Writings by Cole Huffman

The Sermon and The Lunch

This is the title of an essay by C. S. Lewis; it appears in his anthology, God in the Dock.  Lewis tells of listening—for a little while, at least—to a sermon given by a pastor-friend.  The pastor’s daughter invited Lewis to lunch afterwards in the pastor’s home, stating that Sunday lunch was “always a little less frightful when there’s a visitor.” 
What tuned Lewis out to the pastor’s message (as well as everyone there “under thirty,” Lewis observed, in a description of congregational disinterest that makes any preacher wince) was that he idyllically sentimentalized the Christian home and everybody intuitively knew it.  The reality of his own family dynamic was “frightful” in the British sense of the term, meaning it was quite less than idyllic.  Lewis doesn’t fault him for this, however, the way we might—we who are always quick to locate hypocrisy (strong word) in others.  The pastor is human, not a hypocrite.  Lewis faults his friend for wasting his congregation’s attention on sentimental blather about the home that no home, however well-intentioned, fully approximates.
The lunch revealed what Lewis already suspected: not even the pastor’s home was the place where “we retreat from the noise and stress and temptation and dissipation of daily life” as he presented Christian homes to be in his sermon.  There is noise and stress and temptation (and, yes, even dissipation!) in our homes too.  Lewis describes the lunch so well I could hear the crunch of celery sticks: the pastor-father was full of blustery opinions about society and politics that his son and daughter, both home on leave from military service, didn’t fully align with.  But the father would brook no contesting his points, certainly not from them.  The mother tried to change the subject to her recent mistreatment by a neighbor, seeking sympathy from her family.  She didn’t get it, not because they don’t love her but because they know the hurt to her wasn’t meant as she took it.  The kids were mostly trying to converse with Lewis but continued to be interrupted by the preposterous things their parents said, almost as if they weren’t at table.  Finally the family members just ignored each other and each proceeded with his or her own conversations with Lewis.
It is because that dynamic is so common to family life that Lewis found the pastor’s sermon on the home that morning preposterous:
“[The pastor] is not telling us at all that home life is difficult and has, like every form of life, its own proper temptations and corruptions. He keeps on talking as if ‘home’ were a panacea, a magical charm which of itself was bound to produce happiness and virtue…. He is not talking from his own experience of family life at all: he is automatically reproducing a sentimental tradition—and it happens to be a false tradition. This is why the congregation have [sic.] stopped listening to him.”
Lewis knew the congregation would have been better served homiletically if the pastor spoke to the realities of home, not the sanitized version of “sentimental tradition” he proclaimed.  The pastor spoke of “being himself” at home.  Exactly the problem!  The “him/herself” one is at home is often not the public self we present.  Again, this doesn’t automatically make one hypocritical.  It is fault-worthy humanness, correctable humanness, yes; but doesn’t always rise to the level of deviant or mercenary humanness. 
Consider: the pastor would likely never interrupt his parishioners as he interrupted his own kids over the lunch discussions.  And yet the pastor loves his own kids more than his church, which is precisely why he feels the irritation of their disagreement well-up within him more strongly.  Home is the one place “that part of him” comes out.  Likewise for the kids: Lewis observes how the pastor’s son “would have borne patiently and humorously from any other old man the silliness which enraged him in his father.” 
In other words, home is—more often than we like but nevertheless—not us at our best.  Lewis felt his friend simply avoided this in his sermon because “being himself” at home presumes the very best “him” at home.  But this is a delusion, and not even a comforting delusion, as the congregation already knew.
I read Lewis’ essay this morning in the oil-change shop.  His essay spoke to me not just as a preacher but also as a father and husband.  I like to think of myself as consistently even-keeled socially.  But I know my wife and kids have had experiences with me (and “of me”) that no one else will ever experience.  You can corroborate this with my wife and kids if you like: I’m not a tyrant domineering my home.  If the Huffman family became a reality show it would make for rather dull television, I think.  Not because we’re boring but because television cameras like the drama, and we don’t do a lot of drama.  We mostly enjoy being together and are grateful for each other.
And yet, because Cole Huffman is “himself” at home in a way he is no other place (forgive the third person here); and being himself includes his sinfulness—as it does for his wife and children—the Huffman home is therefore no insulated “retreat from the noise and stress and temptation and dissipation of daily life.”  I can hurt and be hurt on Wheatstone Cove like no other place on Earth, and Christians are the one people on Earth who should be the most realistic about this.  The realism doesn’t excuse us when we at our worst; to the contrary, it’s the only thing which truly accounts for it and prompts those practices of repentance and grace that make for an authentically peaceful and even happy home: forgiveness, forbearance, patience, self-control, listening, sharing.
I’ll give Lewis the final word:
“How, then, are people to behave at home? If a man can’t be comfortable and unguarded, can’t take his ease and ‘be himself’ in his own house, where can he? That is, I confess, the trouble. The answer is an alarming one. There is nowhere this side of heaven where one can safely lay the reins on the horse’s neck. It will never be lawful simply to ‘be ourselves’ until ‘ourselves’ have become sons of God… This does not mean, of course, that there is no difference between home life and general society. It does mean that home life has its own rule of courtesy—a code more intimate, more subtle, more sensitive, and, therefore, in some ways more difficult than that of the outer world.”

Posted by Cole Huffman at 5:16 PM
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