Reflecting on “Reflection”

On Sunday, August 25, for the fourth time in as many years, I stood, speaking, on the podium of Eastrose Fellowship Unitarian-Universalist Church in Gresham, an entirely happy experience as have been my other visits there. On those previous visits my speeches were sermons, but this time language had changed: I was giving a “Reflection.” Earlier in the week I’d been told by my friend and neighbor, Carol Knox, the emissary who opened the Eastrose door to me, about that change and offered the opportunity to request the old designation, sermon. I’d preached countless sermons and given quite a few homilies, meditations, devotionals, thoughts while shaving, but never a reflection that I could recall, but after a fair bit of consideration, I accepted the change, in fact, welcomed it. Here’s just about how I explained that to my hearers that morning:

When I first heard that my words had been named a reflection, I was amused; perhaps I’d best bring along a mirror, but “mirror” had immediately reminded me of words Paul wrote to Jesus people in Corinth, Greece, that in the old King James version of the Bible are “now we see through a glass, darkly.” In modern translations it’s something like “now we see in a mirror, dimly. . .” (NRSV) or more cunningly, “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist.” (The Message). A few words beyond Paul admits, “now we see in part,” which is in another translation—better, a paraphrase as we were warned in my student days when the J.B.Phillips “Letters to Young Christians” was a best seller—is “at present all I know is a little fraction of the truth.”

All of which has got me to thinking that calling the sermon a reflection isn’t a bad idea. In fact, if we who love preaching would only admit as Paul did that all we know is a little fraction, we’d likely recognize that way too often we presumed we were speaking point-blank truth. Assuredly, I fit that category, especially when I’ve come up with some unique idea/interpretation/ implication/ illustration/application/conclusion I supposed to be brilliantly original and intensely memorable. Perhaps it’s a good practice to have written somewhere well visible where we prepare or speak our “sermons” the word REFLECTION to remind us of how we see it all darkly but, on the other hand, that our job is quite simply, but acutely demanding, to be as clearly as possible, a reflection of the One who alone is Truth. I must accept that the five pages I’d written for last Sunday’s speaking were a mere reflection, but hopefully, fuzzy as it was, a reliable reflection, which is the best I could ask of my hearers who may have thought my words to be opaque if not actually disastrously wrong: perhaps there is a point here or there that approaches truth and is worth taking to heart.

As these thoughts shaped up, I also got around to thinking about my most recent previous visit to that podium a year ago when I’d actually been trying to make that same point although using an entirely different metaphor from high school math, speculating about the difference between Q.E.D. thinking and asymptotic thinking. (About the same time I had written an Old Ticker blog post about that contrast.) Q.E.D. implies confidence that one has achieved unarguable proof/truth, a point incidentally as keen for ideological liberals/progressives as fundamentalist evangelicals. Asymptotic thinking implies reticence, that we can only approach a solution, that though we come close, we never arrive at the absolute point—a limit or infinity in view but unattainable. I had quoted Paul Kalanithi, the brilliant neurosurgeon, who would soon himself die of a brain tumor, writing in “When Breath Becomes Air”: “You can’t ever be perfect, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving,” a sentence that quietly revolutionized my well-established tendency towards Q.E.D when I read it for the first time.

As I sat in the front row of seats waiting for the service to begin and reflecting on what I would be saying, I noticed playing on the floor in front of me little flecks of blue and green and red and yellow, sort of a fractured rainbow, which I presumed were evidence of sunlight passing through a stained glass window high in the front wall. I watched for a minute or two until the sun’s position changed or shadows interfered, recalling an experience of at least 60 years past when I was a callow seminarian quite confident of my grasp of truth and ready to soon start telling the world about it.

It was at a Seminary Forum, a group that once a month got together to discuss arcane ideas that seminarians and their professors greatly love to talk about. Our presenter that evening was the Rev. Dr. Karl A. Olsson, one of those professors. He had just read a passage of some now-forgotten book by an also forgotten theologian presenting a theology of stained glass. Although I was supposed to be the moderator, I probably hadn’t been listening well, definitely not well enough, so that when the Rev. Dr. Olsson asked me, “Anderson, what do you make of that?” I was, to say the least, nonplussed when being nonplussed before Karl Olsson was never a good option (some of my colleagues would have said, “the only option”), and I could come up with only some meaningless, mumbling words before he stopped me short and launched into a memorable, concise, and deeply meaningful discourse. Perhaps I remember that evening as much for my chagrin as for what was said, but the upshot was that truth is the blazing light like the sun, impossible to look at in the nakedness of our human eyes but, refracted by colored glass, is astoundingly beautiful—all of which came clearly to me as refracted sunlight played in beautiful colors at my feet. Did I need any other sign that my thinking was fixed on the right asymptote?

I began my reflecting aloud a few minutes later and continued for around 20 minutes, I suppose, seeing through a glass, darkly, approaching the truth hopefully but likely only within some far-off shouting distance, a construct I’ve not often kept in mind while preaching but might have been more likely to have done so had I been more acutely conscious that my sermons were rather—more truthfully—reflections.

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