Is Honesty the Best Preaching Policy?

man writing in front of booksBy Joe LaGuardia

They say that, in writing, honesty is the best policy.  Stephen King advises in On Writing that writing is best when it tells the truth.  In Right to Write, Julia Cameron has an entire chapter on honesty and its merits in writing.  Creative writing coaches will tell you, if it ain’t the truth, it ain’t worth putting on the page.  Honesty has sold millions of books and millions of dollars in movie sales.

Yet, in preaching every week, I wonder whether honesty has a place in the pulpit.  I am not saying that we preachers lie or manipulate our congregations, but honesty implies that you, rather than the God about whom we testify and the scripture that we seek to exegete, takes center stage in the preaching event.

Some say that personal stories have no place in sermons.  They distract from the doctrines we need to teach.  Others say that the only godly way to preach is by expository preaching, which leaves neither room nor time for personal exploration.  So where does honesty have a place  in the pulpit?

I come from a school of theology (as many Baptists do) that makes room for what is called narrative preaching.  Narrative preaching, popularized by the likes of Fred Craddock and John Claypool, not only focuses on scripture for  the sermon, but does so in narrative and story-form.  Since we live the story of the Gospel in real time and in real situations, than real life–in all its beauty and ugliness–have a place in the sermon.

Some narrative preachers tell stories and preach so well, in fact, that the congregation forgets they’re preaching in the first place.  The sermons are like good movies–the moment you forget you’re watching a movie, the director and actors of the movie has moved you into the best that cinema has to offer.

Narrative preaching (and, in Claypool’s methodology, “confessional preaching”) places the preacher squarely in the center of the story.  It is disingenuous (as the notion goes) to say that the preacher can “stay out” of the sermon–we bring all of who we are — our personality, life, experiences, and struggles — to bear on the text, so to think that we can somehow not make it personal is the least honest thing we can do.

In reading Julia Cameron’s chapter on “honesty” recently, I got to thinking about the place of honesty and storytelling in the preaching event.  I find my home squarely in the narrative preaching tradition.  I cannot do expository preaching (I’ve tried, with great failure).  I cannot do outline preaching (precept upon precept)–I bore myself to death.  I do not consider myself a teacher of scripture–that’s for Sunday School.

I am a preacher who stands in the tradition of a Lord who told stories in order to help people experience the Kingdom of God.  Jesus never preached in expository style–he didn’t teach about God; he helped people meet God.

But that doesn’t mean I am required to be honest, at least not in the way that creative writers mean it.  Let me explain.

In writing, honesty implies that you reveal your deepest conflict or assumptions about life.  It is a type of writing that values memoir over embellishment.  We write from the inside out because people do not deserve deceit or fanciful exaggeration.  We write what we see, and life does not need help in communicating something true and valuable.

In preaching, however, storytelling still does not create an ecosystem in which the “I” takes precedence over the “Thou.”  We are still not at the center of the story,  and telling the truth can be misconstrued as pushing an agenda more than bearing witness to what we–as the congregation–can learn together about being God’s beloved community.

We go to church and experience all of worship (not just the sermon, only a fraction of what worship is supposed to be about–those long sermon times are for another column!) because we come to together to experience God and bear witness to how God has redeemed us and is ever redeeming us.

We preachers need to be honest in our shortcomings.  We mustn’t pretend to have all the answers or go out of our way to convince the congregation that they need to think like we do.  We need to be honest about those areas of scripture with which we wrestle–and explain why they are difficult–not provide cliches that gloss over a Word that is beyond us and still contains deep mysteries that we will never really know about, completely at least.

We must be honest by acknowledging that we are not all that great of people, and that we’re like everyone else aside from our vocation as professional expositors of the text.  Instead, we must be humble by keeping our sermons concise and focused rather than allowing pride to prove to others how verbose we are.  Our vocation as preachers is one of function, not of elevated spiritual divinity over others who work in and on behalf of Christ’s church.

