FIFTY-FIVE YEARS AGO I spent a memorable week on the tiny island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, the site to which St. Columba came from Ireland in A.D. 563, to inaugurate the Christian mission to northern Britain.
In 1938, amid the Great Depression, George MacLeod, a Scottish minister from an industrial section of Glasgow, brought together on the island a half dozen craftsmen and six or so young ministers. They labored with their hands during that summer and subsequent ones to reconstruct the ancient medieval cathedral buildings which had fallen into ruin. Their objective was to establish a common life and discipline of worship and work, of stewardship of time and money, renewing their covenant in Christ in order to return to the cities and factories of the mainland with an expanded vision of their Christian witness, where they continued the discipline.
From that rather inconspicuous beginning there emerged a global fellowship of laity and clergy who have come to be known as the Iona Community. Their pilgrimages to the island today are for the same purposes as their predecessors, and groups of them meet in other lands.
My memory of Iona has stuck with me through the years, even though I am not an official member of the community. I recall my own pilgrimage for its daily morning and evening trek over heath and fence to the beautiful greystone Abbey of St. Columba. The churchyard is graced with the thousand-year-old Cross of St. Martin and tombstones commemorating pilgrimages of saints and sinners from earlier times, including the renowned Duncan and Macbeth. Jokingly, one of our group referred to Iona as the paradise where God takes sabbaticals.
The worship that week was among the most compelling I have ever encountered. The liturgies were a blend of a timeless living tradition and a deep sensitivity to the contemporary human condition. Memory preserves even now the simple echoes of sacred sound reverberating from the balcony piano . . . hushed silences beneath the vaulted ceiling between vesper biddings . . . the liturgist’s reading of inspired words from an “ambassador in chains” to the Ephesians, with the prayer that the gospel be boldly proclaimed . . . the flux of worshippers presenting bodies and souls for consecration at the midweek service of healing . . . and the solemn thanksgiving processional of bread and wine to the holy table on the Lord’s Day.
These were not all. The koinonia of several hundred sojourners had congregated from faraway lands and diverse Christian traditions. Faces were not the same nor accents familiar. It was incumbent upon all to build bridges.
My final recollection consists of the serious nature of theological conversation, in itself a form of prayer, as George MacLeod sat in our midst to speak with us for an hour each morning. Never did the chatter of voices drift from the complex individual, social, economic, and political realities that comprise the framework of every person’s spiritual existence. There lay before us the real issues of life and death, of discipleship and spiritual formation. Iona was not for escape.
That was the summer of rioting in Watts, war in Vietnam, strife in Northern Ireland, and starvation in the Orient. All of those realities were mixed in.
Iona is a spiritual center in a whirling vortex. Geographically removed, it is planted at the heart of a groaning creation, a “thin place” in the eye of the tempest. Steady offshore gusts are reminders.
So, what was gained? Very simply, one thing. An image of the church at the crossroads: worship the centripetal event, mission the centrifugal event. Both are one service, “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested.”
When visitors to Iona take holy communion, they proceed directly afterward to the cloister for tea and conversation. The concluding rubric of the liturgy states that each worshiper will be given “small bannocks of bread to flake and share” while mingling with strangers. “Thus is communion brought into the ordinary ways of life.”
It is powerful imagery. Saints, as forgiven sinners, are “bannocks of bread,” the loaves of the Christ at the crossroads of a hungry world.
DICK, STEPHEN, CHARITY, AND LUCY were their given names — these beloved “Negroes.” They were the propertied slaves owned by my fourth great grandfather at the time of his death in the year 1810. At the top of the inventory of all of Philemon Davidson’s worldly possessions, the court appraised Dick at 120 pounds sterling, Stephen at 100, Charity at 20, and Lucy at 90. Together they comprised more than half the pecuniary sum of the entire estate lumped together, down to and including five axes, a grindstone, two handsaws, a pair of spectacles, and one “woman saddle.” It does not take a microscope to discern whose fingerprints fell upon the axe, the grindstone, and the handsaw.
