I do it from time to time: lapse into cliche. It is easy to do; whilst there are a choice of thousands of potential words, most of us stick with just a few.Regular readers of this blog (that would be mainly me) will note that I have a list of stock phrases and ways of putting my point across to the point that some of them become repetitive.
I tried not to do it when I was preaching, but I did- there were certain words that I know that I overused. What I hope I did not do was to overuse theological cliche or ‘Christianese’ such as:-
‘Where God guides, he provides’
‘Let’s just praise His name’
‘We’ll just raise up a shield of intercession’.
‘We are entering into a season of blessing’.
‘Let’s just find God in the silence’
…the kind of language you would not use at the shops, in the pub or with your friends….but are somehow ok to use in preaching.
I don’t know why people do it- perhaps people feel it is expected or maybe it is a kind of ‘cheerleading’: use lots of insider language, not to appeal to outsiders, but to make insiders feel better.
If the world is alive with the glory of God and I live in that world, I want to see where God is: archaic, churchy and cliched language does not help. Point me to Him in normal language. Please; I’m desperate.
(This is the 5th in an inexorable, occasional series called’Being a punter’- how I feel listening to preaching now that I am mainly ‘back in the pews‘).
Not many of us can leave gracefully; we imagine we will be here forever. Adverts don’t help: people age, but still look like older versions of our product buying selves, with the same desires, plans and hopes that they always had.
Facing up to your end and the changes in life as you age is hard to do. I am glad that artists like Leonard Cohen help us to do so with wit, integrity, grace and humour.
‘She is gay’ ‘He is a big head’ ‘She has anger issues’ ‘He doesn’t handle emotions well’. I have heard all versions of these phrases. Mostly they have been uttered by people who have not taken time to know the unique story that makes up each person: they have just scraped a first impression and stuck with it.
I once read someone who wrote of preaching and said ‘wrestle with the great texts until they throw you’. I want to listen to someone who has taken time to understand a passage, lived with it, wrestled with it and tried to make it part of them, because by the time I have reached Sunday I’ve also wrestled with what it means to live like a Christian and I’m conscious that I’ve failed.
Preaching is easy- you just open a vein and let it bleed. I don’t care if your wrestling has left you with loose ends: life has loose ends, I do care if you haven’t bled. And I don’t want your first impressions, I want something deeper even if it has thrown you in the finding.
If I had kept in sequence, today I would have used ‘Leaving the table’, but this track is ideal for Sunday.
With echoes of the books of Habakkuk & the Psalms, this for me is one of the highlights of the album.
It could be read as being to a woman, but I hear it as a simple, confessional prayer. Much as I am cautious of reading too much authorial intent into and song, I think it was in fact meant as a prayer: prayer at its most honest- broken, fragmented and humble. Either way, you may hear more naked honesty here than in many a church service.
Listen and wonder…listen and pray….
Sitting listening to people has made me realise I often went on for too long. I was ok at all age stuff- simple but (hopefully) not simplistic or patronising, but give me a full range sermon & I most often hit the 20 minute mark.
For most people I have heard in the last 20 years, 10 minutes would have been enough (and for some, 5 minutes would be pushing it -see ‘Being a punter:2’ a couple of days ago). Years ago, I would have regarded that as heresy: ‘You are diluting the gospel’, now I regard that as necessity: ‘you are boring the people’.
Occasionally, you hear someone who is still interesting after 20 minutes, but not frequently: it is a rare skill. Mostly I want a brief, focused preach with not too many points: leave me wanting more as I’m likely to then look the passage up myself later. I’m also likely to remember it for a while. In my darker moments, I sometimes think a log sermon is more about the preacher’s ego in needing to speak.
And now….I’ve made a rod for my back when I next preach….
‘I was fighting with temptation
But I didn’t want to win
A man like me don’t like to see
Temptation caving in’
Some people say that Leonard Cohen was morbid. I don’t think he was; he could be playful and full of wry humour. The above lyric is honest but also mischievous. It is one I will remember and add to my mental grab bag of quotes.
I like the fact that with his songs, like all great poetry, it is hard to be fully certain as to what they are about. Maybe this is about an old man looking back at love, at its place in his life and the women he has known. Maybe it is about the fact that at 82 and fading you are just as open to that, even though you lack the wherewithal to go through with it: I don’t know.
