This past January my preaching group spent a week in Malibu with Professor Christine Yoder. Christine teaches Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and the week she spent with us was as engaging as any in my memory.
She has written a commentary on the Book of Proverbs, so we spent most of the week thinking about the sages and what they have to say to us. It was an amazing week, and I still find specific proverbs popping into my head when something happens.
Not too long ago I found myself seated in a beautiful sanctuary before a worship service was to begin. It was the first time I had ever been in that sanctuary, and I was simply there as a member of the congregation. I had no official responsibility, which is a rare and welcomed gift for a pastor.
As I waited for the service to begin, people began to take their seats around me. The pastor who would be leading the service was already seated in the chancel. He was clearly preparing himself for the service to come, and I prayed silently along with him, as well as for him.
Two people seated in the pew just ahead of mine began to talk about the pastor. One commented about how much weight he had lost recently, and that he really looked pretty good. The other said something about his work among that congregation and how much she enjoyed his sermons. It was clear they were looking at their pastor through grace-filled and loving eyes.
As I listened to them, a word from the sages sprang to mind: “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16:24).
When I turned my head back to where the pastor was sitting, he looked different somehow. I was no longer looking at a stranger. I was now seeing through the eyes of those women. He had been changed in the twinkling of an eye. Or perhaps it was in the parting of the lips. By the power of those “pleasant words,” a community was being formed.
It didn’t last long. Before I knew it, I found myself listening to some people seated behind me who were talking about the same pastor. “Just look at him,” I heard one of them say. “He just sits there. He never talks to anybody. And he can’t preach at all. He doesn’t even use the Bible in his sermons. Oh, he reads the Bible before his sermon, but that’s it. He’s no preacher.”
That voice was marked by a seething bitterness that sounded far too comfortable on her lips. Whether she knew it or not, she had just destroyed the community by whispering to her neighbor. As the sages put it, “A perverse person spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends” (Proverbs 16:28).
Here’s the truth: You are going to have to deal with whisperers from time to time. It happens in schools, at the office, in your neighborhood. Though this story centered on a pastor, it could have just as easily been about a teacher or an organist or a neighbor.
Anywhere community can be found, you can bet that a whisperer will be there as well. And it will not take you long to figure out why the sages call the whisperer an abomination to the Lord.
When I looked at that pastor as the service began, I had a choice to make. Would I put on the lens that allowed me to look with love and grace? Or would I choose the lens of bitterness and separation? Believe me, there is a world of difference in the two.
As much as I hate to admit it, I think I was tainted more by the whisperer’s testimony than by the other’s. An abomination indeed.