Every week, I wrestle with this idea.  I take great pains not to let myself (or my family or my situations past or present) get in the way of the Gospel message.  I use personal anecdotes at times to illustrate or accentuate a point, but it is not the destination of the sermon.  These stories, like other methods of storytelling, are merely resources to help others experience God.  Being honest is valuable, but its not the point.  No one comes to church to hear about me.  Honesty is a policy, but its not always the best way to communicate God’s Word.

 

A Reading Life (prt. 15): Memiors Among Us

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

In the afterword of my recent book, A Whispering Call, I outline the waning market for first-person narration.  Jonathon Franzen, guest editor for the Best American Essays anthology of 2016, states that we stand in the Golden Age of memoirs; while Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker lamented that the “personal essay boom” has come to an end.

Regardless of various naysayers, I personally love memoirs.  Memoirs record the inner journey of the soul while affirming the resiliency of lives who carry the burdens born of both tragedy and comedy.

I just finished reading, God Underneath, by Catholic priest, Edward Beck.  In his own afterword, he wrote that his memoir aims to help people see the priesthood differently, past the clergy collar.  He wanted to humanize his position while helping his readers realize that God is in all the details of life.

Only the memoir genre allowed him to tell his story and express all of the settings in which a priest may find himself.

Perhaps I like memoirs because I have spent decades reflecting on my own journey of faith and vocation.  Hearing God’s call, fashioning a community that knows how to discern God’s call, and responding to God’s call have to be the best parts of my ministry.  Heck, vocation is the undercurrent of my newest book and of this blog series!

Memoir makes for great sermons too.  In reading Beck, I was reminded of my own struggle with pastoral presence and image, and how I have incorporated that into my preaching.  I am familiar with the feeling he expresses about needing to lose the frock to deepen friendships.  I resonated with his efforts of encouraging others to relate to him as a normal individual, pushing towards a more “confessional” style that connects with congregations.

I agreed that when people put us ministers on pedestals, it is easier for that kind of idol to fall and break into a million pieces like Dagon before the ark of the covenant.  Memoir can turn tragic real fast when people place unrealistic expectations upon you.

And memoirs remind us that we are all made in God’s image and called to be priests in one form or fashion.  My Baptist tradition specifically grants us the mantle of the priesthood of believers.  Dismantling unrealistic images of the ministry does not lessen how people see me, but lifts people up and persuades them to seize God’s destiny in their lives.

Recently, one of our youngest children at church asked whether our music minister was Jesus.  One Sunday, when the minister came off of the stage during worship, the little girl reached over to my wife, bright-eyed, and whispered, “That’s Jesus!”

My wife tried to tell her who Jesus is (and who he isn’t), but it got a great belly laugh out of all of us.  My music minister now has a lot to live up to!

Edward Beck mentions that people ask him about his calling: “When did you receive your call, Father?” And every time, he responds, “I am still receiving it!”  God’s call continually provides opportunities for us to bear witness to Christ’s love.

Are we willing to move beyond our own self-image and see ourselves through Christ’s eyes, then see others as Christ sees them?  What memoir might we write, and how does God show up in it?

A Reading Life (pt 8): Crisis of Faith and the Dark Night of the Soul

Image result for experiencing god henry blackabyBy Joe LaGuardia

Have you ever read a book because everyone else is reading it?  Harry Potter.  Twilight.  Tuesdays with Morrie.  The Purpose Driven Life. Fifty Shades of Grey.  Well, maybe not that one…  I have never been one to read what everyone else is reading, except this one time when I went through Experiencing God, by Henry Blackaby.

Experiencing God is a great study.  It is in-depth and moving; it awakens faith and puts it into action.  But when it comes to putting that powder keg into the hands of a college student who also, by chance, is experiencing a crisis of faith, it can become dangerous.

