LET’S TALK

I got a phone call from a friend a while ago. We don’t know each other all that well but we were neighbours for years and had a comfortable relationship. He was calling because he was going to need a pastor in the near future—his wife has an incurable illness and he wanted to be somewhat prepared for what was coming. He didn’t have any real church connections but he did know me and knew that I was a pastor—in fact, the last time I was talking to him was at a funeral I was conducting.

I don’t actually like this sort of thing. The dying and grief process are always painful and difficult and when I am called in because of friendship, it is more difficult. But he is a friend and I am a pastor so I arranged a time to meet with him and talk. Because we are friends, the conversation dealt with more than just then essentials of pre-planning a funeral service. We did that but then went on to talk about lots of other friend stuff: how things were going for each of us, where we were each working, why I didn’t walk anymore and so on.

In the course of the conversation, I discovered that he did have a church connection. Like many kids our age, he had attended Sunday School—and had attended at one of the churches I now pastor. That was quickly followed by the almost obligatory apology for not actually being involved in church anymore. We actually had an interesting conversation around that revelation and half-hearted apology.

I suggested to him that maybe the reason he wasn’t involved in church was more the church’s fault than his. Since we had already been talking about his involvement in a local club, I suggested that if church actually met some of his needs, he would be there—just like he was part of this club because it met some of his needs. Somehow, we in the church hadn’t been able to provide what he needed to maintain a connection.

I think my friend represents a great many people today. The problem isn’t that he is anti-faith. He has a spiritual side: he wanted a pastor to help him through the process of his wife’s decline and death; he enthusiastically welcomed my offer of prayer; he remembered hymns and even some Scriptures that he wanted as part of the coming funeral. He might not be on a first name basis with God but he isn’t rejecting God.

But somehow, somewhere, the church missed him and his real needs. We couldn’t or wouldn’t supply what he needed to help feed that faith spark that is still fairly evident in his life. We had nothing on offer that he wanted and so he stopped looking in our shop, finding substitutes elsewhere. But even he knows that we have more available. It seems, though, that we aren’t really making it easy for people to discover what we really have.

We claim that Christ is the answer—and I believe that he is. But when we don’t really know the questions that people are looking to have answered, we probably don’t have the required answers on display—and even more, we might not even know that the answers are available. We have sometimes even questioned the legitimacy of the question, preferring that people ask the easy questions that we can quickly answer with tried and true formulas.

Meanwhile, people like my friend wander around, looking for stuff, settling for substitutes while all the while knowing something about the faith that we seem not to know. They know that the answers they are looking for are found within the faith that we follow. They might not know the answer; they might not see the answer; they might get tired waiting for us to hear the actual question they are answering but they believe that there is an answer and that somehow, the church and its agents can provide it. And so when people like my friend really need an answer, they pick up the phone and ask the question again, hoping that maybe we have dug around in the storeroom and found that we actually have an answer to that question in stock.

I am hoping that with the power of the Holy Spirit, I can help my friend find the answer he is looking for.

May the peace of God be with you.

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GOING BACK

Like a good many other people today, I am deeply concerned about the present and future of the Church in the west. I became involved in the church in the late 1950s as a Sunday School student so I remember a different church era. Those were the last of the glory days of the church—the days when Sunday School was a part of every kid’s life; when every almost adult attended worship at some point; when faith leaders were respected and consulted; when it seemed that the Kingdom of God had arrived in its fullness.

My whole ministry has been spent dealing with the reality of the western Church’s downward spiral. I have ministered to declining congregation that decline even in the face of new believers joining. Although there are some bright spots in the North American church scene, overall, the picture isn’t great—the Church is losing ground and only the most naïve refuse to see that this is a serious problem.

While there is much that can be and should be said about this whole painful situation, one particular aspect of it caught my eye again recently. Given the level of concern about the state of the Church, it is not surprising that many people are writing and speaking about this issue. And among the myriad of writers and speakers, there is one group whose approach I find equally fascinating and annoying. This is the group who wants to solve the whole thing by going back.

There is generally one key thing that needs to be changed back to the way it was that will wipe out the whole problem. The decline of the Church began with that one change and all we need to do is go back to what was and the decline will magically disappear. Over the years, I have been told that once we get prayer back in our schools, all will be well. Others suggest that we need to go back to the days when Christian men were men and Christian women were women. Or, as some suggest, if we allow parents to really parent, things will change.

