Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Strangers and Beggars
This is the time of year pastors begin to notice unfamiliar faces scattered among the regulars. The old “Christmas and Easter crowd” is not as strong as it once was, but these seasons still maintain a hold on some who rarely pass through the narthex. Our old cynicism has faded, a recognition perhaps that few are here merely out of habit or as a bow to cultural respectability. Each has found his or her way to a pew, drawn by something of value.
Some are here to honor family connections – adult children home to visit aging parents, or maybe visiting relatives and friends in for the annual Christmas pageant, eager to watch Sally don her tin foil halo and Johnny carry his stained plywood crook, hopefully avoiding tripping on the bathrobe that passes for a shepherd’s cloak. They may never have been deeply religious themselves, or they once were, but are no longer. Yet they are here to honor and accompany someone they love for whom faith is important. And that is no small thing.
Maybe some are drawn by childhood memories, something more than nostalgia, a yearning to reconnect with a place, a time, a sound or a story that once evoked bright joy and promise and peace in a life that now has grown dim, challenged, or turbulent. They hope to recover that “spirit of wonder” as the poet T. S. Eliot puts it, as when the “child wonders at the Christmas tree,” one more attempt to fend off the “bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium, the awareness of death, the consciousness of failure. . . .”
And who knows, maybe some are there simply out of curiosity, not of the idle kind, but of the deep, questioning kind that perceives – wishes for? – something more beyond the flat surfaces of daily tasks and worn out relationships and frantic strivings. Sitting in this pew may not be the vaunted leap of faith, the march up the aisle at the “opening of the church doors.” But it is a risk, a commitment of its own kind, a tentative opening to the possibility that light and life are not simply contingent upon our own doings, but come from elsewhere and that they might even be trusted.
The preacher eyes these strangers, pulls the little chain on the pulpit lamp, straightens the pages of notes, clears his or her throat, and pauses. Are these prospects? Potential new members to be impressed, lured back? Are they just one-timers, deserving of our polite hospitality but no more? Are they here simply out of some sense of obligation, an annual rite to be endured before the merrier events of the celebrations? Or are these, for this one brief moment, the most precious parishioners we have, beggars deserving of the best we have to offer, offering us this one chance to say a word that can be a kind of light in shadows? Good news is what they want and what they deserve, clothed in rhetoric we have struggled over and phrases we have carefully crafted. In other words, the best we have to offer. Pious platitudes, contrived intellectual demonstrations and worn out illustrations may suit the regulars who, after all, have their friends to see and their carols to sing and their responsibilities to perform which seem, against all odds, to compensate for the failures of many of our sermons.
But these strangers, these precious beggars have come to hear us tell the story not, as Paul puts it, “in lofty words or wisdom,” but “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power so that faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” In other words, they want more than just the story. They want to hear that this story makes all the difference, not just for the world, or for the church, but for us. It is a humbling privilege to stand before these beggars. Christina Rossetti’s carol reverberates with our trembling fears and hopes:
What can I offer, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise one, I would do my part;
but what can I offer: all my heart.
It may seem odd to treat these strangers as the most precious members of our congregation at this most precious of seasons. Most will likely disappear like the tossed out fruit cake. They don’t help pay the bills. They’re not joining mission trips or committees and may not even know our names. But for this one time they are here, beggars who, childlike, yearn to see in the candle “a star, and “[in] the gilded angel spreading its wings at the summit of the tree. . . not only a decoration, but an angel.” (Eliot) May we search out their faces from our lofty perches this Christmas, remembering that what they want even more than our eloquence, is the sight and sound of a heart in which “the accumulated memories of annual emotion [are] concentrated into a great joy.”
John H. Thomas
December 13, 2012