RETIREMENT AGE

Sometimes, when I need a break from whatever I am working on but don’t want to “waste” time, I log on to our denominational website. I don’t do that from some great desire to discover what my denomination is doing—I generally know what I need to know from other sources. I go to the website because one of the resources there is a page devoted to the changes in status of the clergy in our denomination. I know many of the clergy but because of geography, time and inertia, I don’t connect with many of them on a regular basis.

But by checking the website, I can discover who is doing what—it makes a great way to catch up with people I studied with, others I have met along the way, students I have taught and so on. These days when I check the site, I am struck by two things, both of which sort of point out something similar.

First, I read a lot of names of people I don’t know. There have always been some clergy I didn’t know but often, I would have at least heard the name from someone else. But these days, the number of names I don’t know seems to be in the majority. The few times I have tried to find out who they are, I have discovered that they are people who have come into ministry from another career or who are younger graduates. I don’t know them because I am not as involved in the denomination structures or educational process as I once was.

It takes a certain amount of energy to work as a pastor and another amount of energy to be involved in denominational activities and in the last few years, I have been choosing to conserve my energy by not having as much involvement outside the local churches I pastor.

The other thing I notice as I read through the changes page of the website is the number of people who are as the site describes it “retiring from active ministry”. Now, these people, I tend to know quite well. Some were pastors who were active when I started out. A few I studied with. Some I met during my stints on denominational committees and boards. A few were students I taught—second vocation, older students but students I taught. I read those lists, do some rudimentary math and realize that while some of those retiring are older than I am, I significant number are my age—and some are younger than me.

Both discoveries point in the same direction for me—I am getting old. I passed the official retirement age on my last birthday. Many of my friends in ministry are retired or have announced their retirement. In the churches I pastor, the majority of the congregations are retired—and not a few of them are younger than I am.

So, I ask myself, why am I still working? I am not working for financial reasons. Although ministry doesn’t pay a lot, my denomination has a good pension plan, especially for those of us who have been in it for 40+ years—compound interest over that period of time works wonders.

Nor am I still working because I am a Type A person who must always be at the centre of things and who will shrivel up and die without a job to use as my definition of self. I have tons of things I would prefer to be doing: more woodworking, gardening, travelling, reading, photography are all appealing but are somewhat on hold because of the demands of pastoral ministry.

So, I am old enough to retire. I can afford to retire. I have plans for a post retirement life. But I am still working and plan to be doing so for a while yet. Why? Well, the best I can say is that I believe that this is what God wants me to be doing here and now. I don’t think God’s kingdom will fall apart if I retire but I do believe that God still has something to accomplish through my efforts and so I am trying to be faithful.

I am pretty sure that I will be retiring someday but not today.

May the peace of God be with you.

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PRAYING MY PRAYERS

Over the years, I have discovered that one of the most effective tools for some forms of ministry is a cup of coffee and one of the most effective locations for that ministry is in a coffee shop. When I was younger, that particular approach to ministry was custom made for me—I love coffee and didn’t need any excuse to drink coffee. These days, I have to be a bit more careful about coffee and generally order decaf but the ministry works just as well without or without caffeine.

Because I tend to be an introvert, I generally don’t initiate too many of these coffee connections. But over the years, there have been a fair number of people who have wanted to get together for coffee and I am generally glad to accept the invitation, even to the point of being willing to pay for the coffee for both of us. Some of these invitations will be a conversation between friends, where we go back and forth and joke and laugh and touch on serious stuff and all the rest—and sometimes, in those conversations, I might even come close to talking about half the time, which is really significant for an introvert like me.

Other coffee conversations are more focused—we are together because both of us know that the other person wants/needs this conversation to deal with an issue. It isn’t really counselling or ministry because we are doing it over coffee at the coffee shop—but underneath, we both know that this is serious stuff and I am going to be expected to drink my coffee and be as professional as possible while both of us pretend that this is really a coffee conversation. I am fine with that, although I do reserve the right to get professional and suggest real counselling if the problem is serious enough.

So, what does this have to do with prayer, particularly my prayers? I am working this through at this point but I do think that there is a connection between my coffee conversations and my personal prayer life. While I don’t actually have much in the way of an organized private prayer life, I do spend time both talking to and listening to God. And even though these times don’t generally involve coffee, there are some similarities.

I think I listen to and for God a lot. When I am reading the Bible, when I am doing my study for a sermon or a Bible study, when I am contemplating the congregations I have been called to pastor, when I am depressed, when I am desperately trying to figure out where I am going with the next sermon plan—at all those times, I am deeply aware that I need some serious divine guidance and insight and wisdom. I generally don’t preface those times with a specific request for God to guide me—but I am listening for the guidance. On many levels, that isn’t much different than me and my friend engaging in pastoral ministry in the coffee shop without calling it pastoral ministry.

Sometimes, I do engage in serious talk with God: when I am frustrated and tired and verging on depression, I have a tendency to spill my anger and hurt and frustration—and that looks and sounds a whole lot like some of the coffee conversations that I have had in various coffee shops over the years. After I pour out whatever is there, I discover the peace that God continually promises, provided, of course, I remember to be willing to listen to him. That does sometimes take a while but so far, I have always ended up listening and discovering the presence of God.

The one difference I can see between my prayers and my coffee shop experiences is that I don’t actually have to go to a coffee shop and I don’t need the coffee. In fact, my personal prayer process generally works better when I am by myself with God. With some people, I need to go to the coffee shop for that—but with God and my prayers, any place and any time works, which is a really good thing because in the area where I live, it is quite a drive to get to a 24 hour coffee shop.

May the peace of God be with you.

LET US PRAY

For a while now, I have been pondering a reality of my spiritual life. As a pastor, I pray a lot—every worship service has several prayers included, as well as the prayer I have with the choir before we begin. It is not unusual for me to pray with parishioners before or after worship if the situation warrants it. When there is a meal or fellowship time, I pray for the food. When I make a pastoral visit in a home or hospital, I generally pray with the people I visit. I have also prayed during phone calls and occasionally on the street with someone who obviously needs the divine support that prayer helps us to remember. Overall, I pray a lot.

Except, I actually don’t, at least outside of professional prayers. My personal prayer life has gone through a lot of phases but for the last few years, I don’t actually have a specific prayer time. I used to have long and ever growing prayer lists: one for the ministry I was involved in, one for family and friends, one for things in the news that caught my eye. I would read my Bible and then pray through the lists. Sometimes the lists were so long that I would do some lists some days and other lists on other days—organizing is one of my gifts.

But one day, I realized that the prayer list driven prayers were just not doing it for me. I realized that I was just running over the names and topics as if I was reading the grocery list. I wasn’t really involved in the list—I wasn’t actually sure that what I was doing could actually be classified as prayer. Now, before I go further, let me assure anyone who used and finds value in prayer lists that I am not going to bash the process or people who do it. I am dealing with my personal prayers, not someone else’s. I know that prayer lists are an important spiritual aid for many people and that is great—I support and encourage anything that helps people grow in faith.

But for me, the process wasn’t working and so one day during my morning devotional time, I simply decided to stop doing the lists. I threw out the papers and didn’t do it anymore. I still have a devotional time but it involves reading the Bible, which has been and is important to my spiritual development. I could perhaps suggest that I have developed some alternate devotional technique that involves me praying the Scripture that I am reading but that really isn’t the case. When I read the Bible, I am thinking and focused on what I am reading.

Sometimes, when I am sitting on my office (the Ikea chair by the living room window), I close my eyes and engage in prayer about some issue in ministry or my life that concerns me. I thought this might be a good prayer technique and it is a great technique, for the 30 seconds it takes me to fall asleep. It is probably valuable but then again that might just be the result of the nap.

As I have pondered this over the last few years, I realized that my prayer life kind of reflects the rest of my life. In most of my relationships, I don’t actually talk a lot. Outside of preaching and some parts of Bible Study, I generally do a whole lot more listening than I do talking. I am quite at home listening to people and generally feel most comfortable in a conversation when I get to listen and others get to talk.

I am not an entirely passive individual though. I can and do talk—and can be quite forceful when I need to be. But even then, I am likely going to say what I need to say with as few words as possible—why use 10 words when 2 will are perfectly capable of expressing everything I want to say?

So, with that insight in place, I looked at my personal prayers again. I don’t actually talk to God a lot—but when I do, it is times that are important to me and I say what I need to say with the same economy of words I use in any conversation. I try to listen to and for God. So, maybe I do pray—in a way that fits my personality. For now, it seems to work for me—but that just might be due more to the limitless grace of God than any great spiritual wisdom on my part.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT DO I DO?

I often find myself in a bit of a quandary when it comes to recommending ways to begin reading the Bible. I have a plan and process that has been working very well for me for many years. It allows me to read through the Bible in about a year and ensures that I am going to get my reading done. But since my particular plan involves reading the Bible while I am using the exercise bike, some people think it is too difficult.

And to be honest, I can understand their problem—my particular plan for reading the Bible involves two things that most North Americans talk a lot about doing but rarely do: exercise and Bible reading. This particular plan works well for me but I don’t actually recommend it for others. Just like a lot other plans don’t work for me, I know mine doesn’t work well for others.

One I saw suggested a few years ago, for example, involved the use of coloured highlighters. A person would read and then use the highlighter to categorize different parts of the reading. It might work well for some people but given my colour blindness, I didn’t even bother giving it consideration.

But I am a pastor and even more, a pastor who encourages people to read the Bible—and so I need to have something to recommend to people. Since I don’t have workable plan that will enable everyone to immediately fall in love with reading the Bible, I offer suggestions that they can use to develop their own plan. My suggestions include:

• Picking the right translation. We live in a age where English speakers have a wealth of translations to pick from. Every type, style and level of English has a translation these days. Everyone has the opportunity to pick a translation that uses their words in their way. That is important because as much as I love the traditional King James Version, it is a foreign language to most people. A comfortable translation choice allows God to speak the language of the reader, a very important consideration. By the way, audio Bibles are also an option.

• Pick the right time and place. Strange as it may seem, not everyone finds an early morning session on an exercise bike the ideal Bible reading time. Each of us has the best time of the day to concentrate and the spot that works best for us. If reading bits during the commercials of a TV show works and allows someone to read the Bible, no problem. I really don’t care when or how people read, I just want them to read.

• Begin with the Gospels. I often suggest the Gospel of Luke mostly because the reader can then move on to Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts. Beginning with the story of Jesus and the story of the church helps us understand the basics of the faith and provides a gentle and interesting introduction to the Bible. The thickets of Leviticus and Numbers are somewhat easier when the reader is grounded in the Gospels and letters of the New Testament.

• Set goals. As has often been said, it we aim at nothing, we are sure to hit it. Setting goals for our Bible reading gives us some incentive to keep working. I would suggest modest goals to start with—rather than committing to reading the whole Bible in a week, commit to reading Luke in two weeks or something like that. When that goal is accomplished, move on to another, more demanding goal until the whole Bible is finished. Then, start over again.

• Make use of resources. There are lots of valuable Bible reading resources. There are reading plans that give readings that allow the whole Bible to be covered in 1, 2 or 3 years. Some publishers actually print Bibles based on these plans. There are Bible handbooks that give brief summaries and commentary on the books of the Bible—these help us know what we are reading and give some help with understanding. A Bible reading group could also be a good resource.

For me, the ultimate goal is to encourage everyone to read God’s words to humanity. A lot of our spiritual struggling and confusion and difficulty becomes less of a problem when we know what God has carefully written down for us. And, it you find it easiest to do that while on an exercise bike, that is even better.

May the peace of God be with you.

AN ANSWER TO PRAYER

I am a part-time pastor—and a part-time pastor who likes to research and study and stuff like that. So, I have spent some time looking at part-time ministry—I even wrote a short book about it a few years ago for our denomination. Anyway, one of the bits of data I have dug up indicated that there are two broad categories of congregations that seek part-time pastors.

New church plants often begin with some form of part-time ministry. If the plant is successful, the group eventually become large enough that they can afford a full-time pastor or two. While I have been connected with a few such situations through my denomination, I have spent my time as a part-time pastor working in the other major category.

This category includes all those congregations which once used to be bigger and financially more solid and which used to have a full-time pastor. But as membership shrinks and the costs of full-time ministry escalate, the congregation eventually has to make the difficult and demoralizing to shift from a full-time pastor to a part-time pastor. This is without question one of the most traumatic decisions a congregation has to make because to most, it signifies that they are on the way out—it might take years but their decline will eventually result in the church closing.

I begin work in part-time settings very much aware of this mindset—and feel that a big part of my responsibility as the pastor is helping the congregation deal with their realities. But I don’t generally include closing as one of the realities I am concerned about. Certainly, it is always a reality. But there are other possible realities: stabilization, for example, is a possibility—a small congregation that is healthy and doing ministry is a valid reality. Reversing the downward trend is also a valid reality—sometimes, given the cultural context not as possible as stabilization but still a possibility.

So, with that in mind, I think a large part of my ministry is helping the part-time congregation look at itself and discover the reality of God’s love and grace working in and through it. But I have to confess that recently, the direction of my thoughts concerning the smaller of the two pastorates I work with has been a bit on the gloomy side. I hadn’t been able to really get a sense of direction or potential. I have been praying, thinking, listening and all the rest but mostly kept seeing our small numbers and the relative lack of what I would consider positive signs.

I am aware that we have an uphill climb—but I wasn’t seeing much to suggest that we had what it takes to make the climb. That is, I didn’t until a recent church meeting. This wasn’t an official meeting but more the general discussion we do before, during and after worship. We discussed and made a significant decision on helping out in a community need. But underneath, there were all sorts of revelations that I saw—the members there might not have seen them all but I did.

I saw a group of people who were not only deeply concerned with their community but who were also very active in the community. Everyone knew who was needing what and was working to meet those needs in a variety of ways: some visit and provide food and conversation; some provide a listening ear; some pound nails to repair houses; some provide prayer; some fill out complex application forms—and everyone is known and respected and appreciated in the community.

And in this, I found an answer to my prayers and my worries. We are small and struggling in some ways—but we are deeply involved in the life of the community. We are taking the light of God’s grace and love directly to our community. Many of the people touched by our small group haven’t been in our building for years, if ever—but they are experiencing God at work through our group.

I still don’t know where we are going as a group—but I have an answer to my prayers. As a church, we keep doing the ministry we are doing and as a pastor, I keep encouraging and enabling this gathering of believers to be God’s light and salt in our community.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DISAGREEMENT ABOUT MONEY

I have spend my entire working career in ministry, most of it in the context of small, struggling rural congregations. There are a great many realities clustered around that statement but one of the more significant realities is that I have basically spent my entire working career in a context where there is never enough money. There may be small, rural congregations that have tons of money (I have heard rumours about such things) but I have never been called to be the pastor of one of them.

This means that I have spent a lot of time discussing money. Sometimes, we call it discussing vision and ministry and options and all that but in the end, it becomes a discussion of money—or, to be more honest, it becomes a discussion about our lack of money, how we can get some more money and what we can’t do until we get some more money. I know there are lots of ministries that can be done with very little money but one of the basic truths of living in our culture is that ministry costs money and if we don’t have the money, it makes a difference in terms of what we can and can’t do. Dreaming is free—implementing dreams generally costs money.

The tensions between the need to do ministry and the lack of finances create some difficult, long, heated and painful discussions in small churches. Generally, one side wants to keep as much money as possible, holding it for the inevitable crisis in the future. The other side wants to do something, reasoning that having money in the bank isn’t much good if we are doing nothing. As pastor, I tend to be caught in the middle, wanting to encourage the church to do ministry but also recognizing that some of that money in the bank ensures that my paycheque won’t bounce at the end of the month.

So, with all that in mind, join me as one of my pastoral charges discusses a money issue. Worship was late starting because during the announcements, we discussed the fire in the community the night before. A house was severely damaged, likely beyond repair. The owner was in the hospital, fortunately in stable condition. He had been disabled for several months and therefore unable to work—and probably wouldn’t be able to work, especially given his injuries suffered in the fire. While no one actually said it, I think we were all assuming there was no insurance on the house or contents.

Since everyone knew the person and he was related to some on the church, the congregation wanted to help—and in this case, that meant a financial contribution. We had been planning on making a donation to another cause which ultimately didn’t need our help so some thought it would be a good idea to use that money to help. That started the discussion—what we were going to give wasn’t enough given the needs caused by the fire and injuries. Certainly, the wider community was likely going to hold some sort of benefit at some point. Definitely, there was a need—but there were several other serious needs in the community as well.

The discussion didn’t take too long. We wanted to help, the need was real, the amount we have been going to give wasn’t enough. So, the amount was almost doubled, everyone agreed and that was it. Most of the donation would be coming from our “reserves”—we don’t take in enough to make any kind of donation beyond paying the part-time pastor. We moved on and began our worship, later than normal but that isn’t unusual for us.

Not much of a discussion—but a significant one from my perspective. This group of people is interested in doing ministry and instead of seeing limits and walls and barriers, they see opportunities and want to respond. Money is a tool to use for ministry here and now. So, as a church, we look at the need and we respond—and then we move on to discover what else God has in store for us.

This is healthy and positive and significant. It says a lot about the underlying faith of this small group. This church is comfortable putting its money where its ministry is.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DONATED SUIT

I am sitting in a deacons’ meeting where we have been looking at a lot of different issues affecting our church. Since we were slowly climbing out of a serious mess that occurred just before I was called to the church, there was a lot to talk about. We rejoiced at the signs of life we were seeing and pondered the best ways to deal with the continuing issues from the previous mess. Near the end of the meeting, we opened the agenda to anyone who might have concerns.

Our senior deacon wanted to raise a concern. Since he was a retired pastor with many years of experience who tended to be on the ball and quite helpful, we all listened to him. He raised the issue of the young people who were attending our worship—about six of them, week after week, faithfully attending, participating and seeming to really appreciate what we were doing. I had wanted to raise the issue myself—we had a lot to rejoice about: the kids were coming, our student intern was doing great things with them, they made up 10-20 percent of our small but growing attendance.

But the senior deacon had a whole different idea. He was concerned about how the kids dressed. Their clothing wasn’t respectful. Some of them were showing up in jeans and t-shirts, covered with various jackets. They were wearing sneakers and some of the guys wore baseball hats—although somewhere along the line, they had learned to take the hats off during worship. But the bottom line was that these young people were not showing sufficient respect for God because they weren’t well dressed.

He had a solution, one that had helped him as a young person. He came from a poor family and didn’t feel comfortable attending worship until someone in the congregation graciously donated a used suit that he could wear. As a church, we needed to find people to donate good used suits for the guys and appropriate dresses for the girls. Then they would feel much more at home and be more reverent and respectful.

The only thing I found more difficult than preventing my student intern from climbing over the table to do physical harm to the senior deacon was preventing myself from climbing over the table to do serious harm to the senior deacon. Somehow, the grace of God broke through and neither I nor the student intern did what we were thinking.

Instead, we had a serious and significant discussion about cultural relatively. The senior deacon was concerned about these kids but was working from a whole different culture. It made a major difference to him when I pointed out that the jeans the kids wore on Sunday morning likely cost more than the suit he wore—these weren’t poor street kids. The student intern pointed out that some of those kids got more allowance than the senior deacon got in pension, which was probably an exaggeration on both sides but helped the discussion along.

While the senior deacon would still liked to have seen the kids coming in attire appropriate to the culture from 40 years ago, he began to get some insights into the changes that had occurred over the past years and decided that maybe jeans that cost more than his suit were more appropriate for those kids than a donated suit. With the crisis averted, we adjourned the meeting, secure in the knowledge that we could continue the ministry we were involved in and could rejoice in the fact that these kids found our worship valuable enough to get up early on Sunday morning, put on their best jeans and t-shirts and join us.

Is there a point here? Well, maybe we in the church need to pay attention to our culture and realize that much of the time, we want to donate suits to people who neither want nor need our used suits. They need and want something different and sometimes actually find it—but because we get caught up in the need to supply a suit to the suitless, we damage their ability to get what they actually need and want. Isn’t is much better to amplify what we are doing that they need and want than spend all the effort it would take to donate a used suit?

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY BOTHER?

I don’t get to attend worship as an ordinary participant very often. Generally, I get to do that while I am on vacation, unless we decide not to attend that Sunday which happens. But when I do, I notice just how far from the prevailing cultural norms I actually am. Most preachers these days were jeans and polo shirts or some other casual attire. I have noticed that most clean up and wear a suit and tie for funerals and maybe some weddings but mostly, the causal, comfortable look dominated the pulpit these days.

I happen to think that is great. It sets a tone for worship and enables both preacher and congregation to relax and enjoy the reality of God and his love and grace. Being comfortable in the presence of God is one of the prime messages of the Christian faith and the trend to casual, comfortable clothing is a visual and powerful statement of the relationship we have with God because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But when I am leading the worship and preaching, I will be wearing one of my two dark suits and one of my small selection of ties. There are two exceptions:

• When it is really warm, I lose the suit jacket.
• When we are having a potluck, I wear the sporty pants than came with the new suit

Isn’t that just a bit hypocritical on my part, especially since I love to point out the pointlessness of wearing ties and encourage people to dress as comfortable as possible? In fact, when asked about our church’s dress code, I tell people that we have a very strict code—you have to wear clothes. But week after week, there I am, wearing my suit and tie while everyone else has jeans, shorts (in summer), sneakers and definitely, no tie.

It probably is hypocritical on some levels but on other levels, what I am wearing is perfectly congruent with what I am telling people. I encourage people to be comfortable with what they are wearing for worship. And for me, that means a suit and tie. My experience and cultural influences go way back and are deeply rooted. I grew up in the era when worship attire was the best jacket and tie you had. I spent serious time working with an independent Kenyan denomination which has a fairly formal dress code—the only leaders who don’t have to wear ties are the ones entitled to wear clerical collars.

I actually upset the leadership of the church in Kenya early in my first time there. I wasn’t wearing a tie to teach—after all, ties are anachronistic cultural hold overs that have no real purpose or meaning. When the church leaders finally got up enough courage to suggest that I wear a tie, I realized my mistake, apologized and put on a tie. Given the heat in Kenya much of the school year, they didn’t mind if I skipped the suit jacket now and then.

I just don’t feel comfortable leading worship and preaching unless I am wearing a tie and at least part of my suit—the jacket doesn’t count on warm days. It isn’t a requirement placed on me by anyone else. In fact, I might fight against any regulation that said I had to wear a tie, at least in North America. I don’t make it a requirement for anyone else—not even the occasionally student I mentor for the nearby seminary. If someone wants to come to worship in ripped jeans and well worn t-shirt, I welcome them and am not the least concerned about their costume. If they are comfortable, they can probably better enter into the reality of worship and have a better experience of the awareness of the presence of God.

And me—well, wearing my suit and tie allows me to be comfortable in the presence of God. He doesn’t require it but my personal culture and background does. I could put in the effort to align my personal preference with the freedom that I teach and preach and encourage for others—but truthfully, I am comfortable doing what I do and there is enough really serious stuff that I need to deal with in my personal life that it isn’t worth the effort to change my approach to worship wear. I am comfortable, God loves me and the people understand me. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

May the peace of God be with you.

BLEST BE THE TIE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

AN ANNOYING PRACTISE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.