I DID IT AGAIN

For just the second time in my 45+ years of ministry, I walked out of a worship service. Given that I was conducting the worship service both times, these mark two very significant events. Let me say that I didn’t walk our because I disagreed with the leader/preacher—I was the leader preacher.

Not did I leave because I was upset with the music or the singers. We have a small church but our musicians are dedicated and do a good job every week. I wasn’t fighting with anyone in the congregation and they weren’t fighting with me. No, the reason I walked out of worship was simple—both times, I was sick and realized that if I stayed in the pulpit, I would pass out. The first time, I realized this after the invocation prayer. This last time, it occurred three minutes into the sermon.

Both times, the congregations were deeply concerned and understanding. I had lots of offers for a drive home. No one was upset in least. But both times, I left the worship and headed for home, I felt guilty. But this last event reminded me of something I know but need have reinforced now and then.

Worship is an important part of my faith and the faith of the people I serve. I work hard to prepare for worship—not just the sermon but everything. I spend time on prayers, make sure the worship theme is clear and understandable, pay attention to transitions. Leading this group of people in worship is an awesome responsibility, one that I work hard at—and which always takes a lot of energy.

Both times I left worship, I knew I was feeling sort of miserable but not all that bad. I was able to function and didn’t have any serious symptoms. But when I was standing in the pulpit, I became aware of just how much energy this activity required—much more than I had available at the time. I think I could have easily managed a lot of other activities: reading, watching TV, cooking a meal and so on. But leading worship and preaching—the energy demand was well beyond what I had available at that point in time.

I know that worship is a corporate activity and I know that the Holy Spirit ultimately directs our worship. But I am the designated worship leader and preacher and because I take that set of responsibilities seriously, it demands a lot of energy. I have to be willing to focus on the worshippers; seek to be open to the Spirit, make sure that everyone hears what I am saying, keep my tablet on the right place in the order of service and critique my process on the fly.

It might be possible to lead worship and preach without such involvement. My guess is that there are people out there for whom the process isn’t demanding and taxing. I have heard hints and stories that suggest to me that this is the case. But I am not able to do that. If I am going to follow the sacred calling to lead worship and preach, I am going to give it my best, which is demanding and requires a great deal of energy. My commitment to the people whom I serve, my calling and God himself demand that I treat what I am doing with respect and reverence.

And so, when I can’t carry out the duties I have been called to, I feel a bit guilty. I feel I cheated the people I serve both times. They came expecting to worship God and perhaps to hear a message from God for their lives. They have a right to expect that. I couldn’t do what I was called to do or what they were expecting. I failed those times.

Fortunately, we serve a God of love and grace and forgiveness, who doesn’t hold grudges and doesn’t require detentions. I failed to do what I was called to do—but God has already forgiven me. The people I serve are more concerned with my health than with my failure. And me—well, the bug was short lived and after an evening of vegging in front of the TV and a good night’s sleep, I am doing much better, which is a good thing since I have to conduct a funeral today.

May the peace of God be with you.

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A STORM IS COMING!

According to the weather reports, we were in for another major storm. This one was coming on the weekend which meant that it had implications for me—worship might be cancelled, which would mean that instead of writing a sermon during the following week, I would be able to clear some of the accumulated “should get at” stuff off the desk. Each weather report kept emphasising and increasing the ferocity of the coming storm.

People began stocking up on essentials—winter storms in Nova Scotia can bring power outages which can last for longer than it takes to clear driveways. Even though it wasn’t the weekend yet, some people began talking about cancelling worship and other activities. I suspect that a friend or two in ministry jumped the gun on the “should get at” pile and skipped the sermon anticipating a cancellation. I began to hope that there might be at least one cross country ski outing in the winter for me. This was, we were told, going to be a major storm.

And then, well, the reality hits. For some reason, the major storm that was supposed to paralyze everything wimped out. We got some snow—almost enough to cover the unraked leaves from the fall and the evidence of the dog’s frequent trips outside. But the roads were basically clear, the power was unaffected—and worship went on, at least for those of us who prefer to wait and see what is actually coming before we panic and act rashly.

