Thursday, October 04, 2007

Irrelevant Relevance

"You are in the village."

An advantage to being young, to being twelve years old in fact, was that I could see through the silliness of a very up to date priest trying, despite his quadragenerian years, to make the service of Holy Communion seem hip, cool and, dare I say it, relevant to the young. It was 1970, and just as flower children were becoming a thing of the past, their style and message were being noticed by East Coast Episcopal clergy and liturgists.

So it was that at the Summer camp of the Claggett Diocesan Center, a gathering of kids ages twelve to fifteen from all over the Episcopal Churches of Maryland for a week’s fun in the sun, the priest who was in charge that year began the service in a colorful, painted tee-shirt with a weird rainbow stole, while a camp counselor played George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun for our opening hymn. "Little darlin’, it’s been a long and lonely comes the sun..."

Then suddenly we were using those familiar words of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer (American). Even at age twelve it struck me that Cranmer and the Beatles make a very superficial combination. Do not misunderstand me; I liked the Beatles and had every record that a twelve year-old boy could afford; but, I also knew when my leg was being pulled, and an adult was making a fool out of himself. I am glad he did not see Hair or he might have looked sillier. Of course, he would have worn his stole, or so I assume.

I would not have worded it this way back then; but, it all comes of trying to be relevant. In fact, it comes of trying to make Christianity relevant to the times, instead of being faithful to the timelessness of its eternal verity. Only in its timeless and unchanging truth do we see that Christ’s light in this world is always and everywhere relevant because of its nature. Attempts to make it relevant only put it a bit beyond reach, and rob it of its force. They also expose a certain disingenuousness.

This is because the all too familiar issues of the day get in the way, and crowd out the genuine relevance of the Gospel. Why is it assumed that the beauty and meaning of traditional liturgy, the words of scripture, and the classic hymns must undergo a mutation, and be encumbered by all of the trappings of secular culture and entertainment? Not to mention the oft distressing news headlines from which a few minutes respite can be therapy in itself.

Perhaps without the dilution of perceived relevance, the true relevance is too disturbing. The words of the liturgy and the scripture pierce the heart, and bring us face to face with the greatest reality of all. "Men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil..." When the light hurts the eyes, perhaps blinding them as the eyes of St. Paul at his conversion, a bit of today’s news, some meaningless- or at least less meaningful- chatter can provide comfort and protection.

A lot of noise is quite useful in helping the mind not to think. The Village, from the 60s television series The Prisoner, was a place in which thinking was discouraged in every possible way. The brain child of a life long Catholic, Patrick McGoohan, the series portrayed the horrors of life as it would be in a secularist’s paradise. A motto known to every villager was "Questions are a burden to others, answers a burden to oneself." The most effective remedy for an overly inquisitive mind was a frontal lobotomy, though used only in extreme cases.

In the world of today no one needs a lobotomy; the constant intrusion of rollicking, bumping "music" is quite sufficient for the same purpose. I have found that I cannot use a grocery store, shopping mall or even a restaurant without the intrusion of constant noise. A lover of Bach myself, I would have it very differently were I running these places. Real music stimulates the mind, or as Bach put it, alluding to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, it "renews the mind."

But, when I must eat out, in an affordable spot for lunch, I often carry a book with me, or perhaps the latest Touchstone, wishing to read and engage my mind. Reading with a plate of Szechuan chicken seems very pleasant in the early afternoon. But, who can read when thudding and imbecilic music is suddenly attacking the mind, competing with the thoughts of writers, and demanding attention (as also with conversation; how often do we have to shout our conversations to the people sitting next to us in these places?)? Shopkeepers and restaurant managers used to know better. Oh, to find a quiet place.

I recall once going into a well-known restaurant, one of the big chains, to meet a man who needed to see me. The experience was surreal. In every corner a television set was playing some inane soap opera, but at the same time a radio was blaring "music" from ceiling speakers arranged to create equal intrusion into every corner. Obviously, it was assumed that people want to be surrounded by sight and sound, but not to concentrate on anything, just as in McGoohan’s Village it was impossible to turn off the sound system.

My point is that "relevance" does to the liturgy and to the scripture what the noise does to the mind in secular venues. Other methods can be employed as well.

Sermons often become the place for relevance, of the distracting kind, either upon special occasions or when big news has taken place. A very sad piece of news to come to us, only a few years ago, was the destruction of the Columbia as it reentered the earth’s atmosphere, and seven lives were lost. I was scheduled to preach the next day, being Sunday.

I was handed a list of the seven names by a helpful friend, with the suggestion that I carry the list to the pulpit for my sermon. That Sunday was the Feast of the Purification, in which we remember when St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary took our Lord to the temple. The Gospel reading was a selection from the second chapter of St. Luke, including the place where Simeon first prays the Nunc Dimittis, "Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation..."

My task was to expound upon the Word of God, and I could think of nothing more relevant to the true need of everyone in the church that day than "a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel." This is the testimony, that light has come into the world; and with all due respect for the astronauts who had died the day before, I could not lessen the relevance of my sermon by the distraction of news (but, of course they were remembered in prayer).

Perhaps, if I were more clever, I could have managed to do both, and I have no doubt that other preachers with more talent than I, did achieve this very goal. But, I could not think of a way, at least without it being forced and awkward. I have a very real fear about dwelling upon current events in the pulpit, not that it is always unwise to address them. Indeed, it can be necessary at times. However, sermons do not need anything but the honest work of exegesis, to accomplish their best purpose. The Word of God is always relevant, far more relevant than today’s headlines, to everything in human life that truly matters. I will not dilute its effect, or weaken its force.

Suggesting that we need to refrain from concentrating upon the less meaningful chatter, the perceived relevance, and that we need to give it no place in the worship of the Church, is a very practical and simple application of basic Christian asceticism. It is consistent with the spirit of St. Benedict, ascetical practice to advance spiritual progress, no less for the layman than for the religious or the cleric. Distracting the people with relevance from the spirit of the age is a very indulgent practice, and obstructs the work of the Holy Spirit upon the human spirit.

For true relevance, it is best neither to assume a persona in accord with the latest fads in popular culture, nor to mimic the talking heads on the News. The truth of the Gospel is only dulled by such efforts. One must instead "put on Christ," especially those who are leading the people in worship, and preaching in the pulpits. The eternal and unchanging light of Christ is sufficiently relevant to lighten every corner where darkness dwells.

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