Preaching

The idea of ‘preaching’ has fallen on rough times, often tarnished by those who claim to be friends. Perhaps I’m a hopeless idealist, but I think it’s a mistake to surrender a good word to the wolves.

At the same time, I also feel like Reinhold Niebuhr who confessed, “There’s something ridiculous in a callow, young fool like myself standing up to preach.”

At any rate, I continue my Church Words series at Deeper Church today, pondering the old, out of favor word: preaching. This subject gets me stirred up.

Blabbermouth

One of the great temptations of a pastor is the greedy pull to say too much. We get so enamored with the sound of our own voice that we interrupt every silence and chatter over every mystery, spraying our neon pronouncements where sparse and hallowed words would do. We grow accustomed to being the first to pick up the mic, the first to have an authoritative or conclusive word. In an enflamed, issues-driven culture, this temptation prods with unrelenting aggression. Perhaps we fear irrelevance or fear losing our following. If we no longer scratch people’s itch, who are we then?

Of course, pastors no longer hold a monopoly on this narcissistic seduction. Technology has made it so that anyone with ten minutes and a couple fingers can unload a screed or a 140 character denouncement. If there’s an opinion to be had or an opportunity to show our intellectual (or theological or cultural, what have you) superiority, we’re quick on the draw.

Some of the best – and most troubling – advice I received from my pastor was when I asked him how he would have handled a particular hot-potato issue if he were still shepherding his parish. “My position,” he said, “would be to not take a position.” This is not at all to say that those of us who write or preach or craft lyric or verse never say anything with bite and commit only to accepted talking points. God help us, no. I’ve certainly never known my pastor to back away from a stout word when the moment required it.

This is, however, a suggestion that we refuse the pernicious allure to stay on top, to grab the momentum, to make sure we’re heard, to maintain the admiration of our tribe (or the attempt to build a tribe). It would do our souls well to, every once in a while, abandon speaking and get comfortable with silence. We might get comfortable shrugging our shoulders and saying, “I don’t have the foggiest.”

My suspicion is that a fair bit of our prattle (and perhaps I should only speak for myself) comes from fear. We fear uncertainty. We fear being left out. We fear the important people and important ideas (whoever and whatever those are) will move on without us.

One of my favorite sections of dialogue in Marilynne Robinson’s Home is when Congregationalist minister John Ames and his best friend, the aging Presbyterian Robert Boughton, have another roundabout concerning predestination. At one point, feeling a tad testy, Ames says,

I’m not going to apologize for the fact that there are things I don’t understand. I’d be a fool if I thought there weren’t. And I’m not going to make nonsense of a mystery, just because that’s what people always do when they try to talk about it. Always. And then they think the mystery itself is nonsense. Conversation of this kind is a good deal worse than useless. In my opinion.

These days, it may be the way of things to catch whatever fire’s blown up and add wind to the flame, but I suspect we’re losing something vital in the exchange. I also believe this blabbering posture hurts the poignancy of those moments when we do have something true to offer, some true fire burning in our gut. A poet who keeps me piqued with razor-edged vigilance will ultimately lose me. She may have sold me her verse for a bit, but I will not have found myself amid her one-pitch offering. And I will be unable to follow her into this world that knows too narrow a space for the whole of me, the laughter as well as the siren, the unsettledness as well as the dogma.

Amy’s Letter

A day or two ago, I got caught up in a flash of inspiration. These don’t come often, and when they do, you’ve got to grab that dragon and ride, ride, ride.

What started to be one thing ended up another, and lo and behold a (very) short story came to life. It shaped up as a tale about a three-ring circus, a brave letter and a woman who calls it like she sees it. The story starts like this:

Fred and Amy were neighbors on Rural Route 28. Their mailboxes shared a weathered post at the end of the gravel lane. This seemed fitting since their families also shared a weathered pew at Zion Presbyterian Church. Fred and Amy, along with Stan the tire salesman and Robert the county’s public defender, made up Zion’s Pastoral Search Committee. Though a thankless job, their assignment did mean that every Thursday night, they’d sit in the church’s empty manse, drink Folgers and have a few minutes to shoot the shit. Then they’d return to the pile of resumes that supposedly represented the last hope for their beleaguered flock. (read on)

I wrote this for a friend, but I’ve discovered it was even more for me. This story gets at some of my deepest frustrations with the predicament we find ourselves in – but also it gets at my grandest hopes for I what I mean when I use the word pastor. I’d be pleased to share it with you.

