Sunday, May 15, 2011

The crust of familiarity

For those churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, today was a special event (at least for many people in the pews).  The appointed psalm of the day was none other than Psalm 23, probably the most familiar extended passage of scripture among both the faithful and the more secular of society.  (It might be topped in memorization by John 3:16, but that's a lot shorter and easier to learn.)  Even if one doesn't recognize the scripture reference as listed, there's a decent chance the phrases found in the psalm (particularly in their King James Version formulations; "The Lord is my shepherd," or "the valley of the shadow of death," or "Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me"; frankly, most of the psalm might ring familiar) are familiar enough as cultural artifacts to stir recognition.  

The psalm has spawned artworks, books, and more music than I can recount (the Presbyterian Hymnal has six different settings of Psalm 23 in its psalter, enough for two turns through the entire lectionary cycle).  It is a ubiquitous presence in devotional literature.  And there it sits, a great big unavoidable presence in the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Easter.  

I couldn't be happier not to be preaching today.

In the various sub-levels of the general "What am I doing????" freakout I experience daily (perhaps I should make up a tree of the categories of freakout that I experience under the general heading of "You fool, what are you doing throwing away a perfectly good career and running off trying to be a pastor???")  somewhere down the line is the large chunk of self-doubt about how I can possibly have anything useful to say about such an overwhelmingly familiar passage as Psalm 23.   (Yes, I know, preaching is not about what I have to say, yada yada yada.  Play along, you know what I mean.)  What does one do with such a passage, one of the few that the congregation is likely to recognize quite well?  

The lectionary, of all things, more or less forces one to deal with it.  The alternatives for the day (in Year A at least) are a rather slim passage from Acts 2, and selections from I Peter and John which both funnel the preacher right back to the psalm.  The epistle ends with I Peter 2:25: "For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls."  John 10 contains Jesus's exasperated attempts to use shepherd metaphors to explain his role to a rather dense audience, dancing all around the "I am the good shepherd" declaration without including, for some reason.  At any rate, there's a reason the day gets nicknamed "Good Shepherd Sunday."  

While I don't pretend to be a rapturously wonderful speaker, I wonder if the most luminous pastors in all Christendom get a little concerned about approaching such a passage.  The ground has been covered so many times, one wonders not only if one can come up with anything compelling to say, but also if anyone will hear it anyway.  I have this sneaking suspicion that familiarity, if not quite breeding contempt as the old cliche would have it, at least breeds a certain level of resistant contentment.  It's Psalm 23; I know it already.  You have to preach on it, but it's not as if you can really challenge me in any way on it, because I have it down pat.  It becomes a "safe" Sunday, when congregants and pastors alike can rest secure in the belief that the Holy Spirit won't really find a way to cause trouble.  Beloved and familiar as it is, it may be in its way so crusted over with familiarity as to be the most resistant to any sort of challenge or penetrating insight.  

It's the kind of thing that can happen with certain familiar hymns as well.  Just a couple of weeks ago, our church heard from members of the group that traveled to Nicaragua on an informational trip back in march.  You may know the drill; two or three of the travelers describe the group's activities and "share their reflections" or whatever choice of language your church may deem appropriate.  In this case two of the members of the group gave what struck me as particularly challenging and thoughtful reflections on the trip; how being among such poor but joyful people provided a rather stinging critique of the stuff-oriented lifestyle we tend to live in the affluent ol' USA, how the things we see as tremendous burdens seem rather trivial in the light of real struggle just to make it daily.  It was a pregnant moment.  The affirmation of faith that followed was appropriate to the challenge wrapped in the words of the two speakers.  Then came, in this order of service, the hymn.  "Amazing Grace."

I'm pretty sure I could get expelled from seminary before I even start were I to dare criticize that hymn.  If any element of the church's overall literature could challenge Psalm 23 for ubiquity and familiarity, "Amazing Grace" is probably just the thing to do it.  And I have no particular criticism of the hymn itself.  It's one of the finest hymns in Christendom (although John Newton himself would be puzzled by the way we sing it nowadays, but that's a subject for another post down the line).  

But again, we face the real prospect of resistant contentment.  I can't help but feel that in this case, maybe it had a neutralizing effect on the power of the two speaker's words.  Hey, that's my lifestyle being challenged.  Do I really consume too much?  Is the way I live really part of the problem?  Am I really being faithful...oh, wait, I hear "Amazing Grace."  I know that hymn.  I've got it down pat.  I'm safe.  Clearly not a problem here.  I don't need to worry about anything I just heard.

Maybe I'm just being paranoid.  I'm certainly not a mind-reader.  Still, you know what it feels like when momentum is lost, or an opportunity passes unfulfilled, and you know you're not imagining things.  (Mind you, the hymn was of course chosen in advance, in this case not necessarily knowing what the speakers were going to say; furthermore, changing hymns on the fly is a good way to earn the undying suspicion of your organist, and who knows the hymnal in such encyclopedia-like fashion as to come with an alternative on the spot?)  "Amazing Grace" is a great hymn, but perhaps too familiar and comfortable--too crusted over with familiarity and contentment--to follow up on the particular challenge of the moment.  

So I'm left with questions, whether it be "Amazing Grace" or Psalm 23 or another highly familiar and comfortable bit of the dialogue of faith.  (And don't get me started on the whole business of King James Version translations vs. more recent versions; that may be a multi-part blog post.)  Reassurance and comfort are needed in the life of the church, but not all the time; sometimes the job of liturgy and lectionary is precisely to generate discomfort.  How do we (that "we" eventually to include "me", those charged with planning and leading worship) find that balance and discern when to go to the familiar and when to stir discomfort?  How do we avoid addressing such overwhelmingly familiar texts (and it has to happen, eventually) as these without slipping into trite banalities or overly plush cliches?  Ah, so much to learn, so much to struggle with... .

"What am I doing???..."


  1. Hi Charles,

    Cool blog. I think we need a good deal of unsettling. Christ's commission to us is one that really few can really pull off. I often feel that congregations are like college classes. Most just want to know what is the minimum to "pass." There are times that I wonder if any American can get into heaven. We are just not used to idea of submitting ourselves completely to anyone's or anything's control. Let's hope.

  2. Thanks, Michael. I don't propose I have all the answers, but I'm not sure we need answers as much as questions right now.

  3. Charles, you had no way of knowing this, but we picked Amazing Grace b/c Luis (our coordinator from CEPAD) asked us to sing it for him during our trip. So it had special meaning for us. I see your point that it could have lulled some people back into comfort. Maybe for others it could have been a reminder of the need for grace from the sin of gluttony? Either way, I hope I don't come across as defensive - just trying to give you the back story. Interesting blog!

  4. Nan, this bit of information would actually have been helpful in that moment in the service. Certainly there might have been some way to work it in, if only in the remarks of one of the speakers. That would have made a tremendous difference in that moment.