It was offered to me when I was a 19-year-old ministerial student at Baylor University after preaching in a rural Texas church.
I’m not exactly sure what I said during my 30-minute assignment, but given my youth, I probably stuck to the most profound theological truths like neo-Kierkegaardian Existentialism. And that was likely just the warm-up as I moved into dealing with the problem of evil in the world and God’s plan for Africa.
Honestly, it would be hard to recall what my topic was, because I was much more obsessed with sermon delivery than I was with my sermon topic. As an “orator,” I’d studied the best. Like Paul Harvey, I spoke in dramatic and exaggerated tones. Like Billy Graham, I held my Bible open wide with one hand while slicing the humid Texas air with the other.
I projected my voice and emphasized my points with pronounced gestures. I paced back and forth so people would be forced to follow me.
After I finished, the church’s veteran pastor laid a hand on my shoulder and asked, “Son, do you mind if I offer some constructive criticism?”
Uh-oh, I thought. I could hear the gears grinding in this man’s head, and they sounded like the gears of a truck ready to run me over. Didn’t he like what I said about hell? Or did he want to argue the second coming of Jesus?
“Certainly,” I said, brushing my hair back far enough for him to see he might be talking to Billy Graham’s prodigy.
“How do you pronounce
G-o-d?” he asked, spelling “God” with the mannerism of a parent quizzing his preschooler.
Was this a trick question? Was this a question like the Kung Fu master poses to his disciple? (“Kung Fu” was a very popular TV show then.)
“God,” I answered, adding a hint of a question.
“Exactly,” he said. “It’s just ‘God.’ One syllable, not two.”
Before I could blurt out my denial, he asked, “Do you watch Billy Graham?”
I nodded that I did and added that Paul Harvey was another favorite.
“Graham is a Southerner. He pronounces God with a Southern drawl — ‘Gu-ahhd.’ Didn’t you say you’re from California?”
My face reddened as I heard Graham’s voice in my head. I found myself unconsciously mouthing Graham’s pronunciation. The seasoned preacher was right. I had mimicked Graham during my entire sermon.
Yet the veteran preacher was giving me more than a speech lesson.
He was telling me my pulpit voice had become a mere puppet voice. I had mastered Graham’s enunciation and Harvey’s dramatic pause, but where was Norris?
The truth is with all those people in my head, there was no room for Norris.
But even worse, there was no room for God.
I left the church that night determined to use my remaining undergraduate years to find and learn my own voice. And I discovered it was only when I found my own voice that God came alive in the experiences I shared in my sermons.
It’s a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten. God’s name is easily memorized or mimicked. The hard part always will be finding a way to let God’s voice become present in yours.
As I walked away that day, I must have looked a bit dejected.
“Hey, Norris,” he called out. “Look up 1 Corinthians 1:21.” Then he walked away smiling.
When I got home, I looked up the passage. It’s about God’s ability to speak to people of faith “through the foolishness of preaching.”
As Paul Harvey would say, “Now you know the rest of the story.”