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.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Tending Ritual

It was a moment off teleprompter, even though there wasn't any on the pulpit. He'd been reading his sermon, doing a fine job attacking one of the seven deadlies, greed, when, just for a moment, he departed from text.

I'm guessing what Donald Trump has learned about speech-making is that departing from text is richer if and when you spend some quality time at the teleprompter. Infrequent shooting from the hip probably makes shooting from the hip more effective, not less. 

If the whole speech--or the full sermon--is improvised, we smell chaos. What seems most effective, at least in my view-from-the-pew, is a speaker/preacher who does a little of both.

Yesterday, our pastor had his ducks in a row, but when, just a time or two, he pulled his eyes up from text, he swept up his congregation's attention more firmly than he had when he wasn't shooting from the hip. 

What he said was that when he was a kid, he remembered singing "We Give Thee But Thine Own" in his home church, every time the deacons came forward to bring the offering to the front of the church. Every time. A thousand times. "You know, when you hear that idea that often," he said, improvising, "it's bound to sink in." 

Honestly, that little aside is what I remember best about the sermon.

In part because there was some irony afloat in the nave. The congregation where I have my membership was created by people who'd grown tired of worship services where "We Give Thee But Thine Own" is sung at EVERY service. A half-century ago already, they felt themselves part of an institution that had become institutionalized. They wanted new life, new breath in what went on every Sunday morning. They wanted more improvisation. 

In fact, to most members of the church, nothing would be more stultifying than having to stand to sing "We Give Thee But Thine Own" EVERY TIME AN OFFERING IS TAKEN. Paaa-leeeeeeeze. Yesterday's service included no hymns I knew.

Tending rituals is hard work. Right at that moment, when our youthful pastor remembered his boyhood church, I couldn't help thinking of David Brooks, who recently begged high school football players not to "pull a Kaepernick" and take a knee during the singing of the national anthem. His argued for the importance of patriotism, but not simply rote behavior. To me, what Brooks said made sense.

"There’s been a sharp decline in American patriotism," he wrote in his NY Times opinion piece. "Today, only 52 percent of Americans are “extremely proud” of their country, a historical low. Among those 18 to 29, only 34 percent are extremely proud. Americans know less about their history and creed and are less likely to be fervent believers in it."

True? I believe Mr. Brooks.

And then he said, "When we sing the national anthem, we’re not commenting on the state of America," he wrote. "We’re fortifying our foundational creed. We’re expressing gratitude for our ancestors and what they left us. We’re expressing commitment to the nation’s ideals, which we have not yet fulfilled." It's the ritual itself that's important.

That's why he was telling high school football players not to take a knee. "If we don’t transmit that creed through shared displays of reverence," he said, ". . .we will lose the sense that we’re all in this together. We’ll lose the sense of shared loyalty to ideas bigger and more transcendent than our own short lives."

Tending ritual is hard work because it requires some kind of balance between shooting from hip and sticking to script. I'm thinking maybe it wouldn't hurt for a few years to go back to "We Give Thee But Thine Own."

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