A Matter of Timing
On the final evening of a minister’s convocation I attended several years ago in Florida, I sat down to a lavish banquet next to Don Ward who at that time was minister of First Congregational Church in Los Angeles. We had both attended annual church conferences in exotic places like Galesburg, Illinois and Akron, Ohio where delegate ministers were kept humble with homely meals, so we were still exclaiming over the dazzling and delectable food when the minister who had been chosen togive thanks for dinner stood up to speak. Now you have to understand how these things work at a national meeting of over a thousand ministers. Featured speakers rank highest in the honor rolls, followed by the moderators of special forums and the large choirs brought in to provide inspirational music, but the opening and closing program prayers, and the grace before meals, rank rather low in the hierarchy of kudos handed out to visiting clergy. As a result, the ones who get these brief moments in the spotlight have a tendency to stretch them out to five or ten minutes of the most flowery stuff they can deliver.
So when our man invited all of us to stand for his grace before dinner, it quickly became obvious that he meant to make the most of his one performance. He prayed for peace and prosperity, he thanked God for the conference and for the churches that sponsored it. And then as he criss-crossed the planet in his concern, he began to talk about the world’s poverty. He gave a long, graphic description of starving children in Ethiopia, with their huge bellies and staring eyes, and when he finally finished we all sat back down down somewhat sobered. But Don Ward, I noticed, was still standing, staring at the table as if he were in a trance. I said something to him, and he mumbled, “I don’t know whether I can eat or not. Somehow it hardly seems right to put all this food before us and then have somebody remind us at such great length of world hunger.’ He sat down, muttering something about bad timing.
Don was always blunt and honest, which was one of several reasons why I liked him, and it certainly seemed to me that he had a point. Without insulting our hosts, we couldn’t send the food back. All we could do at the moment was eat what was before us, only now we had to do ot with an uneasy sense of guilt that cast a pall over the closing banquet. Everything the grace-prayer said about poverty and starvation was true; it was just a rather insensitive and inappropriate time to say it.
I am moved this morning to think about timing because in that rich 12th chapter of Romans which has provided us with several sermonic springboards recently, the Apostle Paul says, “Be happy when people are happy, weep with those who weep.” Much of our success in human relationships is a matter of timing — doing or saying what is appropriate for the moment. Paul would have read as a boy the Hebrew proverb that says, “Singing to a person who is depressed is like….rubbing salt into a wound.” Sensitivity to timing is as old as human hstory. remember these famous words from Ecclesiastes? “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
When I was a child I thought the Christian faith dealt only with the big stuff: right and wrong, good and evil. No one talked much about timing, about how an otherwise legitimate word or deed might be terribly inappropriate in the wrong context. And, inevitably, the moment I say those words, I think of the most awkward 15 minutes I ever spent inside a church. Beautiful night in Oklahoma City, many years ago. Two of Billie’s longtime friends, Yvonne Wagoner and Bob Clayton getting married. Lovely girl, handsome boy — good kids with high moral standards. Yvonne, standing there tall and proud in her white wedding dress, might have passed for Artemis, the Greek goddess of chastity. Two pleased sets of parents watching, church crowded with happy, expectant friends…..so how does the minister respond to that setting? For some strange reason which escaped all of us, he delivers a 15 minute harangue on the evils of fornication. Some other place, but not there — not with the the candles and the flowers and the white wedding gown. Some other time, but not that June evening with all of us attuned to tenderness and trust. Bad timing.
