Adventures in Church Attendance: Behind the Pulpit Edition

My adventures in church attendance continued apace this past Mother’s Day weekend. It marked the one-year anniversary of an early crisis point in my decision to start attending church again. The Wife & I had been attending sporadically for a couple of months at that  point with relatively little to note or complain about. We deeply disliked (and still do) all the singing, but not so much that it was a deal-breaker. Upon sight of last year’s Mother’s Day bulletin, however, we both were brought short. They had decided to recast it as Mother Earth Sunday — a fusion of Mother’s Day and Earth Day. Now while I’m neither opposed to Mothers or Mother’s Day, I’m not so down with parental metaphors governing the way I understand my relationship with and to the environment. More damnable still, we agreed, it just seemed too clever for its own good, and took it as cause to evaluate what the hell we were doing. Why were going? Etc. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I was inclined to gut it out. (This whole church experiment thing is purely my idea, and she just comes along, occasionally, for moral support, and to insure I don’t make a scandal of our good name in our small town.)

This makes it all the more interesting, if that is the right word, that I was asked a few weeks ago if I’d be interested in preaching on this year’s Mother Earth Sunday. I agreed on the condition that we include a / between “Mother” & “Earth,” but lacked the power of conviction to turn down the offer when I was flatly refused. So it was that I found myself preaching this past Sunday for the first time since 1998/99 — which even then was merely for a class I was taking at seminary to keep hold of the scholarship that was deferring both student loan payments and a decision as to what I wanted to do with my life. This is to say, I probably have no business at all being behind a pulpit, but have somehow carried myself in such a way as to suggest otherwise. That sounds bad, I know — like I’m lying to the church or something. I don’t mean it that way, but I prefer to keep the admittedly ambiguous original statement because I want it on the record here and now that at the end of the day this could all be a deception, but one directed singularly at me (with everybody else suffering the collateral damage).

If you’re interested, the sermon [PDF] can be found here.

I have to say, for not having written one in ages, it didn’t turn out too bad. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the process of putting it together. The genre contract and content constraints you agree to when writing a sermon, whatever your tradition, seems to be to be as much creativity prods as they are potential obstructions. So much so, in fact, that I think it would be a delightful exercise for homiletical wizards out there (if any still remain) to subject themselves to an exercise like that performed by Lars van Trier on Jørgen Leth in his movie The Five Obstructions. Any lurking preachers out there care to take the challenge?

I’m still very uncertain about all the motherly language to which I appeal in the sermon. I rationalized it all, or at least enough of it to keep the grimace off my face, as being a product of the text I chose, Ezekiel 19. (Re the use of that text, on Saturday night I got a frantic email from the lady who was assigned to do the Scripture reading expressing concern that she’d been sent the wrong passage because it didn’t seem particularly fitting for Mother’s Day or Earth Day let alone Mother [/] Earth Day. Clearly these people are still getting to know me.) I tried to take some of the piss out of the “Mother Earth” connection, without being too contentious about it. If I have lingering doubts about whether my integrity was compromised, though, well, see above.

This sounds egotistical, but I was expecting compliments and back-slapping. These people are kind, after all, and are not going to cut down a guest preacher, certainly not one they know and see regularly. Plus, I’ve done liturgical and Scriptural readings there, and the old people especially love that my voice is a big booming bass — if for no other reason than they can hear it really well. So, I expected most of the comments to be directed at delivery, since if there is one thing I can do well in life it is a pretty good public reading. What surprised me, however, was the extent to which people noticed the use of language. Again, this sounds like excessive bragging, and I would be lying if I wasn’t gratified by the compliments, but I mention them now only because I was absolutely thrilled that the rhythm of words still apparently matters to people. Content will remain king for the most part, of course; but for one morning at least I was encouraged by the thought that at least at church, occasionally, people still listen to words themselves, and not simply what lies underneath them. That was very refreshing and reinstated my hope for the human ear if not the human condition as a whole.

5 Responses to “Adventures in Church Attendance: Behind the Pulpit Edition”

  1. david cl driedger Says:

    Nice piece. I always get excited when I see ‘Adventures’ in my reader. I find myself feeling quite privileged that I get paid to carve significant chunks of time out for sermon prep. And perhaps more so I feel privileged that I am now preaching in a church where it is not uncommon to get two page (relatively insightful) critiques the following week.
    Your reflections on the ‘liberal’ church have also been appreciated as this is my current context and I am seeing things quite differently than I once did. I cannot speak for your denomination but I certainly do not count myself as collateral damage to your adventure.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    There are indeed many good turns of phrase. A favorite: “by pouring ourselves into righting the present we are by the grace of God creating the conditions for our hope‟s fulfillment.”

  3. Brad Johnson Says:

    Thanks, David.

    I rather liked that line, too, Adam. I added the “grace of God” part the morning of, as I only just then realized I’d not so much as mentioned God outside of the Dostoyevsky quote in the end.

    This is what I mean, I guess, by the genre contract & content constraints, even if they are sometimes largely self-imposed. There just seems something interesting about working within a grammar you’re not so heavily invested.

  4. Brad Johnson Says:

    As an example of my preference for the sounds of words over their actually making a lot of sense, the line near the end of the sermon that goes something like “What good is is a dry-salad diet without an occasional sorbet for dessert.” I’m not a fan of that line, however I ended up expressing it. Not because it’s silly or unfunny, but because my original version was “It’s all tofu but no sorbet.” This, too, is silly and unfunny, but the sound of all the words just sings to me. Sounds like jibberish, in the best and worst way. I changed it for this same reason.

  5. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    Thanks for sharing this.

    In my forthcoming book (The Synaptic Gospel) I retell an experience of Mother’s Day in the “liberal” church, where it was no longer Mother’s Day but “The Festival of the Christian Home.” In fact, many mainline denominational worship manuals provide resources for the “Festival of the Christian Home.”

    One of my teenagers asked the senior pastor, who would not change the Sunday bulletin back to Mother’s Day, “Why don’t we just change Father’s Day to Labor Day?”


Comments are closed.