though I had arrived during a temporary cease-fire, the killing threatened to break out again any day. Six months later Monrovia fell to the rebel forces. Less than a year after I preached there, the pastor and the associate pastor died of health-related illnesses.
When I finished my sermon, Rev. Menjay turned to his congregation and then to me and he said, “We thank Dr. Helms for bringing to us today the “Thus Saith the Lord.”
The phrase took me off guard. It’s a phrase borrowed from the Old Testament prophets who spoke on God’s behalf.
I am more comfortable with the phrase Jeremiah used to introduce the book of the Bible bearing his name, “The words of Jeremiah,” although in the next verse he does say that these words came to him from the Lord. He just put God’s message in his own words.
Preaching is like that. Preachers listen to life and we listen to God and then deliver a message in our own words. While some are more gifted at this than others, without the Holy Spirit, nothing of significance gets communicated. There is no greater responsibility for a pastor than preaching. There is no greater privilege, either.
There is nothing easy about the task. Whether it’s in Liberia or in Jefferson, Georgia, I still look into the eyes of the people needing words of hope. Often, I can see their pain. I know many of their stories. I know their struggles. Sometimes, I don’t know, but I know God does.
I still must ask myself the same question I asked over 20 years ago in Liberia, “Do I really believe what I am about to tell these people?”
My people would never wait three hours for a late preacher. They would never say, “Thank you for bringing the ‘Thus Saith the Lord.’” But they are grateful for a pastor who takes Paul’s charge to Timothy seriously: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15 NIV).
Week by week, there is not a more difficult or more important part of a pastor’s job than “correctly handling the word of truth,” unless it’s living a life of integrity so that one’s preaching is not compromised.
Every preaching event needs the hard work and the careful work of correctly presenting the “word of truth,” but we also need God’s inspiration. Living a life of integrity needs self-discipline, but we also need God’s grace. Otherwise, neither part of this job is possible.
Originally posted on www.searchingforwisdom.net