Not Limp, Tame, Cautious or Safe

Mark 1: 21-28 – The 4th Sunday after Epiphany – for January 29, 2012

“They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this…’” (Mark 1:27)

I entered the post office. Waiting in line, I grasped a shopping bag holding twenty-one copies of my book, A Companion for the Journey. Identical in size, weight and packaging, they were ready to mail.

For practical and humble reasons, I planned to send them to clergy friends. Companion is my book and I’m proud of the accomplishment.

Practically speaking, I’d like to sell enough to cover printing costs. With books heavy in hand, I also think ministers are a good audience to generate word-of-mouth. Buzz. You know: they’ll tell other clergy pals to spring for a copy; they’ll tell a layperson or ten that Companion (by that swell fellow Larry) is worth a read. However, I’ll readily admit self-published also means selfishly-published. It’s not only about selling enough to keep a bottom line in black ink. Please read it and like it (as we declare in the gospel according to Facebook). Ah, ego.

Now, about humble as my other reason . . .

“Sir, can I help you?”

Oops! It’s my turn at the post office window. I stepped forward, hoisted the bag of nouns and verbs onto the counter space papered with official USPS notes to customers. I stacked the ready-to-mail packages of vanity in front of the clerk.

“Same size, same weight,” I said. Since I’d used my handy-dandy Martha Stewart kitchen scale at home, I added, “They’re each about seven point seven ounces.” Didn’t I sound like an expert? (Or a babbling fool?)

“You’re right,” she replied after weighing a book. The clerk consulted a list taped to the counter and then gazed at me. “Are they all domestic?”

I paused. I didn’t hear domestic. Instead, had she wondered if they were . . . domesticated? Maybe it’s because I’m anxious about sending books to friends. Maybe it’s because my mind continuously plays weird word games. Regardless, I asked, “What do you mean by domes–”

“Delivered in the United States. Not overseas. Domestic, not foreign.”

Ah! She sought to determine correct costs.

A nervous writer, I worry if my words are too domesticated. Tame. Limp. Cautious. Safe.

I was influenced by something else, something read in the last week. Early in Mark’s Gospel, after Jesus taught at a synagogue, his listeners—his peers, colleagues, fellow Jews, neighbors—admitted to amazement. Why? He spoke with authority. In Mark 1:23-26 Jesus also simply and dramatically released a man from an “unclean spirit.” Authoritative teaching! Authoritative healing! Mark’s author, with typical austerity, claimed, “At once his fame begin to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”

Jesus received what all authors’ desire: good word-of-mouth. Not just authors. Musicians, restaurateurs, filmmakers . . . anyone and everyone longing to woo an audience.

Why did that synagogue crowd react they way they did? Well, there was this . . . Jesus’ words were not limp, tame, cautious or safe.

And yet mostly I am cautious. I’m not alone.

Many Hollywood producers preview an almost-finished film with test groups. Will viewers “like” the film? In a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, Glenn Close mused about 1987’s Fatal Attraction. Because test groups wanted revenge, Fatal’s ending was rejiggered. Alex Forrest, Close’s iconic “spurned woman,” got her comeuppance. Wasn’t her demise safer for investors and the marketing campaign?

Who’s the next Katy Perry/Lady Gaga? Even though music professionals know imitators rarely succeed like the original artists, they lust to boost sales with “more of the same.” In the mash-up of books to films, how many vampires are too many vampires? Book experts shout, “No more bloodsuckers!” Except the market thrives. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter creeps into a theater near you this June. Ax-swinging Honest Abe will lunge from the bestseller lists to your nearby multiplex, ‘cuz vampires sell . . . right?

Once, preaching regularly, how much did I want to “please” my congregation? Did I want people to calmly shake my hand after worship and mumble, “Good sermon, Pastor?” Or did I want them to stomp out, eager to visit the prisoner, feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? Truly, I always desired righteous action . . . as long as no one was overly upset.

I spend more time writing now: no fretting over a congregation’s reaction. But what about my once and future book buyers? No worries, dear reader, I won’t toss in a vampire/werewolf/Harry Potter knockoff in order to pander to the masses. Please, if only writing or speaking with authority was as easy as avoiding brooding bloodsuckers or boy wizards. Sigh.

“Are they all domesticated?” I mistakenly heard the postal clerk ask.

If one sentence I write—or one paragraph or novel—ever wields a hint of Gospel-like authority, it’s because I’ll reveal humility. I believe that’s an essential aspect of what Jesus demonstrated in a long-ago synagogue. Human. Humble. Humility. From the Latin, humilus (low), humus (earth). Jesus’ authority was rooted in humility. Serving the other, not self. Nourishing the soul, not a bottom line.

His goal, with apologies to Facebook, was not to be liked, but to be honest from first word to last nail.

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  1. This is probably a familiar problem for writers, especially those who wish to actually make some money at the craft. By extension, it becomes the problem of people in pastoral roles who are paid to make people feel good / informed / edified every sunday morning, as they plop their admission payment in that shallow brass spittoon. Now, what I just said would probably offend lots of people. But my point is that for all the things I wrote which are not for a grade (and even some that are), I write what is up to what I consider the best standards I know. And, if being crude and just a bit bald-faced (now I have to check if I’m using that expression correctly…OK, I’m save) and ‘unvarnished’, then so be it. As it turns out, after following that principle for 2 1/2 years of writing Lectionary commentary, I have had not one single complaint. Of curse, I haven’t had many thank you notes either, but that’s the price of creative freedom, I guess…. And most of the really “purple prose” generally ends up in the bit bucket anyway. By the way, until I finish my Master’s theis, I’m going on hiatus with my lectionary comments distributed by e-mail. Will still post them on Facebook (because that is the easiest way of soliciting feedback. Best of luch with your writings.

  2. Thinking you really do get to me some weeks. This is another. Sitting here with a smirk on my face, because I have friends who want me to put some of my poetry in a book. Should I? Who knows? But you provide ways for me to think each week, that I don’t necessarily allow myself to go to without a prod of some sort. Thanks for your weekly words that make me think sometimes beyond my comfort zone.

    1. Thanks Nancy. And, without knowing your poetry, I already agree with your friends. Create a book . . . words matter. You know that. If any bit of what I’ve written challenges or comforts you, I’m glad. Others have, and continue to do it, for me. Take care! Have a joyous week.

  3. You’re so good at what you do Larry. I will keep reading your words. This coming Sunday is my last Sunday to preach for awhile. Maybe for a long while. It feels good. I will keep reading your words.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. Enjoy your “last” Sunday. Give ’em heaven. I haven’t preached regularly for nearly 5 years. Miss it, don’t miss it. What I often think about, and it’s so precious, are all those eyes I made contact with during sermons. They were bored, alert, dozing, curious. What a privilege to try to cast a few Gospel-infused words to others. I look forward to hearing about your next steps in life and ministry…

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