“How on earth did you get that from what I said?”
Here it is, my annual gallimaufry of musings that I’ve christened “Slim Pickings”—one of my dad’s oft-used terms. I think the thing I enjoy most about writing this yearly instalment is finding a new word each time to describe it: gal·li·mau·fry, noun: 1. a confused jumble or medley of things 2. a dish made from diced or minced meat, especially a hash or ragout.
On Sunday night, December 20, 2015, partway through our staff Christmas party, Colleen leaned over and whispered into my ear. “I think you need to go to emergency,” she said in a tone both tender and serious.
I’d been feeling exhausted. My right ear was aching. I thought I was getting a sty in the corner of my right eye, and several annoying bumps had appeared on the right side of my scalp.
The exhaustion I put down to the long shifts I’d been working at the restaurant, and to the fact that I’d never been as old as I was. Ear infections are on ongoing issue for me, and the soreness in my eye I figured was another symptom of exhaustion. For the annoying bumps on my scalp I had no answer. But my wife did. She had been consulting Doctor Google™, and together they had made a diagnosis. “I think you have shingles,” she whispered.
I decided, for once, not to argue. We drove from the restaurant to the hospital emergency unit, where the diagnosis of my live-in health-care provider was confirmed.
That was over a year ago. I am still putting drops in my right eye three times day and taking oral medication to fight the stubborn virus in my system. If you have experienced shingles, you know the intense pain they cause. If you haven’t had them and can remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, listen to your doctor and get vaccinated!
The scoundrel responsible for this nasty scourge, I’ve learned, has been living in my body since my early childhood. I can’t remember how old I was when I got chicken pox, but I remember the house we were living in when I had them. We moved out of that house in 1961 when I was six years old. This means that the varicella zoster (chicken pox) virus had been lying in wait for well over a half-century before it sprang into action last December.
It’s made me wonder if there are other kinds of viruses living inside me. Am I, for example, hosting resentment over some real or perceived unfairness in my past? Are there hurts I have refused to surrender to the healing power of forgiveness? Do viruses of pride or prejudice lurk in the recesses of my heart? If my skirmish with shingles has taught me anything, it’s that, given the right conditions, the viruses we allow to live inside us will most certainly make their destructive and painful presence known.
I received a gift from the parents of two of my grandchildren. It’s a small bound folder called “Letters to my Grandchild” and it contains a dozen airmail style envelopes. Each blank letter has a different starter sentence meant to spark a story: “It may surprise you to learn that when I was young …”; “One positive change in the world I have witnessed is …”; “When I was younger, I wish I had known …” etc. My goal is to complete all 12 letters over the course of this year. I hope to be around for a good number of years, but you never know what a year holds until you’ve lived it.
I first read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson in 2006. The book is a letter written by an aged minister to his young son of a second marriage. The old pastor knows he is not going to see his son grow into manhood, so sets down an account of his life and family history. I’ve reread it twice and plan to read it again this year. It’s a story rich with gentle wisdom and startling insights. Like this one about sermons:
“A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard in that way. There are three parties to it, of course, but so are there even to the most private thought—the self that yields the thought, the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought, and the Lord. That is a remarkable thing to consider.”1
Speaking of sermons, I’ve been listening to them ever since I was pew high. And I’ve been a preacher of sermons now for almost 40 years. That adds up to a lot of sermons, either listened to or delivered. When people have thanked me for a sermon I’ve preached, they will often tell me what they took away from it. There have been many times I’ve thought to myself, How on earth did you get that from what I said?
Frederick Buechner sheds some light on this phenomenon in his book Telling Secrets. In the fall of 1985, Buechner was invited to teach a semester course at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. During the months he was there, he attended St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, where he listened each week to the preaching of Rev. Robert MacFarlane. He writes: “One particular sermon I will always remember though I cannot be sure that it is exactly the sermon he preached because of course it is the sermons we preach to ourselves around the preacher’s sermons that are the ones that we hear most powerfully.”2
This is a truth I wish I’d understood early on in my preaching life. I would have carried on more passionate conversations and delivered fewer monologues.
1. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 45.
2. Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 85.
This article appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of testimony,
the bimonthly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada