A GOOD COMBINATION

There are some things in life that are just made to go together. Hamburgers obviously need fries to be complete. Abbot needs Costello to make the comedy work. The Old Testament needs the New Testament for the Christian revelation to be fully understood. A blank page (or computer screen these days) needs meaningful words to become something valuable and inspiring. A good stew needs uglai to be perfect. (If you haven’t tried stew and ugali, trust me—or better yet visit East Africa and try it out).

Another combination that makes sense but which works out less often that a burger and fries is the combination of a pastor and a congregation. When the combination works, it is a beautiful thing. When it doesn’t work, it is a disaster not only for the church and the pastor but also for the wider Christian community because it shows our inability to actually follow the faith that we claim.

There are a variety of reasons why the combination doesn’t work. Sometimes, both congregations and pastors enter the relationship without God’s clear leading. That combination is going to fail simply because it results from people presuming to know as much or more than God. They either ignore the need to consult God on the potential combination or assume that what they want it what God wants.

While that is unfortunately a more common reality than most churches and pastors want to admit, I am going to ignore it in this post—I may deal with it sometime. Today, I want to look at why a combination put together by God goes wrong. Presumably, if God in his infinite wisdom brings together a pastor and a combination, it is literally a match made in heaven—so why would it fail?

Most of the time, the match fails because one side or the other or both forget something vital and important. They forget that God himself has selected this congregation and this pastor to be linked together for this point in time. God created the combination because at the point in time the pastor and congregation come together, it is the very best for both in the ever unfolding divine plan for the redemption of creation.

That may sound like a pretty big understanding of what is a very common reality—afterall, there are probably millions of churches around the world and therefore millions of pastor/congregation combinations. Do all of them have that same divine seal of approval making that particular combination a significant and vital part of God’s overall plan of redemption? Well, if both congregation and pastor ( and denominational leadership where applicable) have faithfully engaged in the process and have been fully open to the leading of the Spirit, then yes, their combination is a divinely planned connection that has a part to play in the overall process of moving a sin-scarred world towards its eventual rebirth.

And if that is true, then congregation and pastor need to work together to discover what God envisions them as being a good combination. The gifts, talents, needs and potentials of both pastor and congregation have been carefully and divinely considered and the combination brought together so that the congregation can continue to develop in faith, so that the pastor can continue to develop in faith and so that the overall momentum leading to the full redemption of creation can be maintained. When either the pastor or congregation—or both—forget the divine reality behind their being together, the whole thing gets out of whack.

Instead of seeing their combination as being for the betterment of both and the advancement of the kingdom, each side sees only what they want and seek to achieve it at the expense of the other—and also at the expense of putting yet another kink in the overall plan of redemption which God then has to work around.

Much better for both pastor and congregation to recognize the divine nature of their calling, to accept the need for mutual submission, to humbly seek the Spirit’s guidance as they seek to discover and express the reason for their coming together. When pastor and congregation mutually submit to each other and all submit to God, they are truly a good combination that will work even better than stew and ugali because stew and uglai will have a temporary effect while a good combination of pastor and congregation will have eternal effects.

May the peace of God be with you.

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A GOOD PASTOR

I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. But that is okay since none of the congregations I have been called to serve were calling a perfect pastor. I wasn’t perfect before they called me, I didn’t become perfect when I served the church and I didn’t become perfect when I left the congregation. There are some pastors who manage to achieve perfection—but only a few years after they have left the congregation and when succeeding pastors have more glaring weaknesses than they had. But while hindsight might make a pastor look perfect, that is more a case of selective remembering than actual reality.

Like congregations, pastors are not perfect. We are called, we are forgiven, we are gifted—but we are not perfect. We pick up our calling and carry it out with a confusing blend of good and bad that can be wildly infuriating to both pastor and congregation. We provide the absolutely perfect ministry that changes a life one minute and the next, we drive three other people to question not just our call but our basic faith.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, all sorts of problems develop. Congregations forget to test the spirits, as I John 4.1 tells us. This allows us as pastors to operate without accountability—and the worst thing we can give to an imperfect individual is a freedom from accountability. With no accountability, we have no reason to see or acknowledge or deal with our imperfections. Generally, lack of accountability results in increased imperfection, not less imperfection.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, it become very traumatic when the real imperfections manifest themselves. While some congregation members can and will ignore any and all imperfections, most people will eventually discover the pastor whom they thought was perfect isn’t perfect and that will create all sorts of responses, from mild irritation to rejection of the church to rejection of the faith.

