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August 6, 2017

I had to ask the last of our happy hour attendees to leave about an hour ago.  One (the one who doesn’t drink!) was falling asleep on the couch with the dogs .  But the wife and kids are getting up early in the morning for a birthday boat ride to and a day of hiking on Santa Cruz Island, so I needed to empty the house and get them to bed.  People started arriving around 6pm this evening.  This isn’t everyone who was there, but it gives you an idea:

Our daughter tells us there were 21 people here tonight (including our five family members).  We didn’t know most of them.  Six are weekly regulars.  Of the rest, one or two have visited once or twice over the past year and a half.  The others were first time visitors.

There were actresses and actors fresh from small indie performances in town and trying to figure out how to position themselves for a Big Break.  Missionary kids from Eritrea the Ukraine.  Aspiring doctors, a sailing captain, a future lawyer, two Swiss exchange students, several talented musicians previewing songs from an upcoming debut album, a future professor and a few undecideds.  All in their early 20’s, all a long way from family.  A cross spectrum of ideologies and personalities, but our friends knew that they would be welcomed and honored in our home, greeted by our kids and our dogs, handed some AMAZING cocktails (thank you to Ruth for the sake!!!), and welcomed to just be.  I probably didn’t converse with a third of them more than to get their drink order.  Talking with everyone every Sunday isn’t always feasible.  But I conversed with one guy on the difference between Lutheran and Reformed theology.   I planned with another couple I’ll have the privilege of marrying in two weeks.  I received updates on short-term work and travel plans from another person.  I watched my kids help keep the food supplied and deliver drinks.  I heard my oldest son joking and telling stories.  I washed a lot of dishes.  Some of them twice.

I may have misgivings and feel inadequate in describing what happens on Sunday evenings to other people.  I may be exhausted at the end of an 18 hour day.  But it’s a beautiful place to be.  A bit chaotic at times, but that’s sort of the nature of Christ’s love.  We always know what we’re getting with Christ’s love, but we never quite know where that will lead us or how it will change us or who it will connect us with, whether for an evening or a lifetime or, by His grace, an eternity.

 

 

Authentic Community?

August 6, 2017

I’ve shared a bit about how I’ve struggled, internally, with the concept of Christian community.  More accurately, I’ve struggled with how other people might want to define Christian community.  What makes it valid, legitimate, authentic?  There are no shortage of answers to those questions.  I’m sure that some folks would define Christian community as centered in worship, but then that begs the question of how is worship defined?  Is worship always and only defined as the Divine Service of Sunday mornings?  Is worship only where the Word or Sacraments are explicitly presented, or can these form the backdrop, the living context in which human beings are gathered?  Does Christian community only exist when acts of service are performed?  But how do we define acts of service?  Is it only reaching out to the socially or economically marginalized?  Or does it involve nursing and nurturing people through heartbreak, through disappointment, into joy?

Perhaps the confusion isn’t the nature of community so much as the nature of ministry.  If a congregation supports an outreach, a ministry to a group of people, what does this mean?  Are there explicit or implicit assumptions and expectations?  Is that outreach only valid when a certain set of criteria are met?  Or is just loving people and being together enough?

It seems that in most church-sponsored ministry, something gets done.  What if there are no tangible outcomes?  No quilts made?  No bags for the homeless stuffed?  No meals prepared?  No funds raised?  Not that any of these things are bad, of course!  It’s wonderful that God’s people are motivated to show love in so many ways!  But is such a tangible outcome the only criteria for a ministry?

As pastor I feel an obligation – a reasonable one – to be a good steward of my community’s resources.  Certainly those resources that are allocated to my work in various ministries.  Perhaps that’s what makes me most uncomfortable, the worry that some might view a ministry as pointless or irrelevant – ultimately as a bad investment for not meeting certain expectations.  On the other hand, I also feel it’s important to model what I believe the life of faith looks like.  Imperfectly, to be sure.  But intentionally as much as I can.

