was a 19-year-old ministerial student enrolled at Baylor University when I accepted an invitation from a rural Texas Baptist church to preach my very first sermon.
Even though the invitation was to preach to the much smaller Sunday night crowd, I came with extensive preparation. I felt confident that my studies of all the great orators like Paul Harvey, Martin Luther King Jr. and, of course, Billy Graham would keep me in good stead.
I arrived to find a disappointingly small group of parishioners that likely was diminished by the prospect of hearing a student speaking. I felt my preparation demanded more like a multitude, but I still gave it my all.
Like Harvey, I spoke with dramatic tones. Like King, I employed vivid quotes. Like Graham, I held my Bible wide open in my extended hand while simultaneously slicing the humid Texas air in exaggerated gestures.
I was convinced that my sermon went well until the church’s veteran pastor laid a hand on my shoulder and asked, “Son, do you mind if I offer you some constructive criticism?”
Blood filled my reddening cheeks, but I managed a quiet affirming nod.
He told me that he would spell out a three-letter word, and he would like to hear me pronounce it.
“OK,” I said, despite his approach sounding much like a parent quizzing a preschooler.
“How do you pronounce G-o-d?” he asked.
“God,” I answered with something sounding like a question.
“Exactly,” he said. “It’s just one syllable, so why are using two?”
Before I could rebut, he asked: “Do you watch Billy Graham?”
I nodded that I did and added that Paul Harvey was another favorite.
“Graham is a Southerner who pronounces God with the duel-syllable of a Southern drawl. ‘Gu-ahhd.’ Didn’t you say you’re from California?”
My Yankee confidence fell as I realized that I had mimicked Graham during my entire sermon.
Of course, the veteran preacher was giving me more than a speech lesson. He was telling me that my pulpit voice had tragically become a puppet voice. I had mastered Graham’s enunciation and Harvey’s dramatic pause, but where was Norris?
The truth is with all those puppet voices in my head, there was no room for my voice. That’s because puppets depend on the voice of their handler and have little to say on their own.
But worse still, there was no room for God’s creative voice in mine. Speaking with the voice of another was not being true to who God called me to be. I was not only trying to steal the fame of others, I was robbing people of the chance to hear the voice that God gave me.
I promised the old preacher that I’d work toward some improvement, but as I walked across the darkened church parking lot to my borrowed car, I must have done so with a dejected gate.
“Hey, Norris,” the preacher called out. “Look up 1 Corinthians 1:21.” Then, he turned and walked into the darkness toward his car, no doubt smiling.
When I got to my dorm room, I opened my Bible to the passage. I smiled then, as I smile now reading it the modern translation, The Message.
“God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb —preaching, of all things! — to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation.”
As radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say: “Now you know the rest of the story.”