When pastors forget that pastors aren’t perfect, the consequences are even worse. When we pastors forget that we don’t have it all together, we then begin to minister from our imperfection, not from our commitment to God. Our desire for power gets wrapped in “doing God’s will”; our need for approval overshadows the need to speak the truth of God; our desire for affection rewrites the moral standards of the faith. We end up hurting not just ourselves but the wider church. Our imperfections can often become the institutionalized dysfunction of the congregation or denomination.

So, let me be clear. Pastors are not perfect—nor will we be perfect this side of eternity. And since that someday perfection simply isn’t the reality here and now, we pastors need to learn to minister as imperfect people and congregations need to accept the reality that their pastor isn’t perfect and won’t be perfect—and wasn’t actually perfect in the case of former pastors.

How do we imperfect pastors minister to imperfect congregations? I think we start with honesty. It isn’t quite the blind leading the blind—but is the imperfect pastoring the imperfect. If we all start there, then we can become mutually accountable and responsible. As an imperfect pastor of an imperfect congregation, I need to make sure that both I and the congregation are willing to commit proper time and resources to seeking the leading from the Perfect that we need. My latest and greatest idea that will revitalize our church and change the face of Christianity needs the careful and prayerful consideration of the congregation to make sure it isn’t actually an expression of my imperfection wrapped in a few decontextualized Scriptures. While I am called to be their pastor, I am not called to be their boss or dictator. Rather, both pastor and congregation are called to mutual responsibility and accountability as we together seek to offer our imperfection to God so that he can bring us all closer to what we are meant to be.

The churches I have been called to serve as pastor didn’t get a perfect pastor when they called me. But then again, they didn’t have one before I arrived (no matter what the older members say) and they won’t have one after I leave. As long as I and the congregation remember that, we are better able to seek God’s perfection to deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

A GOOD CHURCH

I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. In fact, sometimes, I have found myself called to churches which were struggling with some serious dysfunction. I have also had contact with a lot of other churches over the years and have yet to find a perfect church. Because of the nature of the connections I have had with many congregations, I have often ended up discovering the hidden dysfunction in even the best of churches.

Now, I want to be clear at this point—I don’t go looking for the problems in various congregations. I am actually not overly interested in the internal dynamics of other congregations—most of the time, it takes most of my energy and ambition to cope with the realities of the congregations that I have been called to serve. But because I have taught pastors, written about the struggles of small churches and been the pastor of churches with open problems, I have learned much more about many congregations than I want to know.

The end result of all this experience with churches is the depressing insight that there are no perfect churches. That might seem like a totally unnecessary statement of the obvious to some people. But I think many people pay lip service to the imperfection of churches while at the same time assuming that the congregation they are part of or want to be part of is somehow an exception to the rule. Whatever the reason, there are plenty of believers out there looking for the perfect congregation.

To those of you still looking, let me be clear: there are no perfect churches. They don’t exist. Every Christian congregation in the world is going to be a confusing blend of good and bad; right and wrong; inspiring and depressing; perfection and imperfection. The congregation that produces the deeply spiritual Good Friday worship will also discriminate against some people groups. The congregation that condemns any deviation from their norms loudly and publically will also love and care for their disabled members in ways that put others to shame.

No matter what the congregation looks like from the outside, once you become a part of it, you will see both the good and the bad. Well, actually, you might see both, although there is a more than even chance that you will only see one or the other. We human beings are prone to selective vision so we can and do block out the parts we don’t want to see. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will soon discover that the great congregation has some serious problems and the dysfunctional congregation has some seriously good expressions of the faith.

There are no perfect Christian congregations. There are just gatherings of believers who are trying to work at and work out their faith in the context of a Christian community. Running through the whole of the New Testament is the assumption that believers will form communities and that these communities, which we call churches, will be imperfect expressions of the ideal that the New Testament writers keep pointing is towards. Many of the letters in the New Testament were actually written in response to the lack of perfection in various congregations.

