THE SERMON

In one of the collection of churches that I serve as pastor, we have an interesting twist in the worship service. At the request of some of the people attending, we pause after the reading of the Scriptures and have time for questions and comments about the Scriptures, although that sometimes broadens to include questions about the rest of the service and things that the people attending that day are thinking about. Most weeks, we have a question or two, a comment or two and then we move on to the sermon.

Before I continue on, I need to mention here that I work hard on sermon preparation. I believe that a sermon is a specific message from God for a specific group of people at a specific point in time and my role is to be God’s messenger, discovering and understanding and delivering that message. I serve two different sets of churches and their needs are different enough that I generally can’t use the same sermon.

So, in one order of service, we have a Q&A session just before the sermon. Normally, I open the process, there are a couple of questions for clarification that I explain as best I can (sometimes, I have to postpone the answer so I can get the information needed to answer the question), a comment or two about some part of the Scripture and then we move on.

Now and then, the discussion really gets going and eats into the sermon time, so much so that I end up having to edit the sermon on the fly, shortening the message to fit into the shorter time frame that results from the extended discussion. That is okay—it is kind of an interesting challenge to condense the sermon while still getting across the basis points.

And then, there are those rare weeks when the discussion takes off and the questions and comments begin feeding off each other and the congregation really gets engaged and involved and time flies by. As the pastor and worship leader, I stand in the pulpit, moderating the process, enabling people to talk and making sure that everyone has an opportunity and sometimes helping people clarify their remarks, all the while keeping an eye on my watch lying on the pulpit (the really nice antique clock at the back hasn’t worked in the memory of anyone there).

And at some point, I realize that there will be no sermon this week—there is no way to shorten the message for the time remaining and the discussion is going so well that it can’t be stopped. The message I worked so hard to prepare is dead, at least for this week. The sermon is being delivered but not be me. It is coming from the congregation, as we share and talk and riff off each other. The discussion isn’t a distraction; it isn’t a diversion; it isn’t a waste of time—the discussion is the message that God wanted delivered that day. My calling on those days isn’t to be the preacher—it it to be the moderator as the sermon develops through the wonder of the Holy Spirit speaking in and through all of us gathered that day. The sermon I worked so hard on, well, I will deal with that later because right now, the sermon is developing in real time.

These Sundays are rare occurrences. I can’t predict them. There is no way to anticipate them. There is definitely no way to make the occur. But when they do happen, they are wonderful, powerful, spontaneous movements of the Holy Spirit speaking to us directly by speaking through each of us. We talk and share and open ourselves to God and each other and we grow. We grow because of what we are hearing; we grow because of what we are saying; we grow because we are letting the Spirit be free.

We eventually finish and I close the meeting—but the wonder of the movement of the Spirit stays with us. We all treasure these Sundays. We don’t try and make them happen but when they do, we embrace them and the blessing that they bring to us. I can and likely will preach the prepared sermon another Sunday—but the best sermon for that Sunday was provided directly by the working of the Holy Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.

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ITS TOO HARD TO UNDERSTAND

Because I am continually beating the drum about reading the Bible, I occasionally have people tell me that they are going to start reading the Bible. I get excited and based on past experience, give them some advice that I hope will help them. Generally, I tell people not to start with Genesis 1.1 and plan on reading through to Revelation 22.21. That method is pretty much doomed to fail. The reader often gets lost in the swamps of Leviticus or founders in the depths of Numbers. If they somehow heroically make it out of the first five books, they tend to lose interest in the repetitious history books.

There are other ways to approach reading—but that is a post for another day. Today, I am going to deal with another issue that often comes up when people make a commitment to growing their faith by reading the Bible. The initial stages go well—but then, things slow down because of a serious problem. The would be reader often comes back to me with a serious complaint—they are reading but they really can’t understand what they are reading. The Bible is just too hard to understand. It may be okay for people like me, who have been to university and have specialized in Bible stuff, but they are lost. It is too hard to understand.

That stops a lot of people. And they have a valid complaint. The Bible is hard to understand, or at least some part of it are hard to understand. We need to remember that the Bible was written and compiled by people from a very different time and culture—or rather times and cultures—from ours. There are references and allusions and details that make absolutely no sense to us when we read them because they come from the realities of people living at least 2000 years ago in places from away, speaking languages that most of us will never encounter, dealing with things that we only read about in the Bible. Of course parts of the Bible are going to be hard to understand.

