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Me & Thee

A young scholar of preaching recently challenged us to consider the importance of embodying our message. “More of Thee, less of me” goes the old prayer, frequently uttered before a sermon. Too much me does get in with way of Thee. But absent me, will anyone encounter Thee?

I’m reading Donald Hall’s new collection, Essays After Eighty. A friend introduced me to this celebrated poet and essayist fifteen years ago. Hall attends a little UCC congregation in rural New Hampshire near the old family farm he has lived in for many years. We had an exchange of letters in 2006 when I invited him to write a poem for the 50th anniversary General Synod of the United Church of Christ. He declined, graciously, indicating that commissioned poems weren’t really his thing. Perhaps that explains his brief tenure as poet laureate of the United States. I was disappointed, but not surprised. I do remember obsessively reviewing my letter to him, checking for errors in grammar and syntax. How embarrassing it would be to send him a botched piece of writing!

Hall’s newest collection portrays the contours of growing old with honesty and grace. As I read I recognize features marking friends’ and colleagues’ lives who are a decade or two ahead of me. And I glimpse hints of my own future in Hall’s musing. Mostly, however, I savor the elegant writing. I read slowly, meditatively, enjoying the sounds of the words almost as much as their content.

Occasionally a phrase or sentence prompts thoughts about ministry. Here is one from an essay on the craft of writing: “Avoid the personal pronoun when you can – but not the personal.” That, it seems to me, is good advice for a minister. The Gospel must be embodied. But that same embodiment can also hide Good News behind a preoccupation with ourselves.

A colleague and I, waiting for the processional to begin at the start of the installation of a new presiding bishop, amused ourselves by counting the number of references another colleague was making to his encounters with famous people. The names – always first names of course – accumulated like spent shells from a machine gun. It was sad in a way. Shouldn’t ministry be more than a striving to gather as many “friends,” “likes,” “hits,” or invitations to cable TV shows?

“Avoid the personal pronoun when you can,” Hall advises the writer and, I suggest, the preacher. “But not the personal.” As often as we’ve been put off by the ego of those whose earnest face seems to photo bomb every important event and personality imaginable, we are also left unmoved by those who present the mysterious presence of God in our lives as a set of arid intellectual propositions that appear to have left the preacher as unaffected as the congregation sitting bored in the pews. Sometimes it is wiser, not to mention more honest, to admit that the helicopter taking enemy fire was the one ahead of ours. But preaching can never be effective if is merely disinterested observation. The word made flesh must inhabit our flesh as well. People don’t come to see our blood and tears. But if they begin to think we never bleed or weep, our words will have as much meaning as a Gnostic’s fanciful vision of a word – and world – unfleshed.

The poet W. H. Auden watches the seasons turn:

The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,

And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware

Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought

Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now

Be very far off.

Remember that you are dust. More of Thee, less of me. Avoid the personal pronoun when you can. But not the personal. The Word made flesh is ultimately a body raised up to new life. Me and Thee dance together in the preacher’s craft. Choreographing that movement and embrace mimics the shape of Lent and Easter, soon upon us. Thee. Me. Thee again.

John H. Thomas
February 12, 2015

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