BEING ORDINARY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

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LIFE IS GREAT!

I ran into a friend recently whom I haven’t really connected with since his retirement over a year ago. We were both involved in the same event so didn’t have a lot of time to talk but we did exchange the basic information pertinent to our relationship: my knees are worse, he is now serving a church quarter time, I am not retired, he is loving retirement. He sort of wondered why I wasn’t retired because he is finding retirement to be really great.

I could, I suppose, have questioned how great retirement is if he is back at work after such a short time—I think he had been retired only a few months before he started at his new position. He was also involved in the same inter-church program I was in that evening as well, which suggests that maybe his retirement isn’t as retiring as he wanted me to believe. I have no doubt that his life is great right now and that he is enjoying himself—but maybe retirement isn’t the whole reason why he is doing well.

Life needs purpose and direction and meaning, I think. For most people, that is found in the process of work and family and the normal stuff that we do along the way. I am aware that that is a significant over-generalization but I think it does contain a lot of truth as well. I do know that there are many people whose work and family and living situations don’t provide sufficient purpose and direction and meaning. But the truth is that most of us find enough in the realities of living and working to keep going, even if we have times when we want more.

And that is why for many people, retirement creates some serious problems. Suddenly, everything that provided meaning and purpose and hope is gone—and for some people, it is really hard to replace that. In one fishing village that I used to be the pastor for, the men used to have a way of expressing it: a fisher who retired and didn’t go back to the wharf regularly died within a year of retirement. I think they recognized the reality that losing work and not having anything to replace it produced a hopelessness that made life hard to continue.

While this has traditionally been a problem with men, it is becoming more and more a problem for all people. In a more traditional times in the past, men worked outside the home and women worked inside the home, meaning there was still a purpose and meaning for the woman since their job of cooking and cleaning and care giving as still needed. But with everyone needing to work, everyone faces the life dilemma of what gives meaning after retirement.

Some of my older friends in ministry approach this problem by having several retirements. They retire, accept a call to “interim” ministry, retire again, accept another call and so on. I like to joke that they just do this because they really like retirement parties. More likely, they don’t like the feelings that come from not doing what was so important and central to their lives.

So, why write about retirement aside from the fact that it was on my mind after talking with my happily “retired” friend? I suppose part of it is because I plan on retiring someday. I am not sure when—the ministry I am doing now isn’t done yet and I want to see where God is taking me and the churches I have been called to. But I am past retirement age, my pensions will provide a comfortable income, my aging process is producing more and more aches and pains and limits and I am beginning to think that it will be nice at some point to wake up on the morning and not have to get moving because the sermon isn’t done or there is that meeting or I need to lead worship.

So, I am planning on retiring someday—but I am also planning my retirement already. I have a list of things I would like to do and explore. Nothing is written down but I keep seeing and thinking of things I want to try when I have some time. I want to learn how to make chocolate croissants and built scale model Cape Island boats for example. Will that be enough? I don’t know—but if it isn’t, I guess I can try my friend’s part time retirement approach.

May the peace of God be with you.

SHARING THE LOAD

In common with many congregations these days, the worship in both the pastorates I serve has a prayer time, where members of the congregation have the opportunity to share prayer requests. Some Sundays, there are no requests, not because nothing needs prayer but likely because no one wants to share their concerns that particular day. Other Sundays, the list of requests is long—which means I have to take good notes so I can include them in the subsequent pastoral prayer time. The longer the list, the more likely it is that I will not be able to read my handwriting by the time I arrive at that point in the prayer time.

Anyway, I have noticed something interesting about the nature of the prayer requests that people bring. As expected, there are often requests for members of our worshipping community: things like return to health, safety in travel, successful operations and so on. There are also requests for people we know in the wider community who are dealing with illness or grief or some other issue that someone in our group feels should be prayer about.

And then there is another set of requests. Many of our members tend to be aware of what is going on in the world and because many of them are also caring and compassionate people, the things they read and see on the media trouble them. And so many of our prayer requests during the sharing time focus on people and events in places where we have no real connection and are not likely to have any connection.

