The preacher who couldn’t dissimulate

I knew a man called Maurice Smith.  Thousands of people knew Maurice, because he was a prominent leader in the charismatic/House Church movement in the second half of the twentieth-century.  He travelled widely in the UK and the USA, addressed meetings in locations as varied as London’s Albert Hall, and private house front rooms, and he was an accomplished radio raconteur.  He was also my friend.

Maurice had an unusual way of preaching.  He told stories – lots of stories. Sometimes he lost the thread of his story when another event came to mind, but he didn’t lose his audience.  People listened to him.  People responded to him. He wasn’t an intellectual.  He didn’t go in for complex exposition or arguments from the original biblical languages.  His speaking style wasn’t especially passionate; it was conversational.  But his message got through.  People’s lives changed after hearing him.  So, what made his preaching so effective?

Alan Halden, one of Maurice’s long-term friends, put his finger on the vital issue, when he remarked, “Maurice is incapable of dissimulation”.  It was true.  Maurice couldn’t pretend.  Each time he spoke in public the real man was talking.  He didn’t try to make himself greater or better than he was, in fact, many of the stories he told were against himself.  He wasn’t just truthful, but disarmingly honest.  Did you get that word “disarmingly”?  Yes, he disarmed opposition and exposed disguises, not by attacking them, but just by being honest.  It was hard to hide in the presence of someone as frank and open as Maurice.  The result was often that his hearers recognised their own failings or weaknesses and came to receive help and counsel.  It’s impossible to counsel someone who won’t admit their need.  It’s hard to heal a person who is convinced that they’re in perfect health.  But, when someone opens up and asks for help, healing can begin.  You can’t bludgeon a person to open up.  The door must be opened from the inside.  That’s what Maurice so often achieved. 

However, the outcome was not always positive.  In the face of his honesty, some people became angry.  Dishonest people fight against exposure.  They seized on the failings he admitted and used them as weapons to defend their entrenched views and keep their own failings hidden.  Would that they had all discovered the power of honesty.

One of Maurice’s admissions really upset the evangelical purists of the time, though the changed culture of the 21st century has made it almost fashionable.  Maurice spoke publicly about his mental health problems.  Steeped in evangelical tradition, he was mortified when he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.  He felt that he had failed, and fell to his knees, declaring “O God, I’m a failure!”  Then he received God’s stunning reply, “Well done Maurice, you’ve discovered my hobby – I collect failures.”  When Maurice told this story many people were encouraged. The truth made them free.

In his later life, Maurice was side-lined by other church leaders. He didn’t mind because he found the peace that had earlier eluded his self-critical mind. He stopped the self-criticism and accepted himself as he was. His speaking and travelling days were over, but he continued to write books and kept up correspondence with friends and admirers across the world.  I miss him, but the influence of his honesty persists, and I’m grateful to have had him as a friend and mentor.

© Derrick Phillips 2022

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