A few have some more disputed suggestions. Getting rid of new music in favour of real Christian music has its supporters. The proliferation of translations and paraphrases in English is the problem for others—going back to the real Bible, the KJV, will fix everything. Occasionally, I run into someone who suggests that the problem is that hell has been removed from the preaching and if we would give people more hell, the church would flourish.

There are lots of other suggestions of things from the past to bring back—but the painful reality is that if any of these suggestions were the reason, we would be seeing results. Every suggestion has people trying to bring it back—and the results are almost uniformly underwhelming.

I think that the problem is bigger than we want to realize. Somewhere along the way, the Church in the west has lost its way. There isn’t one mistake or change or event that we can point to as the essential problem. I think we have made a bunch of mistakes, we have shot ourselves in the foot too many times, we have missed people too much for any one thing to be both the problem and the solution.

In fact, I don’t really think that there is a solution, at least not one that will magically fix the whole church. The decline of the Church and the Christian faith in the west is the result of uncounted mistakes, issues and even sins, so many that church historians will had doctoral thesis topics and book themes for centuries.

But I am not without hope. The future of the Church doesn’t actually depend on what its theorists and pastors and theologians think and do. The Church depends of the power of the risen, living Christ expressed through the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit. God will take care of the Church—even a quick glance at church history shows how the Church has defied every attempt to destroy it.

It is God’s church and he will care for it. We might have created the mess—but in the end, God is and will be working in, through and even around us to accomplish his goals for us, churches and the Church.

May the peace of God be with you.

FAITH AND CULTURE

Whether we realize it or not, much of Western culture is being affected by a non-western religion. While many people in Western countries aren’t aware of how deeply this non-western religion has affected us. Mind you, many participants in this faith aren’t aware of how much the western culture as affected this approach to religion either. Both have been modified and re-arranged by the other.

Unfortunately, the culture has tended to gain the upper hand in this modification process. Some of the ways this old, non-western religion has been changed have had beneficial effects on it. For many years, for example, some branches of this faith explicitly required that it be practised in a language that many followers didn’t really understand. Eventually, the cultural pressures allowed the religion to discover the value of using the language of the people. Another change in this ancient religion came about in the way the worship was conducted-over time, cultural pressure brought about more culturally appropriate styles and approaches to worship. Mind you, parts of this religion have successfully resisted all such changes.

But for all the good changes, the religion has tended to be on the losing side of the culture war. It’s essential teachings have been tampered with; it’s codes of conduct have been weakened or selectively ignored; it’s followers have been encouraged to follow cultural norms rather than original teachings; it’s greatest insights have been blunted or ignored. In many geographic areas of the west, the legacy of this ancient religion is all but forgotten while a culturally modified façade seeks to use bits and pieces of it to bolster cultural norm and patterns.

The irony is that this ancient religion has at it’s core a call to change culture. The basic teachings and tenants of this faith call for a different approach to life, an approach that stands in sharp contrast to the individualistic and self-centered western approach to life. This religion began claiming to be a divinely given alternate to the destructive and selfish realities of human life. And at times, it did a fantastic job of changing culture.

It was and is especially effective on the individual level. People discovered the core of this religion and made changes in their lives, changes that made them stand out. Sometimes, they were seen and noticed and gave others courage to follow the faith. Other times, they were seen and noticed and the difference was so dramatic and so counter-cultural that they were shunned, scorned, persecuted and even killed. But often, the religion reached enough people and for a time, the culture it found itself in changed for the better.

But human selfishness is a powerful force—and faced with a force that tries to set limits on selfishness, it reacts in self-defence. Culture comes roaring back and begins chipping away at the core of this religion. Eventually, this religion stopped being a cultural change agent and becomes an agent of the culture, one more way of channeling the essential human selfishness into self-serving ways.

Our western culture has been deeply affected by this ancient religion, Christianity. We see the continuing effects of this change in the continuing calls for equality and fairness in our culture. But at some point in the last century, it seems like a line was crossed and the changes western culture made in Christianity became more significant than the changes Christianity made on western culture. The faith no longer stands outside the culture, seeking to make the culture better—now, unfortunately, it has too often become the weaker partner in the relationship and has become nothing more than a tool to force people into being better players in the cultural games.