There are various ministries described in the Bible, but the command is ultimately to love our neighbor and to love our God.  That means I need to be comfortable – and encourage others to be comfortable – simply in loving one another.  When opportunity and interest present themselves to be of tangible service in some way, wonderful!  But love is often intangible, expressed in word and presence rather than in product.  Much like our Lord comes to us in worship – in Word and Sacrament, promising us that the Holy Spirit within us has drawn us into community.  His community.  Not based on what we do but who we are in faith.

So I have to trust that it’s enough to just gather, with gathering being the main point.  Joy in one another and the peculiar vibe created around family and friends, food and drink.  The simple enjoyment of the Lord’s good gifts on so many levels.  It isn’t always easy.  It’s definitely work (at least being the hosts and preparing for the gathering each week!).  But it’s work I enjoy and look forward to, never knowing quite what is going to happen, who is going to be there, and how we will be blessed through and in it.  But never doubting that we have been blessed in it, that we are, and that we will continue to be.

Mercy Killing?

June 30, 2017

The Western world grapples with the fear of suffering.  Not simply our own, actual suffering, but the suffering of others and our own hypothetical suffering.  The idea of having to suffer offends our sensibilities.  There is no purpose to it.  And so we demand that we have the option to opt-out of suffering and along with that we demand the right to opt other people out of their suffering so that we don’t have to suffer along with them.

We term this mercy.

Here is what mercy now can look like.  Parents of a child born with congenital health issues for which there is no cure or treatment are being told that the government has decided to end their child’s life – in the best interest of the child.  Despite the fact that the parents do not want their child to die.  Despite the fact that there is experimental treatment available out of the country that could change the conditions for which the child is being sentenced to death.  Not only this, but now that their appeals for out-of-country treatment have been denied, the parents are also being denied the right to have their own child die in their own home, rather than in a hospital.

I’m still trying to see where the mercy is involved in all of this.  Perhaps because I don’t suspect that mercy is really what is being demonstrated.  Efficiency.  Expediency.  A rigorous attention to detail, the rule of law.  Bureaucratic policy.  But not mercy.

This is happening in Great Britain.  The country, as one observer notes, that fought against the Nazi’s and their insistence that some lives (other people, more specifically) were not worth living and therefore the government could decide to end those lives.  This is where we end up without a moral compass or baseline, without anything that limits our ability or tendency to define and redefine even such beautiful words as mercy until they mean the very opposite of why we find them beautiful.

This redefinition is evil.  It is evil because it reduces humanity to a matter of expediency and personal preferences, carefully sanitized in legalese and policy-speak.  It is evil because it holds the dictates of a human being or institution as ultimate and final, without recognizing that such beings and institutions are inherently unable to provide a single, permanent baseline from which to operate.  So the decisions made today may be completely opposite the decisions that would have been made 50 years ago, or the decisions that might be made 50 years hence.

We (Christians) are being inculcated to sympathy with this evil.  I find the seeds of it even in myself, despite being older and less prone to direct means of subversion and brain-washing (like schools).  We are being wooed towards sympathy because of our own fears and hopes and wishes.

Yesterday I visited one of our long-time members who is homebound.  She has been homebound for the past seven years, by and large.  Over those years I have brought her Communion and led us in simple worship together.  She is an amazing woman.  Her mind is sharp, her will is formidable, she is articulate, cultured, and refined, and she has a zest for life that would be admirable in a person a quarter her age.

When I saw her two weeks ago she was having a good day.  We shared Communion and prayer.  I could see much of her through her condition.  When I went yesterday, however, it was a bad day, and I could see so very, very little of the woman she is.  She was fearful, her words slurred and at times indecipherable.  Her fear was palpable and audible, her weakness striking.  She didn’t know who I was, or who the woman caring for her was, or where she was.  She begged to go home while sitting in her own living room of 50 years.

I left asking God why He didn’t take her yet.  She has been ready to go for years.  Her faith is strong, but her mind and body have been subverted and twisted by time.  What point is there in having her linger, I wondered.  I even flirted with the thought that perhaps God was being unkind to her in this.  She deserves to die.  It would be a blessing to her.  It would be merciful.

