Some Sunday mornings I spend up to half an hour thinking about bananas.
I do that when the preaching doesn’t reach me.
If the clergyperson exhorts me to behave in ways that are by God meet and right, I go deaf. I can only hear sermons that explicate the day’s biblical text. Make it understandable and I’ll be grateful and I’ll stumble along and figure out on my own how to apply it.
And then sometimes the preacher’s message is enthusiastic but unstructured and incoherent, like off-the-cuff remarks from Sarah Palin. It suggests that the fancy name given to seminary courses in preaching — homiletics — means “just be earnest; everything else follows. You betcha.” But it doesn’t. At least not for me.
The preacher caught in this poor-structure snare (the devil’s work, no doubt), and perhaps sensing that things aren’t going well, will often whiz right past any number of good stopping places, as if attenuation will make something good out of a bad job. I suspect that’s an ancient delusion, practiced ever since the church developed the notion that ministers are endowed with divine authority. If your words have that much heft, there’s a good chance that the congregation’s attention span and bladder control will be of piddling consequence to you.
When encountering such a ministerial mess, I try hard to keep my dissatisfaction from showing.
I like to sit near the front so that the hymn singing comes from behind and wraps around me in a cloud. I love hymns, especially the down-home kind I grew up with, such as “Love Lifted Me” and “Let Your Lower Lights Be Burning” and my mother’s favorite, “Brighten the Corner Where You Are.” “Down-home” doesn’t often find its way into the Anglo-Catholic redoubts where I have worshipped for the past few decades. We’re more about the Angelus and incense and processions in which a priest flicks holy water from an aspergillum. The music is mostly plainsong and Renaissance polyphony sung by a professional choir. But not entirely. Now and then, something like “Rock of Ages” makes a surprise appearance, and the congregation has a go at it. These are usually rendered in a flaccid, Episcopalian sort of way, and sometimes they are set to funny tunes rarely heard below the Mason-Dixon line, but I welcome their inclusion. They offer a brief trip back to a happy early time and different place in my life.
Anyway, sitting where I usually do, I’m plainly visible to the preacher. I don’t want to give offense, so I don a serenity mask. I think about St. Stephen, the martyr, whose face, shortly before he was stoned to death, was reported to have the “look of an angel.” I’ve been disappointed that no one has said to me, “Paul, during the sermon your face had the look of an angel.” I guess my acting skills need work.
When the homiletic ride gets rough, thinking about bananas helps smooth the way. I like bananas a good deal more than I like being told how to conduct my life or being subjected to a homily that wouldn’t have gotten higher than a C in a freshman composition class.
I suppose we church goers put up with thin-gruel sermons as part of the admission price for receiving the Eucharist; they do feel somewhat like penance. Bad sermons also create a gratifying sense of community. They form a strong bond among us worshippers — like being together in a plane crash except more so, since the experience is repeated fairly often.
Some of my fellow Christians probably find merit and spiritual sustenance in the same sermons that trigger banana thoughts in me. But I expect most people recognize poor preaching when they hear it, even if they don’t say so while chatting in the narthex afterward.
My grandfather, a cowboy turned butcher whose formal education didn’t extend past fourth grade, was a pretty good judge, and he took precautions against having to sit through a bad one. He enjoyed his one weekly drink, a stiff bourbon, shortly before the start of the service. He’d be snoring softly by the time the preacher got even a slight breeze in his sails. Like that good and sensible man, I too enjoy a drink now and then, but I combat homiletic tribulation with thoughts of bananas.
I’m particular — one could say rigid — about what constitutes an edible one. And I’m not alone in that. In fact, I don’t recall meeting even one person who would eat any banana other than a perfect one — as defined by a personal, easily applied, single criterion.
My sister-in-law, Robbie, will eat only green ones — not a little green either — bright green, hard enough to drive nails with and bearing no hint of the yellow color that would arrive, if she didn’t eat them, about ten days later. My wife, Ann, on the other hand, cannot abide a banana that has not proceeded in the ripening process to the soft, borderline-squishy state that announces impending banana death. No brown spots, no eat.
I require bananas that fall between these extremes. Nicely yellow. Firm, but not too. Two, maybe three, days prior to the appearance of the first brown spot. I know I’ve gotten the banana quality that the Almighty called me to when I can snap the end off without using a knife. If it’s too green, that’s not possible. Too ripe is obvious from the spots.
I buy bananas three at a time: one that’s yellow but firm for me, one pretty far on its way to banana senescence for Ann, and one of indeterminate maturity that can go either way with the passage of time. Closely observing number three to see how it’s turning out can provide a welcome soupçon of diversion for the long-married couple. If they’ve mislaid the effervescent dialogue that had once been a staple in life with the hottest date either one ever had, they can speculate about how the ripening is going. That’s not much, but in a really bad patch, it may get things moving in a better direction.
Another thing about bananas and me. I like to have one every day as part of breakfast. I rarely eat one after 8:00 a.m. That would be an unnatural act; not unnatural in the way that certain New York politicians practice with consummate artistry, but unnatural all the same. I’m not inflexible about other breakfast matters. Pizza is an excellent way to start the day. Fried chicken, too. I have fond memories of doing that before I went vegan. I have even — when my fishing buddies insisted — choked down a beer at first light. But bananas are always and only for breakfast. Selah.
And another thing. Just one. More than one is, as the Brits say about unthinkable actions, “just not on.” Selah.
If the sermon happens to be especially long, I turn from rumination on bananas to the mysteries of selecting avocados. It so happens I have strong avocado juju. If I could, I would describe how it works, but I don’t have the words. What is the tactile sensation that tells me an avocado is ready to eat immediately or in a day or two or in a week? I just can’t say. But I do know. I’m sure I could make good money as a free-lance picker of avocados for supermarket shoppers. (Given the current state of the economy, that’s a comforting thought.)
Or apples. The best variety grown in New York State is the Macoun, but it goes soft and mediocre soon after picking. Sometimes when I’m sitting there in the fourth row trying to look angelic, I imagine firm, juicy Macouns and think about which vendors are more likely to have good ones, and I plan a shopping trip for after my nap.
The art of watermelon thumping will also serve.
So — thanks to bananas, I’m in a proper Sunday frame of mind when I finally receive Holy Communion, even if it has been preceded by a stillborn homily. Or at least I’m closer to it than I would have been if I’d paid attention.
As the windy Presbyterian preachers of my childhood were wont to point out, “the Lord works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.”