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.

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HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?

I made two trips to our regional shopping area recently. One was shortly before Christmas and the other was a couple of days after Christmas. Neither trip was primarily for shopping but since that is where the biggest stores and best prices are, both trips involved shopping. On both trips, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people driving to the stores, filling the parking lots, jamming the store aisles and stretching the checkout lines. I was also amazed at the number of heaped shopping carts.

Of course, I really shouldn’t have been amazed. The first trip was just before Christmas, when everyone was busy completing their Christmas shopping—a task that I also had that day. The cultural norm requires that we spend and spend and fill carts and jam store aisles. If we don’t spend enough, the economy will collapse.

The second trip happened on the day of Canadian Boxing Day sales—the day when everything that was full price before Christmas is now seriously discounted. People need to get to the stores to take advantage of all the deals on all the stuff that they didn’t know they needed but now that it is on sale at 40-60% off, is a must have—and maybe we even need two of them.

I don’t much like shopping and really don’t like shopping in crowded stores and that fact probably affects my thinking about the whole shopping process. But I can’t help but ask myself what is actually going on here. Where does this desire to have more and more come from? And perhaps even more basic, there is this question: How much is enough?

It seems that as a culture, we have decided to answer that question by saying that we will only have enough when we get something at the next sale. But since there is always another sale coming up, we never really have enough. When 50% discounts are dangled in front of us, we rush out to the malls, charge cards in hand, ready to buy more stuff that we just realized we need or might need or might find a use for—after all, a 50% discount saves us so much money that it is worth it to get whatever we can.

I don’t think we actually ask the right questions. For me, a much better question is “Why”, as in “Why do I need that?” or “Why does something being 50% off mean I need it?” or “Why does spending money on something I don’t really need qualify as saving money?” When I get home, I have less money that I started with and more stuff that I am not really sure what to do with or where to put while I decide what to do with it.

I think we have developed a cultural norm that is wrong and even dangerous. We believe that more is always better—and that getting it for less than expected is a good thing. But really, how much do we really need? The continual quest for more simply enriches those who have lots of money and impoverishes those who don’t have as much money. We buy and buy. Our culture has even spawned yard and garage sales to allow us to buy more—we sell off some of the stuff we accumulate so that we can afford more.

How much is enough? My guess is that most of us need a whole lot less than we think we need and much less than advertisers would like us to think we need. Life needs to involve more than just accumulating things. It needs to be about more than just filling shopping carts with discounted stuff that will go into next year’s yard sale. When we fill all the carts and save all the money and fill all our storage space, what do we really have?

Maybe our push to accumulate stuff is an attempt to fill holes in our lives, holes that would better be filled with deeper more significant human relationships and a deeper and more fulfilling relationship with God. Maybe we need to discover that even if we manage to accumulate the whole world, it won’t really fill the holes in our lives that need to be filled with love, faith and hope that really only come from relationships with others and God.

May the peace of God be with you.

NO VISITING

Both our Bible study groups are now on Christmas break. Before we closed down, we switched gears and put our regular topic on hold because so many of our people are travelling and visiting family that it wouldn’t be fair to cover new stuff while they were away—we would just have to do it again when they got back anyway. So, we spent some time looking at the Christmas story, comparing the Biblical story with the culturally accepted version of the story.

Along the way, I was again struck by a part of the story that always catches me. Matthew tells of the wise men calling in at Herod’s palace to discover where the king had been born. While this probably made perfect sense to them, it was a real problem for Herod and anyone who knew him—historical records tell us that Herod was quick to execute anyone who even looked like he/she might someday possible entertain a thought of replacing Herod.

Almost lost in the story of Herod’s attempt to use the wise men as spies and their journey to Bethlehem is the interesting way they discover where this baby was to be born. Herod doesn’t know who or where or what concerning this birth—he just knows that he doesn’t like the idea. So, he calls in his version of the wise men. This would have been the religious leaders, the priests and scholars and temple officials. Herod was half Jewish and so probably has some understanding of the promises that someone was coming at some point. He naturally turned to the people who were supposed to know—the religious leadership.

