In 1977 Frederick Buechner wrote his little book, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. There are many excerpts I could share, but what connects with me most is his description of the preaching event. It’s honest. It’s accurate. It’s as if Buechner peaked inside the window of my heart and captured in a few words the complex emotions I’ve felt for several months now.
If you are a preacher living under the expectations of people coming to the worship gathering to be fed, inspired, or encouraged, or if you find yourself feeling more like a bartender or distributer of goods and services than a pastor or truth-teller, I hope these words bring you a measure of comfort, or maybe even confidence.
Don’t forget it was written in the style, prose and language of 1977. Here’s Buechner:
“When the preacher climbs up into the pulpit. . . . He has been to a seminary and studied all that one studies in seminary. He has a degree to show for it, beyond the degree he has his ordination. . . . All of this deepens the silence with which they [the congregation] sit there waiting for him to work a miracle, and the miracle they are waiting for is that he will not just say that God is present, because they have heard it said before and it has made no great and lasting different to them, will not just speak the word of joy, hope, comedy, because they have heard it spoken before too and have spoken it among themselves, but that he will somehow make it real to them. They wait for him to make God real to them through the sacrament of bread and wine, and there is no place where the preacher is more aware of his own nakedness and helplessness than here in the pulpit as he listens to the silence of their waiting. . . . What can he say? What word can he speak with power enough to empower them, waiting there?
But let him take heart. He is called not to be an actor, a magician, in the pulpit. He is called to be himself. He is called to tell the truth as he has experienced it. He is called to be human, to be human, and that is calling enough for any man. If he does not make real to them the human experience of what it is to cry in the storm and receive no answer, to be sick at heart and find no healing, then he becomes the only one there who seems not to have had that experience because most surely under their bonnets and shawls and jackets, under their afros and ponytails, all the others there have had it whether they talk of it or not. As much as anything else, it is their experience of the absence of God that has brought them there in search of his presence, and if the preacher does not speak of that and to that, then he becomes like the captain of a ship who is the only one aboard who either does not know that the waves are twenty feet high and the decks awash or will not face up to it so that anything else he tries to say by way of hope and comfort and empowering becomes suspect on the basis of that one crucial ignorance or disingenuousness or cowardice or reluctance to speak in love any truths but the ones that people love to hear.” (pp. 39-41)