Saturday, June 29, 2013
How to be a preacher
The first preacher I remember was probably my grandfather, who baptized me. I'd like to say I remember that, but I wasn't Superchild, despite the anointing. I remember him because he lived with us, an old man who shuffled his feet when he walked and scolded me--I wish I didn't remember that--for running water from the faucet to get it to cool. Such behavior was, to his mind, wasting it. I thought he was crazy maybe, but when I was six I knew nothing about the Great Depression.
I was still a little boy when he died, so my memories are faint, but a recording of a sermon of his makes him sound quite conventional and, if I may say it, uninspiring. Oddly enough, people say, he was stodgy from the pulpit, but a ball as an after-dinner speaker. Go figure.
The second preacher I remember was a big talker from New Jersey. Somehow I remember that he wasn't cut from the same character as my father, although I knew my father loved him, despite the fact that while he didn't smoke, he mooched constantly from everyone else. My father somehow found that less annoying than endearing. I don't remember him ever tweaking my nose or pinching my cheeks; what I remember is that my father thought him somewhat grand.
The third was a dedicated man who made his catechumens recite metric psalms every week, as well as the a q and a's. He had a wonderful open heart and a demeanor capable of encircling everyone I knew with love and respect, and I admired that. I was becoming my own person during his years at our church, and it's interesting that I don't remember what my parents thought of him--or them. I was getting to that age, I suppose, where it mattered much less what my parents thought.
Once we were at the parsonage for Sunday dinner, and one of his little daughters questioned him after the meal. "Why we read the Bible?" she said, as if they never did. The poor man and his devoted wife were almost terminally embarrassed.
I lived for playing ball back then, and I remember his preacher's hands, hands I loathed--white, uncalloused. I don't remember him ever dribbling a basketball or swinging a bat. I'm sure he never carried a shotgun; the fact that he didn't made me think he was somewhat somehow un-male. He worked hard and loved greatly, but because of who I was back then, he couldn't be a role model. I'm sorry about that.
The next preacher was no more athletic than the man he succeeded, but he had a cagey mind and the kind of twinkling eye that I liked a great deal. I grew up with him, remember his wit in catechism classes where he loved nothing better to strangle us with impossibilities concerning predestination and free will. He wielded paradox in a way that made me enjoy theology--not for its answers but its questions. From him I learned that theology was no straight-jacket, but a can of worms and a house of cards and, quite frankly, a great delight. He's the first preacher whose sermons I remember, probably because I was starting to listen. When I left home for college and returned for holidays, I loved his interest in who I was and what it was I was thinking. It was the late 60s, and I think I was as interesting to him as he was to me.
For a period of time in my life I didn't attend church all that regularly. It was the late 60s, and it seemed to me that the church as I knew it and life as I lived it were on decidedly different tracks. All of the institutions I knew, all of the institutions that had nurtured me--church, family, school, even community--saw the world somewhat different than I had come to see it--on race, on Vietnam, on Tricky Dick, on the Rolling Stones. For a long time, I thought the church--and its preachers--needed to make some kind of public apology for being not simply out of touch, but so fundamentally and even spiritually wrong. I wore my hair long.
I started attending church again when my wife and I got married. The first preacher the two of us had was unceremoniously dismissed from the pulpit. We'd just come to a new community and a new life--me as a grad student, my wife as a Christian school teacher--and rather liked the guy, another man from out East who could sound like a Kennedy. He never hurt us, even respected us, liked us.
We weren't in on any of whatever it was that poisoned the atmosphere in that struggling, suburban church, and I was an usher the morning he was released. His wife came in, angry and tearful, and attacked at a man, an elder, at the back: "So," she said, "you've come for the hanging." That I remember. We were ankle-deep in blood in the first church I attended in several years.