Given the irrecoverable distance of the ancestral past from which these sons and daughters of Africa had come into an unforeseen and splintered destiny in America, they and their fellow slaves passed through a myriad of predictable and unpredictable daily dangers to life and limb, including torture and lynching, as they trudged their beleaguered path toward the Promised Land. From the vantage point of the auction block as slavery’s narrow vista and constricted view of the future — “I’m here today and gone tomorrow” — these children of God were promised nothing remotely akin to a realized eschatology. Short of stumbling through the gates of heaven, theirs was a stumbling block into repeated disaster.
Shamefully and disgracefully, by legal decree if not divine dictate, due to the theological falsehoods of many preachers and the economic egotism of numerous slaveholders, the likes of Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy were deemed, if not ultimately doomed, to the lot of mere mortal chattel. In an ethos of white supremacy wedded to the wealth of landed aristocracy and entitled gentry, this human “capital” was numbered among any “moveable…article of tangible property other than land, buildings, and other things annexed to the land.”
In truth, every slave in the Old Dominion was affixed to an entire system of which the appurtenances included blistering hot rows of tobacco leaf baking beneath the scorching sun, outbuildings consisting of one-room shanties that housed and slept an entire family, and the bricks and mortar mixed with the sweat of the brow that built and sustained the Big House. Therein the white master and missus partook of daily morsels of dough kneaded by black mammies whose bruised feet stood atop packed earth while their gnarled fingers baked the loaves of the white man’s freedom upon the iron griddles of oppression.
In that respect and with regard to the fate of the black man, I lament the awful truth about one of my not so greatly esteemed ancestors. Opposite the branch of the family tree bearing my surname there is a line that gave me my middle name, Nuckols. Philemon Davidson’s great-great-grandson, my grandfather Clarence, married a dear and sweet woman, my grandmother Susie Nuckols. Her paternal grandfather, Joseph Nuckols, being large of stature but small of heart, bore his strength in such a way that with his one hand high in the air he lifted his slave-man upside down by the feet, and with the knuckles of his other hand beat his slave-man’s rump into stinging raw meat.
Thus, when the hopes and dreams of slaves sprang up like lilies in a scorched field, theirs were the songs and dances of a faith-vision that fashioned a cry: “O, come, sweet Jesus, deliver us!” Nothing else, not anyone else, sufficed to assuage the morning dread and to curb the evening hunger. The underground rail to freedom for those who made it through thickets of woods to safe harbors hidden behind plaster walls and beneath knotty pine floors was as tumultuous and turbulent as the waters of the Red Sea. Only Jesus as Living Water could quench the thirst of souls whose bodies lay wilted in the heat of the noonday pestilence and whose spirits grew weary and faint from the hunt of the midnight rider.
Dreams and visions, not of an actualized fulfillment but of imaginings with the scope of an unflinching mind’s eye and pining heart’s desire peering over the horizon, propelled these wayfarers to see beyond the brutal and bitter plague of their captivity. In a land flowing with milk and honey, the only true, wise, just, righteous and loving Master of All would someday, on the far side of the Jordan, blessedly grant a better way of life than the crack of the whip and the curse of the hoe.
Think of it this way. Since none can see far down the line of vision, we can only trust past the point at which we do see. Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy, plus countless others who endured the horrors of slavery in this unfair and unjust land, bequeathed us a gift of faith that defies the sight of everyday comprehension and ignites the power of astonishing hope. To dream dreams and see visions, in life and death, is to dare to believe the impossible beyond the familiar. It is to picture that what has happened thus far along the way, some of it lovely and too much of it dreadful, simply cannot add up to the culmination of what life is about. To our world-fatigued eyes there is yet more to enter our line of vision than what has narrowed our vista and constricted our view. There is even far more of goodness itself still to come than, caged in the darkness, we can possibly imagine being true.
