Sunday, May 25, 2008

More Than One Way to Make a Mess

I made a mess this morning. Not surprisingly, it happened during the children's sermon -- one of those spontaneous actions that could have benefited from a little forethought. It involved a plant, a larger pot, and the decision to move the plant from the smaller to the larger. You get the picture. A chancel littered with potting soil and the sound of giggling kids. They knew what I knew: that I was in trouble. While I stood there trying to problem solve on the fly while maintaining my thematic stream, Lori stepped out of the pew with a couple of bulletins and proceeded to scoop it up.

What was interesting was the variety of reactions after the service. "You are such a good wife," one said to her. "What kind of message does that send -- the man standing there watching while the woman does all the work," another questioned me. "You just take charge," another complimented Lori. The fact is, all of those observations are fair and true, so far as they go, as is the fact that Lori, merely trying to help, had no symbolic content in mind.

Same action. Multiple meanings. Rather like the sermon, itself. Who knows what the message becomes once it leaves the preacher's lips and takes up residence in the pews? An offence to one; an inspiration to another; an enigma to someone else. Volatile things, these deeds and dictions. All of which is to say that there is more than one way to make a mess.

We could, I suppose, simply be exceedingly careful; and there is something to be said for care. But it is possible, just the same, to be cautious to a fault. I suppose I'll continue to take a prudent risk -- whether or not Lori is around to help me clean up the result.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

All of Us Trying to Get it Right

I've spent the week in the company of 2100 preachers, attending a conference on preaching. All of us still trying to learn how. A quick scan of the pews suggests that most of us are long past our first stuttering attempts, but the very fact of our presence betrays our nagging sense that we still haven't gotten it right. We are still trying to learn. Perhaps we return home with a deeper impression of the conviction that drove us to send in our registration: that the good and patient and hungry folk who listen to us week in and week out deserve better than we routinely give them. Here we are, then, spending a week in the company of masters, seeking clues to that "better" we are resolved to give them.

Twice I've heard this counsel: "show, don't tell." Both times I heard it spoken to writers, about writing, but I've spent the subsequent hours variously applying it, to...
  • Preaching.
  • Teaching.
  • Parenting.
  • Witnessing.
  • Neighboring.
  • Loving.
Boiled down, summarized, bumper-sticker distillations never cocked any nose to sniff the wind. Yawns are all they get. No one wants predigested food.

Whatever else preaching may be, it is at the very least extending the invitation to the listener to join you in a new and different world, but no one is likely to step blindly into a dark room. If they are to accept the invitation it will only be after seeing some of the colors, rubbing fingers over textures, and tasting, even if faintly, whatever sweetness may be offered.

Show, don't tell. It's been a good week, and my bags are squeezed tight with the wisdom from this week I'll take home. But this I'll keep in my shirt pocket -- among the important miscellany I drop on the dresser in the evening and pick back up in the morning: Show, don't tell. I won't always succeed in doing it, but I don't want to forget to try.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

When the Rose Garden has Prickly Pears

I can't say that I have ever particularly admired Jenna Bush. In fact, I can't say that I have formed much of an opinion of her one way or another. Like most kids, she has had to navigate her life within the lightfall generated by her parents. In her case, that has meant an extraordinary glare of light. Except for a few bumps in the road, I suppose she has done as well as most.

But today she has my unmitigated admiration. The President's daughter, she is getting married today not in the grandeur of the White House under the scrutinizing gaze of the world, but at the ranch which, according to her own description, better fits her personality. Good for her. I can't imagine the allure of a White House wedding -- and the pressure to treat the citizenry to one of our few opportunities to indulge in "royal pageantry." It would have been fine with me had she chosen that route. The problem is that it would not have been all that fine with her. The protocols would have chafed; the cameras would have distracted; the pundits would have critiqued, the myriad social secretaries would have fashioned and packaged a national event befitting the household of a head-of-state, and it would have been grand. It just wouldn't have been "her."

And a wedding is not about the nation. It is about two people and the breathtaking promises they are making to each other. It is about the construction, through conviction and symbol and blessing and vow, of a marriage that will hopefully last longer than the public's titillated attention, this couple, like any couple, has a right to keep their focus on this important act of creation. The legal system has a responsibility to ratify and record such an exchange -- in that sense a wedding is public -- but the world does not have the right to crash the party. I am not entitled to munch their mints or sip their punch, just because her dad is a global figure.

Good for you, then, Jenna, and your courage to honor your personal integrity. And good for you George and Laura, for respecting her wishes with your blessing. A White House wedding could have been grand, but a ranch wedding will be dear. So have a great time. Be "off duty" for the evening -- all of you. Be family. Make sacred and tender memories. Whoop if you choose to. Shed a tear if you need to. Get cake all over your mouths. Dance. Be in love.

