Ben H. Swett
Walnut Grove, Arkansas
I was not prepared to preach a sermon that night, and I knew it. The presbyters had been better satisfied with my qualifications than I was, when they accepted me as a lay minister during the spring of my senior year at college, and I had only applied because one of my friends -- a ministerial student -- was trying to serve four little country churches that had no regular pastors, and asked me if I would help.
On this particular occasion, I had not even prepared an outline. The whole week had been filled with studying for exams, and I got back from an out-of-town rifle match late Sunday morning, instead of Saturday afternoon. As a result, I found myself driving out into the country, enroute to the little community church at Walnut Grove, without the foggiest notion of what I was going to say when I got there.
I think there must have been something about that drive, or the way I reacted to it -- something in the quiet beauty of the spring evening -- that helped me to set up, unconsciously, the prerequisites for what followed.
It was one of those evenings when the whole world becomes a cathedral. The sunlight, slanting upward through layered clouds, turned the whole western sky into vast tiers of stained-glass windows. Elm trees along the road framed portions of the sunset in living gothic arches. Young grain in the fields caught the colors of the sky in long, flowing waves, like a silent symphony.
As I drove along the country road, trying to piece together some kind of thoughts for a sermon, all the beauty and harmony and tranquility of that evening somehow reached out to me and enfolded me within itself. For no discernable reason, I became as happy as a little child, and began to sing to myself the little child's song: "Oh how lovely is the evening . . . is the evening . . . when the bells are sweetly ringing . . . sweetly ringing . . ."
Then my thoughts shifted to the people who would be coming to hear me speak, and it occurred to me that most of them had been practicing Christians far longer than I had been on the planet. I was overwhelmed with my inability to offer them anything worth their hearing. What could I say to them? Nothing . . . just nothing. Not that I was afraid to speak -- I had a background in public speaking, ever since Junior High School, and could concoct something to say at the drop of a hat -- but I was ashamed to do it that way. They were worth more than that.
My awareness of their worth and my inability to give them something worthwhile was not depressing, exactly. It didn't spoil the glowing reverie of the evening. It only made me feel a little sad -- or perhaps "wistful" is a better word. I was not worried or afraid; I just wished I could do a better job of it, for their sake.
Then another thought flickered through my mind: I remembered that somewhere in the Bible, it is said, "Take no thought for what you will say, or what you will speak, for in that hour the words will be given you." And I laughed. I lifted my hand in a sort of salute and said, "OK, deal!" I didn't think of it as a prayer, or as the invocation of a promise, or anything like that. I just did it, and didn't really know why. But then I didn't think any more about what I was going to say. I just drove along, drinking in the beauty of the sunset.
By the time I got to the little church, the shadows were deep and long. I turned into the churchyard and parked, and then sat in the car and waited while families came, in pickup trucks and cars -- most of which were even older than mine -- stakebed trucks and station wagons. Families. Together. Coming to church on a beautiful spring evening, to worship. To hear something -- something of which I knew so very little. They waved to me, and I waved back, but I stayed in the car, absorbing the last of the twilight and the soft sounds of cowbells in the distance, until it was apparent that the last families had arrived. Then I went in.
An elder of the congregation made a few announcements and then introduced me. As I stood up, their faces were open and welcoming, with no sign of skepticism concerning me or my meager qualifications, and my heart went out to them again, as it had on the road before I even met them, but I still didn't know what I was going to say. I just opened the hymnal at random, announced the number and title of a hymn, and led them in singing it. I wasn't even embarrassed, as I usually am, by my total inability to carry a tune. It didn't seem to matter. We sang another hymn, and then it was time for me to speak.
And someone did speak, but it was not me. How can I describe it? I opened my mouth and words were spoken through my voice, but I had no part in them. I was aware of the audience; their faces were interested, alert. I could feel my mouth and lips move, and I knew my gestures were in keeping with what was being said, but . . . and then it struck me . . . I couldn't hear my own voice. I could hear a man toward the back of the room when he coughed. I could hear a car passing along the road, but I could not hear my own voice, and I had absolutely no idea what it was saying.
The little shock of realizing I couldn't hear my own voice might have broken me out of the reverie, but it was countered by another feeling: I seemed to be standing under a grape arbor, picking the fruit from overhanging branches and passing it out to the people, without tasting it myself. It seemed to be the right thing to do: one does not take a bite out of a grape before offering it to someone else. So I relaxed and went along with whatever it was that was happening. I studied the people's faces, wondered who they were and what they were thinking, and watched their reactions to the words. Whatever was being said, it meant something to them.
I knew when the talk was over because all the people bowed their heads, but I did not hear the benediction. Then it was over, something within me was released . . . or reconnected . . . or reactivated. When I came down from the platform, I was still in a state of altered consciousness, like the way one feels when coming out of hypnosis or the effects of ether. People's faces were blurred; the lights seemed large and bright and fuzzy, but I was not dizzy or off balance. I was very, very happy -- euphoric -- and a little drained, but not really tired.
The people gathered around me. They were touching me, patting me, and I thought, "Why are they doing that?" One old man with great, deep eyes said, "Ben, the Lord will find a place for you," and I thought, "What an odd thing to say . . . I wonder why . . ." and then I realized I could not ask, "What did I say? What did I just talk to you about?" At any rate, I didn't ask, so I still don't know what was said in that sermon.
I left the church in that same deep reverie, like reverent joy, and drove back toward town. Somewhere along the road -- I think it was just about the same place where I had raised my hand and said, "Okay, deal!" -- I realized what had happened. The Lord had dealt; the words had been given. I thought, "Oh . . . so that's what it means . . . that's how it happens." And, rather weakly, I raised my hand again and said, "Okay . . . thanks."
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