Monday, February 21, 2005

Cussing in church

So yesterday I used a four letter word in church. During the sermon, that is. See, I was given the opportunity to preach yesterday. I've never done anything like that before, and I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about it.

The context: I was preaching on the Gospel of the Pharisee and the Publican. I wanted to make the point that the opposite of mercy, according to this text, is not cruelty, but contempt, a failure of optimism, a belief that people do not change.

"What does it mean to be like the Pharisee? It means believing that people never change, that enemies must always be enemies, that betrayers must always remain betrayers. We become like the Pharisee when we are so damn cocksure that we know the ending of other people's stories, when we have no more capacity for surprise."

I went on to say that, according to the Gospel, this is the most damning and damnable aspect of our personalities: contempt for other people.

I suppose at some level I'm afraid of being criticized for what I said, which is why I'm still thinking about it, even writing about it. But as I was walking to church yesterday morning, sorting out what I wanted to say, this just came to me as the most powerful way of communicating a point I wanted to make.

I remember a story about an old monk addressing a churchful of seminarians about monasticism. He kind of glared around at the students, then opened by saying, "Some of you think you know about monks. Most of what you think you know is a lot of bullshit."

I've always aspired to this kind of boldness. Now I'm trying to figure out if what I said was bold, or just stupid, if it strengthened the point I was trying to make, or detracted from it.

I'm interested in others' thoughts on this.

12 comments:

Bill said...

I think you'd be better off asking someone who was there, who knows you and your weaknesses, and who is willing to shoot straight with you.

Sampson said...

Dear Bill,

This is, undoubtedly, the best way to get feedback in terms of how what I said was received in the community. But I suppose I'm posing a broader question by putting this out in the blogosphere; namely, is there a time and place for the use of "strong" language to make a strong point?

johanna said...

Hi Sampson,

Been really busy for quite a while so haven't had much time for thoughful commentary, but I HAVE been reading yr stuff.

About the cussing...it's a completely contextual thing, in my mind.

Indiscriminate cussing just becomes so much 'garbage' in conversation, & it means nothing, other than to reveal a habit of mind of the speaker.

Cussing of the variety that I think you're trying to get at is different. It is a shock, & a surprise, to hear a 4-letter in such a context...therefore, it really has the capacity to galvanize the attention of the listener & to drive home your point. Which is probably more important than whether or not you happened to use that particular word.

Beyond that, isn't it rather Pharisaic (is that a word?) to be stuck on some artificial structure of rules to the degree that you cannot be moved by the inspiration of the moment, bold & radical & potentially unpopular as that may be?

When you thoroughly understand the discipline that must be applied to your heart, then you may open yourself to the principle of freedom for the mind, in order that the mind descend to the heart & be united with it.

Bill said...

Sampson,

I beg to differ with you. Context is everything. Only people who where there understand the context. It is a no-brainer that there is a "time and place for the use of strong language." It is NOT a no-brainer if what you did was the "time and place", and only someone who was there can get close to an answer for you.

Sampson said...

Johanna,

Thanks for your insight. I like "bold and radical and potentially unpopular" as a definition of good preaching. It fits the teaching of Jesus, anyway. I was once in a church where a visiting priest gave the sermon at the Sunday of Orthodoxy Pan-Orthodox Vespers, and the sermon he preached (on the subject of Orthodox unity) was so incredibly powerful and challenging that when it was over, the host priest felt the need to get up and offer a few minutes of rebuttal.

I've always felt that a truly great sermon, a prophetic sermon, would be one where somebody felt compelled at the end to get up and offer a rebuttal.

Bill, we don't seem to be making progress towards understanding each other, so let me say this in yet another way: do you have any similar experiences of strong language or shocking statements in a homiletic context? Did that shock make the sermon more impactful, or less? Do you remember the content of the sermon, or only being shocked by it?

Johanna said...

There's a part of me though, that wonders if it's just to easy for me to say what I did, because you & I see eye to eye on so many things...it was my honest off-the-cuff response to yr post, but I'm not sure that concurrence is always that helpful at going deeper into an issue. Maybe even stops the process of inquiry right in its tracks.

So please, take my comments with a large grain of salt & perhaps Bill has a good point too.

Bill said...

Sampson,

In answer to you more pointed question about whether I've heard strong language used in a homily: Only during my Protestant days. One that I remember was a pastor used the word "bullshit" as a literal translation of something the Apostle Paul said. I never confirmed whether it was "literal" or not. I was young at the time and thought it was "cool" that he said bullshit. That's about the extent of the effect it had on me. I know there were other times, but they never had much of an effect - probably because I'm such a potty-mouth myself. I don't think I'm much help on this topic, sorry.

VIctoria said...

Sampson...I think perhaps you should have left it out. (Not that you can go back now.) Your point was, to me, strong enough without slang language. In fact it was a *wonderful* point that would have left me blinking and gasping if I'd heard it.

That said, don't worry about it any more. If anyone's remembering the damn instead of the point, they weren't listening to the right thing anyway.

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