Recently I wrote an article about preachers and the risks of false prophecy we face in the pulpit. One might assume in my challenge of a preacher’s inclination to focus only on “saying beautiful things” and sharing those ideas that would prove popular with their congregation that I am advocating for a brooding, unpleasant tone in offering sermons.
But in fact, this would be far too easy; the call of an effective preacher is far more challenging.
First, consider the quote below by Kierkegaard about the voice and effect of a poet, but consider it as it applies to preachers as well:
What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music…. And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ – that is, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would only frighten us, but the music, that is blissful.
― Søren Kierkegaard, Either – Or
In my view, it’s the responsibility of a preacher not just to “say beautiful things” and affirm the goodness of life, but also explore in some depth and with some substance the darkness too. This should not just be done on an intellectual level, holding the tough subjects at arms-length, but we should instead share of ourselves, connecting personally with our own struggles so that those we speak to can do the same.
But as Kierkegaard suggests, an effective speaker presents us with our own doubt, struggle and pain in such a way that we can access it, deal with it, and in its own way, it is strangely beautiful.
A good preacher, poet, musician, artist or the like, then, doesn’t feel for us as an emotional proxy, but rather feels alongside us, offering companionship in the journey that makes the experience a little more bearable. Consider the psalms, the writing of the prophets Jeremiah or Isaiah for perfect examples of how this can be done well in a theological context.
A preacher’s job is not to terrify and despoil listeners any more than it is to entertain or comfort at all times. We are interpreters, guides and companions through the very matters of life. We’re not surgeons or mechanics; we don’t have to fix everything. But at our best, we help illuminate the crooked, winding path toward healing, wisdom and a more fulfilling life.