HERE AM I, LORD

As a pastor, I have discovered that I often end up dealing with things from a variety of perspectives. Sometimes, I am a student, discovering as much as I can about a topic. Sometimes, I am a teacher, explaining the issues to students and parishioners. Sometimes, I am part of a larger group that is seeing to do something on a larger scale. But the truth is that most of the time, as a pastor, I am dealing with stuff one on one, as someone struggles to figure out how their life deals with whatever happens to be coming their way.

At those times, I draw deeply on all my education, my research, my training, my talents, my gifts. I have been called by God to help this person in this area—and as much as possible, I work to give them my best for God to use in their life process. Whatever the person is dealing with, I have been called by God to used everything I have to help them make the connection with God that will enable them to find the divine resources to deal with whatever comes their way.

I am not always comfortable with this calling. There are times when it is extremely uncomfortable and even scary. There are times when I feel like I am walking on a tightrope in a still cross wind. There are times when I am sure that I am wasting my time but have to try anyway. There are, of course, times when through the grace of God, everything comes together and the person overcomes. More often, the person makes a step that diminishes the problem a bit and sets up the process for another step down the road a bit.

Some of the things I deal with one on one would be a lot easier to deal with in a different socio-cultural-political climate. Some of the stuff I help people agonize through would be a lot easier if things were different on the macro scale. Helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse, for example, would be a lot easier for the survivor is there weren’t the social stigma and reluctance to admit the problem exists let alone the serious long term consequences that it brings.

At times, I think that someone should do something about the big stuff. Occasionally, I toy with the idea of starting something to deal with the big picture. And now and then in my ministry, I have actually been involved in some of the big picture stuff, working with others to bring about changes. But mostly, I have spent my career dealing with one issue at a time, one person at a time, one day at a time.

It isn’t that I don’t see the big picture. Intellectually, emotionally and vocationally, I am hard wired to seek out and understand the big picture. I am comfortable with the big picture and generally have no problem relating the specific to the general. Part of my ability to help in the specific is tied to my ability to grasp the general.

But for all that, I spend most of my time working with the specifics. And that, I think, is tied closely with my calling. I have been called to be a pastor and teacher. My calling, at least as I have seen it up to this point, is to be the one who can help people mobilize their faith to find what they need to deal with whatever part of life they are currently dealing with. A smaller part of that calling is teaching those not in the specific to understand and be ready for the specific when it happens to them or they are called to help others deal with it.

I sometimes tell people who want me to become involved in the big picture stuff that I am too busy to be involved. And that is pretty much the truth. I have a calling, a calling to be a pastor and teacher. To carry out that calling properly takes significant time and effort, time and effort that I willing offer to God and others. When God calls me to the big picture stuff, it has always been in the context of caring for the specific first and then using spare time and energy to deal with the big picture.

I am grateful for those called to deal with the big picture—someone needs to do it. But someone also needs to deal with the specifics and that is where my calling has tended to take me. Here I am, Lord.

May the peace of God be with you.

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BEGINNING AGAIN

September has arrived. The days are noticeable shorter and even though they can still be quite warm, mornings have a fall feel. The air is cooler and sometimes, there is a vague hint of frost in the air. Summer is over and for most people, the year is drawing to a close. We look ahead to the coming of really cold weather, snow and winter. The next big bump in the year is Christmas and then it is over.

Except for me and many other clergy, September really marks the beginning of the year. For many of us, the church year actually runs from September to May or June. I make my plans based on that year and most of the people I know in ministry follow the same pattern. So, for me, that means the coming of September means the start of a new year. The programs and groups we shut down in May or June start back up. The new initiatives and plans start to unfold. We will turn on the engine and get things moving as we begin another church year.

This is generally a hopeful and enjoyable time. When Bible Study starts up, we will reconnect and rekindle our exciting process. The new ideas we have been planning for get brought online. Our numbers stabilize after the summer fluctuations—summer visitors go home, regulars come back and preaching can focus on more in-depth themes. For the next eight or nine months, we will be full steam ahead, being the church the way we interpret God’s calling on us, with the Christmas shift and the anticipated snow days.

I have been involved in the September New Year activities for a long time—I began serving churches as a pastor a long time ago and consider myself a seasoned veteran of the church New Year process. I have made a few changes over the years to cater to cultural shifts and ministry trends—we start a bit later in September than I used to because of the summer creep that has pushed the summer slump further into September. Some programs have disappeared—when there is no Sunday School, there is no need to plan and push the Sunday School opening.

