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Preaching to Ordinary People

Many feel like overwhelmed failures

I was just about to bend my six-foot-four frame into our eggshell blue 1952 Plymouth, to drive to a little church in the decayed center of Paterson, New Jersey. I was going to be ordained into the Christian ministry, a passage for which I felt tremblingly unprepared.

Before getting into the car, I turned to my friend and former seminary teacher George Stob, who was standing by, and asked him: "George, do you have one last good word for me before I take this plunge?" George shot his answer back, as if it were long coiled tight in his mind, the one thing he thought I still needed to know. "Remember," he said, "that when you preach, you will be preaching to ordinary people."

Thanks a lot, I thought. For this kind of wisdom you get to be a professor in a theological seminary? As if I didn't know! Anyway, I stuffed his bromide into the bulging bag of expendable data I had garnered from seminary teachers and drove off to be ordained as a minister of the gospel.

As it turned out, though, in my early years of arrogant innocence, I did not really know much about ordinary people. I did not know then, not in the depths of my being, not where the issues of a preacher's authentic attitudes are decided. I was ripe with scholarly insights. I was tuned in to my theology. I was tuned in to the craft of sermonizing. But I was not tuned in to the ordinariness of the people who listened to my idealistic preaching.

To be ordinary is to be too weak to cope with the terrible stuff that is too much for mere humanity. Ordinary people are non-heroes—not cowards, just not heroes, limited folk, afflicted with the malaise of too-muchness.

We ordinary people cannot fit our lives into preformed, Styrofoam boxes. We cannot manage life as well as we would like, at least not in our secret places. We cannot get all the strings tied; it won't wrap up the way we want it. For us, survival is often the biggest success story we dare hope for. Ordinary people are people who live on the edge, just a step behind the line that separates us from those who fall apart at the seams. Ordinary people are the ones who cry for a sign, any old sign, that it might still be all right even when everything seems horribly wrong.

What George was trying to tell me was that a lot of people who would be looking to God for help through me would be ordinary in this sense: they would be living, not on the peak of success, but at the edge of failure; not on the pinnacle of triumph, but at the precipice of defeat. He did not mean that everyone who came to me would be a failure. What he meant was that many of them would feel like failures sometime in their lives.

They came to my church on Sunday, ordinary people did, but I did not recognize them in the early days. Now I know that they look like this:

A man and woman, sitting board-straight, smiling on cue at every piece of funny piety, are hating each other for letting the romance in their marriage collapse on a tiring treadmill of tasteless, but always tidy, tedium.

A widow, whispering her Amens to every promise of divine providence, is frightened to death because the unkillable beast of inflation is devouring her savings.

A father, the congregational model of parental firmness, is fuming in the suspicion of his own fatherly failure because he cannot stomach, much less understand, the furious antics of his slightly crazy son.

An attractive young woman in the front pew is absolutely paralyzed, sure she has breast cancer.

A middle-aged fellow who, with his new Mercedes, is an obvious Christian success story, is wondering when he will ever have the guts to tell his boss to take his lousy job and shove it.

A submissive wife of one of the elders is terrified because she is being pushed to face up to her closet alcoholism.

Ordinary people, all of them, and there are a lot more where they came from. What they all have in common is a sense that everything is all wrong where it matters to them most. What they desperately need is a miracle of faith to know that life at the center is all right, and yet that is just what ordinary people often keep behind a locked door.

Keeping grace behind a locked door

Why? Why is it so hard for the good news to get inside, into our feelings, from whence it needs to percolate to the surface? Why do we need a gift of grace?

I do not think we need a gift of grace because the truth is so hard to understand. It is a mystery, of course, no question about that. But the mystery of Christ is not a secret code that only the elite can unravel. Someone once asked—if the legend is true—the great Karl Barth what it all came down to, all those thick books of his on theology. Barth, teasing maybe, but still serious, said: "It comes to this, 'Jesus loves me, this I know.'" The mystery comes down to something just this simple. Deep, profound, amazing, but simple. God loves you and wills your good forever.

Why do ordinary people lock their doors to this muscular comfort, this sweet reality? We have a galaxy of excuses. I will expose two reasons for keeping my door closed. See if they match yours.