But culture rarely has the final answer because the Christian faith is a living and dynamic faith empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. No matter how strong the call and temptation of selfishness, the Spirit will eventually act, bringing about a reformation, a reformation that will break some of the tangled bonds it has with culture. Human culture is always based in our human selfishness—Christianity is based in and on God’s eternal love and grace and no matter what it looks like at any given point in time, God will always win.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST SNOW

In the last few weeks, I have run onto several recent immigrants to our area, several of whom haven’t had the pleasure of driving in snow. They were talking a bit about the process of discovering snow tires, low speed trips, watching the weather, allowing more time than normal and all that sort of stuff that I grew up knowing. While some of the people I have been talking to have several years of winter driving under their seatbelts at this point, they confess to still being nervous.

Generally, winter driving doesn’t make me nervous—except for the very first storm that puts real snow on the road, especially if that storm begins during the day time and the snow accumulates before dark. Then, I get really nervous. A minor part of the nervousness comes from the inherent danger of driving in snow—that is a good nervousness because it causes me to remember all the winter driving techniques that I have learned over the years: slow down, don’t make sudden starts or stops, slow down. allow lots more space between cars, slow down, pay more attention to oncoming traffic, slow down, never pass the snow plow and finally, slow down. Remembering and following these rules has saved me from lots of accidents. The accidents that I and others had to prove the value of these rules did have a positive side.

But remembering the rules accounts for only a minor part of the nervousness. Most of my anxiety and stress with winter driving comes from having to share the road with other drivers. Most drivers in Canada quickly remember and adapt to winter driving techniques—but there are a few who seem to think that driving in snow and slush is exactly the same as driving on clear dry roads. Those drivers really bother me. They may think they have control as they pass several prudent drivers, slipping and sliding as they (probably) curse and fume at all us slower drivers. But they don’t have as much control as they think and their next accident is only a slip away—and my nervousness comes from the fact that I really don’t want to be in their way when they lose their tenuous traction and spin out. Slippery roads mean I have very little chance of avoiding their out of control vehicle.

When I meet or am passed by such a driver, I almost always get around to asking myself why people do stuff like that—generally, that comes after I question their sanity in less than ministerial terms. (I freely admit to not being perfect and there is nothing like a poor driver to bring out my imperfection). I don’t actually know why I ask about their motives because ultimately, the answer is basic theology.

We are sinful beings, a traditional theological way of saying that we are all selfish and think that we are the centre of the world. We tend to think that if the world doesn’t revolve around us, it should and we have a tendency to act in ways that confirm our selfishness. So, if I don’t want to slow down on snowy roads, the world needs to accommodate me. I may justify it by saying that I am an experienced driver or that I have a car that is good in snow or that I have four wheel drive or that I can handle the snow better than others but the reality is that my sinfulness is showing.

And that means that I need to do some work on myself. While I tend to focus on their sinful and selfish poor driving, I probably need to focus more on my sinful and selfish judgemental attitude. I might be driving slower than they are but I am being as sinful as they are—and since I can’t really reform them, I need to focus on what I can really control: my driving and my attitude. I probably need to drop the stone that I want to throw at the poor driver and deal with my own sin.

It is much easier and more gratifying to judge the other driver—but as a follower of Christ, I need to allow the Holy Spirit (and maybe the police) to deal with that driver while I ask for the Spirit’s help to deal with my own sin.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW TO WITNESS!?…

The title of this blog isn’t suffering from one of those strange electronic glitches that sometimes produces unexpected characters in text. It actually represents something of my personal journey (and confusion) when it comes to the process of being a witness to my faith.

Early in my faith, I was sure that being a witness involved direct action, strong words and clear purpose, hence the !. Witnessing was and is a basic requirement of all believers and as a young, evangelical new believer, I knew that I had to witness to my faith always. The books and sermons and seminars on witnessing always included a “!”—there was always someone telling me how to be a more effective witness—with at least one ! in every title and paragraph.

I read all the classic witnessing tools: Four Spiritual Laws, The Roman Road, The Sinners’ Prayer. I knew all the arguments to cut down opposition to the faith. I had answers for the questions I was going to encounter. I had lots of !!! in my approach, my understanding and enthusiasm.