A crisis of faith erupts when people move (in the words of Walter Brueggemann) from orientation to disorientation.  This is how it works: When a person grows up believing things that she has been taught, those things solidify into a worldview.  When the person confronts things as an adult that conflicts with those beliefs, it threatens the worldview and forces a re-evaluation of those facts.  This creates grief, anger, and crisis.  It can also lead to hurt, confusion, and rebellion (as in a season that includes coming-of-age).  The person moves from orientation to disorientation and, like heroes who must confront monsters from the past or from within, find that she is far from home.  A cross-roads arises, and the choice is to move forward in uncertainty and greater faith, or return to the adolescent mind in which naivety requires ignoring new information.

College is a time of disorientation for many people.  Students are learning new things, learning how to think critically, and questioning truths that they have assumed for years.  For Christians, this movement can result in a crisis of faith, what St. John the Cross called a Dark Night of the Soul.  It can be, if someone finds a coach or spiritual guide, a rite of passage that broadens faith, creates empathy for a hurting world, and opens people up to a God who is much bigger than they first assume God to be.

My second year of college was one long Dark Night.  I was learning new things in my religion classes, while questioning the faith of my youth.  I was confronting the doctrines of my home church–a Presbyterian church–and discovering a new Baptist paradigm.  I was trying to learn the Reformed theology of that tradition (Presbyterian) and coming up short.  Like Martin Luther whose faith waned under hardship of his Catholicism, I was reforming faith and a very different journey.

Enter Experiencing God, which intends to ignite a new way to live by faith.  Blackaby’s premise is that God is calling people to join Him at work in the world, and you cannot stay in the same place you’ve lived for your entire life.  You must, like Moses or Abraham, hear God’s call, respond, and move into a place in which the Holy Spirit guides you.

At the time, I took this a little too literally — again, the adolescent mind cannot always understand deep spiritual truths and differentiate it from metaphor — and I thought God was calling me somewhere else.  I was searching for answers: Is God calling me to the mission field, to leave a life of biblical scholarship behind?  Was Jesus asking me to deny my family and go into the ministry in some far-off land?  How was I to leave my old life behind–toss my CD collection?  Stop watching movies?  “Kiss dating goodbye”?

At the time I was dating the woman who would become my wife, and she received the short end of the stick of this journey of faith.  I waffled in my relationship with her, and my emotions ebbed and flowed about marriage.  One week I knew I couldn’t live without her; the next week, I thought I heard God telling me to leave everything–and everyone–and go to Africa.  It was a crazy time.  Experiencing God was not helpful.  At all.

My best friend and my father had to step in and coach me.  My best friend endured my insecurities and venting, and comforted me in all hours of the night.  He told me that God leaves a lot up to us, that the Christ-follower actually has a great deal of agency in decisions.  If I chose to be with Kristina, then so be it–it wasn’t as if there was that one “perfect girl” out there for me; I had to choose to commit to her, and that choice–rather than some predestined relationship–would be more valuable anyway.

A few months later, sensing my anxiety and Kristina’s frustration, my father sat me down for a serious talk.  He, an armchair theologian who rarely cracked open a Bible, laid it out straight: “Joey,” he said, “This girl ain’t going to stick around too much longer if you keep going back and forth.  She is a great one, and you should marry her.  She is special.”

When I brought up my feelings about God, he persisted: “All I know is that when I watch you two together, there is something special.  Don’t let Satan deceive you, and don’t let go of her.  Ever.”

That conversation sealed the deal.  I did end up going on a short-term mission trip to Africa for a month, to get my foot in the waters of missions, only to come back and clarify that a life of travel was not for me!  Two weeks later, on August 13th–my wife’s birthday–I asked Kristina to marry me.

I tossed Experiencing God, and I learned how to trust in the Holy Spirit, my intuition, and my support system.  I also learned that confusion, disruption and deception are the weapons of Satan, the Father of Lies.  I got through that crisis of faith, and became a whole new person.  I wrestled with God and became a man.