Not long ago I was nervously seated near the front of a church listening to myself being introduced as the guest preacher for that Sunday morning. Even though I’ve been there, done that many times in many churches, and arrive over-prepared for my talks, I’m never at ease in that introductory moment.
But that Sunday my nerves intensified when the host added that I was an “intellectual.” Nooooo. What do I do with that? I groaned. Sure, he’d said it amiably and as a compliment, which I appreciated, but intellectual? How do I undo that? I don’t see myself as one, and this wasn’t a university classroom. Mind you, the millennials in that space were probably jazzed to hear it. But what about the others? I’ve been around. I could almost hear the congregation, friendly as they were, suddenly wondering if there wasn’t a better way they could be spending their time that morning.
In hopes of trying to get the audience back, I opened with an impromptu joke. “I’m glad to be here this morning as an intellectual with all of you intellectuals. After all, who among us doesn’t use our brains?” Okay. Okay. I knew it was a naff as it was coming out. I’m not your man for spontaneous jokes. But I had to say something!
Flash forward to today. Perusing a stack of files in my office, I ran across a transcript of a short radio talk given some years ago in Detroit by my dear friend, the British pastor and writer John Peck. I read it and immediately wished it had been on my lips that Sunday morning. With a slight wave of the editorial hand and John’s permission, I’m able to share it with you here. I hope it inspires you as much as it does me.
“Jesus in Mark 12 told one man that he was not far from the kingdom of God because he spoke, as the original Greek word indicates, ‘thoughtfully.’
“Thinking is hard going. Some people give it a bad name by using it as a substitute for action, which is a pity because we can’t do without it. Odd thing is, we take it for granted in areas like business or science, but when it comes to faith we often switch off the mind, and when we do, substitutes for thinking take over, such as emotion.
“A favorite substitute is rhetoric. We are inspired by a powerful preacher who has the art of getting us excited about the gospel. He makes us feel it’s true. And in the midst of a world that is constantly pouring cold water on our faith, we need that. But that’s not teaching. It doesn’t have anything to do with the way we think. In fact, the rhetoric may even use the world’s techniques of persuasion – some preaching sounds like an extended TV commercial, in spite of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:4.
“Christian teaching is about understanding the meaning of the gospel. And don’t confuse inspiration with teaching. Inspiration is God motivating us, and it is aroused by emotive words and vivid images. Teaching is God’s way of working us through the problems that arise in applying the gospel consistently in everyday life. It is about changing our thinking to something more like the mind of Christ.
“Paul says to the Philippians, ‘Let love be with discrimination.’ By this he does not mean bigoted sterotyping or naive innocence. He wants love to exercise wisdom in deciding what is the best thing to do, rather in the way C. S. Lewis said, ‘It is not a question of “be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever, [but] be good … and be as clever as you can.”’ Writing to the Ephesians, Paul says that mature Christians don’t get blown about by every wind of doctrine.
“Thinking, therefore, is not just about going to college. It’s about growing up. Some people are called to heavy theoretical intellectualizing; most of us aren’t. But either way, we are all called to use judgment, discernment. If we don’t, our laziness will keep us immature.
“We need to think at least as hard about our faith as we do about business or our hobbies. Some say this ruins spontaneity: thinking makes you inhibited, calculating, unemotional. Unfortunately, it often does. There are special reasons for this, to do with the influences at work in our Western culture. But it doesn’t have to. Paul was an intensely passionate person. But he was also a profound thinker. He spoke in tongues more than anyone in the Corinthian church; yet he treasured one word spoken “with understanding” more than all that.
“How could he let himself go like that? Because he had thought through the issues beforehand, so he could trust his instincts. Understanding brings safety. And he taught this to everyone: don’t just listen to me, he told the Corinthians, judge for yourselves. Don’t just swallow even the greatest preacher’s message whole. Listen to the arguments, keep asking questions. Think.”
©2015 by Charles Strohmer and John Peck
Images by Davide Restivo and Daniel, respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)