But no matter what I am doing, I am an analytical person: I need to examine things, take them apart, understand them and evaluate them. And I discovered that the certainty of witnessing wasn’t all that certain. Most people weren’t paying attention—and no matter how many !!! I and others used, our approach wasn’t working.

I began to see witnessing with a ? instead of a !. I had lots of questions: Why aren’t people listening? Why aren’t the approaches working? Why can’t I find the right words? How come the !! aren’t working? My analysis began to suggest to me that the witnessing process wasn’t as clear-cut and as easy as all the books and trainers had lead me to believe. In fact, I began to wonder if it was possible to witness at all.

My journey from ! to ? didn’t stop me from wanting to share my faith and it didn’t stop me from actually sharing my faith—but it did change my approach. Rather than understand witnessing as an aggressive, verbal offence on my part, I began to see it as a waiting for the other person to give me an opening, which I could then exploit. It didn’t actually happen all that often but when it did, I found that none of the canned responses actually worked. My witnessing sessions had a lot less ! and a whole lot more ?, questions from both the witnesser and witnessee.

And the ? phase of the witnessing journey also didn’t produce all that much in the way of results. I had some great conversations about faith and sometimes really was aware of the presence of the Spirit in the process but often, the person would thank me for the time and insights and continue on their way, not having walked the aisle or raised their hand or prayed the sinners’ prayer.

And thinking on that has led me to the present stage of my witnessing journey. I see witnessing as a process, something best exemplified by …. Witnessing is a long and involved process that is much bigger than me, my words and my actions. I am not THE WITNESS—I am a witness, one among many influences, all of us working under the leading of the real witness, the Holy Spirit.

Ultimately, it is God who brings people to himself. In the process of helping someone to open themselves to his love and grace, God graciously allows us to play a part. He could do his work without us and many times, I am sure that he would have an easier time if we weren’t involved. But he invites us to participate in his work of bringing others to himself. Sometimes, we have a clearly defined and clearly important part in the process—he uses us to deliver the right words to the right person at the right time. Other times, he gives us a less clear but nonetheless important part—who knows how the cup of cold water delivered in his name is going to affect the process?

So, for now, I see witnessing as …–an ongoing process where God is seeking to bring someone to him and gives me a task along the way. As I faithfully seek to know and do what God wants, he lovingly and graciously uses it in his process—and the witnessing goes on…

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PHONE CALL

I am part of the cell phone revolution—we don’t have a landline in our home. That has several implications, one of which is that my name no longer appears in a phone book. As a pastor, that means in order for people to contact me, I have to be very liberal passing our my business cards, as well as making sure that my number is published every week in the church bulletin. I am not hard to get a hold of, at least within my ministry circle.

Recently, though, I discovered that my ministry circle is much bigger than I thought. I got a call from an acquaintance, someone we used to live near. We had a good relationship, comfortable enough to pass some time when we met but nothing deep or significant. The neighbours knew I was a pastor—they may even have showed up at a funeral or two I conducted. I knew that like many people they didn’t have any real church connection. When we moved to another house, we didn’t see each other all that much but when we did, we would pass some time and move on.

The phone call, though, was an overt request for pastoral care. A death is imminent and the caller wanted me to be involved in the process. He explained how he got my number, mentioning a third person whose name I didn’t actually recognize at first gave him the number. When I finally remembered who the other person was, I realized that my connection was through another funeral for a family member—and I may have given him a card. Like the caller, this person has no real church connection other than a familial connection. But even after a year or more, he had retained my card and number and was quite happy to pass it along to his friend who needed some help.

It isn’t that there are no other clergy around. The person who passed on the phone number has a tentative connection with a church that has a pastor. The caller likely knows another clergy person personally since they are close to the same age and grew up in the same area. All the church in our town have landlines and therefore are listed in the phone book.

But the caller wanted to connect with me. It suggests to me that on some deep level, I am his pastor. I doubt if he would define the relationship that way but essentially, that is the reality. He needs a pastor—he finds my number so that he can talk to his pastor. The fact that he has never been in a worship service in any church I have pastored aside from a funeral isn’t an issue. He needs a pastor and I am his pastor.

