“For if the Word of God is alive and active … my final word is not the final word on God’s Word.”
It’s taken me 59 years, but I am finally trying to listen to my body. The fact that it is talking to me more loudly than ever before may have something to do with my newfound attention to it. The arrival of grandkids has been a catalyst for change as well. The invitation to get down on the floor and play trucks is one I want to accept, as will be the ones to swim, fish, play ball, ride bikes, or any of the other hundred things I dream of doing with them.
Unfortunately, decades of undisciplined eating, pious pooh-poohing of any need for regular exercise, and an overdose of teenage machismo have left me with a temperamental back, a tight shoulder, a wonky hip, a weak wrist … am I boring you yet? So I’m trying to listen to my body. And to my wife, who reads articles on healthy living—out loud. She tells me salt is not good for me. So I don’t touch the saltshaker anymore. I’m told I need to eat more vegetables. I think potato chips and carrot cake should pass muster. I’m told they don’t. She informs me we should be eating less red meat. I argue that it’s brown when it comes off the grill. It’s hard to break lifelong habits. But listening to my body and my wife is paying off. I’ve gained a new wardrobe and I’m not stopping halfway up a flight of stairs to catch my breath these days.
Listening to the physical body is a wise and healthy thing to do.
And I believe that listening to the Body of Christ is a wise and healthy thing to do as well.
For the past number of years, our church community has been practising what I call “Body hermeneutics.” We have the advantage of being small enough to facilitate verbal interaction with the sermon. Sometimes this interaction happens during the sermon. It always happens at the end of the preaching/teaching time. For the first three decades of my preaching life, I ended my sermons with either a call to the altar or a prayer of benediction. Now, when I finish speaking, I close my folder of notes and ask, “What do you think?” Then we try to listen to the Body. I’m not talking about a question and answer time where the preacher gets another opportunity to be the voice of authority on the Scriptures. I’m talking about a time when we listen to the Body of Christ—the Church—interpret the Word in ways that I, the preacher, did not or could not. Together, we listen to the Body hermeneutic. For if the Word of God is alive and active—as the writer to the Hebrews tells us it is (Hebrews 4:12)—then my final word is not the final word on God’s Word. When I surrender my need to have the final say and listen to the Body’s response to God’s Word, I am always challenged and enriched by what I hear.
In his foreword to Roger E. Van Harn’s book Pew Rights, Thomas G. Long writes: “If preachers listen before they preach, they will … create sermons more effectively tailored to build up the Body of Christ. If they listen as they preach, they will be more faithful to the dialogical character of the gospel itself. If they also listen after they preach, they will be humbled by the frailty of their sermonic words while, at the same time, awed by the ways in which the Word takes root and grows in the lives of faithful people.”
This summer I experienced another way of listening to the Body when I had the privilege of speaking at Wesley Acres Free Methodist Camp. Over a span of eight days, I preached nine sermons under the “big top” they erect for family camp each year. The physical setting is idyllic. With the flaps lowered on the sides of tent, the congregation gazes out over the waters of West Lake to the dunes of Sandbanks Provincial Park on the distant shore. Birds think nothing of flying through the “sanctuary” while you preach. One night a chipmunk perched itself on the altar prayer rail as we sang our worship to God.
Understandably, the setting was not ideal for the kind of response I have become used to when I finish preaching a sermon. To close my folder of notes and ask, “What do you think?” was not going to work here. But, at the end of my second night’s sermon, I did something I had not planned on doing until I was sitting in my chair waiting for the service to begin. On the last page of my notes, I wrote a prayer of response to the passage of Scripture I was preaching on. When I finished preaching that night and the worship team had led us in a closing song, I returned to the platform and read my prayer. Then I suggested that people write a prayer of their own in response to the Word, and that maybe I could read some of them aloud the next night.
I was astounded, not only by the number of prayers that found their way into the bag hanging on the doorknob of my room, but by their raw honesty and depth. During each successive service I read the prayers I’d received that day, and we listened to the Body. I struggled to get through some of the prayers without weeping. Some of them lit the tent with laughter; others triggered an empathetic “Yes!” More than one of the prayers left behind a wake of holy quietness into which I had to step with my sermon. I did so in fear and trembling.
Listening to the Body is a wise and healthy thing to do. 1
Roger E. Van Harn, Pew Rights: For People Who Listren to Sermons
(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing COmpany, 1992), ix. This article appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of
testimony, a bimonthly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, and won a 2015 Word Guild award in the Best Column category