The third shift in my writing and preaching in the past several years can be summed up simply: more courage. I’m accessing deeper truths in myself and speaking about the things that I see as most important to me. When the writing gets scary–when it’s leading me to question things I’ve taken for granted, or to say things that might be hard to hear, or to feel scary emotions–instead of backing off, I keep going. On my best weeks, I’m giving people the most important things I’ve discovered.
This is not to be confused with self-revelation, which can be a trap for preachers. It’s easy to think that simply by talking about incidents from our own lives, we’re being brave, when sometimes we are just dumping stuff on the congregation that would be better aired to our therapists or best friends. (Sensing the distinction is one topic in the seminary course I outlined but haven’t taught, “Preaching on the Edge.”) You can’t preach well week after week without revealing a great deal about yourself, but it’s not necessarily about anything you’ve done or said. It’s about depth of soul and being willing to dig deep to that treasure and share it with others. For me, courage comes into it because I’m afraid they’ll reject my offering, or sneer “That’s all? That’s what’s in the treasure chest?” or one way or another, find my gifts inadequate. But I think the best sermons come out of that risk, because when I don’t risk it, I’m hiding what is most valuable.
I learned a lesson from Allen Ginsberg back in the mid-90s, though it took a good many years to filter into my preaching. Recordings of fifty of his poems and songs had just been released (Holy Soul Jelly Roll, Rhino), and I went to hear him read. This was an era of nudity. Madonna was breaking barriers by strutting onstage in her lingerie. Yet she never seemed very raw or vulnerable to me; on the contrary, her act felt like an act, the skimpy clothes a kind of emotional armor. Ginsberg was just the opposite. He kept all his clothes on, a 60-something-year-old man standing on a modest stage in thick glasses, a button-up shirt and khaki pants; for the most part his content was PG-rated; despite the ego required to recite one’s poetry to a crowd, he didn’t give the sense of putting himself forward in any way; and for all that, he was utterly naked. He peeled away all pretense and allowed us to see his soul. Watching him, listening to him, I realized a person can share the most intimate thoughts and feelings in a way that says not “Look at me!” but “Here, let me help you take a look inside yourself.”
True vulnerability invites vulnerability from others. That takes courage. I don’t know how others develop it; for me it’s been by doing things that scare me.