A SUNNY DAY

Sunday morning—a bright, sunny day. While the overnight temperature was below zero, the day promised to warm up. In fact, by the time I was ready to leave for the first of two worship services, it was warm enough that I didn’t feel the need for a topcoat—my suit jacket would be enough for the short distances that I would be walking outside. It was a really nice day, after a longish spell of cloudy, drippy gray days and I was enjoying it to the fullest.

Well, actually, I wasn’t enjoying it to the fullest. Enjoying it to the fullest would probably involve a walk ( or hobble, in my case), a bike ride, a trip to a park or other wilderness area or something like that. Enjoying it to the fullest doesn’t involve having two worship services that keep me inside older, slightly moldy buildings. But that is the reality of most Sundays for me—it’s why I get the big bucks.

Well, actually, it is what I have been called to. And mostly, I am okay with my calling. But I do have to confess that now and then, I kind of wish that I had the option that most church people have—the option of taking the day off and enjoying the sun. I know worship is supposed to be an important part of the week and it is an expression of my gratitude to God and the call to lead God’s people in worship is scared and all that, but honestly, some days, I would like to have a bit more choice.

There are two types of Sundays that make me feel that way. One is the bright, sunny day after a period of drippy days, like the one I described at the beginning of this post. The other kind of day that inspires these feelings is a snowy, windy, blizzard day. I love snow storms—they inspire me. There is nothing better than being out in a snow storm, clearing the driveway or cross country skiing—and the only thing that even comes close to that feeling is sitting inside the warm house, drinking a coffee-hot chocolate blend while watching the snow swirl and twist and pile up, which I seem to be doing more and more of on such days as I get older.

Generally, I get my wish for a day off on the snow storm days. Since I am a braver (dumber?) driver than most church people, I have removed myself from that decision making process and leave it completely to the church. I have served churches long enough to pretty much know what their decision will be just by looking out the window and can actually start enjoying the day before the official phone call.

But bright, sunny days—well, there is no protocol for those days. The roads are clear and dry, the parking lot is open, the building is warm, everything is a go. The members choose whether they will come to worship or visit a friend, take a walk, go for a bike ride, go out for lunch. Bright, sunny days in the spring tend to have about the same attendance as the Sundays when there are flurries but not enough to invoke the cancelation process. People stay away for different reasons and different people stay away on different days but the weather makes a significant difference on attendance—and really great days have about the same effect as borderline days.

Except for me. I do get the occasional snow day, which I enjoy. But the bright, sunny days after several gray days, well, no matter how much I suggest to the deacons and the whole church, we don’t have a policy about them. We aren’t going to cancel when the weather is so nice that being inside a stuffy, somewhat moldy building seems wrong. That strikes me as a bit of a double standard and maybe even discriminatory against people whose constitution requires an adequate amount of sun but that is the way it is I guess.

And in the end, I probably don’t actually want the day off. I know that when we have a snow day, I am disappointed that we aren’t having worship and so I would probably feel the same way about a worship service cancelled because the day is too nice. But I like to play with the idea anyway.

May the peace of God be with you.

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DISAPPOINTMENT

I was having a discussion with a friend a while ago—so long ago that I can’t remember most of the details. I think it was with someone involved in ministry and we may have been having coffee together I do remember that the conversation turned to the issue of disappointment, specifically disappointment with people who do something that goes against our hopes, expectations and desires for and about them.

While I know that this is a real issue in all aspects of life, for those of us involved in ministry, it can be an all too common and deeply painful reality. The dedicated church member whose faith is growing and developing and who is set to make a significant impact on the whole church and even beyond decides that his love of gambling is more important than anything in his life. The individual who is being groomed and prepared to take over from the retiring deacons decides that really, the job isn’t for her. The member of the youth group who shows such promise and is actually entertaining a call to ministry decides that a career in IT will be more fun and pay better. The pastor friend who decides that having a sexual relationship with the church organist is worth more than the call of God. In ministry, we face the reality of disappointment on a regular basis as people make choices that are clearly going against God’s best will for them, at least according to our understanding. We also, if we are honest, are aware that disappointment with people often leads to anger and a withdrawal from the relationship.

