Monday, February 22, 2010

Supply Preaching

As a young man it was my intention to be a Presbyterian minister. During the winter of 1956 I went out from Canterbury University to my first supply preaching, three whistle-stop services in one Sunday, Sheffield, Hororata and Greendale. My sermon topic, "the Patience of God" indicates that I realised my own impatience needed dealing with. I took the train out on Saturday. A gaunt farmer met me to drive me to his home and equally gaunt wife. In their big, spare bedroom with the embroidered texts on the walls and a photograph of their son killed in the recent war, I couldn't sleep. Despite the hot water bottle the high-studded room was mid-winter freezing. My mood - "imposter syndrome" - was one of apprehension, and a realisation what the pastoral role would entail, consoling grief-stricken people like as my hosts. It would not all be intellectual cut and thrust.

Next morning, however, the church was warm - the boiler had been put on early. I entered the pulpit in my undergraduate's gown. As the pedal-driven organ wheezed to a stop I stood up to begin my first service. Doubt drained away. I became conscious of an internal monitor assessing my performance, watching congregation reaction and consequently varying pitch and attention. Later, often when teaching, a third level observer appeared checking the monitor's performance and contingency plans. This third observer still reappears frequently but very rarely does the monitor ever shut down.

The hour passed rapidly. Afterwards as I stood round chatting, grateful for my upbringing which enabled me to talk about weather, crops and meat schedules, someone thrust an envelope into my hand: "Your fee". Embarrassing, the relationship between God and Mammon so clearly established. This little divinity student was rather unworldly. We went back to a large meal. Someone called to take me on to Hororata where after a cup of tea I preached to twelve people - and two dogs, who sat in the porch entrance throughout the service.

More tea and cake, before they whirled me on to Greendale and a slighter larger congregation. "The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended; the darkness falls at Thy behest". Afterwards they rushed me down to catch the bus for the short journey back to Christchurch. Back at the hostel, I went for a shower. Two of the roughest hostel diamonds, one a Canterbury rugby forward, both Catholics, were there. "Late for you, where've you been?" they asked. I explained. "Holy hell," one said. Thereafter they treated me - a prospective man of the cloth - with an undeserved respect.

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