My
old homiletics professor said it was necessary for me to realize that nowhere
does Scripture mention the quality of God’s golf game. It was his way of pointing
out that when I spoke of God’s power, the word had two syllables. It is “POW-er,”
not the single syllable “par” I pronounced when referring to God’s supremacy.
My way of speech was strange (at least to him) in some other words, too, and he
tried, sometimes in futility, to Americanize my Ulster accent. “Soften those
A’s,” he’d say, “you’re in America now!” He also taught me about
the importance of being biblically sound and theologically correct in the pulpit
and avoiding preaching too often on my favorite “pulpit hobby horses.”
“Remember to preach the whole counsel of God and take your people to the
cross as speedily as you can after reading the Scripture. There’s a shortcut from
where you just read to Calvary. Find it, man, and go there!”

It
was all good advice. Far from criticizing him, I know I owe him a debt that I
can never repay and I, therefore, honor his memory. But I don’t recall him ever
telling our class to emphasize the first priority in a fruitful pulpit ministry.
It took me years to realize that there is one thing even more important than good
sermon structure or sounding every word just right. It is prayer!

Thomas
À Kempis is reputed to have told his students that God’s man should be
more at home in his prayer chamber than in his pulpit. He was right! You and I,
as preachers, should determine that we will stand before God’s face long before,
and longer than, we look into the faces of our congregations. Prayer should be
our daily constant and specific prayer for what we preach is vital for power-filled
preaching.

Oh,
I know, there’s a lot about what we do that the average Joe or Jill can learn
from watching television or reading a book. Some of those actors who portray the
role of a preacher in the movies-especially the older ones from the days when
we were held in higher esteem-look and sound pretty good. Forget seminary. Watch
them or go to any good Christian bookstore and buy one of the annual minister’s
manuals, and you can go for a long time on funerals, weddings, and even sermonizing.
It’s all there: introduction, three points and a poem! Addiction to those tools
can provide the best escape imaginable from real ministry, if we’re not careful.
And, of course, there’s always the Internet! Pretty soon you fool even yourself
into believing you’re a good pulpiteer. But, it’s all so artificial because it’s
just not you and it’s just not yours!

Prayer,
however, is a different matter! The minister’s manuals may contain well-formed
suggested prayers, but they are, for the most part, powerless and pointless and
non-natural because they are not your own. There is no substitute for wrestling
alone with God in the private place. It is there that we meet our God and our
real selves and it is there that we take on real pulpit power. Go for it! Schedule
it into every week! You will never regret it. There is nothing like the real thing.

“When
Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs
room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down
on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before”
(Daniel 6:10).

“Our competence is not in ourselves. Our competence comes from God”
(cf. 2 Corinthians 3:5).

Why
didn’t my old professor tell me that? Well, maybe he did and I just didn’t get
it! On the other hand, the simple reality is that prayer is not so much taught
as caught. It was not his fault. It was mine. Prayer is more of the heart than
the mind, although not mindless, and I had to come to the place where my own strength
proved insufficient and powerless (make that POW-erless!) before I learned the
need of it. It is exciting to enter the pulpit. It is vital to enter the prayer
place first of all.

So,
if I have one prayer for you it would be that you would learn the importance of
prayer for yourself and for your preaching. It’s only in the quiet place that
we earn the right to enter the place where we are privileged to make the most
noise.

_______________________
Robert
Leslie Holmes, pastor of Pittsburgh’s First Presbyterian Church, is a contributing
editor to Preaching. He is the author of a number of books. The latest,
The Creed: Life Principles for Today (Ambassador-Emerald Int’l), examines
the Apostles’ Creed in the light of post-modernism. You may reach him at rlholmes@fpcp.org.

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