Saturday, January 24, 2009

Obfuscation by my Ilk

I, like all others of my ilk, work in words, and that can be a challenge; for example, I just had to look up the word “ilk” to make sure that it was appropriate to use in the context in which I just used it and, I am happy to report, it is, and that’s why I left it in, although I or someone else of my ilk might have chosen to use a different word that might have not have required looking up, such as “type” or “kind.” But I like the sound of the word “ilk” and so that’s the one I chose to use.

“Ilk” rhymes with various words, “silk” and “milk” among them, and speaking of milk, I have not yet seen Milk, which I would very much like to see, nor have I seen any of the other nominees for the 2009 Oscar for Best Picture: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, or Slumdog Millionaire, all of which I’m sure are outstanding for many reasons, not the least among them being the quality of the words that make up the scripts and the quality of the delivery of those words by the fine actors who make up the casts.

I am especially interested in seeing Frost/Nixon because I always have been and always will be, it appears, fascinated by the sordid saga of Watergate, a scandal that had to do with paranoia, espionage, politics, money, power, and—words. When you get right down to it, words are what finally brought down the Nixon presidency—the words that were written by Woodward and Bernstein, the words that were spoken by witnesses before the Senate Watergate Committee, and the words that were preserved by the White House’s handy dandy taping service.

Yes, words are powerful things, and they can be used for good or harm, for building up or for tearing down, for love or for hate, and for clarification or obfuscation (yep, I had to look that one up, too, and yep, it’s also appropriate in that context).

Speaking of obfuscation, I think that one of the great challenges of preaching, which is one of the tasks that falls to me with maddening regularity, is to avoid it—obfuscation, not preaching. After all, as the opening chapter of the Fourth Gospel puts it, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth,” and part of what that means, I think, is that in the person of Jesus Christ the eternal Word of God stood right there in front of people or sat right there beside people and basically said, “OK, here I am—plain as the nose on your face and obvious as the sun in sky on a cloudless day—so what are you going to do with it or about it.”

Oh, I know that when Jesus spoke he often spoke in parables and I know that he said something about it being part of the plan that people who couldn’t get it wouldn’t get it and that he quite often had to explain to those who ordinarily stood or sat or reclined—which I understand was the usual eating position back then and that strikes me as awfully inconvenient and uncomfortable--the closest to him what it was that he was talking about, but still, there he was, right there in the flesh, the ultimate testimony to how far Almighty God would go to say, “Here I am—do something or say something or for God’s sake, at least think something or feel something.”

I fear that sometimes I stand in front of the people of God in the house of God and read the Word of God in response to which they say “Thanks be to God” and then I expound on it in ways that, rather than shining light on that Word, cast shadows on it—you know, obfuscate it. My even greater fear is that sometimes my life, out of which my words come, has its own shadows that obfuscate—there’s that word again—the Word for me and, if that’s case, how on earth can I make it clear to anyone else?

Ah, but then there’s grace, isn’t there? Yes, thank God, there’s grace.

After 35 years of working at this preaching thing, it seems to me that my responsibility is to live as close to the living Word who is Jesus Christ as I, with the help of the Spirit of God, can, to study the written Word with all my heart, mind, and strength, and to cast my sermons in words that are as precise, as clear, as open, as obvious, and—dare I say it?—as beautiful as I can make them.

When my words are precise, clear, open, obvious, and beautiful as they can be—well, that’s God’s grace, isn’t it?

And when my words obfuscate—well, God’s grace covers me and my poor listeners, doesn’t it?

Maybe that’s one of the most valuable truths that I and those of my ilk can ever realize.

In their love song Words, the Bee Gees sang, “It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away.” Well, words are all we preachers have to take away the breath of our listeners and to turn their hearts toward God—but, by the grace of God, behind our words, beneath our words, and within our words--whether those words on that particular Sunday illuminate or obfuscate-- lurks the Word of God—thanks be to God.

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