Faith Works 7-2-16
Another way to preach, to teach, to listen
A day many of us have long anticipated, with dread but also some understanding, comes today.
This weekend, from the Hollywood Bowl, the last Garrison Keillor hosted "A Prairie Home Companion" will air on public radio.
There's much that could be said about the skits, the characters, the fake ads and musical adaptations that Garrison Keillor has brought to radio, or he would say "brought back" to that aural medium, but my thoughts are mainly about the end of the monologues, and what they've meant to me and so many preachers.
The show will pick up again in the fall, on Saturday nights, with the thirty-something Chris Thile bringing his musical talent and quirky wit to the microphone, but Guy Noir, Lefty, and the Ketchup Advisory Board, not to mention Powermilk Biscuits, will all likely be heard no more. Rich Dworsky and many of the vocal talents will stay, so who knows, and I'm guessing there will be guest appearances, God willing, but this weekend marks the official end to a long running narration, in weekly twenty minute segments, about what Keillor calls "a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown."
He says of the place that it's "the little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve." And if you've never heard the program, you probably know the signal to the crew that he was wrapping up the story, when Keillor would say, almost (exactly) as a benediction "and that's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."
What came in between was a story, and it was a story that . . . well, there's dispute on this question. As a storyteller and public speaker myself, there's no doubt he put some time and consideration into what he was going to talk about each week.
But as a writer, and in the craft of storytelling whether on the page or on the stage, there are moments when, especially when you're talking about characters, not just ideas, when you are doing narration, not just description or exhortation, those people suddenly will do something or say something you, the so-called Author, did not expect. And one of the many attractions, I believe, of Keillor's monologues was the quality he communicated, even as he spoke of the most everyday of realities – dresses not fitting, cars not starting, a group of pastors on a pontoon boat – that anything at all might happen.
That he was, well, telling a story.
For good or ill, Keillor has been a major influence on a whole generation of preachers. Along with a more inductive method of communicating the Gospel, and more participatory models of teaching the Bible, Keillor came along just as there were many factors pushing back against what had been for generations the Protestant norm of preaching: a half-hour or more lecture, with three points and a summary followed by a poem or a verse of a hymn. You could sit in a pew and calculate when you could start gathering your things quietly together by noting when the pastor said "and in conclusion . . ."
It is a more academic model, one in preaching that survived even after college professors were no longer using it. And as parsons and evangelists were looking for a different approach than a manuscript and citations, along came the narrative uncertainty, but deeply rooted groundedness of Lake Wobegon.
I got a thank you note to him the last time he came through Newark, knowing he was nearing retirement, telling him what an inspiration and role model his storytelling has been to me as a Christian preacher. My unexpected delight was to receive a postcard from New York where he wrote about his challenges in teaching a Sunday school class while being on the road so often.
Something tells me he's not retiring from teaching that class, and I look forward to reading the books he hopes to yet write, but I know I will long remember those moments, in a darkened auditorium or simply sitting in a car with the radio on, as Keillor got to a certain point in a story, and said "and yet . . . and yet . . . and yet . . ." and I knew with a thrill and a smile that neither of us were exactly certain what he was going to say next, but that the words would come. In that very hour, he would know what to say, as the Spirit gave him voice.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you've heard stories that inspire you at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.