I have noticed the people react differently to bad weather than they used to. Now, this is not a “I remember the good old days” rant. I think that as we get better and more accurate information fed to us by media sources that feel it part of their duty to help us prepare for whatever is coming, we have changed our attitude to storms and severe weather.

I remember walking to school in a blizzard—a real blizzard, complete with deep snow, high winds, extreme cold and all the rest. We went to school because it wasn’t cancelled and our parents thought education was a priority. We knew that there was a storm coming but weather reporting back in those days was not as accurate or as pressing. We got up, got dressed in our warmest stuff and walked to school—this was, after all, Canada, where snow in winter is a reality of life.

But today, well, we have a pretty good indication that the coming storm is going to be severe—and so people choose to anticipate the worst. Perhaps it is because we live in a culture where you might get sued if you don’t warn people enough about the storm or maybe because the media works on the assumption that we can’t make decisions for ourselves or maybe for reasons that I haven’t figured out yet, we get told the worst and everyone anticipates and expects the worst.

And many times, the reports are right and it is a major storm and all the advanced planning is valuable and does keep people safe. But every now and then, we discover that we aren’t as advanced in our predicative ability as we think we are and the terrible storm becomes a skim of snow, a puff of wind and some cold that makes all our plans and worries and preparations look kind of silly. It also means that the pastors who believed the reports and didn’t write a sermon are scrambling to either prepare something for worship or justify an unnecessary cancellation.

Me—well, I prefer to wait and see what is coming. I like weather reports but I am still going to write the sermon and be ready for Sunday. I will enjoy the cancellation and use next week’s sermon time for other things if the storm really happens but I am also going to be prepared just in case the storm flops and the most significant aspect of the whole thing was the amount of hot air surrounding the reporting of the coming storm’s ferocity.

I think that now and then, God likes to remind us that while we are really good at a lot of stuff, we don’t actually know as much as we think we know.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS VACATION

During the Advent season, the two Bible studies I lead chose to spend some time looking at Christmas, technically from the Biblical perspective but practically from any perspective we wanted. In the course of the discussion with one group, I mentioned the movie Christmas Vacation as the example of how people have unrealistic expectations of the Christmas season. Most of us had actually seen the movie—and the one who hadn’t seen it was quite happy to watch it when I loaned him my copy.

I realized a while ago that although my expectations for Christmas aren’t the same as the “hero” of the movie, I was also in possession of some seriously unrealistic Christmas expectations. I wanted the Advent process to b a deeply spiritual journey for the churches and me. Together, we would explore the wonder of the Incarnation through worship, study and conversation. We would also develop and implement ways of using the Advent/Christmas season as a means of sharing our faith with our communities.

At the same time, I would thoughtfully and carefully choose perfect presents for all the significant people I but presents for. I would participate in both secular and church Christmas events, parties and processes to the full. That tended to involve a great deal more activity when our children were home but even after they left home, there were a considerable number of events to take part in both inside and outside the church.

And then, because all this wasn’t enough, I wanted Christmas to be a time for me to both grow spiritually and get some much needed rest and relaxation so that I would be able to enter the winter church season ready to lead the church well as they continued to follow God and seek to do his will.

Obviously, there are some significant and irreconcilable conflicts build into those expectations. It is pretty much impossible to experience cultural and spiritual Advent/Christmas to the full and end the season rested and revitalized. While juggling a full church schedule and full cultural schedule is required at this time of the year, it precludes the kind and amount of time necessary for personal spiritual growth. The need to develop and write compelling and inspiring sermons, Advent Candle programs and Bible studies for the church pretty much eliminates the ability to inspire myself.

And so I tended to end the Advent/Christmas season worn out and somewhat depressed. My expectations were high and unattainable—I was almost guaranteed to fail. I would be able to accomplish some things but overall, the results were much less than I anticipated or wanted, which when combined with the physical fatigue meant I began the new year down, depressed and lacking motivation.

It took a while before I realized that the problem was my expectations. I had to admit that I couldn’t do everything the way I thought it should be done. And so I began to focus and select. There are some things that just have to be done—the churches pay me to preach, for example, and so I do need to give attention to my preaching. That might mean that I have less time and mental space to work on perfect presents—but the truth is that there are no perfect presents and the search for them could actually be cut back.

