GETTING TO THE PULPIT

I will begin this post with a disclaimer:  the story I am about to tell is a pastoral story.  That means that I have used my pastoral privilege to alter details to protect the identity of anyone who might be involved and of course, to make the story fit my point better.  We pastors like nothing better than a story that perfectly fits our point and it is often easier to tweak the story than the point.

Anyway, the story.  I am almost always one of the first to arrive for worship.  I like the time it gives me to set up my stuff on the pulpit and refocus on the coming worship.  My nervousness level generally requires that I re-visit the pulpit several times to make sure that things are still set up properly–who knows when some evil gremlin will turn the hymnbook to the wrong page.

So, I start for the pulpit to check the hymnbook and tablet yet again.  But now, there are people present so I stop and talk.  I hear about the frustration of getting a driveway cleared (we had heavy snow before the worship;  I hear about the sick grandchild in another province; I hear about the depression someone is struggling with; I hear about the anniversary trip coming up soon.  Eventually, I make it to the pulpit and discover that the hymnbook and tablet are just as I left them.  I check my watch and discover that we have 2 minutes before we are supposed to start, just enough time to get to the back and pray with the choir before worship begins.

But the trip to the back of the sanctuary, which should take 15 seconds (20 on bad knee days) gets interrupted as I hear about the upcoming surgery and how comfortable someone feels in our worship and how someone else has to be away and will miss Bible study next week.  Eventually, I make it to the back for prayer–it has  be rushed because it is already past time to start–but one of the choir members has to finish telling his story and another has to remind us that she won’t be with us next week.

Now, as I mentioned, this has never happened–but it happens almost every week.  People have stuff they need to share–and they want to share it with me.  They want to share it with me not because I am such a great person or because they recognize that I am too polite to ignore them.  They want to share this stuff with me because I am the pastor.  Sharing it with me helps them be aware that God is concerned with their concerns.  When I listen to them, they feel that God has been listening to them.

Many of us in ministry struggle with this reality.  We forget, I think, just how important it is to many people to receive this pastoral care.  It is easy for me to focus on the coming worship and try to make sure that everything is ready so I can lead worship without the anxiety that comes from not checking the pulpit 42.5 times.  It is sometimes tempting to think that my task of helping the church develop a newer and bigger vision is more important than listening to someone talk about some fear or triumph or detail of life.  I am tempted to think that my study of the derivation of the key words in the text for Sunday’s sermon is a more important focus for my energy than listening (for the 10th time) to the story of how a grandchild who had problems at birth is now walking and talking.

But the truth I have learned is that I am a pastor–and people in the congregation need their pastor to hear them and listen to them and care for them.  Feeding the sheep is not an option for when I have some extra time–feeding the sheep is the essential priority of my calling.  When I don’t give this pastoral care the priority it deserves, I get reminders of how important it is.  One reminder is how long it takes to get to the pulpit.

If I ignore the reminders and continue to neglect the feeding of the flock I have been called to, the whole congregation will suffer–and anything else that I think is important will fall apart.

Trips to the pulpit such as I described here are a reminder to me of what is really important.

May the peace of God be with you.

COME LET US WORSHIP

I enjoy reading the book of Leviticus.  That probably tells you a great deal about me, because many Christians see Leviticus as a major roadblock which destroys more commitments to reading the Bible through than anything.  Leviticus is a book of detail.  It describes at great length how the people of Israel are to deal with the realities of their lives.

One of the reasons why I enjoy the book is that it shows clearly that God is concerned about all of life and that people who serve God need to submit even the way they harvest their crops to God (Leviticus 19.9-10).   God covers most of life in this book, giving people a clear indication that he is concerned with everything we do, not just the “spiritual” things.  In fact, reading through the book of Leviticus shows that there really isn’t a division of life into “spiritual” and “secular”.

But the other reason I enjoy the book of Leviticus is more basic in many ways.  When I read the book, I am incredibly happy that I am a Christian pastor and not a Jewish priest of that time.  Being a Protestant pastor is demanding and difficult at times but at least I am not slaughtering animals all day or evaluating skin lesions for leprosy or conducting trials to determine the fidelity of wives.  Reading the book of Leviticus makes even the busiest and most demanding of pastoral weeks seem a lot easier and much less demanding.

