A year ago in this very chapel, Professor John Dally preached what I have heard was a memorable sermon at a Eucharist, like this one, for those who will take the church’s General Ordination Examination beginning tomorrow. In that sermon, John used the perfect example of an old Honeymooners episode in which Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton were contestants on the game show, Name That Tune! Each time he would play a practice piece for Ralph to identify, Ed would begin with the “way down upon the Swanee River” phrase from the song, “Old Folks at Home”. This, of course, drove Kramden crazy. Finally when the night of the show arrived, the big prize question asked Ralph to identify the very song which Ed Norton had been playing. Ralph was so anxious that, even though he knew the answer, he forgot that he knew it.
I have thought since I heard about this homily that John’s example is the perfect sermon illustration. It comes from our shared culture of television, and it encapsulates the experience of what we now call “choking”, which Malcolm Gladwell defined in a New Yorker article [April 21 & 28, 2000 “Performance Studies”] as “thinking too much.” As the article explains, there are two kinds of learning: explicit and implicit. Explicit learning takes place as we attend consciously to try to learn something—as in studying a subject. Implicit learning takes place beyond consciousness and is the result of rehearsal or practice—as in learning to play a musical instrument. “Under conditions of stress,” says Gladwell, “the explicit system sometimes takes over.” We forget that we know something and so think too much about it. This is what you’ve seen athletes and performers do a million times. This is what happened to Ralph Kramden on Name That Tune!
John Dally’s point, of course, is that you already know what you need to know, and his homily was intended to help those of you who are tempted to overthink a situation. But it is also possible to underthink a problem, and this is the opposite of choking, what the experts in their highly technical language call “panic”. When we panic our mind goes blank; we forget what we already know. People drown in three feet of water because they forget that they can simply stop swimming and stand up.
Now at this point you’re probably asking yourself why you plodded over here on a wintry day from your warm room to an icy chapel to hear the dean give some inspirational remarks on choking and panicking. Heck, you’ve been thinking about these things enough yourself for the past weeks to write a book on the subjects. What kind of moron would talk to you about these things the day before you start a week-long exam?
Part of the reason is that, for a year, I’ve been searching my own internal database looking for an equally erudite cultural reference that can stand up to John Dally’s use of Ralph Kramden on Name That Tune! And part of the reason is that, as you live through this week, today’s Epistle provides an antidote both to choking and panicking. If I could, I would scotch-tape the first chapter of Ephesians to your minds. More of that in a bit.
So here’s the other cultural reference. It’s from a slightly higher aesthetic realm than the early days of television. It comes not from The Honeymooners but from that cultural apogee, the Warner Brothers Cartoon. When I think about under- or over-thinking a problem, my mind immediately goes not to Ralph Kramden but to Wyle E. Coyote.
One of the best moments of any Road Runner cartoon occurs when, in pursuing the roadrunner, the coyote follows the bird over a precipice and out into space. As you remember from your own preverbal experience of these masterpieces, Wyle E. Coyote invariably manages to walk on air for quite a distance until he looks down and realizes that there is nothing under him but air. He then stares ruefully at us and then plummets to the bottom of the canyon. Yosemite Sam and Sylvester have been known to do this, too, but Wyle E. Coyote’s example serves as the gold standard.
Now there are two points I would like to make about Wyle E. Coyote for you tonight. The first is to remember that even as he plummets to the bottom of the canyon, the coyote rises to pursue the roadrunner another day. Let’s assume the worst case scenario here: let’s assume that on these exams you not only choke and panic, you also express heterodox opinions and give insensitive pastoral advice. Even assuming that everything goes wrong—which it won’t—you will, like Wyle E. Coyote, rise to run another day. In all my years of working with these exams—as GOE reader, as Commission on Ministry and Standing Committee member, as seminary dean--I have yet to see any performance on the GOE stop someone from getting ordained. Even the exam’s proponents understand the limitations of the GOE for assessment purposes. So relax. Not only, as John Dally would say, do you already know what you need to know. You are being evaluated by people who want you to succeed. These exams will not kill you. Nor will they stop you from exercising the ministry to which God is calling you.
And if that is true, and I believe it is, then this next week is a time neither to choke nor panic but to exult in your ability to do what you have been preparing to do. Here, as you near the end of your preparation for ordination, is an occasion for you to strut your stuff, to show what you know, to demonstrate your theological and spiritual and pastoral and leadership abilities. How many times in your life do you actually get to do that? How many times in your life have you found yourself dreading something which turned out not only not to be torture but actually to be fun? This next week, I would propose, is one of those rare and precious times. And that is true not only because of what you already know and who you already are; it is true because of what we heard read earlier from the first chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.—Ephesians 1. 17-19a
If I could, I would scotch-tape this passage on your brains. Failing that, I would encourage you to cut it out and plaster it on your computer screen so that you see and hear it each time you are tempted to think less of yourself than you should. As you respond to the questions put before you this week, try to do so with “the eyes of your heart enlightened”, so that you can indeed remember the hope to which God has called you, so that you might recall what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance already at your disposal, so that you can feel yourself imbued with the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe.
The scriptural antidote both to choking and panicking is right there in the first chapter of Ephesians, and I hope you will come back to it each time your faith or energy begins to flag. God has called you to an audacious and big hope, and God has empowered you to live that calling out. So, unlike Ralph Kramden, don’t lose your cool. And, unlike Wyle E. Coyote, don’t look down. Instead, keep your cool and look within yourself and around you. God has arrayed all the resources of creation and the church at before you so that you can step into and live out your ministry. What is available to you now is nothing less than the greatness of God’s power.
You know more explicitly and implicitly than you think you do. With all that energy and grace and support and love both underneath and around you, let this week ahead be for you an occasion to exult in who you are and where God has brought you so that your life and ministry may be a witness to the world of the power and grace of the One above, beneath, and behind it all. God has brought you this far, and God won’t let you down as you take those steps out into space. And that’s a promise. Amen.