NUMBER 80 AGAIN

Being the 80th pastor in a pastorate that goes back 185 years puts an interesting perspective on ministry.  Like most pastors, early in my ministry, I tended to see what I do in a church as an isolated segment of time and space.  Most of us, I think, discount much of what happened before we arrived and aren’t overly concerned about what happens after we leave.

Very quickly, I learned that a smart pastor needs to know something about what happened before they arrived.  The present is shaped by the past and unless we know the past, we can’t work effectively.  I was pastor in one congregation which insisted that they didn’t want anything to do with evangelism.  Given that being evangelists on one of our basic tasks as believers and churches, I was somewhat surprised at this revelation.  After some digging, I discovered that the real difficulty was a certain approach to evangelism that was part of some painful experiences for the church.

Based on that historical understanding, I helped the church develop an outreach program that was actually quite beneficial to the church and community.  As long as we didn’t call it evangelism, the church was enthusiastic in their support.

As a result, I discovered that it is good for a pastor to know what happened in the past.  The past helps shape the present ministry.  Sometimes, the present ministry needs to work to correct or modify the past.  Other times, we can build on the past–rather than re-inventing the wheel by doing all the stuff that has been done before, we get to build a cart on the wheels prepared in the past.

And when you are the 80th pastor, there are a lot of things from the past.  It might be easy to dismiss anything beyond last year as ancient history but listen to people long enough and you will hear and see the effects of those long ago events.  At a Bible study recently, some of the members recalled the pain and turmoil associated with the ministry of a previous pastor, pain and turmoil that still hurts a bit after forty years.  At some levels, I have to be aware of this ancient pain in my ministry.

In another Bible Study session, someone talked about the love and compassion they experienced from a former Sunday School teacher.  Heads nodded from the others who remembered that teacher–and several were eager to tell her story to the relative new-comers in the group whose experience didn’t go back the necessary 50 years.

So, I am the 80th pastor in one place–and in the other set of congregations, I am at an even higher number although no one I know has a complete list.  But given that this other pastorate goes back to about 1780, that should put me into the low 100s, based on the 2.3 year average of the younger pastorate.  While it might make sense to say I really only need to be concerned about the former pastors up to the age of the oldest members, that isn’t really true

Occasionally, I talk to someone who passes on the family story of old Rev. So and So whose actions in relation to their long dead grandparents kept their family in or out of the church, depending on the nature of that long ago event.

My ministry in both places is built on the foundation of all these previous ministries.  Sometimes, I have to apologize for and undo some of what came before.  Sometimes, I get to renovate and update what came before.  And occasionally, I inherit a really good working thing that I don’t need to touch but which makes my ministry much better.  My ministry is also built on the foundation of all the elders, deacons, choir members, organists, Sunday School teachers, ordinary members and community members affected by what went on before.

I am the 80th in one place and well over the 80th in  another.  I have been called by God to serve these congregations for a time.  What I do will become part of the next pastor.  It makes sense to me now to be aware of the past–remembering where the church has been helps is determine what to do now to get to where God wants us to go.

May the peace of God be with you.

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NUMBER 80

One of the collection of churches that I serve has connections with a couple of buildings that were formerly used as part of our pastorate.  One of them we still own and the other is sort of collectively owned by the community.  We hold occasional services in the buildings but neither has been in regular use since I have been in the area and my history here goes back a long time.

For a variety of reasons, some major renovation work was done on the community owned building this past summer.  Part of the reason for the work was that it was needed but the primary impetus for the work was the desire to have it looking good for the wedding that was happening there this summer.  We decided to hold a re-dedication ceremony for the building as one of our special events this fall.

In the course of preparations for the service, several of us got involved in historical research.  Through a friend, I got a copy of a letter to a Christian magazine describing the dedication of the building when construction was completed in 1855.  Another church member dug through some records she had and came up with a list of pastors.

She brought the list up to date and then informed the Bible Study group that I was the 80th pastor for that collection of churches.  Given that the churches were formally established in 1832, that means that the average pastoral stay was 2.3 years, according to my calculator.  Practically, the average stay would have been less–there were several periods when the churches didn’t have a pastor.  When the building whose renovations we  were celebrating was dedicated for example, there was no official pastor–the church members looked after the pastoral duties.