There is also another insight that I pick up when I read Leviticus, an insight that concerns worship.  The more I meditate on this theme, the more I am concerned about the worship that I help lead each week.  In the book of Leviticus, we discover that worship is costly–no one in the book of Leviticus approaches God without being aware of the cost of worship.

Before they come, they must have the proper sacrifice.  While there are gradations based on the individual’s financial status, everyone must have the best within the category.  The cow or sheep or dove must be perfect–no weak, old, worthless animal need apply.  If all the worshipper has is a weak, lame, sick and dying animal, they are out of luck–until they get a better offering, they can’t really worship.  Worship was expensive–it demanded something of the worshipper.

Now, this is not a ploy to suggest that we all have to give more at offering time, nor is it an attempt to make people feel guilty for sleeping during worship.  Truthfully, I am not totally sure where I am going with this–I have been thinking about this for a long time and am not completely sure what it means to me, let alone to the worshipping community.

I think it partly means that we need to see worship as something more than it sometimes is, at least for me.  In worship, we are openly recognizing the ever-present God.  We are acknowledging our dependence on him.  We are renewing our commitment to him.  Well, we are supposed to be doing that.

But many times, we are going through the motions, making an appearance, doing a job, following a tradition.  Worship doesn’t really recognize the presence of God–it just passed the time and gives us a star for attendance.  And maybe we treat worship like that because it doesn’t cost us that much–a bit of time and a few dollars.

Theologically, our Christian worship is even more expensive than worship in the book of Leviticus.  There, the cost of worship was a perfect animal.  For us, the cost of worship is God’s own perfect Son, Jesus Christ.  We come to worship as Christians because we believe that God in Christ took care of everything.  We come to worship as God’s loved and forgiven children, who now have complete freedom to approach God without any conditions.

But our worship is still expensive–we just didn’t have to pay the price of admission.  We worship because God paid the price himself.  And maybe as we spend some time meditating on that, our worship will become a more significant part of our lives.  When we remind ourselves of the cost of our worship, it helps us open ourselves more fully and completely to the presence of God.  It allows us to really worship the one who values our presence so much that he personally paid the price for our worship.

May the peace of God be with you.

ONE DAY DURING WORSHIP

            One Sunday we were at worship.  We were between snow storms–most had just finished the clean up from the most recent one and we were waiting for the one was due in a few hours.  That probably cut our attendance by about 10 percent (which in our case means a couple of people didn’t make it).  Worship was going smoothly–I hadn’t made any major mistakes and think I even avoided the minor ones.  I had lots of time before worship to get ready and no one had provided any unexpected confusion.

We went through the announcements, began worship and reached the point for the choir to sing.  As they were singing, I looked at my watch and realized that I was pretty much through the order of service except for the Scriptures and sermon and we had used up only about 10 minutes.

I remember thinking, “What have we done?”  But I wasn’t asking the question in the same way some melodramatic TV or movie character would ask it. I was really asking myself if during the previous 10 minutes we had really worshipped God.  I had lead the congregation through the order of service, making appropriate comments about the music and doing the prayers at the right time–even using the right prayer at the right time.  We had sung and read together and prayed and offered our offering and listened to the choir–but had we really worshipped God.

That isn’t an easy question for me to answer.  I am aware that simply following the order of service and getting it right (something I don’t always do) doesn’t ensure that we worship.  Worship involves an opening of ourselves to the presence of God.  God is always present in our lives but we don’t always make the effort to be aware of his presence.  Public and private worship provide us with times to actually remind ourselves of the wonder of the presence of God.

But to be honest, I am not always aware of the presence of God during worship.  I am busy leading, guiding the flow of the service, making sure that I follow the order of service, reading people’s reactions to the service, coping with my nervousness, anticipating the next several steps of worship, making sure that I move the text on the tablet at the right time.  Am I aware of the presence God in our midst?  Intellectually and theologically, I am deeply and profoundly aware of the powerful truth that God is with us no matter what.  Practically, when I am leading worship, I am often more aware of leading the worship that the presence of God.

What are the worshippers aware of?  That I can’t say with any great degree of certainty, but from past experience, I can say that some are aware of the physical limitations of the sanctuary, the pain they experience from their arthritic joints meeting hard pews, the worry about life issues they bring with them to worship, the smell of the coffee we will share after the worship, and maybe trying to figure out the joke the worship leader (me) told poorly.

