THE POTLUCK

            One of our well-established traditions at both the pastorates I serve is the potluck.  At regular intervals, we get together after worship to eat together.  Such meals are a basic part of our church culture–not just our churches but most churches in our area.  More importantly they are a vital and basic part of our spiritual growth.

This is not an attempt to equate the inevitable overeating that goes with potluck meals with some sort of spiritual blessing.  I over eat at the potlucks because I have to try everything and have extra of some of the dishes that I really like and only get at the potluck.  There is no spiritual blessing in overeating–there is a physical blessing from enjoying the good food and the physical consequences that I need to deal with later.

The spiritual blessing comes from the fact that we are together, sharing food and fellowship.  We eat together; we talk together; we laugh together; we support each other.  This fellowship time draws us closer to each other in a safe, comfortable, warm environment.  The act of eating together is always a sign of a comfortable relationship.

Our potlucks at one of the pastorates even have a way of extending the fellowship.  When everyone has been through the main course line as often as they want, there is a pause in the process while the main courses are removed and the desserts are put out–our hall isn’t big enough for two separate serving tables.  This change over takes a bit longer than in some places because several plates are filled with food.  These plates are taken to community members who can’t get out–and it doesn’t matter whether they are part of our or any church.  Some of the plates are also given to people who are there but who we feel should have some take out from the meal.  A similar process happens after the desserts have been  sufficiently sampled.

By the way, we are not giving people the ragged ends and skimpy leftovers.  Real potluck culture requires that everyone bring enough food to feed army battalion and so even after everyone has gone through the serving line as much as they want, there is still more than enough of all the food to feed everyone there again–or to share with lots of people who aren’t there.

And while the food is great, the time together is even better.  People talk.  Since I am a deeply committed people watcher, I spend a lot of time watching the groupings and connections and conversational groups.  The seating arrangements are open and who sits where tends to be random.  Couples don’t always sit together.  The same people don’t always sit near each other.  Visitors and new people don’t end up by themselves because they aren’t part of an established group.

We get our food, we grab an empty seat and we talk.  We might change seats in the lull between courses.  We might engage is a conversation with someone at another table.  We likely take a long time to get to the serving table for seconds because we need to talk to several people on the way there and back.

We eat and laugh and catch up on news and share stories and make plans and ask about families and offer help and discuss cars and recipes and grandchildren.  We spill coffee and tea and tease each other about the number of trips we make to the serving table and we offer to carry the empty plates to the cleaning area.  We spend time together and we enjoy each other’s company.

And in the process we grow as individuals and as a church.  We grow as individuals because we are discovering how to express our faith in the context of others, which is a basic Biblical requirement for real faith.  We grow as churches because we are getting to know and appreciate each other more and more, developing trust and closeness and understanding.  When we have eaten and joked together, it is somehow easier and more meaningful to worship together.

It is no coincidence that Jesus instituted what we now call Communion at a meal.  There is a powerful and profound connection between the process of eating together and our ability to express our faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

Advertisements

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT–AGAIN

Because I have two separate pastorates, I have two worship services.  I have already described the morning worship on the first Sunday of Advent.  After some lunch, a brief nap and a chance to read over the afternoon service, I left for the second service.  This was not our normal afternoon service.

To start with, we had scheduled a potluck supper after the worship, something we do several times a year.  That meant the service would start later so that the supper would happen closer to actual supper time.  It also meant some extra people who come because of the meal and the chance to visit with people over the supper.  It also means that things are more hectic before worship begins as we juggle final arrangements for the supper with getting ready for worship. We also had to get the Advent Candle stuff set up, which meant scouring the building for a suitable table.

It was also a cloudy, dreary day which made the burned out bulbs in over half the light fixtures in the sanctuary very obvious.  Since the fixtures are high and hard to get to, we tend not to pay much attention to them, until we all of a sudden realize half the sanctuary is in darkness and we need to do something–except the pre-worship discussion revealed that none of us had any good idea of how we were going to replace the bulbs,

With all that going on, I was kept fairly busy before worship began and didn’t realize until just before we began that in my worship preparation the week before, I had neglected to make sure my tablet and the bulletin were in sync.  I forgot to add in the hymns to the order of service on the tablet and also forgot to add in the second special music slot.  Fortunately, those were easy to remedy.

