Yesterday morning I was fretting a bit while getting ready ready for church. That's pretty much the way it is when my name appears in the second row on the church rota - that's the column with the heading: Preacher.
Those who preach regularly in the church (or the Washington Home) know what that fretting is all about. A sermon is never about the preacher but when you are the one who will occupy the pulpit it's always hard to get out of your own way.
In the midst of my fretting yesterday I got a great gift. The gift was an interview on a radio broadcast that airs on NPR on Sunday mornings called On Being. Yesterday's broadcast was an interview with Michael Longley. Longley is poet from Northern Ireland, an artist who has been known as a poet of the "Troubles." About thirty minutes before preaching I sat in my car in the staff parking lot listening to Longley's wise and comforting voice. Towards the end of the interview I heard this: "I think that one can be too self-conscious... and that art and poetry require a certain insouciance... you can take your poems seriously but you mustn't take yourself too seriously [because] self-importance engraves its own headstone."
That's good advice for a fretting preacher. It's also good advice in a city like ours, a place where last year year I heard New York Times columnist David Brooks begin a lecture to a packed audience at The National Presbyterian Church like this: "Good afternoon, I'm not planning on talking very long today because this is Washington DC and I know that everyone here would rather listen to themselves." The ensuing laughter was robust, and somewhat ironic, it seems to me.
Longley was raised agnostic by English parents in the midst of Ireland's troubled religious divides. In the interview he is described as a "sentimental disbeliever." He admits taking Holy Communion every four or five years because he believes in the poetry of the Eucharist and is interested in Jesus as a revolutionary poet - a "proto-socialist" - and considers the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes to be as good as a system as any to live by. This sentimental believer likes that... a lot.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet last night after attending a stewardship gathering for the church I listened to the extended and unedited version of the Longley interview. It's worth a listen and interestingly enough Longley's wisdom seems apropos for members of St. Alban's just now, a parish where more than once in recent months and in very different contexts I've heard church members reference Ireland's "Troubles" when talking about what we are experiencing as a parish. The interview might also be a welcome diversion for our fretting hearts these last two days before living through and then learning the outcome of an election that no matter what will be the beginning of a new set of troubles for our divided nation.
Below is a closing quote from the interview followed by one of Longley's poems published in 1998. The quote is extraordinarily relatable to the reasons we sentimental believers kneel at the altar to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation not once or twice in a decade but every single Sunday:
"I think what art can do is to tune you up and good art good poems is making people more human. Making them more intelligent. Making them more sensitive and emotionally pure than they might otherwise be. And one of the marvelous things about poetry is that it's useless. It's useless. What use is poetry? People occasionally ask in the butcher shop say, they come up to me and they say what use is poetry and the answer is no use. But it doesn't mean to say that it's without value. It is without use, but it is valuable."
The Ice-Cream Man
Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach:
You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before
They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road
And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.
I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren
I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,
Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,
Herb robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,
Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,
Yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.