And yet, in spite of all of this, week after week, we come and somehow, by the grace of God, we manage to connect with God.  Somehow, I see beyond the anxiety of leading the worship and experience the presence of God.  Somehow, the congregation reaches beyond the hard pews, aches and pains, life baggage and poor preaching and encounters the reality of the presence of God in their midst.  Somehow, we do it–we see God, we experience God, we thank God, we praise God.

How do I know that?  Well, sometimes, people tell me how they encountered God.  Sometimes, I have my own personal encounter.  But more often than now, I realize that we have encountered God simply because we leave worship with more than we brought to worship.  We worship and because we somehow experience the reality of the presence of God in our lives, we are touched with the grace of God, a touch that changes our lives.  It may not be a spectacular change, although those do happen now and then.  It may not be a touch that lasts a long time, although those too happen from time to time.

But we are touched by the presence of God and we do take the experience of that touch with us and it does make a difference–and so in some way, somehow, we have worshipped.

May the peace of God be with you.

AT THE POTLUCK

We had a potluck supper after one of our worship services recently, something we do regularly.  Since I was one of the last people in the food line, I was still eating and talking to the people at the table when another person who had been near the beginning moved to our table and joined in our conversation while he waited for the desert line to begin–we don’t have enough space to put main course and desert out at the same time.

One of the guys told us that he had been a fisherman for all his life and faced some really rough times on the water and that didn’t bother him at all but when he thought about having to stand in front of a group of people, he was terrified.  The guy who joined us agreed that getting up in front of people was a major source of fear and he really didn’t like it.  Both looked at me and indicated that they figured that I obviously didn’t have a problem with being in front of people.

Both were a bit surprised when I told them that I have preaching and being in front of people for almost 50 years and am still nervous before and during times of being in front of people.  And then, I told them at as a teacher of people who preach and lead worship, I would fail anyone who didn’t get nervous when leading worship or preaching.

The interesting thing is that I had actually been thinking about my nervousness as the worship service before the potluck began.  Generally, I arrive early and try to have everything set up and ready before worship begins:  tablet on and with the order of service and sermon called up, hymn book opened to the first hymn and a marker in place for the responsive reading, scraps of paper with last minute announcements prominently placed where I can see them, water glass positioned in easy reach–because I know from experience that if anything isn’t ready when I start, I will fumble and stumble until it is.  That is one expression of my nervousness.

Another is the reality that when I begin, it is a dangerous time–that is when I am going to miss something or say the wrong thing or get my words mixed up or read some number wrong or get someone’s name wrong.  This is all made worse on those occasional Sundays when the majority of people show up tired or down because of the weather and don’t give as lot of feedback as the worship begins.

When I tell people things like this, as I did at the potluck, they tend to look at me with skepticism and tell me that I don’t show it.  My response is that over the years, the one thing I have learned is how to hide my nervousness, which I do pretty well, unless of course the breeze blows the hymnbook to the wrong page or I lost track of the last minute announcements or I make a mistake.

Should I be better at not being nervous?  I don’t think so.  The day I stop being nervous about leading worship and preaching and teaching is the day I will officially retire.  My nervousness comes from the deep seated awareness of the importance of what I am doing.  I am leading God’s people in worship; I am speaking God’s message to his people; I am seeking to let God work through me to touch the lives of his people–and that scares me.

I am afraid that I might get in the way and somehow block God’s approach to his people be letting my stuff get in the way.  I am afraid that I might not block the message but somehow weaken it.  I am equally afraid when the message actually gets through–who am I that God would be willing to work through me?  I stand in the pulpit during worship or sit in the leader’s seat at Bible study very much aware of the wonder and importance of what is going on and really can’t help but be nervous and concerned.

I kind of doubt that the guys at the potluck fully understand these dynamics–but they don’t have to.  I, however, need to understand the dynamics and use the nervousness to help me do a better job of doing what God has called me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

DO UNTO OTHERS

I have been writing about Christian community for the last few posts.  This is an important topic for me because I believe that re-discovering authentic Christian community is one of the foundations for reviving the church in North America.  As we begin to develop the kind of community that God had in mind for the church, we strengthen the church internally and make our witness to the world what it should be.