But things kept slipping.  I announced the Advent Candle reading and sat down while the reader did that part of worship.  And then, instead of standing to announce the offering, I forgot the offering, thinking the choir would sing, which they did–fortunately, other people seem to be able to pick up after me.  I eventually got the offering in and worship continued.  But when the choir did their next selection, I stood up, not realizing they were doing two pieces.  The congregation had a bit of a laugh as the choir told me to sit down.

I was not at my best during that service.  The activity and confusion before the service combined with a busy week leading to the worship meant that I was not as prepared as I should have been going into the worship and not as focused during the worship as I should have been.  I did manage to include all the required bits and pieces, even if the order of service I was following didn’t always connect with the order of service printed in the bulletin.

Eventually, we reached the end of the service and most of us went to the church hall for our supper.  But for me, the important thing was that in spite of all the confusion and my mistakes, we worshipped.  It might not have been exactly as planned.  I might have made more mistakes than normal.  People might have been a bit distracted by the enticing smells coming from the hall.  The dreary cloudy weather might have affected some of us, especially since the lack of adequate lighting made it hard to see the hymn books.

But in  spite of all that, we worshipped God.  We prayed, we sang, we presented our offerings and we heard and responded to God’s word to us for that day.  We greeted each other, welcomed each other and enabled each other to be reminded of the reality of God in our lives so that we could together give him the worship he deserves.

I very much doubt that we will ever have a perfect setting for our worship.  I would hope that we don’t always have as many issues as we had this afternoon but there will always be something.  Our worship depends on our ability to remember the reality of God in the midst of the confusion of life.  We worship not when things are perfect but because God is present and loving and graceful in the midst of the confusion and reality of life.

May the peace of God be with you.

WORSHIP INTERRUPTIONS

Given that my spot during worship is at the front facing the congregation, I get a great view of everything that is going on in the sanctuary, except for the choir area behind me.  While that area can be a source of interruptions, it is more normal for the interruptions to happen in front of me.

So, when the visiting grandchild starts acting out their boredom, I get to watch the grandparents struggle to cope.  When the busy farmer drops off to sleep because worship is the longest time he has sat still in weeks, I see and empathize.  I am used to interruptions and so was prepared for what happened at a recent worship service.

We were about 30 minutes into the service and I was just getting into the introduction to the sermon when I heard a noise at the front door.  Since all our regulars were either present or accounted for (one of the benefits of a small congregation), I thought that we were having visitors.  Visitors are always nice, even when they come during the sermon when the service is half over.

I was on the wrong side of the pulpit to actually see the door so in the course of preaching, I casually moved enough to see the door.  As it opened, someone peeked around the side of the door, saw me and quickly closed the door and left.  I actually wasn’t surprised that the visitor left–in that brief time his face was visible, I recognized who it was.

He wasn’t an actual late coming visitor coming to check out our worship.  He was a local resident well known for showing up at worship services and asking for money to help out his family.  The latest request tends to be for gas so his wife can get to work.  How do I know that?

Well, I have been pastor in this area for years and have worked with three generations of this family and with him directly.  He had actually called me a few weeks previously asking for money.  But since I knew that he had been making the rounds of local churches (one of the benefits of good relationships between churches) and that one pastor was offering to help the family with budgeting, I told him that I couldn’t help.

I know that he has been visiting local churches for a while looking for money.  I had worked with him and his family a lot over the years and have seen this pattern and process first hand.  I expect that his visit to our worship service was made in ignorance of the fact that I am the pastor–the church hasn’t got around to replacing the name of the previous pastor yet.  When he saw me, I think he realized that he was unlikely to get help that day.

The irony of the situation is that my sermon theme was that healthy churches seek to serve God by serving their community.  I am not at all sure what I think of this interruption during this particular sermon.  I think I handled the initial request wisely and graciously.  I am aware that I reached my limit with this particular family quite a while ago.  I am also aware that others have stepped in and tried.

