Aug 14 2020 By Norris Burkes
I was a 19-year-old ministerial student at Baylor University when I was given my very first opportunity to preach.
Even though the preaching gig was before a much smaller Sunday-night crowd, I brought 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 was hoping that my preparation would inspire a multitude. Instead, I found the rural-Texas crowd disappointingly diminished by the prospect of hearing a kid preacher.
Nevertheless, I summoned the dramatic tones of Paul Harvey. I employed the vivid quotes of King. And like Graham, I held my Bible wide open in my extended hand while simultaneously slicing the humid Texas air in exaggerated gestures with the other.
I was convinced that my sermon went well until the church’s veteran pastor later rested a hand on my shoulder. “Son, do you mind if I offer you some constructive criticism?”
Heat filled my cheeks, but I managed a quietly affirming nod.
“I’m going to spell a three-letter word and I’d like to hear you pronounce it.”
“OK,” I said, despite him sounding much like a parent quizzing a preschooler.
“How do you pronounce G-o-d?” he asked.
“God,” I answered with a questioning tone.
“Exactly,” he said. “It’s just one syllable, so why are you using two?”
Before I could rebut, he asked: “Do you watch Billy Graham?”
I nodded, adding that Paul Harvey was another favorite.
“Graham was a Carolinian who pronounced God with the dual-syllable of a Southern drawl. ‘Gu-ahhd.’ Didn’t you say you’re from California?”
My Pacific Coast confidence quaked as I realized how 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?
These days, I’d like to pose the same question to those posting on social media and folks who email their endless preachy proverbs.
I want to ask my online friends, “Where is your voice? What do you think?” If you’re just speaking through the cacophony of puppet voices filling your head, there is no room for your distinct voice. That’s because puppets depend on the thoughts of their handler and have little to say on their own.
When you preach to others in a puppet voice, you leave no room for God’s creative accent. Speaking with the voice of another is not being true to whom God called you to be. When you speak with the stolen thoughts of others, you are robbing people of the chance to hear the voice that God gave you.
At the end of that evening so long ago, I promised the old preacher that I’d work toward some improvement.
As I assumed a dejected gait across the darkened church parking lot, I heard the pastor call one last time.
“Hey, Norris. 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 in the modern translation of 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 the late radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story.”