Oh – and may I add: if you have a pastor, go easy on ’em, chances are they’re getting their teeth kicked in at least a couple times a month. And if you have a good pastor, tell ’em so. They may not act like your gratitude matters, but I absolutely promise you that it does.

An Inadequate Grace

I’m in the middle of PhD studies at the University of Virginia, a “public ivy” that trades off with UC Berkeley most years for the spot of top-ranked public university. What this means is that there are multiple times a week when I’m the dumbest person in the room. I console myself with how I’ve got life experience, often by nearly two decades, on most of my cohorts; but this additional fact only means that on top of being slow, I’m also old. I’m 41. Welcome to college.

Being in a situation where your limits and inadequacies are laid bare provides a true gift. Since I’m a writer and a father and a pastor, this position is nothing new to me. Regularly, I’m reminded of how many better writers there are, how much better their books sell. Several times, I’ve found a copy of one of my books bargain-priced in the used book store, never read. I know this because I looked. Closely. Once, I found a copy at a bookshop across the street from the church I pastored. So I’ve pieced this together – one of my own parishioners thumbed through the book, shrugged and said, “Eh, toss.” That book sat on that lonely shelf for over a year. I know this because I looked. Regularly. I was only released from that gloomy wake because we moved four hundred miles away.

Further, I’m a dad, and most weeks I find the last few drops of my fatherly know-how circling the drain. I love those boys, but I will tell you that most of the time, I am absolutely winging it. When it comes to my pastoral life, it’s no different. There are many, many pastors who seem to have the right word and the right shine. We all like to play the part of the humble pastor, but God knows, some of us hit it on cue simply because we’re flailing about no matter when you look our way.

This isn’t to say I don’t have my stellar moments. From time to time, I’ll land a zinger of a sermon, and most days, I like the words I scratch together. While I flub regularly and have to say “I’m sorry” an awful lot, on the whole, I’m a pretty kick ass dad. I’m even learning to muck my way through a PhD.

But here’s the thing: the more we try to compensate for our weak places, the more we try to edit the “us” others encounter, the more we attempt to hide the fact that we really aren’t nearly as smart or agile or profound or intriguing as we suspect others judge us to be (or as we desire for others to judge us to be), the less we become our true selves, the less beauty we’re able to give away. Worse, as we maneuver and manipulate in all these places, we will find ourselves exhausted by our self-absorption. One of the graces Lent has brought me is this relaxing revelation: I am so tired of myself.

The world does not need perfection. It doesn’t need the best ‘you’ that you can dream up. The world needs you. The actual you. Foibles and giggles and goofiness and all. Would you be brave enough to give it to us?

Membership

I was making myself at home. In the dark way of the world I had come to know what would be my life’s place, though I could not yet know the life I would live in it…I had come unknowing into what Burley would have called the ‘membership’ of my life. I was becoming a member of Port William.

{Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter}

More than a few years ago, ecclesiastical authorities pulled me from my seminary womb, spanked me on the butt and scribbled my name on an ordination certificate. They sent me into the world, green and ignorant but effusive with zeal. One of my enterprising ideals was to de-bunk the ossified notion of church membership. I insisted the whole affair was a formality offering no more umph than signing up for the YMCA. We wanted ‘organic community.’ We wanted to ‘authentically live life together.’ We didn’t want structures but wanted to do ‘life on life.’ Apparently, we also wanted to craft our own clichés.

Years have, I believe, brought a humble measure of wisdom. Reading Wendell Berry and my Bible have added a bit more. I’ve reflected on all this with a piece for Deeper Church, if you’d care to tussle with these ideas further.

Church Words

I’ve pitched in with a few other writers over at Deeper Church, a place to think about the rich joys and deep mysteries we discover via life in God’s Church. I’ll join in once a month or so.

