by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“The Ethiopian replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ and invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.” — Acts 8:31.
Part of the process when one seeks ordination in a Mainline Church is for a candidate to have psychological testing done. Sometimes skills testing is also done. Psychological testing takes a day. Skills testing adds another two days, for a total of three.
Which is also to say skill testing takes one’s psychological state into account. Seven years before I even considered attending seminary I decided I needed to find out more about my own skill set. So on my own I went through the three day version of this process, a process which included both psychological and skills testing.
At the time I was making my living as a writer. A friend of mine, another writer, had been tested and was told to go to Law School.
I went for the tests sincerely hoping I would be told the same— go to Law School— become a lawyer. But they told me I was a writer. They did tell me I had the skills for ministry. But I paid no attention. It took me another seven years to shift gears.
The testing center also told me I was— pardon the sexist, old fashioned language— the center also told me I was a “self-made man.” What they meant is I had very few role models. A key part of that (and this had to do with the psychological end of the testing) was when I was very young my father had a nervous breakdown which left him quite debilitated. In short, in my early years I had no father figure in my life.
On the other hand, I think I did have some very significant mentors both early in life and later. I want to single out two early ones.
One was my music teacher, Mrs. Margaretta Wolf, a Juilliard graduate. I went to her for voice lessons because I sang in school and church choirs.
But all art requires learned structure, discipline and technique. And the reality is these lessons evolved from voice lessons into music theory lessons— lessons in the structure, the discipline and the technique of music. I learned how deeply effecting, moving, music can be when, as an artist, you understand what you are doing and how to do it.
Another mentor was my Junior year High School English teacher, Mr. David Marsh. Once a week— the day of the week seemed to be chosen at random, so you never knew when this would happen— once a week when you arrived at the class Mr. Marsh taught, there would be five topics on the board.
This was the assignment: you had twenty minutes to choose a topic and write an essay. What you wrote needed to fill up one side of a lined loose leaf sheet [the Pastor hold up a lined loose leaf sheet]. And you had to fill up the sheet right to the last line.
If you wrote too much and went to the other side of the page, points off. If you wrote too little and did not reach the last line on the page, points off.
What did that teach? It taught composition did not initially happen on the page. It happens first in your brain, before you put pen to paper. It taught the primary principles in the art of composition are structure, discipline, technique.
It is little wonder I combined what I learned from these two mentors and became a professional writer of lyrics. They were, in the end, two of my most important mentors both encountered in my teen years.
There is no question they empowered me. And it’s unlikely what I learned from them I could have acquired on my own.
Further, they not only challenged me. They helped me see what the challenges really were. They offered guidance which served me well on the journey. (Slight pause.)
These words are from the work known as Acts in the book Luke/Acts: “The Ethiopian replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ and invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.” (Slight pause.)
There are several things we moderns believe about Scripture which can readily be labeled as heresies. To be clear, the definition of heresy is not limited to religion.
A heresy is any belief or theory strongly at variance with established beliefs, customs. One heresy we moderns have is you can read Scripture and right off understand both what it says and what it means. This is also an insistence meanings in Scripture are very self-evident and likely to remain static.
Ipso facto, another modern claim— a heresy— says Scripture does not need interpretation. This passage is one among many in Scripture which say otherwise. Scripture needs interpretation. How do I know that? The Bible tells us so!
Indeed, this way of looking at Scripture, that its meanings are evident and there is no need for interpretation, is a very modern development. So yes, this way of seeing Scripture is strongly at variance with history, with long established beliefs, customs— therefore it is a heresy.
Further, for me this passage illustrates our need to rely on others for guidance. Indeed, another modern heresy is that we are all self-made, that we have no need for any reliance on others nor any need for guidance from others.
Now, let’s get really basic about this. A human infant needs to rely on others. Not a one of us would survive infancy without relying on others. But the need for reliance on others is also a broad human truth.
How? First, none of us of us knows everything. Second, we all see the world in different ways. We all have a different take on the world around us.
I think part of our job as humans is to maintain enough humility to engage in grappling with the reality of others. Having that sense of humility means we need to take the time to stop talking at other people and to start talking with other people. It means we need to take the time to start listening to others.
All that brings me back to what happened in the chariot. In a way the most significant thing that happened is this (quote:) “…the Spirit of God snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw Philip no more;…”
You see, having been given the necessary guidance and framework, the structure, the discipline, the technique by another, this eunuch must now use that grounding and strive toward growth. Indeed, the final modern heresy I want to mention is that we treat life as a destination, as a goal.
Life is not a destination, a goal. Life is a journey. And it is hard to go anywhere on the journey without some guidance, without the guidance of mentors, without the guidance of teachers and, of course, without the guidance of Scripture— interpreted Scripture. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Here is another modern heresy: instead of treating Scripture as the Word of God, we turn the Bible into a god. We turn the Bible into a god by forgetting Scripture is the book of the community and community, by its nature, invites us to a spectrum of reality. To see that spectrum we need to work within structure, within discipline, within technique.”
BENEDICTION: I stumbled across this blessing on the web this week and felt compelled to use it. It was labeled as a Benedictine Fourfold Blessing but further research says it’s a Franciscan Blessing. A FOUR FOLD FRANCISCAN BLESSING: May God bless us with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that we may seek truth boldly and love deep within our hearts.
May God bless us with holy anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so we may tirelessly work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless us with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation or the loss of all that they cherish, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them.
May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe we really can make a difference in this world, that we are able, with the grace God offers to us, to do what others claim cannot be done. Amen.