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Valedictions

Valedictions

    'Tis the season for young souls to wax wise from the podium.  A friend reported that his granddaughter, the valedictorian of her high school class, told her grandad that she would limit her speech to two minutes.  Wise woman. Others, unfortunately, will seize the grandstand moment to, well, grandstand, delivering themselves of advice long on fervor and short on smarts. But we shall applaud them anyway, if only because they dare to stand and speak in front of a crowd, an agony the vast majority of us would consider worse than Chinese water torture.                    

    Three students addressed my college graduation ceremony, fifty-four years ago this month. It was the Class Speaker, if not the valedictorian, who delivered a line I still remember, a quote from H. L. Mencken, from an essay entitled "The Iconoclast": "The liberation of the human mind has been best furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe - that the god in the sanctuary was a fraud."  At the time, June 1953, I wasn't sure, seminarian-to-be that I was, whether or not I was supposed to be offended.  But I never forgot the "dead cats."

    Now that I'm done, if not well done, I have, in the course of considering where I have been and what I have done with fifty years of pastoral ministry, thought again about dead cats and sanctuaries. 

   
    Actually, I've never found a dead cat in the sanctuary.  I did find one under the hedge along the chapel driveway during my summer trimming chores. And I have dealt with a variety of other critters despoiling the house of God.  I've chased a divebombing sparrow who found its way through an open window and couldn't find the way back out.  I've thrown tennis balls just before midnight at pigeons roosting in the crease above the columns of the portico at the temple's entrance, leaving on the floor messy reminders of their evening refuge.  I've vacuumed up the wings of swarming termites in the narthex.  I've called the cops on teenagers with nickel bags of marijuana loitering on the church steps in the evening hours. And one summer sabbath in Brooklyn with the side doors to the sanctuary thrown wide for ventilation's sake in the absence of central AC, I welcomed my pet dog to the pulpit: she was in the parsonage yard and had heard my voice.

    But dead cats?  No.  Of course, my classmate and H. L. Mencken didn't mean it literally.  Well, probably not my classmate: he grew up to be chief litigator for one of the most prestigious law firms in New York City; and the last thing a fellow in that position would do would be to heave dead cats into buildings where his partners pay the bills. 

    I, however, the guy on the inside of the sanctuary, spent the majority of my fifty years throwing dead dogmas out sanctuary windows.

    Live dogmas I cherished.  You know, the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, his resurrection, etc., those articles of faith which James Pike and a couple of other bishops in the Episcopal Church have deemed disposable.  I mean instead the petty dogmas we in the church really live by. 

    Like religion and politics don't mix.  They don't, but not for reasons commonly assumed, such as that the pulpit should limit itself to spiritual matters only.  As Someone reminds us about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's, everything and everyone belong to God; and when Caesar or the president tell me to do something I believe deeply is contrary to God's will, then, sorry, Caesar, the conscience held captive to God's Word comes first.  Think hiding your Jewish neighbor from the house to house search by Nazis. (As in Jesus' choice for the second great commandment, Leviticus 19:18b). Or for an example closer to home, my own pastor during my growing years, Loyd Worley, a collector of lost causes if ever there was one, named in the magazine Mencken founded, American Mercury and in Reader's Digest, as a leader in Methodism's "pink fringe": he was unyielding in his support of many in the church who were tarred as communists by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee during the McCarthy era.  (As in the prediction of Jesus in the last of the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:11).

    Another dead dogma I threw out the church window was the prevailing expectation about the pastor, that he would be meek and mild, and devote his days to scholarly and spiritual endeavors.  That went down the drain in Brooklyn the afternoon I stuck my arm down it, the drain that is, to clear the debris clogging it and flooding the church basement.  I subsequently wrote a piece for the church newsletter musing whether or not Norman Vincent Peale ever got down and dirty like the young pastor of Sunset Park Church.  Nothing custodial or carpenter-ial that I did after that surprised my congregants.  My linebacker tactics on the basketball court added to the reputation of a rough and ready, don't-mess-with-me, I-can-do-it pastor... not your normal "Father McKenzie writing the words of a sermon no one will hear."

   As much as the flock's expectations shape the shepherd's behavior, so the shepherd's leading shapes the flock's understanding of him and with it the mission of the church.

    But the dead dogma I have most strenuously tossed is the conviction that faith belongs to the edges of human life.  You know, "man's extremity is God's opportunity," that when all else fails, faith takes over.  Ugh!  I endorse the statement I heard in a presentation by Al Carmines, off-Broadway composer-lyricist and associate pastor of a church in Greenwich Village, that he early resolved to give up his faith in God and Jesus if ever an issue or subject presented itself from which he for God's sake had to shrink away.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor hanged for his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler, wrote from prison that faith must grapple with and make sense of the middle of life, not just the end of it.  Amen.  I never was persuaded by the well-meaning church members who counseled me, "The pastor shouldn't do that."  Not just cleaning storm drains; but drafting budgets; dealing with contractors; excommunicating a former pastor who couldn't keep his hands to himself; giving the heave-ho to a custodian I found smoking pot in the nursery school assembly room; reading the riot act to a fellow whose self-righteousness was tearing up his family; giving testimony in an armed robbery trial; visiting in prison a fellow who murdered his wife in a drunken stupor; counseling women seeking abortions; abiding bad sex jokes at Kiwanis meetings; shepherding junior highs across the face of their known world, meaning mostly New York City, and once protecting them on the Staten Island Ferry from the anger of Guardian Angels... well, I could go on and on, and you probably haven't read this far anyway. 

    So I spent the last half century chucking the unwritten dead dogma that faith is about getting into heaven. Instead, I've endorsed a faith that is primarily concerned with this life and the living of it... let God take care of heaven.  

    I may not have heeded H. L. Mencken and my classmate's exhortation about "heaving dead cats into sanctuaries."  But I have done something only a few others in my class would care or dare to: thrown myself into sanctuaries and from the inside heaved out attitudes deadly not only to the future of the church but to the whole wide world.  

      

 



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