Today, beloved children of Africa, you ache with the torment of fire in your bones, miserably attached to your shackles, hopelessly bound to your chains. Tomorrow — surprise! — in defiance of all that appears inexorable, you spring loose into the cool, fresh air of freedom. Your bruised feet and jagged toes leap from the soil with elation. Your scarred hands and crippled fingers touch the tips of the clouds in ecstasy. Your dry lungs and parched lips burst forth upon the firmament with praise. Halleluiah!
Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy — this outlandish event called Resurrection is yours not by chance but by Providence. Hooray for you as the last become first while the first become last! Seen through the eyes of your long-suffering faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” this marvelous turnabout through God’s everlasting mercy is the one thing, the only saving thing, for a saint to believe in. To trust courageously against entire odds the line of vision your hearts most desire, like the craving of sight by a blind person whose glass eyes eclipse the sun, in the end is not so preposterous after all in the new Jerusalem.
“O, come, sweet Jesus, deliver us!”
The featured photo (top) is of “Slaves Waiting for Sale” by Eyre Crowe, Richmond, Virginia, 1853
THERE ARE STORIES PASSED DOWN about my grandfather Clarence, who died several years before I was born, to the effect that he could take quickly to the stern edge of his character and at times be brusque, impatient and demanding. While he was an industrious and productive Virginia farmer who certainly knew the meaning of hard work, with prosperous farmlands and fruit orchards to show for it, he now and again failed to notice that others worked equally as hard as he, and for far lower wages. One such person was a long-time faithful farmhand by the name of Elijah, who by this time had become an old man, as had my grandfather.
As always, the toil fell to Elijah to till the ground. With his hand faithfully to the plow one sultry summer afternoon, he struggled to keep his usual pace behind the mule as from a distance my grandfather assumed the inherited posture of one whose job it was to oversee. It was not uncommon that Papa, as his children affectionately called him, might unconsciously overlook the fact that the sweltering humidity had drawn beads of perspiration down Elijah’s dark brown cheeks. For a split instant as the mule turned in its path, the two old men stood side by side at the corner of the field.
“Mr. Davisson, would y’ mine takin’ holt of the plow whilst I go relieve myself?”
It not only had been ages since Clarence had taken hold of anyone’s plow including his own, but for many years Elijah had accumulated a debt of more than just a few greenbacks that he still owed my grandfather. Circumstances being what they were during the Depression, coupled to the customary social, economic and political arrangement, such debt hung overhead like an iron cleaver. It precluded the chance that a poor and aged black man would ever have hours enough in a lifetime, much less in a matter of months, to earn what it took to erase a debt that was part of a system of duties and obligations that kept one particular class of people subservient to another. Elijah, a descendant of slaves, had spoken nothing of such obligations on this particular day; nor had my grandfather, a descendant of slave owners.
Having obliged himself to do Elijah a small favor as the afternoon sun bore down upon the sweaty back of Elijah’s trusty old mule, Grandfather took hold of the reins and plow handles as beneath the pummeling heat he jostled with the soil up one row and down the other. When Elijah eventually returned from his errand, Grandfather spoke the first word.
“You know, Elijah, it’s been a long time since I’ve walked behind a plow. Mighty hard work, I’d forgotten just how!”
Not many months thereafter, early on a cold, blustery Sunday morn in January 1941, for causes I have never fully known nor fully understood, concerning the extent of all that burdened him and made him a prisoner within himself, my grandfather Clarence went to the basement of his house and put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger.
The irony of what otherwise appeared to be a largely successful life, despite the share of human foible and failure to which all are entitled, was that Grandfather Clarence at age sixty-five, having forgiven the $5,000 owed him by Elijah, could not for whatever personal reason forgive the “debt” he owed himself. Perhaps that, too, was debt in the form of a deficit long ago transmitted. My guess is that it had already begun to accumulate when at an early age he lost his mother to death’s dark door. Being told that he was somewhat unmanageable, he was soon shuffled off by his father to live with a relative. The rage that more than once manifested itself outwardly eventually turned its way inwardly upon the self.
Sometimes it is necessary to invert Jesus’ maxim, “As you wish that people would do to you, do so to them,” in order to say, “As people wish that you would do to them, do so to yourself.”
