Getting wound up about superficial symbolism.

I grew up in a Reformed denomination (CRC) which believed worship was mainly done with the mind, thus, a paucity of symbols in churches equaled the possibility of a fertile attentiveness to the words delivering the Word to our heads.

I was bored a lot in church. I knew I shouldn’t be, and I felt bad, and church is probably the best place to feel bad, but the bad got badder. That memory shapes how I preach. Not the media culture.

One Sunday, when I was about 12, so in the early 70’s, accidental symbolism broke out in a sermon by my Dad. It was awesome! To me. Aweful to others. It must have been awesome, because I remember it. The awesome words of good Reformed sermons – not so much remembered.

On this occasion my father was preaching on the Jericho story.

I need to mention as a semi-aside here that we had just returned from living in Europe for three years. In the school I went to there, the principal would teach Bible. He did it simply by dramatically reading/retelling stories, pretty well straight from the Bible. I remember several of them quite vividly. One was about David and Jonathan, and shooting arrows. The way he read it, I could SEE it happen, I was there, I felt the bond between those two guys, I felt the tension of the expectation of waiting for how far the arrow would be shot. That taught me the power of the Word, as story, as narrative, not as dead dissected propositional statements. Now, I need to be honest here. I wasn’t totally good at paying attention even then. This principal had an other amazing talent. He was bald, and if a fly landed on his head as he was telling the Word, he could somehow flick his entire scalp, just like cows can flick-quiver their own skin, and shake the fly off. He did it reflexively, without missing a beat of the story! I loved watching that. I’ve tried to teach myself that skill, to no avail. If I ever go bald, I’ll see if that makes it easier.

Now, back to my main story, sometimes it was fun to watch Dad preach because he could develop foam in the corner of his mouth, and it was at the built-up-to point in the sermon where the people of God were about to march around Jericho SEVEN times instead of one, so since I could tell by the tone that we were getting to something significant, I quit counting knot-holes in the rafters and paid attention to Dad, looking for foam. Foam moments were also kinda fun, because Mom would get very stiffly uncomfortable when Dad got foamy. I could see her wishing she could sneak up there invisibly, or could mentally telecommunicate that Dad should wipe. I should ask her sometime how much of the sermon she remembered when there was foam.

Oh, these were exciting action moments in church. I should mention: we didn’t have TV, so these desires were not raised in me by that. Though I did read a lot… Anyway, the pinnacle point came. The Preacher started excitedly telling about how the people marched “all around the walls of the city of Jericho, with trumpet’s blazing! SEVEN times” and as he described that, he got real excited, lost his Reformed composure and, gasp, made a symbolic gesture. He waved his arm in a vast circular sweep. That was a definate risk. It turned out to be a bad one. This gesture and it’s result became an oft-referred to example of how dangerous symbolic drama is in church. See, his hand, at the furthest point away from his body in the circumnavigating motion, struck the microphone. Hard. SMACK!

Now not just the foam watcher-for-ers, or the knot-counters were paying attention, but the sleepers were roused from their slumber-that-was-a-sign-they-were-degenerate. What was worse than the blow that was the result of symbolic gesturing itself, and worse than the sound that startled everyone, was that the pulpit microphone, having been struck, started moving, rotating, slowly, making a metallic, amplified, rumbling-grinding sound. In circles. And everyone began counting. They must have been counting. Because I was. One, two,, three… and the chord is wrapping around the mike’s stand, and it is slowing down, but we’re all rooting for it to make seven rounds and if it had, all hell would have broken loose — in a positive way, like it did when Canada’s Henderson scored the winning goal against the Russians in ’72. That would be amazing! But it jammed at the 4th rotation.

Dad made no comment — that would have been seen as entertainment and frivolity in worship — and he picked up the sermon where he left off. The walls coming down was now boring again. God’s salvation plan got lost somewhere in the denouement after that.

Many children went home from church that day with thigh bruises from mother’s snickering-and-laughter-preventing pinches.


One response to “Getting wound up about superficial symbolism.

  1. Steve Wilkinson

    September 15, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Amazing. Twain-ish.


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