It was important for me and the church that I come out of the Advent/Christmas season ready to move into the new year of church activity somewhat rested and at least partially prepared—and that would mean that there had to be some careful selection in what I did and didn’t do over the Advent/Christmas season. It also meant recognizing that just as most people in the church pretty much stopped for a few days after Christmas, I could do the same. The sermon had to be written but nobody really needed or wanted a visit from the pastor, unless they were facing a crisis.

These days, I have fewer expectations for the Christmas season. I don’t do as much—but what I do, I have the opportunity and time and energy to do well. And I also have the space needed to rest and relax a bit before things get going after Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING ORDINARY

I was at a meeting the other day and on my way back from the snack table, I stopped to have a short chat with one of the people who attends one of the churches I pastor. We were joking a bit and talking a bit about the meeting and our Bible study and generally enjoying seeing each other. I made what I thought was a somewhat innocent comment that wasn’t phrased in “ministerial” language. Her response was interesting. She said, “I love it that you are so ordinary!”

We both laughed because I pretended not to know what she meant—and she knew I was pretending. I then thanked her for the compliment. Being ordinary is part of my self-identity. I really don’t want to be seen as “THE MINISTER” or ‘THE PASTOR” or any other “THE”. I am a pastor and I take pride in doing my pastoral and ministerial work well. I have spent a lot of time and effort over the years to ensure that I am good at what I have been called to do. I also appreciate it when people recognize that I am good at what I do. But I really don’t want to be perceived as being something special because of that.

That attitude does sometimes make me feel a bit strange, both in clergy circles and lay circles. Laity have often been taught and encouraged to treat pastors as if our calling turns us into spiritual and moral and general experts, who are somehow out of touch with the rest of humanity because we are so close to God. Other clergy sometimes want to maintain a distance between clergy and laity—one of the ongoing debates in clergy circles, for example, it whether clergy can actually have friends in the church they serve.

My denominational tradition supports my thinking, at least theoretically. Baptists began partly in protest to the elevated position of clergy. We espoused the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which means that all believers have the freedom and responsibility and ability to approach God directly, without the need for an intermediary. When I begin with that theological position and add to it the Biblical teaching on gifts and calling, I very quickly come to a position that has a equal place for all people of faith.

We are most definitely not equal when it comes to our abilities and gifts—we are very unequal in that area. I am much better at preaching that some of the members of the church, a few of whom can’t even manage to croak out a word when they are in front of people. On the other hand, I am much worse at singing that some of them—my croaking tends to encourage people to call for silent singing or loud organ playing. Some of our church members who can’t preach or sing bring to the congregation the ability to count and care for our church money—they can actually add and subtract numbers and get them right.

Our inequality in terms of gifts and abilities is part of our overall equality. Each gift and ability and individual has a part of play in our church and ministry—and that makes us equal. My gifts are important at times and at other times, they really aren’t important. When the church puts on their annual tea and sale, my gift of preaching and teaching isn’t overly important, which is why I get assigned to the dishpan in the kitchen, where my lack of tea and sale specific gifts isn’t a problem. But the member of the church whose gift of organizing and administering becomes the most important person that day.

I appreciate my gifts and my calling. I work hard at keeping myself current and capable. I want to be the best I can be at understanding and using my gifts. But I don’t want my gifts and calling to stand out simply because they exist. I much prefer the situation where people recognize my gifts, their gifts and other’s gifts and feel comfortable calling on the gifted person for the exercise of their gifts in the appropriate ways—and when the gifts aren’t needed, everyone is equal and ordinary. When we see each other as both gifted and ordinary, I think we have a solid and strong foundation for our church, one that God can and will build on.

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.

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.

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.

WELCOME BACK

Both the pastorates I serve are located in beautiful, rural areas. Both have waterfront and both have relatively inexpensive property, even relatively inexpensive waterfront property. This is not an introduction to a post encouraging people to buy real estate in our area—it is actually background to help understand something that happens in our churches. Our congregations have bigger summer attendance that we do during the winter because a lot of our people only spend the summers with us. Some are with us for several months, some for a few weeks and some come and go.

Whatever their pattern, we have a significant part of our worshipping community who are with us only part of the time. But they are a part of our community and we all respond positively when they are with us. Worship starts a bit late because everyone has to greet and be greeted by those who have arrived for the summer. It takes longer to get away after worship because the conversations that were interrupted by worship are picked up again.