Of all the besetting sins of an increasingly narcissistic age of emptiness and brokenness, the failure to love oneself may be a root sin that is perpetuated down the cycles of the generations. In keeping with the Christ-like virtue of losing oneself in order to love another, not to love oneself at all makes it virtually impossible to love someone else. Yes, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For, only as grace is received can grace be given.
Grandfather in a brief moment of grace walked in Elijah’s shoes. I do not know, nor can I know, precisely what that meant. Perhaps there dawned upon Grandfather the extent of sacrifice Elijah for so many years had made for him, which in turn made it possible in a system that had wounded them both for the one man to extend grace and the other to receive it.
Whatever may have been the case then, or soon thereafter upon that cold, blustery January morn, I believe by the eternal mercies of Christ that Papa Clarence has come at last, with Elijah, as shall we all, to receive the full measure of grace that shows itself upon the ever loving face of God.
“Father, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
BEING MOTHER OR FATHER TO YOUR OWN LIFE’S WORK is like the stone-deaf Beethoven birthing the Ninth Symphony’s Ode to Joy. The craft of creativity is far more formidable than comprehensible. We become infinitely more dependent upon what we do not know than upon what we know.
Who knows for sure whether this score will ever make sense or sound? — as Beethoven most certainly must have plagued himself in fruitful self-doubt while laboring over a multitude of musical phrases.
We, intensely and deeply stirred by the sound and sense of Beethoven’s muse, must ask a question. Are we the sole proprietors of our works? Unlike clocks ticking in a hushed universe, are we swept along by something far more compelling than the ill-fated motions of hands and faces gradually winding down? How do we, being at times so mortally hard of hearing, like Beethoven, become at other times acutely attuned to the sounds of silence that strangely disrupt our imperviousness to grace?
What comedy amid tragedy! Here is Beethoven arranging the musical harmony of one of the most sublime moments of his life—an entire symphony. Yet he’s composing the riches of a majestic melody to the dread, awful contradiction of absolute, mute silence.
Henry van Dyke sought words for the Ode: “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love.” And Beethoven, it is ascribed, also composed seven measures of a chant for an offertory response. “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given Thee.”
Enter upon the scene. You, music lover, take a deliberate glance at the deeply entranced Beethoven. By fits and starts he is sitting with his muse. His “time” has caught up with him. The years immediately preceding have been overwhelmed with anxiety and grief, his output brief. But now comes one of those “given” instants, some would say, of brilliance. The master musician is composing his Joy in eerily deafened silence, yet the moon and the tides are waxing eloquently. Is unbridled faith able to muffle the world’s screaming dissonance long enough for anyone to listen and know that it is none other than God who speaks? Ludwig, alone but not alone, “hears” the music of the spheres as the presence of None Other. Are we surprised?
Mundane explanations aside, is it not forever true that “of thine own have we given Thee”? Did Beethoven love God all the more for not being able to hear the chanting cardinals and warbling snowbirds awaken him in the morning? Did their sound waves inaudibly split the air of his silent universe, mysteriously entering the marrow of his bones that he might declare in song, “O God!”?
The rest of us, being uninspired mimics of the world’s misfortunes, are less than attentive. We possess all our faculties, save one. We in the digital age, perhaps permanently, have lost the quiet composure of staying still long enough first to dream and imagine, then to sing the joyous melody close in for one solitary split second. The world of immediate bellow and clamor has dulled our inner senses. Our spirits have sprung loose like frayed violin strings. If only our lost souls were to commit the art of our living to the deaf side of our being, we might be surprised at what we hear when silenced like stone.
One day, early on, before his ears were hardened to the vibrations of audible melody, the young Ludwig was handed the task of learning to play the piano. What if there had been no piano? Would an “enthused” Ludwig have had the presence of heart, like an oyster, to take up pearl making? Mark Twain once quipped, “It is a world of surprises. They fall, too, where one is least expecting them.”
