In Your Own True Voice

This article is a portion of Buechner's commentary about preaching when he spoke at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in April 2004.

The text I love that has to do with preaching is from First John where he says, "that which was from the beginning which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our own hands concerning the word of life, that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to use so that you may have fellowship with us and our fellowship is with the Father and with his son, Jesus Christ." What we have seen with our own eyes, heard with our own ears, touched with our own hands, that in a sense is what we are, I think, called upon to preach.

In other words to bear witness of course to the gospel, to the truths of the Christian faith, to the reality of God and Jesus, but remembering also that our faith is an incarnational faith and that what we know of God, we know through scripture to be sure. We know of Jesus we know through the Gospel to be sure, but we know of him most, most tellingly, is what we have ourselves experienced of them. Who is Jesus? Well let me tell you. What is faith? Well let me tell you about what it has been like at least for me because our faith is incarnational, so we should also make our preaching incarnational. Deal with the flesh and blood realities through which these religious affirmations, truths, hopes have made themselves manifest. In other words, to preach not just on hearsay, what we have heard other people say or read other people write, but to preach what we ourselves have heard and seen and touched and to do so in our own voices. To witness to that which we have in one sense or another seen and to do it in our own voices, our own true voices.

The hardest thing for anybody to find who wants to preach or write is to find your own true voice, to sound not like the kind of people that you admire or that you think your congregation would admire, but to sound like yourself; terribly hard to do I think. And if you want to put it to the test, take your sermon and read it to somebody who knows you as well as anybody in the world, your wife, your husband, your brother, your whoever it is, they will know in five seconds if you're being phony or if you're being you. And learn to be you, learn your own voice. In other words, speak witness to what you yourself have seen not just what other people have told you and do it in your own voice. And I was saying this to a group in Texas, I think, where I spent a couple of fascinating sessions some years back, there was a young woman lawyer in the group who said, "Oh what you mean is you want the preacher to be a ‘credible witness' what we call in the law." I thought marvelous, yes, a credible witness--somebody who when you listen to them, you can believe in them. You can believe that he or she is telling the truth as he or she has witnessed it and in his or her own true voice.