Saturday, April 4, 2015

Everyone's a Critic

The experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have declared June 1 to November 30 to be “Hurricane Season.”  When they did this last year, I thought it was a bad idea, and sure enough, before long a Hurricane with the odd name of Arthur ambled up the east coast, messing up beach vacations.   No one declares a Volcano Season or an Earthquake Season for good reason; we don’t want to encourage such things.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) doesn’t declare a Bubonic Plague Period, or Typhoid Time.  The Justice Department doesn’t announce a Murder Month, or a Kidnapping Week.  This is plain common sense.  In the same way, you don’t put a mobile home in an open field in Oklahoma unless you want to attract tornadoes, and you don’t hang a ham in your garage unless you want to attract stray dogs, flies, or Tommy Humphrey. 
NOAA has even gone so far as to pick out names for each storm this year, including Bill, Fred and Sam for the run of the mill storms; Claudette for a storm of French origin; and for a fierce tempest they never want repeated (or pronounced), Joaquin.  I am particularly troubled that they have chosen to call one of the storms Grace.  Even if this were not the name of our sweet daughter, it would still be a lousy name for a violent storm.   Why not Hurricane Hannibal, or Hurricane Hitler?  Or does NOAA think we can tame the beast by assigning it a benign name?  I’ve tried it.  It didn’t work with Pretty Boy Humphrey.

Talk of violent storms takes me back to South Florida, where we coexisted with hurricanes (sometimes just barely) for several years.  Remind me to tell you about playing ball there.  Oh never mind---you have enough things to remember.  I’ll tell you about it now. 

When I taught for a few years at Westminster Academy™, a ministry of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church of Ft. Lauderdale, the men of the church and their friends were invited to get together to play softball in our own church league.  As I recall it was a “come one, come all” deal.  There were no try-outs. Everybody who signed up was given a shirt and a cap and assigned to one of several teams which would play each other.  It was a Saturday night, and the first time I had played ball in years.  I remember it well because I was scheduled to preach the next day.  (Although my primary responsibility was teaching Bible classes to sophomores at the school, I was also an assistant pastor at the church, so I was sometimes scheduled to preach at one of several Sunday morning worship services.)  My sermon---the first at Coral Ridge as I recall, was prepared, and this was a chance to interact with some of the men of the church, building up some good will and preparing the soil for the seed of the Word.

Like an idiot, I offered to play third base, because I had a vague recollection that at some point in the distant past, I had played third.  I suspect now that I had just watched someone else play third.  (I specifically remember a Brooks fellow who used to play for the Orioles).  Not much happens at third base unless the opposing team has one or more right-handed batters who make contact and pull the ball.  That night, it seemed, all the opposing players were right-handers who made contact and pulled the ball.   But I was ready for them.  My cat-like reflexes had been finely honed over many years. 
Let me describe the first hit as I recall it.  Our pitcher lobbed the ball to a great hulk of a batter---I believe his name was Bicep Bill.   He hit the ball squarely with a mighty swing that sent it hurtling just to my left.  My cat-like reflexes did not fail me.  The message that the ball was coming in my direction went immediately from my eyes to my brain, then from my brain to my legs, and simultaneously to my gloved left hand.  No more than a second from the instant the bat hit the ball, I was in motion.  It must have been a beautiful sight to see.  Unfortunately, no more than half a second from the instant the bat hit the ball, it was bouncing in left field.  If my reflexes were indeed cat-like, the cat appeared to be drugged, as if it had just been shot with a tranquilizer dart.  My sluggish response did not go unnoticed in the opposing team’s dugout.  You could hear the chatter from the bench when the next batter stepped to the plate.  Along with the usual:

“Come on, Bubba, get a hit.  Wait for your pitch.  Good eye Bubba, good eye.”
There was interspersed:  “Pull it to third, Bubba. Pull it to third.  Nobody on third, Bubba.”

Well, maybe they didn't say that, but I'm sure that's what they were thinking.  Baseball fans will note that with a runner on first and no outs, a groundball to third is generally a bad idea, as it might well result in a double-play; but there was clearly no danger of that this night, as evidenced by the next grounder to third---that is, to left field.
I don’t mean to imply that I never got a glove on a ball that night, but on those rare occasions when I did, the result was the same, the runner was safe.  Do you have any idea how far it is from third base to first?  After a few long painful innings of this, there was talk on my bench of putting the drugged cat on third out of his misery.  Remember that my intention was to build some camaraderie with the men of the church, some of whom would no doubt be present in the next morning’s service.  Let’s just say this plan did not come to fruition----certainly not as I envisioned it, anyway.  One comment in particular has stuck with me, thirteen years later.  Someone called out from the dugout, good-naturedly, as I recall,

“I hope he preaches better than he plays third.”  I thought it was a good line.   
“I would say it depends,” says Pretty Boy, “just how bad does he play third?”  

