I grew up in a world where parishoners referred to their pastors as preachers. I understand why some folks these days dislike the word, evoking for many grainy images of fire-belching crazies sweating like hogs and literally scaring the hell out of people. You don’t have to read too many stories, like Dennis Covington’s wonderful Salvation on Sand Mountain (the true saga of the snake-handling preacher of the Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following who tried to murder his wife with a crate of his rattlers), before you get the idea that preachers can be crazy coots.
This is too bad. In its truest sense, to preach means to announce (to declare) good news. To preach is not to blast wild, thoughtless words or to pretend to own a private hotline for divine truth. Rather, to preach is to refuse to stay silent when a soul is weary or a body undone.
A preacher believes we are starved for a good word, but the preacher will not surrender to the cynical belief that all the good words are gone. A preacher speaks up when the silence deafens, when we are desperate for a bit of light or hope. But a preacher also knows when to stop the talking, when to surrender the floor and let the quiet speak. A preacher tells the old story, and a true preacher simply lets this story stand, bearing its own weight, fully aware that the truth will both console and confound. The preacher does not use the Story or the Good Book (or words like gospel, disciple, biblical) as artillery or to build a following. A true preacher will not stand by when God’s grace or God’s mysteries suffer at the hands of boisterous, angry rhetoric or are desecrated by cliquish Christianity.
A preacher courageously opens her mouth when she sees how parched we are for words of life. A preacher weeps like Jeremiah when words will no longer do. A preacher sings a Psalm when darkness threatens to snuff out the hope. A preacher grieves when our foolish choices steer us toward death. A preacher gets riled when the poor are trampled or the powerful mock mercy. A preacher gets feisty whenever arrogant buffoons tarnish the stole.
To preach, in the old sense, is not a theatrical display or the opportunity for a polished speaker to wow the crowd. A preacher speaks to the very people surrounding him, the ones who need God’s voice in this one moment and amid these unique details. A preacher offers whatever he holds within his soul, whether born in travail or in joy, then gives that true thing fully, and humbly, to the people he loves. The preacher listens before she speaks, and afterwards too. Preaching is, as Marilynne Robinson says, one side of a passionate conversation.
If a preacher rarely laughs, or never cries, I do not trust him. Are we paying any attention at all to our world, to our God, to our own heart? Do we see the beauty, or the weariness, of those who receive our words? Do we have any inkling of the vast generosity and holy love of the One in whose name we speak? A preacher does not have a bully pulpit, but a meeting place from which to say again and again: God is here.
Karl Barth said that when he stood behind a pulpit, he assumed there would always be at least one person listening who, when hearing the story of scandalous grace, would surely be asking themselves: Could this possibly be true? “Then,” Barth said, “I preach to that person.”
Barth offers as good a description of preaching as I could muster. Preach to that single soul, to that one who’s desperate for a fresh possibility, a truly good word. This kind of preaching, this kind of life, will never grow old.