Thursday, July 19, 2007
Embarrassing when I flub my words
Recently I received a wonderful gift, the volume on “Language” from the revised edition of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Since preachers, along with journalists, teachers and lawyers, are people who get their living by words, this volume on “language,” especially as we Southerners use it, will be very interesting to me.
Having said how important language is to my calling, you can understand how embarrassing it is to me when I flub my words. Recently I did so, while leading our congregation in saying the 23rd Psalm, which we do each time we receive the Holy Communion.
I am not sure how many churches use the 23rd Psalm in connection with the Lord’s Supper, but it has always seemed to me a lovely custom. I first learned it at the church I served in Chicago where it was a custom going back as far as anyone could remember. I brought the practice with me to Holly Springs, and I think it has come to mean as much to our congregation as it does to me.
The 23rd Psalm is one of the few texts you can count on a mixed group of people to know by heart. There are fewer and fewer things that people can repeat from memory. When we say the Lord’s Prayer, people get confused over words — the Methodists and Episcopalians have their “trespasses,” and we Presbyterians have our “debts.”
Besides that, most of us are not encouraged to memorize much any more. Not everyone knows the words to the National Anthem, and virtually none of us can sing anything beyond the first verse — there are six or eight — and we had to learn them all in sixth grade but I confess they have completely faded from my recollection.
But the 23rd Psalm, recited according to its text in the King James Version is one of the great remembered treasures of the Western mind, and a minister can still count on a congregation in a service of worship to be able to repeat it without a printed text to prompt. People from any and all denominations can do so, as of course, can members of Hebrew temples and synagogues. People in the hospital hovering in the twilight between consciousness and coma, as well patients with dementia who cannot recognize their closest relatives, have said this Psalm with me — defying all predictions as to their ability to know or remember.
The 23rd Psalm is a passage of literature that has been known and believed by more people than any other in history, and if you can say it, you are uniting in a common belief that is the most widely treasured in the history of humankind. It is etched into the “hard drive” of the mind, and seems to me to be one of the last things we remember at the end of our pilgrimage on this earth. It is a good way of committing one’s spirit to the eternal.
That said, you can imagine how appalled I was when I forgot the words during a recent service in our church! My forgetfulness is illustrative of the unconscious nervousness that may affect even a practiced public speaker. I tried to cover my lapse by feigning a cough — but I could not think of the words.
I was grateful that my congregation was kind enough to keep on with the recitation, for my friends Rook and Marie Moore told me how the minister at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City once forgot the words to the Apostles Creed. The entire congregation hesitated, then halted, then burst into peals of laughter. Such is a congregation’s delight when we usually self-assured clergy reveal our fallibility and frailty to our flocks. They like, I think, to know we are as human as they are.
Sometimes a flub relieves the tension. As it happened, the Communion where I forgot the words was a particularly somber service, as Communions sometimes are for us Presbyterians. We are not always as good at “celebrating” the Sacrament, which is a verb that is properly used to describe the administration of the Eucharist. It is, after all, as that good word means, a service of joyful thanksgiving.
Anyhow, I think my mistake caused a few smiles — and it reminded me of the time when my friend Jimmy McClanahan flubbed the Psalm while leading the graveside service for my mother’s interment some years ago at our family cemetery in Clinton, Ky. It was a beautiful December day, and the clouds framed a deepening purple sunset over fields of winter wheat stretched out to the horizon, in all directions, beyond the bare-branched trees of that old familiar hillside where so much of my family’s sacred dust resides, and where my ashes, too, will someday await the coming of resurrection morn.
All that was needed was a bagpiper, but those clouds with their portent of an approaching snowstorm supplied a music sufficient for the wistfulness of that particular afternoon. So when Jim forgot the words, my cousins and I found amusement at his predicament, so that caused us to beam reassuring smiles that encouraged him to go on. We realized immediately that this little hitch was just what was needed to get us over the hump.
They say that every great picture or performance should have a little imperfection to remind us that the artist or musician is human. You and I are not perfect and no matter how hard we may try to project that image to the world, God, in a divine sense of good humor, will remind us of that — sometimes at the most inopportune moments. But I am convinced God does this to relieve us of the burden of trying to be what we are not and cannot be.
It is a reminder that humility and forgiveness are among the saving graces of life.
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