Merciful to whom, I suddenly thought.  Perhaps it would be merciful to me, so that I didn’t need to keep going to see her.  Merciful to me so that I wasn’t made uncomfortable by her condition and deterioration, fearful that I might one day be in her place.  Merciful to me in that I wouldn’t have to accommodate myself to her limitations, and that I could leave feeling happy and care-free, to go about my daily routine and duties, rather than struggling with mortality and the damnable reality of sin and death that lurks within my own frame.

She is still herself.  She isn’t less herself, or less of a human being, than she was two years ago or twenty years ago or eighty years ago.  She is entitled to all the same love and care and concern.  Is it harder to be with her?  Yes.  Which is perhaps why it is all the more important to be with her.  To come to grips with the effects of sin in our lives.  To seek to love her consistently and care for her consistently, rather than simply deciding that at some arbitrary point or in some arbitrary state of mind or body, she is no longer herself, no longer deserving of the life that God himself has given and sustained her in.  Perhaps part of the blessing of suffering is that we learn to see past and through these things, both in ourselves and others.

She is not defined by her dementia.  She is not defined by her physical frailty.  She is not defined by her suffering, and neither she nor I have the right to redefine her as such and cease to see her for what she is.  Beautiful.  Alive by the grace and wisdom of God.  And therefore an opportunity to love and practice mercy with in the truest and best sense of that word, rather than the senseless way our culture wants to redefine it.  Perhaps as I continue to care for her in this way, it will better prepare me to care for others in similar conditions, and will further prepare me – inasmuch as may be possible – for me to endure that condition should it become my own one day.

Mercy, like hope, isn’t necessarily expedient.   But we are in a dangerous place without either.

 

Hope Isn’t Expedient

June 27, 2017

In my line of work I hear a lot of difficult stories.  People moving through hard experiences.  Illnesses.  Family difficulties.  Broken relationships.  Unexpected adversities.

I’ve realized over time that the people who tell me the storytellers break down into two basic categories – those who want hope, and those who want help.  While these two things often are found together, they aren’t necessarily always.  But often the distinction is driven by the person speaking – I am either someone who conveys real hope, or I am someone to help them with a particular situation.  I am part of a bigger story and picture filled with hope, or I am an expedient means to an end.

The people in my community are in the first category.  Maybe they’re members of my congregation.  Maybe they’re regulars at Sunday Happy Hour.  They are present in community aside from any particular need.  Needs arise, to be sure, and when possible the community gathers around to try and meet the need.  But when the need passes or is met they continue in the community, seeing that community and their place in it as part and parcel with having their needs met but also as a source of hope and strength and comfort.  They see their needs as part of a larger picture that can best (and I would argue only) be met through intentional, consistent Christian community.

Community teaches us that struggles come and go.  Joys arrive and depart.  There remains a steady underlying reality that contextualizes these things and makes them respectively easier to bear and more enjoyable.  Our troubles are less overwhelming in some degree because we are a part of other people’s lives and know that they have troubles as well.  Our joys are heightened as we are able to share them with people who know us and care for us.  One day we are helping someone in need, the next day we are the ones who are being lifted up in care and prayer.

Other people I meet randomly are only looking for a temporary fix.  They need help with their car insurance, or this month’s rent, or groceries, or a bus pass.  Many of these are to some degree workable.  I’m blessed to serve a community with some assets set aside to help and care for people in need, and it is a wonderful experience to be able to do so.  Whenever it is appropriate, I encourage these people to join us for worship.  I ask if they have a community of faith or another support network that they can draw strength and encouragement as well as tangible help from.

Overwhelmingly the answer is no.  Not only is it no, they don’t want this.  They won’t come to church.  Won’t go get help at a shelter.  What they see is a very limited and specific need and what they want help with is that particular need.  Perhaps I can and will help them or perhaps I can’t or won’t, but they aren’t interested in hearing anything that extends beyond that particular need to the larger picture.  Despite the fact that my community is willing and able to help them, they don’t see any value in the community itself, only what that community might provide them at a single point in time.

