Disclaimer: You may read this and want to defend Andrew Peterson. I assure you, that won’t be necessary. I read On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness with my son and we loved it. Also, I’ve spent time conveying to Andrew in rather specific detail why we loved it and what it did in our imaginations. He knows my deep affection for the book. He also knows what I’m about to say is not a criticism. It is, however, funny. If you want to read up on Andrew’s book and make comments about it, may I direct you to Jonathan Roger’s insightful review. If you want to discuss the strange phenomenon of dubious honors, this is your place.
On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness recently won an award. I saw it on Andrew’s website. “Darn right,” I thought. “Let the accolades begin,” said I. “Let the movie rights get bought up as the folks at Newberry, Medallion and Pulitzer stand and take notice.”
Whenever any of the square pegs are recognized for the excellence they create, it feels like a win for my team. So I clicked on the link to get the details of “our” book’s recent award. If you feel me here, if you know exactly what I mean by “it feels like a win for my team,” let me tell you what “we” won.
Yep. Best cover.
Oh man! Visions of Andrew sitting tucked away in some corner of some coffee shop, pouring over the manuscript– every word, every comma, every exclamation point! I imagined him getting his two-inch thick editor’s mark-up back from the publisher, as if they took his string of thoughts and tied a thousand little knots in them for him to go back to that same coffee shop untie untie. I even imagine his wife sitting at the dinner table whistfully poking at her cooling meal with the last prong on her otherwise clean fork, keeping one eye on the clock whose second hand is tick, tick, ticking away the daylight as her husband is peck, peck, pecking away at his laptop, unaware of the hour.
But guess what?
Best cover! This warrants a hearty, “Well done, Andrew! May your cup of satisfaction runneth over!”
Having congratulated Andrew on his winning book cover, he replied, “A dubious honor, to be sure.”
It got me thinking about my years in seminary. You’ve got a couple hundred first year students eagerly showing up for “Preparation and Delivery of Sermons.” We were, after all, preachers in waiting. The class assumed we knew next to nothing about public speaking, exposition of Scripture or time management. (My professor’s wise adage for sermon length was “Every sermon should feel like twenty minutes.” Nice. But I digress.)
There were four preaching classes students took over the course of the MDiv program. We’d write and deliver two sermons per semester to a class of peers who would also do the same for us. When we weren’t preaching, we were evaluating each other. We had these little forms we filled out where we had to make positive comments and offer “constructive” feedback.
Every so often a visiting professor, scholar or lecturer would be on campus, and they’d be invited to sit in on these preaching classes we referred to as “batting practice.” Imagine discovering that John Piper, Sinclair Ferguson or Tim Keller was going to sit in on your preaching class the day you were slated to preach. There was, of course, nothing for it. So looking like a High School varsity basketball team assistant in your khaki slacks and navy blue sport coat, you’d give it all you had, which usually wasn’t much.
Well, a friend of mine was scheduled to preach on one such day. A very famous scholar/teacher was at the back of the room listening in as this poor guy preached maybe his fourth sermon ever. When he was through, the class began to offer their feedback.
Our professor asked the esteemed visitor in the back of the room if he would like to chime in. The icon whose books we all had on our shelves offered this helpful little gem:
“I really liked your scripture text.”
I had a whole bit about how this topic would be good preparation for our celebration of Christmas—God giving a good gift in response to our obvious deficiencies and needs, saving us according to a plan that was all His since we had nothing. That’s the pastor in me. But let me go at it another way. I’m grateful today that there is no contradiction between a lifetime of dubious honors and the hope of hearing at the end, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” God assures His people that His strength is made perfect in our weakness.
Still, there are times in life when it sure seems the Lord is exceedingly committed to perfecting His strength in us publicly. Just ask my crest-fallen peer who slunk back into his chair with the words “nice text” rattling around in his all-of-the-sudden-vocation-questioning mind, imagining his retirement party or his wake (whichever came first), where one after another would come forward to say things like “If nothing else, the man sure could pick a text.”
Have you ever been the recipient of a dubious honor? Have you ever received obvious sympathy applause? Do you have a trophy case of “Best Effort” ribbons? Regale us.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).