By Jared Ayers
A few weeks ago, I pulled my worn, sand-scratched copy of Moby Dick off the shelf in the fiction section of my study. I first immersed myself in Melville’s whale of a novel several years ago, while my family was on summer vacation at the beach in New Jersey (“down the shore,” as they say). With my feet in the sand, the taste of salt in the air, and the wide expanse of the Atlantic stretched out before me, I started reading.
As the story begins, the narrator, a wandering sailor named Ishmael, arrives in the port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and attends a worship service that Sunday at the Whalemen’s Chapel. One of the delightful features of Melville’s sprawling story are his numerous diversions into ship construction, the whaling industry, whale species classification, and more. And so he takes a full three chapters to describe the chapel, the church’s pulpit, and Mapple’s sermon.
Sometimes, as I come unmoored from the holiness of my vocation, or start to wonder what good I’m doing as I open the Scriptures Sunday by Sunday, I re-read Melville’s description of that New Bedford pulpit:
“[The pulpit’s] paneled front was in the likeness of a ship’s bluff blows, and the Holy Bible rested on a projecting piece of scroll work, fashioned after a ship’s fiddle-headed beak.
What could be more full of meaning? -for the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.”
The pulpit is the world’s prow.
Proclamation is where the word of God that creates, blesses, calls, rescues, judges, intervenes- the Word that is made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth- is addressed to real people, in particular places. In God’s holy alchemy, the Word of God in Scripture, and the Word of God in person in Christ Jesus, are let loose in the world through the words of Christian preaching.
Weak Preachers & a Weak Message
I think there are probably a lot of us who need this picture of Melville’s pulpit right now. There are a lot of us who’ve spent months preaching sermons or teaching classes while staring into a computer screen. Or looking out on an empty sanctuary. Or struggling with live-streaming technology. Or despairing of the info-saturation we’re drowning in, and the stubborn, dug-in polarization that surrounds us, and wondering if we’re making a dent at all.
I love that God, in God’s cunning wisdom, actually works with the raw materials of our weakness, vulnerability, and foolishness as women and men proclaim the message of the cross. In a sage discussion of 1 Corinthians 2, where St. Paul unpacks this paradox, the late John Stott wrote in a little book called Basic Christian Leadership:
“We have a weak message (Christ crucified), proclaimed by weak preachers (full of fear and trembling), received by weak hearers… For God chose a weak instrument to bring a weak message (the cross) to weak people… But through this triple weakness the power of God was- and still is- displayed… power through weakness, dramatized in the Lamb on the throne or God on the cross, lies at the very heart of ultimate reality, even of the very being of God himself.”
I pray that this is a moment when we who serve the Church embrace our weakness and vulnerability, proclaim the Crucified One with confidence, and find that God is still speaking, still creating, still making all things new.
Because the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete- and the pulpit is the prow.
Jared Ayers serves as the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in North Palm Beach, Florida. Prior to this, he founded and served as the senior pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of Western Theological Seminary & the Newbigin House of Studies. Jared and his wife Monica have been married for 16 years, and have been graced with two sons and a daughter.
Excellent message. I think I will have to pull out my copy of Moby Dick; it has been on the shelf for years. I wonder if the “Pulpit is the Prow”, how Melville would use the portion of the ship’s bow below the waterline. Could it be what we do “for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” that no one sees?
Thanks for this, Jared. And blessings on your ministry there in Florida.
Melville’s image of the prow of a ship plowing through heavy seas is a far cry from Stott’s “weakness,” which strikes me as an apology for pulpits having lost their way. The weakness of Christ displays itself in the Sermon on the Mount and with the cleansing of the Temple … Paul’s weakness got him constantly in trouble, and finally got him death. Women and men of Christian history have been “weak in the LORD,” but not timid in the pulpit, and not bashful with the truths that liberate the poor and the oppressed, those denied a place at the table by those who want the whole table for themselves. The South, for example, along with Charles Hodge of the North, invented the demonic idea of the “spirituality of the church,” to insure that its ministers wouldn’t address the issues of slavery and the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow culture. A dear friend of mine (gentle, but not weak), now with the LORD, lost his pulpit in the mid-60s for daring to address civil rights; the congregation wanted nothing of that, and so ousted him. Stott’s “weakness” (published 2009) is a far cry from the biblical meaning, but one more moment in spiritual timidity, an affliction of American Protestantism/evangelicalism wherein ministers are paid to tickle the ears of the comfortable, and the more tickling, better the pay. And these days, of course, “cute” churches no longer have pulpits, but platforms with prancing ministers well-dressed in pressed jeans and untucked shirts, or, a bit more formal, with a sport coat. We can learn much from Melville, but more so from Christ and those who have braved the fierce winds of prejudice and empire, speaking truth to power, and often paying dearly for it.
Moby Dick has special meaning for me. I read it for a course I took at night many years ago and was overwhelmed with the book. My husband probably read it in his youth but picked it up after an accident and read it. I am not sure how he read it because his memory was affected. Maybe his knowing the story helped but Charlie read the entire book. That was the only book he read after our accident. He lived for nine years and deeply loved the Lord until the very end. So Moby Dick has many pleasant memories for me and my family.
This! This is why the pulpit exists. To proclaim the truth of God’s word in a dying world. To lead poor sinners to the miracle of the new creation.
“Proclamation is where the word of God that creates, blesses, calls, rescues, judges, intervenes- the Word that is made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth- is addressed to real people, in particular places.” Thanks for the reminder, I will use this in my homiletics class tonight. Words create worlds in minds.
Love this image, Jared. Thanks for the reference to Melville’s novel. Yes. Leading from weakness (vulnerability) is not easy today. There is a deep and abiding desire to save our lives, not lose them. The ship of salvation has a prow. Death and resurrection.: The Central Paradox.