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.

 

Do Pastors Need Monologues?

Image result for johnny carson monologue

By Joe LaGuardia

This past week, I’ve been addicted to a new channel on XM Radio devoted to old Tonight show episodes with Johnny Carson.  I get a kick out of his monologues.

What is most intriguing is the humor and relevance that make monologues so timeless.  The talkshow host infuses current events with satire and comedy.  This lightens the mood of the weightiest news, but it also keeps people informed with what is going on in the world.

And no one is exempt from the monologue.  Politicians and pundits alike get in the cross hairs of hosts, who are equal-opportunity offenders.  Levity is good for the soul, and it is good for the nation.

Churches often shy away from current events and news.  Since most news is divisive, this avoidance gives the illusion that churches are safe spaces where people of diverse backgrounds and political leanings can worship God without having  to confront various opinions.  We get enough biased media on cable television, we don’t need to be bombarded with more on Sunday morning–Give us an hour without political commentary, please, along with some peace and quiet!

Yet, because we avoid politics, our churches come off as irrelevant or, worse, silent concerning the most pressing issues of the day.   Should we Christians, especially in the church, not frame current events and issues from a biblical point of view so as to help our congregations understand them differently?  Should we not create a safe space for dialogue and collaborative–dare I say, “critical thinking”– and meaningful,  conversations that inquire about topics and how they might relate to issues of justice and relevance to the Bible?

Silence is the easy way out, and woe to the pastor who, on the opposite end of the spectrum, creates dissent and divisive speech from the pulpit.  Talk about an issue like that, and she is sure to marginalize at least half her congregation!

Perhaps we need monologues in the church for this very reason.  Think about it: Before the invocation and right after the welcome, we clergy can stand–without hiding behind a pulpit or altar–before our people and provide a different, humorous view of the events of our time.  If we add enough levity, then over time we will build enough trust to touch on sensitive issues too.

Take Jimmy Kimmel Live, for instance.  His monologues are funny and relevant, but after the mass shooting in Las Vegas some time ago, he got deadly serious.  His tears carried our nation’s grief, and his words cut to the heart of our nation’s longing for sensible gun legislation.

I have a feeling that we’re afraid because, if we pastors start monologues, we may fail at times.  These late-night guys have professional writers that write jokes every day; we don’t.  We are not that smart, and writing a sermon is hard enough.  Yet, I think we should consider it.

Our congregations need a good word not always framed in a formal sermon.

We need to speak from the heart and expose Christ’s tears for the world.  We need to push back against instigators who mock tears and we need to expose grief that we hide behind entertainment and celebrity culture.  And, if we don’t do anything else, we at least need to show people that,  sometimes even in church, laughing is still good medicine for the soul.

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.