Thursday, October 7, 2010

Samuel Longfellow and Preaching

     What a mystery is a word--a movement of the lips, a vibration of the air, no more.  Yet see it call the swift crimson of shame to the face, or blanch it with fear; see it light up the glazed eye of despair; beat down the defiant lids of villainy; bring floods of assuaging or repentant tears;  see it hush multitudes... What a mystery is a word!  Because it is the image and person of the soul; thought articulate; intoned emotion; spirit uttered, and put forth.  (Samuel Longfellow "The Word Preached"  1853)

     Samuel Longfellow labored in the shadow of his brother Henry during life and has been pretty much obscured by that shadow since his death.  I don't mean to take anything away from Henry, of course, but, like William Dawes, there is more to Sam than mere affiliation with another's greatness.

     Longfellow (in this post that means Sam) was a hymn writer of some force and renown.  In fact, we still sing his hymns today.  Singing The Living Tradition, the dominant UU hymnal has nine of his hymns.  He also appears in other hymn books of other denominations.  Something that I find reassuring in ecumenical gatherings.  His lyrics (and he was primarily a lyricist) are poetic.  O Life That Maketh All Things New (SLT #12) is one of my favorites and sneaks its way into worship in my congregation probably more than it should.  O.B. Frothingham once contrasted Longfellow's hymns with those of Sam's friend and collaborator  Samuel Johnson in this way; "Johnson's were the more intellectual, Longfellow's the more tender; Johnson's the more aspiring, Longfellow's the more devout; Johnson's the more heroic and passionate, Longfellow's the more mystical and reflective."

     The reason I am writing about him today is that Longfellow, like Hedge, Clarke, and other pastors, spent a great deal of his adult life making sense of the new ideas of his transcendentalist friends in ways that took into account the profoundly communal nature of his own faith and that of his congregation.  There is a tendency to read Emerson and believe that wandering around in the woods for an hour is an adequate substitute for belonging to a community of faith.  For the "mystical and reflective" Longfellow, however, it was not.

     I will return to Longfellow a few times over the course of my sabbatical.  However--and perhaps no surprisingly--I am beginning with his sermons.  It should be noted that his editor felt Longfellow's digressions were among the the best parts of his preaching.  This is a situation I totally understand.  Today I want to note the sermon he gave  on April 23, 1853 near the beginning of his ministry in Brooklyn, NY.  Also not surprisingly the sermon is entitled "The Word Preached". 

     He begins with a defense of a very modern complaint, "The Institution of preaching, whatever may be said of it's present want of power or of the inadequacy of the results it produces--and doubtless, a good deal may be said with truth--has not yet vacated its claim to exist.  However poorly the pulpit may do its work, it still has work to do."  He then goes on to both acknowledge its failings and to promise to do the best job he can to remain engaging.  He doesn't want to waste people's time.  He sincerely (as all preachers do) wants to help his congregants live a spiritual life.

     However, he also has some strong words for the congregation.  Preaching to him is a conversation in which a certain openness and commitment is required from the hearer.  It isn't a commitment to agree.  He is a Unitarian, after all, and well aware that total agreement is unlikely.  He does, however, want them to show up and to pay attention. "The inefficacy of preaching is not all to be laid at the preacher's door.  I do not care how great a claim you make on him, that he should be living and earnest.  It is all just.  But I make the same claim upon the hearers that they be so too... For if there be not willingness, receptiveness, desire on their part, the most angelic eloquence must often fail.  Jesus could not touch those who wrapped themselves up in worldliness, prejudice, and self-righteousness."

     This raises an interesting question for me.  The vast bulk of my training in preaching has to do with how to preach in ways that can reach people.  I have done quite a bit of research for my DMin that had to do with the question of how preachers can better understand the local language, culture, and imagery in order to use it to communicate effectively--often to hostile or indifferent audiences.  Longfellow seems to be saying that this work--while important--only goes so far before we are essentially cut off.  The people have to put in some of the effort.  In this sermon he tried to shake his congregation awake and to compel them to at least consider listening.  I am sure that many people didn't need the reminder and others were quite receptive.  Longfellow--by all accounts--was good in the pulpit and worked hard out of it to be a good pastor to his people.  He wouldn't have mentioned this tendency to not listen, however, if he didn't see it in his work.

      "The mere critic, who comes to enjoy finely-turned sentences, brilliant word-painting, elegant oratory; the intellectually curious, who comes to hear some novelty of speculation; the sectarian or polemic, who comes to get his theological combativeness pleasantly excited; the listless, who comes to have his feelings played upon; the indifferent, who comes get the credit of conforming to a respectable custom; the self-righteous, who comes to set an example, not having himself any need--these may get, possibly, what they seek.
     They cannot hope to get--for they have not sought--spiritual quickening; clear sight of duty; strength to conquer temptation; noble purposes; consciousness of immortality; sense of God's presence; the Christ-like temper; a wider and more active humanity."

     So he urges his listeners to "Bring this seeking spirit; this sense of personal need; this desire to know the truth that you may know the duty; bring this life, and how it must needs kindle the preacher's heart and put fire on his lips!"

     So the question (preachers) is, how do people listen?  How willing  to bring that seeking spirit are they when they are so rarely there on Sunday morning?  I know that many people care deeply about what they hear in worship.  I know that others probably can't remember what we talked about after they leave coffee hour.  How much of the preaching dynamic is the minister's responsibility?  How much is the listener's?  How (when the spirit isn't willing in them) do we get them to listen rather than be merely entertained?

Brief Note:  No, not that Samuel Johnson...this one.

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