But some want a connection of some kind. In some cases, they could and probably do make a connection by donating money—there is always someone or some organization willing to take money to assist in whatever the media is covering. But some of our people want a different connection. We have concerns, we want to do something and money doesn’t seem to be enough. And so we pray. I am pretty sure that those making the requests pray about them personally and privately, we pray about them during worship and some, I believe, are inspired to pray about them later on their own.

There are lots of possible comments to make at this point. We could question the value of such prayers; we could wonder if the suggestion is a way of avoiding actual involvement; we could even look at the whole issue of the value of prayer. But to me in my context, none of those seem to have much validity. I am the pastor and I have some insights into the motivations of those making the requests—and I believe that they bring the request because they are concerned and want to make a difference.

And because they are people of faith, they see prayer—and more specifically our public prayer time—as a valid and significant and important way of becoming involved and making a difference. We join together as a Christian community and open ourselves to God around those areas and situations that concern us. We might not have a personal involvement with any of the people but we make it personal when we take it to God in our prayers. We might not have any ability to personally intervene but we are enabled to personally intervene through our faith in God, whom we believe is all powerful and present everywhere. Our prayers to him are received and answered.

And we are involved. We are doing something—not doing the only thing we can do and not doing something simple to avoid doing something more serious. We are doing the best we can do, which is to share our concerns with each other before God and then in faith, trust that the God of all creation will continue to be at work in whatever has concerned us. We are not drawing God’s attention to whatever—we are, I think, reminding ourselves that the God we trust is already there and already at work and because of that, we can share the burden of those more directly involved.

We pray—not because it is the only thing we can do but because it is the best thing that we can do. We pray because we need to, because we want to, because God invites us to. We pray—and through our prayers, we share the load.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS IS COMING

The afternoon worship a week or so ago started out a little slowly. I arrived at the regular time but the organist who is normally there practising wasn’t there. I puttered around and set up my stuff and cleared a couple of things off the bulletin board until she arrived. The choir director arrived at about the same time and from there, things started getting hectic. Several more people came in at the same time, several of whom had questions and comments. One of the deacons arrived and I immediately passed off the bulletins to him so I could deal with other stuff.

As I rushed from task to task and person to person, I was aware that the noise level was slowly rising in the sanctuary—laughter, multiple discussions, even people talking to each other from across the small sanctuary. I try to greet everyone as they come in but that was difficult—things were hectic and every now and then, when I had time to scan the sanctuary, there were a bunch of people whom I hadn’t greeted. Granted, we are not talking large numbers but it was still hard to connect with everyone.

In the midst of the activity, I checked my watch and realized that it was time to start. The choir and I gathered for prayer but the noise level was so loud that I got distracted in the prayer, which did give the choir a laugh before we started. Eventually, I got to the pulpit and suggested that the snow that we had in the previous week must have put everyone in a good mood because of all the noise and laughter I was hearing. While no one agreed with my suggestion, the noise level was significantly louder.

Later that day, we had a Skype call with one of the kids. The call was somewhat chaotic because our two grandchildren were very active and wound up, making conversation difficult and confusing. The grandchildren had been busy with a variety of things, some of them involving candy, but there was even more activity than could be explained by that.

I am pretty sure that both events I have described are connected with the Christmas season. While the Sunday in question wasn’t an Advent Sunday, it was part of our cultural Christmas build up. I have been noticing lots of ads, the stores are seriously Christmased up, some houses are already sporting Christmas lights and at least one ten foot Santa is already inflated along our road.

Couple that with the snow that we had just before this Sunday and I am pretty sure that what I was seeing was the beginning of the Christmas season. People are being affected. We are in Christmas mode, which is hard to define completely but which seems to me to be a real thing. We are more gregarious, a bit louder when we are together, more focused on the bits and pieces of the season, quicker to laugh, more responsive to helping out and generally more interested in being with other people. Normal stuff, like getting settled down for worship, gets lost in the process.

