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Peter, Where Are You When We Still Need You?

    We worshipped again in someone else's church.  A prosperous suburban cathedral, which has not fallen on hard times.  Two pews in front of us sat a balding (think a St. Anthony) middle-aged man in a maroon sweater.  His pate was tanned.  Ah, the pastor, on a day off, having just returned from a trip, not just any respite from the snow of a Hartford winter, a "mission trip" to Costa Rico, where, undoubtedly all sorts of good works were accomplished for impoverished children. At least, such were specified in the pastoral prayer. 

    In this 2009th year of our Lord the generous impulse of faithful congregations sends them to distant lands on adventures of mercy.  Sixty years ago, when my suburban home church struggled to make an annual  budget of $10,000, we focused our merciful mission impulse on India and China.  But now that those countries supply our homes with toaster ovens and TV's, the focus of holy largesse is Latin America, closer at hand with favelas just as desperate as anything in Calcutta.  Another church in the Hartford region is gearing up for a "mission trip" to Ecuador.  This fever of compassion has spilled over the Sound to Long Island. Maybe it started there.  Twenty years ago a newly appointed associate pastor sat in my study in July for her first meeting with me and informed me that she planned to take the youth fellowship to Haiti in October. Didn't happen: neither the church nor its members were as prosperous (or as trusting) as the young minister assumed.

    There in someone else's church on a snowy Sunday with a fill-in preacher impersonating a Victorian patriarch of the village, my thoughts wandered... as the often do, God forgive me, during someone else's sermon. But not until the evening of this same Sunday, when daughter Betsy asked me if I would be doing another review, and I answered that I was still thinking about it, did my thoughts turn to Peter.  No, not that Peter, the St. one; another one, from Connecticut, fifty years ago, the novelist, the satirist of the suburban church in the heyday of the "edifice complex," when mainline Protestant churches were flourishing and building in the aftermath of World War II. Peter DeVries wrote The Mackerel Plaza in 1958, a spoof of the liberal Protestant church, a scene from which I was considerably removed. I was then thoroughly immersed in a residential urban congregation, ethnic in origin, evangelistic in theology, a generation or two removed from the spires and optimism of the suburban ecclesia.  If my heart was in Brooklyn, my start had been in Stamford, and, considering my seminary preparation in a bastion of liberal theology, I could relate to and laugh with Peter... DeVries.

    Here's the blurb about the book on "Brilliant send-up of liberal Christian theology--of all things.  Reverend Mackerel, the oh-so progressive pastor of People's Liberal, assures his flock that 'It is proof of God's omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us.'  The widower clergyman is busy trying to keep his parishioners from naming a plaza after his wife when a woman comes along to shake up his life and a miraculous event comes along to shake up his 'faith.'"   The "miraculous event" is a drenching rain following a drought that ruined many suburban lawns, a downpour prayed for mightily by the associate pastor with a fundamentalist theology.  The Mackerel Plaza is still an amusing read.  Amazon sells it, should you be interested.   

    The prevailing theology in those suburban pastorates and pastors which continue to flourish are not as optimistically vapid as People's Liberal and The Rev. Andrew Mackerel.  But the same pretensions persist, foremost, a sense of entitlement, a latter day noblesse oblige;  to wit, that it is incumbent upon the haves to help the have-nots.  Yes, the Apostle Paul insists that the strong must give aid and comfort to the weak; and Jesus tells the rich man to go and give all he has to the poor.  But, like the feeding of the five thousand, the Scriptural imperative to share reads more like the have-nots helping the have-nots.  The playing field is level.  Grace is everyone's share. 

    Sure, those returning from Latin America will tell us ad nauseam that they are the ones who benefited most from the missional excursion to far off places with familiar sounding names; that in the giving they received blessing upon blessing.  And I believe them; really I do.  Just that, taken in its totality, a trip of a week or two's duration, usually to a sunny climate in midwinter, to engage in moderately demanding chores generously interspersed with sight-seeing, carries a whiff of self-righteousness that begs for the deft insight of a humorist like... well, like Peter DeVries.  I would, for instance, be curious as to the unvarnished thoughts of those children in Latin favelas, what runs through their minds when face to face with a pale Yankee committed to doing good.  Nothing quite disarms us or, better, denudes us of pretense as a good laugh at our own expense. 

    The better to understand ourselves as we are in the presence of God, like the song you love to sing, "Just as I am, without one plea," including the unspoken plea of having compassion for the least and lowest of these our brothers and sisters.


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