Monday, December 12, 2016

Sermon-in-Verse: The Fourth Edition

I spend an inordinate amount of time planning, researching, editing, and the like prepping for the two biggies: sermons for Christmas and Easter.  But I probably spend, per word portion, more time on the sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent than any other sermon.


It is a sermon-in-verse, a whimsical retelling of an unknown and fictional slant of the Christmas story.

I first heard about the idea while researching the sermons of the late David H.C. Read at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church; he served there from 1956 to 1989.  Suffice to say he was there a long time...perhaps the sermon-in-verse he created for the Fourth Sunday in Advent helped him stay fresh and gave him an creative and jolly breather before the toll of Christmas Eve, perhaps...

I've done three Sermons-in-Verse here at Judson. The first one was a flop, so bad I didn't want to do another.  But my second was actually pretty good.  The third was mediocre.  I stopped chagrining a few months ago because it is not like there is a high bar for success.  Success is just writing a rhyming poem and delivering it!

This year I chose to borrow elements from Rip van Winkle and Elf to describe the rivalry between John the Baptizer and Jesus.  I think it will be a fairly decent sermon-in-verse with some faux rhymes, extremely dry lines, and making a debut this year: couple of singing verses.  All in all six minutes of homiletical joy.

Come up with a story, grab yourself a rhyming dictionary, put on a pot of coffee and have at it.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Finding Robert Lax

"I heard you want to talk about the poetry of Bob Lax, I know an elderly man in New York City who would love to talk to you".  That line was uttered by a male, probably in his fifties; that's all I can recall, but I know it happened.  And that is pretty much my history with Bob Lax, details slip from my memory (and I'm too young for memory loss).  I know I communicated with Lax and about Lax but I cannot remember if my communications took place via letters or via dreams...

After walking down the aisle to give my life to Jesus at the age of 16 at the First Baptist Church in St. Albans, WV.  I quickly realized I was woefully prepared for the Christian life.  I asked my pastor if he could help me learn how to pray.  He tried and to his credit gave me a Richard Foster book on prayer.  The book was over my head, but I appreciated the effort (of my pastor and Mr. Foster).  In college I was excited when the campus minister offered a class on discipleship (which I thought would surely help me discover how to pray).  My campus minister was a good dude, but after the first semester he suggested I go see the Catholic priest for spiritual direction.  The priest was another good dude, but he was too much into the Ignatian method.  At about this time I discovered Thomas Merton and found the voice I was looking for. 

In The Seven Storey Mountain Merton introduced me to his best friend, Robert Lax.  I read about the friendship between Merton and Lax with great envy.  Me and my friends talked about cheap beer, football games, longing for dates, golf, and whose turn it was to wash the dishes.  We didn't write poetry, talk about philosophy, or contemplate our place in the world.  Maybe it was Bill Clinton's fault - we we're all focused on sex too much.  Today's college students seem more serious, more focused and more in tune with the world than I was (divine I hope so).  

Later in college I learned that Lax was still alive.  And I thought I should write him a letter.  So I did. And to my astonishment, he wrote back.  Or at least I thought he wrote back.  Here is one of those occasion where I cannot separate what really physically happened and what took place in my dream life.  Did he write back to me?  Or did I dream that he wrote back to me?  Or did I even write him, how did I get his address?  Maybe Msgr. Bill Shannon gave it to me.  If you know the life story of Bob Lax I'm not sure any of this matters...

In divinity school I continued to read Merton, primarily his social writings.  I was interested how one connected the active life with the contemplative life, or how could I work for social justice without burning out.  I knew I wanted to work for social justice, but I also knew I was not a protestor or what most folk think of when they think of activist.  I knew there had to be another avenue.  In some ways I'm still looking for it.  I also need to add that in divinity school I began to have dreams about Lax, where he and I could have deep and meaningful conversations.  About what?  I have no idea, I just know that they happened and that when I awoke I was grateful for our time together.  

And then one day it occurred to me, "I ought to go and find one of Lax's poetry books".  (this was the time when I was reading, exclusively, The Beat poets.  I would go around quoting as much as possible Howl and singing Tom Waits' version of California in my imitation of his cigarette stained voice.  Well I found Lax's a book or two of his poetry at the University of Rochester library.  And I thought,





I just wasn't ready for his poetry.  I read the poems like I read Schleiermacher, way too fast and with my eyes closed.

Then sometime: in Rhode Island or was it in New Orleans?  where i don't know.  somewhere, someday, out of the blue a dude said, "So I hear you want to discuss the poetry of Bob Lax?"  I said sure, but the person never gave me any contact info or how to talk about it or what books of poetry we would discuss.  I can only say, in the pastoral life - stuff that like happens more than you would imagine.  

Kids, moves, other interests, bicycles, Gravely tractors, gumbo, fried chicken, snow...they all took my soul in other directions and I forgot about Merton & Lax...

Two summers ago I applied for a summer writing workshop at the Institute for Ecumenical Studies housed at St. John's University in Collegeville, MN.  One of my church members suggested that I apply for Michael McGregor's offering.  So I did and I got in.  

I went there to write about, well hell I can't think of the original paper (really, I do have a pretty good memory, at least i thought i did).  Anyway Michael asked me to write about a tangential story that I included in an essay at the last minute.  It was an essay on prayer and vocation.  It was the most difficult essay I ever wrote (I'm still editing and working on it).  And then get this, I learned that Michael had just finished a biography...of ROBERT LAX!  Allow me to put a shameless plug in for this book: buy it.  

When Michael came to Minneapolis for a reading last year I happily went, happily bought a copy of the biography and happily started reading it.  But I didn't get past the first six pages.  I liked the book but I couldn't get into it.  So I laid the book aside and went on with my reading life.  As I worked on my sermon series on Job for the Fall of '16 I picked up the Lax bio and slowly started again.  It was like working on a crossword puzzle after you laid it down for a couple of hours.  Whatever kept me from reading the bio before was no longer there.  Every night I would read just a few pages.  I wanted to read more but I couldn't read it fast; I wanted to savor each page.  

I finished the book on Saturday afternoon.  With seven weeks left until the Trump presidency I feel this was the best investment of my time.  What a great book, what a fascinating life, what a piercing soul.

I haven't had a Lax dream for sometime, but as I read the Lax bio my dream life was enhanced by a factor of 12 at least.  But get this, on Thursday I received a letter from a scholar in San Francisco who had just published a book on Lax's contemplative life and thought my spiritual community would like it.  You can't make this stuff up...