I think I need to pay attention to what I am seeing and maybe even let it infect me a bit. I have been somewhat preoccupied with the professional demands of the season, getting plans and programs in place to enable people to remember the birth of Jesus and its significance for our faith. And while I think that is important, it does tend to take my time and energy and leave me a bit tired and even unresponsive to all the rest of the Christmas stuff.

I probably need to remember that as well as being a Christian event, Christmas is primarily a cultural event these days and maybe I need to allow myself to enjoy that part of it a bit more. I probably don’t need to get as wound up and excited as my grandchildren but it might be appropriate if I had some of the seasonal excitement that I was seeing among the worship attendees that Sunday.

We all know that after Christmas, we settle into the long, cold winter with all the restrictions and limits that brings (at least for some people who never learned to appreciate snow) so why not have some fun before that? If it makes worship a bit more hectic, I can handle that.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO BLESSINGS

According to the schedule, this was going to be a really busy week. I had all the regular stuff to do: two sermons, two Bible studies and all the other associated stuff that comes from being a pastor. On top of that, there was an extra Bible study for our inter-church council, a part in the annual memorial service our funeral home sponsors plus added Advent/Christmas stuff. While I like being busy, I don’t actually like being too busy and I especially don’t like being in a position where I simply can’t do all that needs to be done—but that is what this week looked like when I began work on Tuesday morning.

I had to do some mental juggling, wondering what bits and pieces I could put off, which involves not just figuring out what isn’t as critical but also trying to find a spot to put it in later. I have found over the years that just postponing doing stuff without planning on when I will do them leads to even more stress down the road. It was a tough process but by the end of Tuesday, I had a sort of a plan that would allow me to get stuff done, sort of on time.

Wednesday arrives—and brings with it snow and wind and cold temperatures. I checked the local cancellation list and discovered there is no school. Since all our kids are grown and living too far away, I didn’t check it for them. I checked because the inter-church Bible study has a neat and effective rule—when school is cancelled, it is cancelled. Suddenly, I have a whole morning with nothing planned. And even more, one of the requirements for that day that wasn’t going to get done was to have a handout ready for the next study.

The cancellation pushed the coming studies a week down the line, giving me some breathing room to get the final study session ready. It also meant that rather than rush around and head for the study, I had some choices.

Among the possibilities were a significant session with some books that have been occupying memory space on my electronics. There is a small project sitting on my work bench in the basement, a set of Advent candle holders for a couple of the churches. There is always the option of doing almost nothing or even nothing.

I actually chose to focus on getting some of the stuff cluttering my need to do list out of the way. The extra time the cancellation gave me was a blessing. I probably wouldn’t have cancelled the study that day but since we had the rule in place, I chose to embrace the blessing the cancelation brought with it.

The next day, the morning weather was actually worse. There was more snow, more wind and even colder temperatures. I checked again and school was cancelled again. That wasn’t an automatic cancel for the church Bible study but it was a indication that I had better make some phone calls and discuss the situation, which resulted in another cancellation. Once again, I had time—and another blessing.

The deferred list got even shorter. I actually got some serious work done on the last of the inter-church studies, a start on the Christmas Eve services and some reading done. I also got the Advent candle holders finished and had some time to actually do nothing. I think the second blessing was even more valuable than the first one. The first one took the pressure off—but the second one allowed for some actual relaxation and de-stressing.

My work plan doesn’t count on these unexpected blessings. But when they happen, I can and will embrace them because of the space that they give. I am aware that having got a head a bit on all the stuff won’t be a long term reality—but in the short term, I did get some stuff cleared that might have clogged things up down the road. There will be more stuff that needs to be done and diminishing time to do it before too long.

But for now, I had two blessings that allowed me to catch up and even get a bit ahead. That is great, although I just realized that I need to find time to prepare the Christmas newsletter. But thanks to the cancellations, there is time for that.

May the peace of God be with you.

