SAYING IT AGAIN

Sometimes, I wonder if I am making any progress. I recently preached yet another sermon on a topic that I have been preaching on regularly since pretty much the beginning of my professional ministry. It is a topic that is important to me because it is tied so intimately to the faith I hold and seek to help others discover and develop. Sometimes, I approach the topic directly but this time, it came as part of a series of sermons on the letter of James.

As I planned the sermon series, I realized that once again, I would be dealing with the issue of Christians reading the Bible—or rather, Christians not reading the Bible. I gave the sermon the usual thought and meditation and prayer but discovered myself wondering about the bigger picture.

I understand the issue: I have read the dismal statistics concerning Bible reading among Christians; I have talked with individual believers about their difficulty reading the Bible; I have scolded and cajoled theology students about their lack of Bible reading. I understand the problem. When Christians don’t read the Bible and get all their Christian training from others, their faith will inevitably be stunted and inefficient at the very least and misguided and wrong at the worst.

But as I was preparing, preaching and reviewing this sermon, I was wondering why believers don’t actually read the Bible. I was not just thinking about the stated reasons: its hard to find time; I can’t understand it; its such a big book and so on. I am trying to figure out the deep down, essential reason that motivates people to ignore such an important resource in their faith development.

For me, reading the Bible was a natural step in my faith. I became a believer, the Bible was a book for believers therefore, I should read the Bible. There was never any question about that. Certainly, there were some times when I didn’t read it much but those times were actually few and far between, especially after I discovered that the Bible came in many flavours. All through my life, reading the Bible has been a regular part of my daily routine.

But then again, I read all instruction manuals and guide books—and keep them where I can find them and refer to them. I never know when I might forget where that infrequently used release button is on some tool or another. Not reading a manual or guide book strikes me as a really poor approach to discovering how best to use and care for a new item. And in the same way, reading the Bible seems like a no-brainer for anyone new to the faith—or anyone who has been in the faith for a while for that matter.

And yet, I keep discovering that the majority of people I minister to haven’t actually read the Bible through—and some probably haven’t actually been exposed to any more of the Bible than what they hear weekly in worship. This confession comes out as I carry out pastoral visits, lead Bible study and talk with people casually. The confession of not actually reading the Bible is generally made with some sense of guilt and often followed by the person’s declaration that they should read the Bible (more)—but the next time we meet, I get the same confession and declaration.

And so, I keep at it. I keep reading and studying the Bible myself. I keep teaching and preaching the Bible. And I keep encouraging people to read the Bible themselves. I preach on it, I help people find appropriate Bibles to read or listen to, I answer questions and give explanations, I even encourage skimming or skipping the slow parts. And sometimes, someone will actually start reading the Bible because of what I have been saying and modelling. And even more exciting is when the person who started reading discovers the actual presence of God through the Holy Spirit as they read.

I wish I could prepare the one sermon that would convince everyone to read the Bible or develop the can’t resist reason that would get every believer reading the Bible regularly. But given the reality that there isn’t one sermon or reason that is going to get everyone reading the Bible, I will keep plugging away, trying to help people discover that most of their questions and struggles in the faith are a whole lot easier to deal with if you read the guide book.

May the peace of God be with you.

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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.

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.

THE EXPERIMENT

I did something recently that I haven’t done too often in my preaching career. I used the same sermon in three different congregations. Normally, I try to match the sermon to the needs of the congregation, something which requires different approaches even with the same Scriptures and themes.

But recently, well, using one sermon is three different places just sort of evolved. The sermon began as part of a preaching plan for the year round pastorate that I serve. But since the other pastorate has closed down for three months, I have been doing some fill in preaching for another local congregation. Rather than put together a whole new sermon, I wrote the original sermon with them in mind as well as the regular congregation.

And then, after getting back from vacation and picking up all the pieces and getting back into things, I realized it was also the week to prepare for the monthly worship service we have at the pastorate that has closed for the winter. When we made this plan last November, I had visions of preparing a special message that would fit there and help us celebrate being back together after several weeks.

But the time just wasn’t there—nor was the energy or creatively necessary to pull things together. I expect that playing with grandchildren may have depleted my creativity storehouse, although a sleepless night on the flight back home probably didn’t help. Given the situation, the special sermon became the already written sermon. I felt a bit guilty, but not guilty enough to force myself to write a whole new sermon.

There were certainly some minor differences in the delivered sermons. In one congregation, I was more tied to the manuscript because one of the worshippers is quite deaf and follows the sermon with the aid of a printed copy of the sermon so I can’t ad lib as much as I might like. In the other two, I could wander a bit. But in the end, all three congregations got the same basic message, with the same illustrations and even the same hand gestures.

Because my mind generally works in a structured and questioning way, I began to look at this as an experiment: I was going to see how one sermon played out in three different congregations. I would look for differences in response—how well people listened, what they said, how many slept and so on. Mind you, the experiment would be quite limited in scope since the process of leading worship and preaching takes most of my energy and focus. Couple that with the fact that data recording isn’t really possible in that context and I had a very unscientific experiment. If it had been offered as a project in one of the classes I have taught on research methodology, I would have rejected it.

But over the course of two Sundays, I preached basically the same sermon three times. My biased and unscientific observation is that it went over fairly well. People seemed to respond to the basic theme; they responded well to the humour I used to drive the point home and a significant portion of each congregation made positive comments about the message.

It probably helped that all three congregations have a lot in common coming out of the fact that they are all small, struggling congregations wondering about their future. My sermon writing mind was probably thinking about all three on some levels when I was writing the message. And the theme touched on an issue that is pretty common to most Christian congregations and which has been an issue for all three at some point in their recent history.

I think, though, that in the end, the sermon worked not because of my unconscious mind pulling all three congregations together; not because I had great illustrations; not because I am such a great orator—in the end, the sermon worked in all three places because I did my best in the circumstances and the Holy Spirit did the rest.

I have discovered that this is an important faith reality: I am responsible before God for doing the best I can in any given situation. But in the end, the results are the work of the Holy Spirit, who can and does take both my best and my worst and accomplish God’s will. It is better for all though, when I give God my best than when I give him less than my best.

May the peace of God be with you.