Today, I began to think about our church words, about our need for poets and storytellers. We need women who plant a disruptive seed in our imagination. We need men who flip us topsy-turvy with their playfulness and their unguarded revelations. We need poets and preachers who brush past the cynicism, refuse fatigued dichotomies and fashion words as though they are handcrafted dynamite. These happy subversives light the fuse and calmly set the short-wicked sentence in our midst.

If you want to read on, you certainly may

Addendum

I have another bit I could have shared, adding another mercy to my story about the balls we juggle and the balls we drop. This snippet’s too good to miss.

Several weeks ago, a couple days after my conversation with Ken, I received an email from another friend. Only this fellow’s also in my parish. I’m (as he likes to say) his reverend. This means that he’s one of those we pastor-types imagine we are spinning and juggling and dashing about to impress, the ones who’ll rush off in a huff if we blow up any of our ecclesiastical chores. This fellow, thank God, lives outside that circle. “I’ve had you in mind lately,” he wrote, “and hoping that you’re managing to hold everything together these days. You certainly won’t hear anything from us if you miss a few things, intentionally or not.”

Intentional. Or not. If a goof or mishap is what’s needed, blunder away, he said.

A few days later, the two of us took a walk in the rain. More like a monsoon, we were drenched down to our skivvies. I don’t know where such a thing lands on the productive management grid. But it surely felt good to be human, a very wet human.

My friend, in the email assuring me it was mighty fine to roll a gutter ball, concluded with Garrison Keillor’s sign off: Be well, do good work, and stay in touch. I pass those words to you, as they were passed to me. 

 

Balls Go Round and Round

My friend Ken asked me how I was doing, and I answered with the worn-out juggling metaphor. The last few weeks, I’ve been tossing so many balls I’m teetering, breathless. One miscue, and we’re sure to have a jangled collision. This works against my desire for simplicity, and I feel like a class-A hypocrite. Of course, that guilt becomes simply another ball I toss into the furious loop.

I explained to Ken my fear that I would drop one of my whirling balls and that those I love or those I’m responsible for would suffer. My family would not receive all they need from me. My church would endure a lackluster pastor. Maybe my coursework would pay the price. Or my writing would be dull and empty. So much at stake. So many possibilities for ruin. I must keep the blurring circle flawlessly spinning.

The phone sat silent for a moment. Then Ken, with a carefree voice, asked “Why don’t you just let a ball drop every now and then?”

Why don’t I just drop a ball? It’s easy when someone else says it. Why do I believe I’m so crucial to the universe that my misstep carries such drastic consequences? I do the best I can, which means I bumble my way most of the time. I have trouble keeping track of my keys most days, much less all the whizzing parts of my world. Juggling belongs in a circus anyway, where there’s laughter and popcorn and everyone expects someone to get a pie in the face and to be left with a big mess after the fat lady sings.

Last night, All Souls had a Healing Eucharist. When Miska prayed for me, she placed her hand on my heart and prayed that I’d know there is nothing to fear, that I’d know that – truly – nothing is at stake. Her prayer said, drop a ball if you need to, grace will pick it up.

Grace from Strange Cups

winn_collier_writer_fiction_dinerThe dingy bronze bell on the front door jingled, same as when each hungry soul stepped into The Coffee Cup. It was 7 a.m. on Friday, which meant everyone knew the bell rang for Thomas McCann. Most weekdays, you’d find Thomas on his farm. Each Sunday morning, you’d find him behind the pulpit at Mt. Carmel Presbyterian. Every Friday at 7, the Coffee Cup was his parish. McCann walked effortlessly from one stretch of soil to another.

“Morning, Tom.” Eustace was always the first to greet. Eustace was something like the Cup’s mayor, the first to welcome each new dignitary that graced the doors, the first to ask about someone who’d been sick or about the new grand baby, the first to play the peacemaker when Fin and Paul’s political conversations overheated. After Eustace’s “morning,” echoes arrived from round the room.