First, we do not want to feel reconciled to God because we will complicate our lives if we are reconciled to him. Something always changes when we believe that life, in spite of everything, is all right, and we dread the change. For instance, we do not want to accept forgiveness because if we feel forgiven we will have to let go of some prime anger we've stewed up against some lousy people who did us wrong. We do not want to feel loved because if we accept love we may have to open our lives to someone we want to keep at arm's length. We do not want the joy of discovering that life is all right because if we do we may have to give up the pleasure of bitching about it, and we are just too tight to make that sacrifice. We do not want to live in the hope that God is going to make the earth a splendid place of justice and love because, if we have hope for a new creation, we may feel pushed to help prepare the way by making the world a little better than it is now. Kierkegaard was right: we choose to lock the door of our hearts because we want to live in the wretched doghouses of our life.

Second, ordinary people keep the doors closed to their hearts because they are too tired to open them. It is not only as if ordinary people are just too perfervidly wicked to let the light of grace into their lives. Sometimes they are just too pooped. Self-pity drains our energy. We can hurt so much that we have no spiritual push left in us. We feel stuck in a void, sucked down into an empty pit where nothing can make us feel that life is all right. If we cannot locate energy to accept grace for ourselves, we surely cannot feel it for others; not because we are evil, but because we are exhausted.

Ordinary people are tired

When my wife and I and our three young children moved to California, from Michigan, we managed the first few days to get the kids into three separate schools. I started teaching a course at Fuller Theological Seminary I had never taught before, teaching it to 125 students at eight o'clock, four mornings a week. So far so good. After one week we learned from the hematologists that our youngest son, just turned five, had Gaucher's disease, a rare congenital blood problem with an uncertain prognosis. A week later, two weeks after our arrival in the sun belt, we learned that my wife, Doris, had breast cancer and needed a mastectomy. Those were the first two weeks of our new life in the paradise of Southern California.

I remember getting home from the hospital one night after a visit with Doris, too tired to prepare for the next morning's lecture. I flopped on the bed and opened a copy of Life magazine, still coming out every Friday in those days. I paged lazily through it until I came to a section featuring the Nigerian civil war. Pictures of starving Biafran children, skin and bones, bulging empty bellies, knees like hard balls with toothpicks for legs sticking out of them. All the media at the time were throwing these pictures at our almost shock-proof consciences. I shut the magazine tight. I threw it to the floor. I could not look: "I'm sorry, starving children, I am so tired; I need all my pity for myself tonight; I do not have energy to open my heart to compassion for you." I do believe it would have taken a miracle for me to get the door of my heart open to feel the love of a reconciling Christ for those Biafran kids that night. And it took another miracle to get to feel, to deeply, truly, gladly feel that it was all right with me when everything, everything seemed all wrong. I was too tired to feel it by myself.

Ordinary people feel too tired a lot. They come to church and listen to words about a grace that has made life all right at the core, but they cannot find the extra reserve of power to open their hearts to the reality of Jesus Christ and the fact of his grace. God needs to open the door.

The surprise is that God does give us the gift. Sometimes. And sometimes we accept it.

Preaching grace to ordinary people

Sometimes God comes quietly to tell ordinary people that he is around them, above them, under them, in them, and ahead of them, and that with this surrounding shield of strong love, they are going to be all right.

Sometimes people are in the grip of anger that chokes their hearts, stifles their joy, and smothers every intimate relationship. Then God comes in to break the chain of anger and liberate an ordinary person for a new try at love.

Sometimes people live in quiet terror of their own death. Then God comes in to give them a reason for being very glad to be alive just for today.

Sometimes people brood over a depressing memory of some rotten thing they did and cannot forget nor forgive themselves for. Then God comes in to open their hearts to receive the gifts of other ordinary people's forgiveness and so come to forgive themselves.

Sometimes ordinary people wrap themselves like mummies in the suffocating sackcloth of their own self-hatred; and God comes to open their eyes to the extraordinary wonder of their great worth.

All ordinary people have a penchant for sensing that things are in insufferable shape around them. And they often are. Life can be miserable, horrible beyond enduring, the pits. But the secret of grace is that it can be all right at the center even when it is all wrong on the edges. For at the center, where life is open to the Creator and Savior God, we are held, led, loved, cared for, and inseparably bound into the future that he has for every child whom he claims as his.

It took me too long to learn how much I needed George Stob's word about ordinary people. I should have known it a lot earlier. After all, I was one of them. No matter now. The important thing is that an extraordinary gift is available to ordinary people. It is the gift of an open door, the rusty hinged door of angry, hurting, and tired hearts, an open door for a grace that restores us to truth, the truth that, at the depths between ordinary people and God, it is all right and always will be. Preaching that ministers to ordinary people, those overwhelmed failures like you and me, unleashes the grace of God.

The late Lewis Smedes, author of My God and I, was professor emeritus of theology and ethics at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.

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