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Friday, September 16, 2011

Projection: It's not just for PowerPoint

Author and UCC pastor Lillian Daniel tells a story about a sermon one of her associates once preached.

He used a common sermonic device: repeating a refrain throughout the sermon which was, "We all belong to God. We are all God's."

In the reception line after the first service, he was greeted with the responses some of us are used to hearing. Some smiled pleasantly and said, "Good morning." Still others brush right past the pleasantries to give the latest information on themselves or others, "Got the interview. Tuesday. Pray for me." Or, "Mable is in the hospital. I'm sure she'd like a visit."

These were occasionally punctuated by, ""Nice message, Pastor," which is about as good as it usually gets.

Except for one woman who was a "New-Age-y" type who was positively effusive. "Finally!" she said. "Finally, I heard a sermon from this pulpit that speaks what is in my heart. 'We are all gods'. I've always believed that. I just didn't know you did. Thank you!"

At the next service, the sermonic refrain became, "We all belong to God."

People hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see. If Jesus is the ultimate Rorschach test - not only the one who bears all our sins, but all of our assumptions and expectations and preconceived notions as well - then those who follow in His leadership way eventually come to expect that what we say will be interpreted by those who hear us and see us through their own lens.

It can sometimes be humorous - like the scene from Monthy Python's Life of Brian of The Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says, 'Blessed are the peacemakers' but some hear, 'Blessed are the Cheese makers'.

Or, it can have adverse theological consequences - like Daniel's story.

One of the first times I preached as a seminarian was at Christ Church, Hyde Park, where I was engaged in my first Field Education placement. I remember it clearly. I was really glad that the pulpit had a microphone because my knees were knocking so badly I was certain no one would be able to hear me over the noise.

At the end of the sermon, in the reception line, the good folk of Christ Church tried to give me some encouragement sprinkled in with some good advice. "Good message - you did fine - no really - but slow down, honey, so we can hear you better."

They were very kind.

What was confusing to me, however, was the number of people who said, "Powerful feminine images."


When did I use feminine images in that sermon? It was straight-up gospel. Pretty standard fare for a newbie. I told them all the things I had learned so far in my few months of seminary. Pretty boring, actually. More a lecture than a sermon, but well, it wasn't so bad as a first effort.

After the service, I took a copy of it - straightaway - to Suzanne Hiat, now blessed among the saints - and said, "When you get a minute, could you read this, please? It's not that long, but I want you to tell me where you find the 'feminine images'."

Suzanne smiled. "Is that the critique you got on your sermon?"

"Yes," I said, "and I'll be darned if I know what the heck they are talking about."

"Are you the first woman to preach in that pulpit?" she asked.

"Well, I may not have been the first, but clearly, I'm one of the firsts."

"Right," she said as she handed my sermon back to me. "I don't need to read this to see the feminine images. It's standing right in front of me."

I didn't get it at first so as I stood there with my mouth open, Suzanne asked, "And, let me guess, they asked you for copies of your sermon."

"Why, yes, that's right," I stammered, "they did."

Suzanne laughed and said, "That's because they weren't able to hear a word you said. They were so busy looking at the 'feminine image' in front of them, that they couldn't actually hear what you were saying. Now, they want to know."

Then she said something I have never forgotten: "When you find yourself hit by a tidal wave and you aren't standing anywhere near water, that's called 'projection'."

That little mantra has served me very well over the years.

I've been thinking about these two stories because, several weeks ago, I was greeted by a proper British woman in the reception line after the 8 o'clock service who was fairly effusive - especially for a Brit - about my sermon.

"That," she pronounced with great authority, "was the BEST sermon I've heard. At least, it's in the top of the Top 5 Best Sermons."

"Why, thank you very much," I said.

"Oh, I'm the one who is thankful," she continued, "You are one of the best preachers I've EVER heard."

Well, I'll tell you what. I've learned over the years that I am neither hero nor villain, so when I'm either highly praised or falsely accused, I've learned that something else is going on.

As these wheels were spinning in my head, and I was smiling my best professional "you-can't-see-the-real-me-or-you-wouldn't-be-saying-that" smile, she continued.

"You preached that sermon with the full. Authority. Of. Christ," she said as a sob caught her throat.

I looked into her eyes and although I wasn't sure what I was seeing, whatever it was touched my heart and I could feel my own eyes beginning to well with tears.

"Tell me," I said, "are you visiting or have you moved here?"

"Oh," she said dabbing her eyes, "I am visiting friends here. I live in northern England, off in the country."

"So, have you ever heard a woman preach or preside before today?" I asked, grateful that the reception line had thinned out and people were getting coffee or tea.

"Well," she said, still clearly emotional, "I've heard a few women preach and once or twice a woman celebrate at the altar, but, I must say, nothing was quite as emotional for me as this."

"What made the difference, do you think?" I asked, pleased that the reception line had shifted and morphed into the line for coffee and tea.

"I don't know," she said, "although you do put me in mind of my niece, Annabelle." She paused and said, "She always wanted to be ordained - since she was a wee little one - but, well, she's encountered lots of difficulty along the way. There's still resistance. Old habits die hard, as they say."

"And you?" I asked, carefully, "Did you ever consider ordination?"

"Me?" she gasped as she took two steps back,"Why... no... I mean.... well.... it was impossible in my day, so..... it would have been utterly foolish of me.... to even consider....."

I hugged her and she sort of melted into my arms for a moment and then, proper British lady that she was, immediately stiffed and pushed herself back, dabbed her tears and said, "Well, I must return to my hosts. We're going out to brunch. They'll be waiting for me."

