Thursday, February 12, 2009
The Preacher’s Corner
Humor has its place in God’s house
Seldom do I take my walks through Hill Crest Cemetery that I do not muse on the fate of the poor Mr. B., a minister from South Mississippi who used to occasionally take services in Cleveland, Miss., where I grew up. As the tale had it, Mr. B. — a rather arch character, who was possessed of beady eyes and was just a little pompous — was officiating at a funeral somewhere south of Jackson, and standing at the head of the grave, wearing a white robe, he suddenly fell into the grave due to a soil collapse. People there recounted how, as he sank, he continued reading aloud from his prayer book, until finally he disappeared from view under the casket, those beady, unblinking, eyes being the last thing that the horrified observers saw.
Mr. B. was said to have suffered no loss of dignity whatsoever throughout the whole affair. When the pallbearers helped him up, he matter-of-factly completed the service with all due gravity, in spite of the fact that his robes were covered in mud and the congregation was tittering behind cupped hands. Mindful of that example, I always position myself a safe distance from the grave.
A consistent theme of this column is the things that go wrong in church, and the fact that I have written for 20-plus years with no shortage of stories to tell indicates that there are plenty of unintentional and humorous things that go on in connection with church.
At my own mother’s burial, the minister became so tangled up in leading us through the 23rd Psalm that we all began to chuckle, and by that very human foible, what was a rather sad occasion, especially for the more elderly ones present, was made human and bearable, and we were enabled to lift up our heads and carry on.
Of course, religion has its serious side, and I have little patience with preachers who are always ready with the “haw-haw” joke or cornball story. Such tales are concocted and have no basis in reality. But one does not have to be around the church for very long before a store of true incidents gathers in the mind, and when these can be told without hurting people’s feelings, it casts things in a most interesting light. An awareness of human frailty will inevitably disarm the pretentious; it can also encourage the fainthearted.
There is a wonderful print by Hogarth, the English satirist, called “The Sleeping Congregation.” You can Google it on the Internet. A minister in a high pulpit drones away at his sermon, reading from his book with a magnifying glass. Meanwhile, the church members are engaged in all manner of slumber or distraction, caught in the sorts of ridiculous poses that later inspired the illustrators of Mad Magazine. I do not know any minister or church member who has not, at some time, felt caught in a similar situation. But what is humbling for a preacher is when you felt you’ve put everybody to sleep, having taken a wonderful text and drilled it to death, somebody comes up a week later and tells you that particular sermon helped them in a crisis, and then you know that God is not defeated by human shortcomings.
I have known people who allow no humor in God’s house. Every matter is magnified with the greatest seriousness, so that the entire fate of western civilization seems to hang on each daily matter of concern. Having observed these goings-on over a span of years it seems that some people’s concept of serving God has been simply to lament over one great collapse after another, with the world and the church always in decline, and all one can do is flail against the error of it all. Life is too short for this. All of us profess to believe in the sovereignty and lordship of God, and if we do, then we will realize that we usually take ourselves and our causes too seriously. God got things accomplished in the world before we came along, and will be able to carry on quite effectively after we are gone. In the meantime, if we can bring a bit of light and goodness to the Almighty’s work, then perhaps the kingdom is advanced just a bit by our having served here just now. Nobody is won to faith by a sour puss, although sometimes looking at a sour puss may draw a good contrast to real faith which survives over and against its dour and dyspeptic friends.
Mr. B., the minister who fell in the grave, may not be delighted that this is how I remember him, but I take encouragement from what happened to him. For when all is said and done, we live under the benediction of a merciful God, so that there ought to be a lightsomeness to our days, and a joy when we consider God’s future.
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