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.

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This post is the final one in a series based on my recent sermon “The Debt of Love,” preached at Bethel Presbyterian Church in Northport, Alabama.

“The commandments…are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Romans 13:9).

The Book of Leviticus says that correcting or rebuking someone about their behavior is an expression of love (Leviticus 19:17). The Gospel of Matthew (18:15-20) gives an example of such loving admonishment in the community of faith. Someone has wronged another member of the church. What is to be done? There are several options. The one wronged could stew about the grievance and hold a grudge. He or she could spread rumors about the offending brother or sister. Or the hurt one could do the unthinkable: go to the person who committed the offense and talk. Love wants a relationship to be made whole again. Love that does no harm knows that a sister or a brother is harmed by being alienated from another, whether he or she knows it or not. The one who was hurt is harmed, too, because he or she doesn’t have a proper relationship with the other member. Wholeness is found in community. The purpose of the conversation, as difficult and painful as it may be, is to regain a positive relationship. Love leads us to seek out those who have done us wrong and talk seriously about what happened.

None of us likes to talk about things that are unpleasant. Sometimes we’d rather sweep problems under the rug. We seem to believe that if we ignore them long enough, they’ll go away, like a stray dog who comes around wanting food and a scratch behind the ears. And ignoring a problem works. For awhile. But if that’s our standard method of conflict management, we’re in for a rude surprise. One day, like a volcano, it will all erupt—all the pain, all the anger, all the frustration, and for the slightest of reasons. Except that what we see as a triviality is really a trigger.

My first time in seminary, I shared a house with three other guys named Jim, Ernie, and John. I barely knew John and Ernie; they seemed to be gone most of the time. But Jim and I got to be good friends. Some of the things I did rubbed him the wrong way and vice-versa. But I was brought up to be nice; you simply didn’t say things to people. Talk about them behind their backs, yes, but not to their face!

But one day I had had it. For some reason, the way Jim answered the phone pushed some button. All my anger and frustration and irritation focused on the silly way Jim pronounced “hello.” I confronted him, and we had it out about all the issues that I had had and he had had since we met. Our friendship was actually stronger after that. I had gained a brother.

Paying the debt of love isn’t easy. But Paul is convinced that trying to fulfill every detail of the law would be harder still. He should know. He tried and failed, as did his peers. Better to have one focus, one ultimate calling, one principle that guides us in every situation. People in debt try to consolidate all their payments into one monthly amount to one company. Rather like that, we follow this one summary statement that fulfills all the requirements of God: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We can’t live such a life in our own strength. And we don’t have to. The good news is always that we are not alone and that we don’t need to be afraid. Whether we’re gathered in a little group of two or three, in a megachurch filled with thousands, or anywhere in between, Jesus has promised to be among us. Prayer holds us up, as do our sisters and brothers. Faith in God’s purpose gives us hope. And so we can go out to love.

© 2008 Tom Cheatham