Very early in ministry, I realized some implications of the lack of perfect congregations. If there are no perfect congregations, I will never be called to one—and even more importantly, I will never create one. My ministry goal isn’t to create a perfect congregation but to work with the imperfect congregation I have been called to so that together, we can overcome some of the imperfection and dysfunction and become a better congregation—not a perfect one but a better one. And the goal of every member of every congregation should be the same. We become part of a congregation and seek to use our gifts to make an imperfect gathering a better gathering, all the while recognizing that we are never going to be perfect.

Rather than look for a different congregation when we see the problems in the one we are at—or give up on the church completely, as some have done, our response to the reality of imperfection in the church probably needs to be confession of our part in the imperfection, acceptance of the reality of the imperfection and commitment to doing what we can to make things better. We might never become a perfect church but we can become a good church.

May the peace of God be with you.

WAITING

Both the Bible study groups I pretend to lead keep coming back to Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5.22-23, where we are told, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (NIV) By now, some of the members of the group have the entire list memorized—although to be fair, I do have to say that some of them had the list memorized before we started using the verse so much in our study.

Those who have memorized the verse don’t need to look it up every time we refer to it. I have to look up the verse. Mentally, I tell myself I am looking it up to ensure that I get the right words in the right order—with the wealth translations available these days, that just makes sense. And while that is a very practical and prudent reason for looking up a verse of Scripture, there is another reason I look up the verse: I can’t actually remember the list beyond the first four. This isn’t a secret—I have confessed this to both Bible study groups and anyone else who has occasion to discuss the verse with me.

I am not sure why I have trouble remembering the list but I suspect that it has something to do with the fourth fruit of the Spirit, patience. I like to think that I am patient but in truth, I am not the most patient person in the world. I really don’t like waiting. I can remember long sleepless nights as a child while I waited for Christmas Eve to turn into Christmas morning. Waiting for anything important is difficult.

Right now, I am waiting to go into the hospital for surgery. While all surgery is serious and brings a certain amount of risk, all of which has been carefully explained to me a couple of times, I am not overly anxious about the surgery. I have confidence in the surgeon and know the hospital’s reputation and have lots of people praying for me in the process.

But I have been struggling with significant impatience in this process. I have known since early in the year that this was coming. My surgery date wasn’t as early as the surgeon had first suggested because of circumstances beyond his control and so the waiting has been even longer than we anticipated.

The first part of the wait was okay—I was busy and could ignore the whole thing. But once I had a specific date and began to make arrangements, the impatience kicked in—I just wanted to get the thing done. The closer the day comes, the more impatient I become. It hasn’t affected my work—if anything, I am doing more work as I prepare for the surgery and resulting time off. Making arrangements for the various responsibilities I have, helping groups decide what to do during my absence, getting stuff done before I am off—all these and more have taken up my time.

But I just want to get the thing done. Waiting is a pain. And the closer and closer it gets, the slower time passes and the more I want it to hurry up. Last week was slow and frustrating. This week is worse because I have the surgery in two days. I am pretty sure that I won’t be sleeping all that much or well the next two nights as my impatience kicks into high gear. Time will perform a psychological miracle and slow to a crawl, with seconds taking hours and two days becoming an eternity as I wait.

However, what I lack in patience, I make up for in trust. I might be seriously impatient about getting there but I have a strong sense of peace about the whole thing. Peace, those of you who have memorized the verse in question will remember, is the third fruit of the Spirit. Being third means it is in my remembered list of the fruit. I may not be a very patient person at this point, but I am at peace. No matter what happens, I know that God is with me. Now, if he would just give the time wheel a bit of a nudge, that would be great.

May the peace of God be with you.

FRIDAY MORNING

Because of the nature of my work week, Friday is one of the days when I try to avoid doing any work. That is not always possible: funerals, wedding rehearsals, nursing home services and other bits and pieces of ministry end up getting scheduled for Fridays. But as much as I can, I plan on avoiding work on Fridays.

In many ways, Friday is the end of the work week for me. I see my work week as running from Saturday to the next Thursday. Saturday involves preparation (and nervousness) for Sunday. Sunday involves worship and then opens the door to the rest of the work week with its requirements for sermon preparation, Bible study preparation and attendance, pastoral visits and everything else that I need to cram into my two 40% pastoral positions.

So, when Thursday evening rolls around, I am ready for a break. Friday morning becomes a mini-vacation, a day to focus on my stuff, not work—provided, of course, it isn’t nursing home service Friday, there isn’t a funeral and no one has picked this weekend to get married. I rarely have glamorous plans for Friday.

