Magazine article The Christian Century

The Preacher as Listener

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Preacher as Listener

Article excerpt

THERE IS an incredible moment, known only to a parish pastor, that occurs in every worship service. In many congregations this moment comes while the choir is singing the anthem, just before the sermon. As the choir sings the pastor sits in the preacher's chair, looking at those in the pews and remembering their unfinished stories.

In the third pew on the right sits a newlywed couple, back in church for the first time since their wedding. They can't keep their hands off each other. At the other end of that same pew is a new widow who's back in the church for the first time since her husband's funeral.

A few rows back on the same side of the sanctuary is a family that is coming apart at the seams. The husband is angry that his wife wants to take a promotion that means moving the family. She's angry that he's holding her back. They're both angry that they can't get their teenage son to talk to them. The teenager, sporting a shock of purple in his hair, slumps in the pew to make it clear that's he angry about being dragged to church.

Behind them, a young father cradles the baby girl the pastor baptized a few weeks ago. He tells himself she'll never grow up to have purple hair. Two pews behind them is an older couple whose daughter is a wildly successful attorney in New York. She never talks to them.

Across the aisle, two-thirds of the way back, sits a well-dressed gentleman who will leave the worship service to go to the Alzheimer's unit of a nearby nursing home to visit his wife. A couple of pews in front of him is a middle-aged couple who want the pastor to fire the youth director. And sitting just ahead of them is a single mother with a son in the army who's hoping something will be said about those who put their lives in harm's way.

The choir finishes its anthem. The pastor walks to the pulpit, prays, and dares to say, "Hear the word of the Lord."

Part of the pastor's calling is to maintain a sacred conversation between God and the congregation. Hopefully, the pastor has spent all week listening to God's side of the conversation while carefully exploring the Sunday scripture text. When the pastor leaves the study to make visits to the hospital, bring communion to the nursing homes, or ponder the subtext of the angry man who is trying to hijack the agenda at a committee meeting, the sacred words of the biblical text are still swirling around as a third voice in every conversation. Throughout the week--back and forth between the study, the parish, newspapers, literature, movies, and even the pregnant quip from the cashier at the grocery story--the carefully heard words just keep piling up before the sermon can be written. …

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