A while back I was talking with Lauren Winner and she reflected, bemusedly, about what she must have been thinking to write a memoir, Girl Meets God, at only the age of 24.
Acknowledging an inevitable psychological need to reveal parts of herself, Winner also acknowledged that she would rather err on the side of divulging too much of her life than too little.
The Church needs more authenticity she said.
I think the same can be said of the pulpit.
Preachers need more authenticity.
Cormac McCarthy, my favorite novelist, admitted to an interviewer that he has no interest in literature that doesn’t have death in it.
Matters of life and death are too important to neglect for a novel to ring true.
Likewise, Gardner Taylor, the dean of black preachers, often critiqued younger preachers for sermons that had no blood in them, meaning there was no sign in them of the preacher’s own struggle with life and faith.
While it’s certainly inappropriate for preachers to use the pulpit as their own private confessional or to coerce the congregation into playing the role of therapist, in general I think more preachers’ sermons need to have blood on them.
Too often preachers are reticent to speak of themselves and when they do it lacks any sense of grittiness.
The lack of urgency I critiqued earlier just as often stems from the flat, safe nature of the preacher’s personal witness.
What preachers offer up are innocent illustrations from their lives, tame slices of life that are no more urgent or gritty than ‘Kids Say the Darndest Things.’
The preacher, as the historic black church has understood her, is one called from among the people, as one of the people, to bring a Word on behalf of the people. This representational role of the preacher requires, I think, the preacher to give witness to the people’s own on-the-ground struggles.
For the sermon to be a Word that makes contact with the listeners, the sermon should be a testimony that emerges out of the crucible of the preacher’s own suffering and wrestling with the scripture and the faith.
Naturally, this can’t be a week-in, week-out mode of preaching nor should the preacher’s personal testimony overwhelm or contradict the meaning of the scripture text itself, but the common reluctance to preach personally betrays a kind of homiletical docetism; in that, when the preacher seems determined to appear less than real, someone who doesn’t struggle with the same issues and questions the rest of us struggle with.
The bitter fruit of such tame preaching can be the proclamation of a Messiah who also seems less than real.
We cannot authentically preach an incarnate God if our message avoids the stuff of our own fleshly lives.
After all, if ‘Israel’ itself means ‘to contend’ with God, then any faithful testimony of this God needs to bear the scars of having contended and prevailed.