As part of my spiritual journey, I have come to realize that not only are there parts of the Bible that I struggle to understand but also I don’t actually need to understand. If I don’t understand the ins and outs of the Levitical law code, my personal spiritual growth doesn’t suffer. If I can’t break the poetic message of some of the Psalms, it isn’t going to keep me from coming closer to God. If the symbolism of Daniel and Revelation confuses and irritates me, I am still going to have a spot in heaven.

The bottom line for me is that I don’t think I need to understand the whole Bible. God has given the Bible as his message to all people of all time and that means that the revelation that was so vitally important for the wandering ex-slaves who would form the nation of Israel probably isn’t all that vital for me. I confess to finding Leviticus interesting but if it disappeared from the Bible, my faith wouldn’t really suffer. Some of the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand are perfectly clear to my Kenyan friends. Some parts that neither of us understand will like be very clear to the Martian colonists sitting in their domed shelters 200 years from now.

I don’t need to understand the whole Bible. The whole thing isn’t written for me. What I need to deal with are the parts that were written for me—and to find those, I need to read the whole thing. There isn’t a specific part with my name on it—my parents didn’t give me a Biblical name so I can’t claim one of the books as mine and mine alone. But I have discovered that as I read through the Bible, I keep running into stuff that I do understand because it speaks directly. If I hadn’t systematically read the Bible, I would never have run into Psalm 13, which has and still does provide me with tremendous help during my depressions.

I read a comment one time but can’t remember who it come from. Essentially, the writer said he wasn’t worried about the parts of the Bible he couldn’t understand. He was worried about the parts that he could understand. That works for me.

May the peace of God be with you.

GROWING IN FAITH

One of the consistent themes of my ministry is that people should read the Bible—not occasionally but regularly. And the reading shouldn’t be restricted to “best of”, “favourites” or stuff that we understand—it should be a systematic approach that covers the whole of the Bible within a reasonable time frame. It is relatively easy to read through the while Bible in about a year, although some plans allow for two years.

Because I have a fascination with history, I look at the whole Bible reading thing through a slightly different lens. Because I live in a time and place where there is almost universal literacy, it is difficult for me to imagine a time and place where this wasn’t so. But the truth is that for most of recorded human history, the ability to read and write has been the preserve of an elite group of specialists. Ordinary people generally didn’t have access to nor much need of reading and writing.

Most people were dependent on others to tell them stuff and they then had to either memorize what they had been told or continually return to the teller for refreshers. The person who could remember well generally became a powerful and important part of the culture—an organic library. When Judaism and later Christianity were graced by God with written collections of divine instruction, the majority of believers only had access to those materials through others.

At times, even those who could read didn’t have access to the Scriptures because written materials were scarce and expensive. At some points in history, most churches and leaders probably didn’t own a Bible—and if they did, it was often chained up with carefully controlled access. The open Bibles on the table at the front of many sanctuaries are likely a holdover from the days when that Bible would be the community Bible, the only Bible and maybe even the only book in the community.

So, with that on mind, my historian side prods my Bible reading encouraging side with some questions. No doubt the prodding is encouraged by the side of me that loves to ask difficult questions. Anyway, the question that I look at now and then is something like this, “Why bother to encourage people to read the Bible when the church has managed to survive so long with so few people being able to read the Bible?”

The historian asks and the encourager admits that it is a very good question. And because I am who I am, I can’t put myself off with one of the traditional Christian answers like “because” or “I said so”. I can point out the fact that during those times of restricted access to the Scriptures, the church suffered and struggled with heresies and got off track and wandered in theological wildernesses. However, I also have to remind myself that with almost unlimited access to the Bible, the church today suffers and struggles with heresies and gets off track and wanders in theological wildernesses.

Probably the best reason I can give for reading the Bible is because we can. I don’t like second and third hand sources. I am openly skeptical when someone makes a claim about something they heard from a friend who knows someone whose cousin was there. I am not going to take the latest wonder supplement because “they” say it works miracles. I want more than that. I want to go to the source and find out for myself.

And with my faith, I am no different. I don’t want someone else’s predigested and edited understanding of what God says. I want to read it for myself and spend time with it and work at understanding it. I appreciate the thoughts of others, I enjoy spending time in other understandings of what I am reading—but in the end, I want to spend time in the source myself.