In the 185 years of existence, this collection of churches has had ups and downs.  In their early history, they had some serious expansion.  From a group meeting in one community, they planted congregations in at least 5 other communities, complete with buildings, Sunday Schools, choirs and all the trimmings that go with active, growing congregations.  While none of the buildings are huge, most can seat 80-100.  I won’t say they can do that comfortably because anyone who has ever spent time on old rural church buildings knows that old church pews are not known for comfort.

Early Baptists seemed to believe that comfort was somehow vaguely sinful.  Couple that with the fact that most people worked hard and if they sat down for any length of time on a comfortable seat, they would fall asleep and you get a pretty good understanding of why the pews were so uncomfortable.

So, for 185 years, there have been Christians meeting in these buildings, discovering and showing their faith.  Sometimes, they had outside leadership–but never for very long and therefore never with any real consistent direction and vision.  When the average stay of a pastor is less than two years, there is a lot of changing emphasis as each new pastor comes in with new ideas to set the church and the world on fire for the Lord–or at least catch the eye of a bigger congregation.

In the end, that means that most of the credit for the survival of these congregations belongs to the people who sat in those pews week after week and whose faith expressed itself in a variety of ways.  Sometimes, they got stuff wrong.  Sometimes, they got things right.  Sometimes, they did the right thing because it was the only choice.  This particular group of churches, for example, were one of the first to call a female pastor which was a pretty innovative step for a small Baptist congregation when  it happened in 1974.

So, I am the 80th in a long chain of pastors.  I don’t know how long I will be here–I past retirement age recently and so I know that there is a limit to how long I will be here.  I hope to stay beyond the average stay.  But regardless of how long I stay, I need to remember two things.  First, the church survives because of the church, not because of the pastor.  And second, both the church and I are doing what we do so that God may be glorified and his light shine in the world.  If we do that, not much else matters.

May the peace of God be with you.

IT DOESN’T SAY THAT

I am teaching in a Kenyan classroom.  It is a class in  pastoral ministry and we are looking at how we as pastors try to help the people God has called us to shepherd.  The discussion turns to working with alcoholics.  This isn’t an  accident or coincidence. Based on my experience in Kenya and my knowledge of the church, I specifically direct the discussion to this topic–I have a pretty good idea what will be coming and have decided that this is the day we will deal with an important issue.

Before too long, the issue starts to surface.  One of the students tells me that part of helping alcoholics involves preaching about it.  I agree–and then push a bit harder by asking about the content of such sermons.  To the students, the answer is obvious–a good anti-alcohol sermon begins with the Biblical teaching that tells us God forbids people to drink alcohol.  Then, the sermon tells them they will suffer in hell because of their alcohol use.  And then, the sermon tells them to stop drinking.

There is enough in that sermon to keep us going for years–but this particular day, I only want to focus on one facet of this discussion–the Biblical text they propose on using to tell people that God prohibits the use of alcohol.  Very quickly, I am given Proverbs 20.1 as the text–in the KJV because this is a conservative culture:  “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.”

Now comes the fun part.  I tell the students that this actually doesn’t tell people not to drink alcohol.  It shows some of the possible consequences of over-use but it doesn’t prohibit the use of alcohol.  Various other verses are tossed in to the mix–none of which prohibit the use of alcohol.  To stir things up a bit, I give them I Timothy 5.23, ” Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” (NIV).

With that, the whole class is convinced that I am officially a heretic.  I have challenged one of their most basic understandings of the Bible.  Now comes the hard work–I have to become the teacher and help them understand what is really going on here.  I am not trying to get them all to go have a drink.  Rather, I am helping them see that Scripture doesn’t always say what we want it to say or assume it says or think it should say.

To discover that the Bible doesn’t say what they want it to say is traumatic and painful and difficult–but also essential.  And it is not just that class of Kenyan theology students who need to learn this lesson.  All of us who use the Bible are guilty at some point of trying to make the Bible say something that we want it to say rather than really dealing with what it does say.