But as my sermon progressed, part of my mind was processing the interruption and my response.  What is my responsibility to this individual and his family?  How do I serve God in my relationship with him?  I didn’t get too far in the process because the sermon does take most of my focus.  But I did decide that the family isn’t starving at this point–I know that they both have jobs.  I re-affirmed my decision not to give money.  And I decided that if he was sitting in his car waiting for us to be done to ask for money, I would offer budgeting help again hoping that this time, it would take.

Well, worship finished and by the time I actually got out the door, the parking lot was empty so I didn’t have to deal with any requests for money.  I can’t say I was upset with that, just as I can’t say I am upset with my response to the situation.  I decided that the issue for me isn’t that I don’t want to help, it is that I don’t want to help in a way which reinforces the present situation.  I want to offer something that will help change things which to me seems a much better option.

May the peace of God be with you.

NUMBER 80 ONCE MORE

I like planning and having a sense of where things are going.  I generally have a three month plan for preaching; a plan for Bible study that includes not just the present topic but also the next topic; a ever developing and changing plan for the next few weeks’ work in the churches and a less than successful plan for how to get caught up on all the things I am behind on.  I also like to have a longer sense of direction for the church, a plan that I work on with the church at regular intervals.

One set of churches will be meeting soon and we will discuss plans for next year after we start back up once the winter break is over.  I have a few ideas, some of the church people have a few ideas and as we talk together, we will likely come up with a few other ideas.  For us, that is long term planning–knowing now what we want to accomplish next July is pretty good.

But recently, I have been thinking about my position as the 80th pastor of this gathering of people and realized that I am also making plans for the 81st pastor, plans that may or may not help him/her.  I have always sort of known that.  As a long time part-time pastor, I have had the opportunity to share my experience and knowledge with other, newer part-time pastors and one of the things I tell them is to think of the next person coming along.

If the church and I agree that I will be paid to work 16 hours a week, it is tempting for me to “volunteer” more time than that because I have the time and the work needs to be done.  But in doing that, I have planted a very large and dangerous land-mine in the path of the next pastor, who may not be able to go beyond the agreed upon hours.  But as things don’t get done the way they were before, my “volunteer” hours explode and that ministry runs into trouble.

So, as number 80, I need to look ahead to number 81 or 93 or, if things don’t change drastically, number 180.  How to do that gets a little fuzzy at times because some of my best stuff may not be the best for the next person.

Our Bible study, for example, owes a significant amount of its vitality to the fact that I am an avid collector of facts, figures, interpretations, and so on that I am able to access, correlate and present in the heat of our often chaotic Bible study.  Questions and comments and unrelated thoughts take us in paths that churn up a significant amount of my accumulated knowledge.  If number 81 is a relatively new pastor who prefers order and structure, I may have unwittingly thrown a wooden shoe into the machinery (that is the actual origin of the word “sabotage”).

Somewhere along the line before I leave, I will have to help the Bible Study group develop an approach that isn’t totally dependent on my particular gifts and abilities.  What we are doing now is working and it is helping the church and we need to do it–but as number 80, I do need to look ahead further than next year and think about number 81, who will show up at some time and will need the freedom to make full use of the God given gifts that are the reason for 81 replacing 80.

So, I minister with an eye to the future.  Someday, I will leave this church.  Neither I nor the congregation really want to think much about that right now.  But I actually need to keep it in my mind.  I need to evaluate what I/we plan and do now so that as much as possible, I avoid planting land-mines.  Some things that we do because of my gifts and abilities are important and valuable and I am called by God to do them.  But some of them are based completely on my stuff.  Before I leave, I need to help the church see that as important as some of this was now, it will need to change so that 81 has the same opportunity to follow God’s leading as I had–otherwise 81 ends up spending a lot of time getting frustrated by 80, something I really don’t want.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

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.

A DILEMMA OR AN OPPORTUNITY?

I like structure.  I like order and predictability.   I am an organized person.  My workshop has a place for all my tools, a place where I expect them to be.  Now, I am not obsessive about the order and structure–I haven’t drawn the outline of the tool on the wall behind its place on the wall.  But I do know where the tool is because I put it there in the first place and return it to its place when I am finished using it.  Tools don’t  lie around on the work bench partly because I don’t have a lot of workbench space but mostly because I put them away when I am done with them–one of the rituals I have when finishing a session in the workshop is making sure all the tools are back where they belong.

