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Faith column: My view from the other side of the pulpit

August 8, 2010

This was a good column for me to write because it forced me to deconstruct a pretty unusual and memorable experience. Not weeks after the fact but pretty much that day and the next. That’s the beauty of giving a “sermon” and then having a tight deadline to write about it. Definitely one of my more personal pieces.

Here’s the link.

And the full text:

Religion writer gets a glimpse at life on the other side of the pulpit

As a religion reporter, I’ve heard my share of Sunday morning sermons usually from the back pew, where I could take notes inconspicuously and slip out the door when I needed to.

I certainly never imagined myself on the other side of the pulpit.

So when the Rev. Sid Hall, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Hyde Park, asked me to preach on one of the Sundays he would be away for vacation, I initially thought he was joking.

On occasion, I’ve put my notepad aside and stood before a religious group to talk about my experiences covering the faith beat for the American-Statesman. But those engagements usually involved brief introductory remarks and then a question-and-answer session.

That was just talking. Hall was asking me to “preach,” which seemed to carry a different responsibility.

Hall told me to pick a scripture reading for the service. A scripture reading? My mind went blank. And wait a second, I thought, am I supposed to analyze this scripture reading? If so, we’re in real trouble.

Hall generously selected the passage for me — Matthew 15:21-28 — and asked me to pick a second, non-biblical reading. I chose the first stanza from one of my favorite poems: “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens. It seemed apropos. Still I feared I was out of my depth.

When I arrived at Trinity last Sunday, worship leaders assured me that I wasn’t expected to preach, per se. “With Sid, it’s more like a theology lesson,” one of the leaders said.

Oh great, I thought. A theologian I am not. No one was looking to me for biblical insight, but I wondered if what I had prepared would be sophisticated or insightful enough for this crowd.

I felt relieved when my friend, American-Statesman social services reporter Andrea Ball, showed up with her son. If nothing else, I thought, we could laugh later about what a fool I’d made of myself. Andrea’s good at helping you find the humor in your own failings.

But I didn’t want to fail these folks. This was their sacred place, their sacred time. I wanted to honor that somehow.

Halfway through the service came the Prayers for the People, a time when the prayer leader invites the congregation to share personal prayer intentions.

They prayed for a young woman’s mother who struggled with lupus and faced painful surgeries. For a man about to lose his home to foreclosure. For a family’s safe travels. A woman’s job prospects. A cancer patient’s chemotherapy.

After every intention, the prayer leader would say, “Healing and joyful spirit.” And the congregation would respond, “hear our prayer.”

While I listened, I noticed on the far wall of the church a beautiful handmade tapestry with a wheel of the 12 months of the year and a corresponding virtue. One caught my eye: “honesty.”

Honesty was critical for this prayer exercise. Church members had to tell the truth about their fears and anxieties and failings. To find support, they had to reveal their vulnerability.

I knew I would be feeling vulnerable when I stood alone before the congregation.

A few minutes later, one of the worship leaders introduced me, and I made my way to the lectern with the tattered folder that contained my remarks. I did the awkward microphone check and found myself apologizing about needing notes and how I wished I had the poise and brilliance of Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who could speak so eloquently off the cuff.

“You won’t get that kind of presentation today,” I said to polite chuckles. “But,” I added, “I’ll do my best.”

“That’s all you can do,” came a quiet voice from the congregation.

And then I released a breath. And I looked back at the purple tapestry with the word “honesty” sewn into the wheel. And the word that was not visible but implicit: “vulnerability.”

I started reading from my printout, and then just talking, realizing I didn’t need to rely that much on my notes. And it occurred to me that I wasn’t doing my reporter spiel but sharing what I’ve observed about religion from a personal standpoint, what troubles me — I focused mostly on women’s roles in Christianity and Islam — and what I find inspiring.

I’m used to talking in objective terms about how a journalist covers religion, the importance of accuracy and balance, the interesting trends and the challenge of covering scandals.

But in this community’s sacred space during their sacred hour, it seemed appropriate to let my guard down a bit.

It wasn’t a sermon, and it certainly wasn’t a theology lesson. I didn’t offer any biblical insight, nor did I come anywhere close to the eloquence of Bishop Spong. But I spoke honestly.

I’m probably better suited to the back pew with my reporter’s pad, but I will now have a deeper appreciation for that person on the other side of the pulpit.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 9, 2010 11:08 am

    Recently someone asked me, as a way of considering the potential ethical dilemma, if I’d be willing to preach in a church for a year and how much it’d cost. The classic, “would you do this for a million dollars” questions are fun and I’m sure there’s some ridiculous sum that would convince me to set aside ethics for a year (we’re generally good about rationalizing things like that) in order to pretend that I’m something I’m not…but that had little bearing on my answer.

    If I were allowed to preach what I wanted, I’d do it – free of charge. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever be in that position, even in a liberal Unitarian church, but I think many people would be pleasantly surprised. I doubt many Christians would like what I have to say about the passage suggested to you (or any other Biblical passage), and members of many religions might object to almost anything I say, but at the end of the day we’re all similar creatures with similar issues, minds, desires, fears, concerns and possibilities. We’re dealing with the conflicts that arise from sharing space and we can benefit from what others have learned.

    Religions, in my estimation, have been presenting human wisdom in the guise of theistic authority. As we’d expect, we get some things right and some things wrong. If we keep only the things we’ve managed to get right and recognize that the we need no authority beyond demonstrable truth, how could any thinking person object?

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