Thursday, April 7, 2011

"Throw Open the Doors of the Church!" A Personal Remembrance of Peter J. Gomes

“And we remember those who have died...”

Sitting in the stillness of the sanctuary during matins at Mepkin Abbey, I felt my heart stirred by these words of the hours. Somewhere in the world, far from this arbor of tranquility, someone died. And we are praying for them. The world is sustained and sanctified by intercessions such as these. It is good to be here.

Little did I know that this morning, numbered among those for whom the brothers and I prayed was the incomparable soul of a teacher, pastor, and friend. It was only later that afternoon, returning to the chatter and noise of the world of car stereos and computers, that I received the news from a friend: Peter Gomes was dead.

I never had the honor of hearing Dr. Gomes preach at his home church in Harvard Square. I was the recipient of the irreplaceable blessing of being taught the art of expository preaching by him when he was a visiting professor at Duke Divinity School during my first year of seminary. When during our first class meeting he announced, “most of you come to me thinking you can preach when you cannot; but for some of you, there may be hope; if you listen to me, some of you may yet become ministers of the Word,” I thought him inestimably arrogant. By the end of our semester, as he roguishly smiled and glanced mischievously through his horn-rimmed spectacles whenever we called him “PJ,” I knew and loved him as inestimably tender and utterly devoted to us as his students. I’m glad I didn’t drop the class.

Staying in the class, of course, cost me a year’s tuition. Refreshed after three years away from the academy, I had managed to make perfect marks in all of my classes, positioning myself to make a run at a merit-based scholarship that would have lessened my loans significantly. Then PJ gave me a B+ in preaching. Heartbroken and just a little hell-bent, I requested a meeting with Professor Gomes to plead my case. I will never forget sitting with him in the advent of the summer sun on the patio outside the Refectory, he in his straw hat and bright bow-tie, me with my entitlements and expectations, and hearing his verdict: “an A would have meant you have arrived as a preacher. You are a B+ preacher - this means you are already a good preacher. It also means you have room to grow to become even better. If I have you an A, I would have given you nowhere to grow.” Suddenly, I was grateful for my B+, even honored by it. That was the last time I saw or spoke with him.

PJ did not leave us orphans, however. Throughout his time at Duke, he often spoke in wistful tones of how “no one but Rick Lischer has been down to see me” in his dingy basement office, and despite the greatness of his demeanor and the nobility of his character, it was not lost on us how this famous man, who often shared his Cambridge kitchen with the likes of Julia Child, was undeniably lonely. It is one of the great injustices of my tenure at Duke that PJ was not extended the promise of community which so characterized the mantras of the school’s theological self-understanding.

Not one to remain a victim of fate, PJ took matters into his own hands. As the semester drew to a close, he announced to us that he had “visited Mr. Dean Gregory Jones, and informed him that I had received less than satisfactory hospitality from the school, so he ought to provide me a blank check for me to take my beloved students to dinner at the Washington Duke.” We could only imagine the conversation, the slack-jawed visage of the Dean at the audacity of this tiny man from Harvard with the tremendous ego, his wounded pride, and his appreciation for his students. We feasted on prime rib, several bottles of fine wine, and a little taste of ivy-league elitism to the tune of over $1000 - PJ’s only regret was that smoking was not allowed, so he could not purchase a box of cigars. Such was his love for his friends.

If PJ valued feasting on the fineries of the material world, he was even more committed to teaching us how to administer the bread of life, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in our preaching. Much like our last supper at the Wa-Duke, Prof. Gomes viewed the sermon as a table prepared for the parish that must be set with care and boldness, a sensual ravishment that not only nourished spirits, but also transformed lives. He never ceased reminding us that “people come to church to hear something from you that they cannot hear or find anywhere else. If what you are saying is what they can hear from Oprah or NPR, you might as well not say it.” The preached Word is not just homiletic pyrotechnics or fast-food moralisms; under PJ’s tutelage, we came to see it, truly, as a foretaste of the feast to come.

