I DID IT AGAIN

For just the second time in my 45+ years of ministry, I walked out of a worship service. Given that I was conducting the worship service both times, these mark two very significant events. Let me say that I didn’t walk our because I disagreed with the leader/preacher—I was the leader preacher.

Not did I leave because I was upset with the music or the singers. We have a small church but our musicians are dedicated and do a good job every week. I wasn’t fighting with anyone in the congregation and they weren’t fighting with me. No, the reason I walked out of worship was simple—both times, I was sick and realized that if I stayed in the pulpit, I would pass out. The first time, I realized this after the invocation prayer. This last time, it occurred three minutes into the sermon.

Both times, the congregations were deeply concerned and understanding. I had lots of offers for a drive home. No one was upset in least. But both times, I left the worship and headed for home, I felt guilty. But this last event reminded me of something I know but need have reinforced now and then.

Worship is an important part of my faith and the faith of the people I serve. I work hard to prepare for worship—not just the sermon but everything. I spend time on prayers, make sure the worship theme is clear and understandable, pay attention to transitions. Leading this group of people in worship is an awesome responsibility, one that I work hard at—and which always takes a lot of energy.

Both times I left worship, I knew I was feeling sort of miserable but not all that bad. I was able to function and didn’t have any serious symptoms. But when I was standing in the pulpit, I became aware of just how much energy this activity required—much more than I had available at the time. I think I could have easily managed a lot of other activities: reading, watching TV, cooking a meal and so on. But leading worship and preaching—the energy demand was well beyond what I had available at that point in time.

I know that worship is a corporate activity and I know that the Holy Spirit ultimately directs our worship. But I am the designated worship leader and preacher and because I take that set of responsibilities seriously, it demands a lot of energy. I have to be willing to focus on the worshippers; seek to be open to the Spirit, make sure that everyone hears what I am saying, keep my tablet on the right place in the order of service and critique my process on the fly.

It might be possible to lead worship and preach without such involvement. My guess is that there are people out there for whom the process isn’t demanding and taxing. I have heard hints and stories that suggest to me that this is the case. But I am not able to do that. If I am going to follow the sacred calling to lead worship and preach, I am going to give it my best, which is demanding and requires a great deal of energy. My commitment to the people whom I serve, my calling and God himself demand that I treat what I am doing with respect and reverence.

And so, when I can’t carry out the duties I have been called to, I feel a bit guilty. I feel I cheated the people I serve both times. They came expecting to worship God and perhaps to hear a message from God for their lives. They have a right to expect that. I couldn’t do what I was called to do or what they were expecting. I failed those times.

Fortunately, we serve a God of love and grace and forgiveness, who doesn’t hold grudges and doesn’t require detentions. I failed to do what I was called to do—but God has already forgiven me. The people I serve are more concerned with my health than with my failure. And me—well, the bug was short lived and after an evening of vegging in front of the TV and a good night’s sleep, I am doing much better, which is a good thing since I have to conduct a funeral today.

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.

HOW MANY?

Both the worship services I lead recently had me feeling much more nervous. The morning service was a special worship to which we invited the community. While I suggested the idea and thought it was a good one, I wasn’t expecting much increase in attendance—it was a holiday weekend, after all. On the drive to worship, I counted in my mind the ones who would likely be there: our normal 8 or so, depending on who was sick or away plus maybe 4-6 more from the visiting family of one of our members.

But that morning, people just kept coming and coming. We ran out of chorus sheets early in the process. At one point, after seating more than expected I peeked out the open door and saw as many people standing around as were seated. My final count was 27 while one of the others got 29—we decided to go with his numbers.

The second service at my other pastorate was definitely not going to be that good, I thought. To start with, it was a stifling hot day—and our buildings have no air conditioning. It was the first Sunday of our summer worship schedule, meaning worship was in the evening. And then there was the fact that the we couldn’t use the building we were supposed to use because of serious emergency repairs. We called everyone and put a sign on the building about the change but I was pretty sure the change would upset things.

And just like the morning worship, once people started coming, they kept coming. We surpassed our average of 18-20 really quickly. We ran out of bulletins. We used up all the new chorus books we are printing for the church. And people kept coming. When we started, we had 29 people in our worship.

Now, I know that for many people, those numbers are small and that for some churches, that might be the number of greeters and ushers, not the whole congregation. But these are big numbers for us—and while I was excited and pleased and happy, I was also more nervous. I am always nervous about leading worship and preaching but on a normal Sunday with our normal group, I have more control of the nervousness. But more people tend to increase my anxiety.

To start with, there is more to do before the worship. I like to greet people as they come—since our buildings are basically one room, I am obviously there and so it makes sense to greet people as they come in. There are other bits and pieces to deal with, questions about the worship, changes to the music and so on that get harder to work out as we have more people. I begin to lose focus and forget things.

In the morning service, I forgot to take my water cup to the pulpit—in fact, I completely forget where I put it and couldn’t see it from the pulpit. Fortunately, I had some cough drops for when my voice needed some help. In the evening service, I forgot to turn on my tablet until I got to the pulpit to start worship, an omission that I confessed and which delayed our start a bit since I didn’t have a bulletin to read the announcements from.

There are probably some who would suggest my increased nervousness is a negative thing. There are some who would suggest that being nervous at all before leading worship is a negative thing, perhaps a sign of a weaknesses of faith or something like that. I am the first to admit that I don’t have a perfect faith and have definite weaknesses in my faith.

But my nervousness before worship isn’t a sign of weak faith or something negative. I think it is a healthy sign and an indication of my respect for the people I lead in worship and the God I serve through that process. I want to do my best to help the worshippers experience the reality of God’s presence and be faithful to God’s calling to me. If I am not nervous, I am probably relying on myself in the process not God through the power of the Holy Spirit. My nervousness is a sign that I am aware of my need of God’s strength and help and a reminder to open myself to him in the process.

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.

A SUNNY DAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

WORSHIP

For a variety of reasons, we took a week’s vacation recently. We didn’t have any great plans but were going away for a few days. However, the weather wiped out the plans—the road to the get away spot was under too much snow to actually get there without a long hike carrying food and all the rest for our few days. We compensated and made other arrangements based on several day trips.

But the vacation did mean that we had a free Sunday—neither of us had to preach or lead worship or do announcements or anything at all. The first decision we had to make was whether we would actually attend worship. I confess that I sometimes appreciate a Sunday without attending worship. But we decided that we would go somewhere.

That created a second, more difficult question—where would we go? There was no shortage of possibilities but one of the other of us managed to have a reason for not attending there. Some were rejected because one or the other of us had been pastor there. Some were rejected because one or the other of us had taught or mentored the pastor. Some were rejected for less than positive reasons—we thought we knew what to expect from the sermon.

Anyway, we finally made a decision and left for worship. We knew the pastor, knew some of the people in the congregation and I had even preached there a couple of times. The worship was something of a blend of contemporary and traditional. I had absolutely nothing to do with the design or conduct of the service. I was there to worship—something that is a rarity for me. In fact, there have been times when I have wondered if I actually know how to worship, given that most of my faith life I have been the leader of worship.

So, did I worship? I think so. I sang some of the songs during the opening music time. I followed along and read the appropriate places in the responsive reading. I followed the Scripture reading comparing my translation to the one being projected on the screen. I followed the sermon and didn’t do too much projecting of what my friend was going to say next and didn’t do any of the sermon evaluation that I have often had to do when listening to sermons.

I also lost focus a few times—the sanctuary clock was an old pendulum clock that probably came from their old building and I love clocks. One of the hymns started an interesting theological speculation that I followed for a bit. I may have missed a bit of the sermon here and there as I thought about something else. I squirmed a bit seeking to get my knees to stop telling me they weren’t happy. But overall, I worshipped. I was conscious of the presence of the other worshippers and of the Spirit of God. And, more importantly, I didn’t want to take over the service or spend a lot of time figuring out how to make the worship better. I was a participant and was quite happy to be a participant.

That may not sound like a very significant thing—but it actually is, at least for me. I have been leading worship and preaching for most of my life. Since I began as a pastor well over 40 years ago, there haven’t been many times when worship or some part of it weren’t my responsibility. I am also very analytical—I like looking at how things work and how they could work better. And that has been a significant part of my life as well as a teacher and mentor of ministry students. A part of me has always been somewhat concerned about how I would do in a context where I am no longer the one to design and lead worship and preach the sermon.

Based on this experience plus a few other such opportunities in the last few years, I think I just might be able to make the transition from leader to participant when it comes to worship. That is important because with my 65th birthday in the past, I will be retiring one of these days. It is nice to know that there is worship after ministry.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT–AGAIN

Because I have two separate pastorates, I have two worship services.  I have already described the morning worship on the first Sunday of Advent.  After some lunch, a brief nap and a chance to read over the afternoon service, I left for the second service.  This was not our normal afternoon service.

To start with, we had scheduled a potluck supper after the worship, something we do several times a year.  That meant the service would start later so that the supper would happen closer to actual supper time.  It also meant some extra people who come because of the meal and the chance to visit with people over the supper.  It also means that things are more hectic before worship begins as we juggle final arrangements for the supper with getting ready for worship. We also had to get the Advent Candle stuff set up, which meant scouring the building for a suitable table.

It was also a cloudy, dreary day which made the burned out bulbs in over half the light fixtures in the sanctuary very obvious.  Since the fixtures are high and hard to get to, we tend not to pay much attention to them, until we all of a sudden realize half the sanctuary is in darkness and we need to do something–except the pre-worship discussion revealed that none of us had any good idea of how we were going to replace the bulbs,

With all that going on, I was kept fairly busy before worship began and didn’t realize until just before we began that in my worship preparation the week before, I had neglected to make sure my tablet and the bulletin were in sync.  I forgot to add in the hymns to the order of service on the tablet and also forgot to add in the second special music slot.  Fortunately, those were easy to remedy.

But things kept slipping.  I announced the Advent Candle reading and sat down while the reader did that part of worship.  And then, instead of standing to announce the offering, I forgot the offering, thinking the choir would sing, which they did–fortunately, other people seem to be able to pick up after me.  I eventually got the offering in and worship continued.  But when the choir did their next selection, I stood up, not realizing they were doing two pieces.  The congregation had a bit of a laugh as the choir told me to sit down.

I was not at my best during that service.  The activity and confusion before the service combined with a busy week leading to the worship meant that I was not as prepared as I should have been going into the worship and not as focused during the worship as I should have been.  I did manage to include all the required bits and pieces, even if the order of service I was following didn’t always connect with the order of service printed in the bulletin.

Eventually, we reached the end of the service and most of us went to the church hall for our supper.  But for me, the important thing was that in spite of all the confusion and my mistakes, we worshipped.  It might not have been exactly as planned.  I might have made more mistakes than normal.  People might have been a bit distracted by the enticing smells coming from the hall.  The dreary cloudy weather might have affected some of us, especially since the lack of adequate lighting made it hard to see the hymn books.

But in  spite of all that, we worshipped God.  We prayed, we sang, we presented our offerings and we heard and responded to God’s word to us for that day.  We greeted each other, welcomed each other and enabled each other to be reminded of the reality of God in our lives so that we could together give him the worship he deserves.

I very much doubt that we will ever have a perfect setting for our worship.  I would hope that we don’t always have as many issues as we had this afternoon but there will always be something.  Our worship depends on our ability to remember the reality of God in the midst of the confusion of life.  We worship not when things are perfect but because God is present and loving and graceful in the midst of the confusion and reality of life.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

It was the first Sunday of Advent and I was ready.  The write up for the Advent Candle was done.  The sermon was ready and was what I thought was an interesting approach to the Advent season–at least it was interesting to me and that helps it be interesting to those listening, I hope.  I was ready for this.

Except, well, the reality was that I didn’t expect there to be too many people there.  We are a small group and with some of our group doing their seasonal migration to warmer climates, another being involved with a family event and others having other stuff going on, I didn’t expect too many there for worship.

I gave some thought to that during the week.  With the absolute best attendance I could expect being 4, I gave myself some options:

  • Four in the congregation would mean a regular service–after all, we have done that before and it works.
  • Two in the congregation would mean a smaller service with no sermon. We would do the Advent Candle, prayers and Communion.
  • Three in worship–well, that would be a bit harder to figure out and so I would ask them what they wanted to do.

I arrived early, as always. Someone was there setting up the Communion service.  She had also come the day before and decorated the building for Christmas.  It looked great.  We talked about a variety of things as we waited for others.  She let me know that one I had on my possible list wasn’t coming so that made three a real possibility.

Our regular starting time arrived and it was still just the two of us.  We wondered where the other almost definite member was–I tried to remember if he has said he was going to be away or something.  Just as I was thinking of suggesting we close up, we heard his truck in the parking lot.  He commented on the small numbers and took his seat.

I explained my plan, which they agreed to, including the part about no singing–the only real singer in the group really didn’t want to do a solo that day.  We worshipped.  Our worship included the Advent Candle, prayers, Scripture and Communion.  We received the offering, which really meant two of us gave our envelopes to the other person who was looking after the money that day.

The service was short and didn’t include many of the regular things we do.  There was no sermon.  We didn’t have a long discussion about the Scripture readings.  We didn’t sing.  We didn’t do the responsive reading.  But we did worship.  We spent time together, sharing our common faith and encouraging each other as we worshipped God.

Would I have preferred a large congregation, say our regular 8-9?  Definitely.  Did I feel I was wasting my time leading worship for 2 people?  Definitely not.  Fortunately for all of us who pastor small churches, God doesn’t have a quorum for worship.  He doesn’t require that there be a certain number of people present.  He just requires that we come together prepared to meet with each other and him.

I am and have been a pastor of small congregations for most of my ministry.  This was probably my smallest congregation in all those years but it was still a congregation of people seeking to worship God.  It was still my responsibility to lead them in the worship–maybe not the one that I had planned and organized but I was and am still called to lead them in worship.

I suspect that will be our smallest congregation this year–given that we have only a few services left before the winter shut-down and there are no plans for the regulars to miss any more of the services we have planned, except for the snowbirds who won’t be back until spring.

I really don’t know where God is leading us as a church or what will happen as we continue with our ministry.  We may grow.  We may continue our present slow decline.  We might, like many small congregations grow enough to keep going.  But I do know that this particular Sunday, three of us showed up to worship God and together, we did just that.

May the peace of God be with you.

ADVENT

As a pastor of two different sets of congregations, much of the year is consumed with trying to juggle the different needs of the churches I work for.  They are different enough that I have different sermons, different Bible studies, different meetings and so on.  Only rarely do I get to use the same stuff in both places at the same time.  Most often, even when I can use something similar, it needs serious re-working to fit into the context of the other setting.

Except for Advent and Easter-or at least that is the way I am approaching things.  Advent is the part of the church year set aside to help prepare the church for the remembrance of the birth of Jesus.  I am a member of the Baptist tradition and while we don’t have to pay much attention to the church year, I do like to use the Advent season.  So, when advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, I get to do one set of sermons, one set of Advent candle programs, one Candlelight Christmas Eve service.

And this Advent season, for some reason, I am pretty much ready for everything.  I actually have each week’s Advent Candle program written, I have the sermons planned for each week, including the Sunday after Christmas.  I have the Christmas Eve service roughed out and just need to get a few bits of input from other participants to have that ready.  I am ready for Advent.

Except I am not really ready for Advent.  I am ready to help lead other people through the Advent season, which is part of my job.  But personally, I am not all that sure where I stand on the readiness issue.  Part of my problem is figuring out what the whole Christmas/Advent thing actually means to me and my faith.

Christmas as a celebration has been becoming less and less significant for me the last few years–since the kids all moved out and away, there hasn’t been the same level of excitement with gift giving and over eating and all the rest.  On those occasions when some of the family gets home or we are with them, some of the excitement comes back–but that would be there if we were together in July.

The whole gift process is less interesting.  Neither of us has much of a wish list.  We are at the point in our lives where we have lots of stuff and if we want something, we can and do buy it when we want it.  The eating part of the event–well, I am pretty sure that over-eating is an over-rated sport, given the fact that it is so much harder to get enough exercise to compensate for the extra calories.

Theologically, I am happy for the birth of Jesus–but I find that my thinking is more in tune with the early church.  There is pretty good evidence that the birth of Jesus wasn’t much celebrated until after the time of Constantine, about 350 years or so after Jesus.  They focused on the resurrection, which makes sense–life was difficult and Christianity was technically illegal and so they focused in the really important thing, the resurrection.

But for all that, it is Advent.  I do need to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Christ.  And I need to do it not just for the people who have called me to be their pastor but for myself.  The part about leading the church through Advent I have pretty much ready–it is all either written or will soon be written.

The personal part, well, that it a work in progress and has been for the last few years.  I try to focus not just on the birth but all its implications.  For me, that includes the rest of the story.  Seeing the birth in its context is important–we don’t worship the baby because he is a baby, we worship the risen and living Christ whom he grew into.  The baby in the manger isn’t important because of being a baby in a manger–he is important because he rose to life on the third day.

So, I will give and receive gifts; I will light Advent Candles; I will listen to the Messiah.  I will help the churches celebrate Advent and Christmas and I will continue to work on my own celebration of the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

COME LET US WORSHIP

            It might appear to anyone reading some of my last posts that I don’t spend a lot of time in worship actually worshipping.  I direct the service, seeking to use my gifts and abilities to help others worship.  I deal with interruptions either by ignoring them or working around them.  I am generally at least one step ahead of the congregation–while we are singing one hymn, I am making sure that I have the next one marked and ready.

And in some ways, it is true–I am not actually doing much that seems like worship.  But when I remember the times I have been able to attend English language worship services as a worship participant, I discover something interesting.  Often, when  I am just attending worship, I am less connected to the worship than when I am leading it.  I am less conscious of the flow of the service; I am less involved in the process; I have less sense of the other participants; I focus less on what is being said and done and I am less tuned in with the music.

That might indicate that I have some spiritual difficulties.  And that is probably true–like every other believer, I am not perfect and have lots of stuff that needs God’s help to make it better.  But I think when it comes to worship, I may not be doing as badly as I sometimes think I am doing.

For me, the point of worship is to help us re-connect with God.  God is present and active in our lives all the time but in the hectic, stressed and busy lives most of us lead, we lose sight of God.  We might feel that he has gone away but he is still present and active–we are simply not willing or able to focus on him.  Worship, both private and public, provides us with the chance to open our eyes and see the reality of the presence of God.

My job as the worship leader is to help people make this reconnection.  As I design worship, I am looking at how best to enable the people I serve remember the reality of God’s presence in their lives.  I choose Scriptures to enable this; I help select music to facilitate the connection; I develop prayers to help open hearts and minds to God; I prepare sermons to touch those things which will bring the awareness of God to the front.

And in the process of all this, I am offering myself to God to be used by him in the process of helping others worship. As I stand at the front and announce hymns and read Scriptures and lead prayers and preach sermons, I am working hard–but I am also conscious of the deep and powerful reality that I am leading God’s people in their worship of him and the only way I can do that is if I am willing to submit myself to him in the process.

My worship experience is different from that of the people I lead–but it is still worship.  I am recognizing the presence of God and my need of him in the process of leading others in worship.  That is probably why I struggle when I am simply a participant in  worship.  I am out of my element.  I haven’t had enough experience being a lay person in worship.

For now, I am the worship leader, responsible for leading others in the process of reconnecting with the God who never left.  I am also responsible for my own worship, seeking to make sure that as I lead others, I am worshipping through remembering that I need God’s help to do what he has called me to do.

Someday, I will need to learn how to worship like the people I am leading.  I am planning on retiring someday and will then be someone sitting in the pews seeking an opportunity to reconnect with God.  At that point, I will become a student, learning how to do what others have been doing for years.  But for now, I offer to God my time, gifts and abilities to be used through the power of the Holy Spirit to help others worship God.  For now, this is my act of worship.

May the peace of God be with you.