Consider the child Mozart. Full of gift, full of surprise, his “lyrics” were like pure “liquid sunshine,” as Karl Barth exclaimed. Yet Mozart’s ordinary life remained tumultuous. What, then, explained his music? In the midst of Wolfgang’s gathering storm, how on Earth was he able to compose such implausible reverberations of grace? Was it by lunacy that he achieved ethereal heights? To what end? Only so that he could be cast into an unmarked pauper’s grave, his lot thrown in with the rest of us? O “liquid sunshine,” like that yellow ball of fire in the sky, how quickly you fade to the west, wearing out your heart in the fever of darkness!
Mozart exhausted his song. His song exhausted Mozart. In his thirty-fifth year the virtuoso perished, not having completed his life’s last measure of mirth. Had he lived yet a few more, then what? Maybe not nearly so much. For what is life when measured by years? Among the last words that Amadeus, “lover of God,” penned to his unfinished Requiem were these: “Make them pass from death to life.”
Truth is, each day is a divine-human “passage.” In “a world of surprises” belonging first to God before being found of us in ways we least expect, each day is passage “from death to life.” Come, close your eyes and see. Come, close your ears and hear. Like chanting cardinal and warbling snowbird, come open your heart and sing — with whatever song you are given grace to say thanks. Ω
AS THE SAYING GOES, and as you have heard it said, you are the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the friends you make, the name you bear, and the words you speak. You are also your social security number, your high school picture, the glimpse of you a passerby brings to mind, and the epithet to be etched upon your tomb.
Not least, you are what you see and think of yourself for better or worse when you look in the mirror and either sigh with satisfaction or scream in dismay. You are what you reconstruct of yourself at the end of your days when you add up the balance and subtract the failures from the achievements and trust the sum to be greater than zero. In that sense you are what you forget as well as what you remember.
You are also the person who has an honest conversation with yourself about not always being your best self, and needing more often than not to be your forgiving self. And when you are your false self, you are that part of yourself that hides from the rest of you your true self.
When you are your true self you may hardly know exactly who you are, for in truth every true self is a composite of more than one self. It is several selves resident in one, and one centered at the heart of many.
Today you feel rotten, tomorrow on top of the world, which means you are somewhere within the vast range of normal.
When the wind blows right and you go left, you are the person who discerns the difference between what is right for you and wrong for others. You respectfully leave it to them to know their own minds, even as you trust they will kindly leave it to you to make up yours.
You are a blundering idiot when you cannot help yourself, and a surprising wonder when you entrust yourself to the wisdom buried deep within you.
You are the sacred ground you tread upon, the holy sights you see, and the mystical things you do. You are the lover who, being loved, loves, and yet the one who can miss the mark of love altogether.
You are the hilarious moments you stumble upon that lift your spirit, and the horrendous deeds you witness that diminish your soul.
You are the prayers you say as you fall asleep, and the dreams you live before and after you awake.
Yes, all these are portraits of you.
Yet even more, you are the living image of the One who made you the exquisite glory you are.
(Composed for those persons who were Charles’ pastoral counseling clients over the course of twenty-three years)
AMONG THE PURPORTED BLESSINGS OF LIFE in the countryside is nature’s primordial gift of tranquility. This is reason enough to take the wilderness trail that rambles toward Eden.
To a human actor too long accustomed to the raucous rattle of the internal combustion engine in its endless procession over miles of concrete freeways, the world-stage of woods and stream with its hushed panorama of starlit nights and morning mists on the distant mountain is welcome respite for a pilgrim seeking solace for the soul.
This is not to say that nature is well endowed with silence as it once was in that time-before-time when the Earth was a prehistoric habitat, minus creation’s crowning achievement known as homo sapiens (the “wise guy”) whose penchant for disrupting the reigning tranquility with all manner of congestion and noise is among the least admirable of his achievements. The presence of the human actor, on any stage, changes the disposition of the blue bird and the outlook of the fox, to say nothing of the godly lay of the land.
