Foxy Mama's Blog

Stories, musings and ramblings from the front porch. Pull up a rocking chair and sit for a spell...


Thursday, February 24, 2005

The day I fell from grace...

For some reason I’ve recently remembered something which happened about 25 years ago. I was a Sunday school teacher, a youth group leader (where, incidentally, I was given the name Foxy Mama, a story for another time…), a choir member, a member of the area ecumenical council of churches, and a lay member of the Chaplaincy of the county prison. I was a bona fide volunteer… Following the old maxim of “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” I didn’t know the meaning of the word “no.”

During that time I met a lot of people and had a variety of unique experiences and of those experiences, one particularly stands out in my memory. It was the day I fell from grace. I sometimes found myself supplying the pulpit of a sister church in a neighboring town as a lay minister while the search was on for a regular minister. Let me say up front that I am not an ordained minister nor even an unordained minister. I was not, nor am I now, a fundamentalist or overly religious at all. They were taking a very big chance indeed by asking the likes of me to fill in. I was probably comic relief for some warped minds.

When I agreed to to do it I was asked if I needed any help such as someone to read the scripture or deliver a prayer or anything like that. No, I was fine with doing the whole thing from beginning to end. I wanted to co-ordinate the readings, hymns, prayers, etc. with the subject of my sermon of the day. Continuity, don’t you know…. In my life I’ve found that it’s sometimes just as easy to do three things as it is to do one. Cooking, for instance, is sometimes more fun when preparing for a big dinner such as for a holiday or company dinner, than it is to do something small for only a person or two. After all, you still have to do it and the job can be more satisfying and creative when you are pressed to do more.

As with any project, the hardest thing is to get started and the second hardest thing is to know when the project is complete. With artistic endeavors that’s sometimes difficult to recognize. There’s always that temptation to add ‘just a little bit more’ and swamp the whole thing. With a church service you don’t usually have that problem as there is somewhat of a form to follow, a structure which has been in place for a long time and has definite beginnings and ends, usually based on a set time frame. One of the most important parts of that service is the sermon. It’s like having a centerpiece on the table around which you arrange everything else.

The sermon is usually around 20 minutes long and the first three minutes are the most crucial. In the first 3 minutes you need to establish the idea or subject you wish to speak about and it’s important to grab people’s attention in those initial minutes. If you haven’t, then they’re going to ‘zone out’ and miss the point you’re trying to make. A lot of quality naps have been taken because people failed to provide 'the hook.' The rest of the time is spent embellishing and giving examples and explaining the information you proffered in the beginning. Sound pretty easy? Don’t you believe it!

For one thing, you'll find yourself standing in front of a large group of people with diverse interests, of varying ages and temperaments and you have to talk about something they find relevant for 20 minutes. If you’ve done your job well in the beginning they will stay with you and listen and then hopefully, you will have given them something positive and concrete that they can take with them and use to make their lives more meaningful or so the premise is supposed to be. This can be a much larger responsibility than would appear at first glance. For instance, if people are really paying attention and looking to you for some sort of guidance and wisdom you’d better be darn sure you’re able to deliver that and when you’re standing there facing them on Sunday morning it is not the time to start thinking of that.

Suddenly you realize that something you say may profoundly affect another person’s life. Your facts have to be solid as you believe them to be, you have to be aware of various scenarios that they might encounter, your message has to be full of hope and last, but not least, there is a congregation full of people staring at you for a lo-ong time without saying or doing anything and you have absolutely no feedback from them! People generally wear straight faces while listening to a sermon and they don’t even smile unless you give them a darn good reason to. In fact, they’re usually more apt to frown.

Generally you face a sea of stoicism that can scare the bejesus out of you. Before you’ve even opened your mouth you’ve already considered that you just might have made a really bi-ig mistake to think that you’ve anything sufficiently valuable to say to these people and you’ve got t-w-e-n-t-y minutes to fill while they stare at you, having already given their hard earned cash into the collection plate just before “the main event.” If you’re anybody rational, you’re already thinking things like “holy crapola, why did I agree to do this anyway? What was I thinking? I must have been out of my tiny little mind to say I’d tackle this! I can’t possibly do this (!!) and how do I get out of here anyway? I wonder if they’ll lynch me?”

And that’s really where you get religion just as surely as Paul did on the road to Damascus. Suddenly you’re praying like you’ve never prayed before, saying things like “Oh Lord, deliver me…. Now, please. I can’t possibly do this. If you want this to be done, you’re going to have to do it. Now, please. You can use me Lord but please don’t make me have to do this by myself. You do it! Yeah, that’s it! Just blank me out and you go out and do it. Please, now.” This is where you really get in touch with yourself and boy are you a mess! You’re a quivering mass of uncertainty and dread mixed with a profound sense of failure even before you start!

And then you look out amongst all those unsmiling but expectant faces and see…your dad sitting out there with your brother (gulp!), waiting to see how you’ll conduct yourself. And they've driven a long way to sit out there on that hard pew bench to stare at you and… Oh boy! You find yourself thinking things like “That’s it. If I manage to get out of here without any serious damage to me or anyone else, I’m going to drive myself right down to the nearest psychiatric ward and get myself committed because I clearly am not in my right mind or I would never have put myself in this position in the first place.”

Of course this all goes away after you deliver your first couple of sentences but it sure is intense for a few minutes. And it doesn’t help if the church you’re serving has a pulpit with 3 very small and steep steps leading up to the gallows, I mean lecturn, and you’re wearing new bifocal glasses and unaccustomed high heels. Combined with a sudden and severe case of nerves these things can turn an already distressing scenario into a lethal situation almost instantaneously. Steps like those just lay in wait for vulnerable bunglers like you. If you’d only been paying attention you’d have heard their warning snarls…

So I began my ascent and then I stumbled and slid right off the steep, narrow little steps landing with a thud but fortunately not in a heap. I guess Somebody Up There took pity on me and I made a slight last minute recovery. It was not a graceful maneuver but at least I was saved. Yes folks, I was saved on the way to ruin. I was…uh…delivered unto the path of atonement. I survived. I did the thing and got through the rest of the service and shook hands at the end with people who said very nice things to me and even asked how I was, did I hurt my ankle or anything? “Just my pride,” I said. And all was well that ended well, except…

By the time I drove back to my own little town and opened the door into the safety of my modest little home the phone was already ringing! “Hello?” There was raucous laughter on the other end of the wire. "So, I heard you fell off the pulpit in Harmony this morning..!" Good news travels fast.

Bad news travels faster…


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