I have friends whose tools tend to get deposited here there and everywhere.  When they want a 15/64s drill bit, they have to think about the last project they used the drill bit on and search that work area–or go buy a new one.  I might not remember when I last used the 15/64s drill bit but I do know the bit will be in its container where it is supposed to be, unless I broke it the last time I used it, in which case, the replacement is in the proper place in the container.

My books are organized–now, the organizing principles might not be readily understandable to anyone else, but I understand it and can find the book I want when I want it because it is where it is supposed to be.  Even my computer and tablet files are structured and organized so that I can find the file I want when I want it–I know the topic of the file and can quickly find the appropriate folder and sub-folder.

So, with that in mind, I approach the church, where as I have already mentioned, there is more chaos than structure;  more confusion than order; more questions than answers.  About the only thing that is predictable about the church many times is that if a person who attends regularly shows up, they will sit in their particular place.  Almost everything else, well, it is probably easier to herd cats than get everyone and everything in its place in the church.

So, I go from the structure of my workshop and study and computer to the chaos of the church.  I carefully put my tools away, replace the books in their proper places, save the files in their proper sub-folders, put everything I will need in the proper brief case, check the phone calendar to make sure I am on time and going to the right place and step into the chaos of the church.

On some levels, my structured personality should find the church difficult and frustrating–but the truth is, I don’t find it that way.  Certainly, I can and do get frustrated with some church stuff.  I occasionally get frustrated with some church people.  But on the whole, I enjoy the church and its chaos.  My love of structure doesn’t mean that I approach the church with fear and trembling.

And as I have thought about that, I realized that my appreciation for structure isn’t one of the driving forces of my life.  What is a driving force is the gift that the Holy Spirit exercises through me, the gift of helping bring structure and sense to what appears to be chaotic.  I don’t have an obsessive need for structure–rather, I have a Spirit given gift of being able to make sense out of chaos for myself and others.  Having structure isn’t the goal of my life either in the workshop or the church.

Helping create an appropriate and workable structure out of what seems chaotic is one of the goals of my life.  And it is a goal not because I need the structure but because God has been and continues using me to help congregations see their underlying structure and order that their chaos both hides and reveals.  This is important because as the divine structure and order become visible to the church, they can become much more effective and comfortable with their place in God’s work and his kingdom.

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 MEETING

In both the collections of congregations that I serve, we have a very informal approach to doing the business of the church.  There is a formal process requiring notice and written agendas and stuff like that but we reserve that for really important stuff where we would actually have to discuss and have a recorded vote–something that might happen once or twice a decade.  Mostly, we realize that we need a meeting and sometines announce it for the next week after worship but sometimes, we announce it during the announcements and have it after that worship.  It is a system that would probably drive some people and churches up the wall but it works for us and so we keep doing it.

Anyway, one Sunday, the moderator told me that she had a long list of things that needed to be dealt with.  There was nothing on the list that was difficult or controversial so she suggested that we have a meeting after the worship and deal with it all.  Worship began, followed its appointed course and finished.  After we finished singing the threefold “Amen”, I reminded people of the meeting and headed for a seat–I don’t have much to do at meetings except begin and end them with prayer.

As the congregation settled down for the meeting, our new couple got up to leave, at which point, the moderator called out their names and said they were welcome to stay, something that she and others have done before when we have new people–it is an almost automatic response.  We are a small group and like to include everyone in what we do.  I managed to get to them to greet them before they left and reinforced the invitation but they chose to leave.  After seeing them off, I sat down, the meeting progressed, we finished, I prayed and we all went home.  Just another somewhat typical worship and meeting for our small church.

So, we all show up for Bible Study during the week.  Almost all the regulars are there and the group now includes the new couple.  We always begin Bible study with an opportunity for people to ask questions or make comments about the past Sunday worship service.  There were a couple of comments about the service and a bit of discussion about the sermon theme.  And as that petered out, the husband of the new couple began to talk about the meeting after worship.

