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 Whispering Call” now available in paperback

In A Whispering Call, Joe LaGuardia explores the treasure of God’s unfolding drama of salvation from the earliest pages of Genesis to the advent of Jesus Christ.  It is a celebration of scripture and a plea to take a renewed interest in the First (Old) Testament.

“By way of neglect,” LaGuardia writes, “the church has lost the ability to read the Old Testament independently from the Jesus whom Christians serve…The breadth and depth of the Old Testament solicits as much, and begs a closer reading by Christians, various faith groups, and people of no faith at all.”  A Whispering Call seeks to let the Testament stand on its own, to hear ancient voices for a new day, and rediscover the hope that launches the greatest story ever told.

A Whispering Call is LaGuardia’s second anthology of essays on sacred scripture, and it is sure to encourage, challenge, and inspire readers in the journey of faith.  It promises to bring biblical principles to life and affirm God’s mission in the world.

Every essay pays careful attention to biblical research and cultural insights, and each includes a series of study questions perfect for private devotions or public use.  Read them for group discipleship, incorporate them in the classroom, peruse them to prepare for that next sermon.  They promise to enlighten and entertain.

Order your copy today!

Here are some excerpts from the book…

On scripture…

God’s Word is not a sounding board that reinforces our cliché beliefs about Jesus; nor it is an echo chamber as cheap as social media platforms sometimes assume…Regardless of contemporary, common arguments about the nature and inspiration of scripture, the ancients believed that the Bible was a dangerous book, one that beheld the mystery of God and reinforced the fragility and myopia of God’s people. 

Its radical message had the power to transform lives, communities, institutions, and nations.  In the words of Barbara Bowe, savoring scripture makes the difference between admiring the flame of a candle and touching the flame of a candle so as to engage that which is dangerous, purifying, and–in many ways–scathing.

On sexual abuse and #MeToo in the Old Testament…

Although forgiveness [in the Bible] breaks cycles of violence, forgiveness does not exclude speaking out, protesting, and resisting personal or systemic abuse.  It does not condone violence or look in the other direction.  Jesus’ forgiveness does not give us an excuse to continue to see, seize, and subdue like Shechem did with Dinah.  Rather, the act of forgiveness calls us all to holiness, restoration, and healing.  It gives the oppressed a voice–all who are at the center of our texts of terror–and empowers those of us on the sidelines, that we might intervene…It is not enough to say “I’m sorry,” we must right wrongs so that reparations can prevent future abuses and exploitive practices.

On the state of the church…

Many people claim that today’s church is worse off than ever before and in need of reform…Some Christian scholars believe that this is not the end of the church, but only another beginning–the Holy Spirit is moving the church from the laurels of comfort and inspiring a new movement of outreach and missions that pivots God’s people from an inward-focused ministry to an outward-focused missional agenda.  Fundamentalism will collapse in on itself, exposing the false gods of nationalism and tribalism, while the God of Pentecost–always breaking boundaries of ethnicity, gender, race, and economics-is moving well beyond the walls of the church.

On justice in the Bible…

If there is any voice for justice crying in the biblical wilderness, it is the prophet Isaiah. Throughout his message to Israel, he called for people to “do justice” (1:17). Echoing other prophets, such as Micah and Amos, he challenged people to have mercy. This was not only for personal enrichment, it was a community ethic in which relationships were set straight, economic injustices repaired, and people long-neglected were protected and honored. Justice was not about having one’s head in the clouds, but about making space for others in one’s own living room. It was not a reach beyond community, it was a diligent plan to make community one of integrity and compassion—an organic, living model built on the theology that all people are part of God’s creation, even if some people do not believe in that fact.

For Isaiah, justice means caring for the refugee, widow and orphan. It means insuring economic opportunity, minimizing debts, sustaining land ownership, and understanding that if things are not right between neighbors, then things with God will not be right.

Turn Anxiety, Restlessness into Prayer (part 1)

By Joe LaGuardia

Because I love Zion, I will not keep still.  Because my heart yearns for Jerusalem, I cannot remain silent.  I will not stop praying for her until her righteousness shines like the dawn…O Jerusalem, I have posted watchmen on your walls; they will pray day and night, continually.  Take no rest, all you who pray to the Lord” (Isaiah 62:1, 6 NLT).

I have grown up in the church assuming that restlessness was not a good thing.  I have struggled with anxiety, and it comes out in various restless ways: fidgeting, pacing, reading everything in sight, moving about.  I have also resisted this anxiety in various ways: prayer, contemplation, meditation, Bible Study, relaxation techniques, vacations, and television.

But it has been a long journey and, after a dissertation on spiritual formation and many silent retreats, that restlessness is still difficult to ignore and remains just under the surface of my life.

Perhaps this restlessness is not something that is all that bad, however.  Maybe it is just as much a part of me as is God’s image in which I was created.  People say that God doesn’t make junk, so maybe that restlessness is a part of God’s design for me.

Recently, I was reading my Bible during my devotions and stumbled on some verses in Isaiah that caught my attention (62:1-6; see above).  This portion of Isaiah records a time when Israel was all but lost in exile.  There was judgment, but hope was on the way.  Destruction and diaspora were imminent, but God promised a new age when Israel would return to Jerusalem and live in peace among all nations.

Isaiah 62 speaks of restoration not by way of war, but by prayer.  God promises to set up watchmen who will pray “continually”.  It invites others to pray without rest, and stresses prayer as a way to keep God from resting too (v. 7).  Restlessness was not something to avoid, but to use on behalf of interceding for God’s people and the nation, for the culmination of God’s promises to come.

This I read in the New Spirit-Filled Life Study Bible.  The inspirational devotion related to this text states that Isaiah was “alert to the character and ways of God” as he takes “stock with a spirit of urgent restlessness, refusing to keep silent before God” (p. 883).  Restlessness, in short, encourages a “true Spirit of prayer.”

I never imagined that my restlessness–this unyielding demon with whom I’ve wrestled my whole life–may in fact be an angel urging me to pray for others, for God to act, and for revival in my own community and church.  Rather than rustling in the bed at night, perhaps I need to pray.  Instead of fidgeting, I should clasp my hands and bow my head to talk to God.  Rather than pacing, I should praise God for “delighting” in us and calling us his beloved (Isaiah 62:4).

It is a novel thought, and perhaps I’ll try it.  Are you restless?  If so, use it as fuel to pray.  You too may be the watchman or watchwoman that God has called to intercede on behalf of loved ones, neighbors, and the lost in your midst.