I am pretty sure that one of the underlying causes of pastoral burnout and disillusionment is provided by such disappointments. Sure, the long hours, the lack of actual completion, the ever increasing demands, the inability to set hard limits all have an impact on pastoral burnout but the accumulation of what we often see as betrayals is certainly a part of the package. Since most of our work is built on and around people, their actions and activities are bound to have a significant effect on us and our wellbeing.

I am hoping that as you read the beginning of this blog that you were struck by how self-focused those paragraphs are. As I was writing the words, I was becoming more and more aware of that—my pastoral disappointment with people is actually coming from a very selfish place—as a pastor, I want and maybe even need people to act and respond and do what I am convinced is best for them, the church and the faith. Helping people grow and develop spiritually and emotionally is part of my job—I have been called and trained and prepared to help people live their faith.

The problem is that the more I expect people to do what I think they should do, the more I make them into less than free human beings. My disappointment with them is a not so subtle symptom of my thinking that I know best and that anyone who disagrees with me, even over their own life choices, is making a serious mistake. In effect, I am taking away the freedom that God has given all of us.

And that realization prompts me to take a closer look at the whole process. While I have been called by God to be intricately involved in the lives of the people I work with, I have also been called to be involved in a way that shows the character of the God who called me—and while the Bible does suggest that God is often disappointed with us humans, his most characteristic response to us is love and grace. No matter how much we disappoint him, he still loves us and even more, he still seeks to bring us back to him. God’s love, his grace and his willingness to forgive are the reason for the cross and the resurrection.

In that light, my reaction to the realities of people is disappointing to me—I am not actually being a particularly good servant of God when my disappointment with people creates anger and withdrawal and judgement. Fortunately for me, even when God is disappointed with me, he responds with an offer of more love, more grace and more forgiveness, coupled with an offer to help me respond to others in the same way.

May the peace of God be with you.

PICKING MY BATTLES

Meetings are an occupational hazard for people in ministry. Sometimes it seems to me that no ministry can actually happen unless there is a meeting involved—and the more meetings, the more important the ministry. The problem with meetings though, is that they involve people and even more, they involve people who don’t necessarily agree with everything that I think.

At times in the past, that reality has resulted in my becoming involved in long, complicated and occasionally less than pleasant debates and even arguments. Disagreement needed to be dealt with. Everyone needed to have the benefit of my wisdom and understanding so that they could see the light and truth of the position I was holding and they were missing. Meetings took a lot of energy as I and the other participants worked hard to make sure that everyone came around to our personal view.

But I noticed something while at a meeting a little while ago. Someone said something I disagreed with. It wasn’t a small issue either—it was something fairly significant, something that affected some essential realities of the faith. But I noticed that I didn’t immediately jump into a defence of the faith. I didn’t actually say much. I think I may have said something that indicated I disagreed with what was said and let it go at that.

What kept me from springing into action, something that has been a characteristic of my ministry, at least as far as meetings go? Well, I wasn’t intimidated by the others at the meeting—I knew and was comfortable with everyone there. It wasn’t that I was unsure of my stance—the issue was somewhat foundational for me. It wasn’t even that I was too tired to argue.

No, the reality was that although the issue was a problem for me, raising it and really going after it in that particular setting would have done more harm than good. The person making the comment was deeply committed to what they said. A lot of people at the meeting were not overly interested in the issue. And even more, the meeting was supposed to be focusing on something else entirely.

To open a debate on the issue at the meeting would have derailed the meeting. It would also have created a potentially adversarial setting where two people argued back and forth about a topic both were seriously concerned about but which most people weren’t interested in. Since this was a meeting of Christians involved in a specifically Christian process, the escalation of the disagreement could do some serious damage to our fellowship.

I decided that the damage to the Christian fellowship from getting into a heated debate was potentially worse than the possible damage from the comment itself. I have discovered myself doing that more and more these days. I think I am discovering that as believers, the way we do things is at least as important as what we do. If I engage in an debate that degenerates into a non-Christlike process, I have harmed the faith.

Jesus tells us that a major part of our responsibility it to love each other as he loved us (John 13.34-35)—and doesn’t say anything about having to win every debate over the truth of every issue. I think I am making some wise choices when I choose not to engage in what may become a less than loving debate. Even when I know that I am right, I need to deal with the issue in a way that shows Christlike love for everyone involved. The win doesn’t come from scoring debating points—the win comes from responding like Christ would respond.

