When I was a doctoral student, I wrote a series of four articles for Foundations on “The Chicago School of Theology” with one of my ethics professors, Kenneth “Snuffy” Smith. Smith was feted and famous for being the person who taught Martin Luther King, Jr. his ethics and some of his theology.
White researching and writing the articles, I will never forget listening to the Beach Boys while reading this passage from the Canadian scholar Shirley Jackson Case, one of the “Chicago School” theologians who was both a mathematician and a historian of early Christianity. In his book “Highways of Christian Doctrine” (1936) he writes “Not long ago a well known English novelist, speaking through one of his characters, alleged that Christianity like a passing toad has left behind on the beaches of life a promiscuous deposit of wriggling theologians, hopping and burrowing in the warm nutritious sand. Were it true that the tide has passed, never to return . . . let the deceased champions of Christian opinion rest in peace. . . But tides have a defiant way of ebbing and rising again” (184-85). I have never been able to listen to the Beach Boys without thinking of those toady “wriggling theologians.”
“Pet Sounds” may be the greatest album of all times. In this 1966 recording, Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys took pop music as deep as it could go. It set the standard for excellence in rock’n’roll for generations of musicians. But Capitol records was so afraid of these musical “depths” that they released “Pet Sounds” with a tandem album “The Best of the Beach Boys.” The “best” of the old immediately outsold the new greatness, and it took the “Pet Sounds” album 50 years finally to go Platinum. 50 years. Pet Sounds includes arguably the greatest love song ever written, “God Only Knows,” the song Paul McCartney called after hearing it for the first time “the perfect song” every songwriter dreams of writing.
This love song begins with the confession, “I may not always love you.” Which is one reason why it’s “perfect”—because the “perfect” always contains imperfections.
So too will your greatest sermons. Always imperfect. Always unfinished. Every sermon is an “Unfinished Symphony.” Also remember that it may take years, decades, generations for the impact of your preaching to be appreciated and realized. In the words of those Emmaus disciples, who in looking backward realized the magic of the moment that had passed. “Did not our hearts beat within us WHEN . .. “
And as you do, please know that “God Only Knows What I’d Be Without You.” All of you.