Life Matters: ‘Watcha preaching on?’

By DAVID WHITLOCK

Religion columnist

“Whatcha preaching on?”

That was the way my dad would answer the phone when I called him on Sunday mornings. 

Before, “Good morning,” or “How ya doing?” he would ask, “Whatcha preaching on?”

Always on the way to church on Sunday, I would call. 

Though I would talk to Dad most every morning, Sundays were special. Dad always had a special interest in the Scripture I would be using for my sermon. Maybe he was wanting to make sure I was keeping on topic. I remember Dad complaining about a preacher somewhere who didn’t refer to the Bible during his entire sermon. 

“I don’t like that,” he said, scrunching his face and shaking his head back and forth, like someone who has just sampled sour milk. “I just like to hear a preacher open his Bible and preach from it. It doesn’t make sense to me if the sermon isn’t Bible based.”

I always had a Scripture.

Of course, that wasn’t all Dad was interested in. One Sunday morning, I had been up most of the night, plagued by what I at the time thought was a problem of epic proportions.

“How are ya?” he asked, after his initial question, “Whatcha preaching on?”

“OK,” I responded. “Well, you don’t sound okay.” Dad didn’t just hear, he listened, sometimes to my surprise.

And usually on Mondays, Dad would ask how “it” went, “it” referring to the sermon.

Rarely do my sermons “go” as well as I had wanted; they inevitably fall short. So, I would tell him, “OK,” and Dad would know. I didn’t have to explain.

Preaching carries with it both a burden and a joy.

One night I was giving Lori a preview of coming attractions from my upcoming sermon. “There’s a lot in that passage,” she said, referring to the Scripture for the sermon.

Later that night, just before drifting off to sleep, Lori reflected on my Scripture text one more time. 

“Just make sure you get it right,” she said.

“Getting it right,” I sighed, pondering the challenge. 

“Therein lies the rub,” to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Thomas G. Long described preaching as “a wild river, wide and deep.” He quotes the theologian, Karl Barth: “Who dares, who can, preach, knowing what preaching is?” Barth asked.

With the joy, there is that burden: getting it right. 

And Dad listened for that too, on Monday mornings.

But the main reason Dad asked about the Scripture wasn’t to evaluate my motives on Sundays, or philosophize about my perceived success or lack thereof on Mondays.

It was to pray, plain and simple.

“Now, let me write that Bible reference down. When your mother wakes up, we’ll read it and then pray for you.”

One time, forgetting I live in a time zone that’s an hour later than his, he called while I was teaching a Sunday School class. Fearful that it was an emergency, I stopped teaching, walked outside the class and took the call.

“I forgot that Scripture,” Dad said, “and we were getting ready to pray for you.”

And so, these seven months after his death, and on my first Father’s Day without him, I opened his old Bible before going to the pulpit to preach. 

The once crisp leather is cracked and the bright red color has long ago lost its luster. 

I noticed the little, red ribbon marker. It was where he had last placed it, all these months since his death. Because it was so worn, it had escaped my notice. 

I wondered, what Bible text would Dad have marked?

Would it be one of his favorites? A well-known Scripture? One for encouraging those suffering from illnesses, like he was?

No, it was turned to the last page in the Book of Galatians.

Why?

Because I had been preaching through the Book of Galatians for months. I had almost made it through the entire book, (24 sermons) before Dad died. In fact, I was somewhere in the last chapter when he went to the hospital. 

He had marked it there in answer to his question, “Whatcha preaching on?” It was the last passage he had read when he prayed for my sermon.

A friend texted me last week, Sunday morning, just to let me know she was thinking of me, this first Father’s Day without my dad.

“He’s there,” she said.

Indeed.

Asking the Father to help a son “get it right.” 

Contact David Whitlock, Ph.D., at drdavid@davidwhitlock.org. or visit his website, davidwhitlock.org.