This was one of Thomas’ cherished moments, partly why he hadn’t missed in seventeen years. Thomas loved the lingering stillness before a sermon, those seconds after he said, “Let’s pray.” He always allowed the quiet to go longer than most preferred. Thomas loved when he placed the bread in the hand of the one receiving the Eucharist. He’d close the communicant’s hand over the bread and hold it for a few seconds, taking care to catch her eye. Thomas loved each night in bed when his wife Ivy read poetry to him before sleep. And Thomas loved this familiar chorus saying hello every Friday.

McCann sat down, and Sharon, matron of the Cup, slid a coffee and two creams in front of him. Then the plate with fried eggs, biscuits and a side of oatmeal and brown sugar.

Like clockwork, Fin began. “Rev, whatcha been doing all week?”

McCann knew the script, played along. “Just tending to my gardens.”

“Must be nice,” Fin said, “getting paid for Sundays with the rest of the time off.”

Thomas smiled and chuckled. “Well, somebody’s got to have the gig. Might as well be me.”

Fin had three or four regular lines he liked to run at McCann. Another ended with the tag about why he never went to a party with Baptists or Presbyterians: Baptists were no fun because they didn’t drink, and Presbyterians were no fun because they didn’t laugh. McCann would smile and say, “Fin, you need to find yourself some new parties.”

Fin was cantankerous about most things, about politicians and weather, about big corporations and little league umpires. He was most cantankerous about religion.

Several years ago, Thomas asked Fin why he bothered going to church when it irritated him so. “You got me wrong, Rev. I let off steam with you because I figure you can handle a little steam.”

Fin drained his black coffee, considering his next words. “I don’t like what lots of folks have done with the church, that’s for damn sure. But where else would I find someone to say peace to me when I enter the doors and someone to bless me before I leave? Who else would serve me that bread and wine? Who else would listen to my bitchin’ and know there’s something good underneath?”

Thomas had no words. He wiped his wet eyes. “Thank you, Fin. Thank you.”

 

Vocation and Healing

My intent wasn't to save the world as much as to heal myself. Few doctors will admit this, certainly not young ones, but unsubconsciously, in entering the profession, we must believe that ministering to others will heal our woundedness. And it can. But it can also deepen the wound. {Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone}

winn_collier_writer_van_gogh_farmer_at_fireside

Yesterday, a friend asked why I became a pastor. My story's both as dull and as fascinating as every story you'd discover with such a question. My path (and my vocation) has all the holiness, but no more, as my friends who pound hammers, type code, or translate German. Tending to soil or tending to children is no different, other than minor particulars, from tending to souls or words. All of it will make you giddy. All of it will break your heart.

I took up the stole the same way I took up the pen and pretty much the same way (with a few more hairpin curves) I became a husband and then a father. I had a desire I couldn't shake accompanied by a fear I'd screw up and be a fool, two signals (especially when they arrive holding hands) that you're on to something important. I took the step in front of me, and I kept stepping. And here I am with a few scars, a few stories and much, much gratitude.

To me, the more interesting question is: why do I stay a pastor? There are plenty of reasons not to, none of which I'll bore you with here. However, this place, this community, this way I've found to tend to my little plot of earth, is where I've settled. Lest this somehow come across more noble than I intend (or more noble than the truth), let me clarify. I am not a pastor because of a mystical, irrevocable call or due to unrelenting faith. I do not pastor because I possess a driving vision for a new expression of the church of tomorrow. I do not pastor for the pay or the prestige, both of which are (how shall I put this?) … thin.

I am a pastor because this is what, for now, my heart has to give away. I am a pastor because I have found that somehow, as I labor for the mending of other broken and weary souls, I encounter my own mending, my own healing. My sermons do not provide my lectures for the congregation, but rather my questions searching for answers, my convictions born out of travail. I do not pray as one who, with iron-clenched certainty, stares down mysteries; I pray trembling. But I pray and I tremble with tenacious hope. 

Verghese tells us that to live such a way invites both healing and wounding. I believe this will be the experience of every true vocation, every place where, more than merely our skill or expertise, we choose to give away our life and to offer our work and ourselves as fellow humans doing the best we know to follow every scent of grace.