It was my birthday recently, and I received a birthday card from a retired friend in Florida. Ruth used to be a Sunday School teacher in my church years ago. She was cleaning out her house and ran across some notes from a sermon that I preached on June 26, 1988. So she sent them to me with the card.
Actually they were notes that her four-year-old granddaughter Amber wrote. Of course Amber could not write much at that tender age. They were four pages ripped out of a small spiral notebook. Each one was covered in scribbles. Some of it looks vaguely like writing. The first page looks it might depict stick people … sort of.
On the front page Ruth had recorded her granddaughter’s explanation: “I’m writing down everything he says, Nana!” Indeed she did. Of course no one can read it. The actual words I spoke are lost to history, but that is okay. It is not important what I said that morning.
I can hardly remember what I preached on last Sunday, much less twenty-five years ago! One would be hard-pressed to find any parishioner who can remember what I preached further back than last Sunday. Realizing that fact keeps us pastors humble.
It is not about words or even ideas. It is about sensing that something important was happening in church. It was worth Amber writing it down for Nana. In the end, worship services do not translate well into words.
Do not get me wrong. I believe in words. It is what I do. Preachers deal in words. I write sermon manuscripts, which I take into the pulpit. And I stick pretty close to the text. Afterwards I clean them up and post them on the internet along with videos. I even rework some sermon series into books.
My life as a pastor is filled with words. But in the end ministry is not about words. Words can celebrate God. Words can direct our attention toward God. But words always fall short of the glory of God. They can never capture God.
Words are nothing more than scribbles on paper and vibrations in air. At best words refer to something unwritable and unspeakable. When used well, words can point to the wordless Presence of God.
Amber’s notes are better than words. A four year-old sat next to her Nana in church one Sunday, and God was present. She wrote it all down. We just need to read between the lines.