Nor did he let us forget the great responsibility placed on our shoulders as we climbed into the pulpit. “You must have faith,” he intoned, “that God has given you this Word, for this place, in this time, for these people, at this moment. Do not give us this nonsense of ‘I’d like to suggest to you...‘ or ‘its my opinion that...‘ or ‘I invite you to consider...‘ You are the preacher. This is the church. Proclaim with boldness the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you don’t, how can you expect it of them?” PJ self-assurance and his confidence in the Word of Life enabled him to empower others to go and do likewise.

Such confidence, however, carried the additional responsibility of boldness. “On Easter Sunday,” he asked, “what do you think is on most people’s minds? Spring time and bunnies? New life? NO! They are thinking, ‘that blasted Jesus, just when you think he is gone, here he comes to bother us again! They are thinking, why must he continue to intrude on my life! And in such a fashion! No, what most people are thinking, and won’t express, is this: they don’t know if they believe in a real resurrection then, and are not sure they can believe in the same for themselves today. They are looking to you. Will you avoid this, or will you go there with them?” PJ taught us to be unafraid of speaking of proverbial elephants in the room, to take seriously people’s questions, not as excuses, but as genuine struggles, and ardent desire to believe, to hear someone believe enough to proclaim it, rather than postulate it. Preaching demands truthfulness and true faith - such a teaching has never failed me in my own ministry.

Putting our finger on such questions, and wrestling with them until we could find the confidence to believe God’s promises regarding them, occupied most of our time with PJ. I have never read the Bible so much in community - or so fruitfully, or enjoyably - as we did in our weekly seminar sessions. Those who were preaching would bring their texts and research to the table - always on difficult texts like Romans 13, Matthew 19, Joshua 23, and so forth - and for three hours, we would argue, challenge and imagine together not just how to preach these texts, but also how to hear God’s own answers to our own difficult questions. In four years of seminary, this has not happened in any other class. Yet here, the Word of God was truly living and active. PJ taught us to love the Bible, and the Gospel it contained.

As we all became comfortable and familiar with one another, humor became our general mode of discourse, and as anyone who knew him will attest, PJ was the master of sass. He often mocked his own baptist heritage, lamenting his hymnody’s obsession with “blood...its always about ‘the blood,‘ there is a ‘fountain of blood...‘ I wonder what all the women must be thinking each month.” He never tired of calling Karl Barth “old man river, who could have stood to write about fourteen less volumes of those blasted dogmatics of his.” And he never missed an opportunity to slip in self-promotion: after making some generally profound point, he’d wryly add, “if you don’t believe me, read my book.” He was a man who took himself entirely too seriously, but in a way that overflowed in endless chuckling and uplifting spirits.

It became the motto of our class to repeat PJ’s favorite baptist self-criticism. Remarking on the frequency of altar calls in services, he would suddenly sweep his arms into the air, instantaneously revert to preacher mode, and proclaim, “throw open the doors of the church!” Laughter ensued. Yet, this was precisely Peter Gomes‘ mission and purpose in all he did. Whether it was in performing the perfection of homiletic artistry, guiding hapless students through the strange world of scripture to make “preachers of them yet,” or in robbing the riches of the seminary to give to the poor who were his, PJ longed that the doors of the church would be flung wide open to all, and with them, the heights, depths, width and breadth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the riches of Holy Scripture.

Young preachers are often told that whenever you step into the pulpit, you bring with you every single pastor, teacher, and preacher who has ever influenced you, and that if you’re not careful, the claustrophobia will get to you. I am ashamed that I had not heard of PJ’s aneurism towards the end of last year, equally sad that it was not until the night of his death that I unwittingly offered prayers for his soul. And yet, I am thankful for the life he lived, the wisdom he shared, and the gift of the voice he gave to me. It is with great joy that I can now say, truly, that PJ will be with me in spirit in the pulpit, shouting with the whole communion of saints, “throw open the doors of the church!” If I can continue to heed his voice, my words may yet do justice to him, and to the Lord he now serves in the eternity that he made so vividly present by the words he gave us in his life.

(click here for a beautiful eulogy, chock full of PJ's humor, by William Willimon)

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