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 Reader’s Life (prt. 16): Words that Defy

https://i0.wp.com/news.belmont.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Barbara-Brown-Taylor.jpg

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.

The greatness of writing–and the power of a word–is measured by how well that word (and, when I say “word,” I mean it metaphorically as a body of work or writing) defies other words.  A meaningful word lingers and lasts; it pierces or inspires.  A powerful word bears fruit, sometimes violently or without regard to our sensibilities.  The Bible says that God’s word, which has the power to create and destroy and shape, does not come back void.  It defies competing narratives.

My favorite writers have accomplished this feat in their writing.  Among them is Barbara Brown Taylor, the Episcopal priest turned writer and spiritual guide.  Her books, namely Leaving Church and An Altar in the World, have impacted me with a word that lasts, that refuses to come back void.   Her writing resonates.  It spelunks in the heart.  It is like a sonar that sends signals to map an unknown landscape, that penetrates the soul to lay out a geography of the spiritual life.

Other authors have had this powerful sway over me–Annie Dillard and Henri Nouwen stand out.  They write in a way in which the writing itself is a spiritual exercise.  They do not write about something so much as write from within that experience of the thing itself.  Like mystics of old, their writing–that slow, often time painful process of putting one word in front of another, and one sentence upon the other– is the spiritual experience itself.

I have reflected on my preaching as a result of this lesson.  When I preach, do I merely talk about God, or do I express my experience of God?

Some say you can do both, but I am not so sure.  I hear many sermons about God; but few have the courage or prophetic power to preach from within the experience.  This morning I read Ezekiel 4.  God asked Ezekiel to act out a prophetic word of judgment against Israel and Judah by making a clay tablet picture of the city under siege.  God told him to lie on his side every day for over a year.

When God told Ezekiel to eat a scroll the chapter before, it wasn’t just to regurgitate it, it was to feast on it, find nourishment, embody it, and take on its physical presence.  No wonder that John says that when God visited us in the person of Jesus, it was God’s creative Word taking on flesh.

I think this is why Taylor’s writing is so poignant.  It comes from two avenues of experience–the author as artist, and the preacher as homiletician.  Taylor has taught both subjects — from her full-time work at Piedmont College in the north Georgia foothills, to her adjunct work teaching preaching at Emory University and elsewhere in the urban milieu of Atlanta.  I am going to a conference next week to see her give a presentation on “How I Have Changed my Mind About Preaching” at Mercer University.  I am bringing her latest book, Learning to Walk in the Dark to get her signature.  I look forward to receiving God’s word from her yet again.

We writers have a bad habit of trying to mimic our favorite authors.  Rarely does this work out; it comes off as phony or insincere.  I did this once.  I wanted to write like Taylor–pen and paper in hand, I wanted to hand-write my next book like she does her own.  And I wanted to write like Dillard–not merely talk about something, but write poetic prose that penetrates the very thing in my experiences of it.

I tried this (spiritual) practice–mainly at the beach.  I brought my spiral notebook and my mechanical pencil.  I sat for long periods of time watching the waves and my children looking for seashells, trying to craft each sentence with love, care, and wonder.  I paused, watched the hasty activity and listened to the conversation of the sandpipers so ubiquitous on our coast.  And I wrote.

I wrote for about a dozen or so pages on different topics over the course of a month– on fatherhood, spirituality, vocation, ministry.   Then, I fizzled out.  It didn’t sound right, it didn’t feel right, and it was not even worth transferring the material into my journal.  I buried the notebook in one of my desk drawers at home.  I pull it out sometimes if I need paper to write a sermon, otherwise it remains hidden.

Powerful words are such because they do defy other words.  Writers know the hardships of having so many words–too many, in fact–fall to the ground, shrivel and die.  Yet, there are those beautiful moments–in an article or a sermon that sounds just right, when the word goes out and never returns.  It spreads its wings and leaves the nest, and finds its way into someone else’s heart to build a nest there and give birth to something new.  It is beautiful, like Taylor’s and Dillard’s writing; but it is a rare word indeed.  Most of the time, our words remain hidden in our desk.