Recently our community provided a young family in need with $1500 in a matter of three days.  All from members who desired to be a blessing and help.  The family isn’t part of our church, and from my limited talk with the guy, not a part of any Christian community – though desirous of one.  In the three days between their request and me delivering the check he was in constant contact.  Sending pictures of his daughter, etc.  As soon as he received the check, he cancelled the appointment we had set up for the next day.  For the last month he’s talked about rescheduling but something always comes up.

We didn’t help this family so they would join our congregation (though of course I’m always hopeful!).  But we did help them out of love first poured out into our lives from the Son of God.  We did it in faithfulness to how God wants us to live, and out of love for this family as part of that witness of faith.  And, we did what many individuals and even other communities could or would not do.  It baffles me that this man wouldn’t be interested in finding out more about and getting closer to our community.

The objective reader may point out that we’ve simply been taken advantage of.  Scammed.  Used.  Conned.  And this is of course possible (though for some compelling reasons I don’t think so in this particular case).  I’ve certainly helped other folks that I was sure were feeding me a line of bull  But even if that were the case, wouldn’t a con artist be interested in learning more about a group of people so willing to give of themselves?  To be sure, I don’t want con artists in my community.  Not if they’re insistent on remaining con artists.  But I do want con artists in my community so that the Holy Spirit might actually change them.  The early Christians were noted for their love and care for one another in adversity.  Now people are hopeful or even expectant of such love, but they see it only in terms of a particular need at a particular time, not as something which might transform their lives through the power of God the Holy Spirit.  And for those who aren’t con artists, who are really in need, I want them in our community to see the power and love of Jesus at work in tangible ways.  I don’t think you can experience that and not be affected by it at some level.  St. Paul and St. James clearly think you can’t.

Perhaps that is, in part, what keeps some people from community and the hope of real change and improvement.  Perhaps change isn’t really what some people want.  They simply want expediency.  This particular need met.  When the next particular need arises, they’ll figure out how to handle that.  But this issue here and now, and nothing more.  Not hope.  Perhaps they are so beleaguered are entrenched in their ways of thinking and being that it isn’t possible to even imagine something more or better.  Which means I should probably be praying more for them, that they would recognize what their greatest and deepest need truly is, and who alone can provide them not simply with help, but with hope.

 

Happy Endings

December 9, 2016

I saw Mike again this morning.

It’s been probably six months since he arrived at the Rescue Mission to begin a year-long residential recovery program for drug and alcohol addicted men.  He only lasted a couple of weeks there.  I had asked them to consider him, and while my request probably didn’t amount to much, I felt bad for recommending someone that wouldn’t complete the program.

I had hopes for a happy ending for Mike.  I had hopes that he and I could continue to grow together in the faith someplace other than jail.  I had hoped that despite a lifetime of drug addiction he could enter the Rescue Mission and receive the help he talked about wanting.  I had hopes that he could graduate clean and stay clean.

My happy endings are rather high bars, but I’m learning to lower them.

It’s that I’ve changed my mind about what would justly constitute a truly happy ending, or that I’ve accepted a life of addiction as somehow acceptable or desirable for anyone.  I haven’t gone soft on what ought to be, but perhaps I’m learning to look for the silver linings more in the storm clouds.   I realize that not everyone is going to have the happy ending I wish they would.

So it was a happy thing to see Mike this morning in jail.  Not at church, not at the Rescue Mission.  But at jail.  It meant that he’s safe for the moment.  He’s in familiar territory, a place that he knows very well.  Those are good things.  It means he’s not on the streets.  Not cold.  Not strung out.  Not vulnerable to a bad batch of dope or the transient cruelty of other street people or the random pedestrian or driver.

I know Mike will get his happy ending someday.  I know we’ll see each other in a better place through faith in Jesus Christ.  But for now I’ll content myself with this passing happy ending.  He’s safe today.  We could pray together today.

And for Mike, maybe that’s enough to be thankful for right there.

Prepare the Way

December 1, 2016

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Saturday will be the first memorial service I’ve participated in for a clergy member.

