Sunday, September 09, 2007

September 9, 2007 - Centered, Spun, Molded

One thing people with cancer will tell you is that it’s hard to escape from the disease. Our awareness of it is something that’s always with us. At home, at work, wherever we may happen to be, cancer is an unwelcome companion.

When you have a job like mine, one that requires standing up before a congregation every week or so and giving a sermon, that means things get a little more complicated than for most other cancer survivors. Preaching is, by its very nature, a highly personal form of communication. One of the classic definitions of preaching is that of Phillips Brooks: it's “truth communicated through personality.” We’re meant to share something of ourselves and our spiritual life in the pulpit. It’s part of what makes a sermon real.

Yet, on the other hand, there’s a fine line we preachers must be careful not to cross. Personal anecdotes are like salt in a pot of soup: a little is tasty, a lot ruins everything. We can all picture some televangelist or other, whose crocodile tears have made a mockery of the whole homiletical enterprise. Or, maybe we’ve had the agonizing experience of sitting through endless, navel-gazing sermons, presented by shallow drudges who just can’t stop talking about themselves.

(It’s occurred to me, by the way, that maybe that’s one reason I’m writing this blog. It’s a place where I can say what I have to say about my personal experiences, and keep most of that stuff from leeching into my sermons. Them as wants to read that sort of thing can visit here. Them as don’t can steer clear. Meanwhile, I can be as shallow a drudge as I want to be.)

Maybe it was that self-possessed sort of preacher Anthony Trollope was thinking about, when he skewered the preaching profession in his novel, Barchester Towers:

“There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silently and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanor as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips... No one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age, the old man whom we Sinbads cannot shake off, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday's rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God's service distasteful.”


I’ve tried not to mention cancer too often in my sermons. Sometimes it can’t be avoided: as I share my own reaction to a scripture text, in certain situations I do need to tell folks where I’m coming from. Other times, I keep my own counsel, and speak in generalities.

This morning is one of those times. I’ve decided to preach on Jeremiah in the potter’s house, as he watches the artisan transform a lump of clay into a thing of beauty. I’ve also decided I have to say something about the new book that’s coming out about Mother Teresa, revealing her as a person who – surprisingly, to some – struggled with doubt through most of her adult life.

I’ve had my own doubts over the years, like anyone else, but I can’t say I’ve lived through “the dark night of the soul” as long and as consistently as Mother Teresa appears to have done. Yet, I have to be honest, also, and admit that the experience of a cancer diagnosis has shaken me up – as it would shake up anyone. I feel I’ve come out the other side both a stronger Christian and a stronger person, but getting there has been difficult at times.

I decide not to share any of that in my sermon. I share, instead, some selections from letters Mother Teresa wrote to a few close friends, in which she speaks honestly of her spiritual struggle. Then, I talk about Jeremiah’s vision of the people of Israel being like a lump of clay in the hands of the master potter:

“It can't be a very comfortable process – by definition. If that lump of clay in the potter's hand had feelings, you can only imagine what those feelings would be. The cutting of the wet clay, the punching it down, the throwing of it onto the wheel, the centering, the molding – and then, at the last, the firing – it's all a process that could only be described as painful.

As painful as a dark night of the soul, such as Mother Teresa felt? Perhaps.

The point is, there are times in life when you and I do experience suffering, of one kind or another. The work of faith, then, becomes a sort of re-positioning of those painful experiences, so we can understand them as directed toward a higher purpose. In the tough times you and I sometimes undergo, God just may be molding us into something beautiful, something we may not get to see in its entirety, because of our position in the center of the potter's wheel. Perhaps it will not be until the life to come that we glimpse the ultimate outcome.”

I make the point that, in times of trouble, it helps if we allow ourselves to be centered, spun and molded – just as happens to the lump of clay on the potter’s wheel. We must center our lives on God; we must endure the spinning, disorienting sensation of change; and we must understand that, when we feel the transforming pressure of the potter’s hands, it is all, somehow, working towards a greater good.

I wonder what the people in the pews think – at least, the ones who are paying attention – as they hear me say things like that? Are they immediately thinking of my struggle with cancer, though I haven’t mentioned it specifically? Or, are they thinking more of the troubles they’ve seen in their own lives?

“Truth communicated through personality.” It’s a fine line we preachers walk.

1 comment:

Mary Beth said...

I knew this one would be really good when I saw the minister from the Simpsons on the post....loved it and it made me laugh on this very sad day. Thanks for that! MB