Believe it or not, but here in Campbell County, Va., those who have “generationed” among these rolling hills and farmlands are quite accustomed to the still-to-be-reckoned-with sound of the yelping foxhound driven by a drove of hungry hunters trotting around on horseback. Eager packs of dogs with their noses to the ground, numbering in the dozens, chase passionately through field and forest in unyielding pursuit of the forever sly but increasingly helpless old fox.
The sputter of the four-wheeled tractor and the screech of the earth-moving bulldozer have long since disturbed the fox’s peace as routinely as any natural four-legged enemy ever did in the wild. Thus the fox by day, which once preyed upon the chicken as sport by night, can hardly find a lively henhouse anywhere that does not belong to the game of agribusiness, which in the free market system has virtually eliminated the free reign of the chicken. In such diminished rural splendor, with beer can and wine bottle flung into nearly every roadside ditch, there is nevertheless, if but for a time, ample supply of the foxhound. It keeps the fox dizzily on the run from the hunter at its back, while losing the battle against urban sprawl at its front.
My yellow Lab, Buddy, and I were on our early morning walk the other day in witness to the spring sunrise that was breaking over the horizon when we spotted the sleek gray form of a fox heading south down the tarmac road in front of us. Its head turned back, glaring, and with little wonder, it was checking to see whether its symptomatic paranoia and depression were sufficient to warrant the fox doctor’s diagnosis of a clinical disorder.
If I were the fox instead of the therapist, I would have prayed that the man and his dog keep the Prozac to themselves. Heaven forbid the day when pharmaceuticals find their way into the drinking water! For the last thing a fox needs is to be drugged into a state of euphoria in which all lingering anxiety about the devastating wiles of the human family system into which the fox has been endlessly hounded and gunned down should suddenly dissipate. It is bad enough that the fox’s collective unconscious is no longer able to remember a primordial age that was decidedly pre-human. It will be even worse when the fox’s best defense against extinction, its capacity to produce a birth rate higher than its death rate, no longer works in its favor. To be sure, utter disaster will prevail when the residual effect of “the morning after pill” in the drinking water puts an end to the fox’s survival forever. No wonder the old fellow instinctively turns its head over its shoulder to see what is coming at it from behind. Yesterday it was the foxhound, today polluted rivers and streams.
Likewise, within the greater scheme of nature’s changing state of tranquility, the rumble of the logging truck comes thudding and blundering round the bend in the road where I live, destined for chopping up and spitting out what’s left of a pulp and paper economy in which the fast-growing pine supplants the slow-growing oak and maple. The driver of the Big Mack, with its friction decibels increasing in loud crescendo, careens his way down the same road that the fox takes in search of a safe crossing to the obscurity of shrubs and trees in which to hide its bewilderment.
Subsequent to the Fall, the road from Eden was first a fox alley, then a Native footpath, then a horse-and-buggy mud track, then a trail blazed in gravel for the Model-T, and then, at last, a drag-strip for the after-school racings of Generation Y in its red sports car going nowhere faster than it can go everywhere, which is halfway across the world via television and the Internet to every other place of like kind that is short on tranquility and high on discharging energy.
Yes, I thank God for every vestige of quiet that prevails here within this oasis of “New Concord.” At the moment there is nothing stirring other than a gentle breeze fanning the white pedals of the dogwood and the rustling leaf of the magnolia. Neither a cow moans in the distance, nor a cloud billows with lightning and thunder over the mountain. There is deep silence….
Well, I should say, there was deep silence. For the carillon inside the white clapboard tower beneath the church steeple is abruptly blasting forth a hymn of glory. Its bells are ripping through the silence like a rocket taking off into outer space. Dog Buddy, his nose to the sky, is howling for all he’s worth, in tune with the mighty Glory. “Nearer, my God, to Thee, Nearer to Thee!” Though like the wanderer, The sun gone down, Darkness be over me, My rest a stone: Yet in my dreams I’d be Nearer, my God, to Thee… wrote Sarah Adams in 1841, six years after this faithful congregation was founded.
