A church pulpit is just your basic wooden box, but sometimes it can turn into Pandora’s box.
A good pulpit should provide a desktop for the preacher’s notes, hide his bodily imperfections, and give him something to lean on when his knees give out.
The first thing I do when I step up to the pulpit is to clean house. A pulpit is a magnet for everyone’s junk, from lost-and-found keys and cellphones, to old sheet music, Bibles, and offering baskets. Some days it looks like a table at a rummage sale.
A country church in Iowa kept a birthday offering bank on the edge of the pulpit. It was a miniature plastic church full of coins. One Sunday I got a bit wound up in my preaching and hit the bank with the force of John Wayne’s fist. It sailed out over the auditorium, crashed into a pew, and broke open. Coins rolled around under the pews for days.
One pulpit I try not to remember had a gooseneck lamp attached to it, but the old goose had developed osteoporosis. At some point in every sermon it would plop down on my notes. I think the members were taking bets on the exact moment when it would drop.
Likewise, sometimes a microphone is attached to the pulpit, which is handy, but it turns the pulpit into a giant bass drum. Every time my foot bumped the pulpit, the audience winced. I only kicked the pulpit about 300 times per sermon.
One summer I spoke at a camp chapel, where the pulpit not only had a built-in microphone, but a huge, three-inch speaker and an amplifier of about two watts. During the song service I could hear thunder approaching the camp, and just as I stood up to speak, it started raining. At first the rain sounded like BBs on the metal roof, but then the BBs turned to marbles. I spoke louder and louder, exaggerating all my gestures, to be better understood. The rain and I quit at about the same time, and I approached a young man on the front row.
“Could you hear me OK?” I wanted to know.
He hung his head. “I’m sorry, but we never heard a single word you said.”
All the way home, visions of Charlie Chaplin played in my head. All I needed was a mustache and a bowler hat.
Have you noticed that preachers come in different sizes? I was speaking at a suburban church where the preacher was an old friend of mine. Not until I stepped up to the pulpit did I remember how short he is. The top of his pulpit came to my waist, and I’m six foot one. To read my notes I had to pile up songbooks for them to rest on, and they kept falling off the pulpit.
An urban church sported an elegant, “ergonomic” pulpit, which is a synonym for “impractical.” It was sleek, but it lacked a lip along the lower edge to hold my notes. I spent a lot of time picking up my notes off the floor, and the sermon was a bit disconnected.
Let’s face it, preachers have a lot to hide. Unless you are young and slender, you really don’t want your entire body on public display for 30 minutes. Thanks to a lot of church dinners, your clothes don’t fit right after age 40. Gluttony, after all, is not a secret sin.
I once was giving an after-dinner talk in a church fellowship hall. The meal consisted of chili and homemade breads. I finished eating and was looking over my notes when I noticed a butter pat stuck to my left sleeve. I stood up to shake it off, and it fell butter-side-down on the fly of my light gray slacks.
The lectern was just a music stand, and offered no shield at all, so I fled next door to the parsonage, where I applied a variety of cleansers, from Windex to Drano, then raced back to the hall. Not until afterwards did I realize that all I had done was to make a small grease spot into a very large one. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about it.
The old pulpits were best for hiding behind. They were as big as a chest of drawers, with side wings you could lean on. In medieval times some pulpits were so large and expensive you could build a whole church today for what one of them cost. Some were as big as a walk-in cooler, professionally sculpted from oak or marble, and overlaid with gold leaf.
The most unusual pulpit I ever spoke at was shaped like a chariot, minus the wheels. For one brief, shining moment I was Charlton Heston, racing Stephen Boyd around the Colosseum. I could almost hear the sound of horses’ hooves and the cheers of the crowd.
The hottest thing in pulpits today is the clear, acrylic pulpit, which offers all the hiding power of cellophane. The catalogs rave about them, calling them “light-catching,” “classy,” and “contemporary.” I have my own list of adjectives: “naked,” “scary,” and “garish.” The newest ones are made of smoked acrylic. What does that say?
The first thing that happens when you stand up to speak in public is your hands begin to grow, until they are the size of baseball gloves. Then they begin to roam around, looking for a place to rest. You will be glad to have a pulpit to hang on to.
Until you have preached a 30- or 40-minute sermon, you have no idea how tiring it can be. The famous Billy Sunday was so animated when he preached, that he needed an entire change of clothing afterwards. And he was a baseball player, in great shape.
Fifteen minutes into a sermon, I feel like I have been speaking for days, and I begin to lean forward on the pulpit, as if I am deeply in earnest, but I am really just deeply in pain.
Every church has a carpenter who decides to save the church some money by making lecterns for the classrooms and a pulpit for the stage. Some of these are quite nice, but some of them are about as sturdy as a Christmas tree stand from a discount store. Lean on one of them, and it leans away. It’s like trying to kiss a girl who doesn’t want to be kissed.
Some casual churches today have replaced the pulpit with a pedestal table and a laptop sitting on it. The preacher comes out with a barstool in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. He hops up on the stool and “chats” with the audience. There’s not a lot of passion in those sermons, as a rule.
For the media preacher, the entire stage is his pulpit. He wears an ear mike that looks like a small viper crawling out of his eustachian tube, and he paces back and forth like a young husband, waiting for his first child to be born. He seems to be making it up as he goes along, and repeats himself a lot. I have the strongest urge to hand him a script and some Ritalin.
My dream stump would be the one that appeared in Gregory Peck’s version of Moby Dick. This pulpit, in Whalemen’s Chapel, New Bedford, Massachusetts, was shaped like the front of a whaling ship, complete with an anchor and a bowsprit that extended out over the congregation. The preacher climbed into the ship-pulpit on a rope ladder, and pulled it up after him.
If I could just speak at that pulpit, I know it would be a whale of a sermon.
Yes, a pulpit is just a simple wooden box, but it’s a place to stand if you want to change the world.
In the words of Herman Melville, “The pulpit leads the world . . . the world’s a ship on its passage out . . . and the pulpit is its prow.”
Daniel Schantz is professor emeritus at Central Christian College in Moberly, Missouri.