catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 14 :: 2010.07.09 — 2010.07.22


Bodily dysfunctions

And what of truth?  We don’t tend to see truth as something that could set us free because it means embracing pain, acknowledging our differences and conflicts, taking our real situation into account.  Instead, in the isolated, insular small town and rural environment, truth itself can become an outside authority, like the economic and political forces we profess independence from, or the state and federal laws we so casually break when they don’t fit our needs.
Kathleen Norris

“Can you tell the truth in a small town?” in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

I finally picked up Kathleen Norris’ Dakota, which I’ve had on my shelf for years.  My sense of recognition as she elaborates on the beauties and flaws of small town life is so potent I find myself craving the book, but only being able to handle it in small doses.  Her essays are contributing to a recent set of interwoven themes in conversation and experience: families, small towns and congregations, and how the (dys)functions of one are helpful for understanding the others.

Particularly relevant to this issue topic of  “A Good Sermon” is the nature of human beings gathered together as worshipping congregations.  Every church has qualities of a small town or a family, with varying degrees of welcome or insularity, progressiveness or provincialism, genuine love or veiled disgust.

It is a cultural practice of church in North America today that most pastors have the opportunity (or the burden) of speaking to these congregations on at least a weekly basis.  But it’s a strange situation we’ve manufactured: congregations hire someone to be their professional guide in the community’s efforts to embody living faith, but resent him or her when the change is too hard or too much.  As an “employee” of the congregation, and typically a transplant into a long communal history, a preacher may be tempted to hold back.  But also, as someone who ideally loves the congregation with which he or she is in relationship, a preacher also desires to extend hospitality, grace and understanding, even to the most wayward flock.

Surely some preachers who are cynical or in despair of change will seek to directly offend their audience.  However, at their best, preachers convict their listeners and they do so out of love.  But such love is not easy. “Why is the body of Christ so disproportionate?” I heard someone ask recently.  “There should only be one asshole.”  Whether we’re grasping for power on council or micromanaging the monthly potluck, we church members aren’t always the easiest folks to guide.  And even when we’re behaving ourselves, how does one begin to tease out a passage like Amos 8 in a way that speaks to both the wealthy and the poor listeners who share the same pew?  Or the Sermon on the Mount when mention of peacemakers prompts some to picture a U.S. soldier and others to picture Ghandi?

As a person who’s occupied the pulpit so very few times, I don’t have much wisdom for preachers, but I can think of some ways we can be better listeners.  Being conscious about hearing and then doing the Word in our own individual and collective lives would go a long way in encouraging our pastors that their well-considered homilies aren’t just falling on deaf — or resistant or apathetic — ears.  We can be studied and thoughtful enough ourselves to be able to offer critical feedback to our pastors, particularly encouragement.  We can respect the difficult situations preachers are in when they don’t speak directly enough to our own opinion on something.  And we can begin to internalize what it means that Christianity as a way of life was never just about Jesus and me, but always about Jesus and us — you and me and the asshole and the saint and the pastor and we’re all just trying to take off the dark glasses and live eternally together, starting now.

Does that sound like “good news” to you?

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