If pulpits could speak… I’ve preached from a variety of pulpits. One was ornate polished marble, another, translucent smoky plastic. Some have been portable handcrafted pulpits – like the beauty my son-in-law made from cherry and walnut trees cut down by a nephew. Some have been massive. Some have been too short for me. Some tall pulpits come equipped with a step stool for shorter preachers.
Once I was asked to speak to a group of men who during good weather – met monthly on a large deck that overlooked a picturesque lake. The pulpit was homemade and custom dictated that the speaker sign it. As I was introduced, the host said: “Let’s welcome Bostrom to the rostrum.”
“Rostrum” is from Latin – rostrum, the name of the platform used by public speakers at the Forum in ancient Rome. That platform was decorated with prows of ships taken in Rome’s first naval victory. Rostrum’s older sense is “end of a ship’s prow,” literally, “beak, muzzle, snout.” The original verb is rodere “to gnaw” (see rodent). Rats! – see how word origins can lead to trouble!
The pulpit we had in our church in South Carolina was an antique shipped from Scotland. The preacher stepped up and entered this pulpit. The preacher who followed me found it too confining and chose another style. Some preachers find any pulpit too confining. Some take off their shoes before approaching the pulpit. This is holy ground.
“Pulpit” is from Late Latin – pulpitum – “raised structure on which preachers stand.” Note, this is not the “desk” we think of – but the platform – perhaps even a stool. Street preachers, like John Wesley, were advised: It is an immense advantage to stand on a stool or chair, some raised platform, when speaking to an ordinary street crowd (“Definite Directions for Open-air Preaching,” by Gawin Kirkham).
A pulpit presumes a preacher who stands. In some cultures preachers sat. The Latin word for the seat from which these preachers spoke was called a “cathedra” – hence the building was called a “cathedral.”
Teddy Roosevelt popularized the term “bully pulpit.” An unusual use of “pulpit” is “coward’s castle” – defined as “the place where a clergyman may speak without fear of contradiction.” Who would not desire such a place of privilege?
As a young man, Mark Twain hankered for such privilege. He had two great ambitions – to be a riverboat pilot and to be a preacher – a Presbyterian minister at that! He became a pilot – but never a preacher. At thirteen, his daughter, Susy, wrote about her father: He doesn’t like to go to church at all, but why I never understood until just now. He told us the other day that he couldn’t bear to hear anyone talk but himself, and that he could listen to himself talk for hours without getting tired, of course he said this is a joke, but I’ve no dought [sic] it was founded on truth. [Writings 37:83]
Then there was the time that Twain heard a fine sermon. He thought: “I’ll put $50 in the plate!” But the preacher went on. So, Twain thought: “I’ll put $45 in the offering.” Finally, when the sermon was over, Twain took $5 out of the plate. What do we do with a preacher who goes on and on?
Using “pulpit” in the original sense raises other questions like: “Upon what does the preacher really stand?” “What does he proclaim from this advantaged place?” “Must a preacher look down on his speakers when he uses a pulpit?”
A preacher I love once told me he had been greatly impacted by 2 Corinthians 4:5: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” With his son, this preacher had traveled to India to meet Chandra, a pastor he respected. When they arrived, the Indian pastor read this Corinthians passage to my friend and asked him these questions:
- “Do you preach yourself?” My friend wisely responded, “I hope not.” We want to preach Christ and His Word. But, even when we attempt to do that we can still preach ourselves. Leaders are tempted to preach their own agenda from the frame of reference they know best – themselves.
- “Do you preach Jesus Christ as Lord?” He responded, “I hope so.” If we do not, our churches are merely another sociological phenomena – a club.
- “Do you preach yourself as a slave (the word is better translated slave than the softer translation of ‘servant’) to God’s people for Jesus’ sake?” He said, “No, I do not.” The Indian pastor replied: “You are right. No independent American would preach that he was a slave.”
As you consider what preachers preach, those of you who take communion may be startled to learn that the Bible calls you a preacher too. Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim (from Greek – katangello “to announce publicly – preach”) the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26). The Lord’s death – the cross of Christ – My Life for Yours – the love of God confirmed – is a platform so inspiring that your participation in communion is a megaphone declaring that you stand upon what Christ has done. Christian, at communion, you preach Christ!
“Preach” is from Latin prae “before” (see pre) + dicare “to proclaim, to say.” Preaching is literally “declaring the first things.” Taking communion is preaching the gospel to yourself and to others. In communion, you give preeminence and priority to the gospel – this is the message that goes before whatever else you have to say.
Receiving the Eucharist is rooted deep in the soil of not-doing. In this intentional, disciplined passivity we become aware that the work of salvation is far wider and deeper than just us. In God’s saving work, God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves – and so we simply let God do it. The Eucharist puts Jesus in his place: dying on the cross and giving us His sacrificed life. And it puts us in our place: opening our hands and receiving the remission of our sins, which is our salvation. (Eugene Peterson, “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places,” pp 202,203).
My favorite physical pulpit is the one that gave me a surprise. As I climbed the spiral stairs of the pulpit in the sanctuary of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah, Georgia, just before I rounded the last corner to see the congregation, a brass plaque quoting John’s Gospel momentarily stopped me. John 12:21 refers to foreigners who had come to Jerusalem for the Day of Atonement. They told Phillip: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Exactly.
Christian, you are a pulpit. Preach Jesus from the pulpit of your life. Some have come far to see him.
Sucking out (some of) the marrow-nourishment from the bone-words with you,
PS Mel, a friend from Montana, replied: I see where you quoted that Teddy Roosevelt popularized the term “bully pulpit.” He had a ranch over on the Little Missouri River in Western N.D. near Medora. There is a nice 18 hole Golf Course south of Medora named “The Bully Pulpit Golf Course”, in honor of Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt got the name Old Four Eyes in Wibaux, Montana.
PPS Pastor Joe Novenson replied: Thanks for wisdom and for remembering my friend Chanda’s words. His memory brings sweet tears to my eyes. He is home in glory!
A thankful student of Jesus through you! Joe