When it comes to Biblical interpretation, I confess to being a serious skeptic.  I really don’t want to accept something as true just because it sounds good or reinforces some idea I have or has been passed down for generations.  I am going to try as hard as possible to find out what it actually says.  So I study the Bible–not looking for verses that confirm what I already want to be true but for what it really says.  I have discovered that it the Bible isn’t making me uncomfortable, I am probably not giving it the freedom it needs to speak its truth.

Scripture needs to speak with its own voice, not the voice we would like it to have.  Scripture must be free to give us God’s word, not reinforce our word. I am sometimes accused of not believing the Bible–I am pretty sure that several groups of Kenyan students believed that, as well as a few people in churches here in Canada.

But my problem isn’t that I don’t believe the Bible.  The real problem I deal with is that I do believe the Bible but I want to make sure that I am not trying to constrain the Bible and the Spirit by making it say what I want.  As painful and as difficult as it may be at times, I want to Bible to speak with God’s voice, not my voice.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHAOS OR GROWTH?

I realized that to anyone who is a regular reader of this blog (thank you–I really appreciate your support) the situations I describe from the congregations I serve could sound somewhat chaotic.  We have people talking during worship, people making comments and asking questions during the sermon, Bible studies that might get on topic once a month, business meetings that have little structure, a very fluid and changing concept of membership among other things.

While it might all seem a bit chaotic, the deeper reality is that it is very chaotic at times.  As pastor, I am often playing catch up and am more likely to be surprised by the latest suggestion than I am to have originated the suggestion. I do prep work on Bible Study and sermons and make plans for a variety of things and sometimes–many times–the actual on the ground activity takes off in a very different direction.  To say that I am the leader of the congregations that give me a pay cheque every month would probably be technically correct, at least as far as the modern understanding of pastoral ministry is concerned.  But the practical reality is that I most often feel like a leaf floating down a stream, twisting and turning and bumping into things as I am carried along by the current.

And I love it.  I have never felt that it was my job as pastor to be the leader.  I don’t have the need to determine every aspect of the life of the church.  I don’t see the church as an  institution that needs my great wisdom and knowledge to keep it on the right track and prevent it from going astray.  Mostly, that is because the church isn’t an institution or an organization or a business or anything like that.

Essentially, the church is a group of people linked by their common allegiance to God through Jesus Christ, each one filled with the Holy Spirit.  We come into the faith as different people and we grow in the faith in different ways and in different directions.  But because we all have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, each one of us has something valuable and important to offer to the church.  Because of that, most of my ministry has been focused on discovering the leading of the Holy Spirit for the particular group of church people I have been called to work with.

And so much of my ministry is spend listening and responding.  I do work hard at trying to bring together all the disparate voices and views of the Spirit’s leading,  because I believe one of the gifts the Spirit has given me is the ability to create an overview of the confusing and complex package that is a local expression of the church.  I am not called to impose my overview on the church–rather, I am gifted and called to help the church discover the overview that the Holy Spirit is seeking to bring to a particular gathering of believers.

One of my early ministry discoveries was that in order for my gift to be effective, there has to be stuff happening.  My particular ministry gifts thrive best in what often seems a chaotic situation.  I seem to work best when there are lots of expressions of the Spirit coupled with the ever-present reality that some of what the church and I think are expressions of the Spirit are really not coming from God.

So, the Bible Study, the worship, the meetings, the encounters with people–all these things that come together to make a church that seems chaotic and confused are in actual fact part of the working of the Holy Spirit in our midst.  As I participate in the chaos, reacting often and initiating occasionally, part of my Spirit given giftedness is to help the church make sense of the chaos and discover just what God is saying to us and where he is leading us.

I struggle with this at times because I am not naturally inclined to chaos.  I like structure and organization and predictability.   I use my gifts to help the congregation go from chaos to growth–but then the growth produces another type of chaos and so I keep going, responding to the chaos that is the church.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE BIBLE STUDY

After being on vacation for a couple of weeks, it was time to get back to work.  The first official task was leading Bible Study.  Well, actually, the first official task was preparing the material for the Bible study that would begin at 10:00am the first day back at work.  This particular study had been shut down for the summer and my plan was that over the summer, I would use the more relaxed work time to get the new Bible study ready.

