IT IS TRUE. An oyster would have better concocted this beloved mother-of-pearl than I, the pearl-maker, who is left holding nothing but the encrusted shell of a mollusk. What on Earth, I ask, has happened to the luxurious nacre within? My fond creation, all six pages of it, like pearls on a strand, broke loose this past Sunday morning at precisely eleven-thirty o’clock and scattered asunder in every possible direction – I know not which way to the good. O Lord, how humbling for such laudable intention to come to naught.
I’m going quietly. I’m going to take these poor, wretched and wrinkled remains to the garden which I have coined Lost Eden and where in solemn retreat I shall find a plot to give them decent burial. The spent fruits of my labor will lie fallow amid decaying limbs and decomposing leaves. My preacher’s bent at this point is simply to be relieved of the perilous burden of wandering futilely further down a dead-end path into a spiritual desert. This sermon, at last, is finished. I say therefore, “Unto the mercy of Almighty God, I commend the soul of the departed…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.”
I have come to make it my custom to dispose of all my deceased sermons in rich dark loam. When the proclamation of the preacher holds forth no promise whatsoever, the addition of humus to homiletical word-rot increases the chance of supernal growth. Despite its appearance, humus is holy. It is requisite for regeneration. Someday when I’m suckering tomatoes, if I’m lucky and my eyes don’t dim, I’ll look beneath these weeds and see fresh words sprouting.
“When you find them, nurture them with the sanctity of profound emotion!” chuckled the woodchuck, wobbling its way out of the brush and into the grass. I was taken aback by this slovenly creature’s sudden display of empathy. I took it to mean, “Laugh now. You will have ample opportunity to cry again later.”
“Well, you too, old Wobbles!” I blurted out while pondering what tangle of briars a woodchuck must nibble through to earn a day’s wage. “Wood and branch must be to you as paper to me,” I wagered. “We seem to bear our fibers in common. Chew them up and what do we get but a mouth full of pasty splinters! I don’t know about yours, but my congregation deserves better.”
“Yes, true. So does mine,” she retorted. “Yet remember, dead words, like dead works, can come to life. Rejoice when they do, and cart them back to your stump and digest them. Don’t neglect to eat good fiber if you ever hope to have any substance to your preaching.” “Thanks, my friend,” I chortled. “I’ll do exactly as you say.”
“And watch out for your shadow, too,” she snickered, “especially round about the beastly month of February!”
Given the peculiar speech to which our “profession” is devoted, and as token of the woodchuck’s good faith in the ability of the preacher’s words to come to life, I cheerfully elected to name my study The Writing Burrow and my prayer stump The Brooding Bench. That’s right. No more trifling diversions, and no more temptation to unworthy pursuits, like paying the bills, revising the calendar, or rearranging the desktop. Strictly writing when in The Writing Burrow and praying when on The Brooding Bench! I must do what the ophthalmologist chirped to my young daughter while he sought to focus her vision upon the figure on the wall as he shined a bright light into her eyes. “Keep your eye on the birdie, dear!”
“And don’t tarry long over what you just did with your grubbing hoe either, preacher,” exclaimed the woodchuck. “You had to bury the lousy things. It was of divine necessity! So pack them down and leave your totally depraved pages to the earthworms. Go back now to your burrow and start composing again.”
“Oh, what does a woodchuck know about composing?” I coughed back. “I say there, the important thing is proof-texting! Every whole-witted woodchuck knows that composing a sermon is only one-third of the job. The other two-thirds consist of proof-texting.”
Before I could even think of a verse to quote in justification of my argument, she set forth another homily. “If the Spirit inspires something new and original and assigns it to you to speak, like the Spirit so moved Moses and Ruth and Jesus, you will want to test the Spirit to ascertain that it has declared absolutely nothing that can be construed as contradicting what the Scriptures have already said on the subject. Beware especially of those portions of the Scriptures that contradict other portions.”
“By golly, Woodie, you do seem to know that certain proof texts are a mighty necessity and others a nasty nuisance!”
“Yes, for example, you must never say, ‘You have heard it said, but, lo, I say unto you!’ That would be tampering with sacred portions of the Scriptures, not to mention holy pearls of human tradition.”
