Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The truthtellers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

This blog is for preachers. It’s the first blog I’ve written in about eight months, having found Twitter a lot less taxing (there’s a lesson there, not entirely a good one!).

I am in a Starbucks by the side of the road. I have pulled off because I have been on my car radio listening to an hour and a half of speeches by the teenagers who survived the MSD school shooting and have gone to Tallahassee to confront their legislators. As I listened to their electrifying presentations, I kept thinking over and over about how much we preachers of the gospel have to learn from them.

(I will refer to them as “young people” rather than “children” out of respect for them, although they very strikingly refer to themselves as “children” to call attention to what they see as the failure of the “adults” to protect them.)

Not every speech was equally noteworthy. Two or three of the young women would benefit from voice lessons to lower their registers. I am writing about the most impressive of the speeches, which propelled me out of my car. What was particularly striking about them? What can preachers learn from them?

First and foremost was their urgency. It was not to be denied. They are infuriated by being patronized, by being told by legislators how wonderful and brave and powerful they are. They are not interested in being praised. They want to get something done. Like it or not, it cannot be denied that prophets have arisen in Israel. The time will soon come when recalcitrant lawmakers will begin to dread the appearance of young people in their offices and in the hallways, just as King Ahab dreaded the appearance of Elijah.

I have heard a great many sermons in a variety of churches all over this country and abroad. The majority of them lack urgency and passion. They lack courage and commitment. It seems that teachers these days must actually be prepared to take a bullet while protecting their students, but how many preachers give the impression that their message is a matter of life and death? I forget which one of the great preachers of history it was (Whitefield? Wesley?) who said that every sermon should be delivered as if it were the preacher’s last.

It is true that young people with a cause tend to be reckless in their certainty. It is a classic characteristic of youth. But were the apostles any less committed to preaching the gospel in circumstances that might well result in their imprisonment or death? Is maturity an excuse for pallid sermons?

Second and almost equally notable was the young speakers’ renunciation of all clichés, all platitudes, all used-to-death phrases continually trotted out by politicians and other public figures. With the exception of “never again,” which has had its day and probably should be permanently retired, these young people explicitly renounced standard phrases, telling the legislators that they were tired of hearing about “thoughts and prayers,” tired of being told “this is not the time for that conversation,” tired of hearing about how “our hearts are broken,” tired of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” We have heard all this before, they said, and we are sick of it. We are sick of empty talk.

Note that they are not rejecting speech per se. They are making speeches. What they are rejecting is  empty, shallow speech without any heart in it, let alone truth. It was instructive to go back and forth between listening to them and changing channels to hear the concurrent speech at NASA by Vice-President Pence. His speech compared to theirs was robotic, predictable, flat. He talked about how our national heart was broken about the school shooting, but he sounded as it was simply an item to be checked off his list. It sounded inauthentic.

So third, the students’ speeches were authentic. It is shocking and preposterous that the Twittersphere is ricocheting with viral accusations that their speeches were written for them, that they are “crisis actors.” No one except the most hardened skeptic listening to them could mistake the immediacy of their recounting of their experiences hiding in closets, texting their last words to parents, hearing the shots killing their friends. Over time as they are asked to repeat their testimonies, the freshness will fade, but the immediate impact cannot be taken away. Preachers can learn from this, also. No story borrowed from a homiletical website can substitute for the preacher’s own personal investment in what she is saying. Over time, congregations learn to spot the difference between what is the preacher’s own, won through struggle, and what is second hand.

Fourth, the young peoples’ speeches for the most part were very artfully constructed. One young woman spoke about her determination to demonstrate that no adult had written her speech for her. She hardly needed to say this because the gut-wrenching nature of her testimony was far too honest and immediate to be parroted. Given this, it was quite breathtaking the way she and others put their speeches together. What they lacked in Churchillian eloquence was compensated for by their skillful use of repetition and crescendo reminiscent of African-American preaching. They did not allow their speeches to flag in energy or forward movement. So many sermons that I hear tail off at the end, as if the preacher lacked the energy and conviction to make the sale, so to speak. The preacher preparing the sermon should always allow time to craft the ending. No matter how much effort is put into setting the stage, if the sermon loses strength at the end, the effort is lost and the opportunity for a breakthrough dribbles away.


Now, clearly, these young people are fired up because of what has just happened to them. It may be that they cannot muster up this level of passion month after month, which is what they will be required to do in order to overcome the timidity of the legislators. Preachers, similarly, will protest that they cannot produce high drama Sunday after Sunday, year after year. But as the doctrine of the Word of God attests (see Karl Barth), every authentic proclamation of the Word is in itself a high drama. Every time the preacher goes into the pulpit, the Powers of Sin and Death are lurking nearby to undermine the power of the voice of God. The Word of God—as William Stringfellow, for one, tirelessly proclaimed—is the weapon of Truth against falsehood. Over a preaching lifetime, a preacher should be able to attest that he or she has faithfully grappled with the Enemy so as to make room, Sunday by Sunday, for the Word to speak.