Getting Personal

Nothing illustrates a point like a personal story.

A personal story make an indelible impact on the listener, lingering long after whatever point was being made has faded. The more personal the story, the deeper it worms its way into the listener's psyche, until just the hearing of the story is a powerful personal experience that cannot be forgotten. It could be argued, in fact, that stories so overwhelm arguments that they do them a disservice, that to tell a story is to guarantee that whatever it is illustrating will be lost. To illustrate this point, I have (no irony intended) several personal stories about hearing personal stories--and also about telling them myself. All of them were heard during sermons, and in almost none of these cases can I remember what the sermon was actually about.

First story: sometime between 1982 and 1986, my father preached a sermon at the Monroe United Methodist Church during which he told a story about a young college student having a crisis of faith, and turning for guidance to a therapist. At the conclusion of the story, and the conclusion of the sermon, he said, "That young man stands before you today, preaching this sermon." His voice broke a little, and after the service, my mother asked me in worried tones, "Do you think your father's alright?" Yes, I thought he was fine. He had just done something extraordinary for him: in two decades of hearing my father preach sermons, I had only heard him tell personal stories once or twice, and this was the only time I'd heard him tell one that had meat to it. It's also the only one of his sermons I can remember hearing. I think it was about reaching out for help in times of personal crisis, and finding that help in unusual places (a therapist not being, for elderly Protestants in the early 1980s, someone they would normally turn to at such a time).

Most of Dad's sermons followed the traditional format for midcentury preaching of three points and a conclusion. The next generation of preachers refined this to "three stories and a poem," meaning those three points became less didactic, more illustrative, though they were usually anecdotes derived from novels or, for the preachers with the lightest touch, the media. Starting the in 1970s, though, there was a shift to "narrative preaching," a one-point approach which emphasized the narrative itself delivering the point, but doing it parabolically. This, according to the Gospels, is how Jesus preached, telling stories that revealed truths about the Kingdom--parables--without overstating the point. Occasionally the writers of the Gospels felt the need to insert an explanation, as in the parable of the sower, but for the most part, they wisely avoided such tactics.

I say "wisely" because explaining a story robs it of life. The personal stories that have most impacted me have taken on a life of their own in my mind, and as my memory has retold them to me through the years, I have mined them for new meanings and lessons that apply to a variety of circumstances.

This brings me to my second story. The year was probably 1987, and the preacher was Virgil Howard, on the faculty of Perkins School of Theology. Virgil would be my internship adviser the following year. Virgil eschewed the pulpit, preferring to come down to the floor of the seminary chapel. His sermon was textbook narrative: he read the scripture passage (and no, I can't remember what it was), then began to tell a story about being having insomnia when he was in junior high, lying awake in terror because he'd hawked a loogie down the stairwell at school, intending it to land on his worst enemy, and instead hit the scariest teacher in the school, who then looked up and locked her laser eyes on him, so he knew that the next morning when he came to school she was going to kill him. It's the kind of story Garrison Keillor would tell, and yet Virgil milked it, drawing it out, until my skin crawled with the intensity of the emotions he was evoking. The scripture must have been something about lying awake in fear--probably a psalm--and in that sense the story worked beautifully. The problem with it is that I don't remember there being any redemption at the end, no sense of being relieved of fear, saved from this impossible situation.

Its impact on me was powerful, though, and I used it as a model for my own preaching. For many years afterward, for most of my career, in fact, I used personal illustrations almost exclusively. But there's a major problem with that, and here it is:

Third story: As a young pastor, I was a bundle of insecurities. I was shy, introverted, unsure of myself in social settings. I knew I should be visiting people, and made a discipline of it, traveling around my student appointment in southern Illinois knocking on the doors of my parishioners, just as I was sure my father was still doing back in Oregon. But I hated it, and felt an intense relief if, dropping in on someone, I found that person not home, and could just leave a calling card. Mind you, once I got through the door and into a conversation, things went far more smoothly, and most of these visits were richly rewarding; but making the initial contact was terrifying to me. My supervising pastor suggested I call ahead and make appointments, but that just shifted the terror into making the phone call, something I still feel anxiety over.

These insecurities played into my preaching. I tended to use personal illustrations about my fears and failures. They always culminated in redemption--Virgil Howard's uncomfortable story had taught me the importance of that--but over the course of a year or more, with one stories of inadequacy accumulating each Sunday, one could get the impression I really didn't like myself. That, in fact, is what one of my church officers told me after a year in England: "We love your preaching; we just wish you weren't so hard on yourself."