Fridays off often involve running errands like grocery shopping and banking. It can involve mowing the lawn during the appropriate season. Sometimes, it will involve a date for a movie and supper—not often enough for that but that is the reality of our lives. Now and then, it involves getting at some repair or maintenance issue that I have put off all week because of lack of time and/or energy.

What is generally doesn’t involve is sleeping in. Somehow, it feels wrong to sleep in on Friday. I am a morning person and normally, church works gets to claim mornings as I wrestle with sermons and Bible studies and how to get all the required information in the Sunday bulletin without having to produce an insert as well. And that is fine with me—working for the church is not just my job, it is also my calling and I need to give both God and the church my best, including the time of the day when I am at my best.

But Friday mornings—well, I have the sermons and the bulletin and the Bible study done. There isn’t a meeting, a nursing home service, a funeral or wedding rehearsal on the schedule. I can wake up at my regular time and know that when I sit in my chair with my breakfast granola and banana, it is my time. I can write a blog post, stare out the window, read a book, play solitaire—anything is possible and nothing is essential. For a couple of hours on Friday morning, my time belongs to me.

I am an moderately strong introvert and times like this are important to my overall mental, physical and spiritual health. Since my work keeps me connected with people, I need these spaces where there are no people. Ministry is people intensive—even when I am not physically with people, they are present. I write sermons with church people in mind. I think and pray about church people when I am reading for work. I am aware that for most people, I am just a phone call away.

But on Friday mornings, I am not working. The phone is in the bedroom, far enough away that I can pretend not to hear it, especially since my hearing aids are there as well. Any writing I do is for me—I know that people read my blogs, something for which I am deeply grateful but I don’t have the same level of connection with blog readers that I have with the church people I work for and with all day. Writing a blog is something for me—and the fact that others read it is icing on the cake.

So, Friday mornings are mine. The first couple of hours is my time, time that I need to feed and nurture me. And so I take it, I enjoy it, I grow because of it. The benefits of early Friday morning more than make up for the fact that I don’t sleep in after a busy week. Thank God for Friday mornings.

May the peace of God be with you.

MORE LIFE

I am going to be a preacher in this post. When we preachers tell stories in our sermons, we have to be careful. We want people to be able to identify with the story but we don’t want anyone to identify the actual persons or events in the story so we engage in a lot of conflation, obfuscation and editing of the story. I don’t want to say that we lie or make up stories because that would be unpreacherly. We do, however, take more than a few liberties to protect the innocent and the not so innocent.

So, with that in mind, let me tell you about my friend—a person whom I have never really met but who borrows bits and pieces from lots of people I have met, read about or listened to gossip about. My friend suffers from some learning disabilities, which made school a difficult process. She (or he) was also abused in a variety of ways by a variety of people: neglected by parents, beaten by siblings, sexually abused by family and strangers. They ended up in the child welfare system, where sometimes they had good homes and sometimes had the homes all TV shows love to show.

Along the way, it was discovered that they had some major chronic and incurable health problems which were sort of controlled by medication but which created some major limits physically and emotionally and financially.

I could go on but why bother—the point of the story is that my imaginary friend has the deck seriously stacked against them. Actually, let’s add the fact that they were born in a poor rural community in a country where poverty is endemic and the government so corrupt that the poverty is institutionalized.

When faced with a life with as many difficulties and drawbacks and roadblocks as this, most people choose to live. Suicide is always an option and while suicide rates are high, they are not as high as they might be. No matter how difficult the life situation, most people choose to live for as long and as well as they can. They will fight to live. They may steal to get food, seek counselling to deal with their demons, beg to get medicine, illegally cross borders to get safety, start a charity to benefit themselves and others, find a tutor to explain the realities of math, fall prey to a scam artist or cult leader promising something, join a church, get community support for a power wheelchair—but they will keep going, seeking to live as best as they can given the realities of life.

And the truth is that most of us do that. We are somehow designed to choose life, no matter what. Certainly, there are some for whom the prospect of continued life is too much and they choose not life—but given number of people and the number of issues, limits and problems all of us face, the deep and powerful reality is that the majority of people choose to live. We almost always manage to find some hope that keeps us going.

