Preaching in the Nude

I know of only one preacher whose vestments were simply his birthday suit. No alb or cassock, suit or tie, underwear or socks or shoes covered him. Only skin. For three years he meandered barefooted and barebutted, a human homily revealing a naked truth about encroaching judgment. What Isaiah was, the peoples around him would become, should they trust in the muscle of man instead of the arm of the Lord (Isaiah 20). Without clothes and without shoes, destitute of every possession, they would be led away as POWs by the tyrant of Assyria. A naked prophet delivering that message for over a thousand days may seem beyond extreme, but God has been known to go to great lengths to lay bare the foolhardiness of those who robe themselves in garments that reveal, not conceal, their failures.

A few weeks ago, the pastor of my congregation did something in his sermon I’ve never heard a pastor do: he confessed a failure. He had once been ashamed of his brother, he admitted, and had acted in a way toward him that was not in keeping with love. His brother was unaware of it at the time. And it was only years later that my pastor confessed it to him, and sought his brother’s forgiveness, which was readily granted. What struck me as he told the story was not the audacity of the sin but the honesty and humanity of the preacher. For just a moment, in the telling of that tale, it was as if he were preaching in the nude. His vestments were on, but they were also off. He was Isaiah, proclaiming a message of how frail the flesh is, including, perhaps especially, the flesh of the called and ordained sinner.

You would never have caught me doing that. For about ten years, I stood in various pulpits. And not once, in all those sermons, did I preach in the nude. Not once did I reveal one of the millions of my personal struggles or failings. Do not misunderstand me, or exaggerate my meaning. For I’m not talking about a breaking-down-weeping-buckets-of-tears-Jimmy-Swaggart confession. I’m talking about common, human failings that deaden and define us all. I revealed no skin. Why is that?

Part of the reason had to do with my personality. I didn’t like to admit my shortcomings, not even to myself, much less to others. It was as if pretending established reality, as if the lie created truth. If I never admitted a weakness, it didn’t exist. Of course, if someone were to ask me if I were a sinner, I would agree wholeheartedly, ratcheting it up by adding, “A poor, miserable sinner at that!” But ask me to specify and you’d get nowhere. For there is no greater veil for the hypocrite than the vague admission that he’s a wrongdoer.

Another part of the reason, however, lay in the culture of the church of which I am a part. When I was a boy, my Granddaddy told me what had happened to one of his beloved greyhounds. The dog had tried to jump over the fence, but one of his back legs got caught on the wire. He hung there, head down, yelping in pain. The other dogs in the pen surrounded him, bared their teeth, and tore him to bloody shreds. That’s how my Granddaddy found him. Sadly and horrifically, what often happens in the church when a man admits his failures and cries out for help, he ends up like my Granddaddy’s dog. This begins already in the seminary, and it continues into the congregation and districts of the church. We expect our pastors to be sinners, but they damn sure better not sin. I believe this fosters a culture of puritanical violence within the church, creates hypocrisy amongst the clergy, and hammers into despair those who truly want and need to cry out for help.

It is true, and I believe it wholeheartedly, that when a pastor preaches, he is to proclaim nothing but the Word of God. “He who hears you, hears me,” Jesus says. But I assume that if David can pen an inspired hymn of confession and repentance after his adultery and murder—a psalm that is, every syllable of it, God’s word—then a pastor need not shrink from admitting his own weaknesses, even from the pulpit. If such preaching in the nude leads his listeners, other clergy, bishops, or anyone else to conclude that this man is indeed a true sinner, all the better.

As for me, I’ll take a preacher like nude Isaiah any day over one who’s clad from head to toe in that which mocks the reality of the human condition.

Image

Captives led away by Assyrians

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11 thoughts on “Preaching in the Nude

  1. This is most certainly true. How sad a thing it is, to live (and preach) in fear.

  2. Jason Reed on said:

    Amen.

  3. navychief98 on said:

    TRUTH!

  4. Michael J. Manz on said:

    Amen. Exactly why I won’t go to private confession to someone in our church.

  5. Thank you.

    Sometimes I wonder if because pastors and their families live in such fear of their faults becoming devisive, if that is why congregations are so determined to find something to complain about. Some of the situations where I have seen where the pastor has had no choice but to show his weakness, they are accepted and beloved. It is so hard to trust that to be the case, though. So hard. And so hard to give the opportunity for something that already gives pain to maybe become a weapon.

  6. “We expect our pastors to be sinners, but they damn sure better not sin.”
    One of the most gut-wrenchingly true sentences I’ve read in a long time. So much pain and fear float around our parishes like toxic mustard gas…. only the Naked (nuda) Word of Christ can absorb the hurts and guilt. Thank you Chad for another courageous post (just so I understand…you’re not against Chausables and maniples right 🙂 )

  7. Rev. Gerald Heinecke on said:

    This is why each Pastor should have his own Father confessor and let your congregation know you do go to private confession and absolution because I know I need to hear that my specific, grevious sin is forgiven.

  8. I liked this line especially: “For there is no greater veil for the hypocrite than the vague admission that he’s a wrongdoer.” One reason why the general confession of sins is just inadequate. I assume you are not suggesting by your post, however, that an impious preacher be allowed to continue in the pulpit. Do you think that we miss the mark on how we apply the words of St. Paul, that an overseer must be “above reproach”? (This is an honest question). It is one thing to admit human weakness and failure from the pulpit, which I agree should not cause a man to be “eaten alive” by his peers. But then, we also understand from the 2nd petition that God’s name is profaned by false teaching and an unholy life. Preachers are held to a stricter judgment, according to James, and by that I do not think that it is only referring to an end-times judgment. Perhaps where we fall into error is that rather than approach the sinner in love, we tend to shun the sinner. Just thinking out loud here a little, in reflection your very excellent post.

    • Oops–first petition, not second. Sorry!

      • Paul,
        It would probably be wise to recuse myself from any argument regarding a pastor being removed from the pulpit for impious reasons. I will say only this: that sins which make the list as ‘too impious’ or unholy living that goes ‘too far’ usually tells us far more about
        the individuals, churches, or cultures which influence these decisions than it tells of what the Bible explicitly states.

  9. Pingback: Eating Your Own - Outer Rim Territories

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