More than ever, I like the fact that in this song, like many others, he avoids the easiness of ‘either/or’:-
‘My lost, my lost was saying found
My don’t was saying do’
Which is about the most honest way of talking about the reality of being tempted. It is a bit like the Apostle Paul (although less humorously) saying ‘I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate’.
Life will be harder without Leonard…
Many years ago; I won’t say where or when, I watched someone preach for the first time (They had been preaching for a while). In person they were a warm and lovely human being, but when they stood up to preach that largely seem to disappear.
They seemed; well- it is hard to put this nicely- dull. Their diction became colourless, flat and stilted. Their normal everyday persona of story, humour and interest vanished. In its place came concepts, 3 points that alliterated and a heck of a lot of insider language.
When I sit in a congregation, I don’t want particularly want to listen to someone who behaves in a ‘preacherly’ way; I want to see someone’s humanity shine out. Someone who doesn’t hide behind an image of how they think preaching should sound but is very much themselves.
You may (you probably will have) different views and insights than I do; but I will listen to you and learn when you are most truly yourself.
A little break from Cohen…
For the first time in 15-20 years, I get to hear people preach. I am a punter in the pews (a phrase I hate, but stay with the irony). Whilst I appreciate the dedication of those who preach; it is not easy, nor should it be, the results are….variable.
I do not want flights of oratory, or perfection; I don’t mind if you stumble over words or if you’ve never passed an exam in your life, or anything like that.
All I want is a bit of honesty in a post truth world. I don’t want you to hide behind an image, to pretend everything works out when it does not, to pretend to be ‘dignified’ when in fact you are bursting with joy….
If the passage grabs you: say it, if you struggle with it; say it, if it makes you dizzy with hope- tell me. If God is an everyday reality; I want to hear- likewise if you are not even sure if He is there.
Just be honest:don’t be an image. I think I tried that in my early days and it drained me. When I’ve heard it, it turns me off.
Please don’t pretend.
I used to respond more readily to social media debates about the big issues. I still do to some extent; sharing (hopefully selectively) posts and articles about them, leavening it with irony and humour. At least I hope I do; you can deceive yourself very easily. However, increasingly ‘I do not care who takes this bloody hill’; firm debates with trenchant views tend just lead to no light, little understanding and more bodies on that blood ravaged hill.
I have listened to this song, imagining the voice of the Divine singing it and then imagining one of us singing it. It works both ways and I think Cohen’s imagery flits between the two. It seems to express at moments profound doubt.
Perhaps it is possible to see it as a response of a man taking his leave of the world, longing that his thoughts, actions and emotions be aligned with God, but knowing that there were always differences. If we are honest, those of us who have faith, however strong or weak have this level of equivocation. Most of us, however, pretend that it is not the case. We may get to the level of saying:-
‘I’m so sorry for the ghost I made you be’.
‘Only one of us was real and that was me’.
Whatever: I wish at the end, despite my everyday equivocations that I could still say:-
‘You were my ground, my safe and sound, my aerial’.
A break from Leonard for a couple of days….
I remember it clearly.
I was stood in the middle of a music/video shop in Middlesbrough and it came on; not just one track, but the whole album. Voice deeper than the strongest dark, ground coffee and poetry, at first almost impenetrable, but then speaking to me ( although I didn’t fully understand what exactly it was saying).
It was a moment of transcendence; I could hardly move and it was a wrench to leave the shop. It was difficult to talk afterwards- the music was so compelling. Epiphanies are often like that.
About two weeks later I heard that he died and I bought the album and played it, played it again and keep playing it.
In hindsight, this track is eerily prescient: ‘I’m ready my Lord’. Years ago I remember hearing a retiring minister who had had an international profile telling the assembled gathering that no one who had talked to him about his retirement had asked him if he was prepared for his death.
‘I’m ready my Lord’. Now as I hear those words, I pause and remember that he was ready for his death. As a fifty year old and aware more than ever that life is fragile, I wonder if I am.
As for the rest of the track; well I leave that for wiser minds, save to say I have rarely heard a better grappling with human sin and suffering and how we ‘kill the flame’…
I am hoping to give a thought on each track of this album, maybe consecutively, maybe not. Of all the albums I possess, this has moved me the most.