Thinking Out Loud

May 12, 2018

If a Sermon is Preached in a Forest, and No One is There to Hear it… ?

Filed under: Christianity, guest writer — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:16 am

by Ruth Wilkinson

…Boston was one of our most recent expeditions. Really interesting city (American history machine aside). Cool architecture, good subway, Chinatown, really easy to get lost, terrible maps, good food. Perfect. Some historic churches. Mostly for “freedom” reasons, of one kind or another.

We chanced upon one that really struck me. Not as old as some of the others, probably. No “Paul Revere slept through the sermon here” plaques. But a lovely red brick building, tucked away in one of the more serpentine neighborhoods. We climbed a few steps to a back door and found it unlocked, so we went in. Found ourselves in a foyer of sorts, creaky floored and unlit. There was another door in front of us, so we pulled that one open. Creak. Stepped to the threshold. Creak. Peeked through the door. Creak.

It was beautiful inside. Warm and hushed and soaring. Stained glass windows, old dark pews, draperies and candles. It smelled of polished wood and wax and flame and time and prayer. But we didn’t go in any further. We closed the door and left. Creaking all the way…

…You see, the reason why we left without really going in is that when we opened that inner door, we heard something.

Someone speaking. One voice.

One voice echoing through the room, over the pews, off the windows. The pews that were completely empty, the windows that were telling their stories to no one.

One voice, chanting in what might have been Latin. Reciting a text that no one would hear. Except the speaker and God himself. Because they were the only ones in the room.

As we left, we looked at the sign on the fence outside. “5:00 pm. Mass”. It was 5 pm. So the Mass was being said. Whether anyone was there to hear it or not. It had to be said.

Why? I have no clue. But it had to be said. If only to the antique pews and the priceless glass and the glowing candles and absolutely not a living soul. Haunted and driven by tradition. Disregarded by life and humanity.

…Church with a sermon and no congregation.

original article at GTI

May 29, 2010

If a Tree Falls in the Forest, and No One is There to Hear It…

Today’s item is a joint-post between this blog and my devotional blog, Christianity 201.


I got some rather flukey traffic this week which drove the stats to a record high.

Then there is Christianity 201, which I do mostly for myself. It has readers, but nothing close to this one. I enjoy blogging at Thinking out Loud, but I enjoy searching my own heart to come up with things to post to C201.

The contrasting stats reminds me of something that happened last summer, which my wife blogged as part of a longer piece:

…Boston was one of our most recent expeditions. Really interesting city (American history machine aside). Cool architecture, good subway, Chinatown, really easy to get lost, terrible maps, good food. Perfect. Some historic churches. Mostly for “freedom” reasons, of one kind or another.

We chanced upon one that really struck me. Not as old as some of the others, probably. No “Paul Revere slept through the sermon here” plaques. But a lovely red brick building, tucked away in one of the more serpentine neighborhoods. We climbed a few steps to a back door and found it unlocked, so we went in. Found ourselves in a foyer of sorts, creaky floored and unlit. There was another door in front of us, so we pulled that one open. Creak. Stepped to the threshold. Creak. Peeked through the door. Creak.

It was beautiful inside. Warm and hushed and soaring. Stained glass windows, old dark pews, draperies and candles. It smelled of polished wood and wax and flame and time and prayer. But we didn’t go in any further. We closed the door and left. Creaking all the way…

…You see, the reason why we left without really going in is that when we opened that inner door, we heard something.

Someone speaking. One voice.

One voice echoing through the room, over the pews, off the windows. The pews that were completely empty, the windows that were telling their stories to no one.

One voice, chanting in what might have been Latin. Reciting a text that no one would hear. Except the speaker and God himself. Because they were the only ones in the room.

As we left, we looked at the sign on the fence outside. “5:00 pm. Mass”. It was 5 pm. So the Mass was being said. Whether anyone was there to hear it or not. It had to be said.

Why? I have no clue. But it had to be said. If only to the antique pews and the priceless glass and the glowing candles and absolutely not a living soul. Haunted and driven by tradition. Disregarded by life and humanity.

…Church with a sermon and no congregation.

You can read her article which, in context, has a whole other set of meanings, with the most inescapable being what you get from the second last paragraph: Tradition; irrelevance; religiosity.

Christianity 201 is different, however. This is blogging in the original “web-log” sense of journal-keeping. It remains available for future discovery; readers driven perhaps by items I have yet to write.

(Have you ever noticed how close “stats” sounds to “status?” So stats-seeking is really status-seeking.)

