Monday, November 21, 2011

`He Seldom Mentions Sin'

The only proselytizing I experienced was the passive sort, the mingled scents of coffee and fresh-cut cedar and pine in the lobby of the Lutheran church. My eight-year-old was the top seller of wreathes, garlands and centerpieces in his Cub Scout pack, which meets at the church. We were there to deliver greens to the parishioners he had sweet-talked last week.

At the center of the lobby were two tables set with coffee urns, another for tea, and many platters of cookies. Nearby, already bagged, were the Yuletide trimmings, redolent of the forest where just a week ago they were growing. A scout leader and I checked the list of orders, collected money, and piled her son and mine with trash bags of greenery so they could help customers carry them out to their cars.

We were an L-shaped corridor away from the sanctuary where the service was underway. Hanging from the ceiling in the lobby was a video screen broadcasting the hymn-singing and sermon. The camera was set up in the second-floor balcony and aimed down the middle aisle at the altar. We could see a miniature image of the minister in white robes. If I understood his sermon properly, the theme was encouragement – we all need it, we’re all obliged to dispense it to others. His message, a sort of sacred-but-almost-secular pep talk, sounded characteristically American: Strive, work hard, persevere, help others in their striving. There was no darkness in the minister’s words. He sounded like a good, friendly man, like all the other Lutherans I met. He was no Father Mapple.

I thought of ministers in the novels of Peter De Vries and of a sonnet by a much-neglected poet, once among the most celebrated in the nation, Phyllis McGinley. She published in The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal, as well as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Auden loved her and wrote an introduction to Times Three (1960), her collected poems that went through seven printings in six years. Here is “This Side of Calvin”:

“The Reverend Dr. Harcourt, folk agree,
Nodding their heads in solid satisfaction,
Is just the man for this community.
Tall, young, urbane, but capable of action,
He pleases where he serves. He marshals out
The younger crowd, lacks trace of clerical unction,
Cheers the Kiwanis and the Eagle Scout,
Is popular at every public function,

“And in the pulpit eloquently speaks
On divers matters with both wit and clarity:
Art, Education, God, the Early Greeks,
Psychiatry, Saint Paul, true Christian charity,
Vestry repairs that shortly must begin—
All things but Sin. He seldom mentions Sin.”

McGinley’s satire is gentle, as is mine.

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