I think proper English demands the use of “badly” or “poorly” here, Tommy, as in, “How poorly does he play third?” If you’re going to continue to intrude into my stories, the least you can do is use proper English.
The least you can do’---Isn’t that your ministry motto, Rusty?”

I don’t have to take this abuse.
You started it with your crack about the ham in the garage.” 

That was several paragraphs ago.  The casual reader has already forgotten it.
“Well I haven’t.  Where is that ham, exactly?”

You look for the ham.  I’m going to tell another brief incident with a similar theme.
“Since when do you have a theme?  I thought you just rambled about nothing in particular---like when you preach.”

I will not dignify that remark with a response.  
The crack from the dugout reminds me of one of my earliest sermons.  It was at a City Mission, either in Atlantic City or Philadelphia.

“Which was it, Rusty, Atlantic City or Philadelphia?  One is in New Jersey and the other is in Pennsylvania. If you don’t remember what state you were in, why should we believe your story?”
I know someone who’ll be in a state of disrepair if he doesn’t pipe down.

“Ooo, what are you going to do, talk me to sleep and then beat me with a hymnal?”
I thought I sent you to look for the ham, Pretty Boy.

I had only been a Christian for a few years, but I believed that God had called me to preach, so I was proclaiming the good news of salvation through faith in Christ (no doubt with some anxiety) to a large group of strangers who had come to the mission for a meal and a place to sleep.  I don’t remember my text, but I know I tried to lift up Jesus and make the gospel clear.  I’m sure the message that night was unimpressive, full of stumbling and bumbling, and there was no indication that anyone was moved by it.  After the closing hymn, the men began to shuffle off to the next room for the evening meal, and I put my notes in my Bible and prepared to leave, trusting that God’s Word would accomplish something, but feeling somewhat discouraged about my efforts, and wondering if perhaps I was wrong about the call to the ministry.  
I might have gone home without having received any response at all, but an old man with a weathered face, a man who had clearly received more than his share of hard knocks in life, took the time to turn back and say a word to this young seminary student.  It’s funny how a comment from a homeless stranger can remain with you, and motivate you for decades.  As the crowd headed for supper, he approached me rather unsteadily.  Looking me in the eye, he slurred out the words I have never forgotten, 

“That was the crummiest sermon I ever heard.”

As I saw it, this came from a fellow who had probably heard hundreds of mission sermons, so his opinion had to carry some weight.  On the other hand, as he seemed to be intoxicated, I reasoned that he might have dozed off and missed the good parts, assuming there were good parts.  How does one respond to “That was the crummiest sermon I ever heard?”  I can’t remember what I said, but if I had known then what I know now, I would have answered,

“Maybe so, but believe it or not, I preach better than I play third base.”
The Bible says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” (Proverbs 18:21)  It can build up or tear down.  I'm sure that old fellow realized he was at a mission.  But unbeknownst to him, he may have been on a mission---a mission from the enemy to discourage a young preacher and sidetrack him from the ministry. 

“Or maybe he was an angel of God sent on a mission of mercy for the sake of your future congregations, Rusty.”

(Not now, Pretty Boy.  This is the serious part.) 

“A wholesome tongue is a tree of life.  But perverseness in it breaks the spirit.” (Proverbs 15:4)   
A perverse tongue can do more damage than one of those hurricanes that NOAA is calling for.  Witness the damage unleashed upon the world through the tongue of Hitler.  But one does not have to be a mad demigod to cause great harm with your speech.  Ask a child who has been told by her mother that she’s stupid, or a wife whose husband has convinced her that she’s worthless.

It is an easy thing to criticize.  It seems to come naturally to us; but it is much more helpful to others, and much more honoring to our Creator, for us to use our God-given gift of speech to encourage and edify (build up) another.  
Just a little something to keep in mind the next time you hear a crummy sermon. 

Epilogue or Afterword or Humphrey Wants the Last Word

"You know it's amazing that you remember that City Mission comment, Rusty; since you've no doubt heard similar comments dozens of times over the last forty years. 

You're hopeless, Pretty Boy.  Remind me again why I let you impose yourself on my readers? 

"I'm here for color.  I'm a colorful personality.  If it weren't for me, nobody would read your meandering stories.  By the way, just what was your theme here----hurricanes, softball, lousy preaching, your general ineptitude?”

Go floss your teeth, Pretty Boy.  You have ham in there.


1 comment:

  1. Now that you have perfected your pulpit skills.There's always girls softball. Slow pitch hopefully.PB