I have generally approached September with a positive outlook. I work with the church leadership to make plans for the new year which will help us as a church. I see each year as an opportunity to help the church become more and more the church. Sometimes, we are using our new year to clean up and repair some problem whose time has come. Sometimes, we use our new year to look at ourselves and explore God’s leading and grace. Sometimes, we are looking beyond problems and using the new year to try something new and different that will help us become what we feel God is leading us to become. Every now and then, there has been a new year when we haven’t had to do clean up and haven’t planned new initiatives—those have been rest years, something like the Jubilee year the OT sets for the people of Israel.

Each of these approaches to the new year has its excitement and requirements and blessings and setbacks. Each requires pastor and church to focus and work and gives us a direction and goal to properly harness our energy. Each helps us define and express our nature as believers and churches. Each helps shape not just our present ministry but also our future ministry.

As pastor, I have a vital part in the whole process. I am paid to focus on the church. My calling and my position give me the luxury of being able to focus most of my time and energy on the work we are doing together. I become the cheerleader, the analyst, the encourager, the teacher. And so the new year always brings new demands, new directions, new things to do and try. Since a healthy church isn’t just doing the same old stuff every year, my role as pastor means that each year, I have to be looking at new and different stuff, challenging myself and the church to make the best of the year to come.

I know that by the middle of next May, we will all be ready for a break—but right now in September, we are at the beginning of a new year, filled with excitement and possibility. Happy New Year!

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CHURCH MEETS

I am sitting in a coffee shop with a friend. He is drinking real coffee but I have been good and ordered a decaf so I don’t have to pay the extra price of regular coffee later. We have been friends for a long time but haven’t connected for a while so the conversations hops back and forth, covering a variety of topics as we try to catch up and move along at the same time. Because we are both believers and both fairly heavily involved in the work of our respective congregations, part of the conversation concerns our church life and our faith.

I have had this meeting a great many times with various people over the years, in several countries and two languages. And somewhere along the line, a question about the nature of the meeting popped into my mind—not during the meeting because the conversation is too free-flowing and jumps around so much that most of my attention is required to keep up. But after some meeting somewhere sometime, I began to wonder about the nature of the time together.

I wondered if I could properly say that the two or three of us sitting there drinking coffee and sharing and talking could be called a church. On one level, the answer is easy: No way. We were people drinking coffee and talking. We have none of the commonly recognized attributes of a church. There was no order of service, no sermon, no offering, no singing, no membership list. We don’t meet regularly, we don’t have an administrative structure, we have never developed a constitution and bylaws. We have never developed a program, run a Sunday School, conducted a baptism—although in fairness, I do have to say that at some point all of those things have likely been topics at the coffee shop.

That isn’t a good enough answer for me—I tend not to like pat and quick answers. Actually, to answer the question, I needed to ask another question, “Just what is a church at its most basic?” That is a question my analytical, research loving self can really dig into. Obviously, the best place to start is the New Testament, where our faith is explored and described and explained. There must be somewhere where there is a simple, clear definition of what the church is.

Except there really isn’t. It seems that the New Testament is based on several assumptions about the church: it will be made of believers, the believers will join together, they will have problems and they will be filled with the Holy Spirit. The New Testament has a lot of good advice for the church but no real definition of the church, which probably goes a long way to explain the incredibly diversity in churches around the world and throughout history.

But there is one place where I think we have something that comes close to a basic definition of the church. Matthew 18.20 records Jesus as saying, “… where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” NIV And maybe that is what I am looking for, a basic, elemental definition of the church, stripped of all the cultural, theological and ecclesiastical qualifications and requirements and all the rest.

The church exists when two or three people come together conscious of their shared faith. Their shared faith means that they aware of the presence of the risen, living Christ with them and that makes them the church or at least a church. For that time and that space, they are a church, a part of the universal gathering of God’s people of all time and space. I think this provides a very important definition of who and what we are as a church. It takes no more than a couple of people coming together conscious of their shared faith to be the church.

So, whether we need to share a consecrated Cup of wine, a blessed single serving of grape juice or a cup of coffee (even decaf), we can be the church. In this definition, the church is much more widespread, much more pervasive and much more involved in the world than if we see it as only a specific gathering meeting in a specific place conforming to all the specific requirements.