DEPRESSION ALERT

This has been a very busy weekend. One of the pastorates I serve had a major fund raising event on Saturday—it was a great event, from what I saw and heard, although my sight and vision were limited since my skill set pretty much confines me to the kitchen, well, really the sink washing dishes. I am pretty good at that task and it does keep me from spilling coffee and tea on guests at the tables. Sunday, of course, it always busy with two worship services and lots of people to talk to. We even had some visitors at the early service, which was nice.

But I work up this morning a bit before time to get up. As I enjoyed the warmth of the bed while thinking over the day’s activities, I had something of a shock. I caught a glimpse of my depression peeking around the corners of my thoughts. It wasn’t strong but it was there. I began to recognize the symptoms—feeling tired after a good night’s sleep; a lack of real interest in what I had planned for the day; an inability to go back to sleep combined with the fatigue feelings; a desire to crawl in a hole and disappear.

The depression hasn’t really arrived. This event was more of a preliminary message, a sort of an “I’m coming” promise. The conditions are right: lots of work activity; some personal stuff that is taxing; some frustrating circumstances preventing some important decisions. There are lots of reasons why the depression shouldn’t be there. Things are going well in the churches; my knees are not as painful, the cold didn’t develop into anything serious and it is actually snowing. But the potential is there—and it is close enough that the depression feels confident enough to show itself.

Now, I have to make some decisions. I need to decide what I am going to do about it. I recognize that not everyone fighting depression has the same options I have. My particular brand of depression tends to be closely related to my decisions and my willingness to take care of myself physically, emotionally and spiritually. I know all that and even do a pretty good job of paying attention to all the relevant factors most of the time. But when life gets hectic and things pile up, I take less and less care of myself, opening the door for the depression to worm its way in.

The problem is compounded by the fact that I am committed to what I do. My faith and my work are intimately connected—God has called me to ministry and whatever form it takes wherever it is, I am going to do my best, which involves more time that I probably should give it, more thought than I should give it, more energy that I should give it. I appreciate the opportunity God has given me to make a difference in the lives of the people he has called me to serve. I thrive on the opportunity to match Biblical teaching with the specific needs of the congregations. I love connecting churches, individuals and other groups with God through sermons, worship, Bible studies, counselling sessions and so on.

But it is too easy to lose myself in the process. And I know that the call to faith and service comes in the context of sacrifice and commitment and self-denial. Answering a call to ministry is demanding. But what I forget is that there is still a need to care for myself in the process. And once I forget that call to care for myself, everything else is built on a sandy foundation.

The threatening depression is a warning of that reality. I really can’t do what I have been called to do and want to do when I am depressed. I can go through the motions, letting momentum carry me but it isn’t really what I have been called to do. And while God can and does gracefully promise to work around my weaknesses, it is much better for me when I look after myself so that I can give him, the church and myself the best I am capable of at any given time.

So, thanks for the warning, depression. But because I have seen you peeking around the edges of my life, I am watching for you—and even more, I am pretty sure that God is looking after me.

May the peace of God be with you.

KEEP MOVING

I was talking with a friend on ministry the other day about our mutual occupation. We were both in the midst of the fall rush. Basically, from mid-September to mid-December, pastors and church workers don’t have much time for anything beyond work. And as the fall transitions to Advent, things get even worse. The time period is filled with special events, new programs, pastoral emergencies, church and denominational meetings—the list goes on and on. I find myself taking a deep breath in the middle of September and basically beginning to run the marathon.

Except that this marathon has a nasty surprise near the end. Fall church programming leads into Advent and Christmas programming. To use the marathon analogy, this marathon ends with a steep uphill climb. I don’t actually run marathons but have children and friends who do—and from their stories of marathons, I am pretty sure that a marathon with a steep hill at the end would be the very last thing they would want to do.

