Thursday, June 2, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Mary Margaret’s file said “Trouble...”

Church members do not like to meditate upon the fact that they may be fodder for their minister’s sermon illustrations in his next pastorate. But of course it is commonly done, just so long as the new congregation is far enough away that no one would recognize the particulars of the former member’s sinful situation. (This is a variation on the question, “What sort of raw material are you providing for the minister to use when composing your funeral oration? Sometimes we preachers have to become very creative!”)

That said, I suppose it is safe now to tell you about Mary Margaret Schmidt — my most utterly memorable, (if not repelling) parishioner at the large Chicago church I served as a ministerial assistant before coming to Holly Springs 18 years ago.

Mary Margaret was in her pew every Sunday — that much could be honestly said. She listened attentively and always came forward to greet the preaching minister at the conclusion of the sermon. She was a small woman, always attired in conservative navy blue or grays. Even in summer she wore a full length cloth coat. Her hair was always tightly rolled into a bun and covered by a grandmotherly sort of hat, usually with a little veil — a relic of the 1930s — when presumably her fashion sense had been set.

The church was full of such ladies — everyone over fifty remembers how they looked. You can still see them if you travel to Scotland, and for the most part such ladies were kind — though not to be underestimated, for they could become ferocious. For the church was the one place in life where such women had power, and if prompted they could exert it. And this is where my story begins.

Miss Schmidt was slightly stooped and wan of complexion, but when she offered her hand for the customary limp handshake (priests and ministers have received these in their thousands across the centuries), she would always straighten her spine, and look you straight in the eye as a small twinkle grew into a momentary broad smile — somewhat like William F. Buckley is famous for giving — and let me stress that I imply no further comparisons between them!

Mary Margaret was intelligent. Even brilliant, perhaps. And she could write!

It was just the way she applied her energies! You see, every six to eight weeks the religion editor of the Chicago Tribune would stop by the church office and drop off a sheaf of letters that Mary Margaret had written to the newspaper. This was before the days of e-mail, so she had to write them out by hand, and we soon became well acquainted with her penmanship!

She wrote in tight, circular motions, laboriously over-forming her letters, keeping her lines ruler-straight, with no space in between the lines, on the thinnest onion-skin paper you ever saw. And you came to feel cheated if your sermon was not deconstructed in at least eight pages — fronts and backs. Of course, Mary Margaret’s critiques — intended for the world to see — were far longer and more detailed than the preacher’s original manuscript. She caught every whiff of ancient heresy and exegetical blunder lurking in the most casual illustrative remarks.

Augustine or Pelagius either one would have been delighted to have her aid when they were indulging in such virulent theological pyrotechnics in the long-ago. But, alas, Mary Margaret did not confine herself to revealing the ignorance or fallacious reasoning of her ministers’ homiletic materials — no, with piercing spiritual insight she undertook to disclose and rebuke what seemed to her to be the horrific sexual misbehavior in which all seven of her pastors were obviously indulging when in and out of the pulpit!

She must have been everywhere, looking at people with the all-seeing eye of God. For on to about page two of each epistle, Mary Margaret would launch into flights of lurid prose, detailing in the most graphic and explicit words the sorts of licentiousness that everyone should have realized was disclosed by the Freudian “slips” she sensed her ministers made when delivering their supposedly sanctimonious harangues. Mary Margaret was the embodiment of that remark famously attributed to H.L. Mencken who defined a Puritan as “someone who is desperately afraid that, somewhere, someone might be having a good time!”

For some years I was never told about these letters — that is until I was the subject of one. It was presented to me by my colleagues (there were seven ministers of this church) as a sort of “welcome to the club.” Now I was a true minister of the Fourth Presbyterian Church!

Mary Margaret’s letters were so hard to read that it took real effort to decipher them. But, being given samples from everyone else’s “collection,” I spent an evening or two in wide-eyed wonder that someone in a Calvinist congregation could even think, much less write such lurid obscenities. I confess it took some effort at composure to preach knowing that woman was out there in the dim light of the 25th pew back, undressing you in her mind!

(Actually, in an evil kind of post-adolescent bachelor sort of way, I was rather flattered that an old lady could have thought that a shy, fumbling young man like me could have had any such exploits as she imagined to be characteristic of my obviously un-clerical manner of life!)

She had only done damage once, when during her first round of letters, she undertook to alert the hearers of our preaching minister Dr. Elam Davies who was launching off on a six-week’s preaching tour of Australia and the Far East. Having obtained the itinerary from the church newsletter, she wrote the editors in each city to which he would be traveling, giving a full account of the things that “everybody” in Chicago knew were characteristic of the scurrilous rogue who held forth from that once-honorable pulpit on Michigan Avenue — with the result that a hysterical committee of church officers would be waiting at the pier as Dr. Davies ship would pull in to dock!

I looked on the 5 x 7 file card on which the photo, name, address, and pastoral history of each member was recorded, and on Mary Margaret’s was written only this: No Mail. “Trouble.”

If Mary Margaret’s religious constraints had allowed her, I am sure she could have become rich writing blue novels. But I am sure somewhere along the line someone had carefully taught her that illicit thoughts should be carefully suppressed. The church, of course, by her lights, should have furthered her efforts at suppression. But somehow, the forbidden ideas came creeping out and, late at night — as if prompted by some hidden, demonic muse — she would take pen in hand. One can imagine her, hands trembling with pleasure, licking the envelope and affixing the stamp.

Yes, it has been said with some truth that churches are full of neurotic people — perhaps, even and especially their clergy. You will say, why wasn’t Mary Margaret caught and put away or treated? Well, because she was otherwise sober, respectable, and competent. You see, in the clear light of day, she was a highly regarded professional woman: a psychiatric nurse at one of Chicago’s most famous mental hospitals!

When they were having my farewell reception in the garden of the church in Chicago, Mary Margaret made her way through the receiving line to say good-bye. “I will miss you,” she said with her broadening grin. “And, be sure, your people in Holly Springs will be hearing from me!”

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