We are happy that our seasonal people are back and are again sharing their gifts with us. The normally tight budget gets some wiggle room as more people contribute. The singing, which is normally good, becomes even better as the seasonal voices kick in. The special seasonal events that they are so much a part of begin to take shape as dates are set. The social scene in our community ramps up as everyone tries to make the best use of the time that people are here.

From my perspective, the arrival of the summer participants has some real benefits. Several of them are pastors, both retired and active. One Sunday recently saw a total of two active vacationing pastors, two retired pastors and one theology student attending the two worship services I lead. Several of them are interested in supply preaching, which means that I can call on them when I want to take vacation, something I really appreciate. A couple of them also provide some valuable professional feedback on my sermons and ministry.

The seasonal people are not visitors. They are a basic and vital part of our congregations, even if they are only with us part of the time. Both they and the permanent members of the congregation recognize that. We do some of our planning around their schedules. I include their presence in my sermon planning process. We minister to them and are ministered to by them. We are a stronger congregation because they are with us, even if only for a couple of weeks now and then.

For me, this points to a deeper reality of church life. All congregations except the most informal and loose ones have an official membership—but all congregations are much bigger than that. As well as the official membership, there are those who attend but who for some reason aren’t official members. There are the seasonal people, the ones who live away part of the year and those who can’t get out part of the year. There are those who look to our church for a variety of spiritual services like weddings, funerals, counselling, prayer and so on. There are the people whose parents or grandparents brought them to worship once or twice who still feel some connection with us. There are also some who used to be an active part of the congregation but who got upset and left but whom still feel they have a stake in the congregation and who want some say in what happens.

All of these people are part of our congregations—and as pastor, part of my responsibility to is figure out how to ministry to all of them. And given that I am a part-time pastor at both places, that can get complicated at times. The active, permanent members might understand that I have only so much time and can understand and live with the limits. But the further from the centre people are the less they are likely to understand that there are good reasons why they aren’t getting the ministry they think they should be getting.

This too is part of my ministry—figuring out how to juggle time so that I can get 20 hours of ministry out of 16 hours of real time. It doesn’t always work but the process is interesting at times. It is nice to have the summer people back—but I had better go so I can figure out how to see them before they leave.

May the peace of God be with you.

BLEST BE THE TIE

I am probably the only pastor I know who still wears a suit and tie when I preach. That is simply a statement, rather than an introduction to a rant about people who don’t wear a suit and tie or the beginning of an introspective post on how I am about to change the habit of a lifetime so that I can become more relevant in my ministry. I wear my suit for my reasons—I am pretty comfortable taking off my jacket on warm days but unless the government passes an anti-suit and tie law, I will likely continue to do that until I retire—and if I preach anywhere after I retire, I will probably still wear my suit and tie.

This is all somewhat ironical, though, since I really don’t like ties and am much more comfortable wearing jeans and a t-shirt, which is my general attire when I am not working. I have been known to spend a lot of time telling people why ties are an anachronistic, pointless hangover from a long past cultural tradition that has as much validity as making women wear hats to worship. I have made significant progress towards modernization, though—I don’t wear a suit and tie for regular stuff like visitation and Bible Study and meetings and so on. But for all that, every Sunday I am leading worship and preaching, I put on my suit, pick out a tie and head out to lead worship.

And with that, we can get to the real point of this post—the tie I pick out. As befits someone who really doesn’t like ties, I don’t have many of them—and since I no longer own a brown suit, several of the ones I have don’t get worn any more. I am not a fashion expert but I have it on good advice that some of my ties simply don’t “work” with my navy suits. Ultimately, I have about seven ties I actually wear—but since one is specifically for Christmas and one works best around Easter, I have about five that get worn regularly.

And interestingly enough, each one has a lot of emotional content. Two were given to me by a former parishioner who has since passed away. She saw the ties in a thrift shop and they reminded her of me. One has a depiction of Mt. Kilimanjaro and a rhino painted on it and it makes me homesick for Kenya every time I wear it. The other has a bright sun and paintings of children from around the world, which always puts me in a good mood.