Right now, I sit here writing this suffering with serious arthritic pain resulting from mowing the lawn and the dampness from the coming rain. But I am writing, not sitting moaning and groaning, although I do some of that at times. But like most of the rest of the world, I am going to keep going: writing, working, watching TV, walking (or limping), preaching sermons and helping others as they also keep going.

We are designed to live, to thrive and grow. We find hope in the most hopeless of situations. While we might not thrive in someone else’s life, we all work at coping with our own life. That seems to be a part of our God-given nature—we are hard wired to live and seek the best life we can, which means that we will life with, around and through almost anything. Those who find it too much are few and far between and we need to view them with compassion rather than judgement. But for most of us, we are going to keep going, no matter what.

This drive to live is, I think, one of God’s blessings. Our human sin makes life hard and difficult—but our divinely given drive to live keeps us going.

May the peace of God be with you.

WRONG TIME, WRONG PLACE

I am feeling a bit down on myself right now. For some reason, I have ended up in a couple of situations saying things that probably would have been better left unsaid. What I actually said wasn’t false, it wasn’t malicious and it didn’t cause any harm—but all the same, it was probably the wrong things to say in the context where I said it. Nobody was upset by what I said and there were no serious consequences. But I recognized that somehow, I had crossed a line I don’t normally cross.

The fact that I did it once would be unusual but I actually went too far twice—in different contexts and about different things but both times, I realized that I said too much to the wrong people. That by itself is somewhat surprising. I am an introvert with a very strong listening gift, which means that most times in a group setting, I am the one in the group who is helping everyone else talk and share. I am also often the one people look at when they are sharing something difficult or painful.

But here I was in the group talking—and talking too much, taking the group in a very different direction than our stated purpose and in the process giving people too much information that they really didn’t need and which wasn’t all that helpful in the context. I am feeling kind of something which although I can’t exactly describe is somewhat negative.

My first response was to do what I always do when something isn’t right: I analyse. I needed to know what prompted the over sharing. Interestingly enough, each infraction had a different reason. In the first case, our group was given a discussion question that I couldn’t answer for a variety of reasons. Instead of letting the group carry on, I blurted out my inability and essentially stopped the group process. I am pretty sure that that was result of being tired and therefore less able to discipline myself—my normally efficient self-censor was off taking a nap.

The second time was different. Someone asked me a question and in the process of answering, I went a bit too far. I knew a lot about the question they asked and once started on the answer, the teacher inside kicked into gear and I kept going after I had given the questioner everything they wanted to know—and then I proceeded to give them lots that they didn’t want or need to know. Sometimes, my teacher likes showing off.

So, different reasons for the same behaviour. Given that there were no negative consequences that amounted to anything, it might seem like I am making a mountain out of a mole-hill. But I like to understand what I am doing and why I am doing it. It is part of my continual growth emotionally and spiritually. Knowing why I do what I do, or knowing as much as I can about why I do what I do is important to my continued growth.

I don’t want to go with the flow and not understand myself. I want to know what rough edges still need sanding, what holes need patching, what weak spots need shoring up. I think that is all part of personal and spiritual growth. Yes, I am what I am—but my faith teaches me that I am not what I could be. God loves me as I am—but he also loves me enough to encourage and help me to become what I can be.

And it is important to me to be involved personally in the development process that God has going on in my life. I believe I went too far both times. I see something that I need to work on. I don’t think I am a failure or a hopeless case. I goofed. I messed up. What now?

Well, I figured out what went wrong. God has already forgiven me. I can and will forgive me. And together, God and I will move on, continuing to work at the project of helping me become what God knows I can become. I hope I won’t make those same mistakes again—but if I do, well, God’s grace is big enough to deal with it.

May the peace of God be with you.

DURING THE HYMN…

As our church’s regular worship leader, I am normally quite busy during the singing of the hymns. I am checking to make sure that I have the next hymn marked, looking over the congregation to see if I missed anyone’s absence, making sure I have the right spot in the order of service set up on the tablet and, more and more these days with my aging tablet, making sure that I have enough battery power left to finish the service. Needless to say, I am not generally paying a lot of attention to the hymn.

But during a recent service, one line caught my attention. The organist had picked “Onward Christian Soldiers” as the opening hymn—and did her usual excellent job of playing the hymn—I almost felt I needed to march around the sanctuary during the chorus. What caught my attention, though, was the first line of the third verse, where we sang, “Like a mighty army moves the church of God”.