It will be OK. We won't be watching.

Monday, May 5, 2008

A Different View of Morning

I woke this morning to a beautiful day. The sky is infinite blue, the temperature is cool but mild, the wind, for a change, is calm. My calendar is full, but easy. I woke this morning to a beautiful day.

A friend of mine woke this day to his first round of chemotherapy. It is the first formal response to Friday's diagnosis -- one that turned out grimmer than we had hoped. I don't know how these things routinely work, but this almost immediate commencement of treatment wafts an odor of urgency. We first talked shortly after he returned from the doctor. I can't say what was going on in his gut, but his voice was matter-of-fact. We talked again on Saturday -- he had been putzing chores around the house. Again, matter-of-fact. Yesterday they were in church, he and his wife, in their usual pew, accomplishing their usual volunteer tasks, having their usual conversations. Well, not their "usual" conversations. "Have you heard?" I was asked a dozen times over the course of the morning. The conversations were hardly routine.

I was somehow impressed. I don't know what I expected -- it wasn't likely they were suddenly going to book a cruise or bolt the door and bunker down against the thought of it all. What else would they do but continue to do those things that had shaped and informed their living, and connect with those people from whom they routinely draw nourishment?

I woke this morning to a beautiful day -- exercise, promise, purpose, routine, and also to a day suddenly larger, stretched by mindful concern for someone whose own day has, in a way, exploded into unimagined dimensions. But as I think about it, we both woke to a day in which we find ourselves held in the embracing presence of one who's love and capacity are still larger.

He adds some new things to his routine: no longer simply the lawn to mow and a grandson to watch and a job to perform and a book to shelve, but needles and ominous bags of fluid, as well, and nurses and waiting to see; watching; inventorying every wince for symptoms. All those, and a familiar pew, and the book cart, and conversations over coffee and a cookie. Those simple things have, after all, provided shape and meaning and support and friends. And the faith that, whatever the efficacy of the chemo, he is alive in a way that the cancer is powerless to alter.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Giving Away the Gospel

"There are two kinds of people in this world..." In reality, who can guess how many "kinds" there really might be? I'm not thinking of the "big" dividers -- race, religion, gender identity and sexual orientation -- although those are certainly relevant. I'm thinking of those subtler "wirings" that animate us and distinguish us.

Last night we attended an event held in the workplace of an entrepreneur whose family we count among our friends. His business is now well established, and reasonably successful, and he was showing a group of us the next expansion of his business soon to be launched. It's a clever idea, and he is visibly excited about it -- emanating that spicy mixture of enthusiasm and apprehension, giddiness and nervousness. As he talked, you could see the wheels of his creative imagination still spinning with tweaking possibilities and extensions. He talked of concept, of marketing, of application, of rationale. He waxed rhapsodically about incentives and human psychology and workplace dynamics and how the idea had been conceived and then born. If the listening group's noises of approval are any indication, our friend should do well.

And I left feeling a little like I do after visiting the farm: fascinated, but utterly foreign. I know just enough to know that I don't know anything about this world that is being described to me. I can follow the conversation, but can't intelligently participate in it. My mind simply doesn't work that way. To borrow from the prophet Isaiah, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways."

That's not critique -- on either of us. I'm fairly creative, with a busy imagination. I enjoy some measure of expertise at what I do. And I am impressed with my businessman friend, and, if the truth be told, a little bit envious. But listening to him talk I realized again why certain churches grow exponentially and why others -- OK, others like the ones I have served -- don't. I'm not suggesting that it's all about entrepreneurialism and marketing, but packaging and promotion are key dimensions, and while my mind rarely even breaks into that plane, my friend from last night actually lives there. I know there are those who talk about the church as a business, and evangelism in terms of expanding "market share," but I simply find such language distracting and unrelated. The marketplace is having one conversation; the church, it seems to me, is having a different one.

There is a part of me that would like to think that my friend might walk away from my world -- one in which he had heard me wax rhapsodically about the new insight I had come to from scripture, or the sermon I was in the process of writing, or the justice issue I was currently engaging -- feeling just as bewildered as I had in his. But the larger part of me wishes he might find himself quite at home.

I suppose that's one difference between ministry and business: in business you wish for some way to create and corner a market -- to be, somehow, profitably unique. In ministry you wish for some way to be utterly common.

As it stands, my friend is rolling out his product and I -- well, it's Sunday morning and I have another sermon ready to preach. Each of us doing our thing. He'll likely sell more sandwiches than I will give away gospel, but I plug along.