The next man, the preacher who baptized our baby, was a square-shouldered conservative, old-fashioned in his own way; but he too, I believe, loved us. His sermons were thoughtfully structured, but often yawners; and the church itself was decidedly neutral about him and about church in general. A friend of mine, a Jewish colleague from the high school where we both taught, converted to Christianity at that time; and once upon a time he asked me why I'd suggested churches for him to attend but never asked him to come along to mine. "Ahhh," I said, shaking my head, "you wouldn't get it." He looked at me strangely. "Then why you do go there?"
That was the first time I remember thinking that I'd begun to "do church" for reasons that had their roots in sociology and ethnic tradition. Strange, what you remember.
We went through a succession of preachers when we came to Iowa to live--several of them rock-solid conservatives in an denominational atmosphere of distrust and near-distemper. I remember one of them being an almost spellbinding pulpiteer who was so convinced of the waywardness of the denomination he served that most of his sermons were spiked. The denomination I'd been part of for my whole life was splitting like a ripe melon.
For a time we were part of a brand new church whose beginnings were pure joy. Everything was new. I served my first term as elder in that church, preparing liturgies, working urgently at healing hurts and pains that I'll never, ever forget--and there were many. We were all struck by the newness, proud of our being innovative, creative, proud of ourselves. Those honeymoon years were unforgettable, but transient. Today, to me, any new church who believes they're doing things right for the very first time seems vainglorious.
Our first preacher at that new church was my age, a phenomenon I'd never experienced before, and I liked it and I liked him. He was devoted to helping others, but never lacked a sense of humor. He could chuckle, even in dark times. Once I asked him how it was that a man in our church, a guy not blessed at all with looks, could hook up with "another woman" so easily. He smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and told me he'd come to learn that looks have little to do with it--"lonely people have this way of finding each other," he said. I thought that was a beautiful answer to a stupid question.
The next preacher's life fell apart with a major problem in his family, which led to a civil war that was anything but civil and based in a difficult question: how to deal with tragedy. Two sides formed. I was clerk of the consistory and seen, not without cause, as the opposition. My father, a very righteous man and lifelong elder in my home church, told me, in the middle of the fighting, that for my family's sake I needed to quit the church council. Coming from him, what he'd said was almost a mandate, so I did. "But don't leave the church," he said. "Give the church time to heal. Stay for a year, then reassess."
We did. We stayed a year, scars still open, and left.
In my entire church life, nothing changed me as fully as what we went through leaving that congregation. There's no war quite like a holy war.
I don't remember much about our first preacher in the new church. Nothing he could have said from the pulpit got far into my heart. What I needed back then was a pastor and not a preacher, a man who would dress my wounds, so deep went the hurt. He wasn't that, and I'm certainly not blaming him.
Our next pastor--the last one--was an old college buddy whose dance with the church was to the same beat and to the same tunes as mine throughout my life, man who therefore knew me, inside and out. We were both balding, late 60s, war horses; and he was the kind of thoughtful believer whose witness and character made church attendance mandatory--I went, twice a Sunday because what happened in worship shaped me, shaped my mind and my soul. Neither of us bought the old verities, but were no more sure of leaving them behind. We considered doubt a staple of faith.
And now the church where we're members is getting a new preacher--a man younger than my own children. When I saw him for the first time, I couldn't believe he was the candidate because he looked for all the world like an undergraduate.
After a lifetime in church, what might I say to him, if he'd ask? How might I suggest he become my pastor?
I'd say this: love us. That's all. Make us feel wanted and needed and precious. That sounds frightfully self-centered, but I don't think you'll get anywhere without listening to the second great commandment, a second which is, as God says, like unto the first. Love us, even though it is, as Christ well knew, totally impossible given how all-over-the-map we are, how our ears and minds are fitted by time and place, our hearts' desires are so unmanageable, our souls so unreliable.
Love us. That's a command from on-high, and a demand from the here and now. Some argue that human beings have the capacity to love no more than one person--maybe two. Prove them wrong. Love us.
Love isn't all we need by a long shot, but it will get you where you want to be and where we'd love to have you. Love us, as does the God you serve.
Love us. After all these years, that's what I'd tell him.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:18 AM