The trouble is, there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it, because the irritating preacher is me. It’s one of the drawbacks of a busy speaking ministry: I get to listen to myself a lot. When I’m home in Colorado, I hear myself preach the same message four times in a weekend: the same outline, the same points, even the same spontaneous humour. It gets old. ‘I preach so much, I get sick of the sound of my own voice,’ I muttered to my ever-patient wife, Kay. She proffered a smile of quiet resignation: ‘Yes, darling, I understand completely how you feel...’
So it came as welcome relief to hear somebody else preach for a change. We decided to visit a local church that’s from a denomination quite different from our own. There’s no soft rock worship there, but the throaty tones of an ancient pipe organ. The smell of incense hangs heavy in the air ? which presented me with the challenge of coughing reverently. And the minister has that sing-song parsonical voice; when it comes to style, it’s Mars to our Venus.
But as we made our way in through the ancient porch, I whispered a note to self: I love diversity. Years of involvement in events such as Spring Harvest have surely taught me that my way is not the high way: that I have so much to learn from Christians who express their faith in an unfamiliar style. I’ve surely learned our differences are to be celebrated and respected. Or so I thought.
Slipping into an unyielding wooden pew, waiting for the service to begin, I realised that I was irritated again. I was already anticipating that I wouldn’t like what was about to happen. I’d surely tut-tut at the slightly out-of-tune organ, I’d be frustrated with that clerical voice, and I’d definitely be bored by the sermon, which was bound to be desperately dull. I was warming up to be offended before the proceedings had even begun.
The service began with a kind welcome, the singing got underway, and then it was time for the talk. I settled back and got ready to be frustrated by the tedium to come, but to my amazement, it was brilliant. Accessible, biblical and engaging, the minister spoke with clarity and confidence ? it was outstanding.
I'd gone to Church expecting to be annoyed, and then felt deflated because my prejudices had not been confirmed
But here’s the part I’d rather keep to myself. As we navigated our way through the final hymn, the organ pitch perfect, I realised that I was actually disappointed to not be disappointed I’d gone to church expecting to be annoyed, and then felt deflated because my prejudices had not been confirmed. I was offended because I had no reason to be offended. The service over, we filed out and I shook the minister’s hand, and thanked him for such a wonderful sermon.
There’s a certain myopia that comes with a critical heart. We decide that we don’t like somebody, or come to a quiet, negative conclusion about the church we attend, and then the filtering begins. When we see a fault, we zoom in on it, triumphantly holding it up as exhibit A, evidence that proves we’re in the right, which is where we like to be. Or, like me, we book our tickets for a seat in the offended section well in advance. But then we ignore or minimalise the good things that that person or church does, or even bristle when someone we’ve tagged as suspect actually does something that’s great. Yikes. We can’t have that. It implies that we might actually be wrong.
And so I’m back to being irritated with that minister at our church again. And it’s not just because I get to hear my voice a lot, but because I don’t want a pompous, judgemental heart.
This much is certain: If I hear myself preach a sermon on being negative and critical any time soon, I’ll be the first in line to respond.