Preached down to four

Preached down to four October 16, 2010

Clarence Jordan, the late founder of Koinonia Farm (the community that gave us Habitat for Humanity), used to tell a story that nicely illustrates the importance of "Test everything. Hold on to the good."

In the 1950s, an old hillbilly preacher invited Jordan to come and speak at his church in rural South Carolina. Jordan arrived to find, to his surprise, a large, thriving and racially integrated congregation — a remarkable thing in that time and place. (Sadly, it's actually a remarkable thing in any time or place.) So Clarence asked the man how this came about.

When he first got there as a substitute preacher, the old man said, it was a small, all-white congregation of a few dozen families. So he gave a sermon on the bit from Galatians where Paul writes: "You are all children of God … There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Here I'll pick up from Tony Campolo's retelling of Jordan's story:

"When the service was over, the deacons took me in the back room and they told me they didn't want to hear that kind of preaching no more."

Clarence asked, "What did you do then?"

The old preacher answered, "I fired them deacons!"

"How come they didn't fire you?" asked Clarence.

"Well, they never hired me," the old preacher responded. … "Once I found out what bothered them people, I preached the same message every Sunday. It didn't take much time before I had that church preached down to four."

That story gets at something I was trying to say Thursday in my strange phone conversation with the Granny Inquisitor, my first-time-caller, long-time-nonlistener.

And yeah, that really happened — at 11 a.m., no less, which is for me pretty much still the middle of the night, the equivalent of 3 a.m. for those of you who work 9 to 5 (although she couldn't have known that).

I'm still a bit frustrated by the thought that this was probably my only chance to have a conversation with this fierce aunt and that I didn't make better use of this one chance to communicate the most essential things I wish I could have expressed to her, in part because I lost my temper. My patience with her for the first 20 minutes or so really was commendable, I think, but it doesn't excuse my angry impatience in the last five. Confronted with someone confrontational and constantly shouting interruptions I eventually wound up just shouting back — a failure of imagination and bad behavior on my part.

When I'm more awake, I often try to approach such situations by asking WWDND? or sometimes WWTDD? What would David Niven do? Or What would the Doctor do? In his Cliff-Notes summary of the Sermon on the Mount (in Romans 12), St. Paul said, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." That's sound advice (or, if you like, a wise command), but it's far from easy. So sometimes the next best thing to overcoming evil with good is to try to respond to it with an unflappable politeness.

In this case, I'm afraid, I turned out to be quite flappable. I flapped. Instead of overcoming evil with good, I wound up just naming it as such, loudly, and then hanging up. Could have done worse. Should have done better.

As a result I wasn't able to ask what I really wanted to ask her, which was this: Your nephew has rejected something or someone — but are you sure that it's really Jesus? Was he rejecting the genuine article, or just some counterfeit impostor?

The former would, in my view, be grounds for great sadness. The latter, however, ought to bring rejoicing here on earth as it does in heaven.

After all, we can't hold on to the good if we're trying to hold on to something else instead.

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