Vulnerability in the Pulpit

I know of only one preacher whose vestments were simply his birthday suit. No alb or cassock, suit or tie, underwear or socks or shoes covered him. Only skin. For three years he meandered barefooted and barebutted, a human homily revealing a naked truth about encroaching judgment. What Isaiah was, the peoples around him would become, should they trust in the muscle of man instead of the arm of the Lord (Isaiah 20). Without clothes and without shoes, destitute of every possession, they would be led away as POWs by the tyrant of Assyria. A naked prophet delivering that message for over a thousand days may seem beyond extreme, but God has been known to go to great lengths to lay bare the foolhardiness of those who robe themselves in garments that reveal, not conceal, their failures.

A few weeks ago, the pastor of my congregation did something in his sermon I’ve never heard a pastor do: he confessed a failure. He had once been ashamed of his brother, he admitted, and had acted in a way toward him that was not in keeping with love. His brother was unaware of it at the time. And it was only years later that my pastor confessed it to him, and sought his brother’s forgiveness, which was readily granted. What struck me as he told the story was not the audacity of the sin but the honesty and humanity of the preacher. For just a moment, in the telling of that tale, it was as if he were preaching in the nude. His vestments were on, but they were also off. He was Isaiah, proclaiming a message of how frail the flesh is, including, perhaps especially, the flesh of the called and ordained sinner.

You would never have caught me doing that. For about ten years, I stood in various pulpits. And not once, in all those sermons, did I preach in the nude. Not once did I reveal one of the millions of my personal struggles or failings. Do not misunderstand me, or exaggerate my meaning. For I’m not talking about a breaking-down-weeping-buckets-of-tears-Jimmy-Swaggart confession. I’m talking about common, human failings that deaden and define us all. I revealed no skin. Why is that?

Part of the reason had to do with my personality. I didn’t like to admit my shortcomings, not even to myself, much less to others. It was as if pretending established reality, as if the lie created truth. If I never admitted a weakness, it didn’t exist. Of course, if someone were to ask me if I were a sinner, I would agree wholeheartedly, ratcheting it up by adding, “A poor, miserable sinner at that!” But ask me to specify and you’d get nowhere. For there is no greater veil for the hypocrite than the vague admission that he’s a wrongdoer.

Another part of the reason, however, lay in the culture of the church of which I am a part. When I was a boy, my Granddaddy told me what had happened to one of his beloved greyhounds. The dog had tried to jump over the fence, but one of his back legs got caught on the wire. He hung there, head down, yelping in pain. The other dogs in the pen surrounded him, bared their teeth, and tore him to bloody shreds. That’s how my Granddaddy found him. Sadly and horrifically, what often happens in the church when a man admits his failures and cries out for help, he ends up like my Granddaddy’s dog. This begins already in the seminary, and it continues into the congregation and districts of the church. We expect our pastors to be sinners, but they damn sure better not sin. I believe this fosters a culture of puritanical violence within the church, creates hypocrisy amongst the clergy, and hammers into despair those who truly want and need to cry out for help.

It is true, and I believe it wholeheartedly, that when a pastor preaches, he is to proclaim nothing but the Word of God. “He who hears you, hears me,” Jesus says. But I assume that if David can pen an inspired hymn of confession and repentance after his adultery and murder—a psalm that is, every syllable of it, God’s word—then a pastor need not shrink from admitting his own weaknesses, even from the pulpit. If such preaching in the nude leads his listeners, other clergy, bishops, or anyone else to conclude that this man is indeed a true sinner, all the better.

As for me, I’ll take a preacher like nude Isaiah any day over one who’s clad from head to toe in that which mocks the reality of the human condition.