Jim had been retired from parish ministry for quite a few years, but his last Call was to the congregation where I now pastor.  When I arrived here six years ago he went out of his way to both make me feel welcome and to ensure that I had no misgivings about the fact that he still lived in the area.  He worshiped at another congregation.  He only attended my congregation on special occasions – usually memorial services.  But he always seemed worried that I would view his presence as some sort of threat or interference.  Former pastors can be a source of contention for new pastors, and in our circles the rule of thumb is that once you retire from a congregation, you need to find a different place to worship.

Jim followed that advice faithfully, but I never worried about him, and wouldn’t have worried at all even if he was in the pews every Sunday.  He wasn’t the sort of guy to cause problems, and  I think in the past couple of years he recognized that I trusted this and  he relaxed a little bit.

It’s a pleasure doing a memorial for a pastor – or at least this pastor – because he had instructions all laid out for what he wanted at his memorial.  Bible verses and hymns selected, with several different options of both depending on what season of the Church year he died in.  His family didn’t have to struggle over what to do or how to do it – he had instructions prepared in advance.  Note to readers – I don’t care how old you are – take the time to jot down some notes regarding your memorial service and put them someplace where people can find them.  Those you leave behind will be very thankful, as well as whomever will be conducting the service.  This is advice I need to follow myself as well!

In this matter, as in matters of the faith, Jim fulfilled the theme indicated on our  Advent paraments.  He prepared the way.  It was what he did as a pastor and chaplain, and it’s what he does still now as he guides myself and the others who will conduct his memorial.  Preparing the way so that we can not simply commemorate a wonderful man, but preach the Gospel that defined his life, his death, and his life now as he continues to wait for the return of his King.  But now He waits in glory, in the presence of God the Father.  No more back pains.  No more struggles with an increasingly bewildering world or an increasingly challeged church.    Peace. Joy.  Victory.

Advent points us to the return of our King and to a day when we too will know perfect peace, joy, and victory.  Not on the basis of how good we’ve been, but rather on the basis of the perfect gift of God – his incarnate Son, Jesus the Christ.  All those who put their faith and trust in this are to give witness to their hope in their lives in different shapes and forms as they’re equipped by the Holy Spirit.  Some are called into roles specifically to help prepare the way, to shepherd and guide, to teach and preach and give God’s people the good gifts of God – his Word and Sacraments.

Regardless of our role, though, we all have a final opportunity to point the way to others when we die and when we call our friends and family together for Christian memorial.  It isn’t to remind everyone how great we were, but to once again prepare and point the way, so that others know where we are, whose we are, and that they might follow in trust and faith, hope and joy.  That’s what Advent – and life – are all about.

Rest in peace.  The way is prepared for you.

 

 

 

 

What I Wish My Pastor Knew

September 2, 2016

I thought this was a touching article.  I can’t imagine what kids these days have to deal with.  Obstacles and hurdles that would have been almost unimaginable even in my childhood are probably routine these days.

It got me to think that maybe I should ask my parishioners this same question.  What do I wish my pastor knew about me?  What detail or fact or reality ought I to know about a parishioner that would help me know how best to minister to them?  That might determine the direction I take on a given sermon or Bible study?

Pastors get to know big picture details.  Births and deaths, confirmations and baptisms and marriages and divorces (sometimes!).   But these are just moments, lit up by lightning strikes in the midst of a day-to-day life that is often unknown.  Sometimes the things that most define us are the things we are least apt to blurt out in conversation, in a handshake before or after the service.  Even in a home visitation.

Preaching and Listening

August 26, 2016

As an introvert, it’s amazing to me that for the last 20 years I’ve made a living by speaking in one form or another.  Teaching, consulting, preaching – all require that I be able to communicate to other people, often in large group settings.  So it is that I strive to craft my preaching around listening.  How to share the Word of God and which aspect of it should be shared is dependent on the person or people I’m with.  In seminary, we learned that an important theological answer to questions people often raise in conversation is Why do you want to know?

