Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Preachers Past and Present

It is raining outside the parsonage.  I, however, am dry.  Today is a crucial day in the sermon-prep cycle.  It is the one where I put together some of the various streams of thought, ideas, things people mentioned in seriousness or in passing, the reading/title combination I decided on weeks ago and numerous other bits and pieces to make some coherent map for sermon-writing.  In my doctoral papers I called all these pieces "texts" and I developed a grid upon which to organise them.  It is a good day for it.  After all, one of the joys of this 19th Century house is that the vast bulk of the ghosts are clergy, too.  They get Wednesday sermon prep.

It is hard not  to think of the ghosts, actually.  Since 1828 (with a few off years) this has been the home to a group of people who in their time served the same congregation and faced many of the same challenges.  Most of them were Unitarians and/or Universalists.  The bulk of them would have, after a time, thought of themselves as Transcendentalists as well.  Also, the affection they (we) held for the language and imagery of the Bible along with the teachings of Jesus have lead us to be labeled "Christian" by the folks in the UU denominational stream.  To just about everyone else we are seen as something not-quite Christian enough... 

In both cases, the definitions are external.  Generally the pastors of the Eliot Church have seen themselves as preachers, teachers, scholars, artists, organisers, intellectuals and poets.  They were suspicious of authority, including their own.  They questioned (and would question today) unreflective devotion to religious ideas and individuals.  They were liberals in the old sense of the word, after all.  Leaders who seemed too good to be true probably were.  No one has a better connection to the Divine than anyone else.  We are all on that "party line" my grandparents used to say was common at the beginning of the phone industry. Today's unassailable facts may someday become quaint superstition. 

For them, what was most important was reason in the search for truth.  They tried to reflect this in their ministry and in their preaching.  All of these old preachers did their best to serve the congregation during the week and pushed themselves to find some form of pulpit eloquence on Sunday morning.  They preached the broad gospel of inclusion, drawing from wide experience and study to try to shed light on the problems and joys of their day.  They had faith in our capacity to grow as individuals and as a society. 

Of course, the world around the parsonage has changed in a variety of ways.  There is a generation between me and the youngest of my predecessors, (in fact, only one other settled senior pastor is still living) so the technological arc is different.  Also, the road that runs about eight feet in front of the porch is well trafficked.  Still, the mission remains the same.  We try to preach the "Full and undivided conflict of opinion" as Kenneth Patton used to say.   I hope I am holding up my end.



I am thinking of the old preacher-ghosts today in particular.  I wonder what they would make of the growing strain of spiritualism in the liberal church.  That isn't to say that they weren't spiritual, but it is different now.  There is an emphasis on feeling over thinking in many of our churches.  This in and of itself isn't bad (regular readers of this blog know I have worked to broaden the worship palette in that direction at Eliot) but it is different.  There is the risk, too, of liberal clergy being confused with the priests and gurus of other traditions.  It isn't something they or I would want.  It isn't what we believe in.

Anyway, some thoughts in the rain as I outline the sermon this Sunday.  How do I provide insight and inspiration that speaks from this 19th Century tradition?   The grid shows me I am short a reading to dialogue with, preferably a "secular" or "philosophical" one.  Maybe one of the ghosts has something for me...

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