One of my favorite novels is “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson. It’s a fictional diary written by an elderly Congregationalist minister to his 7-year-old son, whom he sees as a blessing from God in his old age, much as Abraham saw Isaac. The letter is full of the gentle wisdom of a lonely man granted an unexpected second chance at love and fatherhood, a man whose joy vibrates on every page. He knows his time is limited, and that fact makes him all the more alert to the simple wonders of nature and family.
As John Ames reflects on his 50-year preaching career in the novel, he wonders what to do with the boxes of his old sermons in the attic. He has spent half a century in one place. He’s not published any books, nor gone on any speaking tours. He’s just preached for one small Iowa congregation week after week, year after year. And he has stacks of handwritten sermons that he has never thrown away — thousands of pages that contain a lifetime of thinking about God.
Ames wonders if anyone would ever want to read them, and he has to admit the chances are pretty slim. It pains him to think that his life’s work will likely be thrown out someday — the fruit of his study and wisdom tossed to the curb. But he also realizes that a sermon’s value doesn’t reside in handwriting on a page, but in the changed hearts of the people whose faith he has nurtured by steady decades of teaching. His congregants may only be able to remember a handful of individual lessons, but his collective work is deeply imprinted in their lives.
I thought of John Ames when my preacher had a heart attack on March 30. Thanks to the mercy of God and the gifted professionals attwo hospitals, Noel Whitlock madeit through open-heart surgery and is recovering. I imagine the prayers coming from the College Church and throughout Searcy jammed the divine switchboards. I am still sending quite a few myself. And I’ve realized — as people always do at these moments — that life is too precious and too fragile not to say what needs to be said.
Noel followed a very popular preacher when he came to College, but I’ve never seen a minister become so ingrained and beloved in a church family so quickly. College Church is a big place, and he seemed to know everyone within weeks. The children love him. The seniors love him. Even the English teachers who attend have warmed to him. And I for one am deeply grateful for the imprint his encouragement and teaching have made in my life.
Someday Noel may sift through his file cabinet of sermons. Maybe he’ll recall the time shortly after he came to College Church eight years ago that he combed the church building and found every abandoned Bible, piled them high on the stage, and threatened to read the names in each one out loud as he preached on the importance of studying God’s word. Or maybe he’ll think of the dramatic monologue he gave as Eliab, David’s oldest brother, helping us feel the tensions in David’s family amidst his triumph over Goliath. Perhaps he’ll glance over the notes from his series on dealing with stress, or his lessons from Nehemiah, or his study on how to be the kind of church that will make people want to take a second look.
A sermon may seem like an ephemeral thing — spoken on Sunday and hardly remembered much beyond. But as I open my Bible, attendance cards fall out with sermon notes scribbled on them. In “The Fate of John the Baptist” (2008), I learned to pity King Herod, alone with his conscience. In “Three Levels of Giving” (2007), Noel showed me what I had to learn about generosity from three anonymous women in the Bible. And on two pink visitor’s cards — front and back — I jotted down every point from “The Death of a Christian” (2011), a sermon that warmed my spirit just a few months after I lost my father.
Every time Noel speaks candidly from the pulpit about his own struggles as a Christian, I hear my own difficulties echoed. Every time he calls our church family to stretch ourselves, I think of what spiritual muscles I need to exercise. And every time he cracks up the entire auditorium with one of his witty one-liners, I plan to steal it.
We surely are spoiled in Searcy. So many gifted ministers labor in congregations large and small here, and each one deserves thanks. But you don’t need your own Bison column to say so — just tell your preacher and church leaders what they mean to you. And keep sending those prayers up for Noel and for his family. I look forward to seeing him back in the pulpit soon after he’s had time to heal. His generous heart is one this town isn’t ready to let go of anytime soon.