He had some very strong feelings about that part of the afternoon.  He did mention that he liked the sermon but for him, the high point of the day was being invited by name to stay for the meeting.  It gave him a sense of belonging, a feeling that he was part of us.  It was clear to all of us that the moderator’s invitation touched both of them deeply.  I don’t think I have ever seen anyone as deeply moved by an invitation to attend a business meeting.  He went on to give a little background that helped us see some of what made the invitation significant to him–not the whole story but enough.

We are always hearing about how some off the cuff remark offends and upsets people.  It is not uncommon to hear of someone who has stopped being a part of a church because of some comment that the pastor or Sunday School teacher or janitor or someone else made.  Sometimes, I get a bit paranoid and spend too much time wondering how I am going to phrase a comment that I know can cause some problems.

And so it is nice now and then to see an unplanned and somewhat off-hand comment have the opposite effect.  It is encouraging to know that thanks to the Holy Spirit, those comments that we might have made a dozen times before are sometimes just the thing that a person needs to hear and will be used powerfully by the Holy Spirit.  That particular day, our worship was good, the meeting was okay–but the most significant thing that happened, I think, was that God was able to use something all of us had done many times before to make a difference to someone who needed it.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SERMON

For a variety of reasons, preparing sermons is a lot easier and faster for me now than it was when I first started preaching.  When I preached my sermon over 45 years ago, the preparation  process was long, agonizing and painful.  I struggled to get an idea, worried and fretted to get some substance to the idea, poured over commentaries to understand the Scripture, thought about the passage and theme consciously and unconsciously.  While I don’t think I ever actually reached the seminary recommended one hour of study for every minute of preaching, I probably came close in those early years.

Over the years, the process has become easier.  I don’t actually need to do as much research–I have read and written on enough of the Bible in my ministry that research is more to check and make sure I am on the right track, not a search for the real meaning.  I learned early in ministry that a good sermon must touch the lives of the people I work with and that insight removed a lot of the stress and time associated with finding topics and developing them–because my sermons are based on the real needs of real people in real churches, I generally have a lot more ideas than I need and the occasional struggle I have in that area concerns which idea to use for this series.

As a result of a couple of really stressful and busy weeks, I discovered that I can go from a vague idea to a finished, ready to preach sermon manuscript in about 90 minutes, as long as I am preaching in English–desperation sermons in Kiswahili take about twice that.  Now, the end result isn’t always pretty, doesn’t have the style or polish I would like but as the old saying goes, “They will preach” and some days, that is a major accomplishment.

Since I am a part time pastor for two different church settings and need two different sermons each week, I have a shorter preparation process than I would like.  But I still put in a significant block of my part time hours preparing sermons.  I still work hard on the process, even if it takes a shorter time than most recommend and that I would like under ideal conditions.  I take preaching seriously and give every sermon the best I can give it before I take it to the pulpit.

In one of the pastorates, we introduced a new element in our worship service at the request of the congregation.  When  I finish reading the Scriptures, there is an opportunity for people to ask questions or make comments about the Scriptures or anything somewhat related to the Scriptures.  Many times, these are short questions for clarification, brief words of appreciation for the message of the passage or personal applications of the verses.

But occasionally, the questions and comments take off as the congregation begins seriously getting into the passage.  We begin with questions, move on to comments and other questions, slip into personal illustrations, follow faint tracks into other issues, bounce ideas off each other, ignite deep thoughts in other members.  The discussion goes on and on.  My job is to try to answer some of the questions (remember the years of commentary reading and other research?), moderate the discussion, help people clarify their thoughts and encourage those who obviously want to speak but are hesitant for some reason.

Time slips by as we work together discovering the Holy Spirit’s message for us from the chosen passage.  And one level of my mind is monitoring my watch, which is lying on the pulpit before me–and at some point, I realize that the sermon I worked so hard to prepare isn’t going to get preached today.  Sometimes, I don’t get to it at all.  More often, I get to strip it down to a Readers’ Digest version.  But all the work, all the effort–well, I could have skipped it.

But I don’t and won’t.  I love the Sundays when the discussion takes off.  It says to me that the Scripture and direction I was working on have really touched something in the congregation and the work I put into sermon preparation has become background for the congregation as we together prepare the real sermon for that day.  I may or may not ever use the sermon I prepared as I prepared it–but as a congregation, we had a real sermon, prepared by us for us through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.