Monday, July 23, 2007

Killing the Velveteen Rabbit

Robert Hart +

It was Ash Wednesday many years ago, and my wife Diane was sitting next to me in church (something we got to enjoy before my ordination). The scriptures for the day had been read, powerful and inspiring, moving and challenging, telling us the serious nature of the penitential season of Lent into which we entered. The prophet Joel cried out to us from centuries past, but as if present in the church with us: “Rend your heart and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God.” The Lord Jesus Christ told us not to lay up for ourselves treasures on earth, but in Heaven; “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Weighty words had been spoken, with the power to transform lives, words by which the Holy Spirit convicts the conscience. And at this point in the service, with the freshly read scriptures still having their effect in human hearts, a priest entered the pulpit, said his brief invocation, and proceeded to expound upon the text before him, fully prepared to exegete from it every ounce of meaning that his gifts allowed. But, the text before him was not one of the Bible passages we had heard. No. For the third time within a couple of years, once again a clergyman stood before us to tell us a story so important that it preempted any need to draw from the scriptures. Once again we were to hear, from the pulpit, the story of The Velveteen Rabbit, with the cliché moral of the story- to “get real.”

Frankly, sensing my call to the priesthood in those early years, and feeling quite tired of such feeble sermonettes, it took restraint to remain in my seat rather than charging the pulpit to impress the collar of the clergyman from all directions. Not again, not on Ash Wednesday for heaven’s sake! How tired I was of this velveteen rabbit chap, and of being told to “get real” by some poor inept fellow who, having the scriptures available to study, to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest”, could not think of anything to say about them. How long would this velveteen rabbit trend remain fashionable anyway? It was time for serious resolve: If ever I were to meet this velveteen rabbit, I decided, I would kill it, and put the little rodent out of my misery.

I thought about the words of the Prophet Jeremiah: “He that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is The Velveteen Rabbit to the wheat? saith the LORD. Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? (Jeremiah 23: 28, 29).” It is one thing to enter a pulpit and preach heresy, the way that James Pike did just before his retirement as the Episcopal Bishop in San Francisco. In his last service, before presiding at the Holy Communion, he preached his final sermon in order to set everybody straight on why we should not believe in the Virgin Birth, Christ’s miracles, His atoning death or His resurrection (of course, not before leading the people in the “Nicene Creed”). As terrible as such heresy is, pure banality cannot be far behind.

Telling the people to “get real” like the toys in a children’s story is not quite as serious an offense as the last sermon of Pike. But, neither is it the word of God. “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).” The scriptures deal with something even more important than life and death; they speak directly to eternal destiny.

While walking the earth, the Son of God proclaimed that the Old Testament scriptures were, in fact, actually testifying about Him. After His resurrection He expounded on the meaning of all the scriptures as the things concerning Himself, and opened the minds of His disciples to understand them.

So, too, the New Testament is rich with the reports of Christ’s actions, His words, His life, His death and His resurrection. They tell us, also, who He is: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God… And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1:1,2, 14).” It goes on to tell us how His Incarnation is extended in this world through time and space by His Church, founded by Him and indwelt by His Spirit. The doctrines of that Church are forever enshrined in the Epistles, and our hope made firm by the last prophetic Revelation.

This is the hammer that breaks the rock in pieces, a fire that bursts forth and blazes, consuming everything, and making new life. It is a power that transcends every natural force, and every embellishment of those forces, electric or atomic. “The voice of the Lord is mighty in operation; the voice of the LORD is a glorious voice…the voice of the LORD shaketh the wilderness (Psalm 29: 4, 7 BCP).” The scriptures kill and make alive, meeting the truest and deepest needs of man. And yet, many clergymen struggle very hard, trying to think of something to say. Why?

Every seminary everywhere ought to teach a very important principle: It is not the duty of the clergy to blunt the sharpness, to soften the hammer, or to quench the fire. Woe to the preacher who protects the people from the word that kills, because he protects them also from being made alive- truly and forever alive. Woe to the preacher who acts as a buffer, deflecting the force of the scriptures to soften the blow, because in protecting from the stroke, he prevents the healing. If his labors in the pulpit amount to a lifetime of standing between the people and the word of God, reducing its effect, taming it and making it polite, presentable and harmless, he will have nothing to show for it in the end but wood, hay and stubble instead of gold, silver and precious stones.

It far easier to preach if a man will ride the scriptures like a wave, letting them make their own point, and arrive at their own destination (informed by the Tradition of the Church). If the passages that have been read speak of life and death, then elaborate on life and death. If they speak of repentance then preach that men should repent. When they encourage faith, proclaim faith. When they warn of Hell and the judgment to come, then blow the trumpet as a faithful watchman on the walls. When they comfort, speak as a pastor who feeds the sheep. Let the meaning of the scriptures be expounded to their full effect, proclaiming from them the truth that affects the eternal destiny of the souls in your care.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I can't resist it:

If the passages that have been read speak of life and death, then elaborate on the velveteen rabbit. If they speak of repentance then preach that velveteen rabbits should repent. When they encourage faith, proclaim the velveteen rabbit. When they warn of Hell and the judgment to come, then cuddle up with your velveteen rabbit and go to a happy place. When they comfort, speak as a pastor who feeds the velveteen rabbits. Let the meaning of the scriptures be expounded to their full effect, proclaiming from them the truth that affects the eternal destiny of the velveteen rabbits in your care.

There. I've started a new religion. Any takers?

Albion Land said...

Fr Hart,

My thoughts went immediately to Ezekiel 3.18ff:

"When I say to a wicked man, 'You surely will die,' and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, AND I WILL HOLD YOU ACCOUNTABLE FOR HIS BLOOD ..." (my emphasis)

As one great preacher said: "A good sermon should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

poetreader said...

Wonderful meditation, Father.

I wonder, though, if heresy is really worse than this kind of banality. A heretic at least believes that there is something to say, and that it matters. Is it perhaps not an even worse heresy to say that there really isn't anything worthwhile in the Scriptures and the doctrine of the Church? I would actually rather wrestle with an honest heretic than suffer the trivialization of the faith to a place where it ceases to have value.


Unknown said...

Well done, Fr! If I had my way, every seminarian from my own Church (RC) would have to memorize this piece of writing, word for word, in order to be ordained.

After years of pondering how so many of us are fed upon such thin gruel Sunday after Sunday, I have come to the conclusion that it is because our idea of the priesthood is defective. Among the "conservatives" the priest is a kind of Christian wizard, the guy who works the sacramental magic. Among the "liberals," he is a professional hand-holder, the person whose job is to smile placidly and speak saccharine words of comfort. In both these models, the central role of the priest as understood by the Fathers - that of herald of the Gospel - is missing.