The newsletter touted him as one of the greatest preachers of our time.
We decided to hear for ourselves.
Certain thoughts crowded around this prospect. First and kindly (if I do say so myself), I considered what a wretched burden it must be for the preacher to have the advance reputation of being "great." Others who have preceded him in the pulpit have suffered from that expectation, most notably St. Paul, who left the critics in the church at Corinth mightily unimpressed. You can look it up: II Corinthians Chapter 11.
Secondly, and less kindly, I wondered if the "great" preacher was, if ever so slightly, persuaded he might be... in which case, he wouldn't be... great, that is, considering the frequent admonitions in the Gospel to humility, the real kind, the genuine article, not the feigned variety which often enough parades in the pulpit. Speaking for Jesus always means tamping down originality: what the preacher says is derivative, necessarily, like a concert pianist bringing to life a Beethoven sonata, or, less loftily, a parent retelling at bedtime an old story to the wee ones.
Then, and most importantly, I began to ponder just what it might be that makes a preacher "great." Eloquence and fluency jump immediately to mind. The ability to rivet a congregation's attention with words poured forth with ease and beauty, phrases to rapture for, similes worthy of Shakespeare, illustrations original and appropriate. It drives me nuts to hear lay people swoon over the fact a preacher went on with his spellbinding for an hour without consulting notes, as if there was something more heartfelt about memorization than meaning.
Polishing prose to brilliance, practicing lines to perfection, and slipping the silver off the tongue to the waiting multitudes is wonderful; but not especially great, just a felicitous facility.
The mantle of greatness is often placed over those pulpiteers in our time and other times who, by whatever means, fair or foul, attract multitudes. While surfing the internet for information about the "great" preacher I would hear on Sunday, I came across a newspaper article in which his opinion had been solicited and given, about a fellow in Texas (where else?!) who utilizes electronic wizardry to project himself as a hologram to those in four of the five different churches he pastors in which he could not personally appear any given Sunday. The "great" one did not think this arrangement was wise. Amen. But what about pre-electronic Billy Graham? or Fulton Sheen? or John Wesley? To whom the multitudes flocked. Wonderful preachers though they may have been, none of them touched my soul very deeply. I did attend a Madison Square Garden Crusade. I have watched the bishop win the ratings race with Uncle Miltie. I have read Wesley's sermons (and wondered how, for all their Oxford University intellectualism, they ever captivated coal miners emerging from the pits at the end of the day). John Wesley should be one of my patron saints, but he doesn't stand as tall in my estimation as Brother Martin.
But I digress, when the point to be made is that numbers don't count (!), if only because Hitler, Father Feeney, and Jim Jones, to name an unholy trinity in a long and dismal line of demagogues who amassed worshiping followers. See P. T. Barnum for an explanation of their popularity.
Greatness in the pulpit, or, for that matter, anywhere else, lies in the ear and eye of the beholder. The one who gets to you, touches your soul, opens your eyes, lets the sunshine in along with the truth about this mortal existence, they are the ones who deserve the title of greatest. And their names will vary person to person. If you, dear reader, have spent more time than you should on my feeble essays, you will have noted some of the souls in Bobby Howard's pantheon. Like Marguerite Favrao, high school English teacher, two years of creative writing, which meant composing a paragraph every other night and being subject to withering criticism: but little Miss Favrao, a Smithy from Springfield MA, taught me how to think and express what I think clearly (even if you may not agree she succeeded!). Would Miss Favrao ever make a list of the 100 greatest English teachers in Connecticut in 1949? Probably not. But she was a world-changer for me.
Or more to the point, clergy. Who (besides, of course, Jesus) fills my list of greatest preachers. I celebrated Garrison Keillor with that encomium a couple of years ago; but my tongue was slightly in cheek. The great ones on my altar of fame may have had their fifteen minutes, but you would be hard pressed to ferret out anything significant about them on Google. Lewis H. Davis, Barbara's father, great for the authenticity of his faith and the true humility of his way in the world. Paul Scherer, my homiletics professor, the gray eminence who, yes, authored books and was touted among the greatest in the pulpit in his day, but who will always be for me the fellow who reinforced everything Miss Favrao taught me, now applied to the Christian faith and preaching. There are others, many others who for me were the greatest.
Sometime share your list with me.As for last Sunday, what was Critical Christian's measure of the preacher touted as one of the greatest of our time? You just know, don't you, that I went to that sermon with critical faculties honed to razor sharpness. Poor Tom Long, Presbyterian, professor of homiletics at Methodist Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, on a mission of kindness to the church founded by his great-grandfather's Good Samaritan - Union Army Chaplain Joseph Hopkins Twichell who when the firing was done walked the Williamsburg battlefield and found a Confederate nineteen year old, Long's great-grandpa, bleeding to death, carried him to a field hospital, and thereby saved his life - dear Professor Long had no idea of my expectation to cut him down to size. But, what do you know, he stood tall, on the text of Jesus' parable of the rich man and the poor man, riveting my attention with a fluency and beauty of speech (let the massed assembly say "Amen") and even managed to convey an admirable humility in the process. If I knew him better, saw him more often, engaged him in conversation on matters great and inconsequential, until the sunshine of his soul illuminated mine, he might very well make my list of "the greatest."