This was a natural and east choice. These people had spend their whole lives reading, studying, interpreting and understanding the texts that God had given them to help people reach God. They knew the words, they knew the prophecies. Their whole lives were lived in anticipation of the time when God would act decisively and clearly to bring his chosen one into the world. No one else had the potential to answer the question Herod was asking—no other group of people could know where the king would be born.

The story doesn’t tell us if they had to consult their texts or have a conference or hold a long debate. I would have liked to know their process—having spent my entire career and clergy and academic circles, it would be interesting to know how these academically inclined clergy worked. Matthew, unfortunately, was a tax collector and seems to have only been interested in the conclusion.

The religious leaders come through—they know where the king will be born. Their years of study; their learned discussions; their generations long debates—all of it comes together and they know the answer. I can picture the delegation confidently standing before Herod with the relevant scroll open to the spot as they read the prophecy point to Bethlehem as the place where the king would be born. They pacify Herod temporarily, allowing him to make plans to use the wise men.

The wise men happily head for Bethlehem. Herod begins alerting soldiers about a coming mission. The city breathes a sigh of relief—Herod’s well know wrath won’t be expressed towards them. And the religious leaders? What of them? What did they do after giving the answer to this question?

What we know is that they didn’t go to Bethlehem. As far as we can tell from the story, they didn’t even send a delegation of the least senior to check things out. It seems like they went back to their offices, poured glass of wine (not Baptist, remember) and went about their regular business that had been interrupted by this question.

My question is why didn’t they go to Bethlehem? They knew the prophecies; they had the startlingly unusual visit of foreign astrologers; they saw Herod’s apprehension; they above all people knew that God was going to do something—so why, seeing all that was going on, why didn’t they go to Bethlehem to at least check it out?

I have been struggling with this question for years and still don’t have a satisfactory answer. But somehow, the answer is a faith issue—and it becomes a larger question. How come we who believe and who know the wonder of God in action, how come we too are slow to move in whatever direction God wants us to move in? Maybe if I can find an answer about the wise men, it might help me understand me and my faith more.

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.

CLOSE THEM DOWN!

Recently, both my wife and I has parishioners in the large regional hospital 2.5 hours away. Our pastoral calling made a trip to the city necessary—and practical considerations made going together in one car a good idea. The fact that we would have some uninterrupted time together while we were doing our respective jobs was a blessing. The five hour drive wasn’t such a great blessing but we were at least together.

On the way back, we stopped for coffee and groceries—whenever we pass near a larger centre, we plan our shopping trip to take advantage of the lower prices and greater selection. While we were having our coffee break, a friend we hadn’t seen since our last stint in Kenya noticed us and came over to sit with us. We had a good time catching up with what was going on in all of our lives.

Except that one part of the conversation upset us both a bit. Our friend knew we were back in Canada but didn’t know what we were doing so we had to do the story of which churches we were serving. It took a while to get across the idea that between us, we serve nine different churches. We had to go through the explanation of how many worship services we do each Sunday; how many people there are in worship; how many in my pastorates go wherever the worship is and so on.

After we got that part done, our friend made the profound observation that it would make a lot more sense to close a lot of the buildings and save everyone a lot of time and effort. At that point, I sort of began looking at my watch, wondering if it we could graciously break off the conversation and head for the groceries and then home.

Our friend’s observation, delivered with such conviction, was the perfect example of armchair pastoring. I am not sure but I suspect that his comments about closing buildings were delivered as if I had never thought of that. He likely felt that he was giving me some important advice that would change the course of my ministry.

Certainly, on the level of simple logic, closing buildings makes perfect sense. But the practical realities of closing get twisted together with social, cultural, personal, family and theological ties that create a knot with deep and powerful roots. Closing church buildings isn’t an easy process—it is a Gordian knot that even Alexander’s chopping solution won’t work for.

There are valid reasons and effective processes for closing church buildings—but the process is long, slow and inefficient to the extreme. And that is because the process doesn’t involve economics and efficiencies and logic. It actually involves feelings and traditions and hopes and dreams and a bunch of other non-logical and hard to measure stuff. Any pastor who approaches the process of closing a building steps into a mindfield protected by lasers, machine guns, trained attack scorpions, dive bombers and super ninjas—and that is just the normal level of protection. Threaten the building and the people really get serious about its defence.