My faith is important to me—too important to let it depend only on what someone else tells me about what they understand about what God is saying to me. I want to head—or read—it for myself. I read my car manual, I study my computer instructions, I read and sort of follow directions—and for the same reason, I read my Bible regularly and systematically. I will pay attention to what someone else tells me, but I still want to get back to the source and because of God’s grace, I can do that.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING SALT AND LIGHT

I knew a guy one time who was looking for the perfect church, one where he would be free to develop his understanding of God and the Kingdom. He was convinced that when he found that perfect church, everything would be great. He was a pastor and had some connections with the people who helped churches find pastors so he used the connections and discovered a church that looked good. Unfortunately, after he had been there a short time, he began to see some problems—and if the truth be told, he himself began to create some problems. Eventually, the imperfection in the church became so serious that he resigned to go to another church that looked perfect.

I am pretty sure that he is still looking for that perfect church. Personally, I entered ministry with the understanding that neither churches nor pastors are perfect and that we both need to try and help each other become a bit better at following the faith that we claim. So, whenever I am called to a church as their pastor, I know without question that I am not going to a perfect church. That is alright, though, because I also know without question that when they call me, they are not getting a perfect pastor.

Neither the church nor the pastor is perfect—and given the theological realities of sin and its persistence even after we become believers, there is no chance of a perfect church or perfect pastor this side of eternity. For me, that raised all sorts of questions, issues and concerns. One of those many questions, issues and concerns grows out of the fact that we are supposed to be sale and light in the world, a visible and concrete reminder to the community of the love and grace of God.

When we show our imperfection to the community, which we do with depressing regularity, what does that do to our saltiness and lightness? It can and all too often does turn into anti-salt and anti-light, discouraging people outside the faith from seeing our faith as a viable option for their lives. Mind you, if we try to cover up our imperfections, the community is also very aware that we are not perfect and our cover up attempts also discourage people when it comes to the faith.

We are called to be salt and light—and we are imperfect. And any approach to being the church or an individual believer that doesn’t keep those two basic truths in mind is doomed to failure. We can’t be perfect—and we can’t help but give witness to our faith. And so it seems to me that the only real choice we have is to be upfront about who and what we really are.

We need to be willing to admit to any and all that we are imperfect. What makes us people of faith and churches is not our perfection but rather the fact that we have admitted to God that we can’t deal with our imperfection by ourselves. We surrender ourselves to God who then has our permission to work in our lives: smoothing the rough spots; teaching our ignorance; forgiving the sins; guiding our footsteps and all the rest. God knows we are not perfect—but he loves and graces us anyway.

We are salt and light when we freely admit our sins and imperfections not just to God, each other and the church but also to the community and the rest of the world. We don’t always get it right—in fact, we get it wrong as much as anyone else and maybe even more than some people. What sets us apart is that we have discovered that God can deal with us in our imperfect state and wants us to be in a deep relationship with him even in our imperfect state. When we live our faith and run our churches conscious of our imperfection and our dependence of the love and grace of God, then our sin and imperfection become part of our divine saltiness and lightness because our confession and forgiveness and trying again point beyond our imperfection to the perfect God who can and does provide a way for us even in our imperfection.

We show salt and light when we remember and then let the community know that we are not perfect—but we believe in a God who is and whose love and grace can deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE JOURNEY OR THE DESTINATION?

I grew up in a small community in a poor family. We didn’t have a car until I was 11 or so. That meant that in my early life, I really didn’t go too far. Although a couple of my siblings had medical issues that required them to travel all the way to the city, any health issues I had were taken care of by the local doctor, whose office we walked to. Travelling was something that other people did and I heard about or watched on TV.

Eventually, that changed and I began to travel. We got a car and I got to go to the city. I won a summer trip to the Caribbean in high school. I got my own car and travelled to university. I worked overseas. I have travelled a lot and hope to travel a lot more. But I realized a while ago that in the end, I don’t much like travelling—I like being other places but the process of getting there tends to be a pain. I would really like the Stat Trek transporter to be invented. Rather than drive or fly or whatever, I just want to be there, to do whatever it is that I want to be there to do.

