The Barrel

Cabbages and Kings
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During World  War II days, the Andrews Sisters made the Hit Parade with their song “Roll Out the Barrel” (. . . we’ll have a barrel of fun). But although their song made the Top-10, it never made the Psalter Hymnal. This despite the fact that, on occasion, many Christian Reformed ministers rolled out their barrels. Let me explain.

By way of a circuitous route, I was finally declared eligible for a call in our denomination. I soon received two calls, one from a large church of 212 families and another from a small church of 19 families. I felt immediately that the bigger church would be too much for a fledgling like me to handle. I had the energy but not the experience.

It was a day when many Christian Reformed ministers were workhorses. Some preached two or three sermons a week, taught most of the catechism classes, led the Men’s Society, the Ladies’ Aid, and did all or most of the annual home visits.

I consulted one such miracle worker, who, on top of everything else, typed up the worship bulletins and cranked them out on his old mimeograph machine late Saturday evenings. I asked him how he managed when, in the same week, he might have a wedding to perform and a funeral to conduct. He answered, “I roll out the barrel.”

Definition: “A barrel in a parsonage is a repository for old sermons.” I didn’t have one. I took the 19 families.

I remember a seminary professor of that day who maintained that a minister’s second charge was always a critical one. Having arrived with a full barrel, there was always the temptation of coasting—preaching old homilies, thereby losing the momentum and creativity demanded when the barrel was bare.

The late Peter Eldersveld, our radio minister of a former day, speaking at a ministers’ conference I attended, noted that some members of the venerable clergy, forced by circumstance to fish one out of the barrel, would choose a poor one, hoping it was forgotten. “Wrong,” said Eldersveld. “So what if they are remembered? Good messages bear repetition.” The late novelist Peter De Vries, listening to the old ones, remarked that they had great sedative powers. He added, “Many new ones too.”

When my 19 families moved to a new location, constructing their own building, I was busier than a one-armed paperhanger. I leaned on my barrel more than once. I told my wife that if the house caught fire, I’d rescue my barrel first. After that, women and children. But old sermons require resuscitation, reworking, revival—making even more work than preparing a new one.

Today I look into my full barrel and think of the hours and hours its contents represent. A big part of my life lies in that barrel. How did I write so many sermons? One answer is to say, “One page at a time.” Some would slide out of my typewriter with relative ease. More often they were slow going. And still are. Sometimes it takes considerable time just to find the right word.

I wonder how many people listened to all those words. How many of those words went in one ear and out the other? Was it all worth it?

When I harbor such thoughts, I’m always comforted by the following story.

A minister confided to a friend. He said he’d been preaching for 60 years. What good did it all do? What a lot of work went into all that preaching! He couldn’t even remember most of his own sermons, so how could he expect they were worth all that time and effort?

His friend responded. “I’ve eaten my wife’s cooking for 60 years. I can’t remember most of the meals, but they nourished me day after day and week after week.”

What a wonderful story for all preachers. And for preachers to come—a challenging thought.

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