When President James Garfield was shot in a train station in the summer of 1881, Americans held their breath for 79 days, hoping against hope their president would survive. As the president’s condition worsened and the political process came to a grinding halt, many began to dread the thought of vice-president Chester Arthur becoming president.
What was wrong with Chester Arthur? For one, Arthur was perceived to be a loyal parrot in the political pocket of one of Garfield’s fiercest critics, senator Roscoe Conkling. Arthur was perceived as a man without his own beliefs and convictions. He simply parroted the views of his political hero.
Secondly, many thought Arthur had no depth of insight. Harriet Blaine, wife of Garfield’s Secretary of State, described him this way:
“I do not think he knows anything… He can quote a verse of poetry or a page from Dickens or Thackery, but these are only leaves springing from a root out of dry ground. His vital forces are not fed, and very soon he has given out his all.” (Source)
Chester Arthur did become president, and he eventually exceeded the low expectations that Americans had of him. But those of us who preach and teach can learn a couple of lessons from Arthur.
The first concerns hero-worship. Do we simply parrot the views of our pastor-heroes? Or do we dig into the Scriptures to find treasure on our own?
A couple years ago, an elderly woman in our church asked me a theological question I hadn’t considered before. Rather than going to the Bible, I went straight to the Internet, where I began searching for a respected pastor’s views on the subject. Before I found his answer, I was struck by how wrongheaded and dangerous my approach was. I had rushed to hear the preacher before I had slowed down to hear the text.
How backwards! I should have approached it the other way around: search the Scriptures first and then look for verification from respected pastors and commentaries. Had the Holy Spirit not convicted me, I would have gone back to my sister in Christ and parroted an answer from another pastor who had studied the issue more intently. And I would have missed the joy of carefully handling the Word myself.
The second lesson we can learn from Arthur is the importance of heart-cultivation.
Harriet Blaine’s disdain for Chester Arthur did not concern his speaking abilities. She admitted that he could quote poetry. But notice how she described his speech: These are only leaves springing from a root out of dry ground. His vital forces are not fed, and very soon he has given out his all. In other words, once you got past the flowery leaf, you were left with dry ground. He had nothing else to offer.
I wonder how many of us would fit that description. We can keep the attention of a crowd. We can throw in some rhetorical flourishes here and there, and we can quote famous pastors and commentators. But all the while, our hearts are dry. Our lips are parched. “Our vital forces are not fed.” We go to the Scriptures looking for a three-point outline, not for life and sustenance.
It’s easy to repeat a few one-liners and rile up a crowd. But the best preaching contains depth of insight that only comes from lengthy meditation upon the Word. There are no shortcuts.
It’s no wonder we sometimes feel burned out. The only possible way that a pastor could say, “I don’t have anything left to preach,” is if the ground of his heart is dry and the leaves of his Bible study from years past have withered.
I don’t want to parrot the views of the pastors I respect. I also don’t want my preaching to be “leaves springing from a root out of dry ground.” Instead, I want to be like Ezra, who determined in his heart to study the law of the Lord, obey it, and teach its statutes and ordinances in Israel (Ezra 7:10).
Too many of us settle for the “teaching” aspect of ministry without having passed through the “study” and “obey” parts. So our theology becomes incoherent, and our exhortations no longer originate in a heartfelt passion that mirrors God’s passion for His people. Others jump from “studying” to “teaching” without the “obedience” part. So our intellectual muscle may be robust and admirable, but our feet of obedience are shriveled and useless.
Here is a great quote from Charles Spurgeon, who challenged his ministerial students to always be “full to overflowing,” to the point that they should be able to preach spontaneously:
If a man would speak without any present study, he must usually study much. This is a paradox perhaps, but its explanation lies upon the surface.
If I am a miller, and I have a sack brought to my door, and am asked to fill that sack with good fine flour within the next five minutes, the only way in which I can do it, is by keeping the flour-bin of my mill always full, so that I can at once open the mouth of the sack, fill it, and deliver it. I do not happen to be grinding at that time, and so far the delivery is extemporary; but I have been grinding before, and so have the flour to serve out to the customer. So, brethren, you must have been grinding, or you will not have the flour.
You will not be able to extemporize good thinking unless you have been in the habit of thinking and feeding your mind with abundant and nourishing food. Work hard at every available moment. Store your minds very richly, and then, like merchants with crowded warehouses, you will have goods ready for your customers, and having arranged your good things upon the shelves of your mind, you will be able to hand them down at any time without the laborious process of going to market, sorting, folding, and preparing… Take it as a rule without exception, that to be able to overflow spontaneously you must be full.
Adapted from a post on October 10, 2011.