“Narrative Nudity”: Why Transparency in the Pulpit Matters … A Lot

Do you see a face? A young minister in a small town, in a cracker box of a house they call a parsonage. He lives there with his wife and small child. It’s Saturday morning. There’s a knock at the door. He answers, and standing before him on the porch is the chairman of his church board, who is also the president of the local bank, and also the owner of most of the land round about. The man has in his hands a small television. It is an old television, small screen, black and white. It’s badly scarred and one of the knobs is off. He says: “My wife and I got one of those new twenty-five inch color sets, but they didn’t want to take this one on a trade, so I just said to myself, “Well, we’ll just give it to the minister. That’s probably the reason our ministers don’t stay any longer than they do, we don’t do enough nice things for them.” The young minister looks up, tries to smile and say thanks. But I want you to see his face. Bitter.

Fred Craddock, “Praying Through Clenched Teeth”

I don’t know who Craddock preached this sermon to, and neither does Eugene Lowry who includes it in his book How to Preach a Parable. Even so, I do know one thing – stories like this come from experience. Sometimes ministers indeed share stories for their timeless truth, regardless of their factuality. For instance, Genesis 1 and 2 are wrapped up in timeless truths, and we claim them as sacred and authoritative, even though they are perhaps not wrapped up in scientific fact. Perhaps the event in question happened exactly the way Craddock described, but even if it didn’t he and the congregation certainly knew of tiny parsonages, rapid itinerancy of young clergy in rural congregations, and incongruity in the way pastors are treated from church to church. I don’t care if it happened or not – this story is true. In his work Dynamics of Faith, Paul Tillich writes:

But we must show beyond this the concrete relation of faith to the several forms of cognitive reason: the scientific, the historical, and the philosophical. The truth of faith is different from the meaning of truth in each of these ways of knowledge. Nevertheless, it is truth they all try to reach, truth in the sense of the “really real” received adequately by the cognitive function of the human mind.

I receive the “really real” in Craddock’s vignette. I receive the “really real” in humanity’s attempt to become like God in Genesis, along with the intentionality of the universe. There does come a time – and has come in the life of the Church as Institution – where the spiritual and the scientific have crashed into one another with devastating results. There is not much more damaging to the Church as Institution and to the clergy as the truthful but not factual claimed as the factual. When Galileo brought forth the factuality of the heliocentric universe, he was punished. The tiered universe of heaven and angels above, the earth and “man” in the center, and hell and demons below was not to be tampered with. Though we often behave as Reinhold Niebuhr suggested in The Nature and Destiny of Man that “humans are often plagued with fits of dizziness and qualms of conscience to pretend they occupy the center of the universe,” we know that factually we do not.

In a recent stewardship campaign, I preached a sermon about the theological roots of the words “tithe” and “steward” and how they inform humanity’s relationship with the Divine. I was able to “get my nerd on,” if you will, and talked about Lord Denethor’s stewardship of Gondor in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

And I showed this picture since a lot of congregants look like this during a stewardship sermon anyway.
And I showed this picture since a few congregants look like this during a stewardship sermon anyway.

 Denethor is simply holding the throne and the resources for the eventual arrival of the true king. This is where we are as givers of our resources and inhabitants of God’s good, green earth. When we, like the troubled steward, exclaim “The rule of Gondor is mine, and no other’s!” with our resources and the earth’s resources, we become stewards that are attempting to act like kings and queens. This is a problem.

Anyway, here I am trucking along the homiletical road, talking about “to tithe is to tenth” and “to be a steward is to save, spend , and invest for the king/queen” and, in factuality, my wife and I were only at a point where we were tithing my income and not hers. I was preaching what I felt was the “really real” of giving in the local church, and my personal finances were not 100% in line with what I was preaching. This is where transparency in the pulpit truly matters. A couple came to me during the week following that sermon and asked if I could share with them how our family tithes. It was during this conversation that I realized I had preached something I wasn’t fully participating in, and ended up sharing that with the couple. If only I had stopped long enough to examine in my own life where the truth met with the facts, I would’ve had a much better, much more “really real” sermon on my hands.

Since that week, I have always reflected during my sermon preparation on my own life, and not simply the lives of my parishioners and the life of the church and community in which I find myself. It has dramatically changed the way I preach and the effectiveness of my preaching. In fact, I was able to stand before the Annual Conference delegation in 2011 and admit to the floor how harshly I judged a fellow seminarian and how poorly that turned out. You can see that sermon by clicking here:

 Truth in the pulpit –  in matters of the spiritual and the scientific, the “really real” of [T]ruth and factuality – matters. It matters a lot. It is that wonderful place in Protestant preaching where the resurrection is made known through the proclamation of the Word and the pulpit minister is identifying with the life experiences of the congregation.

The way I remember to be transparent in the pulpit consistently is to pray about it consistently. William Placher quotes Calvin in his book Belonging to God:

Therefore we see that to us nothing is promised to be expected from the Lord, which we are not bidden to ask of him in prayers. So true is it that we dig up by prayer the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord’s gospel, and which our faith has gazed upon

I’m no Calvinist, and I’m also not Presbyterian and don’t teach the statement of faith about which Belonging to God is written. Yet, there is some “really real” contained in its pages.

Preaching about my family, my faith, and my finances without reservation and with honesty has both held myself and my congregation accountable to one another and raised my credibility and trustworthiness, even though it has involved revealing my missteps.

Pastors must be upfront and honest in the pulpit. It enhances their ability to share the Good News, and makes more visible the seats open to us at the heavenly banquet. Whether directly as in my Annual Conference sermon, or indirectly in Craddock’s use of images that are universally shared by the small, local church, we should all challenge one another to, as our conference’s bishop has preached on occasion, “keep it real” in our pulpit ministry in the local church.

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