Last week Dad brought me the cassette tape pictured with this article.
It contains the recording of my first ever sermon.
The date was January 29, 1995, Mom's birthday weekend.
I was 14 years old. Fourteen!
Looking back on that experience 21 years ago, as of this writing, and the month of preparation leading up to it, a number of memories flash through my mind.
I had obeyed the gospel and became a Christian two summers prior in 1993. Since probably 8 years old, four of us boys sat on the front pew of the small country church building where we assembled. At its peak, the congregation totaled probably 35 people.
I recall how, as a youngster, I would frequently scoot forward in the pew, lean my head back and fall sound asleep during the sermon, especially on Sunday nights. All four of us did. Ha! I still laugh when I picture the scene from the preacher's perspective. The thought never entered my mind as to how that must've appeared. The kids are asleep in church...on the front row!
Our parents put a stop to sleeping in church at around 12 years old, if I recall correctly. Who knows how long that practice might've lived otherwise!
But on Sunday night, January 29, 1995, I was not asleep.
As the traditional "third hymn" concluded, I knew it was time.
I nervously reached to my right and grabbed my stack consisting of my Bible, notebook and hymnal and stood.
I recall that the metal of the spiral in my notebook felt especially cool to the touch in that moment. It was probably the sweat from my hand.
I slowly approached the pulpit, set my books upon it and opened the pulpit door to begin the recording.
I looked out into the sea of faces and saw virtually everyone smiling at me.
I recall thinking how hot it was up there.
I desperately wanted to remove my windbreaker, but I didn't because I knew my nervous sweat would show even more. (Yes, I preached my first sermon in a windbreaker. It was the '90s, kid; they were in style then, okay.)
No doubt my face was purple by the time I finished.
I don't remember how long the sermon was. I seem to recall it was like 18 minutes or so.
I remember that I spoke way too fast and that I didn't give people sufficient time to turn to the Scriptures, which resulted in increased nervousness due to the absence of the sound of Bible pages turning as I spoke.
"Everyone's just listening to me and staring at me. Are they enjoying this at all?"
My topic was on the plan of salvation, which is a great subject for a new Christian to speak about. Dad suggested that topic to me as I was beginning my preparation.
I remember getting out Dad's expository dictionary and concordance and looking up passages to include with my supporting points.
Making an outline for a sermon at age 14 is not easy.
I worked on the sermon about four weeks beforehand and ended up with several pages of handwritten notes in my spiral notebook. Thankfully, I've never been a big procrastinator.
As my speedy-delivery message concluded, my nervousness, which had somewhat subsided as I settled in, ramped up again to new heights.
"I've got to get this invitation part right! Don't stumble all over this. Remember, you rehearsed this! You got this."
I don't recall exactly how I worded it, but I know I included the obligatory two parts:
- If you need to obey the gospel...
- If you need to confess sin...
"...come forward as we stand and sing."
<Everyone stands and sings>
"Whew, it's finally over! I made it! I survived."
"Ohhhh man, I hope nobody comes up here while we're singing. Please nobody respond. Please nobody respond."
"Why am I standing and facing these people while we sing? It's not like I'm going to go over and talk to whomever were to come up here."
"Okay good! Nobody came forward."
<I slowly return to my front pew spot and await the "closing prayer.">
Afterward, still wearing my windbreaker jacket and feeling so hot that I'm about to pass out, people came up to congratulate me on a good message and a major personal milestone.
"Okay, thanks so much people. I love you too. But what I really need now is some fresh 40-degree air. Let. Me. Outside."
And it was over. I did survive. And it was an important life experience for me.
As I reflect, here are five big life lessons I learned from that experience:
Lesson #1: GOD will bring us successfully through life's scary moments.
Preaching a sermon at 14 is scary.
I prayed for help.
It was hard to do, but I made it.
In all of life's scary and challenging moments since, GOD is faithful.
His nearness, favor, love and providence are our greatest treasures in difficult times.
Lesson #2: Surround yourself with people who love you and want you to succeed.
The sea of smiling faces and post-sermon hugs and congratulations meant so much to me.
The people comprising that church were imperfect, but I knew they loved me.
I felt I was among friends and could sense they wanted me to do well. I knew they did.
This is the value of church—surrounding ourselves with others who love us and have our best interest at heart.
In life, we'll meet numerous people who want to tear us down.
We need a core nucleus of people who will build us up.
And we, in turn, can each choose to be that for somebody else.
Lesson #3: Preparation reduces nervousness and aids success.
I was nervous, to be sure. But I was prepared and my level of preparedness helped me succeed in the difficult moment.
The same is true with anything in life. For example:
- The softball player gets on base because she has spent hours in batting practice, learning how to be successful when the lights are on and she's in the batters box.
- The CEO plans and rehearses his pitch for the board room.
- The young man carefully plans his proposal to his would-be bride.
My daughter's softball coach is fond of saying:
"The smartest people win everything in life."
He doesn't mean the intellectually brightest, necessarily, but the hardest worker—the most well prepared.
"If you've got to swallow a frog, don't look at him long."
You either happen to things or things happen to you.
Be the former. Be aggressive and assertive in preparing.
Lesson #4: We've all got to start somewhere.
Every great speaker had their first public speaking experience.
And most, if not all, would probably admit their first time wasn't very good.
I've not re-listened to my sermon from that day (partly because I don't have a cassette player), but I am quite confident that it would be rather embarrassing to do so.
I probably prooftexted heavily, snipping verses from their context to string things together to support my point. I probably referred to certain verses by the wrong location or who knows what other silly mistakes.
But I got up there. I did it. I started.
If you want to overcome a fear of public speaking, the best way is to speak in front of groups. Experience is a great teacher, perhaps the best teacher.
Lesson #5: Never wear a windbreaker while preaching.
One of the biggest lessons is also the silliest.
I didn't want to remove my coat because I was afraid of what I'd look like. People would see I was extremely nervous. So I suffered instead.
It is so difficult to avoid being overly-concerned about what other people think about us or what we look like.
Sometimes we put up a front to appear different than we really are.
"No, I'm not nervous at all. My face usually looks this shade of violet."
As hard as it is, just be you.
Be honest with people and transparent. This is so easy to say and hard to do. But we're better for it when we live it.
And before I conclude, here's a bonus sixth lesson for you:
The message is infinitely more important than the messenger.
Father, let me never forget it is so. Amen.