Back in January 2008, I had just started divinity school at Gardner-Webb University; one of my classes was Introduction to Preaching with Dr. Danny West. Among the assignments was writing an "Autobiographical Analysis of an Influential Pastor." We were tasked with describing the pastor's impact on our lives, including how their preaching style affected our spiritual formation. For me, this one was easy: it had been writing itself my whole life.
I stumbled across it recently and realized I'd not shared it with my aileengoeson readers. Thought you might enjoy it.
“Daddy, you must be so proud.” The two of us lingered over our toasted bagels and yogurt in the Hampton Inn breakfast area; Mother had gone to finish getting ready for church. Daddy looked up from his Bible and sermon notes; he hadn’t heard me.
“What was that baby girl?”
“Proud! You must be. I mean this church is having Harold Mitchell Day. Heavens, that reunion last night with twenty-five grown-up once-upon-a-time youth group members was enough to make your heart explode. How many of them did you baptize anyway? Daddy, this is huge.” I was surely proud. All the times I’d seen my daddy deal with dumb deacons and constipated committees. . . I was basking in this glow, even if I was in its shadow.
Few Baptists can say they have had the same pastor from cradle roll through baptism, to youth group all the way to their wedding day. That’s me: one preacher—for twenty-two years. And here’s the thing: when Daddy’s preaching, I get so caught up in the message, I often forget he’s my daddy.
I get caught up right away too. Daddy often hooks his audience with a story, an illustration that pulls us in from the start. He’ll build on that story or use similar stories throughout his sermon so that at each juncture of the message, I am connected to it by real-life examples.
In fact, when I was little, Daddy’s stories were my favorite part of his sermons. I waited for them, hating for one to end, knowing it would be a few minutes before the next one. As I’ve grown older, and as my love of scripture has deepened, I’ve come to value a different component of Daddy’s preaching. Daddy’s sermons bring God’s Word to life for me.
I remember (it’s been at least 25 years ago) one sermon Daddy preached from Psalm 8 called “A Little Less than Divine.” In that sermon, he expounded on this psalm of creation. He pointed out that above all creation, humans were so precious to God, that he placed us just a little lower than the heavenly beings. He went on to talk about the pros and the cons of this distinction. In other words, he underscored our self-worth by showing us that God made us nearly equal to the angels. Then, he reminded us that we were in fact less than divine and didn’t need to get, as it were, too big for our heavenly britches. The whole sermon wove in and out of the text, using illustrations and personal reflection to connect listeners to the message.
That’s the way Daddy always preaches. The scripture carries the message. Daddy just delivers it.
Daddy is not a quiet preacher. He reminds me, sometimes, of those old Southern preachers you see in old movies but no longer in real life: preachers like Sally Field’s in The Places in the Heart or like the Waltons had. Daddy is passionate when he preaches. His tone of voice rises and falls. He gestures. He cries. And because Daddy never shies away from feeling the intensity of God’s message, I am freed to plunge into the depth of its meaning as well.
But while Daddy never speaks in monotone, he never speaks in what we children called a “preacher voice” either. He just talks like Daddy. Or Harold. Or Papa, or friend, or brother, or uncle. He is sincere. He is real. He is himself. When Daddy preaches, I never feel as if he is talking down to me or casting judgment on me. I feel as if I am being led to a holy message by a sinner like me. Consequently, I willingly go with him to the throne of grace, unfettered by misplaced self-defense.
Daddy fiddled with what was left of his Hampton Inn breakfast. “Yeah, it’s all been mighty nice. But I got a sermon to preach here in a little bit and there might be somebody there this morning who hasn’t heard the Gospel. That’s what’s on my mind right now.” He turned back to his Bible and went back to work.