And all of it of course is being read by some people already. I’d probably do this even if there weren’t any readers. Having tasted both the highs and lows of statistics, I’m not sure that one is better than the other. It’s somewhat similar to what I wrote about the contrasts between the large church we attended two weeks ago, and the much smaller one we attended last week.

Still, I don’t know how that Boston cleric could do it. Something unseen drives him to go through the forms of the mass even though no other humans are present…

…Although, I wonder if later that day, he suddenly remembered hearing the door creaking and sensed that an individual; no, wait; a couple came in, listened for a minute, and then left?

March 18, 2010

The Story Is Getting Lost – Guest Post

My wife and I have known Rick Webster for about five years now.   For many years he blogged at Today at the Mission, where you can still read archived posts.   More recently, he’s been pastoring at The Third Space, a kind of alternative church in downtown Peterborough, Ontario; but only this week did I learn there was a Third Space blog.   When I read this post, I knew I had to share it with you, and rather than include it in yesterday’s links, I got Rick’s permission to reprint the entire blog post.


by Rick Webster

It’s a problem that I’ve been seeing more and more of lately. It’s everywhere. I first encountered it when reading the book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.   The authors divide the bible into the various genres of writing – historical, poetic, apocalyptic, prophetic and so on. Each genre has to be interpreted according to its own unique quality – we can’t read the psalms in the same way we read the book of Acts. Okay, fair enough. But I soon discovered that this way of reading the bible divorced the Psalms from Acts and the connections between the two were lost. If there’s a narrative arc to the bible – if what Paul says in Romans is connected to what Adam did in Eden, and it is, then dividing the book into genres serves to break that arc and, in so doing, the story God is telling is lost. Instead we get, as the authors suggest, a book of rules and regulations, a book that is to “be read, understood and obeyed.” (their phrase).

Dividing the bible into an Old and New Testament, or even chapters and verses might do exactly the same thing. But we also have this incredibly common – some would say essential – part of our church life called a ’sermon’. In a sermon the preacher studies a passage of scripture and then makes a speech, from which the rest of us download information.  In this process, however, we isolate a text and, as a result, draw conclusions that often simply aren’t supported by the larger context.

I used to read the story of the three servants and their talents as a call to evangelism – we must not hide our faith, we must enlarge the Master’s Kingdom. The parable of the 10 virgins was an eschatological admonition to be ready for the return of Jesus. The story of the servants who worked in the vineyard for a day getting paid the same as those who worked for an hour was about all of us sharing in our heavenly reward equally.

But in reading through Matthew this year I’ve come to recognize that these stories are connected to the sheep and the goats judgment of Matthew 25. When seen as a whole, and when connected to the sheep and goats Judgment it becomes immediately apparent that these stories are about economic justice. Why did the virgins not share their oil? Why couldn’t they share one or two lamps and make sure there was enough oil to last the night? Instead, they sent the others, selfishly, away. Why did the two wise, confident servants not help the frightened one with his investments? Why did they not pool their resources? Clearly, this is a case of the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer. And in the story of the vineyard workers it appears that in the Kingdom of God the community is larger than the self, that we understand economic justice as what benefits us while God desires to distribute prosperity equally throughout the community. When we start connecting to the sheep and goats judgment the Sermon on the Mount becomes a document new and alien to our world; the house on the rock and the house on the sand take on a whole new meaning as well.

Every devotional, every bible study, every commentary I’ve ever read does exactly the same thing – subdivides the bible and thus, necessarily, fails us. But here’s the thing: every sermon we’ve ever heard, and every sermon I’ve ever preached, has done exactly the same thing. The limitations of the form require it. And there’s an awful, terrible, frightening truth in that. We’ve been going at this all wrong and some of us have dedicated our entire lives to this pursuit.

We need a new way to teach the bible. A way that allows for a long, long time to be spent dwelling in the text. Years, decades. A way that allows for long discussions and digressions.  A way that places it within the hands of the community instead of a priestly caste of pastors and theologians so that the Holy Spirit may speak among us, and through us, without the filter that is one person at the front of the room. And my fear is that none of this can be done within the frame of church as we know it. In fact, this single belief – that the scripture must dwell within the community, and the community within the scripture – challenges everything we know and understand about the role of a pastor, the nature and organization of church, our way of being the body of Christ together. The fear this engenders is enormous. And this new way has not yet come to be in our evangelical tradition. It may never come to be. But I think somewhere, somehow, someone should at least try, someone should begin.

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