Monday, February 14, 2005

Raging Madman or Playful Jester?

Fifteen years ago, as I prepared for graduation from seminary, I ventured out into the world to seek a position within the Church. I'd decided I wanted to be an assistant (curate), which would give me a few years to complete my formation under the guidance of a mentor. One often begins such ventures full of hope and excitement about the future. For me, that hope was quickly dashed by a strong dose of reality served up during my very first interview.

It was a large parish outside Buffalo. The rector would only consider a graduate of Nashotah House as a curate candidate, which should have been my first clue that pursuing this position was not such a great idea. My family and I traveled by car from Wisconsin to New York by way of Canada. We arrived Saturday afternoon tired and cold. I met with the rector, who commented on my gray jacket. "We wear black here," he said. He then gave me a tour of the facility, describing various items in terms like "Jesus gave us this back in 1947." A bit odd, I thought, but hey, what did I know?

After describing the various duties of the curate, which involved a few things I thought were unusual, such as arriving each day at 6:00 (a.m., for heavens sake!) to make sure the heater was working, we parted for the evening, with his last comment being, "Mass is at 8:00. Wear black."

Since my family would be joining me for the late mass, he loaned me a small compact car for my journey to and from the hotel the next morning for the early mass, which I thought was quite considerate of him. The weather during the night, however, was not as considerate. When I approached the car early Sunday morning, I was amazed to find it entombed in at least two inches of ice.

Having lived in Wisconsin for some years, I was used to cold weather, including lots of snow and ice. But this was Buffalo ice; of a hardness and thickness I'd never encountered. After fifteen minutes of chipping and hacking, I'd managed to form a small porthole from which to peek out the front windshield. It was getting late. Good enough.

I made it to the church somehow, never getting out of second gear in my caution. I glimpsed the church sign, estimated that I was near the driveway, cranked the wheel, and promptly drove the rector's car into a snow drift six feet tall.

After another fifteen minutes of rocking and digging, I freed myself from the drift. While out of the car digging, I made a reconnaissance of the parking lot, noting the path to the garage in which I had been instructed to park the car. I carefully eased my way into the lot and lined up with the garage door, which obediently opened with the press of the button on the visor. I was slowly crawling forward, with less than thirty feet to go, when I heard an awful sound; the scream of metal scraping against metal. Not being able to see out the side windows, I ventured out once again, to discover that I had just sideswiped a brand new pickup parked in the church's lot.

I finished storing the rolling ice cube, and entered the church a good thirty minutes late. As I hung up my top coat, I realized that somehow I had failed to put on my suit coat before I left the hotel. At least the shirt was black.

I slinked into the back pew just as the rector finished proclaiming the Gospel and was stepping up into the pulpit. The interior of the nave was rather unusual; numerous colorful flags; not banners, flags, lined the front. The altar was set apart from the lectern and pulpit. There was separate lighting for each area. The pulpit was brightly lit; the altar was shrouded in shadows.

My assessment of the unusual interior design was interrupted by what I heard coming from the pulpit. It seems the rector was angry about something. How did he find out about the pickup already, I wondered? As I listened more carefully, it dawned on me his wrath was not directed towards me; he was angry with his flock. Why? Because they were not saying morning and evening prayer.

Near the end of the sermon, at which point he was literally screaming, he got down from the pulpit, strode to the door to the sacristy, and began to beat on the door with his prayer book, shouting something about "obedience" and "holiness." It was the most amazing sermon I'd ever seen. That's saying quite a bit. Keep in mind I was once a Pentecostal. I understand the tradition that expects a preacher to get red in the face and steadily increase the volume. But this was way beyond my frame of reference.

At announcement time, he introduced me. I stood up, in my shirtsleeves, and gave them a shy wave. After the Offertory, the lights shining on the pulpit were extinguished, and floods suddenly illuminated the altar. It reminded me of going to the circus as a child; the ring to watch is the one that's lit. Unusual to say the least, but after that display of homiletic skills, I was beyond being shocked by anything.

After the dismissal, the woman sitting next to me introduced herself, and said, "Isn't Father a wonderful preacher?" I muttered something about it being an "interesting" approach, and declined her kind offer to get me a copy of the text, which was available in the narthex. I excused myself to go out into the cold to await the owner of the new pickup. He turned out to be a gentle elderly man with an easy smile, who told me not to worry about it.

During the late mass, darn if he didn't beat on the door again, and the people loved it!

Needless to say, I didn't take the position. I spent much of the return drive composing my "thanks, but no thanks" letter.

It seems that, even with the careful screening process in the Episcopal Church, some rather strange birds manage to get through, and are put in charge of a cure of souls. I may very well be one of those strange birds. But one thing I would never do is scream at the people. That is just so contrary to everything I know about the art of homiletics.

What do I think is a good style for preaching? Let me refer you to an expert; the Rev. Dr. Linda Clader, Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Homiletics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, from her keynote lecture for Epiphany West 2004 entitled Dangerous Preaching;

...It's possible that I'm just a coward, but when I think about a prophetic voice that's appropriate to the communities I serve, I lean away from the image of John the Baptist, preaching out in the wilderness. I lean away from that caricature of a prophet standing on the street corner, shouting and carrying a sign. Both of those images are of people standing apart, outsiders challenging the insiders. But most of us preachers here are insiders. We're paid by the community among whom we preach. And our relationship with that community is multi-faceted and complicated by the fact that we are bound to one another by our care and our love. We can't preach at such a community. We have to preach with.

So the fuzzy-bearded prophet doesn't quite do it. I prefer the image of the fool, the jester who is granted the license to speak the truth to the king. In fact, I have a picture of a particular fool on the desktop of my computer, and I have a Hopi figurine of a sacred clown on the shelf in my office. But in my mind's eye there are also some Shakespearean fools, like the fool in As You Like It, with the provocative name of Touchstone. Touchstone: I like that name for what we do.

Some fools pretend they're mad in order to be able to speak the truth; some are simply playful. I'm not exactly advocating madness to my preaching students or to you, but I would like to encourage a playful spirit, the kind of playful spirit Masankho embodied for us yesterday. A person in power is more likely to lower his or her defenses to a non-threatening presentation than to a frontal attack. And for our part, when we use a lighter touch in our preaching, we're more likely to allow the Holy Spirit to shape our proclamation, and to enter our own hearts with surprises and with grace.

This is the key to my understanding of prophetic speech in the real world of liturgical preaching: it depends heavily on our faith in the action of the Holy Spirit. Good people resist change - even people who perceive that a change is in accord with God's will - because of a failure of imagination. We imagine that our options are limited to either-or choices. We keep on doing what we're doing, or we lose everything. There isn't a third way.

But if we preachers can find ways to loosen the hinges a bit, we can invite people to embrace the prayer and allow the Holy Spirit to enter and direct their hearts. When I talk about prophetic preaching, then, I'm talking about imagination, about finding ways to encourage our listeners to rattle around among ideas or images instead of hurrying to nail down simple solutions. More boldly, when I talk about prophetic preaching I'm talking about preaching faith - a faith that God really is in charge, that death really is nothing to fear, and so we human beings can back off on our urge to keep everything under control...
"Some fools pretend they're mad in order to be able to speak the truth; some are simply playful." There is a stark difference between a raging madman and a court jester, it seems to me. Both may be fools, but one uses force, the other prefers to play. Personally, I'd always rather play than rage. I think it is a safe assumption that most of those in the pews share the same preference. There appears to be exceptions however. Some folks seem to enjoy being beaten up from the pulpit, as witnessed by a naive seminarian in shirtsleeves in a frozen hell near Buffalo.


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