Thursday, December 15, 2011
The Preacher’s Corner
Dylan Thomas lines don’t help insomnia
The other Sunday morning as I was arriving before church, I saw my friend Bob Bowen standing in the pulpit, reading one of my old sermons. I had left my notes there from the week before. I confess I was a bit “startled” to see someone else in the pulpit — not because it is “my pulpit” or I am possessive of it — it is just so unusual to see another person in that spot. I guess I view “church” from the pulpit, whereas others see “church” from the pew. That is a habit and perception I think we preachers ought to challenge. I teased Bob that if he was going to stand up there, perhaps he could also deliver a sermon, and I could enjoy being in the pew like everyone else that day.
Bob is a kind man who opens and closes the church for us on Sundays. He was in the pulpit to turn on the little light I use, so that I can see the fine print of the Bible from which I read. Mark Miller and Ki Jones always have the front doors, where I stand to greet people, open and ready when I come down the stairs after the service. It is those little touches that make a minister feel welcomed in his own church.
It is a very gracious and humanizing thing these people do, especially as I find myself advancing in age. Print in Bibles, novels, newspapers, and magazines gets smaller and smaller, doesn’t it? Younger people do not seem troubled by this, as people are now fully content watching ballgames and movies on their tiny “smart phones.”
There was a time when I would have scoffed at the suggestion I might lack either the physical strength or capacity to do all I wanted and needed to do. There is a kind of humility that time imposes. That is the most gracious way I can put it. The other night when I could not sleep, a line of Dylan Thomas annoyed me as it repeatedly went through my head: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rage at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The lines are a great incentive to “keep on keeping on.” They were not a remedy for the insomnia that was aggravating me at that moment!
After Bob had finished making the pulpit hospitable for me last Sunday morning, I stood where he had been and realized that my pulpit has taken on an almost homelike quality. Not only was there the one sermon that he was particularly interested in, but notes for eight or ten from previous Sundays! I guess after church I do not go back to the pulpit and collect my things, and so papers and Bibles and paper clips and miscellanies of every kind have collected in the sacred desk, rather like my office and den at home. A thorough cleaning and rearranging was in order!
We all have our work spaces, and the pulpit is definitely mine. It is as homey as can be, but one should not become too comfortable in such a place. One scornful soul berates preachers as speaking “six feet above contradiction.” (My pulpit is only about two feet above the floor, but the point is well-taken.) I am still reminded (with appreciation) of the comment by a lady who responded to a sermon I preached attempting to explain the Presbyterian idea of “predestination.” She greeted me at the church door with these words: “Milton, I enjoyed your sermon very much, but I do not believe one word of what you said!” Such is our right (and even our responsibility) in a voluntary organization such as the church.
Thankfully, in my tradition at least, there is no expectation that people have to accept everything I say in my pulpit. But at the same time one is dealing with dynamite. The minister’s words can, and occasionally do, inspire great interest, comment, and even opposition.
When I was a young preacher, I often got bad cases of the “butterflies” before giving a sermon. That gnawing fear in the stomach is most disconcerting, and I dreaded it. A mentor of mine told me that one should never enter the pulpit without some degree of nervousness, for just as (according to the current saying), there is “nothing casual about business,” so there ought to be nothing casual about church and the things of Christ and salvation.
On Sundays I pray that God will turn my fear into fire. I am still not “used” to preaching. I think that when I do become “used” to it, it will be time to retire. I’m not quite there yet! I am, however, more grateful than ever for those who assist the preacher’s task, with preparation, attention, expectation — and yes, even critique.
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