Saturday, April 23, 2011

No news here

For the past several months I've been preaching to what must be called a faithful remnant at North Baptist Church in Port Chester, N.Y.

Just standing in that pulpit is an honor. The three Tiffany windows over my shoulder and other arrays of stained glass make it one of the most beautiful worship centers I've known, and the church's storied past also includes a pastor to whom I am now married, the Divine M, ten inches shorter but always over me in the Lord.

But the church has seen better years and most Sundays the congregation approaches the minimal requirement for Jesus' presence, two or three gathered faithfully. But I work as hard on the sermons as if I was preaching in Riverside Church, and although the congregation looks like a small prayer group, I preach from the elevated pulpit so we all feel like we're really in church.

Un-ordained and un-adorned as I am, I have never preached on Easter so I've been pouring through scriptures and commentaries all week. By Saturday morning, I was leafing through dusty volumes of The American Baptist magazine, where I used to publish editorial homilies. As any columnist knows, an approaching deadline may put the Muse to sleep. That must have happened in the spring of 1980, because I didn't write an Easter message that year. I drew a cartoon instead. (See

The cartoon is hastily drawn and shaded with press-on screens that had to be shaped by Exacto knives and pressed on to the paper. The drawing shows a TV news van pulling up to a tomb carved out of rocks in the middle of a barren desert. A reporter with a microphone emerges from the empty hole as a videographer waits tensely from his perch atop the van.

"Just an empty tomb," the reporter calls to the camera guy. "Signal the assignment desk. That news tip musta been a joke."

Ha, I must have thought at the time. Irony. Very funny. But for me, the agony and ecstasy of art was still to come.

About a month after the cartoon appeared, I was one of a thousand or more participants in Religion Communication Congress 1980, a once-a-decade event for religious communicators. That was the year the newly elected Pope John Paul II addressed the gathering by videotape, and Harvard theologian Harvey Cox was a keynoter.

I watched Harvey from a balcony at the rear of the auditorium. He was -- and is -- a major American Baptist celebrity and he was idolized by a Roman Catholic chaplain I had worked for in the Air Force. Chaplain Kucharski, one of the young liberals swept into the church by the fresh air of Vatican II, quoted Harvey Cox incessantly, especially paragraphs from Harvey's best-selling book, The Secular City. Years later when I joined the American Baptist staff I met Harvey and even edited some essays he wrote for The American Baptist magazine. I made plans to casually run into Kucharski one day so I could pinch my fingers together and tell him, "Yeah, me and Harvey are like this!" Sadly, the next time I heard about Kucharski, he had dropped out of the priesthood, gotten married, and died. But I never think of Harvey without thinking of Father Kuch.

As I was settling in the rafters of the auditorium on that warm spring day in 1980, I was astonished to hear Harvey say, "I saw a cartoon recently that summarizes the state of the church." I was stunned and then breathless as Harvey went on to describe my drawing and quote the caption as a smattering of applause broke out in the audience. Whoa, I thought. Is this my 15 minutes of fame?

I don't remember what Harvey said after that (although I think he ended his speech by quoting the cartoon again). After he finished I made my way through the crowd to shake his hand. He smiled toothily at me and I thanked him for the endorsement.

"What?" he said. He lowered his ear in a quizzical manner.

I realized instantly that he had no idea what I was talking about. He had forgotten where he had seen the cartoon or the magazine that printed it.

I thanked him again and stepped back so the rest of the admiring crowd could get to him. My fifteen minutes of fame expired in the footlights.

It was a harsher lesson then, when I was in my early 30s, than it would be now. Three decades later I've accumulated a sufficient number of humbling experiences to handle them with a modicum of aplomb. Perhaps the real message back then was that there's no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit.

But I'd like to think that the message of that cartoon still has meaning this Easter.

The fact that Jesus' tomb is empty is big news. But it no longer tops the news hour or appears on page one above the fold. Seasoned reporters don't get it. It's the most overlooked headline of our times.

Maybe that's the message I'll preach to the faithful remnant at North Baptist Church on Easter morning.

1 comment:

  1. The church of faith truly runs on empty -- fueled by renewable energy not of this world, the kind of energy exemplified in the "gone for good" illustration of the Jerusalem tomb. Thanks for your faithfulness in small and large assignments!