What Does it Mean to be a Preacher?

I am a preacher.

I say this as a confession, hoping that you will offer me the sacrament of reconciliation. I might pretend to be many other things, but honesty demands that I come clean on this if we are going to be friends. Besides, the only person you should be more suspicious of than a preacher is a preacher who pretends to be something other than a preacher.

As preachers we of course put on different clothes and make believe, which comes off not with the whimsy of a child’s imagination but the peculiar madness of grown men and women playing with paper dolls. We play at being CEO’s or rock stars or life coaches or intellectuals or civic leaders or politicians. “Preachers in drag, preachers at a freak show, step right up and see the bearded lady.” It might be funny at first, like cards or gift calendars where animals are dressed up like people.  Except you stare long enough and then you have to ask yourself: “do they really dress up their dog like a professor every day for real?”

It is understandable why we would pretend to be something different than what we are, because to put it mildly, preachers have limitations.  We are compared to poets, but we generally lack their precision with language, using words with clumsy brute force as often as not.  We are sometimes called prophets, but we are not generally so courageous, especially since our livelihood generally depends on the people we prophesy to. We are not precisely artists, since we lack the artist’s originality.  The preacher’s job is not to paint new things but to repeat old things.  If we were artists none of us would be Rembrandt; we’d be drawing caricatures in a booth at a mall for $10 a picture.  We re-shuffle a deck of words already given to us, only hoping to play the right card at the right time.  We are of no real use to society, certainly not in the ways that engineers and doctors and teachers are useful to society.

I am a preacher.  That means I didn’t decide to do what I’m doing.  I love God, and can say that without hesitation these days, but don’t preach because I necessarily love God more than anyone else.  And certainly not because I can claim any extraordinary holiness.  Preachers are people who have had holiness lay a claim on them, branded with iron.  People talk about a calling, an inner voice, a quiet whisper, a special peace—“calling” that settles on you like morning dew.  What gets left out most of the time is that calling seizes you like an octopus—you are Captain Nemo in the grips of a sea creature 20,000 leagues below.  (Not all preachers experience calling in this way, mind you, where you are as much manacled by something as you are liberated by something.  Only the interesting ones.)

I am other things besides being a preacher.  But while I don’t think any of us can see all the way to the bottom of ourselves, as best as I can tell I am preacher all the way down.  I would like to say I know I am God’s beloved son first, and preach to others that being known as God’s beloved should be the first and truest thing about their identity, the foundation everything else about who they are should be built on.  But I’ll chalk this up to yet another place where my life can’t live up to my preaching, because the truth of being a preacher seems as much at the core of me as anything else.  There is love and there is being known by God, and I try to live from that.  But is it really possible to be a preacher, all the talk of love and grace as true and powerful as it is, and not be a product of terror as well?  Not only captivated by the love of God, but struck with slack jaw horror at the sight of a burning bush somewhere?  Deep down flatly more afraid to not speak for God than to speak for God?

Everybody talks about boundaries and margins and a sense of identity that goes deeper than what you do for God in ministry, and all that is good and well.  But for the preacher, as least for me, there is always this lurking suspicion that some of that is seminary psychobabble.  Of this one thing I am sure: I experience many things in life—friends and hobbies and interests and songs and stories that go far beyond the act of preaching.  But God knows I experience them all as a preacher would.  I laugh as a preacher, I cry as a preacher, I am moved as a preacher.  I do all these things as a preacher would do, not because that is what I aspire to be but what I really am.

I am a preacher, a preacher who hates the sound of his own voice—except for those days of course where I am in love with the sound of my own voice, and neither is particularly good.  I live under the weight of words.  I carry words in my pockets, words in my satchel, words in my heart.  Words, always the words.  Words as pitiable weapons in a world when there are guns for sale at Wal Mart, words as medicine in a world where prescriptions are all we seem to need.  Carrying my words to places where they are impractical and words to places where they are inept.  Delivering words that make some people look at me with the superstitious fear of a witch doctor, a shaman, the village medicine man who has all the answers—words that make people look like the village idiot, a man out of time, a man that won’t move on with the world.

And I know that words cannot always be the answer. But that sometimes they can, and that words can create galaxies and words can burn cities down.  All this damnation and hope at my disposal, all this absurd power—living under the weight of the words.  I wish that I could live up to the greatness of the words, to have a soul big enough and a life noble enough to be worthy of them.  But don’t you see by now—I’m a preacher?  There is nothing greater than the words, they are the stars that light up the night.  Isn’t Jesus Himself called the Word of God?  Only He could bear up under the weight of so many words, only he could exceed the expectation that words create and surpass the reality of what words signify.

I don’t live up to the words, create the words, own the words.  I gaze at them, I gibber with them.  I consume them, I choke on them, I vomit them.  I am a preacher.  Words are all I’ve got, words will have to be enough.

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Jonathan Martin is the lead pastor of Renovatus: A Church for People Under Renovation in Charlotte, NC. He has been married to Amanda Keen for 11 years, and still finds her delightfully mysterious. Jonathan is an avid collector of comic books and is unashamed of his ten-pound shih tzu Cybil, despite the stigma that comes from being a very large man with a very small dog.