“Nearer, my God, to Thee”? We pray Thee all, yes, may it be so.
And if so, then like the fox and the bluebird, who for the most part maintain their silence through all that is spinning around them, we draw our silence before God in the midst of the tumult by standing apart from it. For this is how God draws near to us, first apart, then close at hand.
Wherever we are on this rambling wilderness trail in our return to Eden, given as we are but a fleeting acquaintance with the primordial gift of tranquility, when we pause long enough to listen — to listen deeply — we hear below the surface-noise a holy silence that is solace for the soul.
The secret is in the vigil of watching and listening — listening to what is stirring down under, not only in nature, but at the very heart of nature, that is to say, to what is rousing from the depths of every living creature whom God knows by name and calls by name. Even the fox on the run that falls to the hunter, and the bluebird on the fly that does not return to the nest, and the generations of the human species who fling their anxieties like empty beer cans and broken wine bottles into the far ditch as though there were no tomorrow over which to fret.
We know that we too will observe our silence in due time, when the Spirit is right, when at last the eye is able to see and the ear is able to hear – O, Holy Silence.
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 that 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 farther 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.’”
MINISTRY IS LIKE SPORTS. It is subject to the pointless competition of the steeplechase, the serious injuries of boxing (with shadows), and the deadly leisure of line drives aimed straight at the preacher—absent the benefit of recreational drugs (religion alone is dangerous enough as opiate). It is like golf minus the combat compensation of seaside, sand dune, and sunshine for golfers in pastel pants and Polo shirts devoting entire careers to sinking itsy bitsy balls into trophy-size cups half the size of the human brain. I’ve never seen the average poor preacher, without brain, suddenly get converted to being a rich athlete with brain, and I’ve never seen the average rich athlete, with brain, suddenly get converted to being a poor preacher without brain until after making the first million on the sports field.
So, what does this say about candidates for ordination in the fields of ministry who take the vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, whether they frame it so or not? From the start it’s almost guaranteed that at least one of these three hallowed promises-to-do-good will not make it to the finish line. For in the end zone we meet not only the unfulfilled and once immortal dreams of undaunted youth but side-by-side with them the old-beyond-their-years handicaps of washed up wealthy athletes, and yes, poor preachers among other creatures with arthritic backs and bunions on their feet. At the close of day, Grace knows not the difference between a poor preacher and a rich athlete, or, for that matter, between rich and poor anything. For, as Jesus said, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45).
As a pastor and therapist I have seen rich and poor in roughly equal numbers, though they seldom view themselves as equal. Illusions aside, rich and poor are ultimately cursed with the same blessings of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience that eventually befall all. Yet it’s especially the poor preacher who is supposed to know that these three earthly things are what you will “take with you” when your turn comes to “shuffle off this mortal coil.” So, why put off until tomorrow what you can enjoy today?
Take your end-of-life vows now with the best of intentions and good will. Become ordained to subsidiary things like Sunday sermons and bedside prayers since those who habitually chase footballs, baseballs, golf balls, and race cars, are more than glad to leave the incidental stuff to poor preachers while they, the super heroes, attend to the World Series and the Super Bowl. Keep the faith that routine sermons and sequestered prayers, while promised no earthly reward for attempting to lure sports celebrities and big league players away from life’s feigned center of worship, the winner’s circle, will eventually hit home like Babe Ruth swinging all out for the bleachers.
We are to remember but one thing as we take our solemn oaths. When the “last words” are spoken it’s the poor preacher, not the overpaid athlete, who gets to say those final words over the grave where Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience (unto death) are the superstars.
So indeed why put off until tomorrow what you can enjoy today? Take your heavenly vows knowing that today’s pastel pants and Polo shirts are about as flattering to a corpse in a casket as steroids are to the athlete who breaks all sports records in order to land himself in jail.
Find a church where the steeple overlooks the cemetery. If you catch yourself boxing at shadows, take a walk in the cemetery. If you catch yourself taking the lumps of ricocheting line drives while others hammer their hearts out at home runs, take a walk in the cemetery. If on your day off you catch yourself spending too much time and money chipping and putting life away on the golf course, and watering more than the grass on the “nineteenth” hole, take a walk in the cemetery.
