One of my recurring fantasies is the emergency scenario, in which I am safely nestled into the pew, even now, in my dotage, and the head usher hurries up beside me and whispers, “The preacher isn’t here. You have to take over.”
This happened once, when I was fairly new in the ministry, and I have never recovered. I have never since settled into a pew on Sunday morning without thinking, “If that usher shows up this morning, what do I have?”
We were on vacation in Vermont when I was doing graduate work at Boston University. Our daughters were pre-schoolers. It came time for worship to start. I saw the ushers talking among themselves at the rear of the sanctuary. I heard enough to know that the regular preacher was himself on vacation, and his substitute had not shown up. I said to my wife, ‘Hold my beer; I’ve got this.”
Well, I didn’t say that, since Methodist churches did not serve beer during worship in those days, and I don’t drink beer anyway, but I went to the ushers and told them I was a Methodist preacher and I would be willing to fill in. They were pleased, but for a small town in Vermont, that was a rather formal church, and I was wearing vacation clothes, so they took me to the office and got me dressed in a pulpit robe with the correctly colored stole for that season of the church year. I was walking out to preach when the substitute showed up! You guessed it; it was time change Sunday. He was an hour off.
I was summarily defrocked and sent back to the pew, where I continued to work in my mind on the emergency sermon I would not deliver even while I should have been listening to the guy who had actually prepared.
I was prepared, though. George Buttrick, in his retirement from Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in NYC, was my preaching professor at Garrett Theological Seminary, at Northwestern U, and he told us that it was more important to prepare the preacher than to prepare the sermon. In that sense, I was prepared, for I have never been a preacher. I am a story teller. Anybody has a story to tell.
John Wesley, the founder of the movement called Methodism, said that he required only three things of his preachers: to be ready to preach, pray, or die at any moment.
I’ve always done pretty well with the first two. As I grow older, I think more about the last one, and I have this recurring fantasy, in which I’m settled into the pew, but it’s at a funeral, not a Sunday worship service, and the usher hurries up and whispers, “The guy in the casket didn’t show up; you’ve got to fill in.”
I reply, “Give me time for another sip of this beer.”
When the big birthday came, I realized I had been a professional Christian, not a real Christian, all my life, from the age of fourteen. Everything I did and thought was forwarded to help others grow in relationship to God, not to help me grow in relationship to God. A more cynical way to look at it was that everything I did and thought was used to advance my professional career in the church. Either way, I have always been a professional Xn. [The abbreviation religion scholars use in making notes, for speed.]
I decided on a year-long professional fast. I would not think, read, listen, or write professionally, as a preacher, as a theologian. I knew the 40 days of Lent, the usual time for such fasts, was not nearly long to counter 66 years.
I thought I could continue to write CIW, in a non-professional way. That was a no-go. Writing CIW was mostly a temptation to break the fast. So on March 21, 2017, I wrote in this blog that I would “write no more forever.” It was time to give up my professional life, the life that had defined me since I was only fourteen years old, when I told God if “He” would save my sister’s life, I would be a preacher. By June 1, less than three months on the wagon, I realized that I could not stop writing.
But I still needed to see if I could be a real Christian, not just a professional Xn. So I decided I would write CIW only for myself. I would tell no one that I was writing CIW again, for to do so was to invite them to read what I wrote, and that meant I had to consider what they might think, how they would respond. That would be professional.
Previously I wrote Christ In Winter as a professional, for others. I kept a careful index so I would not bore readers with repeats. Now I just write whatever comes to mind, and if I repeat, I apologize. I also apologize to former faithful readers of CIW for not informing them that I am writing CIW again, but telling people I am writing is asking them to read my thoughts, and that is professional. I have told no one, not even my wife, that I am writing again. So if you stumble onto CIW, new reader or old, welcome. I’m glad you’re here. But you’re reading an amateur, not a professional. Well, maybe I don’t need to point that out…