When silence is the only language you can speak

Photo by Samara Doole

By Joe LaGuardia

I did not preach much Sunday, September 3.   I tried, but all I was able to do was give testimony.  When we preachers have nothing to say about a biblical text, it is just best to testify.  It does not have to be scholarly or well-organized, but it does have to be true.

My week was like that: A cycle of trying and failing, of finding words to say and confronting silence instead.

I began the week excited about joining my sisters in Orlando for a few days.  It was the first time our families got together in years: Three days with nieces, nephews, and the big Mouse at Bueno Vista.

Over the weekend, however–the weekend before my vacation–I received word that one of our parishioners fell victim to cancer and passed away.  I was heartbroken for the family.  It was sudden.  The man had one son, so when I met with the family and he spoke about his father, I was reminded about the loss of my own dad.

Funerals have a way of keeping us preachers nimble.  Instead of having one sermon to write before I went to Orlando, I now had two: one for Sunday and another for the funeral, which was scheduled for the day after my return.

I did something a little different for the funeral sermon: I wrote an outline. I always write manuscripts for funerals to insure that each word is intentional, thoughtful, sensitive and concise.   But I did not want a complicated sermon.  I was co-officiating and eulogies were planned, so what more needed to be said?

With sermons out of the way, I went off to Orlando. My trip  went well except for the fact that, now, every time I get together with my sisters, there exists the lingering absence of my father who had passed four years ago this August 5th.

My sisters and I had fun.  We laughed.  There were no conflicts, but our father was missing.  We didn’t have anyone to complain to about our jobs, our finances, about one another.  My dad was good about that, he absorbed everyone’s trials and tears and hardships.

I was quiet most of the trip as a result of my melancholy.  Why was I so quiet?  I hadn’t seen my sisters in ages, there must be more to talk about.

After I returned from Orlando, I headed to the funeral for our parishioner, but another oddity happened, although I am not sure if anyone noticed: I did not finish preaching my funeral sermon.  No, really–literally!  I literally stopped short in the middle of the homily!  I blanked out and I left off the conclusion before stopping mid-sermon and calling the congregation to join me in a closing prayer.

Later that afternoon, home with Kristina, I broke.  My wife and I had a long discussion about my anxieties and stress, about missing my father, and about how my words kept failing me–on my trip, at the funeral, in expressing a cloud that followed me all week long.

Sunday morning came, and off to church I went with two services to preach.  But as I mentioned already, I did not preach.  I testified.  I did not speak of my trouble with words.  I did not confess that I blanked out during the funeral sermon.  I only told a story about trying to find joy in unexpected places and about how one person from church with whom I met the previous week (who had lost her husband three months ago) ministered to me in the midst of my own hardships this week.

This evening I continued reading a book that I can never read for long sittings.  Its one of those books where you savor a sentence or two (or a whole page if you’re lucky), and then you have to stop and pray and reflect or wipe tears to see more clearly.  Its When God is Silent by Barbara Brown Taylor, and what I read tonight resonated.  In fact, it sums up my emotions this week perfectly, although the situation is different:

I met a man last summer–a preacher–who nursed his wife until her death, at fifty-something, from cancer.  When she stopped breathing, he said, the silence in the room destroyed all language for him.  No words could get into him and none could get out. . . Months and months later, his voice is still raspy. . . He did not sound angry when he said that.  He sounded like someone who had been scorched by the living God and who knew better than to try and talk about it.”

I think that is my problem, one that Taylor sums up well.  There are times when I encounter God and I, along with many others, expect that I can put that into words.  I don’t blame anyone–that’s my vocation, after all.  But sometimes I need to know better.  Sometimes I need to stop trying so hard to talk about things that I can’t talk about.

My only regret is that I had some collateral damage along the way: A funeral sermon brought to a screeching halt, an online prayer I since deleted because it turned into a debate that was a waste of time anyway, and a Sunday sermon-testimony I hoped did not ramble on as much as I had feared.

Sometimes we are scorched and it just best to let the Holy Spirit speak in the silence instead.