That impatience with travel doesn’t seem to carry over into the rest of my life. I find that I am most comfortable and focused when I am working on something—I like to know where I am going but generally am not overly concerned with actually getting there. As a pastor, for example, I spend a lot of time and effort helping churches do self-evaluations and determine directions and make plans to move towards those directions.

In fact, most of my time as a pastor is spent with congregations moving from some place to another place. There are differences in the ultimate destination and significant differences in the journey to that destination and that is what makes things interesting, at least for me. We study, we discuss, we plan, we experiment, we implement, we revise, we pray, we take a few steps, we fall back, we make progress—we are on a journey.

My personal life follows the same pattern. There is always somewhere to go personally. Maybe I need to learn some new ability. Maybe I need to deal with some less than great part of my personality. Maybe I need to understand and change the way I react to certain people. If I am not perfect, there is always something that needs to be worked on—and when I get a bit lazy or complacent in that area, God has a tendency to make pointed and persistent suggestions.

If I had to, I could define the destination for our church journeys. When I need to, I can define the destination for my personal journeys. But most of the time, the journey is more important than the destination in both those areas. And I think the reason for that is that any destination for the church or me personally is always temporary. Doing the hard work of reaching the destination is important—but once I or we reach the destination, there is always another destination in the distance that is beckoning or which God is suggesting that we head for.

So, I make the journey to deal with my current bout of depression and arrive at the depression-free destination. That is great. I can stretch and relax and enjoy the destination—at least until I look ahead and see that maybe if I take this route, I just might be able to avoid then next bout of depression all together. And the journey begins again.

I am going to spend my whole life on the journey. But that is actually okay. I know where the whole thing is going and the final destination is pretty great. But before I reach that destination where I will be in the full and complete presence of God, there are a lot of journeys to a lot of temporary destinations—and I generally enjoy the journey.

I might not care much for the long hours sitting in cars, airports and airplanes required to visit my grandchildren but until the transporter is invented, I will cope because the destination is worth it. But on the journey to my final destination, both the journey and the destination are worth it.

May the peace of God be with you.

HEAVEN, HELL AND ALL THAT STUFF

One of the Bible study groups I work with decided last year that we should spend some time looking at the Biblical ideas of heaven and hell. Since this was the first time in my long ministry that a group had requested that topic, it gave me a chance to do some original research. While the research took more time than digging stuff out of my old files, it is kind of fun to spend some time looking at something different.

At first, I thought this would be a relatively easy research project—after all, heaven and hell are basic topics in the Bible and the Christian life. Anyone who has spend any amount of time in the conservative church knows all about what heaven and hell will be like. Of course, we have tended over the years to get fuller descriptions of hell than heaven—the conservative church has traditionally been more comfortable scaring people with stories of hell than we have enticing them with pictures of heaven.

But as the research progressed, I began to realize that this wasn’t as easy a project as I first thought. Heaven and hell are important topics in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. But as I read through the various references, it soon became clear that the New Testament, while assuming that there is a heaven for the faithful and a hell for the unfaithful, doesn’t actually tell us a lot about them. And, as I dug further and further, much of what it does tell us about them is likely more an attempt to use what we know to understand what we don’t know.

And far from being troubling or a problem, I found that reality quite pleasing. After years and years of listening to descriptions of heaven and hell, I can take a new look at the whole thing. I don’t need to expect streets paved with gold running past huge mansions in heaven. I don’t have to squirm and twist internally at the thought of eternal flames torturing people forever and ever. The relatively few descriptive images we have in the New Testament about what comes next are God’s attempt to compress the infinite so that we finite beings can have something of a glimpse of what it is really going to be like.

The few images are built on the idea that to be fully and completely in the presence of God will be great but beyond our imagining—and being fully and completely without God will be terrible beyond our imagining. I am pretty sure that we can’t even imagine the greatness and terribleness.

The essential message is that there is much more—and the much more is so far from what we know and understand and can comprehend that we can only have vague and very imperfect glimpses of it. This realization does a couple of things for me.

First, it serves to remind me that God is God—he (or she) is infinite and eternal and beyond anything I can imagine—and given that my imagination is partly fueled by science and science fiction, I can really imagine a lot of far out stuff. I need to be reminded at times that God is beyond my ability to comprehend. God is—and most of that being is outside my ability to get a hold of.