I went with a friend to his Episcopal church service once, when I was still in my teens, and was intrigued when the liturgist said, “Let us pray” and the all people respon-ded, “It is meet and right so to do.” M-E-E-T…..it was a word we never used in our service — an archaic word that means “fitting, timely, appropriate.” I was suddenly moved to think how many things in life are not so much a matter of right or wrong, but of suitability and timing. And once that idea made an impression, I also began to see that much of what is in the Bible is about timing: Jesus refusing a few times to fast, even though his Jewish calendar said do it. Why not? the guardians of orthodoxy asked him. “Because,” he said, “my friends and I are together for a while, and we are happy. This is a party. It is not appropriate for us to fast now. We’ll do that later when our hearts will need the discipline fasting can give us.” One of the problems Jesus had with the formal religious establishment is that he was sensitive to timing, and to moments when human need takes precedence over ritual and tradition. There was that Sabbath day when his hungry disciples technically broke the law by rubbing handfuls of grain in their hands to remove the husks, and then eating the kernels. That miniature harvesting, in the eyes of religious legal eagles, constituted work…..and work was forbidden on the Sabbath. The response of Jesus to that criticism is a beloved part of his greatness: “The Sabbath,” he said, “was made for us. We were not made for the Sabbath.” No institution is sacred in itself. People are sacred…..and what is timely and what is appropriate are crucial in serving people.
Not just in what is narrowly defined as religion, but everywhere in life. Remember the advice of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, All the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
We call it “missing the boat. Bad timing. Not just in politics and war, which are on the mind of Brutus, but in the most intimate of personal relationships. In another Shakespearian tragedy, Hamlet is embarrassed by how quickly his widowed mother remarried. Must have been a matter of economy, he says bitterly: the food used to feed the guests at his father’s funeral still fresh enough to serve the guests at his mother’s wedding. Some of the most beautiful, and some of the most painful moments you will have in life, are not about good and evil so much as they are about what is appropriate and what is not. When your friend is dying of lung cancer, you don’t lecture him on the dangers of smoking. When your partner is struggling to survive a heart attack, you don’t choose thsat moment to preach about poor eating habits and failure to exercise. Good advice….wrong time to give it.
It’s probably expecting far too much of a teenager to let him preach every Sunday, but my boyhood church allowed it and so I was preaching one day at 18 in a little frame chapel in rural Oklahoma when I suddenly noticed that the guy sprawled out on the back seat was vigorously chewing tobacco. Sprawling was bad enough, and the wad in the cheek was worse, but the moment climaxed when the guy took dead aim at the middle of the aisle and let go! I have never been sure whether he simply did not know what was fitting in a church, or whether he simply disliked having to hear a preacher even younger than he was — maybe it was both. And you’re wondering, “So how did you handle that?” Well, I have to confess that I was not as mildmannered and patient about distractions in the audience as I am now, so I stopped and said something — quite direct — and it was probably a small miracle that the sanctuary spitter didn’t rush down the aisle to respond with his fists cocked. Wouldn’t it have made a great headline? Young minister fights parishioner in church over use of church floor as spittoon. No sin to spit tobacco juice in church, just not appropriate. Bad timing!
A colleague of mine tells how he drove out to a rural church one Sunday from the seminary where he taught, to fill in for one of his students who had been preach-ing there on weekends. It was a rainy morning, the dirt roads were slick, and the few parishioners simply took it for granted that going to church was not important enough to risk getting stuck. But Fred didn’t know that, so he drove out as he had promised, arriving just in time only to find a single pickup sitting in front of the meetinghouse. A father and son, it turned out, had realized suddenly that the city fellow would probably know no better than to come skidding on out, and that it would be a mark of courtesy to let him know why no one else was present. “So I went in,” Fred says, “and there they were seated at the communion table up front. Just the table, no bread or wine trays on it — and they were playing poker. I told myself, ‘Well, you have to do something to pass the time while you wait on the preacher, and after all, a table is a table is a table. It’s just made of wood [knock on pulpit]. Nothing says you can’t play poker on this kind of oak…..but it just didn’t fit. Not on any day, but especially not on Sunday morning. It seemed a kind of desecration.”
