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Invisible Listeners

A Postcard from the Socially Distant
March 28, 2020


I miss you all. I miss your faces, your voices, your hugs and handshakes.
I just miss you.

I’ve heard many people say in the last few weeks, that it has taken a pandemic to teach us what matters most, community, fellowship, family, one another. We are hungry for “social contact.” I think our church already knew this going into the present “novel” situation, but certainly we do feel it more.

Three weeks ago a reporter from the New Orleans paper asked me what is the toughest part about preaching into a camera without your congregation being present. Without hesitation, I answered, “Not seeing our peoples’ beautiful faces.” When you preach, it isn’t a relationship between you and a manuscript that matters, it is the relationship between you and your people.

Your smiles, quizzical looks, and laughter, your silence, and your tears, all create a dynamic event, something unrepeatable, and utterly unique. I love to read the sermons of the great preachers of past and present. But reading them is nothing like hearing them. Yet now I find myself preparing sermons just trying to imagine you hearing them.

Wandering around the house a few nights ago, thinking these thoughts, I happened upon a small book of literary criticism by Helen Vendler, one of the finest scholars of English literature of all time. Dr. Vendler (now retired) taught generations of students at Harvard, but I know her only through her books, my favorite of which is this tiny book titled, “Invisible Listeners” (Princeton University Press, 2005).

Using the metaphor, “invisible listeners” she examines three of the greatest poets in the English language: George Herbert, Walt Whitman, and John Ashbury. Only a very small minority of auditors hear a poem directly from the lips of a poet. In fact, it often seems that even contemporary poets are talking to a crowd of auditors they can only dimly imagine, even if we are fortunate enough to hear them in person. Poets speak over our heads and around corners to people not present, people who may only know them from a snatch of verse here or there. Sometimes, poets principally are speaking to generations unborn (this seemed especially true of Whitman).

Dr. Vendler digs deep into these three poets, but it is from George Herbert, my favorite of the three, that I find her quoting a passage he might be speaking to us today in the midst of the challenges we are facing separated as we are, unsure as we are, confused and anxious as we are. Today, we are Herbert’s “Invisible Listeners” as he writes:

“I muse which shows more love,
The day or night, that is the gale, this the harbour,
That is the walk, and this the arbour:
Or that the garden, this the grove,
My God, thou art all love:
Not one poore minute ‘scapes thy breast,
But brings a favor from above;
And in this love, more than in bed, I rest.”

A poem, more a prayer, on our behalf, spoken four centuries ago by a high-born, but simple, Anglican parson from the countryside near Salisbury, England: a reminder to generations to come, including us, that the God who loved and cared for this minister and his faithful flock is present still to love and care for us.