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.