Friday, January 18, 2013

Listening to the Music

Preaching, like tango, takes two: a speaker and a listener. Actually, it takes three, but if we think of the Holy Spirit as the music animating both speaker and listener, the dance metaphor still holds.

In ballroom dancing, there is a set leader and a set follower among the dancing duo. In our metaphor, the preacher is, by far, the leader in the sermon dance, and the listener is the follower in the sermon dance. Sometimes the listener needs the skill of Ginger Rogers dancing backward (in heels!) to transform a lackluster preacher's attempt to do justice to the grand music of God's word being played. It is a good thing in this situation that the listener hears the music directly, along with the preacher. Most preachers have had the experience of being thanked sincerely for saying something in a sermon that clearly they never actually said. Sometimes this is a good thing, the Holy Spirit singing something true and good directly to the hearer. Other times, it is a sign that the sound system, for whatever reasons, isn't working up to snuff, and something rather awful has been "heard."

I belabor this mixed dance duo metaphor in acknowledgement--and even hopefulness--that the preacher of the sermon I am about to describe did not actually say what I am about to describe. But--it is what an intelligent, generally reliable listener took away from the sermon and related to me. Something in this particular sound system is screwy, be it the transmitter or the receiver. As I said, I hope it was the receiver gone awry, but my hunch is that it was the transmitter.

The preacher in our anonymous church had gone to a lot of trouble to prepare a prop for the sermon, a big box, all nicely gift-wrapped. "This is God's best gift to you. Can you guess what's inside?" Polite, cooperative children in the congregation, each accustomed to the dialogic sermon experience, offered their guesses, each reflecting their own unique idea of what God's best gift would be in the big box. Nope, nope, nope.... What would be in the box? Maybe the statue of the infant Jesus had been hijacked temporarily from the outdoor creche? Would there be a large cross inside? Dramatic tension soared as the preacher, aided by the little hands of volunteers, slowly unwrapped the box, reached inside, and pulled out--a large, elaborately-framed mirror. The point of this Christmas-season sermon was that each child was God's best gift--to the world!

Joy, anyone?

Forgive me while your faithful blogger here has a temporary melt-down pondering the ramifications of this sermon illustration. The hopes and fears of all the years are met---in what I see in the mirror? Who needs Christ if each person is already God's best gift to the world? What happens when that person falls short, can't make it, hits bottom? Where can a person praising the image of himself or herself go to repent, or worse, how can they ever even imagine a need to repent?

OK. So maybe, as I speculated above, the sermon was never actually preached quite in this way, that some nuance was missed, and that this "hearing" was idiosyncratic and just God's way of moving the listener (after several experiences like this) on to a church with a truer, more compatible sound system. Or maybe next week's sermon at this anonymous church balanced out the self-aggrandizement suggested by this unfortunate message. Sometimes, however, you just can't compensate for a partner with three left feet, and it is time to call it a night. Some gifts are just--wrong, and no matter how well-intentioned, must not be kept.

But the Music still plays on, elsewhere. Just please don't dance alone, for long....

Saturday, January 5, 2013

On Not Using Words

As I look back over the Twelve Days of Christmas and the season of Advent that preceded it, three things bubble up in my memory as uniquely special. One occurred in a grocery store. After paying my bill, I realized that the customer ahead of me had neatly bagged all my groceries for me. Smiling and waving, she said, "Happy Holidays," and immediately turned to leave. Clearly, anonymity was a big part of the random kindness she wished to deliver to me that day. Delighted, I called out after her to thank her.

The second thing that I am still savoring is the silent, daylong vigil that a local church held to honor and pray for the victims of the Newtown shooting. Scheduled a week after the fact, I had already heard and read and said more than was helpful to me or anyone else in processing the event. The silence was exactly what my soul needed to regain its equilibrium and get back to the spiritual focus of the season, preparing for the birth of the light that shines in darkness without being overcome by the darkness. The silence shared with others helped me to personally move out of the darkness into the light of the coming Christmas season.

And lastly, I was pleased to have been reminded of J.R.R Tolkien's Christian worldview through watching Peter Jackon's "The Hobbit" in all its 3-D magnificence. Prompted by Gandalf, Tolkien's grace-filled wisdom figure, Bilbo accepts the call to leave his happy hobbit hole and undertake his grand and perilous "adventure," simply because he had a home "and the dwarves did not." Bilbo thus makes the life-changing decision (conversion!) to develop and flex his capacity for self-sacrificing love. Need I say that movies with deeply hopeful themes such as this are not exactly plentiful these days?

Reflecting on these three things--a surprise favor from a stranger, a silent vigil, and an entertaining movie delivering Christian values--together points me to Saint Francis' astute advice to "Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words." Although the grocery-bagging stranger was most likely a professing Christian, she did not strain the encounter by trying to rope me into attending her church or seeing the world as she does. Actions speak louder than words: do kindness. The day of the silent vigil, I had become oversaturated with media ruminations about the Newtown tragedy; I simply could not have tolerated any sermonizing. Sometimes silence is the best thing we can "say" in painful situations: let's share more of it. Lastly, stories can teach and inspire in ways that direct discussion cannot. Tolkien's work is all the more powerful for not crossing the line into explicit evangelism. Let's cultivate direct appreciation for the great literature of Christianity. Can you hear C.S. Lewis and Dante calling you?

2013 will be year in which I: 1) Practice random acts of kindness; 2) Find more opportunities for shared silence; and 3) Read and discuss more classics. I'll bet these resolutions will make me--and anyone--a much more attractive witness to faith out in the secular world than anything that is preached or written. But hey! Keep reading the blog, please!