As we sang those words, I was struck by a sense of something—irony, delusion, confusion—something. Here we were, the seventeen of us who made up the congregation that day singing words that compared us to a mighty army. Now, it is true that our numbers were down that day for a variety of reasons: some were travelling, some were at another community function, some were sick and some were just AWOL. But even at our best, we are not a mighty army—mostly, the best our congregations can come with is a seriously under strength platoon and that depends heavily on visitors and summer people.

And our under strength platoon disresembles an army in many other ways. The two deacons who take up the offering are both in their 80s—they are doing really well for their age but they are still in their 80s. The pastor (me) isn’t capable of marching too far—I limp to the door to greet people after being on my feet for the worship service.

And so, our under strength, aging platoon creakily gets to our feet and songs words that proclaim us to be a mighty army. Maybe I should have checked the tablet battery one more time instead of paying attention to the words of the hymn. But then again, maybe the Spirit meant me to focus on those words.

Our church isn’t an army by any stretch of preacherly exaggeration. We were probably closer to that years ago when worship attendance could reach company strength but even at our best, we were never a mighty army. These days, we mostly wonder if we will have enough people to sing the hymns let alone do mighty army acts, whatever they are.

But we are a church—and we are part of the Church Universal, that body of believers stretching through time and space to encompass all people who have discovered the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We might be a small part of that Church Universal but we are still a part of it. And because we are a part of the whole church, the success, triumphs and victories of the church belong to us as well, just as our triumphs past, present and future belong to the whole church.

Our under strength platoon might not be triumphing like the booming church army in Kenya, for example. We might be losing members rather than gain members faster than we can count. We might not be standing up to persecution and government corruption and discrimination. We might not know how long we will keep our doors open, especially if we don’t figure out how to fix the sagging floor in the sanctuary.

But we are touching lives. We helped several families through the pain of death. We are growing in our personal faith through our Bible study group. We are helping the local school provide care for disadvantaged students. We can and do provide prayer support for anyone and everyone who asks for it and for many who don’t ask for it. We support church efforts here, there and everywhere through our offerings and prayers.

So maybe our under strength, seriously aged platoon isn’t a mighty army. But we are still part of a mighty army; we still belong to the victorious side; we have a place and a mission and we are doing it as best we can, with the Holy Spirit’s empowering.

May the peace of God be with you.

PRAYER

With the start up of the churches I pastor after the winter break, I am now back to leading another Bible study. This one has been looking at prayer. We have been using two Biblical prayers as our discussion starters. As we have worked through the Lord’s Prayer and begin looking at the prayer in Gethsemane, we have had ample opportunity to think about, discuss and speculate on prayer, as well as many other topics, some related and some that seem to come from nowhere anyone can identify.

The start up of this study has caused me to take another look at my prayers. Basically, I have two somewhat separate prayer lives. One is what I would call a professional prayer life. I am a pastor of active congregations which means I pray a lot: several times during each worship service, before and after Bible studies and meetings, during pastoral visits, over the phone and occasionally on the street. By any standard, I have a very active professional prayer life. That goes with the territory—anyone called to Christian ministry needs to expect that they will spend a lot of time praying for anything and everything.

My other prayer life is my own private and personal life. And while it isn’t always totally clear which category any given prayer fits, in general, I have a pretty good sense of when I am praying professionally and when I am praying personally. Well, actually, I have a really good sense of when I am praying professionally. I am not always clear when and even if I am praying personally.

Let me give an example. I am sitting in my work chair after finishing writing a sermon. That always leaves me with a sense of mental confusion and fatigue and a feeling that what I have spend so much time writing is worthless. I contemplate what I have written and mentally mutter, “What a pile of junk!”. My question is: When I say that, am I commenting on my sermon, expressing the mental fatigue that comes with having finished writing a sermon or actually praying?

Sometimes, I see that comment as an actual prayer. I have a somewhat warped sense of humor and tend to make comments that people who know me understand but which others might find quite strange. Since I work at being open to God’s leading when I am writing a sermon (mostly), if I am conscious of a hearer of my end of sermon comments, it would be God. Is it a valid prayer to call what he has (hopefully) helped me produce a pile of junk—or worse?

