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When We’re Preaching, Why Not Try Honesty?

Anne Lamott infamously said, “The most powerful sermon in the world are the words ‘me too.'”
I read those words once – I also read them in Rob Bell’s book “Velvet Elvis,” which is fitting because I recently found myself settling into a packed pew to hear Lamott on a book tour for her latest book on prayer, “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.”

As I surveyed the room and performed that perfunctory 21st century early-arrival ritual of checking my smartphone, I found an e-mail from Bell’s publisher drawing my attention to a forthcoming profile of him in The New Yorker.

Before skipping to other e-mails, I caught a line from the profile: “Bell attracts an earnest crowd of young people, full of questions about the church they once loved unquestioningly. For many of them, Bell is a reassuring figure; proof that it’s possible to challenge certain articles of faith without leaving behind faith itself.”

I exhaled after reading those two lines from The New Yorker. That’s exactly what I find comforting about Bell and why I’m grateful for his voice amid the peculiar cacophony of American Christianity.

And as my eyes drifted from tiny screen to the crowd before me, there was Lamott, hugging strangers-turned-family, the church filling up to the brim.

I couldn’t help but think this was a larger crowd than normally fills this sanctuary once a week, despite a gifted pastor and committed staff. I thought about why so many people were in that room and why.

I thought again about Bell and how I, along with about 150,000 other people I will never know, once listened to a podcast of a sermon that lasted an hour and a half, or how shocked I was to listen to Fred Craddock on tape (yes, a real audio-cassette) only to be shocked to realize 87 minutes had passed.

Why is it that some voices ring truer than others, particularly when it comes to faith?

I am no homiletician, so feel free to question my authority here, but I find a common denominator in each of these three preachers.

On a visceral level – somewhere between my heart and my spleen – I find myself unconsciously nodding and wordlessly mouthing “me too” like some kind of centering prayer that grows within me and swells, the way it did when I first heard “My yoke is easy” or the opening notes of “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

I crave that feeling. I long for it in worship, and I genuinely believe my pastor and every other pastor I know wants to evoke that same feeling in the hearts and spleens of the people they serve.

Unfortunately, many I know have resigned themselves to homiletical karaoke, doing their best impression of the original material and somehow never quite measuring up.

And somewhere in that effort to mimic the voice of another, the preacher forfeits his or her own unique voice.

When we trade our story for the story of another, we don’t just risk the secondhand laugh or half-hearted “Amen.”

We become spiritual plagiarists, unconsciously believing that there are those who have VIP access to the Holy Other – and we are not those people. But there is good news.

You have a voice. We all do. Moreover, we have an experience with God – and even experiences when we weren’t and aren’t sure God even exists.

And in those experiences with God and not-God, we have a story and a voice.

The writers of the biblical text had this, and while they quoted each other from time to time, it would appear that Luke had little interest in telling the same story found in Matthew (and John clearly couldn’t care less what any of them think about the matter).

So here’s a modest proposal: Let’s tell the truth. Not the “biblical truth” but our truth.

The one that says sometimes we don’t have a clue what to do with the biblical truth or if one even exists.

Let’s be honest. Because when we’re honest, the pulpit and microphone do a pretty good job of reminding the folks that Oz is indeed great and powerful while we sit at the desks of our own frailty and questioning.

A friend of mine talks about our “heroes and sheroes” of faith – most of whom we love not because they’re cool or have the best speaking voice or the best education or the most amazing hair.

We love them because we know they’re not lying to us. We know they’ll be honest. So why would we think the people we serve want to hear anything less from us?

Trey Lyon and his wife, Jen, are CBF field personnel serving as urban ministry coordinators in southeast Atlanta. You can learn more about their work at TheLyonFamily.org.