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JOE LAGUARDIA: Preachers should use the pulpit to deliver words of healing and hope, not harm

Some preachers put the "bully" in bully pulpit. All of us can tell at least one story of a preacher who said something that went over the line simply because he thought he could say almost anything from the pulpit.

In fact, the pulpit plays such a central role in most Protestant churches, that many preachers end up abusing their office simply because they fill them, thus usurping the sanctity of the pulpit altogether.

My wife tells one horrific story about her old pastor who compared sin with a "dirty" feminine product. She was entering middle school at the time and suffered from the awkwardness that accompanies girls her age. Her family stopped going to that church, and it took her years to sit in a Baptist church without getting uncomfortable.

One of our parishioners at Trinity tells of a funeral she attended for a stillborn baby. The preacher, hired just for the occasion, declared that "that baby" died because the first-time parents did not attend a church.

Although these two stories are certainly not the norm, abuse from the pulpit happens more than many Christians care to think.

I am not without excuse. I too have shared some ignorant things from the pulpit a time or two.

Yet, we pastors must take great care to balance the challenge of the Gospel with what the early 20th century preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, called "pastoral care on a community scale." Just because we pastors are called to be truth-tellers doesn't mean we have the right to be jerks.

There have been several trends in churches that have undermined the sanctity of the pulpit.

One trend is to elevate the authority of the pastor to that of congregational theocrat. The pastor is the only one who can declare what is right and wrong in the church and to set the precedent for what doctrines are God-approved. If a person questions the pastor, then he or she is not in agreement with God.

A second trend is to remove the pulpit altogether. I am not referring to those churches that have replaced a heavy wooden pulpit with something like a podium. I'm referring to churches that have watered down their witness so much that there is very little mystery or spiritual engagement in the sermon.

By moving the pulpit to the side, the pastor risks doing everything for God and the congregation by providing all of the answers even to life's most difficult questions. The congregation only needs to take notes, follow the proper equations, and everything will fall into place.

Upholding the sanctity of the pulpit assumes, however, that those who commandeer it understand it as a vehicle for God's Word. It is also a reminder that no one person can speak for God. The preacher may change from time to time, but the pulpit -- and the Spirit that resides in the pulpit -- should remain the same.

Furthermore, the pulpit points to the mystery and rich textures that pervade the Word of God. Yes, the preacher delivers a Word from God, but it's God's job to plant that word deep into the heart of churchgoers and cultivate a harvest that produces the "fruit of the Spirit."

The preacher can't do it all; he's not Superman when it comes to how people hear the Gospel.

The pulpit also brings people into God's presence. It is a tool for pastoral care, expressing how God is moving in the midst of grief, hardship, conflict, and uncertainty within the community. The preacher knows the audience to whom she speaks because she is a fellow sojourner with them. The sermon allows God to deliver a Word of healing and hope to the entire Body of Christ.

As the season of Lent is upon us in three weeks, let us all come back to the heart of worship, starting with the person filling the pulpit. May the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts, and the sermons that result, be pleasing to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Rev. Joe LaGuardia is the senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, 301 Honey Creek Road, Conyers. E-mail him at trinitybc3@bellsouth.net or visit www.trinityconyers.org.