A chapel service for patients and their familes was assigned to me. I looked forward to it, since I’m proud of my preaching. They told me to expect many stroke victims.
I settled on The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein as my text. The story is about the relationship about a tree and boy all through the years until the boy has outlived the tree. The tree gives a place to climb, shade, court, ponder, and so on until it is cut down. Then the boy, now an old man, comes and finds that the stump gives him a place to sit. I didn’t know about the political controversy over co-dependence that has been attached to the story by some feminists. “Are there no limits to giving?” they asked, which is a good question for chaplains.
But that was beside the point this time. When I finished, we were all awash in tears. I felt that I had touched hearts and relieved grief, assured the damaged that they were still capable of contributing and other wonderful self-congratulation. When I got back to the office and one of the older chaplains asked how it went, I told him proudly. He smiled. “Stroke victims cry all the time,” he said. “It’s wasn’t your preaching.” He wasn’t hostile but he was a little amused. Nevertheless, it hit me hard right on my pride bump.
After that, every time a sermon of mine in any circumstances brought a response of tears -- not uncommon -- a voice in my head said, “It wasn’t your preaching.” Sure enough, when that teary person (usually a woman, but not always) came up afterwards to make contact, they generally revealed themselves to be in the middle of a life crisis.
Not that crying is bad, but it could skew religious thought in community off into a kind of accumulated individual catharsis. Can a cable TV program be far behind? Each sitting at his or her screen, weeping uncontrollably -- alone? I did NOT want to be Katharine Kuhlman, believing in miracles and then, slyly, asking for money.
A man on my ward was dying of a brain tumor. He had six children, all in their teens, and his early symptoms before the tumor was found caused him so much anxiety about those youngsters that he set about trying to get them under control, mostly provoking rebellion and defiance. He set unreasonable rules, moved boundaries, went to high levels of domination and accusation without sufficient cause. His wife had been stretched to her limits to keep everyone living in the same house without violence.
Now that the father was diagnosed and already getting close to death, he had somehow returned to himself and tried awkwardly to make peace with his own children. The mom asked to walk and talk in the halls with me now and then. She and the kids took shifts with the dad.
Finally the man slipped away. All his children and his wife were there and one came to get me. “Would you like to pray?” I asked. “Let us join hands.” I said what I could, concentrating hard, then looked around the room. The kids who were on either side of their dad, without even pausing, had taken their dad’s two hands (still warm) so that he was part of the circle. I asked them to notice. Then, spontaneously, we began to sing, “May the circle be unbroken.” Miraculously we all knew the words to several verses, the moment arisng among us, not from them and not from me.
Powerful moments arise now and then. Mostly worship must not tinker with them -- just prepare and welcome. And then don’t exploit them afterwards, as this essay comes perilously close to doing.
Once later, in my internship, I was stumped for a Memorial Day sermon topic and finally settled on grass. I was in New England so I dug up all my Whitman “grass” poems, some World War examples, and so on. I made a little joke about “grass” as a way of talking about marijuana and I listed some of the more colorful botanical names of grasses: needle grass, blue-eye grass, buffalo grass, etc.. The sermon seemed to go well and a relatively young woman sobbed at some points. In fact, I was a little concerned about her, wondering if I’d blundered into some unresolved grief.
Afterwards she came rushing up to say that I had changed her life! She had a HUGE MAJOR decision to make and I had resolved it with my sermon. Her tears were tears of joy! I asked what the decision was, since so far as I knew there was nothing about decisions in the sermon. “Whether I should go to grad school! I was afraid, but now I’m going to go for it!” She gave me a big crushing hug and took off. I never saw her again.
The sermon the minister gives is never the one the parishioner hears. Someone said preaching is like squeezing an eye-dropper of medicine out a second story window in hopes that someone on the sidewalk below will look up at the right time and get it in their eye. I always think it’s more like scattering bird seed and hoping the right birds (the ones I like) will get to it before the squirrels.
Long ago I went to preach at an historic church in Oregon City but I got there too early, so I went over to the nearest early-meeting church to be a member of their congregation for an hour. I think it was Methodist. The minister, an older man who had grown up on the Texas plains, took as his theme the question of where human works leave off and divine works begin. What I remember clearly was his metaphor. When he was a boy and went out with his dad to feed the cows behind a team of horses, they would pull away from the lamplit house and see the lights of their neighbors, all getting up to feed their stock and do the other chores, in the still dark morning. Those bright windows stretched out from one homestead to another until they met the stars in the sky. At the horizon it was difficult to be sure which lights were farms and which were stars. Even so do our good works meet and mingle with God’s, said this minister. But you have to pay attention.