Another was given to me by my mother many years ago—and I still feel a strong connection with her when I wear it, along with a touch of sadness because I miss her. Another tie has the cast of the Peanuts cartoons—my wife gave it to me for a Valentine’s present a long time ago. Each character is paired with the character they were closest to, making it a great present—and since I learned most of my theology from the Peanuts characters, it is totally appropriate for me.

I have another that I wear occasionally. The only distinction it has is that it is my oldest tie—I think I have had it since shortly after I began in ministry. I really don’t know where it came from but its persistence keeps it in my closet and around my neck on a regular basis. It also represents my rebellion against the accepted practise when I began ministry—way back then, pastoral ties were supposed to be dark and unadorned but this one is a bright multi-coloured mosaic that signifies nothing.

I don’t much like ties—they really don’t serve much purpose beyond satisfying some ancient forgotten social need. But for a variety of reasons, I still wear them and will likely wear them, at least for formal church functions until I die—and will likely be buried in a suit and tie. And if I am going to keep wearing an anachronistic and seriously pointless strip of cloth, I am going to wear something that has meaning to me. The fact that congregation members find most of the ties I wear interesting is good but mostly, I wear them because they mean something to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

AN ANNOYING PRACTISE

In my never ending struggle to keep my head above water in the demands of part-time ministry, I began a practise a few years ago that I find extremely helpful and valuable but which most people find so annoying that I rarely mention it. And when I do mention it, I mention it very carefully and with a confessional tone, as if I am somehow guilty of some great sin that I keep doing because I can’t help myself.

I began writing my sermons a week and a half to two weeks before I need them. So, the sermon I wrote this week will actually be preached a week from Sunday. If and when I mention that habit, there are several reactions, often following one after the other. The person who discovers my custom suddenly realizes that I have two sermons prepared—and since my schedule requires that I prepare sermons early in the week, they also realize I have two sermons done when they haven’t even started this week’s yet.

That almost invariably leads to joking requests to share the wealth and give them one of the sermons. Some of the people making the joke are genuinely joking—but more than a few are being serious and hoping I won’t notice that they are being serious.

The next response is that they begin talking about how they wish they could do that but just don’t have the time to do it. As we continue to talk, I sometimes discover that the unstated, hidden message in their comment is that they are so busy because their ministry is so much more demanding, successful, significant or whatever than mine. I obviously have more time on my hands so that I am able to engage in sneaky and perhaps degenerative habits like having a sermon ready well before I need it.

I don’t bother paying much attention to stuff like that these days. Those who know my secret continue on, convinced that I am underworked, obsessive, somewhat unbalance mentally or just plain weird. Those who don’t know my secret—well, what they don’t know doesn’t make any difference, although some of them probably think I am underworked, obsessive, somewhat unbalance mentally or just plain weird anyway.

I have had a tendency over the years to be somewhat out of step with most people—my sermon writing practise is only one manifestation of my individuality. I try to find ways and practises and customs and things that work for me in my situation—and even if others find them unusual or strange, I have become comfortable being different. Writing sermons a week ahead really means that when the inevitable week from hell comes, when I have 14 funerals, 29 weddings, 87 pastoral emergencies plus a bunch of meetings, I can breathe a bit because the sermon is already taken care of. True, I am then back in the same situation as everyone else but inevitably, I find the time to get back ahead within 2-4 weeks.

The reactions I get to this practise have always interested me. I think part of the interest comes from the fact that we tend to allow ourselves to get trapped in the conventional. We do what we do because “everyone” is doing it. Pastors have to preach almost every week and so we prepare a sermon every week—and the conventional approach is to do it the week it is needed.

But being conventional isn’t a law—it’s just conventional. All of us would probably be better off if we took some time to see if we can help ourselves a bit with some unconventional thinking and approaches. What everyone else does might be the best way—or it might not be the best way for us. God made us as individuals who sometimes have unique and unconventional ways that work much better for our specific situations than the conventional and accepted.

My unconventional approach to sermon preparation works for me. Given what I hear from many others, I am pretty sure that it would work for some of my friends in ministry as well but that is their choice. I keep working ahead, not making a lot of noise about it and basically ignoring the fact that it annoys some people to no end. It works for me and doesn’t break any really important rules.

May the peace of God be with you.