My pastoral ministry extends well beyond the churches I serve. And it is based on a whole lot more than the activities I get paid to engage in. I am his pastor likely because of the nature of the relationship we had when we were neighbours and because of some ministry I provided to another neighbour, who also didn’t and doesn’t have any other church connection.

I realized again that believers really are never off duty. My faith is part of my being and its reality is always visible. And because of that, I am always a witness. Sometimes, as in the case of this called, my witness is positive, setting the stage for a deeper ministry when it is needed. But there is the very real possibility that some of the phone calls I don’t get are a result of a negative witness that I have shown some person along the way, a negative witness that speaks not only about how my ministry has been perceived but also about how the God I claim to follow has been perceived. I might be a part-time pastor for small congregations but I am a full time witness to a very large circle of people, a circle whose boundaries I will probably never know.

Fortunately, God is aware of the boundaries of that circle and through the power of the Holy Spirit, can and does enable one person to give another person a phone number so that they can contact me—and the same Spirit will guide my ministry with the called, as long as I am willing to listen to the Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.

TRAFFIC CHECK

Sunday morning at about five minutes before worship time and most of our regulars aren’t there. I wasn’t expecting all that many to start with because the travel season has arrived and a lot of our people seek out warmer climates. But there were still some regulars not present and I was wondering what was going on.

The door opens and one couple come in with a story about being stopped at a traffic check, something that rarely happens on our very rural road. In their talk with the officers, the couple had told them they were on their way to worship. As we were talking and joking, a second regular comes in, also with a story of being stopped at the traffic check. He also told the officers he was on his way to worship and if they wanted to get warm, they could join us.

The door opens again and in come his visiting adult children, who also joke about being stopped by the police. They told the officers that their father was just ahead and was going to get to worship before them. Everyone is by now involved, joking about the stops and telling the latecomers how lucky they were not to get arrested.

Since it is now well past starting time, I begin to head for the pulpit when the door opens again—and we are joined by the two police officers, who want to know if they can come to our worship. We welcome them and I scramble to find copies of the papers I have passed out since they put our numbers well over my expectations.

We begin our worship: our small band of regulars, the visiting adult children and two police officers with all their equipment. As I always do when we have visitors, I make sure that I explain the various parts of the service so they know what it going on. The officers pay attention, participate in the singing and other aspects of the worship and generally appear to be there for more than just getting warm.

Just as I am getting to the conclusion of my sermon, the officers begin staring straight ahead and one of them whispers into her radio. As they get up and slip out, I thank them for coming and they wave, with one still talking on the radio.

I really don’t know why they showed up that day. It might be because it was a very cold day and about the only traffic to stop on our road at that time of day would have been the people on their way to our worship. But whatever it was, somehow our people provided a witness of some positive sort to these two officers. Each one stopped made it clear where they were going and one even invited them to join us.

I don’t know if they will ever show up again and I really don’t have much way to contact them. This was very much a serendipitous moment in our lives and, I hope, their lives. And sometimes, that is all we get. Sometimes, our witness is like that. It is nice when we see the whole process of witnessing in a person’s life and how the Spirit works but sometimes, maybe most times, we are a part of some bigger process where our involvement is decontextualized and we never see where it is going or how it is being used.

I do believe that God is at work, though and that through the Holy Spirit, he is using our brief contact with those two officers. God will use that contact in conjunction with many other contacts and events and witnesses to speak to them. But he isn’t just at work there—he is also at work in our churches. Bringing them to us was also a part of his process for us. We are a small group and we sometimes think we aren’t doing much. To see that God is working in and through and around us is a great thing—it reminds us that small or not, we are not forgotten, that God still has a place and a purpose for us in his plan for the redemption of the world.

I think it is exciting that even a routine traffic stop can be used by the Spirit to make a difference in the world.

May the peace of God be with you.

KEEP MOVING

I was talking with a friend on ministry the other day about our mutual occupation. We were both in the midst of the fall rush. Basically, from mid-September to mid-December, pastors and church workers don’t have much time for anything beyond work. And as the fall transitions to Advent, things get even worse. The time period is filled with special events, new programs, pastoral emergencies, church and denominational meetings—the list goes on and on. I find myself taking a deep breath in the middle of September and basically beginning to run the marathon.