I think I toned it down a bit after that, but the hard-on-myself sermons returned in 1992. My wife and I had just moved to Sherwood. We'd had a year in Medford serving as associates under the same senior pastor, a situation we had specifically requested not to be placed in. There was conflict, triangulation, and for me, depression. At the end of that year we had, and nearly lost, a baby, who spent two weeks in intensive care, an emotional trauma we were still feeling a year later. As if that wasn't enough, we decided to foster a teenager who had bounced from one family member to another for, as we were to learn, some very good reasons. And then there was my father's heart attack, which came just before our move.

Arriving in Sherwood, our household was a powder keg waiting to be lit. I was appointed to two churches on the far side of Portland; getting to Lents took 35 minutes, and the Estacada church was almost exactly an hour away from Sherwood. The situation with our foster teen quickly heated up to a series of explosions that convinced me we'd bitten off much more than we could chew, and we handed her over to the state. I was still suffering from depression, and my churches knew it, telling me that the deeply personal stories I was telling in my sermons were a clear cry for help.

I went back into therapy, had my appointment cut back to just Estacada, began spending more time parenting, and started on the road to recovery. But it was too late. Our marriage, rushed  into before we really knew each other well enough, had endured far too many traumas, and in December 1994, we separated. This, of course, entered into my preaching.

I was up for full ordination that year, despite what was happening in my personal life. Several other ministers came to hear me preach one Sunday. Afterward, they took me out to lunch, and one of them told me, "What you do, you do very well, and it's powerful. It could very easily be used to manipulate. Please use it for good."

That advice finally knocked me back, and suddenly I was remembering being in a pew at Perkins Chapel, hearing Virgil Howard's junior high story, and feeling my skin crawl. And I knew she was right: I could so easily use this tool to take advantage of people. I knew, too, that this was not who I wanted to be, that playing with people's faith in this way would render me the charlatan I was so afraid of becoming.

So I backed away from it. For the remaining four and a half years of my career, most of which were spent in rural Yamhill county, I toned down my personal illustrations. Whenever I found myself going negative about myself, I lightened the story. I even began pulling in illustrations from pop culture, third party stuff that, while entertaining and engrossing, lacked the personal punch.

I'm ambivalent about the results. Ethically, I feel better about those sermons than I do about many I preached in Illinois, England, and Estacada; at the same time, I know they were far less powerful. Personally--and there's that word again--I know they also spoke less to me. I was my own best preacher, until I chose not to preach in that way anymore. As the power of the sermons faded--though I still received plenty of acclaim from my congregations for my manuscript-free story-telling style--I began to lose interest in being a preacher and pastor, initiating a chain of causality that concluded with me leaving the ministry in 2000.

And that, in the end, is the greatest reason for the personal illustration. It's the expression that was already a cliché when Jesus spoke it: "Physician, heal thyself." I shouldn't speak for other preachers, but I expect this is at least partially true for them; it's absolutely true for me: in telling dark stories about myself, and finding redemption at the end of those stories, I was preaching to myself. I was enacting a weekly salvation drama that kept me on track to be saved from myself, from the frightening demons of insecurity, marital anxiety, vocational uncertainty, and depression. And it worked: witnessing to my inadequacies in a public setting, and to my spiritual rescue from those insecurities, I saved myself.

It's possible, even probable, that these sermons helped others with their own struggles, encouraged them to reach out for the help they needed, or led them to some inner resolution. Ultimately, though, I believe they were more selfish than self-giving. At its best, preaching is community-centered. Preacher-centered sermons focus the attention of the congregation on the personality in the pulpit, rather than on the needs of the church. Once one has mastered the personal illustration, it's far too easy to turn inward in preparing a sermon. Preaching from the heart of the community takes far more effort: the ongoing visitation and networking I found so oppressive. Only by being in constant intimate contact with the community can the preacher deliver powerful sermons that speak to its genuine hopes and dreams, and address the hard work that will be required to achieve them.

And that, in the final analysis, is why there are no personal parables in the Gospels. Jesus told generic stories with unnamed characters: a traveler, a Levite, a Samaritan, a landowner, a king, two sons, a woman. The characterizations are minimalist yet so real, so personal to the audience, that listeners could easily put themselves in their places, could experience the situations for themselves, could make them be about themselves, so that they became the most personal of sermon illustrations without being preacher-centered.

I no longer preach, but I do tell personal stories, as you can see in this blog. I also write fiction, though I've been taking some time off from it. Sometime soon, I'll get back on that train, self-publishing through Amazon, a chapter at a time, one parable at a time, telling redemption stories that take the focus of the narrative off me and put them on the characters--and ultimately, on the community of readers.


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