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Speaking from My Holy of Holies (part 2)

How all-too-human preachers can prepare their souls to preach.

This is part two of a two-part series. In part one, Ortberg reminded us that we always speak in the presence of God.

Listen to your hidden curriculum.

Educators often refer to a concept called the hidden curriculum. This concept suggests that in a classroom, there is a formal curriculum that includes things like math problems, writing assignments, or science experiments. But there's also a hidden curriculum, which involves issues like who wants to sit next to whom, and whom does the teacher look at, and whom does the teacher tend to call on? Hidden curriculum teaches students who matters and who doesn't, who's bright and who's left out. If there is inconsistency between the hidden curriculum and the formal curriculum, research shows that students always believe hidden curriculum.

If I'm to preach to people effectively, I must be freed from my need for their approval and applause.

Jesus gets at this idea when he tells the religious leaders in Matthew 12:37, "Your idle words will condemn you." I always assumed that meant: Don't speak casually; you're always supposed to say something important. But I don't think that's what Jesus means. He's saying: It's what you say when you're not trying to be spiritual, and when you're not formally preaching, that reveals the state of your heart.

So, trying to preach great sermons without seeking to become the kind of person who's always in the presence of Jesus is ultimately defeating. If I preach and say the most profound truths in Scripture, my "idle words," the words I say off the clock, can undo all the good I tried to do in my sermon. Far more important than putting together a great sermon is training yourself to become the kind of person who speaks all of your words in front of God.

Tend to the Holy of Holies.

The theologian Abraham Kuyper likened the human soul to the tabernacle in the Old Testament. You have an outer court, which is the public domain. That's where you work, where you shop, and where you go to school. Preaching is often done as an outer court activity. I prepare the words ahead of time. I think through what I want to say. I'm very aware of the fact that I'm doing this as a public activity.

You also have an inner court. This is the place where you invite family, friends, and people that you love deeply. You share a deeper level of your life in the inner court. Not everybody gets to the inner court—certainly not your whole church.

But then inside the tabernacle—way inside—is the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies is a deeply private space that is shared only by you and God. No other human being can ever enter your Holy of Holies, but you are never alone there. That is the space for you and God. One thing I didn't understand about preaching when I first started, because it was such a public, outer court activity, is that it will drain you spiritually if the Holy of Holies is not rich and full.

The task of preaching tempts me to think that I am the same person in the outer court as I am deep inside. The truth is, we can dress things up really well in the outer court, while things may actually be neglected or dying in the Holy of Holies.

The most important question is, How is my life in the Holy of Holies? Am I living the life that I'm inviting other people to live? If not, none of the rest matters.

Hold words lightly, and let go.

Few people live that kind of life, and I try to learn from them as much as I can. For me, one of those people is Dallas Willard. As both a writer and as a person, he lives in light of the kingdom.

Our church once dedicated a weekend to exploring spiritual formation, and Dallas was one of the people who spoke for a group of leaders. When he finished, we walked out to the car, and he just shuffled along, singing a hymn to himself.

What struck me as I watched him was how differently he acted after speaking than I normally do. Dallas wasn't asking the questions I tend to gnaw on: How did I do? What went well? What didn't? Did people like that? Why do I dwell on such things? Because if the congregation liked my sermon, I can feel good about myself. I can feed on that satisfaction. If they didn't like it, then that's bad, and I'm kind of sad.

But watching Dallas was like watching a kid let go of a helium balloon. He wanted to be helpful to folks, but he offered his words and let them go. Neither his words nor people's reactions to them had any power over his well being. That part was hidden with Christ in God. That's the kind of person I want to become.

Do you ever watch people at a bowling alley? What happens when they let go of the ball? It's out of their hand, but they're worried it's not going to end up in the right place. So they start moving to the left or to the right, twisting their bodies, waving their arms, or talking to the ball. The secret to joyful bowling is, when you let it go, let it go. One of the secrets to preaching is, when you let it go, let it go.

Carve out a satisfying life with God.

We were made for soul satisfaction, so we cannot live with chronically dissatisfied souls for very long. If we do not find satisfaction in God's goodness to us, we will look for satisfaction someplace else. It's soul dissatisfaction that makes sin look good. Any time you see somebody in ministry who has fallen, you can be sure they were living with a chronically dissatisfied soul. What's really sad isn't just the ditch they end up in; what's sad is the days, months, and years they were living with a dissatisfied soul. It eventually catches up with them and makes bad look good.

When someone asked Dallas Willard, "How many times have you seen a person in ministry fail morally when it was not caused by a dissatisfied soul?" He replied, "Never." At the soul level, if I believe I cannot trust God to care for the satisfaction of my soul, I will take my soul's satisfaction into my own hands. I may not acknowledge that even to myself. But carving out a satisfying and joyful life with God is a fundamental discipline for those of us who preach.

Jesus exhibited this kind of total freedom in which he was free to help people, and he was free to confront where they needed confrontation, and he was free to comfort when they needed comfort. This is fundamentally crucial in the preparation of the soul. If I'm to preach to people effectively, I must be freed from my need for their approval and applause. As long as I am chained to that need, my preaching will really be trying to fill something in me that I can never fill.

Life in the kingdom means living in freedom and in the reality of truths like "The Lord is my Shepherd." If the Lord really is my Shepherd, then I shall not want. I won't have to be driven by the desire for more applause or more approval. I've got someplace else to stand—in the presence of God.

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

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