The answer to that question can help guide the answer I give.  Someone who asks whether abortion is a sin or not – straightforward question, right?  Well sure, but how do I want to respond?  I could respond about how it’s a sin, that it’s murder and that God has strictly forbidden murder.  But that answer isn’t the answer that someone who is struggling with the guilt of an abortion needs.  Of course it remains a sin, but what I want to emphasize is grace and mercy and forgiveness, because the pain and guilt is what is prompting the question.  It’s not academic curiosity, it’s a matter of a mother’s survival.

For this reason I’m instinctively distrustful of preachers who don’t listen.  We likely can all think of someone – pastor or otherwise – who loves to talk.  Who has an answer before you’ve finished asking the question.  Who has an answer or an opinion even when you haven’t asked a question.  Someone who can’t wait for you to finish talking so they can start talking.  That’s annoying.  But in the realm of God’s Word, I’ve learned that this can be very dangerous, and that it can be the sign of someone who has an agenda of their own behind the words they’re saying, even if those words are the Word of God.

This morning at the jail there was a man who joined us.  He was present a few weeks ago and I remembered him immediately.  He wanted to argue about baptism.  Or more accurately, he wanted people to listen to his teaching on baptism rather than mine.  He didn’t want to argue with me, he wanted people to listen to him.  He was back today.  And what I found interesting was that this guy was very talkative – again.  He threw around verses from Scripture either by quotation or referencing chapter and verse.  He spoke with conviction and by and large, I didn’t disagree with what he said.  But he clearly wanted the floor, and once he got it, would hold forth as long as he could.  I had to cut him off several times to allow others to talk.

What I found fascinating was that when conversation from the other guys led to an opportunity to actually study and walk through a section of Scripture, the talkative guy left.  As soon as we opened the Bible and started working through a passage (Matthew 18:21-35), this guy was no longer interested.  He was interested in his voice talking about God’s voice.  He wasn’t interested in God’s actual voice.

What a temptation it is to take pride in our own understanding and learning and insight into God’s Word, to the point where we won’t sit still to listen to the actual Word of God!  What a danger it is to insist that others listen to us, mistaking our voices for His!

Listening is such a crucial thing.  It can be difficult.  Time consuming.  Frustrating.  But how beautiful to just listen to someone, to allow them to express their heart so that the Holy Spirit might guide you in how to respond to them best!  What an amazing gift to give and to receive all at the same time!  I meet a lot of guys who know Scripture and are eager to tell me about it.  But what I value most in another person is someone who is anxious to listen.  If they’re willing and able to listen, then I better trust whatever they respond with.  If they’re chomping at the bit to direct me to a verse, then I suspect they haven’t really heard me.  They think they have.  They think they know what I’m talking about and how I feel and what I need.  But while they’ve been thinking through all of that, they haven’t been listening to me.

Take time to listen.  To give the gift of valuing what someone else has to say, and honor they’re showing you by saying it to you.  Trust that the Holy Spirit of God will be with you in those moments of listening, and will guide you in how to respond.  What to say or what not to say.  Particularly be careful of preachers who don’t listen, especially if they don’t listen to God’s Word.  They may not mean any harm, but sometimes that eagerness to talk can mask a deeper issue that either you or they or both of you should be concerned about.

Routines

August 11, 2016

Like most people I’m a creature of habit.  I don’t like that fact and I like to think that I flail against that tendency, but it’s there all the same.  In a vocation with a great deal of flexibility both by choice and necessity, there are still certain routines I prefer to follow.

Thursdays I like to go to my favorite coffee house around 6:30am and spend three hours or so perusing various commentaries.  Then I return to my office to distill their wisdom (and sometimes mine) into notes for my Thursday afternoon in-depth Bible Study.  It takes a long time to read theological material, and it takes time to distill it and spit it out first in written form and then verbally.  I keep my Thursday calendar clear in general because of this.

But it doesn’t always work out that way, despite my preference for routine.  Sometimes, things get in the way.  More accurately, sometimes people get in the way.  And when that happens, what I try to promise myself is that I will always let them.

