Last Saturday I had the chance to share at a CRU reading advocacy event. It gave me a chance to revisit some of the books that had impacted my life. One, which impacted my preaching, was Frederick Buechner’s book, Telling the Truth (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1977). He begins the book by giving an account of Henry Ward Beecher (1872), at Yale to deliver the first of the Beecher Lectures on preaching, established in honour of his father. (p.1)
Citing Beecher’s biographer, Buechner tells us that Beecher had no idea what he was going to say with the lecture an hour away. He was shaving when the thoughts suddenly came to him. He dropped his razor and went off to write down his thoughts for his lecture. In his rush he cut himself badly. Buechner comments:
And well the old pulpiteer might have cut himself with his razor because part of the inner world that his lecture came from, among the clouds that it suddenly dawned on him out of, was the deep trouble that he was in or the deep trouble that was in him. The gossip about his relationship with the wife of one of his parishioners had left the whispering stage and was beginning to appear more or less directly in print . . . A public trial for adultery was not far off . . .
So when he stood there looking into the hotel mirror with soap on his face and a razor in his hand, part of what he saw was his own shame and horror, the sight of his own folly, the judgement one can imagine he found even harder to bear than God’s, which was his own judgment on himself . . .
Henry Ward Beecher cut himself with his razor and wrote out notes for the first Beecher lectures in blood because whatever else he was or aspired to be or was famous for being, he was a man of flesh and blood, and so were all the men who over the years travelled to New Haven after him to deliver the same lectures. (p.2)
I read the above when I still at seminary, and imagining the blood dripping on the page, I was reminded that the preacher is only human, as much needing grace as his listeners.
It has been more than 30 years since I first read Telling the Truth. I think, by God’s grace, I have grown in my ministry of preaching and am often invited to preach the word. But I continue to remember the blood dripping from Beecher’s face and that Beecher, and I, are only flesh and blood like our listeners, and also people who desperately need the grace of God.
The past 30 years have also seen times when I experienced pain and failure in my life, including the death of one spouse, a divorce, and a journey through depression. God knew I needed many “cuts on the face” to break me and to help me remember I am, first, one who needs God’s grace before I am one who dispenses it to others.
Standing before a group and preaching the word is such a heady experience that it cannot help but go to your head. The fight to remain broken and humble never lets up. I try not to preach every Sunday. Bernice and I go to a Saturday evening service now where I am just a worshipper in the congregation needing the elements of grace that come though word and sacrament just like everybody else. I don’t come from a liturgical tradition so I don’t have clerical robes to take off. Well, I take off my tie. (I wonder if my friends who have to wear clerical robes have to work that much harder to remind themselves that they are also one of the people, similarly needing grace.) I do all I can to remind myself that I am first and foremost a human in need of grace.
I have known for some time now that I have been called to be a preacher of the Word. Many don’t believe me, but I am nervous every time I preach. Who is adequate to speak for God??? Let me close with another quote from Telling the Truth,
The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. (p.23)