But as much as I believe in the importance of Christian community, I am not some naive first year theology student who thinks that proper community should just pop into existence just because it is supposed to be.  I know from my own experience and the experience of others that Christian community isn’t always what it is meant to be–and at times, it become a dangerous and damaging witness to the power of human sin.

But I have also learned that for the community to develop in the right direction, it requires risk–someone has to be willing to start the process.  The difficulty with that is deciding who takes the first risk.  When we need someone to do something, it often means that everyone waits for someone else to be the first someone.

Since I am the one who studies and researches and digs out these things, my part in the process is obvious.  I need to explain to people how Jesus envisioned community.  I need to define and describe and explain and teach and preach the concepts.  I need to help people see the benefits and blessings of Christian community.  I need to show them the negative consequences of a lack of community.  I need to carefully show how God through the Holy Spirit provides the courage and wisdom to build community.  All that is my job–after all, I  am the pastor, the person called by God to shepherd and care for the community

I teach and preach and because of my brilliant teaching and preaching, people are inspired to develop powerful and breath-taking Christian communities.  And at this point, we end the fairy tale with “They all lived happily ever after.”  If preaching and teaching were enough to make the church and people what God wants us to be, we probably wouldn’t need churches because everything would have been fixed a long time ago.

I realized that if community is important, I need to be willing to be one of the someones who takes a risk.  It is not enough to preach and teach about community–I need to practise community.  I need to offer my gifts and my weaknesses and treat the gathering of believers as the community they are called to be.  I need to follow the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 7.12,  “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (NIV)

I am not necessarily saying that I need to do this because I am the pastor, although that is a factor. Mostly, I become responsible for doing it because I have done the research and know the importance of community and therefore become responsibly before God who has led me to these insights.  I need to take the risk because I see the need.

I would like to say that this has always worked out perfectly and I have always been able to develop powerful and exciting Christian communities–but I believe in honesty.  While acting as if the community existed as it is called to be does help develop community, it has not been an always positive thing for me.  I haven’t always been willing to do what I know I should and sometimes when I have done what I consider to be right, it has been wrong and occasionally my attempts to treat the community of believers as believers has been used against me by parts of the community.

But someone has to start–and since I am often the one who has the insight and does the study, I have a responsibility.  We build community by being in community and living community.  It can be painful and frustrating and slow and disappointing–but if we really believe in the idea of community, we need to work at it.  Someone has to start the process–why not me (or you)?

May the peace of God be with you.

I DON’T KNOW

The relatively new Bible study group was deep into a discussion of some point from the study–given the way my Bible study groups work, it probably wasn’t the point I had intended to be discussed but an off-shoot that grew out of someone wondering about an implication of something someone said about the point–our Bible studies tend to be rather free flowing and open.  Anyway, as the discussion progressed, someone wanted to know some Biblical or theological fact that would help them in the discussion.

As the question was being asked, all eyes turned to the supposed resident expert on Biblical and theological issues.  I thought a bit, couldn’t come up with anything, not even one of my “some suggest…” answers.  So, I answered in what to me seemed the most logical way.  I said, “I really have no idea”.  The discussion stopped.  Mouths flew open in surprise.  People looked at me in shock.

Well, to be honest, the reaction wasn’t that strong–but a couple of people at the study were obviously struck by something.  I looked their way and asked what was going on–in Bible study, I am as concerned with people’s reactions as I am with their questions and comments.  One of them said she was surprised–she had never heard a pastor say they didn’t know something before.

Now, in fairness, their spiritual journey had taken them on some interesting paths and they had recently been part of a group whose pastor probably wouldn’t feel comfortable admitting they didn’t know but very quickly, the rest of the Bible study chimed in agreeing that they really couldn’t remember a pastor ever admitting they didn’t know something.  The discussion kept going, with one story after another of pastors and church leaders who wouldn’t admit to being wrong or not knowing something, even when it was clear to everyone else that the individual in question was either wrong or didn’t know what they claimed to know.  Eventually, we got back on track.  When I reported back the next week that I had done some research and had an answer to the question, we had a bit of a replay of the week before.

But I discovered something else–or maybe somethings else.  First, I rediscovered just how insecure many in leadership can be.  I learned a long time ago that my leadership doesn’t depend on my being infallible–because if it did, I would be in serious trouble.  Generally, people see through the defences we build around our insecurity and our attempts to look secure become pathetic signs of our real insecurity.

