Musings of an occasional preacher, frequent listener
I refer to the birds of the air. These creatures, you recall, are not so much feathered friends as airborne enemies. In the parable of parables, they snatch the seed from the wayside almost before it has landed. They hinder us from effectively hearing the word of God; sometimes they stop us altogether.
So who wants to promote this devilish business? Surely, Lord, not I! But some do the enemy’s work without meaning to. If you find yourself in the frame here, watch out. In this brief guide to devilry, I do not address satanist covens in moonlit forests, but confine myself to what happens in broad daylight and public worship. Sometimes Catholics are at fault, sometimes Evangelicals. We can’t blame liberals or charismatics for everything.
1 Don’t read it
In a random check on dozens of churches from Glasgow central to Tanzania rural (not forgetting Skye, but mostly inner London) we stumble into the occasional service which has virtually dispensed with Holy Scripture. Not often; but it is quite possible to experience forty minutes of ‘worship’ before the first recognizable taste of the word of God is offered. Not that I would complain if they had found anything better, but the 39 Articles imply that this could be a disappointing quest. This Bible-avoidance doesn’t so much help the birds in their work, as save them a job. Ancient Southwark proverb: What ain’t sown, can’t be stolen.
2 Don’t read much of it
This tactic is pursued by Churches which abandon the lectionary. They work their way through Hebrews, and because of the close-packed argument we are treated this week to just five verses. A chance to back them up from Exodus, Psalms or Matthew? A chance put down. And the danger of training our microscopes on tiny fragments is that we lose the wood for the trees. Spot the metaphor; our noses are rubbed in our sins, but we have forgotten we are saved by grace because that bit came six weeks ago. While we can hardly reconstruct the first ever public reading of 2 Corinthians, the pastor is unlikely to have spread its delivery over several months.
3 Read little bits of a lot of it
As suffered where they observe the lectionary strictly. We dart from Isaiah to Romans to Luke, with the snatch of a Psalm in between, and have no time to draw breath or brain to grasp what is happening. It is all a sampling job, a ‘stream of consciousness’ experience; never mind the writer, mode, date or place; just feel the poetry, go with the flow. This is not what the prophetic and apostolic writers had in mind.
4 Choose an inappropriate version
I use the word with care. Sadly, perhaps, the days of a single, agreed, memorable English text have gone for ever. Every translation since the Authorized Version has pros and cons; even dear old King James sometimes got it wrong. Most Churches need to settle on a basic working book, but not on the ‘Medes and Persians’ principle. Used for basic teaching, the AV probably obscures the word of God; reading it at a funeral may help to plant it. The Good News Bible is probably inadequate for adult congregations; at school assembly it may just get under the skin, into the brain and beyond. Note the ‘probablys’; all I ask is a bit of careful thought.
5 Ask the wrong person to read
Like a child. So nice to hear the little ones read; yes, if they can, and we can. Some Churches excel in involving children in what they do badly (read the Bible, lead prayers) rather than what they do well (give out books, take the collection). Bible-readers should be chosen not for their own sake (to make them feel wanted) but for the sake of the hearers (to help them understand). If a child or an octogenarian is fluent, audible and intelligible, fine. But don’t fill your rota with people who can’t read.
6 Read badly anyway
Even people who read well may crack up when offered a book called Holy Bible. They adopt an unearthly pious monotone, or gabble through it as if they have a train to catch. In term-time I hear student sermons every Friday; often the preaching is fervent or at least promising. But the Scripture passage is read first, and sometimes gives the impression, ‘We must do this bit; let’s get it over and on with the real business.’ That can be a hidden agenda on Sundays too. The better news is that even a weak translation can work in the hands of a good reader. Alongside the Parochial Fees, Parish Map, and No Smoking, Nehemiah 8.8 should be engraved on the vestry wall.
7 Mess up the end of the reading
Ah, the many ways we do this! The clergyman with his joke; the hymn which sounds a different note entirely; the notices, twice as long as the sermon, transporting us to Friday’s club, Saturday’s outing and Charlie’s birthday. Having shared for some years in ‘This is the word of the Lord/Thanks be to God’, one can see its limitations as an all-weather, multi-purpose conclusion. But it is much better than nothing! It tells us the reading is completed, reminds us why we have heard it and allows us to respond. Other liturgies, other responses. Even ‘Here endeth the first lesson’ is an improvement on a blank – though silence properly understood is also a blessing. Whatever the formula, it marks off what we hear as something special. But let it be said with firm conviction, not as an apologetically muttered afterthought while the Bible is closed with relief and the reader sneaks back to the pew. But your Church makes a meal of the Gospel reading? Good! A different warning: it is easier to kiss the page or bow to the reader, than weep at the message and repent towards God.
8 Abandon the distinctive furniture
At this point we may get controversial. Time was when Evangelical Churches, like others, boasted a pulpit, lectern and font; the first two often wooden, the third made of stone. How do we live now? By a small glass bowl on a flower table for baptisms, and a wobbly tin music stand, festooned with wires and microphones, serving for the other two and much else – interviews, testimonies, drama, comic turns. You would never know, by looking, who was reading the word of God, or when. Does it matter? Think of all our other visual aids, crosses and curtains, banners and flowers, paintwork and posters. Even puritans and philistines sense that visual impact matters; advertisers and logo-marketeers have always known. Abandoning the lectern, rendering extinct the brasso-shining eagle, powerfully indicates to our ‘’eyes’’ that Bible-reading must take its chance with everything else on the vicar’s agenda today.
9 By expository laziness
It’s been a busy week at the Rectory. Exams, illness, funerals, a new boiler; sermon preparation somehow slips off the edge. So where are we on Sunday? Mark 1, ‘For they were fishermen’. Let’s find something relevant here. One, pleasures and perils of weekend fishing-trips. Two, do we remember those hardy toilers on the cruel ocean? (Thinks: ‘Eternal Father, strong to save’; haven’t had that lately.) Three, but we must not over-fish the North Sea. This is God’s planet, etc; end with call to conservation. I invented that, but hands up everyone who has never heard anything like it?
Or from the same chapter, ‘Preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God’. What is this gospel, the Good News? Plenty of scope here to shove in your tape. For some, today’s thought: learning to love ourselves. For others, a call to pray harder, freshen up our Bible-reading, review our sacramental discipline; Christ Jesus came into the world to save Anglicans. Others cry No; he died for our sins, and possibly rose again. True, but hard to fit into the Galilean lakeside. All three approach the Bible with pre-packaged slogans that we are determined to repeat whatever the text says. Ludicrously or not, the preachers have not bothered to ask what the words originally conveyed, to whom, or why; so they never discover what relevance they might have now. For a pastor not to prioritize preparation is a form of laziness; for a congregation to make incessant inroads is a kind of tyranny.
10 By expository tokenism
We are back with the Evangelicals. Recently I heard what purported to be an exposition of Ezekiel, one of my heroes. The chapter was read. The address began. It picked up on one verse near the end, relating it to many more Bible texts and urging us to do something about it, I forget what. At no time in the long exhortation did we hear why Ezekiel said or wrote such things, there and then or even at all. Nor even who he was. The other thirty verses were included simply because they were expected in the unwritten liturgy of the unestablished Churches.
We stop at No 10, not because there are no other ways. Evil, while not original, invades in a variety of changing shapes. The roaring lion or the angel of light – either can be a killer. Now we have seen how much we can help the birds, we may be better equipped to hinder them. Being a scarecrow is not everything in life; but it may be a preliminary to the greater work of enabling the seed to grow.