That sort of thing happens more frequency than we care to admit. Some of us are acutely aware of it. Some of us can even see the Tidal Wave starting to gather on the horizon. Others of us are not and we allow ourselves to get swept up and carried away by it, actually believing the good and the perfectly awful things said about us.

One of the best pieces of advice I got on ordination was, "You'll know you're in trouble when you start believing the press releases about you."

Despite my best efforts over the years, it sometimes happened anyway - often with disastrous effects.

I'll never forget the time I went to a James Taylor concert in Holmdel, NJ. James and his band were tuning up for the second set when someone yelled out, "I love you, James."

James stopped what he was doing, looked out over the crowd, came forward to the microphone as he said, "That's because you don't know me."

I've tried to remember that when someone tells me how absolutely wonderful I am, but it's even more important to remember when someone tells me - or others - what a perfectly horrible person I am.

The key phrase is, "And, imagine! A priest!"

People often use that to talk about clergy when we behave in a manner that can't be confused with a doormat.

That's when I know I've suddenly turned into someone's Rorschach test and do my best to run from the Tidal wave that's about to descend.

I'm not saying that I didn't do a good job on that sermon. In fact, I think I did. It's just that I've learned that I really can't take all the credit. The Holy Spirit is often the one at the wheel. I'm just the vehicle.

And sometimes, I think I've hit one right out of the park and it isn't until later, in the reception line, that I learn that the sermon fell far short of my expectations.

Other times, I think, "Well, wish it had been better, but that's the best I could do." And, of course, that's exactly when a few people in the reception line - or, later in the week, during a phone call or email - I'll learn that I touched someone's heart.

And, I'm convinced that it isn't exactly what I said but how I said it that goes into the whole sermonic event. It's all the things I bring into the pulpit with me. A sermon makes absolutely no sense - no sense whatsoever - unless it is connected to and comes out of a lived experience in community.

In that way, it's sacramental. We break open the Word so that people can feast on it just as they do the Bread and the Wine.

So is the ordained life sacramental. We are people who have been broken and made whole and strong enough to be broken open again - and again, and again - by the enormous privilege of being invited into the broken places of people's lives where we strive to be fully present to the pain.

It's enormously, deeply satisfying work, but it is also fraught with all the dangers that projection can bring. For me? It's worth the cost. Besides, I'm called to it. I can't imagine doing anything else, despite all the challenges and even though it can get frustrating and, well, annoying.

Besides, sometimes, we're our own worst enemies.

Daniel tells the story about the time she was preaching about the different strains of Judaism in ancient Israel Israel. And, she said, "In those days, they had lots of sects just like we have lots of sects today."

Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.


Matthew said...

A practice of a former rector I knew years ago was to take a member of the choir ( a soloist or cantor) and have that person sing (sometimes with a musical instrument) a line repeatedly over and over throughout the sermon. The two had to be REALLY well coordinated. In other words the soloist had to know the sermon well enough to know when to sing "the line." One of my most memorable of those sermons (that brought me to tears) involved having the soloist sing in a deep baritone voice "Swing low sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home." He would sing this line after about every 6 or 7 sentences of the sermon. So, he sang it about 10-12 times throughout the sermon. Not a dry eye in the house. Its an unusual technique and I've not seen any other preachers use it but it can be effective because people respond to music. Another one I recall involved the line, "My heart, my heart adores you."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - that's a very tricky technique. It can seem more performance than sermon so unless the content is stellar, and the timing is perfect, it can really fail. good for him to be such a creative risk taker.

Will said...

"...I'm called to it. I can't imagine doing anything else, despite all the challenges and even though it can get frustrating and, well, annoying."

And you would have to be crazy to think of it as a job.

In thanksgiving for your response to your calling and relentless ministry to spread the gospel message.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Will. For years, I kept my nursing license active - in case I needed a JOB. Just in case I needed actual money to help put food on the table and clothes on the backs of my kids and a roof over our heads. Ministry - especially for women - is not a lucrative career. I finally let my license go after the kids were grown and I realized that, after being out of the profession for so long, I wouldn't want me taking care of me.

Priesthood is my vocation - a pretty expensive one, at that. Good thing I'm called to it and love it so - even if that love is often unrequited by the institutional church.

Hutch said...

Well, Elizabeth, today you preached the sermon I needed to hear. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Turtle Woman said...

If a woman is preaching, for a lot of people out there, the person in the pulpit actually represents God.
It's why churches are the very last bastion of radical discrimination of women. Men have to be the god substitutes all the time.

Men often think women are taking over places just by a few of us being in the room. It's why I really prefer all women events and places. I just tire of it all.

And I have always hoped that all the women in the clergy would have more and more services for women only in the fancy churches with the fancy robes. Women deserve the very best without having to deal with men. One can dream on about this happening, but really, women make up the vast majority of service attenders, why not make this "institutional."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for your visit, Hutch.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Turtle woman - You and I are going to have to agree to disagree on this one. I'm all about 'radical inclusion'. If I wanted separatism, I'd have worked on The Church of Lesbianism. That might work for you and for some but well, it just doesn't work for me.

Matthew said...

A quick comment on turtle womans comment. It aggravates me to no end that the institutional episcopal church does not permit, foster or encourage gender segregated worship services (at least I am not aware of any, and personally o agree with Elizabeth that it's not for me either), and yet we do tolerate and support the ECW, the mens breakfast groups and other parish groups that discriminate on the basis of gender. As a joke I tried joining the ECW years ago. Boy was i rebuked. And I have seen parish sponsored gender specific cursillo retreats. God help you if you have a transgendered person in the parish because this is a conversation NO ONE wants to have.

Matthew said...

Oh and let's not forget the most sacred cows of them all, DOK.