When preparing a sermon, I return to Frederick Buechner’s challenge over and over again. He says:
“Sad to say, the people who seem to lose touch with themselves and
God most conspicuously are, of all things, ministers … There is precious
little in most of their preaching to suggest that they have rejoiced or
suffered with the rest of [humanity].
"If they draw on their experiences
at all, it is usually for some little anecdote to illustrate a point or
help make the pill go down but rarely if ever an authentic, first-hand,
flesh-and-blood account of what it is like to love Christ, say, or feel
spiritually bankrupt, or to get fed up with the whole religious
enterprise.” — Telling Secrets
I think Buechner is right. Many of us who stand up to preach before
our congregation have no idea how to go about revealing our hearts to
those who listen. Part of it is an effort to protect the people. We
certainly don’t want to use the pulpit as a means to work out our
unprocessed, raw emotions. There is a difference between transparency
and plain old lack of boundaries. And we do have to hold
boundaries—because we all know that churches are full of the
boundary-impaired. So, we do not want to get up in front of people and
begin sharing how much we are struggling in our marriages, or how we
just want everyone to leave us alone, or how we are not even sure we
believe in the Gospel this week. We do not have the right to use the
pulpit to process all of our baggage.
But we also do not have the right to hide our human struggles from
the people we minister to. We do not have the right to preach a trite
and shallow faith to a people who are dealing with real-life problems.
We do not have the right to trivialize God with cliches and lack of
depth. No, rather we are called to help people navigate this thing
called life. And the best way we can do this is to open up our own
lives to those who have ears to hear. We share the realities that we
have had to wrestle through, the pains we have had to come to terms
with, the disappointments and failures that seem to plague us. We share
real-life, first-hand, flesh-and-blood accounts of our lives.
We walk a fine line as preachers—we need to be honest about how we
suffer and rejoice with the rest of humanity—but we need to be careful
not to burden the congregation with unprocessed baggage. Responsible
authenticity and transparency is our goal. If we cannot share real
areas of struggle, places of doubt, times when we too have experienced
the dark night of the soul, then our words will begin to ring hollow.
Those who are hurting, or doubting, or struggling do not need easy
answers—they need hope. And when we lay our hearts bare—admit that we
too have hurt, doubted and struggled—and yet God has been faithful, we
begin to help people to open their lives to each other. Ultimately,
what we practice is what we will preach.
What do you think about truly practicing what we preach? Have you ever done so? How was it received?