Two or three conscious of the presence of the Spirit—that gathering becomes a church. I like that lot. I will have to give that idea some more thought.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

A BIBLE STUDY QUESTION

Part of my pastoral responsibility involves spending some time thinking about and praying about the church, trying to figure out where God is leading us and what he is asking of us. This isn’t exclusively my job but because I am actually paid to focus on the church, I tend to have more time to devote to the process. This process works best when I base my thinking on what I am hearing and seeing from God and the church.

So, with that in mind, come with me to the first Bible study after vacation. As I drive to the study (about 30 minutes away from my home), I am thinking about the church and its direction and its future and what I could/should be doing. I don’t have a lot of ideas since it is just after vacation but I am thinking.

I arrive and Bible study begins. As usual, I ask about their response to last Sunday’s worship, joking that for a change, I couldn’t say anything because I wasn’t there. Those who were there made some positive comments about the worship and the supply preacher and then the discussion took a different direction, something that happens regularly at our Bible study.

One of the members was obviously trying to formulate a question. Since he normally doesn’t have a lot of trouble putting his questions together, I asked him what he was working on. His commented that while the visiting speaker was great, he was wondering is maybe the next time I went away, the congregation could take responsibility for the service. He was quick to point out that this wasn’t a comment about the fill in speaker but rather a real question that he had been looking at.

The response around the table was interesting. One member of the study reacted a bit negatively—she had been responsible for doing just that in the past and didn’t really enjoy the process. Speaking in public just wasn’t her thing. But most of the others looked sort of interested.

So, as always happens with our Bible study when an interesting topic comes up, we followed it. I assured the group that there was absolutely no reason why they couldn’t lead the worship service, including the message. And, to help the person who had obviously been pushed into the preacher role unwillingly, I talked about leading worship in accordance with the gifts that God has given us. As we talked, various people got more and more excited as they began to see things that they could contribute to a worship service.

At some point in the discussion, I realized that I definitely didn’t want this to happen while I was on vacation—given the level of interest and developing excitement, if the congregation was going to lead the service, I wanted to be there, at least the first time they did it. I wanted to be able to share in and benefit from the spiritual process that was obviously going on here. I suggested we look at having the congregation arrange and lead the service sometime soon and I would be there. Before the service, I would be there to help people develop and understand their gift and contribution.

That was where we left the discussion—the congregation is going to lead worship, with various people who are gifted using their gifts. I will help out with advice and suggestions and moral support. In the next week or so, I will look at the church schedule and come up with some suggested dates for the worship.

I think we were all excited by this discussion. I may have been even more excited than the others because this question and the discussion ties into my thinking about overall direction of my ministry. This is a small congregation which may have some difficulty finding a regular preacher when the time comes that God calls me to something else. But if they discover and develop their gifts and abilities, they are not as dependent on finding someone, anyone to fill the pulpit.

I saw this question and the discussion and the plans coming out of it as part of God’s answer to my questions about ministry direction. He was not only letting me know where he was leading us but also reminding me once again that he speaks to and through the whole congregation so that together, we can find and follow his leading.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO ARE YOU?

Every now and then, I get caught by my assumptions. I learn a thing or two about someone or something and on the basis of that, I assume a whole bunch of things. One of these situations involved someone who showed up as a worship service where I as preaching. I knew a bit about the person—he was a member of a fairly conservative church group that I knew something about. I didn’t agree with some of the group’s ideas and practises—I am somewhat less conservative than that group.

That particular Sunday, the sermon was on a topic that could have created some real issues between this person and me. I was in the middle of a sermon series and was dealing with a topic where that group he represented had some seriously different ideas from mine. I was pretty sure that my sermon would offend him. My assumption was that it he didn’t walk out during the sermon, I would either be ignored at the end or get told how wrong I was.

All through the sermon, I was conscious of that person and their response. I didn’t preach to him alone. I didn’t ignore him or spend all my time watching his reaction but I was aware of his presence and basically assumed that he was going to be upset by what I was saying. He didn’t give out much in the way of body language but I was pretty sure that he didn’t like it—my assumptions are based on lots of experience with his group.

He didn’t actually leave, nor did he go to sleep or stare out the window during the sermon. He didn’t get visibly agitated or angry—I assumed that he had been taught to control himself in preparation for setting me straight at the end of the worship. The sermon ended, we sang the hymn—I sort of hoped that he would sneak out during the singing but he didn’t. We finished the hymn, I pronounced the benediction and limped towards door to greet everyone as they left.