I learned a long time ago that ministry in rural areas and small churches is going to have to be done in the context of too many and too much building. The demands of buildings are going to consume lots of time and energy and money. Long term, some of them must and will close. But in view of the difficulty and poor return on time and energy investment, I decided to ignore buildings and focus on ministry. I use the buildings, I appreciate the history, I even try to take part in repaid and clean up days—but the building isn’t the focus of my ministry. The people are—and if they want to continue with too many and too much building, that really isn’t a big issue for me. I will encourage them to look at their building status, I will encourage them to think seriously about their buildings, I might even suggest that the church isn’t a building—but I will do that in the context of trying to remember which building we meet in this week and which building is going to need repairs this week and all the rest.

My friend’s suggestion was a much too simple solution to a much too complicate issue that I generally choose to ignore because there are better ways to spend my ministry time.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CHURCH MEETS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

6:00 AM MONDAY MORNING

Yesterday was an extremely busy Sunday. It was the day we switch back from evening services to afternoon worship in one pastorate and the day we had a planning meeting after morning worship in the other pastorate. I had perhaps 30 minutes at home between the two events, just time enough to take a very brief nap and grab the afternoon worship briefcase. Fortunately, we had lunch as part of the planning meeting.

Sunday evening was basically spent trying to stay awake until bedtime, something that I accomplished but just barely. So, 6:00am Monday morning comes, as it inevitably does. It is somewhat dark; I am still tired; I don’t have to work today; it is warm and cosy in bed. But it is 6:00am, time to get up. As I reluctantly crawl out of bed and head for the exercise bike, I ask myself exactly why I am doing this. My wife is still sleeping, her dog isn’t interested in getting up, nobody else on our street is moving—so why, on my day off am I dragging my still tired self out of bed to start another day when nobody is requiring me to do that and a most other people I know would quickly suggest I was more than a bit strange for doing so?

I didn’t get an answer when I was biking. No great insights appeared in the Bible reading I was doing. Nothing that I read on the news feeds gave me reasons for getting up so early on a non-work day. I finished my hour on the bike and headed back to the kitchen. The dog was still not interested in getting up. My wife still sleeping. The neighbourhood was still silent. I opened the curtains, turned on the laptop and poured my granola over a cut up banana and sat down in my work chair by the living room window.

And as I sat down, I realized why I was doing this. This is my time, a time and space when I can do what I want with no outside demands. I have sermons to write—but they can wait until tomorrow and the next day. I have people to visit—but they can wait until I begin work tomorrow. I have a report on the meeting to get ready—but that doesn’t need to be done until next Sunday.

Right now, all I have to do is eat my granola and banana and write what I want to write—or not write, if I choose. I realize that this time is my gift to myself, a time and space when I can focus on me and my stuff. It is quiet, peaceful, comfortable. Nobody is going to bother me, unless there is some terrible catastrophe—but those tend to be rare and so basically, I have this time to myself.

I might be tired—but I can nap later. That isn’t a real issue since I would likely nap anyway, whether I got up at 6:00am or 8:00am. What I can do is enjoy the peace and solitude and freedom from demands, except for the few that I put on myself for this time, demands that are essentially what I want to do anyway. The only extraneous demand during this time comes from the dog, who often decides that he should probably wake up and make a trip outside—but that is much easier to deal with than writing sermon or preparing a funeral message or making a pastoral visit.

This short time on Monday morning seems to have become an oasis for me, a time when I put everything else on hold and minister to myself. I can write a blog post, stare out the window, read an interesting article I run across getting to somewhere else, check out some blogs that I like, eat my breakfast. I could sleep in but in truth, as much as I might appreciate the extra sleep, I think I would miss the blessings of the unstressed and undemanding time provides me. There may be Monday mornings when I choose to sleep in but mostly, I recognize that I need this time for my own personal spiritual and emotional health.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SERMON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

A BIBLE STUDY QUESTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.