CHRISTMAS JOY 2014
E. J. Dionne Jr., Syndicated columnist, touched on the problem of being “too pious” which I found stimulating because that has not been my problem, most of the time. The writer told his pastor that he liked him because he wasn’t too pious. I have had the same experience and took it as a compliment. During my own 51 years of preaching, I eventually sought to have at least one chuckle or laugh tucked into every sermon. There were a few exceptions and those are the sermons I remember. Occasionally I got very serious. And there was a common theme: people getting too judgmental in ways that I thought inappropriate, so I became judgmental. Ironic. It turned out that the subject matter was not on “laughing matters”. Some of the sermons should not have been preached, as I learned not to go into the pulpit angry.
I have touched on this elsewhere, but it bears repeating. At Wapella, I lost a Sunday School Superintendent who wrote her prayer on Saturday night and then shared it on Sunday morning. Several of the “saints” told her that real Christians do not read written prayers and she resigned. I tackled that subject the next Sunday morning. Don’t remember any humor in that sermon.
When I was at the United Methodist Church of Chugiak, several members asked me what I thought of The John Birch Society. I spent a month studying the issue and preached a sermon that impacted my life a great deal. Don’t remember much humor in that sermon. Now, if I were still preaching, I would spend a month studying the impact of the Koch brothers. It turns out that the same family that financed The John Birch Society is now financing The Tea Party movement. Fertile sermon material that I will leave up to others. But, again, not a laughing matter.
A even more painful memory relates to a situation at Juneau. A very “difficult” woman attended our church and in the end only one person reached out to her in Christian love and compassion. That person was Gay Zaruba. (Gay was special in another way. The first time she heard me preach, she shook my hand at the door and identified me as the son of Bernice Radley. Turned out that mother was in the same school with Gay in Iowa. A true ‘small world experience’) When the “difficult” woman died, I learned two things: she had a brain tumor (explaining her behavior) and she lived in a storage closet at a nearby apartment building. As I shared this with my congregation, I actually broke down and cried and could not finish the service. The former pastor rescued me and the service.
More recently I received a phone call about an election, with the caller urging me to vote for a Christian candidate so that the current Senator would be defeated. I asked the caller if he was aware that the Senator he was seeking to defeat was a member of my United Methodist congregation and was a very deep believer in the Christian faith? He hung up on me, so I never learned who he was. With the permission of the Senator, I took that issue into the pulpit. Not very many laughs that Sunday morning.
So you see the irony? I am judgmental of people who are too judgmental and occasionally I see the enemy and it is me. Merry Christmas.
Added in 2015. I preached at LaConner United Methodist Church January 11th. Feedback was focused on how people enjoyed my humor. That is better than the alternatives. I also led “Hymns and Devotions” at Josephine, a retirement home in Stanwood, on January 14th. I focused on being “Surprised by God”, using the experience of Samuel in the temple when God spoke to him and he thought it was Eli. Wanting to make it personal, I told of a religious experience I had at East Bay Camp near Bloomington, Illinois, while attending Illinois Wesleyan University. We are on an MSM (Methodist Student Movement) retreat and it was a very foggy night. I had just been given a new car by my father (1957 FORD) which I loved very much. Another student asked to borrow it. So I described how much I loved that car and how nervous I was that some one was driving it forty miles on a dark and foggy night. I could not sleep. I stayed up six hours until the car was safely returned. That story brought some joy to those who were listening. Oh, the point of the story was this: I was surprised by God during those six hours when I received a sense of call to the ministry. And it happened because some one borrowed my car. Otherwise, I might have slept right through it.
And now I remember a story I can tell when preaching about Joseph and his brothers. Some of my brothers were very clear. “Father never gave us a new car”. At least they didn’t throw me down into a hole in the ground.