The rest of the church spent some time talking with this guy, welcoming him and all that and so it was a while before he got to the back. I stuck out my hand to shake his. He grabbed my hand, shook it firmly and told me that my sermon was the best and clearest treatment of the topic that he had ever heard. Over the noise of the rest of the members chatting and laughing, I heard the sound of my assumptions shattering.

I will confess right now that this is a preacher story—there is a core of truth in it but I have embellished it a bit and jammed several incidents together . We preachers simply have an inborn inability to release a story without some polishing and editing. But the story does capture a common reality for me. I tend to make judgments based on my assumptions that turn out to be seriously and completely wrong.

Fortunately, God has been at work through the Holy Spirit to help me grow through such incidents. It has happened enough that you would think I would have learned a long time ago not to make such assumptions but I am not all that bright, I guess, because I keep doing the same thing time after time.

This does help me understand the reality and power of God’s grace, though. God uses an incident to teach me something that I need to know. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I learn the lesson. And then, through the power of my humanness, I forget the lesson and make the same mistake based on the same assumptions. God, in his infinite grace, forgives me and uses another incident when I make the mistake to teach me again. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I learn the lesson, only to forget it again and need a refresher.

God reveals his infinite love and grace and patience because as many times as I need the same lesson, God will happily provide it. And if and when I finally learn the lesson, he will move on to something else that I need to learn. I am a slow learner but God is a loving and patient teacher, which is great for me and everyone else.

May the peace of God be with you.

I AM NOT THE LEADER

One of the pastorates I serve finally got around to holding our annual meeting. We tend to have that meeting fairly late in the year because of things like the possibility of bad weather in the early part of the year (snow in Nova Scotia in January?), the need to hold several other meetings before that meeting (who can meet with who when?) and mostly because most of us really don’t much like meetings.

So, we gathered for the meeting and amid the chatter and discussion and all the rest that goes with a meeting of people who like each other and don’t like meetings, someone made a comment that bothered me. In the course of a discussion about something that we were doing or going to do, one of the people looked at me and said something like, “You are our leader”.

The comment bothered me because I don’t want to be a leader. I am not interested in being a leader. I am, I realize, a leader in some areas of our church life and even at times in our denominational life but in general, leader is not a title I use about myself nor one that I seek. If I need to describe my role, I prefer pastor or teacher.

I realize that this puts me at odds with the majority of ministry practitioners these days, as well as with the majority of those who teach and write about ministry. Some of that may be my age, although many of those espousing the leadership mantle are close in age to me. Some of it may be my basic personality—I am a somewhat introverted individual who basically likes to do my own thing. I like neither being a leader nor being led. I can do both when I need to be prefer to work in situations where there is a more free-flowing, less formal structure that allows me and others to work out our gifts and roles together.

For me, that means that my ministry doesn’t focus on my leadership. In the church meeting that sparked this post, we have several leaders. One leads well when we deal with organizational needs. Another leads well when it comes to our financial needs. Another always has a handle on our music needs. One of the people there doesn’t generally say a lot but when he does, we tend to accept his leadership. We have a variety of leaders in our group and we have learned that when we let each one express their leadership abilities and gifts, we are stronger.

There is even a leadership role for me in that mix. I tend to provide leadership is our Bible Study and our ministry focus—but since we have some others who have insights and ideas and proven abilities is those areas, I am not the sole leader even there. I can and do step up to the leadership plate when necessary but in truth, I much prefer it when someone else provides the necessary leadership.

That is not to say that I am passive and laisse-faire in my ministry. I work hard at developing and presenting the teaching I believe God is calling our church to look at. I seek to identify and develop the gifts among our people. I am not afraid to speak clearly and directly to issues and concerns that will affect our overall church health. I take an active part in determining the direction of our ministry and regularly present ideas and proposals and plans to the church for discussion and implementation—but I do all this in the context of not seeing myself as the leader of the church. I am one of many, seeking to use my gifts and abilities to the best of my ability for the sake of the whole church.

I will gladly accept the role of teacher in our church. I am comfortable with the role of pastor for our church. I am able to function as a counsellor or therapist when necessary and as time allows for our church. But leader—well, I can handle that as long as we all understand that I am not the leader, but only one among many leaders, all of us pooling our leadership to enable God’s will to be done in and through our church.