Of course, as with all plans, this one fell apart very quickly.  Early in the summer, I did some initial research and created a file on the computer with some notes, planning on getting back to it soon.  But, well, there was a week of vacation early in the summer and I needed to take some time off to compensate for the ballooning overtime hours and there was the wedding that had to be done and some meetings and some pastoral visits.  And somehow, I arrived at the first day back at work with some notes in a file on the computer.

Fortunately, I had enough time to beat the notes into some sort of shape before I left.  I arrived early, as usual–and someone was there before me, which was bit of a surprise.  Even more surprising was the fact that I didn’t know the people–they were coming to check out the Bible study from a community a few kilometers away.

Before I could get to the door, another car arrived and as I was greeting them, another car arrived–this one with a couple who were going away for a while and wanted to let me know that they were going to be away.  As I was praying with them, others arrived and before I could get the door unlocked, we had a crowd standing around.

I finally unlocked the door and we got seated, the kettle boiling and we settled down to catching up on the summer, meeting the visitors, discussing my vacation and greeting everyone as they came in, including another visitor.  Even with several of our regulars being away, we had a full house by the time we got started.

We got down to work–and even with three new people, the Bible study worked like it always has.  We talked, got off topic, looked at interesting and significant questions and comments, did some of the material I had prepared, followed side trails, raised issues, had disagreements, got confused and occasionally had no idea how we got to where we ended up.  The new people–well, instead of sitting there bewildered by our chaotic process, the three new people jumped right in acting as if they had been there from the beginning.  Their questions and comments were as thought provoking, as pertinent and as prone to taking us off course as those of any veteran of the study.

In the end, the material I had rushed together provided lots of stuff to work with.  It started discussion, answered and raised questions and covered the topic that the group has wanted to look at.  I began the study wondering if I had enough material to fill in the time–and then part way through, began to worry that I had too much material.  In the end, we finished the topic, which was meant to be a one week study to deal with a specific issue before we went on to another topic.

As I left after the study, I realized something.  I missed the Bible study–or rather, I missed the interaction with the group of people.  While I am officially the leader of the study, practically, we have evolved an approach to Bible study that allows all of us to teach and learn, question and answer, confuse and enlighten–and do it all in an atmosphere where everyone has respect and appreciation for each other.  We don’t agree on everything–and we are comfortable leaving the disagreement on the table without trying to win the point.

I am pretty sure that if I had showed up at the study and confessed that I hadn’t been able to get anything done on the study topic, we would have still had a good Bible study because the group would have taken over.  I may have to do that next week–I still have to put together the material for the next topic.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PICNIC

One of the collections of churches I serve has to meet once a year and plan our worship services for the coming year.  We have four buildings and only one worship service a week so we have to decide which building we meet it on which Sunday.  That sounds simple–we can just have a simple rotation where each building has worship every fourth Sunday.  Unfortunately, things are not that simple.

To start with, some buildings are better for some events–only two of them can host meals or receptions.  Each building needs to have worship on some of the special event days like Easter and Christmas.  Parking in the winter can be a problem at some of the locations.  So, every year, we have to have a meeting to take into consideration all these factors plus some others and design a schedule to be approved by the church.

(By the way, the answer to the question “Why not just have one building?” is long, complicated and while some have been asking it for years, we are not likely going to get to that point for a long time.)

Anyway, during the last planning session, we tried to add some different events to add some variety.  One of the additions was an outdoor worship service with a picnic to follow.  As we talked, we even decided to invite the members of my other pastorate to join with us.  When we were planning this late last year, this looked and sounded like a great idea.

But, as things got closer and closer, well, the idea needed to be structured and organized and put together better.  The key issue was the weather, something which is notoriously hard to predict in Nova Scotia.  We needed sunny and warm but would settle for cloudy and warm–cloud and rain would be a killer.

