Friday, November 23, 2012

Don't Feed the Bear

We are creatures of calendar.

In recent conversation with a colleague in which we were conferring on a date for a possible meeting, I reached for my iPhone to touch the icon that opens my calendar app. He, on the other hand reached inside his blazer and there found his little black "Cokesbury" calendar.

Doesn't matter the medium, we are bound by what we mark inside our calendars. Appointments, events, meetings--ah, yes, the many, many meetings...these things written in a calendar become the official record of our lives. We do what it says and when it says to do it.

Standing there with my clergy friend with calendars open offered a moment of clarity glimpsed only for a second by any with awareness to notice, as we both did. Almost instantly a memory sparked of life growing up in a parsonage, as we both did, when the "preacher's pocket calendar" would arrive in mid-December just ahead of the new year.

I watched that calendar referred to, checked and studied with a frequency and intent one normally reserves for sacred texts. Many were the times I recall several preachers being together when someone would mention the date for an upcoming event, it was as if a liturgical cue had been uttered on a par with "The Lord be with you." The hands reaching inside suit coat pockets to bring forth the appropriate response was an automatic as is now a congregation's "And also with you." (By the way, interesting thing, a response comes so freely and automatically that, only 25 years ago in the Church, was a strange and foreign tongue).

For me, that little black book, which I've not used in years, was among a handful of talismen verifying and validating who I was as a Methodist preacher. Long before I was credentialed by my Conference to be an Elder in the Church...I knew I was a Methodist preacher when I received my black robe (which I haven't worn in 20 years), possessed my very own bonded leather hymnal, and when that little black calendar came in the mail addressed to me.

When I wore or brandished these things in public, more than me knowing who I was, I wanted to be sure you knew who I was.

These things all mattered more than they should. But as we all try to figure out who we are, there's a tendency to place more value on the exterior than those things of ultimate meaning found within.

As I've journeyed, and as I still seek to know who I am, I lean on those exterior things too much.
The complexity of life right now is such that dependency on a calendar is required. I'm not sure I know where I'm supposed to be and what I'm supposed to be doing without it.

Hmmm, maybe the comparison to calendars and sacred texts is more prescient than it is a cute observation?

The exteriors, those things I allow you to see, are not what they once were, but they're always there. I'm not alone and hardly unique in this regard. We clergy all have them. For some of us it's the toys...I mean, tools we use to "do our work." Maybe it's what we drive, or where we're appointed, or what committee we're on....if not grounded well in things of ultimate meaning, how we think we appear to the world (and especially to our peers) holds way more power than it should.

I written many times about clergy and our relentless pursuit for relevance. Given the personality types of many of we who are clergy, you can't really blame us. Each week we are charged with the task of saying something of meaning framed from the text of the day to help guide the lives of those under our charge. Sometimes we're able to do that and we know we've done it. Often it's the case that we get through a sermon fairly certain we've completely screwed it up only to hear in the gratuitous "enjoyed it preacher" line someone with teary eyes and open heart look at us and say "you said exactly what I needed to hear, thank you," and you've no earthly idea how that happened (no earthly idea, indeed).

I learned several things long ago from Michael Williams, who's now at West End, Nashville. I don't really know him, but I remember him preaching at Benton Chapel, VDS, when I was there. Rather than stand in that venerated pulpit he stood there, in the nave, with us and proclaimed Gospel. I was transfixed. And I remember saying to myself, "I've got to do that." The other thing he said when asked about the task of preaching was seeking to be very clear about getting out of the way. He said that the prayer he prays before he preaches, every time he preaches is something like this, "Lord, if I screw this up, please use it anyway."

Ever since then, I've prayed it, too. Oh sure, my mouth may say "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation....," but my heart is praying "Lord, if I screw this up (and being from where I'm from and given what my mood may be at a given time, the language may be more colorful than that), please use this anyway."

We like to feel like we've made a difference. When that's acknowledged, it feels good. I don't care how much we feign modesty, it feels good. There's nothing wrong with that. But when we depend on that and conspire by what we say or write to receive it, we become little more than actors on a stage begging for applause.

Preachers, did I just break the code? Ooops, sorry.

And now we've more ways to feed that narcissistic beast than ever...Facebook, Twitter, sermons streamed across "the internets," and blogs, blogs, blogs. We've multiple avenues to say something, be seen as important, insightful, a mover and shaker. Exterior stuff, that.

Nothing wrong with the long as there's something of value inside and our intent is clear as it comes through what we say.

As one of my clergy parents (and I have a few) is want to say, and speaking at a time when none of the above existed, "Some people have something to say, and some people just need to say something."

No longer driven by the calendar that says we've got to find something to say because Sunday comes every week, we now have the opportunity to proffer a "relevant" comment about everything, everyday in real time. We've gone from week to week to minute by minute.

Some of my colleagues are really good at this. Their sense of awareness of life, the world and the challenge of the Gospel provide real guidance along the way. Some of my brothers and sisters (mostly brothers) need to learn the wisdom found in that great hit by the Tremolos, "Silence is Golden."

There's a lesson to be learned by clergy from the greatest sportscasters. In the moments of highest drama, of greatest impact...they fall silent to let the moment be, to let it breathe among all the witnesses. There will be ample time to speak to the moment, to reflect upon it and offer perspective. But in the moment to fill the space with words is to get in the way.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to wrap this up and push "publish."

I've not posted anything on my blog since September.

Like I said, we're creatures of calendar, and I'm oh, so late in writing something for people to read.


Annette Griffith said...

Ahhh the memories of seeing that little black calendar being pulled out of Dad's coat pocket. Hoping that someone's wedding or surgery or a committee meeting didn't conflict with somewhere I wanted to be.

Anonymous said...

Well said sir!!!!