Halloween has come and gone in Habersham County. I cannot remember when I have seen so many houses draped with spider webs and strings of pumpkin lights. A faux graveyard appeared in one front yard, with clusters of leaning tombstones that glowed like psychedelic mushrooms in the dark. Skeletons sat in front porch rockers.
In the spirit of St. Francis, I have begun to recognize that my nearest neighbors are not the Woodards or the Blacks—although they are very good neighbors indeed—but the various creatures with whom I live my life on a daily basis.
For more than 20 years now, I have been in the business of telling the truth that is public. In sermons, Sunday school lessons, prayers alongside hospital beds and ten-minute speeches to the Rotary Club, my job has involved mining some nugget of truth that will ring true for all within the sound of my voice.
When people ask me why I do not watch television, I usually begin with the practical answer. I live nine miles from town, at the end of a dirt road, where cable is not available. Why don’t I get a satellite dish?
As a lectionary preacher who works mainly on Sundays, I have spent much of my preaching life grazing the well-fertilized pastures that my tradition has laid out for me. Sometimes I press up against the fence, drooling over an especially tasty-looking morsel from 1 Chronicles or 2 John, but on the whole I stay where I am supposed to stay.
Here at the beginning of the New Year, I have resolved to quit the journey. What journey is that, you may ask. Judging by the language I both use and hear, it is the linear journey of life. Day by day, I wish people well on their journeys, as they wish me well on mine. Sometimes we offer to go with one another at least part of the way. When this is not possible we offer each other provisions for the journey—a book, a pocket cross, a mantra. But recently have I begun to notice how believing in the journey interferes with giving myself fully to the life I have right now.
How shall one preach given the lateness of the hour? This question forms a haunting refrain in Richard Lischer’s book, which is based on his Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School. Like the title of the book, the question has more than one meaning.
According to Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain, the Hebrew Bible contains only one commandment to love the neighbor but no less than 36 commands to love the stranger. Throughout Torah, the reason given for this moral teaching is that the Israelites themselves were strangers once.
I write this near the end of a doctor of ministry class at Columbia Seminary, where 16 pastors are exploring virtues for preaching. We are exploring virtues instead of skills because most of us recognize that scholarly exegesis, narrative flair and good eye contact have gotten us about as far as they will.
Anyone engaging in the practice of Sabbath can expect a rough ride, at least at first. This is because Sabbath involves pleasure, rest, freedom and slowness, and most North Americans are sold on speed, productivity, multitasking. Stopping for one whole day can feel like a kind of death.
Whoever tied Easter to the spring equinox made a very good decision. For those who are so inclined, there is no better time for feeling alive, as the whole world wakes from winter and makes new birth look easy. Clumps of green grass erupt from the flat tan lawn. Bluebirds appear on the clothesline. There are so many redbuds in the woods that a pink haze seems to waft through the trees.
When I visit art museums, I always reward myself with a trip to the gift shop at the end. I may not be able to afford any of the masterpieces that I have seen on display, but I can take away some postcards or a souvenir booklet to refresh my memory.
The holidays are here, with their intricate blessings and woes. There are presents to buy, visits to plan, cards to send and meals to prepare, at least for those who are so inclined. Those who are not may spend as much time resisting the blandishments of the season as others spend giving in to them, but either way few escape the Holiday Time Machine.
When I served a church full time, I grew used to greeting people at the door on Sundays who apologized for not having been there the week before. Most offered up faulty alarm clocks or out-of-town visitors as excuses, but a few confessed, “It was so quiet when I woke up . . . ” or, “It was such a beautiful day . .
But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. . . . Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matt. 24:36, 44)
Everyone needs someone to tell her she has spinach in her teeth, preferably before she has spent 15 minutes wondering why her table companions are so taken with her smile. One friend recently crossed a gender boundary to help me with a similar problem lower down.
“XYZ,” he said, when we rose from eating lunch together.
Last summer, my big adventure was a bicycle trip through northern Portugal, where church bells still ring the hours and homeowners value grape arbors more highly than garages. While some people I met grieve the loss of their nation’s one-time dominance in the world, others admit that obscurity has its benefits.
When I was 12 and far more interested in horses than high culture, my father dragged my sisters and me to a student production of The Pirates of Penzance in the gymnasium at the University of Alabama. I had seen plenty of movies by then and had watched plays on television, but nothing prepared me for the experience of live theater.
There are some of us who read more than we pray. We know we should pray more. We mean to pray more. But something happens to us when we read that does not happen when we pray. We find our lives by losing them. We enter into communion with people whom we have never met, some of whom never existed in the world we call real.
While I respect the age-old wisdom about steering clear of politics, sex and religion in polite conversation, those seem to be the only things that anyone wants to talk about these days. My line of work has something to do with it, I am sure. So does the fact that this is an election year.