Rev. John Farmer’s ‘Reflections’ column

By Rev. John Howard Farmer

Visit the Irvington Baptist Church website

Pulpit to Heart

Once a brave chap dared ask me how do I preach, how do I start a message? Wow! I told him that I preach out of the overflow of God’s forgiveness, blessings in my life and love for his people. I fail miserably at themes, theologies and liturgical schedules. More often than not it’s when God’s remembered me a hymn or poem, lecture, news blurb, or text that has blessed or challenged me.

Let me share a few of my sacred desk heroes.

A preacher who inspired me greatly was Gardner Taylor, an African-American Baptist pastor dubbed the “prince of preachers,” who died on Easter Sunday, 2015, at age 96. When I met him, Taylor was pastor emeritus at Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Televangelist Robert H. Schuller also died in 2015. I shared the rescue of his former evangelical church to a Catholic cathedral in California a few days back. His style was an integration of John Calvin with the positive thinking of Norman Vincent Peale (1898–1993). Schuller, like many others of radio and television fame, learned the power of TV, which gave his listeners direct, personal eye contact with the voice from the sacred desk.

George A. Buttrick (1892-1980) was born in Northumberland, England. His pulpit ministry brought him to Illinois. Later he was called to New York City, where in 1927 he succeeded Henry Sloane Coffin (1877-1954) as minister of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. He disdained the printing of his sermons believing that sermons are for the heart and ear to mature, not the eye to edit. Buttrick was a wordsmith like no other.

Frederick Buechner (American writer and theologian, born 1926, NYC) spoke of his conversion during a sermon preached by Buttrick at Madison Avenue Church through the extraordinary use of words, when Buttrick said “Christ is crowned king in the heart of the believer amid confession and tears and great laughter.”

As a student and seminary employee (1970s) it was my abiding good fortune to having been exposed to all three of these powerful voices from the pulpit.

I first encountered Taylor in a chapel service on a morning following a class in preaching. Mind you, it was perhaps the most boring lecture I had endured, where the dear professor droned on and on about eye contact with one’s audience.

I sat as close as I could to Pastor Taylor. I’ve long ago forgotten his message, yet not his countenance. Immediately upon mounting the sacred desk, he leant his tall frame over on the pulpit, drooping a long arm and elbow, he cradled his face in his hands and hardly ever looked at anyone. The weight of his message came only through his voice. His eyes were on heaven.

During the 1970s we survived upon money from odd seminary jobs, the running of errands for faculty and staff, picking up and delivery of special visitors from the Louisville airport, along with part-time work at a Dunkin Donut Shop. I also I pastored a part-time church in Elizabethtown, KY, 60 miles away.

Once I was to pick up Dr. Schuller at the airport, get him to the Chapel on time, and return him to fly back to his Crystal Cathedral. He entered the sanctuary charged with enthusiasm and offered his story of Jesus. He preached and sang, comparing the legend of Don Quixote’s life to our Lord’s. His sermon ended with most of the congregation up on their feet, some clapping, some laughing, and some crying. Others more scholarly endowed had left partway through his message.

The now retired Pastor H. Craig Smith (Morattico Baptist Church), my brother in ministry, and I took a preaching class together.

George Arthur Buttrick, then retired and teaching at the Presbyterian and Baptist seminaries, gave a January short-term class. From roll call to dismissal, Buttrick would soar over us and drag us emotionally through the events of the day, and ancient history, as foretold in our Bibles.

His sermonic preparation was simple, he wrote at a word a minute, capitalized the first sentence of every paragraph, and carried his full manuscript to the pulpit. With whisper, shout, grand dramatic gestures, he sucked his audience into the Bible story.

I’ve never met a man who was so powerful and skilled at surprise, language and decorum. Buttrick had long since stopped driving. Once he wanted to attend a sermon east of Louisville and asked me for a ride. The young pastor there began his service, overwhelmed that Dr. Buttrick, the younger, was preaching and his Dad, Buttrick the elder, was in the audience. The pastor dared call upon the elder to lead in a word of prayer.

Professor B. asked me to help him rise. He thrust his voice forward with a decline, saying he hadn’t come to pray, rather to listen. However, “I will return on the morrow, to give the offertory prayer.”

Back to the question at the beginning: I show up, stand up and preach (with great redundancy) upon some Biblical page, chapter, topic or another for 10-15 minutes until I am tired (or until Bob Fleet starts tapping upon his watch) and shut up, sometimes too late. At times the rest of the story was printed here in the Rappahannock Record.

How to preach? Read your Bible, believe it, be yourself, and share your personal faith’s struggles and experiences the best way you can. Works for me.