And yet the two good old boys had come through the rain to explain why there was no church that day, so their insensitivity was not deliberate. It simply did not occur to them that playing poker on the communion table might strike most church-going people as an example of bad taste and poor timing. But things things like that are not spelled out in codes of law; they are determined by how we have been taught and the convictions we hold, and that means we tend to cluster in groups with people who feel the same way we do about what is and what is not appropriate. I couldn’t help but think, as I worked on these remarks, of how uncertain we are at times about when to applaud something in church. I know churches where it is considered bad form to applaud anything during a worship hour. That seems a bit dull and joyless to me. I have been in others where people clapped so often I found myself yearning for silent approval. We’re in the middle, I suppose, which means that we are not always in agreement about what should be applauded. Only rarely have I heard applause in this church when it seemed to me that the compliment of reverent silence might be more appropriate, but then I am not the final arbiter of taste for you. I applaud children, to encourage them, and I applaud rousing music performed with great skill and ebullience, but when I am deeply touched in church by music that is quiet and holy and beautiful, my admittedly fallible taste tells me to give it the gift of silence. I have to remember, when others disagree, that I may only be stuffy.
So responsibility falls on each one of us to decide when something is fitting or timely, and when it isn’t — and to be open always to the possibility that we might be wrong. Jesus let some of the local clergy types know how wrong they were one day when they complained after a woman gratefully annointed his head with some expensive lotion. Some of the party of the chief priests and scribes piously muttered muttered among themselves about how inappropriate it was. “What a waste! “ they complained. “Just think! That ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor for useful things like powdered milk and diapers and medical supplies.” Jesus said, “Let her alone; why make her feel uncomfortable? She has done a beautiful thing for me.” And then he said something which requires the most generous interpretation: “The poor you have with you always” — which must surely mean, Sometimes, despite the world’s poverty, life requires a moment of beauty.
I can remember when I needed that advice for myself. In my earliest days of preaching, I would see some rundown shack in the country with rickety furniture and peeling paint…..but with an improbable flower bed or an expensive guitar leaning against a porch post, and I would think: “You people shouldn’t waste money on non-essentials. You need clothes and meat and potatoes, not flowers. You can’t eat roses, you can’t wear music.” I did not understand, in my ignorance, that even in desperate straits we may spend the last dime we have on something beautiful just to remind ourselves that we are not just animals, that we are — if you prefer religious terminology — children of God who imitate God in the impulse to create something beautiful. Think how long this has been true. Let the long, slow glacial ice lock people in caves, and they will take berries and create art on the wall. Set them down before a pile of wretched sticks and reeds, and somebody will make a flute out of one of them and start to play music. Put them in the chains of slavery and they will learn to sing as they drag the chain, because something in us refuses to be squelched. And this is more than just appropriate. It is the miracle of human existence.
They were people, Unce George and Aunt Edna, whose farm in the Depression years did not pay enough for them to live on, so they moved with the two kids into town and found a little house with a pump but no running water which they could rent for $10 a week — money earned because George sold a new product called margarine and Edna swept out the Rialto theater every night after the last show. Whatever was left over after they bought essential food and clothing, they put into a cereal box on a kitchen shelf so it would be ready when the landlady showed up on Saturday night to collect her rent money. It was not to be touched. But once in a while, Edna remembered in the last lonely years of her life, George would come in after work, put his hand in that cereal box, leave the house, return about dark and come back into the kitchen where she was making supper for the kids. He would slip up behind her, kiss her cheek, and then reach around to put a little package in front of her, tied with a red ribbon. It would be a box of candy or a bottle of perfume or — once — a pair of silk stockings.
Edna would start to cry. What she would say was, “Why do you do this? We need other things so much more. If we do things like this we may not even have enough to pay the rent tomorrow night.” She would fuss, but her heart would not be in the fussing, and he would say, “If our lives ever get reduced to what goes in and out of that cereal box, we might as well be dead.”
So what is appropriate? And how is good timing determined? My sermon gives only limited help. All it says, with support from Christ and Paul and experience, is that knowing when and where can be as crucially important as anything we do. We have to make those decisions every single day of our lives….based sometimes on what the head tells us and sometimes on what the heart says — and with no infallible law to tell us which to follow. So, dear friends, in the name of Christ our Lord……………good luck!
We awoke this morning, Eternal God, to the gift of another day.
Another day to listen and learn, to say hello to friends and to
lift our voices in song, to love and to care — while there is time.
Help us use this week well, we ask in the name of Him whose
house this is. Amen.