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What Clara Taught Me

What Clara Taught Me

    You, surely, never bought into my priority about the preacher, that what matters most is excellence in the pulpit. 

    I have labored under this conviction for the past nine years of haloes.  Those worship services archived here and heralded as stairways to heaven featured excellent sermons.  Those services which were described as boring rides to nowhere offered slim pickings from the pulpit or, in two instances, nothing at all.  Such is my prejudice in critiquing worship.  In retirement on Sunday I'm not looking primarily for fellowship; I'm listening for a good sermon. 

    The other night in a non-ecclesiastical venue I happened upon a woman, Clara by name, whom I knew to have been a parishioner of a church in which a preacher, no longer there, had held forth, and was now holding forth somewhere else where I have been.  I asked Clara for her opinion of said preacher.  She responded with nary a word initially about his preaching.  But she had plenty to say about his pastoring. I pressed my point (about preaching) until it dawned on thick-headed me that Clara was on to something I had not sufficiently appreciated: namely, that those ordained are judged by congregants far less by their facility in the pulpit than by their patience, attentiveness, and compassion in personal connections. 

    Thank you, Clara.

    I reviewed in a new light my overstuffed virtual databank (think brain, memory archive) of pulpiteers.  Like the fellow from my Brooklyn past, a preacher whose sermons never failed to engage me, even though he read them, filled as they were with insight, Scriptural relevance, and delightful illustration.  His effectiveness among congregants was, however, compromised by his inability to keep secret the confessions of troubled souls in his care. Indiscretion in the board room trumps eloquence in the sanctuary.     

    Or the fellow in the big church on Fifth Avenue who deeply impressed me with his use of the pulpit to lead his megachurch, holding my attention, would you believe?, on a Sunday when he was obliged to preach on stewardship.  His pastorate in the heart of Manhattan abruptly ended when (in a scenario for prominent heroes with which we are all too familiar) he admitted an affair with a counselee not his wife.  And what do I remember about Henry Ward Beecher, the ecclesiastic of nineteenth century Brooklyn, so famous he was incorporated, but that rumors persist a hundred and fifty years later that Dr. Beecher, for all his spirituality, may have also been a letch. 

    On the other side of the equation, ho-hum pulpit and hooray pastorate, I recall the fellow in Newtown CT in 1956, during my one year stint in the Methodist Church there, a preacher in another denomination so dull even he knew it and, therefore, wisely invited guest preachers as often as possible to occupy his pulpit.  But his congregation loved him, abided his dullness, and seemed to find it endearing. 

    My first District Superintendent (to the uninitiated a DS in the Methodist scheme of things is like an adjutant bishop in the Episcopal Church) provided me with a rule for pastoring I have tried to live by: "Get so close to your people, that when they kick it doesn't hurt."  He's the one who explained, when I asked what does a minister do, that he visits the sick and infirm and gets into as many homes as possible. He's also the one whose politically liberal agenda rarely intruded in sermons but did sufficiently to mark him as an enemy to the John Birch Society.  When a rock-ribbed Republican congregant was informed that her preacher might be a communist, she replied from her experience of his pastoral care: "If he is [a communist], then there must be something to it [communism]." 

    Deeply personal, wise, and loving pastoral care apparently trumps even ideological bias. 

    Which brings me to the occasion for honoring this epiphany by Clara: my decision, soon to be announced on this website, that I shall resume my Sunday critiquing. Where you may also read that leading the list of measures for haloed performance is, right, you guessed it, preaching.  I enter the disclaimer now (under the influence of Clara), and will repeat it from time to time in future reviews, that no way, no how can a critique of any Sunday service be anything more than it is, a snapshot of what a church does and is, a two dimensional outtake of a far more dynamic and complicated entity. 

    Having acknowledged the error of my ways and the potential skewing of my haloes, vis a vis preaching and pastoring, I quickly add the caveat that they (pulpit and confessional) are, nonetheless, integrally related.  Like word and deed.  One enhances the other.  When they are aligned, glimpses of the kingdom-come-on-earth arrive more frequently.  When they contradict each other, the most devastating charge is leveled, hypocrite, echoing down two thousand years from Matthew 23.  Words explain, motivate, set agendas, raise hope, express love, and are, in these and many other ways, the essence of faith.  No wonder I prize preaching!  But its power derives from a witness consistent with the rhetoric.

    I'll remember that, and trust you will too, when in future weeks I bring you more adventures of a peripatetic worshiper.


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