Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Tough Roots of Habitual Tenderness IV

One other aspect of the pattern of Newton's tenderness calls for attention. It is the language he used in making the truth winsome and healing. Newton had the eye and heart and tongue of a spiritual poet, and this gave his speech a penetrating power that many Reformed preachers desperately need. He wrote hymns and poems for his people and for special occasions. Instead of excessive abstraction in his preaching, there was the concrete word and illustration. Instead of generalizing, there was the specific bird or flower or apple or shabby old man.

He had an eye that saw everything as full of divine light for ministry to people. For example, in his diary for July 30, 1776 Newton describes his watching the eclipse of the moon.
Tonight I attended an eclipse of the moon. How great, O Lord, are thy works! With what punctuality do the heavenly bodies fulfill their courses. . . . I thought, my Lord, of Thine eclipse. The horrible darkness which overwhelmed Thy mind when Thou saidst, "Why hast thou forsaken me?" Ah, sin was the cause—my sins—yet I do not hate sin or loathe myself as I ought."
Oh how we preachers need eyes like this. Seeing God and his ways everywhere in nature and life and making our communications full of concreteness from daily life.
Newton's language was full of this kind of thing. Most of us tend to gravitate to abstractions. We say, "Men tend to choose lesser pleasures and reject greater ones." But Newton says, "The men of this world are children. Offer a child an apple and bank note, he will doubtless choose the apple."  

This is not merely a matter of style. It is a matter of life and vitality. It is a sign to your people that your mind is healthy and a means to awakening their health. Sick minds can only deal in abstractions and cannot get outside themselves to be moved by concrete, external wonders. And you will never be a tender person toward your people if you merely communicate the heaviness of unhealthy concepts and theories rather than the stuff of the world in which they live. This kind of communication was part and parcel of his winsome, humble, compelling tenderness.
And yes there is a crucial place for humor in this pattern of tenderness—not the contrived levity of so many "communicators" today that know how to work an audience—but the balanced, earthy experience of the way the world really is in its horror and humor. There would be more real laughter if there were more real tears. "One day by a strong sneeze he shook off a fly which had perched upon his gnomon, and immediately said: 'Now if this fly keeps a diary, he'll write Today a terrible earthquake.'" At another time, when asked how he slept, he instantly replied: "I'm like a beef-steak—once turned, and I am done."  What these quips indicate is a healthy mind awake to the world and free from bondage to morose speculations or introspection. This kind of mental health is essential for a pastor to be tender, winsome minister to the whole range of human experience.

(The fourth of several excerpts from a lecture for pastors by John Piper; the full text and audio can be found here.)

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