I also learned that our community became stronger as I offered my weakness.  I love research and reading and learning and tend to have lots of facts about lots of stuff–but I don’t know everything.  I am comfortable offering the community my lack of knowledge.  I also offer my skills as a researcher and student to find out some of the things I don’t know and my skills as a teacher to help them find out what they and I don’t know.  But the exciting thing is that far from being upset that I didn’t know the answer, our community became stronger.

Community grows as we talk and share and are honest with each other.  As one person has the willingness to share both good and bad, it provides encouragement for all to share both good and bad.  When I, as the community pastor, am honest about what I don’t know and can’t do, that provides the rest of the community with an incentive to be equally honest.  Community grows through the examples of its members.  If all the members are honest, the community grows more honest.  If some members pretend, the rest of the community both sees through the pretense and begins to pretend themselves.

In Christian communities, pastors and other leaders play a significant role in the kind of community the church becomes.  When we can be honest and open with the community about both our strengths and weaknesses, what we know and what we don’t know, that set a path for the rest of the community.  We model what we expect the community to become–and in the end, the community will follow the path we model.

A leader in the Christian community needs to think carefully about what kind of Christian community they want to develop and then begin to live in community that way–or maybe, it is better to say, we as leaders need to think carefully about what kind of community God wants and then live that community.

May the peace of God be with you.

FOR BETTER–OR WORSE

As a pastor, I am called upon to do a lot of weddings.  While marriage may not be as popular as it once was, there are still enough people who want to get married and who want to have the ceremony in a church with a real minister that I am quite familiar with the wedding process.  In all of the available ceremony booklets that I know of, part of the commitment the couple makes to each other is a commitment to be there for each other in both the good and bad time–often expressed with the phrases such as , “in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse”.

These marriage commitments also provide a good basis for Christian community.  Real community forms around a willingness to accept people as they are–for better or worse.  From the perspective of a person entering the community, this means they need to be willing to offer the community their best and their worst, their strength and their weakness.

In the last post we looked at the difficulties of offering our best to the community.  And as hard as that can be, it is made easy when we compare it to the difficulty of offering the community our weakness.  We generally don’t want to deal with our weakness ourselves, let alone offer it to a group of people.

I am a pastor and so I enter a Christian community with certain expectations–some that I have and some that the community has.  Often, the expectations involve the pastor having it all together–or at least being able to appear to have it all together.  I expect to offer the community my gifts, my wisdom, my insight–my strengths.  I used to expect that I was supposed to act as if I didn’t have weaknesses or needs–my job was to be the pastor, the one to help the rest of the congregation deal with their needs.

Good Christians don’t have needs.  Their faith is strong and effective; their prayers are all they need for any less than perfect area of life; they are to make a net positive contribution to the community.  Good Christians have no fear of offering their best to the community and the community gratefully accepts it.

But none of us, not even we who are pastors, has only good and positive.  And to be the real, honest, effective Christian community that God has in mind for the church, we need to be willing to include our weaknesses in the offering of ourselves to the community.  And for many of us that is really hard.

I can remember as a beginning pastor believing that I could and should do anything that the church needed to have done:  preaching, teaching, visiting, counselling, painting the building, solving all problems, singing in the choir, doing evangelism–I was the pastor.  I worked with church people who were equally positive and hard working.  None of us struggled with depression; none of us were dealing with family issues; none of us were grieving some loss; none of us had problems.  In fact, the rare times when one of us admitted a problem, all of us were shocked and deeply concerned, feeling that perhaps that person was losing their faith.

But as I continued in ministry, I began to admit the truth.  I wasn’t perfect and neither were the deacons, the choir, the trustees, the laity in the pews.  We all had something contribute–but we also all needed something.  And as I began to recognize and accept and speak my limits and needs, I began to discover that far from being an outcast, I was helping a real community develop.  I might not be able to sing–but there were people who could.  I might not be able to avoid bouts of depression–but there were people who would pray for me when I was depressed and even more, who would still listen  to my sermons and my teaching.  In fact, they listened even more because my willingness to share my needs allowed them to offer their help–and between us, we developed a stronger community.

The Christian community needs my strengths–but I need the strengths of the Christian community.  Offering the community both my strengths and weaknesses allows all of us to grow and develop and become the believers and the community that God has in mind.

May the peace of God be with you.