Why He Blew the Biggest Speech of His Life

Andrew Johnson served as the 17th President of the United States—although he was not elected as president but as Vice-President to Abraham Lincoln for Lincoln’s second term in office.  Lincoln’s first vice president was a man from Massachusetts named Hannibal Hamlin.  Yet, for the second term (beginning in 1865, just as the Civil War came to a close with a Union victory and the surrender of General Robert E. Lee), Lincoln chose a man from Confederate Tennessee but one who did not resign his seat in the Senate during the War.   In fact, in 1862, Johnson served as War Governor of occupied Tennessee and supported Lincoln’s policies for reconstruction in that area.  Sworn in as VP on March 4, 1865, we was sworn in six weeks later on April 15, 1865 as president the day after Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth shot the South’s best friend, President Lincoln.

But back to his short time as Vice President.

In David O. Stewart’s book Impeached, he recounts early in the book that, due to a torrential downpour, Johnson was sworn into office March 4, 1865 (Inauguration Day is now on January 20).  As part of the ceremony, he gave a speech before the Senate body that was, shall we say, problematic.  You see, Johnson was a heavy drinker, religiously drinking vast amounts of whiskey.  He was set to give the biggest speech of his life, and had some acclaim in his political career as a fine speaker who usually spoke without notes.  This time, however, for whatever reason (he later claimed the pain of a recent bout with typhoid fever caused the partaking of that alcoholic beverage), he allowed other influences to mar one’s preparation and delivery of important speeches.

That can happen with sermons.

So many influences come our way to distract us from our preparation and presentation.  Let’s tackle preparation first:

  1. Good things can distract us from the best thing.  Planning, strategizing, correspondence, visitation and the like are good things—necessary things even!  But when they predominate and take away from precious sermon preparation time when the pastor/preacher has little time to pray, meditate, and marinate himself in the things of Scripture, those are influences that need to be dealt with.
  2. Reading things about Scripture and pastoral ministry more than reading the Scripture to inform and illuminate pastoral ministry.  I have some blogs and books I love to read, and one day I will recount those blogs and books.  But woe to all of us who use these as substitutes for Scripture rather than supplements to Scripture.

What about presentation?

  1. Remember the Charlie Parker Syndrome.  Charlie Parker was an outstanding jazz saxophonist in the 1930’s and 1940’s who changed the game of jazz from his time on.  A skilled man but tortured by his own demons and influence of illegal substances, he reportedly said, “”Master your instrument, master the music & then forget all that & just play.”  His point for musicians is that you can spend so much time worrying about the musical aspects of a piece that you forget the nature of music itself!  So too pastors can spend all their time worrying about saying something grammatically correct, saying that story just right, or getting every item you want out that they forget the nature of preaching.  Just get up and preach the Word!  Prepare, yes—but then get up and just preach!
  2. Looking to the supporter or critic rather than Christ.  By nature, all men and women are people pleasers.  We love to receive affirmation from our supporters and want to keep even those who may be critical happy (or at least not unhappy).  Fear grips the heart of the pastor when that pastor begins to look to the supporter or critic more than Christ.  Paul encouraged Timothy to not have a spirit of fear as a young pastor and not to be ashamed of the testimony of Jesus (2 Timothy 1:7-12).  Preach the Word of the Lord and the Lord of the Word!
  3. Don’t let your presentation distract from the person of Christ.  Andrew Johnson gave (up to that time) the biggest speech of his life—drunk!  According to Senator Zachariah Chandler, he “disgraced himself and the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech.” (source)  Our deportment influences for good or for ill what we have to say.  Body language accounts for 55% of all communication!  Make sure your presentation matches your content!

What other influences may add or detract in regards to preparation and presentation/delivery?

(Originally published at Gospel Gripped on June 29, 2011.)


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