Saturday afternoon when I was attempting to appease the General by looking through files and throwing away sermon notes, I got bogged down in the details. The General would be quick to say that my attempt was a pretty shallow attempt. I couldn’t help myself. How do you know if you want to throw something away if you don’t read it first? Frankly I was surprised by some of the things I discovered from looking through old sermon notes.
For one thing, I was surprised that even “way back then”, I had some level of understanding related to the need to make the introduction to a sermon something unexpected and interesting. I wanted people to hang on for the next rest of the story. Once people figuratively checkout during a sermon, they don’t generally come back around. I guess the same is true in any public speaking kind of venue. Lose the congregation or an audience’s interest and it’s like herding cats to regain their attention. Since I’m not a cat person, I don’t even bother.
When I was looking through old sermon notes on Saturday, I ran across an introduction used in a sermon that captured my attention. I had the thought: “That works. I need to remember that.” I can’t take credit for it, but I have no idea from where it came. Let me be perfectly transparent, most of what I share, I’ve heard somewhere else. Like a comedian once said, “You need to make stories your own. If you’re sharing someone else’s story or punch line, after you’ve shared it a time or two, you simply preface the story with: “Like I always say.” Presto – It becomes your story.
The sermon introduction that caught my attention was three simple statements: “If you want to ruin your garden, you don’t have to do anything. Just leave it alone”. That’s a good place for a long pause to let the reality of that soak in before sharing something equally valid. “If you want to ruin your children, you don’t have to do anything, just leave them alone.” You got it; another great place for a long pause. Follow that up with: “If you want to ruin your church, you don’t have to do anything, just leave it alone.”
Can you deny the validity of any of those three statements? I don’t garden, so I don’t have a lot of experience in helping plants grow. However, I do have experience growing weeds. You don’t have to do anything to make that happen. Trust me, weeds are not a gift from God. They also are contraindicated for a garden.
After forty six-years of working with children and families from hard places, I understand that neglected children grow up without a sense of belonging or feeling valued. The absence of having basic needs met in the early childhood years is a rudimental cause and effect of lots of issues related to developmental delays and cognitive brain development. After all, if an infant chronically cries due to hunger, needing a diaper changed, needing to be held and nurtured and no one comes and responds to the need, eventually the infant learns there is no one available to assist with their basic needs. The ability to trust never develops.
In looking through my sermon notes, I ran across a couple of really interesting stories. They are stories worth remembering. Consequently, I’m glad I rediscovered them after forty-plus years.
Both stories, reportedly were taken from the book “The Creative Years” by Reuel Howe. I don’t recall that I ever shared them more than once, so I never got to the: “Like I always say” phase. In addition, my notes were pretty sketchy, but just seeing the reference brought the stories back to mind. Reuel Howe tells the story of a father and son who went fishing together:
“The boy, Brooks Adams, wrote in his diary: ‘Went fishing with my father – the most glorious day of my life’.
“So great was the impact of that one day’s personal experience that for the next 30 years he made repeated references in his diary to the glowing memory of that day. The boy’s father, however, saw the day in a different way. Charles Francis Adams, one-time ambassador to Great Britain, made a much different comment in his diary about the same day:
‘Went fishing with my son. A day wasted’.
The second story was the story of a bride-to-be that collapsed on her wedding day. Her family initially credited the collapse to exhaustion, but the young woman’s condition continued to deteriorate. The subsequent depression became life threatening. In fact, the young woman made more than one suicide attempt.
Her subsequent placement in a mental hospital didn’t seem to promote much in the way of a positive outcomes. She lost her will or ability to communicate and made no verbal utterances for weeks. She filled her day by simply sitting in a corner oblivious to others around her.
The trustees at the hospital commissioned a portrait painted of the hospital’s administrator. The artist, wanting to know something about the subject of his painting, asked the administrator about his work. He mentioned his level of frustration at the hospital’s inability to provide any kind of positive treatment for the aforementioned young woman.
Hearing of her condition, the artist wanted to know more. He asked if he could see the patient. Just as she had been described, she sat alone in a darkened corner of a room. The fact that she was still breathing was her only sign of life.
The artist went and sat down next to the girl and took out a moist lump of clay from his pocket. He slowly began to mold the clay before the young woman’s unseeing eyes. She made no response.
As he was leaving, the artist asked the hospital administrator if he could visit the next week. Thus began a series of many meetings. Each meeting was identical to the earlier meeting, but eventually during one session the girl reached out with her hand and touched the clay. It was the first response of any kind in a very long time.
She was even much bolder the next time. She took the clay in her hands and busily worked the clay. For the next several weeks, that became her routine. One day out of frustration with her inability to make the clay do what she wanted it to do, she hurled the clay across the room. She immediately looked in terror to see the artist’s reaction.
The artist initially said nothing. He calmly and quietly retrieved the clay and returned it to her. With a smile and welcoming voice, he said: “It’s alright Jane. I still like you. I like you just as much when things don’t go well as when the do.”
“You still like me?” It was the first time she had spoken in months. Obviously, that proved to be a turning point in her treatment. She eventually shared enough of her story that the doctors pieced it together.
Basically, the only acceptance she had ever experienced brought with it demands. Everything from the extra-curricular activities that held her time hostage – to being homecoming queen- to being high school valedictorian – to the next set of familial expectations. Marriage seemed like more of the same. It was more than she could bear. Consequently, she retreated into this dismal abyss from which there was seemingly no return.
She responded to the artist’s positive approach because he made no demands of her. He simply opted to come and share her isolation. He literally came along side her to meet her at the point of need. He shared in her brokenness and despair.
A simple block of moist clay represented for her some level of creativity. She didn’t have to live up to the artist expectations for him to “still like her”. I’m obviously omitting much of the story, but it is a powerful story about simply loving and supporting people without demands being made of them.
That might not be a bad approach as I move forward in getting on with my day.
All My Best!