Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Divine Dog Whistles

The sermon that Sunday was well-meant, but then most sermons are. It wasn't rushed or some hodge-podge mess--not at all. It pursued its intent with ardor and some passion. It was clear the man loved what he was laying out before us, and what he was doing was good, solid work.

Still, the whole thing was a bit tepid. I hate to admit it, but it was. The mind's a wild thing that doesn't love a corral any better than it does a nave, and I am often too easily distracted. I'll share part of the blame, but it's his too, the preacher's--he's got to do some things to make the church a sanctuary. Lord knows, he tried.

And there's this: I corrected essays for the last forty years, so I'm holding a red pen even when there's nothing in my hand. I can't help but critique--it's what I've done for a living, for a lifetime.  Criticism is not an organ stop. Sometimes I wish it were.

So maybe you've got to take what I'm saying with a grain of salt, but I think I'm being honest--this particular sermon was sweet and deliberate and, yes, bountifully well meant. 

Walt Wangerin's Mis Lil includes a tale about an old woman in his inner city church who'd speak to him just after worship and tell him clearly whether his sermons were teaching or preaching. What she'd often identify thereby was the tremors in her own soul: if Walt had told the people something new, something exciting, something wonderful, she called it teaching. When Walt had grabbed her soul and held it in his hands, she said he was preaching.

Well, let's just say, at best, this guy that Sunday was teaching. Doing admirably, too. I'm not just being nice. It was a good sermon. You know, a B. Good. Adequate. Quite acceptable. Yeoman's work. Thoughtful-- somewhat. Maybe a little boring. Yeah, maybe a little. You know.

But I'll never forget it. 

Now, honestly, that's a promise I can't make and shouldn't, given my age; but it's true--what happened that Sunday, in his sermon, was somehow remarkable because there was, pardon my language, at least three separate and beautiful dog whistles.

During the Great Depression, hog and cattle prices were so low farmers lost money just keeping livestock on the yard. They did everything they could to keep their huge families healthy by raising their own fruit and vegetables that some years didn't come around with any volume or grace. Life was blame hard.

My grandfather was blacksmith back then, a man who shoed horses and sharpened plow shares and other implements, and my mother remember nights when he sat at the dinner table and cried because there was no money, none, and he couldn't pull what wasn't there out of customers who had to plant, had to harvest, had to work. Everything had to be done "on time," and he had just plain no cash flow.

It doesn't matter who says it or when, but every time any one brings up Habakkuk 3, those pictures appear in the album in my memory's power point. And that preacher did it--he used Habakkuk 3 in the sermon. I don't remember how or why or what thought it was supposed to fit, but he opened the Bible and read that passage: 

Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls:  Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. 
All he had to do is repeat those words, and my soul shook, with those pictures. 

And then, again for reasons I don't remember, he referred to Ephesians 2, that passage about our being God's workmanship, a passage that includes that beguiling, divine mystery about how it is we pull on work gloves he's long ago--from the beginning of time too yet--set out on the bench for us: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."

He uses us in ways that are sometimes not particularly flattering, to get his work accomplished. He makes divine quilts from our filthy rags.  That line just gets me, has for years. Now that I think about it, it makes me wonder if that red pen was part of the very bargain of my existence.

What I'm saying is that the whole wasn't a show-stopping sermon. Wasn't brilliant or in any way exceptional, but it piped a couple of lines that stay with me, that play in my mind and memory, unforgettable arias. All he had to do is repeat 'em, and he was preaching.

Don't know, really, what he might say about all this criticism.  Don't know either what he'd think of the grade I gave him. I don't really know the guy at all.  

But my guess is he'd be humbled and gratified and consider what he did a success, preaching being something akin to the good work we all do, sometimes in spite of ourselves, because whenever what any of us do really works, it does so only because He somehow magically adorns it with divine dog whistles.

That's what I learned in church one Sunday. The guy up front was a great preacher and the guy in the pew was a better-than-average listener, made so by nothing less than grace.

1 comment:

Elmer E. Ewing said...

Your blog was a dog whistle for me--born on a poverty farm in Illinois, 1931, I too identify with Habakkuk 3:17-19. In fact I wrote words to a hymn based on these verses. You can find them, and a probably grade B (or lower) sermon I preached on the verses at: