Blood in My Mouth
I travel too much, certainly too much for a guy who wants to dig a garden and keep bees. And some of the places I travel to are harder than others. In some places, I take medicine as a precaution against malaria (which I’ve never had, so I guess the meds are working), and the drugs have some side effects. Mefloquine is cheap and widely available, and I seem to tolerate it pretty well, but it tends to give me weird dreams. Here’s one of the dreams—not the weirdest by a long shot, not even in the top five, but pretty evocative in a strange way.
I’m at a church somewhere in the U.S. as a guest preacher. It’s an old sanctuary, onto which they have added ad hoc over a dozen decades. They are particularly fond of their old-school elevated pulpit, attached to the wall above and to one side of the altar. You have to exit the sanctuary to make your way up into the pulpit: into the sacristy, then through a new door and up a little stairway and through a door straight out in front of the congregation. The preacher finds himself quite close to the tall candle stands on the altar (close enough to inhibit some energetic gestures!). In my dream I had been given the tour before the service, so I could find my way up there during the sermon hymn without getting lost.
I didn’t get lost, but neither did I make the trip without incident. Somehow in the course of the various stages of renovations, they wound up with a small but unexpected step down as you went through the door from the sacristy, and I stumbled clumsily there when I forgot the step. No real harm done, but the jolt was enough that I bit my tongue rather painfully; I could tell right away that it was bleeding. In the little washroom (another one of their updates) there was a bottle of Listerine, so I rinsed my injured mouth with a Dixie cup of mouthwash. It stung like crazy—did you know Listerine is mostly alcohol?—and I winced in pain before I spat into the sink. The tongue was still bleeding, but I was pretty sure it did not require stitches. The pain of the bite and the sting of the Listerine make my eyes water as I step through the pulpit door during the last verse of the sermon hymn.
And so it was that, in the closing seconds of the sermon hymn, I stood there in the pulpit in front of a crowd of singing saints with blood in my mouth and tears in my eyes, and wondered whether my Listerine breath would catch fire if I spoke too close to the candles.
That was the whole dream. I woke up while I was still standing in the pulpit, before the last chords of the sermon hymn died away, before I said a word. It was only afterwards, lying awake in the dark at 4 a.m., that I tried to make some sense out of it. And it occurred to me that that’s how any preacher should step in front of a congregation: blood in his mouth, a tear in his eye, with words that might burst into flame.
The blood of Jesus, of course. Whatever else you have to say to these folks, you better be bringing them Jesus Christ and him crucified. If I slice open your sermon, there better be some blood in there.
Maybe it won’t be visible from the pew, but there better be a tear in your eye. You better feel the pain of your own injury—and even the sting of your healing—as you get ready to serve up the same to God’s people.
I don’t recommend taking a big swig of something flammable right before preaching, but in another sense you need to remember that your words might burst into flame any second. Stranger and more wonderful things do happen. Don’t be blasé about preaching or the impact on people. The Spirit of God is about to show up, and things aren’t really under your control. Anything can happen. That middle-aged, middle-class audience is about to be ignited by the Spirit’s fire and might—who knows?—get transformed before your eyes into a goodly fellowship of prophets, or a noble army of martyrs.
Our habits and routines lull us into an unjustified feeling of safety and control. I’ve stepped into lots of pulpits, dozens of times, and nothing’s caught on fire yet. I’ve safely survived any number of sermons with no taste of blood, no tears of pain, no flames, so it’s probably safe to do it again. Annie Dillard reflected on the deceptive comfort of customs and habits in our encounters with God when she wrote (in Holy the Firm) about the routine of liturgy:
The higher Christian churches—where, if anywhere, I belong—come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the higher churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom. (p. 59)
In that wild expectation that we are unleashing Power we cannot control, I pray for the beginning of wisdom−for myself and all my fellow preachers—on our perilous climbs into pulpits.