There is a time and a place for theological debate. There is a need to have a good discussion on points of contention. There are some things that are wrong and need to be dealt with. But in every case, how we do this is at least as important as the debate and its results. Unless we can do what we do in a way that shows Christian love and respect, we are going to lose—and even worse, the faith itself will lose because we will show something other than the love of Christ.

May the peace of God be with you.

DURING THE HYMN

A couple of Sundays ago, I was standing behind the pulpit conducting my second worship service for the day. The first service had gone well with a larger than expected attendance. This service was also better attended than I expected. I might be the pastor of small churches and thus used to low numbers but it is still nice when there are more people than expected present.

Anyway, the congregation was singing one of the hymns, I was thinking—I have to confess that music isn’t a huge part of my life and doesn’t have the same effect on me that it has for some people. I like music but since I don’t sing well and am not really into music, my mind wanders during the singing. Sometimes, the wandering thoughts are about what comes next in the service or why so and so isn’t present or something equally pastoral.

But at that service, I found myself thinking about my ministry in general. I realized that I was leading that worship service and the dominant feeling I had was fatigue. I wasn’t excited about the higher attendance; I wasn’t caught up in the worship; I wasn’t enthused about the chance to minister to God’s people. I was just tired and my knees were hurting.

By the time we got to the second verse, I was wondering what was wrong with me—was I slipping into depression? Or was I bordering on burnout? No—a quick self-examination revealed that I was just tired—but not sleepy tired and not didn’t sleep well tired. It was not even the results of a too busy week tired. It was a fatigue that comes from being involved in some form of ministry for around 40 years. It is the tired that comes from doing something that requires me to give a lot of myself to a lot of people for a lot of years.

I don’t have the emotional energy that I had 20 or thirty or forty years ago. Early in ministry, everything was new and exciting and I could and did experiment and play and have fun. I didn’t know a whole lot about what I was doing but what I lacked in knowledge, I tried to make up for with enthusiasm and commitment.

By about the third verse, I was doing some deeper reflection. Was I cheating the church or maybe even slipping in my commitment to God? Before the guilt kicked in, I realized that wasn’t the case. I was and am working hard for both pastorates. We are involved in self-examination; we are trying new ideas; we are enabling each other to grow in faith; we are discovering and developing new ministries to ourselves and our communities. As pastor, I am involved and engaged and working hard to help us as churches discover and carry out God’s will for us.

I realized that these days, I minister much more from knowledge and wisdom that from emotion. I still experiment and play with things. I still examine, research, hypothesize and work to help implement new ideas and ministries. I may not get overly excited but I am still completely committed to what I am doing. I am still giving the best that I am capable of giving.

Early in my ministry, the best I could give was a little knowledge and lots of energy and enthusiasm. These days, I have much more knowledge and wisdom (maybe) but less energy and enthusiasm. I am pretty sure the ultimate sum is the same: lots of energy and enthusiasm plus little knowledge probably produces the same results as flagging energy combined with significant knowledge and wisdom. I may be more tired these days, but I still know what I am doing and am still committed to doing it as well as I am able. I might need more naps and breaks in the process but I am aware enough to know when and how to take the nap and the break without harming the overall ministry.

Finally, we arrive at the last verse of the hymn and I move on to the next part of the worship service, feeling better about myself and my ministry. I am tired and it is a fatigue that probably won’t go away after a nap or a vacation. But it is also a fatigue that isn’t taking away from my ability to do what I have been called to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

GIVE ME A GOOD BOOK

I have always been a reader. I discovered books early on life and began reading them as early as possible. There were some rough early years when books were hard to come by—we didn’t have much money and the town we lived in didn’t have a library. Books came to us through the same route as clothes and most other things: a few gifts, a lot of hand-me-downs and the occasionally purchase. I remember that a lot of the money I earned splitting and piling wood for neighbours or picking and selling blueberries ended up being spent of books. A significant part of my first steady income ( a newspaper route) also went towards books.

At one point, I was suffering from frequent headaches, which was automatically attributed to my reading too much. That, and the fact that I preferred reading to actually doing chores meant that there were times when my reading was on a timer—I could only read a certain amount a day. That was a powerful stimulus to change the behaviour that lead to the restriction.

I have enough understanding of people to know that not everyone shares my love of reading. Very early in my life, I realized that for some people, reading was a chore, something they did only when they had to and then only if someone was actually watching them. I discovered that many people would rather read a commercially available summary of books we had to read for school—the summaries were shorter and pre-digested. Given my love of reading, I probably read the assigned book and then read the summary also—reading is reading, right?

These days, I do most of my reading via an electronic platform. If there is a debate over the merits of paper versus electronic books, I am firmly and completely on the electronic side. When I have to sit at the car dealer for a couple of hours while my car is serviced, my ereader is a vital necessity. The hundreds of books I can carry that way mean that I will never run out of reading. And if the battery runs down, well, I still have access to the books through my phone, tablet and computer. As an added benefit, moving electronic books involves far fewer boxes and much less muscle power than print books.

There is something about a well written book that goes well beyond the actual words. Reading at its best involves my whole being and even all my senses. I read and the reading draws me into the material. Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, I can enter the world of the writer and live in the material. I can get to know not just the topic but also the author. I become a part of their world and they become a part of mine. I read—but at the same time, I see, I feel, I understand, I grow—I become different because of having spent time with Stephen Hawking, Tom Clancy, Martin Noth, Isaac Asimov, Jurgen Moltmann—the list goes on and on and will continue to go on and on. I fully expect that on my deathbed, the doctor will have to move a book of some sort to listen to my fading heartbeat—and me being me, the book will probably be describing the process I am going through or be something totally and completely unconnected to anything.

Because I am a Christian and a pastor, a good part of my reading involves books about faith and ministry. And no matter what else I am reading, I am reading the Bible. I have read through the Bible more times than I can count in more translations and versions than I can count. And that isn’t an exaggeration or literary conceit. A few years ago, in an effort to make life simpler before moving to Kenya for work, I got rid of most of my print library, including most of my collection of print Bibles. I literally can’t count them because I don’t have them. That, by the way, is another reason why I love ebooks—I never have to lose my books that way again.

By the way, there is no moral, no hidden purpose, no hidden meaning in this post. I may be a preacher but this isn’t a preacherly attempt to hide the meaning in an extended story. I just love reading and wanted to write about that today.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO LOSSES

Earlier this year, I was saddened by two deaths that happened around the same time. Billy Graham died and his death was followed by that of Stephen Hawking. Given the fact that these two men had what appeared to be vastly different spheres of influence, very few reports that I saw made any connection between the two. But I admired both of them and both were influential in my life and the two death coming so close together had an effect on me.

I really don’t know if there was any real connection between the two—my speculation is that each at least knew of the other but probably didn’t spend a lot of time reading each other stuff or pondering each other’s teachings. In fact, given the misguided assumption on the part of many in the modern western world that science and religion don’t mix, there are more than a few who might suggest that Hawking and Graham would likely have been enemies, since they were widely recognized as leaders in their respective spheres.

But for me, well, I didn’t see a conflict. I am a science nerd and a theology nerd. And in truth, there have been lots of times when I have found myself working hard to wrap my head around both men’s ideas—and more than a few when their ideas have come together in that confusing mix in my mind and created a theological-scientific thought process that resulted in a headache and more confusion.

Unlike some, I don’t approach theology and science with the expectation of conflict and tension. When I struggle to read Hawking on time and the origin of all things or when I read Graham on faith and salvation, I don’t weigh one against the other to see who is right. Thinking about heaven and the afterlife seems to naturally lead into thinking about time and what it is—Graham leading to Hawking. Thinking about the Big Bang naturally leads to thinking about who and why—Hawking leading to Graham.

Both have had an effect on my thinking and my theology. Both have troubled and inspired me. Both have confused and irritated me. Both inspired agreement and disagreement . Both have helped me understand more about myself, my place in creation and my faith. And as a result, the deaths of both left me saddened and feeling like my world has shrunk a bit.

I didn’t spend a lot of time reading and studying the writings of either. I own and have read books by both and enjoyed them. Mostly, I was content to know that they were both there, both doing their thing and both accessible through their writings and so on should I ever decide to really follow up on their work. Honestly, I sometimes felt the Graham’s stuff was a bit too easy to understand and Hawking’s was a bit too hard to understand—but that didn’t stop me from buying and reading some of their work.

I am never going to be an evangelist like Graham nor a theoretical scientist like Hawking but I do appreciate their work—and have never felt a need to decide which body of material was more valuable to me or to the world. Each did their thing and each did it well and both taught me important stuff about God, creation and even myself.

I am not interested here is moralizing about their lives, choices or spiritual fates. That isn’t my job. God in his grace makes those kinds of decisions. Me—well, I admired both, I read both and I learned from both. Their lives and their work and their personality were and are important to me. I can and will continue to appreciate the contribution both have made to me personally and the world in general. And most of all, I will not fall into the trap of seeing these people as representations of sides in some mythical and mystical eternal battle.

These were two people who gave themselves completely to their callings and in the process of chasing their dreams and visions, showed the rest of glimpses of deeper and higher truths that we can all benefit from. So, to Stephen Hawking and Billy Graham, I say, “Thank you—I will miss you.”

May the peace of God be with you.

TIME

We have been studying the afterlife in one of the Bible Study groups, which has been a fascinating study. It has provided us with lots of great starting points for extended discussions and significant questions and even some confusion. The discussion also re-opened a train of thought that I come back to now and then. We touched on the idea in our study and it was great to know that other people have similar ideas and struggles with the topic as I have been having over the years.

When we look at the whole concept of the afterlife, we open a door to a bigger discussion of time—not time in the sense of the clock and calendar and not even time in the Biblical sense of the coming together of a bunch of factors but time itself. I have not seen too many theological discussions that deal with the theory of time. I own and have waded through Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time but I am still trying to wrap my head around the whole issue of time.

And while that may sound like I am some sort of science or science fiction nerd (which I am), thinking about time does have some significant theological implications. The difficulty with the process is that our human existence is bounded and determined by time. We measure it, we spend it, we waste it, we schedule our days and our lives by time. If it is 6:00am, it is time to get up. At 12:00, we can have lunch. At age 5, we go to school. At age 18 or so, we have to make serious decisions about our future. At age 65, we can retire.

So we live within time and therefore have difficulty seeing outside that temporal box. Yet there is very good theological evidence that God exists outside of time—time is likely one of the things God created. The temporal realm that we live in may only be a limited form of existence which God created for his reasons but which may eventually end and be replaced by something different. Eternity, for example, may not be measured by the clock, which will likely be a good thing—even the best of experiences begins to drag when we spend a certain amount of time at it.

If God exists outside of time, then a lot of theology is more understandable. For example, it is easier for me to see how God can know everything past, present and future. If he exists outside of time, all time is visible to him. God doesn’t have to wait for time to pass to see how things will work out. He sees all time from his vantage point and so can see the beginning, the middle and the ending of everything simultaneously. Thinking about stuff like that can get me started on a theological headache fairly easily.

I don’t actually expect to ever get a full understanding of things like time. I enjoy the process of thinking about it and playing with the implications and trying to fit pieces together. But my thinking about the theory of time also has another valuable aspect. It helps me to remember that in the end, I am not God—I am not even a god. There are limits to what I or any other human can know, do and understand. At some point, I always come back to the reality that there is something beyond me. And for me, that something is God.

The creator and sustainer of all, the all knowing, the ever present, the be all and end of everything knows and does stuff that I can never understand because he is God and I am not and never will be God. I can and should do and learn and figure out everything I can. I can and should struggle with the stuff I may never understand, like the theory of time. But in the end, I keep coming back to the reality that there is something beyond me and my abilities, a God who not only understands the theory of time but who actually created time.

And what makes this even more important is that the God of all creation and beyond loves me and all humanity and shows that love and grace in concrete and clear ways. I may never understand the theory of time, I may never understand why God would love me, but I believe it and believe him when he says he loves me.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE BRANCH

For the past few weeks, I have been watching a particular branch on one of our neighbour’s oak trees. When I am sitting in the living room (which is my office these days), I can look out the window and see the tree and branch—and since my creative process tends to involve a lot of staring out the window searching for inspiration, I see the branch a lot.

This particular branch broke sometime this winter, maybe because of the snow load or the wind or whatever—oak branches don’t always seem to need a clear and visible reason for breaking. The break wasn’t complete and the branch has been hanging pretty much straight down for weeks. Initially, it was attached by a fair amount of wood but that has been getting less and less which each windy day we have. Since we live in south-western Nova Scotia, we get a lot of windy days.

I am not sure exactly what is holding the branch these days. It swings freely in any breeze and looks like it should have come down days ago. But it hands on, swinging and twisting slightly all day and providing a something for me to look at when the sermon or Bible study or blog post isn’t coming together like it should. I am pretty sure it is going to fall one of these days—I am hoping that I will actually be watching when it falls.

Now, I am going to resist the temptation that all preachers face, the temptation to turn that hanging branch onto a sermon illustration. Sure, it can be a great story about persistence or doing your best no matter what or—well, you have probably heard enough sermons to know what we preachers can do with a branch hanging from a tree.

Mostly, I like watching the branch because it is something to focus on when I need a short break from the keyboard. If the deer and squirrels aren’t playing around and my neighbours aren’t doing anything much, the branch provides something to focus on that occupies my conscious mind so that the deeper layers of my thought process can shove the needed idea up to the surface. When the branch falls, I will find something else to look at. The added benefit is that since it is on my neighbour’s lawn, I won’t have to pick it up.

The branch is important right now and as long as it hangs there, I will watch it. It isn’t particularly important—it’s not big enough to do any damage when it falls; it isn’t going to fall on anything; it’s loss isn’t going to affect the tree. I personally have nothing invested in the branch aside from its temporary value as a distraction. That distraction value will be easily replaced when it actually falls.

I think the branch is important because it isn’t important. Most of my work involves me in significant and important stuff. I am a pastor, called by God to help people grow in their relationship with themselves, with each other and with God. I am called to help the churches I serve become healthier and be better witnesses to the wonder of God. I work with people on an individual and couple basis as they try to work through various crises and issues and problems. I have my own issues to deal with: the effects of aging, decisions about my future after retiring someday, figuring out when to schedule surgery for my bad knees.

In short, like most people, I deal with a lot of stress, both my own and others. And while I think I deal with that stress fairly well most of the time, it is stress and it does have an effect. The tree branch, well, it has absolutely no effect on my life, I have absolutely no responsibility towards it. It is just there, hanging and swinging where I can see it. It provides a distraction, a brief interlude where I can ignore the pressure of the sermon, the stress of the upcoming counselling session, the concern for the future of the church. I can look out the window, look at the branch and let everything else go on hold for a few seconds. And even better, when it finally falls, there will be something else equally unimportant to provide the necessary distraction.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT HAVE I ACCOMPLISHED?

At the beginning of the year, I began working on a project in my shop. We needed some more storage space and decided that the need would be met if I built a cabinet and shelf unit similar to the china cabinet and hutch I built a few years ago. The new unit needed to be slightly smaller and a bit different in design but they would match in terms of basic design, wood selection and finish. We got really lucky when the knotty pine I planned on using was on sale at a nearby building supply store.

The project has been moving along. It hasn’t been as fast as I would like. I still have to work and that limits my time for woodworking. I can’t do sawing or sanding in the house, which means those particular jobs can only be done with it is nice enough outside. The requirements for free time and relatively comfortable outside weather in Nova Scotia in the winter happening at the same time mean that I don’t get at the project as often as I would like and the finishing date keeps getting shifted forward.

But the project is moving along. The basic structures are formed, a lot of the sanding is done and there are just a few more assembly steps necessary before I can finish the whole thing. Even though I don’t care much for the final sanding and varnishing process, I can see that I will get the work done. I can also see just how much progress I have made along the way—I have moved from a pile of boards on the basement floor to a pretty much finished project that will soon become a finished and functional part of our household.

There are times when I wish the success of my ministry was as easy to evaluate. But the reality I live with is that much of what I do for ministry isn’t all that easy to evaluate, especially if I am looking at and for long term results. Sure, I can relatively easily gage how well a sermon went over—I just have to count the number of people awake when I finish. Evaluating a Bible study session is relatively simple—I look at how far I got or didn’t get in my lesson plan.

But figuring out how that sermon fits into the long term health of the individuals and the church or seeing how that Bible study session affects the church three years from now—that is much more difficult. In fact, it actually might be pretty much impossible. When I cut a board in the workshop, I can pretty much tell immediately if it will work or not. But when I finish a sermon, who really knows what the effects will be?

Even the traditional measures of evaluating ministry really don’t give a lot of insight into the effectiveness of ministry. Traditionally, churches and leadership have used the numerical growth of the congregation and the increase in giving as measuring sticks—what some call the “nickels and noses” evaluation. But all that says in the end is that we have more or less people and money that when we started.

I believe in evaluation processes and have lots of measuring tools that I use in my ministry but I have realized that in the end, most of what I do will ultimately be evaluated by God, not me or the church or the denomination. Without sounding too whatever, I think that the real value of the ministry I do here and now will be evaluated by God himself. I base that partly on Paul’s comments in I Corinthians 2.10-15, where he suggests that only when God calls “time” will the final word on anyone’s ministry by spoken.

That doesn’t really bother me, all that much. While I can and do use all sorts of evaluation processes and tools to help make my ministry as effective as I can make it, I recognize that God has the final say and I am responsible for doing the best I can with the tools I have and the time I have—and am also responsible for making sure that I keep open to his leading because he knows where it all needs to go much better than I do.

It’s probably good that I like woodworking because that means there is at least some place where I can see clearly what I am accomplishing.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SERMON

A few weeks ago, I was preaching a series of sermons on the parables of Jesus. One of the first sermons in the series seems to have made a significant impression on the congregation. For a while after that sermon, people kept referring to the sermon and especially to a visual representation I used during the sermon. The Bible study group discussed the sermon. Individuals mentioned it at meetings and at other times. I even overheard people describing the sermon to members who hadn’t been there. Overall, it seems like this was a pretty successful sermon.

But that was several weeks ago. We have since moved on. We finished the series on the parables and moved into Easter. I haven’t heard anything about the parable sermon in weeks. I have heard a few comments about other sermons suggesting that people are still listening to what I have to say at least some of the time but the parable sermon seems to have disappeared into wherever sermons go in people’s minds after a period of time.

I very much doubt that old sermons go into a special mental file for most people. I doubt that people spend time thinking about the best sermons of the year or the decade. In fact, the painful truth that many preachers don’t want to deal with is that most sermons barely survive the handshake at the door on the way out of the sanctuary. A few, of course, manage to survive a little longer. A sermon with a good story or joke, a sermon that touches a special place for the worshipper or a really bad one—any of them can last into the next week and maybe even beyond.

But eventually, every sermon ends up as a part of a shapeless mass of forgotten prose, decomposed and decontextualized, sitting somewhere in the memory banks of church goers. No matter how hard I work at the sermon, no matter how deeply I research, no matter how powerful the illustrations are, the sermon ultimately loses shape and form and exists, if at all, as a blob among other blobs in people’s minds.

That could be depressing and discouraging, especially if I had some insecurities or felt that my words were so important that they had to be remembered exactly. And while there may have been times in the past when I struggled with such things, there days, I tend not to get too bent out of shape by the fact that no one really remembers my sermons for all that long. Honestly, I can’t remember them either—in order to be certain I know what I preached the Sunday before when we discuss the worship at Bible study, I keep a copy of the sermon on my phone so I can refer to it if necessary.

I don’t expect people to remember the sermon. It was flattering to have people remember and talk about the parable sermon for so long—but is doesn’t depress me that I haven’t heard anyone mention that sermon in weeks. I don’t actually preach to have people remember the sermon. I preach because I want to help people grow in faith—and any one individual sermon is about as valuable to spiritual growth as any one individual meal is valuable to physical growth.

If a person were to get just one meal in their life, they would have a very short life. No matter how great the meal was, just one meal can’t sustain life. Life is build and sustained by the accumulation of meals over the course of a lifetime—and the health and vitality of the lifetime depends on the nutritional balance of all those meals. Anyone meal is unimportant—but all of them together make the person.

Well, any one sermon by itself is pretty much worthless—even if people remember it and refer to it for days and even weeks, it still won’t be enough by itself to sustain and develop spiritual life. But when that one sermon gets folded in with all the other sermons, it can develop into a sort of spiritual compost that provides a base for solid and healthy spiritual growth.

While it was nice that people remembered an individual sermon for so long, even the best of my sermons isn’t all that memorable. But over time, my hope is that accumulation of sermons composting in the believer’s mind will make a difference, enabling them to grow strong in the faith.

May the peace of God be with you.