“Whenever Victor went to a restaurant,” preached Reverend U., “he would stand at his table and pray aloud. He would thank God and ask a blessing upon the food and upon all the patrons. Victor’s clear bold voice sailed,” and here the Reverend’s right arm rode invisible waves above the congregation, “out over the dining room.”
I was past the age of accountability. Too old for junior church but big enough to sit upstairs and listen to the grown-up sermons. My downy mind saw the dauntless Victor and tried valiantly to pitch myself into the scene: knees steady, back straight, face beatific, my voice a trumpet, and the crowded café…gravely convicted.
“Victor walked in the spirit,” said the Reverend (long pause). “He was so full of the Holy Ghost that he couldn’t help but proclaim God’s righteous goodness wherever he went!” Right fist now resting on pulpit.
I saw of course that it was a story meant to inspire comparisons with “blessed Victor” and the assembly’s own (in which I was now ensconced) tepid proclamations of God. And it did. As well as instigating a good deal of anxiety—as our village had but one restaurant adequately stocked with curmudgeons and lampoonists.
The Reverend knew our anxiety, but he lingered upon the point. His gaze swept slightly above the congregation having the effect of convincing all that he was penetrating each set of eyes. And reaching the fullness of the moment the Holy Bible came open. Spine in left hand, soft leather cover and leaves bending gracefully downward on either side of raised palm, he read the words of the Apostle Paul: “Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.”
We, the trembling faithful, were to be encouraged through the Apostle’s own story and example; who, and here he injected an accounting of Paul, who, according to scripture was courageous when absent but reticent when present, but who nevertheless gained a chest when beseeching God for courage.
And now Reverend’s face softened and his arms pled toward us as though the Holy Ghost himself was enveloping us with divine comfort, while at the same time restraining those heading for the doors.
It was however, the first time I heard about the connection between the gospel and mystery. And I had a growing suspicion that the Reverend was not giving us the whole story. It sank in that the Gospel might be more, or rather, something other than a personal vehicle to the promised land. And perhaps the promised land, wherever it was, was also mysteriously here. And maybe, whatever it was, it was something other than pews full of the battened down and more like the communes that were just then popping up across North America.
I’ve been trying to work this gospel-mystery connection out for decades. At this point, as I’ve experienced it, the mystery, by which I’ve come to understand as the “really real,” comes in glimmerings when I’m wandering along any river, or when I’m with old and new friends in the beer tent at a folk-fest, or when I’m invited to sit with Larry “the picker” in the park.
“I often ask myself,” says Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “why a “Christian instinct” often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, “in brotherhood.”
Seems to me Bonhoeffer is wondering through a piece of the mystery. As it is, he is articulating something I’ve felt ever since hearing that early sermon.
As for that imagined scene of me anointed with holy pluck for public, proselytizing prayer, well, it popped like a soap bubble. I knew I was doomed. Words on my gravestone: No Aptitude for the Narrow Way.