I’m not here for my routine.  I’m here for people.  I’m here to interact and laugh and love and share with people in a variety of contexts.  Maybe it’s at the jail like Friday mornings.  Maybe it’s with men in recovery from addictions like Thursday afternoons (my one exception to my open schedule on Thursdays!), or women in recovery on Friday afternoons.  Maybe it’s with the sweet little old ladies at the retirement center next door on Friday afternoons.  Maybe it’s with the guys at the bar on Tuesday nights or the college students on Sunday evening.  And of course it’s my wife and children as well.

Routines can easily eclipse people.  The knowledge that stuff needs to get done sometimes makes me want to set people aside so I can just do what I need to do.  But I try to fight against that as much as possible.  Which means sometimes Bible study won’t be ready on Thursday afternoons because I was needed by various people.  I feel guilty for that but I don’t want to.  Bible study can wait.  At the end of the day I’m pretty sure that the Bible study won’t make the difference between heaven and hell for those assembled 22 or so faithful.  While they enjoy the study and I enjoy doing it, we can’t forget that we are privileged to share the love of Jesus Christ with people.  We know plenty as Christians, on average.  Letting that knowledge impel us towards people is where it’s harder.  It’s a lot safer to stuff my head in a book or a Bible study than to interact with people who may challenge my conceptions of myself and my God and those books.

But sometimes Bible Study is going to have to wait because somebody had a greater need.  When that happens (as it did last week), I count on the forgiveness of my members – which they are very good at giving.   And I need to practice forgiving myself, which I am not so good at doing.  And I need to give thanks to God for putting people in my life in ways that challenge my routines and preferences and keep me alive to his Spirit at work.

Whetstones

August 9, 2016

This morning we had our monthly pastoral gathering.  Some still call it a winkel, but most just refer to it as a circuit meeting.  Current and retired pastors from 30 miles north of me to 70 miles south of me gathering for fellowship, theological discussion, and worship with Holy Communion.  I don’t always want to go.  There are plenty of other things I could be doing.  But it’s a good thing to go so I do.

This morning discussion was dominated by the events and decisions of our denominational polity’s recent national convention.  One of the resolutions that brought out a great deal of vehemence among some of my colleagues was a recommendation or encouragement sort of resolution that pastors should preach more interesting sermons.  There was some annoyance at the vague and non-specific nature of such a resolution.  Who gets to define interesting?  How are they going to ensure that sermons are uniformly interesting?  It’s the kind of resolution that doesn’t accomplish much other than to serve as a reminder that people have to listen to what we preach every Sunday.

Other colleagues were offended that anyone might suggest that they could use any help or direction in their preaching.  Some cited the number of years and decades they had been preaching.  Some close to retirement laughed off any such suggestion – they were too established in their patterns to ever change.  Both are honest statements.  It’s difficult to accept constructive criticism.  We also exist in a denomination with a history of division, where trust does not come easily among peers. Such resolutions are interpreted as an attempt by some to get power over others, which naturally is a concerning thing.

But while the resolution doesn’t have any real teeth to it to actually require more interesting sermons, the idea that every preacher regardless of context or age or experience can constantly benefit from feedback and ongoing training makes a lot of sense to me.  Doing something for a long time doesn’t guarantee that I do it well.  Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, but you certainly aren’t going to get closer to perfect without practice.

I’m always looking for opportunities and experiences to help me improve my preaching.  It’s the most public part of my job.  I get to do it every Sunday.  Anything that could help me do it better would be a huge blessing both to myself and hopefully to my congregation.  I shouldn’t have to have a resolution or even a mandatory continuing education requirement to make me desire those things.  As both a lifelong learner and lifelong teacher, that process of continual improvement is ingrained in me.  Hopefully I’ll feel the same when I’ve been preaching for 20 or 30 or even 40 years, God-willing.  And hopefully by seeking out different experiences and contexts and means of learning, what I learn and how it shapes me will be a greater and greater blessing to the people I’m called to serve.

In the meantime, hopefully encouragements and resolutions are made and received in the best way.  Not to manipulate, threaten, or control others, but as a means for spurring all of us on towards constant improvement and growth to the blessing of God’s people and Church.