Friday, December 9, 2011

Inviting others into the story

I will arise and go to my Father…
               Almost 40 years ago I knew a wise older priest who had been a Jesuit for many years.  He told the following story which he claimed happened to a friend of his, but I always suspected was autobiographical. 

               A young priest on staff of the Cathedral was assigned to preach on the following Sunday.  As it happened, the bishop was present that day which made the young man extremely anxious.  He had been taught in homiletics class to preach without a manuscript, and should one forget the memorized sermon, return to the text and repeat the text, emphasizing a different word than when first read.  At sermon time, the young priest mounted the pulpit and quoted the text, emphasizing “I will arise and go to my Father.”  Unfortunately he was so nervous that all his preparation failed him, and he remembered nothing of his sermon.  Pausing he tried again: “I  WILL arise and go to my Father.”  Still nothing.  “I will ARISE and go to my Father.”  Each pause became longer and more dramatic as he repeated the text emphasizing the next word.  When he finally said “I will arise and go to my FATHER,” and still could remember nothing he had prepared, he decided to end what had by then become a farce and simply said AMEN.  He left the pulpit in shame and returned to his sedilla near the bishop.  As he passed the old prelate he heard, “Give the old man my regards.”

               For decades, as I have read, studied, and preached on this portion of Luke 15 I am reminded of this story told by a mentor and challenged to say something more profound than simply repeating the single phrase text.  However, this Advent as I have been reading the parable each day, I am often moved—sometimes to tears—by a different word or phrase of Jesus’ teaching.  When that happens, I stop and re-read the sentence again, like the young priest stressing a different word for emphasis and discovering some new meaning.  Even though the story I repeated has some great humor, and for those of us who are preachers a lesson of humility, I have discovered a depth of learning and discovery by taking the teaching of an unknown homiletics professor of long ago and applying it to my study this season.  This is in some ways similar to the “African Bible Study” method that I learned from Verna Dozier 30 years ago at a conference on ministry development in Dayton, Ohio.  In that method, one member reads the full text to be studied to the group.  “What word or phrase grabs you or gets your attention?” begins the group study.  After each person has had the opportunity to expound on his/her thoughts, the text is read a second time by a different person.  This time the question is, “Where do you hear Good News?”  Again each person is invited to respond without interruption by others.  The third and final reading of the text is offered by yet a third person, followed by the question, “How is this passage calling me to live out my life in Christ?”  

I have found this study method to be a profound opportunity for Christians to dig into any portion of Scripture without having to have in-depth exegesis or expertise to discover insights.  That is not to disparage other opportunities to learn from those who have expertise in a didactic setting.  This is simply an opportunity for every Christian, in a community setting of a few other Christians to gain some insight and understanding which they might otherwise miss.

               A suggestion:  before the end of Advent gather together 5 or 6 friends—members of your congregation, or family, or even neighbors who do not attend any church—and try this study method using the parable of the Man with Two Sons.  Hearing the story read by different voices and listening to the insights of others may bring new depth and meaning to your own Advent.  And who knows where that might lead.               


  1. Dear bloggers....Knowing that nothing is " by accident ", I have to admit that Fr Nouwens book
    " the Man with Two Sons " came into my hands just days before finding this blogspot . Now I am struck with Bishop Wallis' admittance that when he is reading the parable ( or I assume the book) that he may be struck by something once read as having a deeper meaning...
    I must admit that I am only on pp 55 simply because I can only digest about a paragraph each day...I read , and re-read , only to go back over...and re-read yet again...and to think of myself as a father , is yet another hurdle , though I have raised two sons...
    well , let me keep re-reading :)

  2. I was transfixed by the story told by the elder Jesuit priest. I know the feeling of forgetting everything under stress, even though one is well prepared. I know what it is like to walk under the cloud of embarrassment at how or what one has done. But this little story also makes a profound observation about our growth in God.

    Just like the young priest in the story, we too, start with the emphasis on "I." As we live, the emphasis shifts periodically to other elements, but inevitably defaults to the "I" again and again. Particularly when we do something stupid, our reflex is to sink into embarrassment and shame (more "I").

    The story of the prodigal son, as well as the account of the young priest's predicament, is a journey of shifting emphasis, ultimately from "I" to the Father. I think the failed sermon was in fact quite profound, and I'll have to agree, "Amen."


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