When I was a spiritual person in my younger days, I loved a good sermon. Now you ask various church people what makes a good sermon, and you’ll have trouble getting a lot of agreement. Some people want to hear comfortable, familiar platitudes, and some like loud shouting and stomping around. Others expect the preacher to give a deep academic exposition of a text or topic. I knew one strange guy who would say, “If I don’t feel guilty and ashamed after a sermon, then that preacher isn’t doing his job.” Whoa, yikes!
I always felt that a good sermon simply meant telling a good story. When a person could stand in front of an audience and paint stories in their imaginations, well that’s what I liked. And when I had the task of delivering a sermon, I tried to put together twenty minutes of good stories. I modeled my sermons on Garrison Keeler and John Steinbeck rather than Billy Graham or Jimmy Swaggart, the most popular preachers back then.
After many years as a church person I came to the cynical conclusion that most people go to church to see their friends and to be entertained by the sermon and the music. I’m not a spiritual person now, but I do have a great appreciation for friends, stories, and music. I’m always finding intriguing new melodies from fiddle tunes and old songs, and writing my own songs is my way of making up stories today. I’ve had the privilege of performing and recording in recent years with some good friends such as Bud Burwell, Marcy Cochran, Loralyn Coles, Tom Bodine, Harny, Al Bernier, and Brother Lou.
I spend time sometimes thinking about where that shared territory might be between spiritual people and unbelievers. It’s hard to see it with so many words spoken publicly out of fear, frustration, and old-fashioned meanness. But I think stories and songs can help people understand each other.
Not that I’m trying to do anything grand with my songs. I’m just writing stories that I like, and I figure that if I like them, then other people will probably like them too. If the song is going to mean something to someone, well I can’t order it to do that. I can’t say, “Look here, song, you better get out there and help people get along with each other and forget their troubles.” Nope, the songs have to just do what they are going to do.