So, with Advent beginning soon, I find myself in the middle of the hill. Because of my preparation process, I hit the hill a bit before some of my colleagues in ministry. I try to stay a week ahead in all my preparation which does give me some psychological and practical wiggle room but also means I hit the crunch earlier. So, this next two weeks are probably the busiest I am going to have. Two sermons, the Bible study for the area churches that seemed like such a great idea last April, the church fund raiser that helps ensure I get paid, the Advent programs that need to be prepared, the Christmas newsletter, the meeting to prepare our next year’s worship schedule, along with all the other stuff that must be done means that I need to take another deep breath to make sure I keep going—I am definitely feeling the steepness of the hill right now.

Based on previous years of ministry (and I have a lot of those), I will get everything done and I will survive the climb. Eventually, the middle of December will come and things will slow down a bit and then, well, there is always the post-Christmas slump which also brings with it the possibility of a Sunday snow storm with produces a cancellation.

The issue for me is always doing the best I can. I used to be concerned with doing my best, which sounds noble and heroic and faithful but which in practise leads to stress, fatigue, anxiety and burnout. I know that I am capable of doing some pretty good stuff—but the unfortunate reality is that I can’t always work to my limits. Or maybe it is better to say that my limits are moved by my circumstances. The fantastic sermon I could produce with unlimited time becomes a somewhat less fantastic sermon because I also have to write the ecumenical study, the Advent candle program and our regular Bible study.

None of them will be my best work—none of them will be as good as what I could produce if I had only that one thing to do. So, each one of them gets the best that I can do given the time and opportunity I have. I can’t do my best work—but I can and will do the best I can in the circumstances.

And I will do what I always do—I will give God and the church my best and then depend on God to take care of the rest. Ultimately, I do what I do because God has called me to be his agent to carry out his will. All that I do passes through him and any effects and results are due more to his divine work than my efforts.

For me, this isn’t a cop out or an excuse of sub-standard work or an extra nap. For me, this is a basic reality that enables me to cope with the impossible task that I have been called to. Even if I could produce me best all the time, it still isn’t good enough. But if I consciously work at giving God and the church the very best I can in any circumstance, then I can take comfort in the reality that God is going to use what I do to accomplish his will.

May the peace of God be with you.

FEELING GUILTY

The other day, I was at the fall fundraising event for several of the churches in our area. Rather than set up competing events, the churches get together, rent a large hall and do the event together. So, in one big space, there are bake sales, jam sales, quasi-yard sales, silent auctions and a really good brunch. Since we browse the tables at different speeds, my wife and I quickly got separated but since we both knew we would end up at the brunch tables, that wasn’t a problem.

As I looked at the tables and talked to people I knew from all the various churches, I came to the table run by a neighbour who is on one of the same committees I serve on. She had volunteered to take the minutes of our last meeting, which I would then scan and send on to the rest of the committee. As soon as she saw me, she joked about feeling guilty because she didn’t have the minutes done. My joking response was that my job as a pastor was done because I had made her feel guilty. We both knew we were joking and went on to talk about other things—and in the process made a tentative plan to get the minutes done.

I have been thinking on the topic of guilt since then—well, to be honest, it is a topic that I have been thinking about on and off for a while. It seems like guilt is almost synonymous with being a person of faith. I have heard pastors (and comedians) talk about various religious groups as being the inventors of guilt. I remember one person whose faith I admired telling a visiting speaker that she really appreciated his message because it made her feel so guilty—she was giving him what was her supreme compliment.

There is a connection between faith and guilt but not the one that is popularly assumed to be there. It seems like many people both inside and outside the faith want guilt to be the supreme quality of a religious person. Such thinking almost has a valid point. Most religions begin with the idea that we human beings are imperfect and that there is a better, holier and perfect something beyond us. Our continued imperfection is a problem—and guilt seems to be the appropriate response for most people.

Interestingly enough, most people want to maintain a perfect level of guilt. They want to have enough to feel religious but not enough to change behaviour. This is a hard balance to maintain, though, and often people get caught in the swamp of uncontrolled guilt that causes them to slip into low self-esteem, despair, even hopelessness. The process isn’t helped by the vast amount of guilt producing preaching, teaching and advice given by religious leaders.

But what if guilt isn’t the purpose of faith? What if, instead of guilt being the goal and focus of faith, it is only a tool to get us to something greater, a tool that has a important but limited use? What is God uses guilt to motivate us to confess and accept his forgiveness so that we can be free of guilt? What is guilt that can’t be dealt with by God’s offer of forgiveness is false guilt and isn’t something that we need to or should deal with?

I think that this what if is actually the case. I think our Christian faith is based on the reality that God doesn’t want us to feel guilty. In actual fact, he wants us to feel forgiven—and forgiveness by definition ends the hold of guilt on our lives. God wants us to live in the freedom that comes from knowing that we are forgiven and that there is no need to hold on to the guilt that led us to accept God’s forgiveness. Sometimes, that left over guilt is really a sign of our inability to really accept and appreciate the forgiveness that God has given us in Jesus. We hold on to our guilt probably because we feel better feeling guilty that we do feeling free.

But as believers, we are free, we are forgiven and for us, guilt should only be a temporary reminder that we have more to take to God and when we take it to him, he takes care of us, relieving us of the need to feel guilty. Real faith is marked by a sense of freedom from guilt, a freedom that comes from opening ourselves to the grace of God.

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.

REAL MINISTRY

I am a pastor, which means many things: I get to be chief grace sayer at all kinds of meals; I am expected to know the meaning of every obscure word and verse in the Bible; I am able to conjure up food and money for every needy person and situation. In short, I am involved in ministry. While I am aware that others are involved in ministry as well, I have a tendency to forget that.

But recently, I was talking with someone who needed someone to listen while they opened up about something they were involved in—that is another of the many activities that go along with being a pastor. I actually knew a fair bit about the situation since it had been a topic of the church and our prayers for a while. I knew about this person’s involvement. As they talked, the story became more interesting.

The person was a bit frustrated with the response to the situation. The person we were all concerned about needed serious help financially, emotionally and medically. He needed major repairs on his house or he would spend the winter with a temporarily patched roof—never a good thing in a Nova Scotia winter where wind, rain and snow come regularly. But in spite of the fact that this was a small community, there wasn’t a lot of activity. Some work had been done and some money had been raised but not what might be expected.

The person talking to me was trying really hard to get things going and frustrated at the results. As we talked, the person acknowledged that helping this other person was difficult: the life choices he had made had tended to turn people away from him. His alcoholic life style, his sometimes difficult personality, his overly independent personality had all worked to create a situation where he was more tolerated in his community than appreciated. Nobody would actually wish his harm but nobody was very quick to step in and help either.

But the person was trying, which I thought was great. But as they talked to me, what I was hearing became even more significant. The person acknowledged that the person was difficult. And then they told me that they had been bullied and I suspect even abused by this person and had spend many years being afraid of the person. There were clearly painful and deep scars associated with this particular individual.

And yet the person talking to me was committed to making sure that the person had a safe and secure home for the winter. They were making arrangements, setting up processes, ensuring that money was accounted for, pushing community leaders. They had made a commitment to this person, a person whom I wasn’t even sure they really liked.

As I reflected on the conversation, I had lots of thoughts, one of which was that this person was engaged in real ministry. They were committed to helping someone others were rejecting for some valid reasons. They themselves had good reason to ignore the person and the situation. And yet, the individual in question needed help—and for some reason, the person talking to me felt it was their job to make sure that the help was delivered. I think what I was hearing from this person qualified as a call to ministry.

Not a call to ministry in the sense of committing to spending a life time working in and for the church, which is what we often consider a call to ministry to be. But this was a specific call to a specific ministry for a specific time. For some reason or reasons, I think God has asked the person talking to me to be his agent for a person they might not like but to whom they can be used as God’s hands. The results of this call are already evident: the man in need is slowly getting the help he needs and if the person I was talking to has anything to say about it, they will have a warm shelter for the winter. But there are other results of that call that are equally valid, results that have to do with the ability of the person talking to me to open themselves to God to find the resources needed to do what God asks.

May the peace of God be with you.