Woodie-Chuck, as I sometimes affectionately call her, taught me precisely how to refine the retail art of proof-texting, that is to say, how to foolproof my sermon for public consumption by settling a weighty theological issue once and forever with all the authority granted me on Earth as it is in Heaven. Here’s how I do it. I set myself down somewhere other than vertically upon the bumpy tree stump that beatifies my monkish posture for the Brooding Bench, or in the hardback rocker that puritanizes my worldly thought in the Writing Burrow. What I do instead is stretch myself out horizontally in a comfortable Lazyboy next to a roaring fireplace in a dimly lit room, preferably with the received text of His Majesty, King James (who, I’m told, is still considered by some to be the long-lost brother of Jesus) opened upon my lap. The poesy of the king, if not the flaming fire at my feet, will surely inveigh against any flimsy interpretation that may unwittingly arise from my own mythological invention.
With proper proof-texting as the easy-chair method of settling difficult theological matters without having to bother with the quarrelsome details, my sermons shall demonstrate incontrovertibly that God has chosen me to unveil, in an instant, everything concealed but waiting to be revealed to all who yet don’t know. That includes a direct word to every Aunt Gurtie and Uncle Gusty who, given lukewarm piety or none at all, need to know finally how to “get” saved. Salvation, surely, is to be “gotten.” But rest assured it will never be gotten by wading verse-by-verse through all the troubling waters churned up by the scandalizing words of Jesus, especially those outlandish things he said about God’s unconditional grace. Who needs infinite grace when infinite judgment will do? With the right proof-texts we can all join forces with Jerry Falwell to erect a modern Massada high atop Candler Mountain, hole up as the party of the elect killing time while waiting for the impending Rapture, and avoid the choppy seas of sin and sickness altogether.
Well, now. Now that my proof-texts have been properly lifted from the Bible and placed where they rightfully belong, I move steadily toward the completion of the “revised version.” Rule number one from The Book of Homiletical Proverbs, like rule number one from The Proven Means of Investing, is to “cut your losses.” According to Saint Homileticus, “After you’re done mining (please, don’t say “minding”) the Text, and have sufficiently butchered the Text to suit your own purposes, you’ll need to wash the sediment out of your sermon.”
In that respect, the most proven way I’ve found yet to improve my sentences is to stand stark naked in the shower with my manuscript in hand. To eliminate extraneous theologizing, I do so in the midst of falling water. Not only does ink disappear miraculously from the page and speedily race down the drain, but as a wet-behind-the-ears theologian I am far less likely to catch my socks on fire while proof-texting, fall asleep while daydreaming, or allow the sunshine to wrinkle my skin into the leathery look of premature wisdom during a long summer’s absence of meaning at the beach.
Should I instead choose home-rest for vacation, I will take a deliberate stroll into Lost Eden, defiantly shake at the sky my left hand wielding the manuscript, and, with all the strength I can muster from the right hand, yank from the soil every last weed I can lay my eyes upon!
“Notwithstanding Jesus’ parable about the danger of uprooting the weeds from the wheat,” I said to Woodie, “if there should ever be discovered an abundant lack of wheat in my sermon, the congregation will have no choice but to ingest weeds. A day later the hearers will recall not a single word of what I said that was worth repeating, since I did not say it to begin with. They shall remember every last word, however, of what I did say that was not worth repeating, which shall be the telltale sign that I failed to take Jesus seriously at his word because I feared I’d fail miserably at mine. On giving second thought to that non-divisive parable, I reluctantly admit that the most useless sort of preacher is the one who cuts a path straight and wide through the middle of the congregation on a Sunday morning just like a wild weed-eater. In answer to my critics, what good is salvation, pray tell, if it kills every single living soul?”
“None whatsoever!” cried Woodie. “But rest assured. Dead words, like dead works, can come to life again after they have found their way to the graveyard! The best sermon, like the best prayer and best word of counsel, is the one born less of loud telling than of quiet listening. The distinction between the former and the latter is the difference between a garden choked with weeds and a field brimming with wheat.”
On my next morning walk around the outskirts of Lost Eden I overheard Woodie-Chuck mumbling, “As the wheat grows, the weeds wither.”
“Yes,” I replied. “And I must do as the good doctor chirped. I must keep my eye on the birdie.”
Woodie-Chuck chuckled, “Keep your nose to the ground, and rejoice over newfound fibers that ascend from the ‘soil.’”
Charles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers)