DIDN’T EXPECT THAT

The clergy in our area have started getting together one a year just to spent time talking about stuff that we all deal with. Our first session last year dealt with the poverty we all deal with and how we can deal with it better. This year’s meeting was a follow up. We were hoping to be able to develop some actual plans of action. We began with worship.

As might be expected with a group of pastors whose profession involves us in designing and planning worship regularly, nobody had actually taken the initiative to plan the actual worship. But we each had something that we offered to the process and we threw together a pretty powerful worshipful time. One of the participants chose to read an article written by a poor person living in our area.

And for me, that article produced a totally unexpected response. I came to the meeting expecting to discuss and share and plan and look at how we as a group could deal with the endemic poverty we see every day. I had some ideas and was looking for a sharing of ideas from a group of people who are good at what they do. I was prepared to deal with the issue of poverty from a pastoral perspective.

But somewhere during the story, something happened. My detached pastoral response to poverty got lost. I began to remember—not repressed memories but real memories that I knew and know are there. I grew up poor. We didn’t have a lot—my joke is that I didn’t know that clothes came new until I was in my teens. Listening to the story, which wasn’t all that much connected with my story, somehow triggered deep feelings associated with growing up poor.

I shared with the group a couple of stories about the poverty we lived when I was growing up. My stories were received with compassion, understanding and acceptance. My story prompted another of the members to be open about her story, which also involved childhood poverty. The others hadn’t experienced that but I felt that they were concerned and appreciative of the sharing—and in the end, I think the stories the two of us shared set a very different tone for our group discussion and what our ministry to poverty would and could look like.

I wasn’t expecting to be touched like that. I was prepared for a good, open discussion of the ministry realities and possibilities associated with being a pastor in a rural area with a high poverty rate. I wasn’t expecting to discover some long lost feelings and have them ministered to by a group of people who were caring and supportative. But that is what happened. I was ministered to. I like to think that I ministered to the rest of the group as well but I was definitely ministered to as I shared my stories and opened my feelings and looked at a part of my life that I am generally okay with but which obviously needs something now and then.

This was for me a God moment, a time when God through the power of the Holy Spirit allowed me the time and freedom to safely look at something that was painful at the time and which obviously still has some residual emotional hold on at least some part of my being. In general, I think it is safe to say that I have effectively dealt with the realities of growing up poor but obviously, there are a few things that are still sitting there that have more effect that I realize—or want to realize.

We went on to have a very good session and developed some workable plans to minister together. But for me, the most important part of the whole process was being able to discover and be open about a part of my experience that was obviously more of an issue that I realized. I felt heard and validated and as we moved on, there was no sense of pity or being seen differently. I was heard, what I said was appreciated, my experience and sharing became part of the matrix of our discussion. I didn’t expect any of that but God does move in mysterious ways.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE FAMILY REUNION

I come from a large family—I am the second oldest of nine. These days, we are scattered all over Canada, which is something of an improvement from the times when some of us have had international addresses. For a variety of reasons, we haven’t been together for a lot of years. A major factor in that has probably been that we have had no real family base for many years. Everyone in the family has moved out of the community we grew up in, the house has been sold and there was really no reason to go there.

But one brother has bought a house nearby and so this year, we had a family reunion. All but one of us attended, along with various partners, children, grandchildren, cousins and some whose relationship I am not totally sure of. For three days, we gathered, talked, laughed, ate and remembered. The hot, muggy, rainy weather didn’t create too many problems, although it made the family picture a bit more difficult and interrupted the camp fire.

Sometimes, as I was there, I was an observer. I love watching groups of people, seeing how they interact and fit together and structure themselves. I enjoyed the process of seeing who was being the extrovert; who was doing the work that needed to be done; who was talking to who; how the groups formed and reformed and all the rest. All the skills and abilities I have developed with groups of people over the years had a field day during the reunion. At one point, I was joking with my wife that maybe we should write an academic paper about the dynamics of the reunion.

That paper will never get written because although I can’t help but watch and analyse, I was a serious part of this group and so most of the time, I was participating. Well, I was participating in the stuff that a 66 year old with bad knees could participate in. I left “Capture the Flag” to the family members who have functioning knees. But most of the time, I was talking and joking and sharing with the rest of the family.

I was part of the ever shifting groups that spontaneously popped up as we caught up with each other, shared about the triumphs and tragedies of the past few years, reminded each other of this or that event. I got to know the next generations, many of whom were much older than they were when I last connected with them—some of them even have children of their own who were about the same age they were when I last saw them. I also had some time to connect fairly deeply with some of them.

At one point, one of the brothers brought the last contents of our mother’s apartment. While all of us had helped in the clearing out, these things were somehow missed and we needed to go through them, picking and choosing. That was a very mixed activity for all of us. The old photo albums were filled with funny pictures—my 70s and 80s hair was a source of much comment and laughter. But the other bits and pieces in the box brought other, sadder emotions—I found the watch that Dad had been given for 25 years at his work place which was exciting and sad at the same time.

At one point, I found myself sitting beside a great-nephew I didn’t know too well explaining who the people in the pictures were, helping him see where he fit in this collection of people—seeing a picture of his great, great grandparents helped him see more of the context of his life. Helping him see that helped me see more of the context of my life as well.

I don’t really know when or if we will get together again. Most of us are getting on and some health issues are beginning to show up. We talked about getting together again and I expect we will once someone is willing to take on the task of organizing and arranging the whole thing. I am not sure that as many of us will make it to another one (a sad idea) but I will look forward to the next one—maybe even I will help arrange it.

May the peace of God be with you.

A MOMENT IN TIME

It was a hot, muggy Sunday evening. The humidity and heat made the thought of getting out of the air-conditioned car painful, especially since I knew that the church building where I would be preaching the evening service would be uncomfortable. I was also pretty sure that our attendance would be down that evening—a good number of our people were travelling or having family events or not planning on attending. About the only positive note for the evening was that the tide was coming in and that might mean a slight drop in temperature.

I arrived my usual half-hour before worship time. I could hear the organist practising the music for the evening. The building is located high over the water and as I looked down to the water, I could see the tongue of fog that sometimes accompanies the tide on hot days like this. I picked up my jacket and carried it, my briefcase and my water cup into the church. The building was as warm and stuffy as I expected it to be. The organist and I had a talk about the weather, our week and the music for the evening. I organized all the stuff I think I need to have organized for the service.

Then, as the organist began to play over one of the hymns we were going to use for the introductory hymn sing, I went outside to stand on the steps where it was just a bit cooler. I stood and watched the fog rolling in—from the building steps, I could look down from above the fog. In the background, the organist was playing Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah, one of my favourite hymns.

I would like to say that everything changed in that moment: the temperature dropped to more comfortable levels, the humidity disappeared, the people who wouldn’t make it to the service all changed their minds, I wasn’t tired and uncomfortable any more. None of that happened. But I did have the opportunity to watch the fog roll in, enjoy the slightly cooler temperature that the incoming tide and fog brought with it and listen to the music in the background. It was a moment.

There was no earth-shaking revelation; no major re-alignment of priorities; no miraculous change of attitude. There was just me on the steps, watching the fog and listening to someone play one of my favourite hymns well. It was a moment of peace and relaxation in a busy, uncomfortable day.

After a few minutes, the hymn ended and the organist began to change the hymn numbers, the first cars bringing worshippers showed up and I remembered a couple of things that I hadn’t yet done. The evening worship service was beginning. I greeted people, we talked about the heat and our need for rain. We discussed health issues and family issues. We laughed and talked and settled in for worship, which moved along at its own pace.

I did my pastor thing: talking and listening; leading worship; preaching the sermon and pronouncing the benediction. My moment on the building steps didn’t make much difference to that whole process. It didn’t change who was there and who was away. It didn’t make me throw away the sermon and do something different. But it was still an important moment, a time to slow down and enjoy something that doesn’t happen all that often. I can’t say it brought me a deeper sense of peace or connection with God; it didn’t slow the rushing of my mind; it didn’t reconnect me with my inner self.

But it did make a difference. I slowed down for a bit. I appreciated the beauty of the creation around me. I gave some thought to the physics of cold water and warm air producing fog. I really listened to some good music.

Had I not had that moment, things that evening would have followed pretty much the same pattern. But I did have that moment and it was and remains important and valuable. I probably won’t be telling my grandchildren about it when I am old(er) and grey(er). But it was important and I do appreciate it and it did make a difference so I thanked God for it and went on with life, a bit better because of that moment.

May the peace of God be with you.

AN INTERESTING MEETING

I was working on a sermon recently and remembered a meeting that I attended years ago that seemed to be a perfect illustration of a point I was trying to make. Since the story involved our time in Africa, I kept thinking about it after finishing the sermon—and even after preaching the sermon, the story of that meeting stayed with me. The more I think about the story, the more I discover exciting realities about God and the Christian faith and the difference it can make to individuals and the world.

The meeting happened in a classroom of a pastoral training school in Rwanda. The school was somewhat hard to get to—either a four hour drive over roads that included a rickety bridge that we walked over after the car successfully made it across or a 30-40 minute boat trip. We were meeting with the school faculty and officials of the denomination that ran the school.

The meeting included both Hutus and Tutsis—and although this was about 10 years after the genocide, the scars and trauma were still obvious and real. Several of those at the meeting has lost family members, others had suffered personally, all carried emotional issues relating to that time. There were some others there from the Congo, who were dealing with their own issues from the genocide and the civil war happening then in the Congo. There was one Kenyan, separated from his family and somewhat concerned about what was going on back home. And there was also two Canadians. While we didn’t carry the emotional load that some of the others did, we were part of the wider international community which had effectively ignored the genocide and was pretty much ignoring the civil war in the Congo.

The first order of business was language. With so many languages represented, we had to discover one that we could all work with. At the end of a brief discussion, we discovered that all of us at the meeting were fluent in Kiswahli, a language that none of us were born speaking. All of us had learned to speak it as at least our second language.

That to me provided an essential key to understanding the significance of this meeting. None of us felt the need to insist on our native or national language. It would have been possible for some group or another to insist that we meet in their language and rely on translators for those of us who couldn’t speak the chosen language. The Rwandans didn’t insist on Kinyarwanda. We Canadians didn’t insist on English. We happily went with a language that all of us spoke with some degree of fluency so that we could all be a direct part of the meeting.

For me, this has always been a Kingdom moment. We met there in that classroom as fellow believers. We were discussing ways that we could work together to carry out the work God was setting before us. And we were able to do that in spite of all the barriers that could have disrupted the meeting, things like ethnic tensions, national rivalries, language issues, cultural issues, national and international politics and on and on.

The Kingdom brings people together. Our shared faith bridges divisions. Our faith in God through Christ changes our perspective. We learn how to work together. We learn how to care for each other. We learn how to give up what some consider important for the sake of a bigger cause, the Kingdom of God.

We met together and the spirit and flavour of the meeting was set by our common willingness to give up our language for the sake of the others. We all gave up our fluency and familiarity with our birth language to work in a second or third language that none of us spoke well but which we all spoke well enough to understand each other. That is the Kingdom at work, one of the many manifestations of the Kingdom here and now that give us a glimpse of what the fullness of the Kingdom will be like.

The Kingdom call us out of our selfish and sinful ruts and allows us to open ourselves to the wonder of being united with the rest of God’s Kingdom people so that we can all reach well beyond our human limits.

May the peace of God be with you.

GIVE ME A GOOD BOOK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

THAT’S FUNNY

 

One of the interesting tasks I had one time was to be a reader for a doctoral thesis that was looking at the topic of humour in the Bible. Since I like humour, I was looking forward to the process—I was hoping to get a good laugh out of the thesis. Unfortunately, the thesis, although well written, well researched and well presented was no funnier than any other thesis I have read, which is to say it wasn’t very funny at all.

There seems to be within the faith a strong tendency to minimize the place of humour. I think that some feel that since our faith deals with big, important themes like eternal destiny, there isn’t much room for humour. We are engaged in serious stuff and laughter is frivolous and maybe even sacrilegious.

And yet, the Bible is a book shot through with humour. Of course, it seems that commentators and preachers and others have worked hard over the years to minimize and hide the humour that is present, almost as if there is a conspiracy to prevent faithful people from having a good laugh.

Take the comment Jesus makes in Matthew 19.24 for example: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (NIV). Most commentaries spend lots of time discussing the possible references Jesus in making here, drawing on possible nautical and cultural themes supposedly from that day and age. But very few highlight the absolute humour of this passage. The absurdity of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle conjurors up hilarious images that would not be out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon.

Or take one of my personal favorites, found in Matthew 7.3, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (NIV) The essential humour in this passage is lost as we deal with heavy issues like hypocrisy and human sin and confession and all those other important themes that we can draw out of the passage.

But this is funny. The idea of a man with a 2×4 stuck in his eye trying to help another with a piece of sawdust in his eye is the premise for a skit worthy of the Three Stooges or some other great slapstick comedy team. Picture the chaos that accompanies a person with a 2×4 trying to help someone: there will be smashing and bashing and crashing and breaking glass and head bangs and gloriously funny mayhem.

And I am pretty sure that this humour isn’t some unintentional coincidence that crept in while the super serious God of all creation was distracted by the seriousness of human sin. I think the humour we find scattered through the Bible is intentional and deliberate and there because God also has a sense of humor. After all, he created us with the ability—and need—to laugh. When he relates to us, he shows flashes of marvelous humour. Having a donkey speak to a somewhat stubborn prophet (Numbers 22.28) is funny on a lot of levels, including the part where the prophet argues with the donkey oblivious to the weirdness of the situation.

Life is serious and heavy and often painful. In the faith, we deal with some pretty serious and heavy duty topics, like the point of life and eternal destiny. But we also need to balance this heaviness with the lightness provided by humour and laughter, a reality that God seeks to teach us in the Scripture. God created us with the need and ability to laugh—and then, he writes some pretty good material for us to laugh at.

Certainly, there is a serious side to God’s humour and there are deeper lessons in all the jokes and pratfalls—but they are also funny and the humour deserves to be given the laugh it deserves and that we also deserve. I think it adds to our ability to understand and relate to God when we realize that God, like most humans, appreciates a good joke now and then and he isn’t above sneaking a good one into the most serious of material.

May the peace of God be with you.

IT DOESN’T SAY THAT

I am teaching in a Kenyan classroom.  It is a class in  pastoral ministry and we are looking at how we as pastors try to help the people God has called us to shepherd.  The discussion turns to working with alcoholics.  This isn’t an  accident or coincidence. Based on my experience in Kenya and my knowledge of the church, I specifically direct the discussion to this topic–I have a pretty good idea what will be coming and have decided that this is the day we will deal with an important issue.

Before too long, the issue starts to surface.  One of the students tells me that part of helping alcoholics involves preaching about it.  I agree–and then push a bit harder by asking about the content of such sermons.  To the students, the answer is obvious–a good anti-alcohol sermon begins with the Biblical teaching that tells us God forbids people to drink alcohol.  Then, the sermon tells them they will suffer in hell because of their alcohol use.  And then, the sermon tells them to stop drinking.

There is enough in that sermon to keep us going for years–but this particular day, I only want to focus on one facet of this discussion–the Biblical text they propose on using to tell people that God prohibits the use of alcohol.  Very quickly, I am given Proverbs 20.1 as the text–in the KJV because this is a conservative culture:  “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.”

Now comes the fun part.  I tell the students that this actually doesn’t tell people not to drink alcohol.  It shows some of the possible consequences of over-use but it doesn’t prohibit the use of alcohol.  Various other verses are tossed in to the mix–none of which prohibit the use of alcohol.  To stir things up a bit, I give them I Timothy 5.23, ” Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” (NIV).

With that, the whole class is convinced that I am officially a heretic.  I have challenged one of their most basic understandings of the Bible.  Now comes the hard work–I have to become the teacher and help them understand what is really going on here.  I am not trying to get them all to go have a drink.  Rather, I am helping them see that Scripture doesn’t always say what we want it to say or assume it says or think it should say.

To discover that the Bible doesn’t say what they want it to say is traumatic and painful and difficult–but also essential.  And it is not just that class of Kenyan theology students who need to learn this lesson.  All of us who use the Bible are guilty at some point of trying to make the Bible say something that we want it to say rather than really dealing with what it does say.

When it comes to Biblical interpretation, I confess to being a serious skeptic.  I really don’t want to accept something as true just because it sounds good or reinforces some idea I have or has been passed down for generations.  I am going to try as hard as possible to find out what it actually says.  So I study the Bible–not looking for verses that confirm what I already want to be true but for what it really says.  I have discovered that it the Bible isn’t making me uncomfortable, I am probably not giving it the freedom it needs to speak its truth.

Scripture needs to speak with its own voice, not the voice we would like it to have.  Scripture must be free to give us God’s word, not reinforce our word. I am sometimes accused of not believing the Bible–I am pretty sure that several groups of Kenyan students believed that, as well as a few people in churches here in Canada.

But my problem isn’t that I don’t believe the Bible.  The real problem I deal with is that I do believe the Bible but I want to make sure that I am not trying to constrain the Bible and the Spirit by making it say what I want.  As painful and as difficult as it may be at times, I want to Bible to speak with God’s voice, not my voice.

May the peace of God be with you.

FACTS AND FIGURES

I like facts, things that can be proven with clear and understandable rationale.  When someone makes a claim, I want to see their facts.  I am not content with “Someone said…” or “I heard…”–I want verifiable facts that I can examine and study and compare with other facts and figures.  One study or one report really isn’t enough for me.

As a result, I tend to be a bit of a skeptic when it comes to a lot of the claims people make.  The latest miracle cold remedy?  Let me see the results of several double-blind studies conducted by reputable scientists and I might consider taking it.  Otherwise, I am going to rely on cough drops and warn ginger ale.  I don’t actually have studies on those but they both help me.

In many area of my life, this desire for facts and figures and verifiable studies helps me a lot.  I am not likely to take questionable medication just because someone publishes a glowing testimony.  I am not inclined to participate in a get rich quick scheme pushed by the latest charismatic financial guru.  I probably won’t buy the latest device to reduce gas consumption that has been suppressed by gas companies for years.

On the other hand, I am going to take the cholesterol lowering medication that my doctor prescribed–I have seen the studies, I know my numbers and the promised effects make scientific sense.  I am still going to get my numbers checked regularly and watch for the side effects.  I also eat a lot of fiber, since that also shows good numbers in a variety of good studies.

But there is one area of my life where this desire and love of verifiable facts and figures tends to get me in trouble.  I am a Christian and in fact have spent my working life working for and with Christians–and I have always been amazed by how few Christians share my love of facts, figures, studies and verifiable information.

One story stands out.  We were sharing in a Bible study many years ago and the talk turned to miracles.  One lady was excited to tell of a miracle she knew about.  A friend of hers was talking to someone else whose cousin’s former school classmate read of a miracle that happened to a friend of the writers’ ex-boyfriend’s pen pal.  As far as she was concerned, this was just one more example of how God still does miracles.

As she was talking, I was struggling.  As the story got  more and more involved and as the layers of distant relationships got deeper and deeper, I knew there would be a problem.  If I let it stand, my facts and figures side would gripe and complain and whine.  But if I questioned the truth of this miracle, I would be guilty of questioning the Holy Spirit, maybe even showing once again that I didn’t really have faith in God.

Well, I questioned–I mostly can’t help that.  And, according to the lady, if I can’t believe such a clear report of miracles, maybe I need to re-examine my faith. Now, I didn’t and don’t actually deny that God does miracles–I just like my miracles to be clear miracles, things that can be verified.

But the longer I am part of the faith, the more I realize that too many people think faith needs to be divorced from reality.  Any claim that a person makes needs to be treated as the gospel truth.  People like me who ask questions about the claims are mostly seen as unfaithful deniers of the truth.

But in the end, I have to be true to who I am.  And fortunately for me, God endorses my approach.  Jesus said in Matthew 7.15, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (NIV).  The apostle John says in I John 4.1, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”  (NIV)

So, I am not going to immediately take a cold medicine because someone says it works.  I am not going to rush to invest my money because someone says they can give 300% returns.  And I am not going to blindly accept a report of God working. I am going to test them all before I commit to something I will regret or which will damage my faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

NOTHING TO SAY

During one of our times working in Kenya, I was team teaching a course for potential teachers.  Both the mission agency we worked for and the church we were working with recognized the need to develop qualified local teachers for the pastoral training school.  So, a group of pastors and other church workers were identified as possibilities and were brought together for the course.

Since the whole purpose of the course was to identify potential teachers, all the participants had to do some very practical assignments:  develop a course outline, organize a lecture schedule and teach at least one session from their prepared course.  It was during one of the practise teaching sessions that I saw another side of one of my Kenyan friends and got a perfect story for aspiring preachers and teachers all over the world.

My friend was a senior, well respected and capable church leader–but he always appeared to me to be a bit on the stiff side.  While I had seen him laugh and joke, that was only in small private groups.  In public, he was serious, sober and to a lot a people, a bit intimidating.  But during one of the practise teaching sessions, his other side came out.

The student who was practise teaching was well meaning, capable, and eventually became a very good teacher but that particular day, his anxiety or lack or caffeine or some combination of factors caused him to attempt to deliver one of the most boring and pointless teaching sessions of the whole course.  As he droned on, I was getting more and more disappointed–I had taught this student before and had been impressed by his abilities.  I was sure that he would be good but this day, he succeeded in putting at least half the class to sleep.

Except for my friend, who decided that enough was enough.  He began coughing–at first, it was a barely noticeable cough, as would be fitting in a real class.  But it began to escalate to the point where he was shaking his seat, waking up the students around him and eventually falling on the floor, causing the rest of the students and the instructors to scurry around trying to help:  getting water, opening the classroom door for fresh air, helping his sit up right.  Soon, everyone as involved, except for the student teacher, who kept right on with his lesson plan, even when it was clear that no one, not even the instructors, was listening.

My friend was fine–he was faking the coughing fit to make a point.  The point was that this student teacher wasn’t paying any attention to the class, making his efforts to teach worthless.  He wasn’t teaching a class–he was talking for the sake of talking.  The student teacher had absolutely nothing to say to the class but was determined to say it anyway.

I wonder how many sincere and searching believers have sat through the same thing Sunday after Sunday.  They gather to hear a word from the Lord, some comfort or direction from God and get nothing but pointless words from a preacher who has no connection with them or their lives.  Instead of creating a deeper relationship with God and a better grasp of their faith, the emptiness of the words becomes an irritating and pointless noise, good only as background for a nap or a good daydream.

Good teachers and good preachers must have a deep respect and love for their listeners.  That respect and love is necessary because it pushes us to discover what these respected and loved people are looking for and what the God who also loves and respects them has to say for them.  We who teach and preach stand between the people and God and in the exercise of our gifts, we seek to open them to God and interpret God’s love and grace to them.  Without a firm connection to both God and the people we are called to teach, we are wasting the people’s time, our time and God’s time.

In the end, if we feel that the message can be delivered to anyone at anytime and they have to listen, we are doing exactly what the student preacher did.  We are called to deliver specific messages from God to specific people at specific times–and if we aren’t doing that, maybe someone in the audience will fake a coughing fit to show us the error of our ways.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PLAN

It was a good plan, one that took into account both our needs and allowed us to get our stuff done without causing either of us to have a long wait.  Basically, we both had to see people in the regional hospital an hour or so from home but we both also had a variety of other things to do–and since there were no real tempting movies playing, it would be an there and back trip, with the obligatory stop at the big grocery story.

The plan was simple.  Before I headed to my appointment to get my hearing aids checked, I would drop my wife off at the store where she was looking for something.  Then, when my appointment was done, I would call her and we would meet for lunch in the downtown area, after which we would do our hospital visits and shopping.  Cell phones are a tremendous blessing when it comes to coordinating plans.

I actually got to see the hearing aid tech a bit early and the work they needed to do didn’t take all that long so I was back to the car within 10-15 minutes.  The first attempt to call didn’t work–but I assumed that it was just because the phone and the car Bluetooth systems hadn’t finished talking to each other to get working together.  I decided to head downtown, find a parking spot near the restaurant and try again–after all, I was early so I had time.

After the fifth failed attempt, I was beginning to think my phone wasn’t working.
After the tenth, I was positive there was a problem with the phone and was wondering if there was a phone store in the area where I could get the phone fixed or replaced.  After a few more tries, I remembered that there were still pay phones in the town and headed for them–I actually had some change with me.  After three attempts, I still wasn’t able to make a connection.

Frustrated, angry and hungry, I walked around the area, looking in all the stores I thought my wife might be in.  Eventually, she appeared–frustrated, hungry and wondering why her cell phone wasn’t working and why I hadn’t called.  Eventually, we discovered that one whole communication company infrastructure had gone down–the company we used.  We eventually got lunch, saw the people we needed to see and did our shopping.  Of course, we needed to visit the bank to get real money since the collapse took out most store credit card machines.

So, I am a preacher, which means that I need to find a moral in everything that happens–sermon illustrations are an important part of my life.  This is a good story but I need to find the right sermon to drop it into.  In fact, it is such a good story that it should probably have the prime spot in the sermon.  Since I serve two different collections of churches, I will get to use to twice, maybe with different applications.

But right now, I am not exactly sure how I will use it.  I am mostly aware of how much a relatively new technology has become such a basic part of my life.  The first phone I used was a basic black Bakelite device fastened to the wall with a battery box under it and a crank to connect with the operator who would put the call through.  Now, I have a high-tech device that will call anyone, connect to the internet, give me directions, figure out my finances, and help me hang pictures (I discovered and installed a carpenter level app).

With the old wall mounted phone, I could only connect with people if I was standing within the length of the phone cord on the handset.  With the cell phone, I can call my friend in Kenya who is so far out of the way that his friends pity him.  But of course, that only happens when the system works, which it didn’t the other day.

I am sure there is a great sermon illustration in that–but I just have to figure out how I want to use it.  I am sure it will come to me.  The fact that I have two chances helps.

But in  the meantime, the next time we make a plan that depends on the cell phone, I may also include a backup plan.

May the peace of God be with you.