Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Phyllis Diller has a tip for preachers

Not being a Phyllis Diller fan (especially the plastic surgery bit), I did not pay much attention to her obituaries. However, I overheard part of an interview she gave to NPR some years before she died. I was surprised to learn how intelligent she was about the use of language. She was speaking about the importance of endings in a comedy routine, or even a one-liner. You want to use sharp consonants at the ending, she said, "like pop! puck! cut!"  (I forget the other examples she gave. Obviously she could not use four-letter words on the air.) Then she said that you should avoid mellifluous words like "lavender" and, yes, "mellifluous." (In politically incorrect days, this point was related to "masculine"[strong] and "feminine"[weak] endings of sentences or musical phrases.)

I was amazed by the acuity of this. Obviously, Ms. Diller's dicta are not directly related to preaching, but stretching her points a little bit reminded me of how constantly disappointed I am by the lack of attention that many preachers give to the endings of their sermons. I have the impression that they   spend so much time doing their introductions and illustrations that they have no energy or confidence left for the construction of endings with real punch. Sermons tend to dribble off with no surprise or "pop." As someone (Wesley?) said long ago, a preacher should deliver a sermon as if someone's life depended on it. In the case of most (not all, I hasten to say) sermons that I hear, the endings are timid. The preacher is not really risking anything. S/he is not attempting to "close the deal"--a move that involves personal hazard--the very real possibility of rejection.
Something to mull over, perhaps?