But that reality isn’t scary or confusing or depressing because of the second thing it does for me. I may not be able to comprehend heaven, I may be seriously limited in my ability to understand the reality of God but one of the things that God has made very clear is that in his (or her) infiniteness and eternalness, God wants me to be with him, to be in relationship with him (or her).

I don’t know why God would want that. In fact, I doubt that I will ever be able to figure that out this side of eternity—I am limited here and now by my finiteness. But I can and do believe it. It is a core and foundational part of my life now. I believe that God loves me. There are a lot of details that I don’t and probably can’t understand but this, I can understand and trust—God loves me with an eternal and undying love and because of that, there is more to me and life than the here and now.

May the peace of God be with you.

DO OR NOT DO…

For a variety of reasons, I find myself thinking about things I have done over the years, some in my ministry and some on my non-ministry life. Some things I am quite happy about and continue to celebrate them. Some things, well, they are just there and are part of the reality of my life. And then there are the things that I regret. I would like to say that there are a very few things that I regret but that simply wouldn’t be true. There are a lot of regrets, mostly clumped around the mistakes and failures I have managed to accomplish in my life.

However, this reflection isn’t part of the depression I sometimes deal with, nor is it contributing to the continuance of a state of depression. The reflection comes from a whole different place and is going a whole different direction. I think it started when I was thinking about one of the comments from that great philosopher, Yoda. At one point during Luke’s training, Yoda tells a discouraged Luke “Do or not do—there is no try”. Succeed or fail—those are the choices, at least according to Yoda.

As much as I like the whole Star Wars universe, I have to seriously disagree with Yoda on this, even knowing that this disagreement means that I will probably never be invited to become a Jedi. But the reality is that the separation between success and failure isn’t a clear, black and white boundary. The separation between success and failure generally involves a long and winding trip along the highway called “Try”.

When I am building something in the workshop, I don’t go immediately from nothing to a finished, perfect product. No—I measure and cut and discard and measure and cut again and probably discard again. I keep trying until I have a good sized pile of wood to recycle and have reached the point where I either succeed or figure that what I want to do is beyond my ability to achieve at this point—wood is somewhat expensive and there are limits to how big the recyclable wood pile can become.

Fortunately for me, I am a Christian not a Jedi. In spite of some of the off-track preaching and teaching that has always been a problem on the Christian faith, one of the basic and most important realities is that God forgives abundantly, completely and eternally. And he is willing to forgive the same person for the same thing as many times as it takes for them to get things right—or, given the human reality, until that person makes the transition between this life and the next one when we become perfect because of God’s love and grace shown in Jesus.

And what that essential truth means is that in the end, I can try all I want. Whether I succeed or fail isn’t the issue. The grace of God provides the ultimate success and isn’t dependant on my track record in life. I am free to try. If I succeed, great. If I fail, God is there to pick me up, forgive me, dust me off and enable me to try again. With his help, I can try the same thing again or I can try something else. If I succeed, great. If I fail, God is still there, he will pick me up again, he will gracefully forgive me again, he will lovingly dust me off again and cheerfully enable me to try again.

And so, as much as I admire Yoda, as much as I love Star Wars, I don’t actually want to be a Jedi (although a real working light saber would be a lot cooler than a Swiss Army knife). I prefer living my life with the reality of success and failure and trying. I want to succeed but frequently fail—and I want the assurance that each failure is seen as an attempt and will be forgiven and recycled into something worthwhile in God’s scheme of things.

I am not perfect and know that I can’t be perfect. I am really good at trying though—I have been doing that my whole life. And because of the grace of God, I will continue trying until the day when God gives me the ultimate success and I can stop trying because he has made everything perfect.

May the peace of God be with you.

ANOTHER MEETING

A few years ago, I got is a bit of trouble over a joke.  It seems to me that ministry sometimes consists of going to meetings and at one meeting, I asked the participants how they could know for sure if they were in heaven or hell in the afterlife.  I thought the answer was simple:  if you were at a meeting in the afterlife, you were obviously in hell, not heaven.  I thought it was funny but others at the meeting didn’t see it the same way, but that is a story for another time.

