David Buttrick had the sort of rich, not-of-this-Earth voice that you expect from a professor of preaching. It was deep but it rang out, in the chapel, in the classroom, from whatever place he transformed into a pulpit.
He was nearing the end of his career when I had him for class–“Theology of Proclamation and Word,” or something along those lines. It wasn’t my favorite class, and he did yell at me once when I challenged him on something he said that I thought minimized religious pluralism:
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re trying to do here! I’m on to you.”
But with a boom of a voice like his, he may not have actually been yelling. It was hard to tell.
I did read much of his seminal text on preaching, Homiletic, in another class. Though there was much that I didn’t really like about the method (something I also let the professor know), there are a couple of tricks that I still rely upon, even though my style–writing and delivery–is primarily influenced by other preachers, speakers, and writers. The method is a really helpful tool–tired of terrible preaching, Buttrick worked for years to come up with a method that had theological integrity and was rooted in communication theory. And it works. if you learn the method, you will–at worst–have a stylistically humdrum homily with theological integrity. While I’ve preferred to play with style and push the envelope theologically, when I’m vexed about how to structure a homily, I’ll flip over to his discussion on moves and start scribbling notes in pencil, mindful of their importance–and their impermanence.
But the memory of David Buttrick that I continue to come back to is a moment when he was silent.
I took his Proclamation class in the Spring of 1999, and as we were nearing the end of the semester, on Tuesday, April 20th, the Divinity School joined the entire country in mourning as word of the Columbine High School made its way through the hallways and classrooms. That evening, some classmates and I went to a memorial at Centennial Park to puzzle over the violence and to mourn the dead, so many states away.
A local pastor had been invited to share words of healing and hope with the gathered crowd of what looked to be thousands of people. He seemed like a nice enough guy, but I have had a hard time forgiving, even all these years later, what he said to the crowd.
People have been asking me all day “Where was God in all of this?” “Why didn’t God prevent this?”
“Well, friends,” he said with a sort of nice-guy authoritativeness, “Well, God had a plan. And I think part of God’s plan was to send angels down to stop any more people from being killed. We can thank God that he saved who he did save.”
I have long been troubled by such a notion of a God whose intervention in the world is based on some sort of plan that lets some people suffer and lets others thrive–the kind of God who performs “miracles” when some people pray before plane crashes, but lets the ones die who were asleep during the flight, so to speak. And in my first year of Div School, to my mind, such talk of a callous, abusive God reflected the language of a cruel, abusive church. There was nothing pastoral about telling people that teenagers are allowed to die because it’s what’s laid out in God’s day planner.
And so….I was angry.
I took that anger into Buttrick’s Proclamation class the next morning. We had discussion groups, and Buttrick sat in on my group. We talked a bit about effective use of language in liturgical settings, and I let loose my anger about the previous evening’s event with a string of curse words, even calling the nice-guy preacher’s attempt to explain evil “Bullshit.”
This time, Buttrick didn’t yell at me.
He just looked really sad. He leaned on his cane. He wiped a tear from the corner of his eye, grimaced, shook his head.
David Buttrick was a man of deep integrity. On that day, he taught me that part of a minister’s calling is to know that when words are not enough, when their inadequacy turns them into something cruel, that when you are so angry at the injustice of it all, sometimes your silence is worth more than anything. Sometimes, you are simply called to weep with those who mourn.
I thank God for that lesson.
IN PACE REQUIESCAT