March 2013

Looking through an old magazine earlier this week, I ran across a great quote in an interview with iconic guitarist Carlos Santana (Guitar Player, Holiday 2010: 68). Speaking of playing guitar solos, Santana said

When you take a solo, it’s required for you to know two things: Where are you going and what are you trying to say. Ideally, you’re going straight to the heart. And what you are trying to say to the audience is that you’re [i.e., each person in the audience—TAC] meaningful, you’re significant, and you matter too. If you can take a solo like that, you’re badass. Otherwise, you’re like a cow regurgitating alfalfa and it’s just a bunch of notes and stuff. But if you can affect people to where you kind of alter their existence, you’re pretty badass.”

My thoughts immediately jumped to preaching, conceived not as an academic exercise (the way I was originally taught), but as an art (see, for example, Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet). What if we preachers treated the sermon not as a bunch of words and stuff (to paraphrase Santana), but as one person’s heart reaching out to another? What if it were a creative riff on the text, the life of the church, the old themes made fresh and new (2 Corinthians 5:17)?

Come to think of it, what if all our human communication—between spouses, parents and children, friends—were of that sort, namely, an artful, “straight to the heart” statement that our conversation partner matters? What if our speech with each other, just for a little while and maybe only a little bit, served to “alter [our] existence”?

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.


I was reminded recently of the Five Rules of Customer Service:

  1. Listen
  2. Apologize as needed
  3. Offer remedy
  4. Follow through
  5. Thank the customer.

Unfortunately, my wife sent me the list because a bank I have to deal with violated every item on the list. My desire for competent assistance got me labeled by one of their officers as “demanding” and “negative.” Never once have I received an apology for their myriad mistakes and the misery they have caused me. In order to get anything done, I had to be persistent. No one has ever said a word of thanks for my putting up with their less-than-stellar service.

When you think about it, the Five Rules apply to more than business. They are really just good practices for human interaction, the sort of thing we learn or should learn growing up: regard others as important (listen); admit you’re not perfect and can hurt someone’s feelings (apologize); offer restitution, make it right (offer remedy); keep your promises (follow through); and be grateful (say “thank you”).

If we did these five simple things, every day, by habit, with everyone, how different would our lives be? What conflicts would be prevented or resolved?

Maybe instead of arguing over hot button issues or esoteric doctrines, the church, which is to be the demonstration of what God intends for all humanity, could lead the way in living and teaching the Five Rules. Maybe they really just boil down to one Rule, which we traditionally have called “Golden”: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

I spend my days working with and for people who go to church, govern the church, promote the church, care about the church, worry about the church. That has been so, with relatively brief breaks, since 1977 when I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. My contact with and knowledge about “unchurched” people comes from articles and surveys I read. (The “dechurched” and “believers not belongers” are a different story.) Even when I worked for a law firm in the late ‘70s, my employer was a respected Presbyterian elder, and the secretary was a faithful Roman Catholic.

I grew up in a very religious home. Bibles everywhere. Nightly devotionals led by my dad. Sunday school plus worship twice on Sunday from the time I was a kid. No liquor. Strict morals. Disapproving looks and stern lectures.

What a surprise then to discover in my late mother’s diary that as a child and teen she was unchurched. And also what an insight into how someone who comes to faith as an adult regards the rituals that I have taken for granted all my life.

She recounts how when she was 19, in late February 1951, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Albany, GA came by her home, following up on word from “someone” that she wanted to join the church. She recounts how the next Sunday she was “baptisted” (Freudian slip or simply poor spelling, I’m not sure). Apparently in that day in the Presbyterian Church in the South there were no classes required, no examination by the session, no preparation of any kind. Or maybe Mama simply didn’t consider any of that important to mention.

In that era, the Presbyterian Church did not emphasize the sacraments much at all, so “the Lord’s Supper” as the Eucharist was always called, was “observed” or “administered” (never “celebrated”) only quarterly. And always by passing trays in the pews, with little pillow-shaped pieces of cracker and shot glasses of grape juice. Mama’s comment on her first Communion, which wasn’t until the summer after her “baptisting” was one word: “interesting.” (That was the same thing she said when she first saw a TV show.)

I’m not sure what to make of that relatively emotionally flat assessment, though I think for her it was high praise. At least she didn’t say Communion was boring or incomprehensible or frightening. And knowing Presbyterian practice in that day, “interesting” was probably the best one could say. “Celebratory,” “joyful” or “spiritually uplifting” would not have fit the somber ritual of dark-suited old men serving the congregation while sad music played on the organ. (The Lord’s Supper in the Presbyterian Church of that day was always a reminder of the death of Jesus, at which the appropriate action was to weep over one’s sins that killed him.)

Reading Mama’s comment on her first Communion started me thinking about how someone brand new to faith or an unchurched person simply coming to observe these days would regard Holy Communion, the Eucharist, in my congregation. Would it merely elicit a non-committal, emotionally void response? Would it puzzle or perturb? Or would it inspire; amaze; delight; nourish; bring tears, not of sorrow, but of joy; invite an entrance into mystery?

If somehow I found out, that would be interesting.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.