I mean, shouldn’t a pastor who has been in the business for many years and prayed enough to total up to months or years of time finish the sermon process with a heartfelt, “Thank you Lord for this wonderful expression of your grace”. Maybe that is what some would expect—and there may be some pastors who actually pray that prayer every time they finish a sermon. I have actually prayed it a few times, times when the sermon flows and even my writing fatigued brain can see the value of the sermon.

But mostly, when I finish, I am going to nudge God in the ribs, wink and comment on the junkiness of what I have produced. If I really thought it was junk, I wouldn’t have written it. But the stress of the writing process, the energy required to keep God, the congregation and myself in proper balance during the writing and the simple fatigue that results comes together to produce an offhanded, dry, somewhat negative comment on the whole thing. I am expressing my fatigue to myself and God, a fatigue that doesn’t allow me to actually objectively evaluate what I have produced—easier by far to semi-jokingly insult it because both God and I know I don’t really mean it. I am ultimately acknowledging that with his help, I produced something that he will use later as part of his and my ministry in the churches that will hear the sermon.

Would it be more reverent and spiritually mature to simple tell God thanks for the leading and help and the hint on the third point? Probably. I may get there someday but for now, God knows what I am doing and we are both comfortable with my end of writing prayer.

May the peace of God be with you.

SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE

Recently, some of my electronics have been giving me indications that they are thinking about retirement. Since some of them are getting really old for electronics, I have been observing their symptoms with some mixed feelings. I appreciate my electronics and use them heavily—while I am not totally dependent on them, I would be very reluctant to go back to pre-electronic days. But at the same time, new electronics are new—better specs, new tricks, updated everything.

So, given the realities of my aging electronics, I began researching the possibilities for replacements. I began with my tablet, which I use heavily in my ministry—I don’t do paper anymore, carrying everything on the tablet. The research thrilled my tech loving heart. Eventually, I discovered two real possibilities: one looked good and was much cheaper than the second choice. However, before I bought, I checked reviews and discovered that it didn’t perform as well as the more expensive one, which went to the head of the list.

I was ready. I was in the store, looking at samples and lifting and touching—I wasn’t actually salivating, at least not physically. I was almost ready to pull out the charge card and make the purchase when something told me not to buy right then. Since we had other stuff to do, I moved on, figuring I would be back soon to get my new tablet.

What I didn’t know then was that the something telling me not to buy was actually a spiritual message. God was speaking. Now, before you stop reading, let me explain. I think that faith needs to touch every area of life, which means that God should be a part of every decision, including what electronics I buy. I know that, I tell people that, I preach that. But at some point, my love of electronics sort of shoved that insight into the background. After all, what does faith have to do with tablets? The only tablets mentioned in the Bible are made of stone and had zero battery life.

But as I thought about buying a new, expensive tablet that would do everything I wanted and more, I believe that God was also at work, seeking to convince me that there were other options that just might be more pleasing to him. I am still not sure whether God is deeply concerned about which tablet I buy or if he is more concerned with my being willing to involve him in the process, although based on my past experience, I am pretty sure that his first concern is that I involve him in the process and then he can help me make a better decision.

Is buying a new tablet a faith decision? Well, according to many sermons I have preached, everything has a faith connection so my decision about a tablet should involve a faith component. I think that was the message God was sending in the electronics store when I just couldn’t quite buy the tablet my research—and desire—told me was the best choice for me.

Since then, I have gone back to the research process—but I have also specifically involved God in the process. I am not expecting God to become a celebrity spokesperson (spokesbeing?) for any particular brand of tablet. Nor am I expecting him to give me a list of divinely approved tablets. But I am expecting that if I open the process to God, he will do what he always does when we bring him into the process. He will help us evaluate and examine and think through things in a different way.

In this particular case, it seems that buying a new, expensive tablet probably isn’t the best decision. My desires for new tech got in the way of some realities that involving God helped me see. The new, expensive tablet would look really great—but in truth, it is more than I really need. As I thought and allowed God some part in the process, I began to see other options, other ways that would work even better and be more realistic. I will eventually end up with some new tech, some repaired tech and more of what I need.

This has been an interesting process—who knew that buying tech could be a spiritual exercise? Well, actually I did—but forgot to remind myself of what I keep telling others.

May the peace of God be with you.