Except that this marathon has a nasty surprise near the end. Fall church programming leads into Advent and Christmas programming. To use the marathon analogy, this marathon ends with a steep uphill climb. I don’t actually run marathons but have children and friends who do—and from their stories of marathons, I am pretty sure that a marathon with a steep hill at the end would be the very last thing they would want to do.

So, with Advent beginning soon, I find myself in the middle of the hill. Because of my preparation process, I hit the hill a bit before some of my colleagues in ministry. I try to stay a week ahead in all my preparation which does give me some psychological and practical wiggle room but also means I hit the crunch earlier. So, this next two weeks are probably the busiest I am going to have. Two sermons, the Bible study for the area churches that seemed like such a great idea last April, the church fund raiser that helps ensure I get paid, the Advent programs that need to be prepared, the Christmas newsletter, the meeting to prepare our next year’s worship schedule, along with all the other stuff that must be done means that I need to take another deep breath to make sure I keep going—I am definitely feeling the steepness of the hill right now.

Based on previous years of ministry (and I have a lot of those), I will get everything done and I will survive the climb. Eventually, the middle of December will come and things will slow down a bit and then, well, there is always the post-Christmas slump which also brings with it the possibility of a Sunday snow storm with produces a cancellation.

The issue for me is always doing the best I can. I used to be concerned with doing my best, which sounds noble and heroic and faithful but which in practise leads to stress, fatigue, anxiety and burnout. I know that I am capable of doing some pretty good stuff—but the unfortunate reality is that I can’t always work to my limits. Or maybe it is better to say that my limits are moved by my circumstances. The fantastic sermon I could produce with unlimited time becomes a somewhat less fantastic sermon because I also have to write the ecumenical study, the Advent candle program and our regular Bible study.

None of them will be my best work—none of them will be as good as what I could produce if I had only that one thing to do. So, each one of them gets the best that I can do given the time and opportunity I have. I can’t do my best work—but I can and will do the best I can in the circumstances.

And I will do what I always do—I will give God and the church my best and then depend on God to take care of the rest. Ultimately, I do what I do because God has called me to be his agent to carry out his will. All that I do passes through him and any effects and results are due more to his divine work than my efforts.

For me, this isn’t a cop out or an excuse of sub-standard work or an extra nap. For me, this is a basic reality that enables me to cope with the impossible task that I have been called to. Even if I could produce me best all the time, it still isn’t good enough. But if I consciously work at giving God and the church the very best I can in any circumstance, then I can take comfort in the reality that God is going to use what I do to accomplish his will.

May the peace of God be with you.

MY PLANS

I am a planner. I like to have a sense of where things are going, when they are going to get done, who is doing what, how things are going to progress. I am not obsessive about it or at least I don’t think I am. I am sure that some theology student along the way whom I have taught or mentored might disagree, especially when the assignment is to develop a three month sermon plan or something like that. Planning is part of my nature and is as well, I think, one of the gifts that the Spirit has given me.

On a very practical level, that means that every Bible study day, I spend some time planning that particular session. My advanced planning already has the specific content prepared but I also make a plan for that day. It isn’t an elaborate plan. We begin with a review of last week’s worship and then I ask some review questions so that people are reminded of what we talked about last week. After the review, we move into the specific content that I plan on covering that day.

Because I have two pastoral charges, I have two Bible study groups, generally doing different topics. So, each week, I dutifully make my plans for each, using my gifts and skills to ensure that I have stuff that will help people grow in faith.

Here is what my planning accomplishes. Right now, one Bible study group has gone three weeks without finishing the review—and the other is right behind, having completed two weeks without finishing the review. I haven’t touched new material in either group during that time. I plan and prepare and then sit back at the study, watching the plan get shredded and trampled by the breadth and depth of the discussion.

Some weeks, the previous Sunday’s worship and sermon destroy the plan. The discussion becomes a way for those present to deepen their understanding of the sermon. It provides an opportunity for disagreement, for testimony, for diverse applications, for suggestions about follow-ups, as well as a time to joke about my mistakes or laugh again at the story they liked.

Some week, the worship review is quick and easy but the review catches us. Sometimes, I actually plan that. I pay attention and notice the areas that people struggle with and include those in the review, hoping that the review process will help them understand the stuff that they didn’t understand fully last week. Sometimes, a member of the study has an idea or thought or example that none of us considered last week and the review question pulls this out, which allows us the opportunity to work it through. And occasionally, someone asks a question that comes from somewhere in their faith experience that touches the rest of the group and we are off on that trail seeking what we can find.

