Faithful or Fogy
So here's the issue: am I an ancient mariner steering the ship of faith in old directions no one sails any more? or am I a faithful captain of the ship steering the ark clear of wrecking shallows?
That, in a seagoing metaphor, is the issue I posed myself after thinking long and hard about last Sunday's service of worship in a church which I shall not name, lest certain friends among the website's readers take exception to my candid, and perhaps overboard, assessment of the experience suffered in one of their favorite harbors.
Maybe I went there with a chip on my shoulder. Just finding it was difficult. We allowed an hour for a half hour trip, and still we were ten minutes late. Travel anxiety had perhaps not entirely subsided. And, as is my habit, I consulted the church's website and discovered that this Sunday Oscar Romero would be remembered. He, a Roman Catholic bishop fighting established power in the name of the poor, was martyred during the El Salvador revolution. Of course, I honor him for his witness to the Lord Jesus who always took the side of the poor and the oppressed. But he has become something of an icon, like Ronald Reagan for Republicans and John F. Kennedy for Democrats, for those enamored with liberationist theology. Which has its points, but has not my allegiance. Just say, that on Sunday morning one of my buttons was pushed with the thought I would hear Bishop Romero celebrated and his take on the Gospel championed.
We arrived while the children's message was ending. I didn't get it (for reasons of my age and his enunciation or lack thereof) but suspect it featured the aforesaid bishop. Thirty children sat on the chancel steps. They were attentive, well-groomed, and dressed in a fashion unmistakably urban upper-middle class. I surveyed the congregation. Some racial diversity, maybe a hundred to hundred fifty worshipers. My generation didn't dominate; but I hardly felt alone.
The pastor read the Old Testament lesson he would preach on. Two middle-aged men in business suits with physique's characteristic of, if not appropriate for, men of their age, entered the chancel on the level below the pulpit. Each held a long and diaphanous rosy-hued cloth with which they proceeded to act out the Exodus episode of Moses, the cantankerous people of Israel, and the water gushing from the rock at Rephidim (the lection I had already addressed in Lent 3 2011). The forty something gentlemen moved back and forth waving their hands and cloths as gracefully as anyone, including the fogy writing this review, could have wished. But I wondered and continue to wonder whether the words of Exodus were lost in the drama. I know, I know, sometimes we think we have to juice up the Bible to get it heard. But I subscribe to the theory that reading Scripture is inherently dramatic, that in human words God is speaking to us; and were we to believe it, really believe it, we would be as alert and wakeful as Moses atop Sinai. And not need middle-aged men waving diaphanous cloths.
The sermon was exceptional. Which is not what I expected. Needless to say. The preacher addressed the Old Testament text, with nary a diaphanous cloth in sight; and he offered an understanding of the wilderness episode that countered the traditional wisdom, which is that the people of Israel, thirsty and rebellious, needed to "trust and obey, there's no other way." Au contraire, said our preacher. Arguing, demanding, voicing needs is simply human, and God in the Bible has shown an unfailing willingness to listen to our complaints and to do something good about them. I thought at this juncture, though the preacher did not cite it, that the name Israel was earned by Jacob that night he fought with the angel at Jabbok. Israel means "wrestler with God," or, my preference, "he who contends with God." Surrendering to the will of God without a peep just isn't the Jewish idea of faith. Going to heaven screaming all the way is what the Bible teaches as the norm.
That is, I liked and affirmed (and, perhaps most important and revealing, agreed with) what I heard.
Following the service I spoke with the preacher and told him how favorably impressed I was with the sermon. He looked at me like I was some kind of nut (which I probably am), a quizzical look on his face, as if to say who are you to measure me... a reserve in his demeanor, made the more distant by the press of congregants for his attention. He didn't know how to dismiss me graciously, a technique even pastors with a lifetime's experience never master... but would do well to practice at.
One more turn toward the shallows (or was it toward the sunny open seas?) followed the sermon. Instead of a pastoral prayer, we were instructed to go for our personal prayers to either transept where candles were waiting to be lit. There we could enflame our faith with private prayers of intercession and petition and whatever. Considering the sorry plight of the pastoral prayer in nearly all of the churches in which I have worshiped in the past nine years, maybe this innovation, substituting candle lighting for spoken words, is an imaginative alternative. Nonetheless I long, ache even, to hear from the pulpit on a Sunday during the moment which the program lists as Prayer, something other than another sermon. I long, ache even, for a prayer conceived and uttered with such felicity my soul shouts its silent Amen. Most preachers, I sadly conclude, just don't know how to do it. I found one preacher in Hartford who could (the secret: start every sentence with a strong verb), but he left us at the end of February.
And a parting scrape of the ship of faith's hull: the Lord's Prayer (with "debts" in true denominational form - that might give away where we were!) began, "Our Mother, who art in heaven." A note in the program explained that "in an attempt to avoid the idolatry that can result from using only masculine language for God, we have chosen to vary the opening address of the Lord's Prayer each week." I am curious to learn what other words might be substituted for Father, but I'll not suggest possibilities lest I be accused of mockery.
I once thought (and perhaps have written on this website) that preaching is central to worship, that a good sermon could rescue a bad service... you know, the way good music rescues a feeble sermon. After Sunday I'm not so sure.