The Words of My Mouth

T.S. Eliot began his poem East Coker with “in my beginning is my end” and concluded it with, “in my end is my beginning.”

When I read Psalm 19, I try not to hurry to the end, but I usually do because it’s my beginning.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

Yes, all the words before the final verse are powerful and eloquent. As with all 150 Psalms, I am forever amazed at how these ancient phrases, written thousands of years ago by persons with daily experiences alien to my twenty-first century world, speak to me. The Psalms are like fingers wagging in my face, hands slapping my back, arms enveloping my shoulders, palms pressed together in prayer, fists threatening my complacency, shouts waking me up, and silences urging my attention to the movement of the Holy. What of just these words from Psalm 19 . . .

The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;

The commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eye.

Rejoice. Enlighten. Indeed!

Still, with Psalm 19, I hurry to the end. I act the child, waiting for the mail to arrive with the promised gift from a grandparent. I am the marathon runner, finally passing the mile twenty-six marker.

Before my call to the ministry, the pastor at the church I attended used Psalm 19 for his sermon’s opening. Every Sunday, every sermon, he voiced Psalm 19 as a humble prayer of preparation. It was the pause after the Gospel lesson. It was the brief shard of scripture softly spoken before (as we preachers love to believe we do on our best days) the afflicted were comforted and the comfortable were afflicted. At some point, when ordained and sent forth to declare the Good News, I borrowed my friend’s Psalm-infused opening prayer.

Did I start using Psalm 19 on my first sermon? My fiftieth? I don’t recall. But now I can’t remember not praying that way before I did the most foolish activity of my professional life.

And preaching is foolish isn’t it?

Come on. Be honest. It doesn’t matter if you’re a seminary-educated purveyor of exegetical insights or you’ve plopped down in a pew for the first time in your life. Both could give the same answer: preachers are fools, engaged in folly.

The commandments of the Lord are clear, enlightening my eye, we might declare from the pulpit . . . and yet our interpretation will be riddled with confusing words and mixed metaphors and our ordained eyes are forever diverted by the world’s seductions. Who are we kidding? Can we really make it to the end of the sermon with a straight face? And if that fellow in the back pew, only there because he wanted to get out of the rain or his wife badgered him into coming, would be laughing out loud before the homily’s second paragraph if he hadn’t been raised to be polite.

How dare we say anything is God’s word, will, or way!

At my first church I remember being called into the senior pastor’s office. He wanted to show me something and opened a cupboard door near his desk. There, on the bottom shelf, spanning more than the length of my arm, were manila file folders. They stood upright, stacked tightly together. The senior pastor mentioned that a few days before a clergy colleague’s widow brought them to him. They represented forty years of sermons from her recently deceased spouse.

She asked him, “Would you like them?”

How could he refuse her?

He asked me the same question, “Would you like them?”

My colleague asked in jest. He had no interest in preaching another’s mistakes and magnificence. Neither did I. And yet I wondered then at the start of my ministry, and wonder now in retirement, does it matter what I preached as one Sunday tumbled into another? Will the paper manuscripts with scribbled edits or the weightless digital file folders representing a career’s accumulation of good news, bad news, honest news, boring news, life-affirming news, life-afflicting news find a final resting place on a literal or figurative shelf about the length of an outstretched arm?

Does it matter, this thing we do? Do the “words of my mouth” make enough difference in the world? Of, if not the world, to another soul or two?

A few summers ago, over three decades since ordination, I remember guest preaching at a nearby congregation. Their new pastor hadn’t arrived and my district superintendent asked me to fill the pulpit. For a fistful of Sundays, I preached to folks I didn’t know, in a church that wasn’t “mine.”

I had no sermons on file. When that cupboard door opened, did I suspect how much those hundreds of filled files would influence me? Early on I decided I wouldn’t accumulate old messages. I didn’t want to look back on enough hoarded paper to cause a bookshelf to sag in the middle. And—fool that I am, fools that we all are who claim the pulpit—I schemed for each message to be new. Did I retell stories? Yup. Have I ever preached a sermon rerun? Nope.

However, looking at those people in the pews I didn’t know, I knew them. I think you would’ve too. Before me was the guy in the back who didn’t want to be there. The new widow who’d sat in the same spot for fifty years. The fidgety kid. The woman wondering if she should leave her husband. The teen worried her undocumented parents would be deported. The father scheduled to see an oncologist tomorrow. The college student with the hidden, thin cut scars on her legs. Before me was . . .

And so, I said the opening prayer. Psalm 19 settled me down. Psalm 19 helped me remember. Psalm 19 ended and a new sermon began.

The words of my mouth; the meditations of our hearts.

Thanks be to God.

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6 Comments

  1. can’t remember a time when you didn’t start your sermon with those words. i always looked forward to them because i always looked forward to the sermon that was to follow..

      1. For years, I “borrowed” the words used by a fellow pastor, who said: “May the words of my mouth, the meditations of our hearts, and even the wanderings of our minds be found in Your love, our Strength and Redeemer. Amen.”

  2. My precious Mary joined the Church Triumphant on the 14th of September. During the seven years of her illness, but especially the final three after she ceased to know me, your work has meant more to me than I can adequately express. Toil on, thou good and faithful servant. More folk than you know are with you as you ace the blank page before the sun comes up.

    1. Mickey:

      Thanks, my friend. Your words to me are appreciated. Your caregiving for and devotion to Mary–when the wedding vow’s for better or worse was mostly the worst–shout loudly about your and Mary’s love for each other. Take care . . .

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