May the peace of God be with you.

EFFECTIVE PRAYER

As I write this, I am sitting looking out the window, wondering of the light rain is going to get worse or simply stop. This is more than just curiosity—what I do for the rest of the day depends on what the rain does. If it stops, I get to mow the lawn and if it doesn’t stop, well, then I might be forced to stay in my chair and do some reading. I suppose I could pray about it—but given that I am not really sure which outcome I want, my prayers would be somewhat confused and pointless. In the end, I will wait for a while and see what it looks like when I want to start the mower.

I know some people who would spend time in prayer about that decision. I know some who could turn it in to a significant prayer session, as they wrestle with their ambivalence over mowing and make the ultimate decision part of some spiritual struggle involving their desires, God’s sovereignty over creation and the sinful influences that get involved in the process. It might sound like I am making light of such people but I am not. For some people, the decision about mowing is probably part of a much bigger issue that they are working through. It could also be a somewhat inflated struggle to avoid dealing with other, more painful issues.

But for me, the whole thing is just part of my day without much in the way of spiritual significance and without much need for a prayerful consideration. I will pretty much wait and see what the weather is like when I am ready to mow and decide then. I am not going to pray about it and I am definitely not going to make it part of some spiritual battle.

I have enough of that without creating issues. I struggle with helping the churches I pastor discover the leading of God for their situations. I wonder about my future—retirement is becoming more and more an option for me. I worry about my children—parents always worry about children. I actually pray about those things. Now, I rarely sit down or kneel down and engage in what some writers call “a season of prayer”.

More often than now, the prayer is a semi-conscious, “What do I do about that, Lord” as I am driving to one church function or another or mowing the lawn or changing the channel on the TV. Sometimes, I carry on a significant conversation with God while I am driving—I love long drives by myself just for that reason. Sometimes, when I am cooking supper, I am chopping vegetables and at another level, pondering the preaching plan for the next three months for one pastorate or the other—a pondering that includes connecting with God who ultimately knows what I should be preaching on.

In essence, I am saying that I have a chaotic, sporadic, disorganized prayer life. I don’t have a specific prayer time or prayer list or prayer corner or prayer language. There are two very important things that I need to say about that. This chaotic and disorganized approach works for me now. I find it helps me connect with God when and as I need to. I discover anew the reality of God’s presence and get the direction I need in a way that works for me. I have not always used this approach and I may change sometime in the future—but for now, this works and allows me to pray effectively.

The second thing I need to say is that my approach doesn’t have to work for anyone else and I am not recommending it. Don’t do what I do just because I do it. An effective prayer life grows out of the needs, experiences and spirituality of the individual. It involves discovering what helps an individual be open to the presence of God and be honest in the presence of God. And because we are all different, we might be able to get ideas and suggestions from others but we can probably never pray the way they pray—we need to pray our own prayers in our way so that we can connect with the God who loves us in our individuality.

And the rain looks like it is stopping so I probably have to mow soon.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE RIGHT FORMULA

After a longer than usual break because of Christmas and a couple of snow storms, one of the Bible studies finally got going again. And, because we haven’t met in a while, we had lots of stuff to talk about. Somehow, we got on the topic of the process of becoming a believer and began talking about the process, which some people in the faith have turned into a fairly rigid formula.

There are several variations of the formula. The one I grew up with insisted that the process began with walking up the aisle in an evangelistic campaign. Others require that the person seeking God repeat a certain prayer. Some require that specific Scriptures must be read and accepted. Such details become the basis of significant discussion and debate in some branches of the church—can someone really be called a believer if they leave out some part of the formula?

On the surface, there seems to be some validity to this line of thinking. Formulas are really important. Whenever I have had to study or, even worse, teach statistics, I have had to work hard to get the right formula to manipulate the raw data into something comprehensible. When I drive, I am really hoping that the engineers involved in designing the car and the road used the right formulas in the right way in their design process. When my wife was hospitalized shortly after the birth of our third child, getting his formula right was a very important thing for him.

We would be in serious trouble if some of the formulas that underlie our culture weren’t there or weren’t followed properly. We occasionally read of a bridge collapse caused by less than scrupulous contractors cheating on the formula for concrete or one of the many formulas involved in building a solid and safe bridge. Having the right formulas and using them properly is part of the foundation of our culture.