I could, I suppose, impose order and structure and organization on the Bible studies. I have a plan and I have prepared the content that we agreed on and I am the pastor so I probably could take charge and ensure that the study follows my plan. After all, I have put a lot of thought and effort into developing content that will help them grow in their faith. And if I were to do that, most of the members of both groups would go along with it.

But our studies would lose much more from that than they would gain. They might gain well planned content on Romans and prayer (one topic for each group) which would no doubt be helpful and important and even spiritually valuable. But what the group would lose is the freedom to explore our faith in real time. We would lose the ability to help each other as we together work to understand and develop the faith we share. We would lose the excitement of seeing the work of the Spirit touching each of us in diverse ways. We would lose the opportunity to get to know God and each other on a deeper and more intimate basis.

We all like our approach to Bible study. We know we will get to the specific content at some point—but we also know that we will be able to deal with anything we need to deal with fully and safely.

The only problem is mine—how do I plan review questions when we haven’t done new content for two or three weeks?

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SERMON

I work hard at sermon preparation. The whole process is important to me. I put serious effort into deciding what to preach and when. I work hard to bring together Scripture and the needs of the congregation. I make sure that I am not distorting or minimizing or hijacking Scripture passages. I use all my creative skills to pull the whole thing together in a 18-20 minute package that will make sense. I prayerfully and hopefully believe that what I prepare is a message from God for the people I am called to preach to mediated through me and my efforts.

My process is much faster and more efficient these days than it was when I first began preaching. The process that took hours and hours of sitting, reading, researching, drafting, editing, rewriting and all that has been compressed into a couple of hours of screen time—although there are actually uncountable mental processing hours and something like 45 years of research also involved in every sermon. The sermon I bring to the pulpit represents a lot of hard work, a lot of time, a lot of prayer, a lot of faith so that I can bring to people what I sincerely believe is God’s message for them that day.

So, with that in mind, join me at a worship service a few weeks ago. This church has a somewhat unique addition to the worship service. After I finish reading the Scripture, we have a time for discussion. If members of the congregation have questions or comments about the Scripture—or anything else in the worship for that matter—this time is set aside to look into them. Most Sundays, there are is a question or two seeking clarification, a comment or two dealing with the passage and then we move on.

But every now and then, the discussion takes off and one thing leads to another and this comment sparks that question which leads to this story which produces that question and that leads to another question and this produces a heart-felt testimony—and before anyone but me notices, the sermon time has been eaten up.

Actually, there are a couple of stages here. At some point in the discussion, I am following the discussion on one level and at another mentally editing the sermon to fit it onto the remaining time, trying to decide if I dump the story or condense the second point. But as the discussion continues, I realize that there will be neither time nor focus for the sermon. Eventually, the discussion concludes, I point out the time, we sing the final hymn and go home.

I rearrange the preaching plan to make room for the missed sermon—and rejoice that I will be able to use that preparation time for something else. There are many blessings to those Sundays when the discussion becomes the sermon.

So, this sermon got rescheduled. There were several special things that were the focus of the next Sundays but eventually, the rescheduled sermon comes up again. I read the Scripture and open the door for comments. There is a silence—five seconds, ten seconds, fifteen seconds. Just as I am about to call us to prayer before the sermon, there is a comment, which prompts another and suddenly, we are in full discussion mode as we share and question and explain. The discussion is important, powerful and there are even a few tears as we wrestle with the ideas and questions and feelings. Once again, the sermon time disappears as the discussion provides the Spirit with the opening he needs that day to touch people’s lives.

And me? Well, I worked hard on that sermon. But I also recognize the wonder of the Spirit at work in our midst. That twice missed sermon will get preached and will take its place in the Spirit’s schedule for me and the congregation. I didn’t waste my time preparing it and I didn’t miss the opportunity to speak God’s word. Instead of being upset or frustrated, I am excited that we have discovered a way that allows the Spirit freedom to really speak to us, in a way that might not happen if we (or I) insisted that the sermon has to be preached.

I am not advocating this process for everyone—it probably won’t work. But it does work for us and that makes it an important part of our worship—and I actually get a week off from sermon preparation now and then.

May the peace of God be with you.