While I have great leaders in the congregations, as pastor there were some things that only I could take care of.  My first act was to discuss rainy day backup plans–if it was raining, the deacons and church moderator would make a final go/no go decision since I would be leading worship somewhere else when the final decision had to be made.

I also decided that I needed to be prepared for any eventuality.  After some thought, I decided that I would use the same sermon no matter where we were but the other elements of worship needed some attention.  We would need different music, different orders of service and even different announcement, which necessitated different bulletins.

I like to be prepared so I eventually prepared two complete worship services and two different bulletins.  I would choose the appropriate service when the time came and I would copy the bulletin just before I left for worship (remember, we are talking small congregations here–copying the bulletin doesn’t take that long) and hope that the weather didn’t change while I was on my way.

Some might suggest that my extra work to prepare two services and two bulletins was a sign of weak faith.  They might be right–I have never claimed to have great faith.  Since we actually did have the outdoor service and the picnic along with a sprinkle of rain, I didn’t need the backup service and so wasted my time.

But for me, it wasn’t wasted time.  If I hadn’t done the extra work to have a backup ready, I would have been more anxious and would have spent even more time worrying and fussing and wondering if I should have created a backup.  Knowing myself meant that I could circumvent the anxiety stage and do the back up.  The extra time spent on that saved me a lot of strain and stress during the week and even  more on Sunday.  No matter what happened, I was ready.

I can’t anticipate every twist and turn in ministry–but I have learned that I function better when I am ready for the ones that I can anticipate. It is means that I do a bit of extra work that ends up being unused, that isn’t a real problem since I have avoided a major amount of stress.  And while stress does have some good points, finding ways to reduce unnecessary stress is always a good thing.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE TROUBLE WITH DIVERSITY

I am sitting in a Bible Study group–well, I am actually leading the Bible Study, although leading might be too strong a word for the open style I have adopted with Bible Studies.  In this particular (fictional, of course) group, we have a variety of individuals with different experiences, different levels of faith development, different understandings of God’s love, different native languages.  We are united by our common faith and our experience together, drinking tea and coffee, talking together and being stuck in the same space for an hour or two each week for several months.  We are a diverse group but we like each other and because we like each other, we tend to ignore our diversity, choosing to celebrate our common desire to grow together in faith.

And that is great–some days, it feels like a piece of heaven as this diverse group shares and cares and supports and enables and laughs together.  We can forget our diversity and enjoy our similarities, our common faith and all the rest.  But diversity doesn’t disappear just because we are feeling good and comfortable.  And so, in the feel good time of the Bible study, it makes an appearance.

Some one begins talking about their faith experience.  They had a really bad experience in Denomination A, an experience which has affected their whole life and which they are just now beginning to deal with.  Denomination A is filled with demons–there are no believers in the denomination, there are only fakers and frauds and liars and abusers.  As the speaker is talking, we are all aware of the pain, the fear, the hurt that drives the words.  We are aware as well of the beginnings of a sense of liberation from the past that the speaker is experiencing and we feel some sense of joy because part of the liberation is coming through our group.

But we, or at least some of us, are aware that at least two members of our group are members of Denomination A, active members whose faith and Christian experience have been shaped and enhanced by their membership–they are with us because their local Denomination A congregation doesn’t currently have a Bible Study.

Fortunately for our group, the members of Denomination A are caring and loving and are more concerned with the speaker’s pain than with the actual comments about the denomination they love and appreciate.  Eventually, we help the speaker understand that the pain is real but the generalization can be a problem.

The potential danger is diffused but the unfortunate reality is that because we are diverse as believers, there is always going to be the potential for someone to say or do something offensive to another.  We are diverse–even our basic and important Christian unity doesn’t remove the diversity that God gave us and which is as much a basic part of our being as our human and faith-based similarities.  And if not understood properly, that diversity can undermine and destroy the carefully build unity of the group.

That is not hard to see.  We live in an increasingly divided culture, with everyone demanding that their particular slice of human diversity be given priority over every other slice of human diversity–and with more than a few slices calling for the punishment or banning of competing slices of diversity.