But as important at the right formulas are in some areas of life, an insistence on formulas can become a serious problem in other areas of life—and our relationship with God is one of those areas where an insistence on the right formula will cause problems. The stories of people encountering God in the Bible don’t follow a formula. None of the stories are the same. Paul didn’t open himself to God by following the same process Peter did. Moses wasn’t called by God in the same way David was. Isaiah didn’t have the same prophetic formula as John the Baptist.

It seems to me as I look at God and his relationships with people that there is a very basic formula. It begins and ends with God. He does what he wants and needs to do to engage people in a relationship with him. His grace and love are big enough to encompass any process that brings people to the point of accepting what he offers through Jesus Christ.

The problem is that when we try to formalize God’s love and grace and create a formula for God, we end up creating roadblocks and distractions. If I am becoming open to God as a result of something going on inside me, something that God is working with and through, it becomes a distraction to tell me that I have to go through a certain process. I can begin to focus more on the process than the presence of God. I can check the boxes in the formula and miss God completely.

Some of us humans love to categorize and organize—and that need has a definite and important place in life. But we need to resist the temptation to organize God. He is God and we are not—and our feeble and vain attempts to organize and formulize God and his love and grace just get in the way. God can and will continue to work and will often work around our attempts to organize him. I think that it would be much better for us, though, if we were willing to trust that God knows what he is doing, that he really doesn’t need us to organize him and that he rarely follows the same formula twice, and that in the end, God is going to accomplish his will in his way and in his time.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE EXPERIMENT

I did something recently that I haven’t done too often in my preaching career. I used the same sermon in three different congregations. Normally, I try to match the sermon to the needs of the congregation, something which requires different approaches even with the same Scriptures and themes.

But recently, well, using one sermon is three different places just sort of evolved. The sermon began as part of a preaching plan for the year round pastorate that I serve. But since the other pastorate has closed down for three months, I have been doing some fill in preaching for another local congregation. Rather than put together a whole new sermon, I wrote the original sermon with them in mind as well as the regular congregation.

And then, after getting back from vacation and picking up all the pieces and getting back into things, I realized it was also the week to prepare for the monthly worship service we have at the pastorate that has closed for the winter. When we made this plan last November, I had visions of preparing a special message that would fit there and help us celebrate being back together after several weeks.

But the time just wasn’t there—nor was the energy or creatively necessary to pull things together. I expect that playing with grandchildren may have depleted my creativity storehouse, although a sleepless night on the flight back home probably didn’t help. Given the situation, the special sermon became the already written sermon. I felt a bit guilty, but not guilty enough to force myself to write a whole new sermon.

There were certainly some minor differences in the delivered sermons. In one congregation, I was more tied to the manuscript because one of the worshippers is quite deaf and follows the sermon with the aid of a printed copy of the sermon so I can’t ad lib as much as I might like. In the other two, I could wander a bit. But in the end, all three congregations got the same basic message, with the same illustrations and even the same hand gestures.

Because my mind generally works in a structured and questioning way, I began to look at this as an experiment: I was going to see how one sermon played out in three different congregations. I would look for differences in response—how well people listened, what they said, how many slept and so on. Mind you, the experiment would be quite limited in scope since the process of leading worship and preaching takes most of my energy and focus. Couple that with the fact that data recording isn’t really possible in that context and I had a very unscientific experiment. If it had been offered as a project in one of the classes I have taught on research methodology, I would have rejected it.

But over the course of two Sundays, I preached basically the same sermon three times. My biased and unscientific observation is that it went over fairly well. People seemed to respond to the basic theme; they responded well to the humour I used to drive the point home and a significant portion of each congregation made positive comments about the message.

It probably helped that all three congregations have a lot in common coming out of the fact that they are all small, struggling congregations wondering about their future. My sermon writing mind was probably thinking about all three on some levels when I was writing the message. And the theme touched on an issue that is pretty common to most Christian congregations and which has been an issue for all three at some point in their recent history.

I think, though, that in the end, the sermon worked not because of my unconscious mind pulling all three congregations together; not because I had great illustrations; not because I am such a great orator—in the end, the sermon worked in all three places because I did my best in the circumstances and the Holy Spirit did the rest.

I have discovered that this is an important faith reality: I am responsible before God for doing the best I can in any given situation. But in the end, the results are the work of the Holy Spirit, who can and does take both my best and my worst and accomplish God’s will. It is better for all though, when I give God my best than when I give him less than my best.

May the peace of God be with you.