Meetings are a fact of life in ministry.  And because I serve two separate collections of churches, I end up at more meetings.  As a result of these two different ministry settings, for example, I am currently part of two different ecumenical gatherings.  One is an actual council of churches and the other is a gathering of clergy.  Interestingly enough, they both do pretty much the same type of things.  Both meet monthly and both spend time getting to know each other better and working together on a variety of things that help the church as a whole.  And while I don’t much like meetings, the idea of churches and their leaders working together makes up for the necessity of attending meetings, most of the time anyway.

When I attend such meetings, I appreciate the opportunity to meet with other believers from other traditions.  I sometimes get frustrated when I recognize the limitations we face as different denominations but more often, I am more often trying to deal with the differences in personality that always complicate meetings.

Our gatherings do not represent the full Christian presence in our communities.  There are some Christian groups that choose not to take part and depending on the leadership at any particular time, some of the member groups may not have a very active participation.  But in the end, we meet together, we talk together, we plan together, we laugh together, and we support each other in difficult times.  We get to know each other’s individual and ecclesiastical differences.  We learn who does what well and who doesn’t do what well.  We discover who can offer which resources to the work we can do.

And in the process of meeting together, we are doing far more than we sometimes realize. As well as the planning and sharing and organizing that we do, we are also presenting our communities with a vision of the church as it is meant to be.  We aren’t planning to merge all our churches and become one.  But we are practising and showing an essential and basic unity of the faith that cuts across our denominational differences.  We are showing our communities that we might worship in different ways in different buildings at different times but we are all actually worshipping the same God because of the same Christ in the power of the same Holy Spirit.

We are telling our communities that no matter which building we worship in and no matter which style we worship in, we are in agreement and we are all heading in the same direction and we aren’t competing with each other.  And so when I have prayer with the Anglican lady who I see in the hospital during my visit with my Baptist people, she and her pastor know that I am not trying to steal anyone–and the community knows that we are all working for the same God.

And this is important because the more fragmented and fighting the church is, the weaker our witness.  If we who follow Christ in our different ways cannot get along, how can the world expect much of the faith we proclaim?  Our bickering and competition serve to give outsiders a reason for not considering faith–we undercut our mission and make to task of the Holy Spirit much harder when we aren’t willing to work together.

And so, I will attend the meetings–not because I love meetings.  I am still convinced that one of the joys of heaven will be the absence of meetings.  But I will continue to meet with fellow believers because that which we share is much deeper and much more significant than that which separates us.  We are joined together by our faith  now and forever.

May the peace of God be with you.

TIME AND TIDE

The house we live in sits just above a tidal flat.  At low tide, we see a flat grassy meadow that stretches to the dike along the river bank in the distance.  At high tide, the meadow disappears to varying degrees, depending on the phase of the moon.  When the moon is full, the whole flat disappears and the water comes near to the top of the dyke.  Fortunately, our house is 10-15 meters above the highest tide mark so I can watch the tide without wondering if I need to invest in a canoe for emergencies.

But even though I can watch this twice daily process, I tend not to pay much attention.  If people had asked me where the tide was, I probably couldn’t answer–or that was the case until recently. For the past few months, I have been paying close attention to the tides and can easily tell people what stage the tide is at.

This didn’t come from a concern about raising ocean levels because of global warming.  There is a spot near our house that is so affected and before much longer, a really high tide is going to go over the road there–but I have known that for years and there are other ways to get to where that road leads.  And as I mentioned, we have several meters beyond the most pessimistic predictions of ocean level rise.

What changed for me is that I build a tide clock.  I like clocks and I like building clocks.  So my winter project was to design and build a tide clock.  It wasn’t as quick a process as I thought–the winter was much busier than I anticipated and my wood-working skills were much rustier that I expected.  But the clock is done and sits on the mantle in the living room.  When I am sitting in my working chair in the living room, I can see the tide clock and the tidal flat with just a slight turn of my head.  When I walk into the room during the day time when the curtains are open, I automatically check the clock and the tide.

Part of that began as I worked at regulating the clock.  Although I can look up tide times on the internet, I did have to set the clock hand that tells the state of the tide.  And while the mechanism is interesting, it is a bit hard to adjust perfectly and so I have been tinkering with it since I placed it on the mantle–I think I have is set now but I will continue to watch it.

There is a parable here–remember, I am a preacher and therefore can’t let something just be something–it also has to be something else to feed the insatiable demand for stories to keep people interested on Sunday.