I really don’t have much impact on the increasingly fragmenting nature of western culture.  But I am a pastor and I do work with groups of people whose unity in faith is exercised in the reality of their diversity.  And so I work with that.  I try to understand our diversity, both its good and bad.  I try to model acceptance of the individual in the face of disagreement with some aspect of that individual’s thinking or practise.  I teach and preach the need for real communication and real openness and real understanding.  And when the reality of diversity threatens our unity, I work hard at helping the diversity of our group become an opportunity for growth and love.

Our Christian faith calls for unity within the reality of our diversity.  Loving one another isn’t dependent on our being the same.  Loving one another is based on our understanding that just as God loves us in our diversity, so we are to love each other in the diversity that we were created with.  We are not called to be the same–we are called to love each other as we are.

May the peace of God be with you.

A HUMBLE CONFESSION

As I was writing the last post, I realized that it could suggest that I have a very high opinion of my pastoral abilities.  And I do think that I am pretty good at what I do–I have been a pastor for a lot of years and have helped congregations through some difficult times.  And while I have never been called to a large congregation, I think I have been good for the churches that I have pastored.  As well, I have been called to teach pastors both in Canada and Kenya.

But at the same time,  I have to confess that most of the time in ministry, I really don’t know what I am doing.  Sure, there are some basics:  I need to preach, teach Bible study, visit people, attend (and sometimes chair) meetings, do some counselling, and be there for life transitions like funerals and weddings.  But beyond the basics, I don’t always have great plans and inspiring visions.  I don’t dream (much) of seeing the congregation become a mega-church; I am never sure where we will be next month let alone 5 or 10 years from now.  In truth, sometimes, I can’t even tell you what I will be preaching next Sunday, although that only happens when I forget that the current sermon plan actually ends next week.

None of my congregations have ever given me a coffee mug with the message “World’s Greatest Pastor” printed on it–nor have I even felt that I deserve one.  Even more, there are times when I am convinced that I made a serious mistake when I decided that God wanted me to be a pastor–and more than a few times when I have been convinced that God made a serious mistake by calling me to be a pastor.

I get tired of what I am doing; I get depressed when the stress of ministry leads to overwork; I waste time when I could be studying or seeing people; I wonder why God didn’t call me to some other work; I get angry at things that happen in the church; I fantasize about winning the lottery and retiring; I sometimes hope for snow days for more than just the opportunity to go cross-country skiing.

I am a pastor–but even after all these years of pastoring, teaching pastors, reflecting and writing on pastoring, I am still trying to figure out what it really means to be a pastor.  Maybe after I retire sometime in the not too distant future, I will have some time to figure out what it is that I am really supposed to be doing.

I have actually made some progress at figuring it out.  I have learned some things that pastors shouldn’t do.  Some of these I have learned from my own painful experience.  Others I have learned from watching the experience of others–those lessons have been less painful for me but no less painful for congregations and pastors.  Knowing what not to do is actually a helpful start on the road to knowing what to do.

If it is a mistake to scold the congregation with every sermon, as it is, then not only do I know to avoid that but also, I have an opportunity to discover what might be a better use of the sermon.  Teaching during the sermon, encouraging with the message, inspiring congregations through the preaching–all these are much better for everyone than a ranting scold every week.

And even more importantly, I have learned one of the most basic realities of my profession.  Ministry is really about developing relationships with people that can help them and me develop our relationship with God.  In the course of developing those relationships, we may discover God’s leading and empowering to do interesting, exciting and inspiring things but the development of the relationships is the key issue.  We have to really know each other before we can trust each other.  We have to trust each other before we can really open to each other about faith.  We have to open to each other about faith before we can experience the fullness of the presence of God in our midst.

So, day after day, I take my introverted self and go be a pastor–I joke with people, drink coffee with people, cry with people, pray with people, teach people, get taught by people.  I do my job, a job that I don’t always understand and which I sometimes struggle to explain and am not sure how good at it I really am but which God has called me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

GETTING TO THE PULPIT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

ONE DAY DURING WORSHIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.