When all is said and done, poor preachers ask themselves just who, including the preacher, knows or even cares what the score was on the tenth and eleventh holes of Sand Castle Links. For when you’re standing up or kneeling down, doing a poor preacher’s job of either preaching or praying, with one eye on the text and the other peering out the window, not at the high steeple but at the low cemetery, you’re suddenly aware of the sacred claim of your calling.
Preacher, go preach, if you believe in such a thing as Grace. Hers is the gentle wind blowing across the faces of small people jockeying big horses for bigger purses, heavyweights trading anything but lightweight punches for golden glove awards, hard hitting swingers amassing the motions of muscular bodies and atrophied souls aimed at fast balls attached to multi-million dollar contracts, and the least likely pro hookers and slicers in the world driving down the fairway of life to become nothing less than number one on the grand tour.
It’s not unlike busted Barry Bonds staring down at his cracked baseball bat, realizing that his last pitch has already been hit hard with steroids, and the grand tally of the all-time highest number of balls slammed over the fence is destined now for the baseball Hall of Shame. There is left only the one inescapable and final “home run” that neither a bat-out-of-hell nor a bawl-out-from-heaven will snatch from the jaws of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. So where’s the wisdom in this?
At the end of the fiscal year, see that there is slightly more cash remaining in the cemetery fund than in the church’s general coffers. Momento mori – remember you will die. It is worth keeping that forward memory alive by perpetually preventing the grass and weeds from overtaking the tombstones lest they become invisible to human eyes.
Only the humble and the humbled have the last word, the very last being God’s, which is a reversal of the usual order of things and in line with what Jesus said about the first becoming last and the last first, for those who care a hoot about what Jesus said. And that is why poor preachers and ex-bona fide sports champions do well to take long walks in cemeteries in contrast to too many dry martinis consumed at the country club.
There in the cemetery everybody who’s ever done anything, or nothing at all, eventually finds out what it means to be poor, chaste, and obedient. At the least, poor in spirit, chaste of heart, and obedient unto something other than chasing steeples, boxing shadows, hacking rawhide over the deck and out of the park by less than pure prowess, and clubbing for huge corporate hand-outs in exchange for having peddled the least number of strokes aimed at hooking and slicing the biggest profits for the benefit of none other than those who need them the least, and “all these things” through the most ephemeral of media—thin air. So where’s the wisdom in this?
When you preach, aim low. When you pray, remain at a whisper. Keep one eye on the cemetery, the other on the widow with the widow’s mite in hand. Her name is Grace. Her face is the visage of the back row mourner standing next to the stone slab etched with a simple cross and first, middle, and last name, date of birth and date of death. Hidden from vanity, veiled in modesty, she is weeping with the gentle wind of Spirit at her back. Her Poverty of body is her Chastity of soul, and her Chastity of soul is her Obedience unto death. She has met and become acquainted with all three persons of the trinity of goodness standing guard against the ranting and raving legions of “dyed” in the wool sports fans filling the pavilions of self-indulgence. And yet it has never so much as crossed her mind, and never shall, that she, Grace, is filthy poor in anything while all the rest are smutty rich in everything. With head bowed and eyes pressed shut she knows what’s coming. In her frail and feeble hand she holds the key to what’s as true for her as for anyone and everyone.
Death spares not the fact that the tiniest mite suffers the same fate as the tallest miter—to be taken away or given away.
This is the point in time where stewards of ministry, true to their vows, part company with the icons of mass entertainment and all other “sporting” events of war and greed played for higher and higher stakes, as though all manner of pleasurable mammon were simply waiting to be acquired for fame and fortune and nothing ever lost.
Jesus said, Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Matt. 6:33).
Was Jesus not pressing his point? All these things shall be added? At the end of the day, when all is said and done, what else is there to be added if, like Grace, you’ve already found the Kingdom?