And so the meaning of the parable is this.  I live beside a tidal flat but because the coming and going to the tide has no affect on me personally, I ignore it.  My house is safe from the highest tide predictable; I don’t make my living digging for clams at low tide; I don’t need to know when I can get my boat out from the wharf and the only road that might have some affect on my life is easily bypassed.  The tide comes and goes and has no affect on me.

But as soon as I build a tide clock, I have a personal interest in the tide.  It makes a difference to me where the tide is.  Sure, the difference is only because I want to check the accuracy of the new clock–but I am still interested.

So, we live in a world where there is a great deal wrong, which we ignore because we can’t perceive a direct effect on us.  Some, we can ignore.  Some, we can pretend isn’t a problem.  Some, we have to deny.  And in truth, some we have to work really hard to avoid.  As long as we can tell ourselves it doesn’t affect us, we can ignore it, at least until it becomes too personal.

But as believers, we are called to be involved with the world–instead of ignoring the darkness and its effects, we are to shine the light of God into the darkness.  We didn’t create the light–but we have been given the light.  We need to turn it on and challenge the darkness because whatever we want to think, we do have a personal stake in making the darkness go away, a personal stake that came to us through Jesus Christ.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CHURCH WEATHER REPORT

A few times over the course of my ministry with small congregations, I have been taken aside by some member of the congregation and thanked for what I have done and am doing in the congregation.  Since I am somewhat analytical by nature, I have generally asked the person to tell me just what it is that they think I have done.  Initially, I was thinking I would hear some comment about my breathtaking preaching, my incredibly inspiring teaching, my superlative administrative skills or at least the fact that last Sunday, I managed to produce a bulletin with no discernible mistakes.

But in almost every case in which this scenario happened, the informant doesn’t mention any of those things.  Almost all have told me that what I have done that is so important to them is change the atmosphere of the congregation.  They mention that they come to worship now because they want to, not because they feel it is their duty.  They talk about the fact that we laugh a lot as a congregation–and often add that we laugh together, not at each other.  Sometimes, the person will say that the congregation used to be gloomy but now they feel hope and excitement.

I have to confess that this hasn’t been some planned strategy on my part but as I have reviewed the ministry I have done, I can see that a change of atmosphere is generally a by-product of what I have been doing.  And in each situation, I haven’t been doing anything more than what I think is my job as pastor.

My primary area of skill, ability, gifts and inclination is pastoral.  I am concerned about people.  Now, because I am an introvert, I joke with churches that I don’t actually like people but that really isn’t true.  As a pastor, I like and care for the people I am working with and for–and they are my primary focus.  That doesn’t seem to be the case for all pastor-congregation matches.

As I read and study pastoral trends these days, I find strong encouragement for me to be a Leader, a Visionary or even better, a Visionary Leader.  I am told by others that I must be an unflinching advocate of the TRUTH, unwavering in my defence of all that it right.  Others suggest that I must be Seeker Sensitive, designing worship and programs for those who aren’t there but who might come if I get things right.  I also need to be an advocate of Church Growth, following which ever theory is hot at the moment.

In the end, though, I am a pastor, called by God to love and care for a specific group of people.  The spiritual (and sometimes actual) feeding of this flock is my focus.  And as I have analysed the congregations I have worked with, I realize that the comments I mentioned at the beginning of this post are a direct result of the fact that the people feel cared for and supported in their spiritual development–and that changes the nature of their relationship with both the faith and the church.

These days, I am more aware of the atmosphere of congregations and more concerned with changing the atmosphere.  But the process I follow really hasn’t changed.  I am still a pastor.  I work at listening and caring and supporting.  I build my teaching and preaching on what I am hearing and seeing and deducing from my pastoral contacts.  But most of all, I spend time with people, listening and learning.

The results of good pastoral care are many and varied–but one of the most important is that people feel valued and important.  Worship becomes a time of sharing with each other and with God their sense of value and importance.  Whatever we do as a congregation grows out of this atmosphere of value and importance.  People are free to open themselves to the leading of the Spirit–and when the congregation opens themselves to this leading, there is no telling what will happen but it will generally be positive, powerful and exciting for everyone involved.

The church weather report is one of the most powerful indicators of the health and potential of a congregation–and the role of the pastor is crucial to establishing conditions for a good weather report.

May the peace of God be with you.