Archive for the ‘Ministry’ Category

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.

 

 

Cycles

August 2, 2016

Ministry in many ways seems to be a continuing series of cycles.  Opportunities come and go.  Prospects come and go.  Possibilities arise and dissipate.  It can be very frustrating during down cycles, but almost giddy during up cycles.  I try to maintain a somewhat balanced perspective throughout, but being human I’m pretty subject to my own energy levels rising and falling with these ebbs and flows.

Sunday was an up-cycle, for certain.  A great conversation after worship with a parishioner interested in helping to create web-appropriate theological audio content, and who has some experience with audio editing.  This has been a long-time goal of mine, and one that congregational leadership has also recently embraced.  What we lacked was someone with some skills in that area to help make it happen.  I’m excited for the possibilities!

I mentioned off-hand in conversation that I have been interested for some time in the possibility of a radio ministry, and this same parishioner indicated that he had years of experience as a volunteer DJ for the local university radio station, and that he could probably get us a time slot without much difficulty.  More excitement!

Later that evening we had our Sunday evening Happy Hour.  This has become an alternative campus ministry effort for my family and I.  Every Sunday this summer we’ve opened our house to whoever wants to come by.  A recent grad from the local Christian university and a regular attender at our congregation has  latched on to this and invited roommates, friends, and they’ve begun inviting their friends and roommates.  We had a dozen people with us this past Sunday evening, enjoying cheese & crackers, veggies, a hodge-podge of ice creams and other treats, and of course cocktails.

We had a great theological discussion about the difficulty Christians – particularly younger Christians – are having reconciling the Genesis account of creation with the predominant evolutionary and natural selection theories that are taught.  It’s a very challenging issue, and many don’t see much difficulty in holding them both to be more or less correct, simultaneously.  Which generally means that Genesis 1 & 2 are set aside as ‘poetry’ or some other form of general truth rather than specifically accurate in terms of six days and the created uniqueness of each species.

We talked about this for a while before I reiterated that this isn’t really where the Christian dialogue needs to begin or focus.  What we need to always make our starting point is the resurrection, which establishes (or fails to establish) the identity of Jesus as the Son of God, and therefore the one who we should allow to form our Biblical interpretation.  If we take the resurrection seriously, and therefore Jesus’ divinity seriously, then we have to recognize that He takes the Old Testament very seriously – all of it.  He never contradicts it, constantly quotes it and references it.  If He takes all of it seriously, shouldn’t we as well?

It was a great conversation.  Great to have new people to meet and welcome and hopefully have them feel welcomed and at home.  And they really do seem to appreciate having the place and opportunity to have a bit of home and be able to talk about important questions.  That’s our whole goal, and it’s exciting to feel it coming together.

So I’m excited and energized at the moment.  I pray it lasts!

Forgiveness and Love

August 1, 2016

We’re used to hearing of churches under attack in foreign countries, but I expect that we’ll begin hearing about it more here at home as well, such as this recent incident in Ohio.

What struck me in this article is the reason given for the attack – the woman was angry with God for how her life turned out.  Angry that she doesn’t have family close by.  This woman is a member of that congregation – she desecrated her own church in the midst of her anger and pain.

It’s a horrific event, to be sure, a blow to that entire community. But mostly I hurt for this woman.  I hurt for this woman who couldn’t figure out how to give voice to her pain, how to open up with her anger to God in any other way.  Her hurt and isolation and anger broke her in a very visceral way, leading her to do things that shock and offend us.

I’m grateful for the messages of forgiveness that the priest and bishop are speaking.  Those are very important.  But I hope that there will be a story at some point in the future that talks about how this congregation comes around this woman to support her and encourage her.  To not simply forgive her and grudgingly allow her to worship with them, but to make tangible the love of Christ.  To be ears she can vent her pain to, hands and arms to hold and support her, lips that speak words of encouragement and comfort as well as forgiveness.

I try to imagine how I would feel if someone did this to my church.  It would be a difficult thing to deal with, to be sure.  I think there would also be guilt to be dealt with on my part and the part of some parishioners.  Why didn’t we know?  Why didn’t this person reach out for help before the breaking point?  What could we have done differently to be of help?

Maybe nothing.  I don’t know the private lives of most of my parishioners.  I don’t know all of their struggles.  And in many places there is a stigma against expressing anger towards God.  But God can handle our anger.  He wants our honesty, an integral and foundational element in any healthy relationship.  If we can’t express our anger to God, and if we don’t feel like we can express it around brothers and sisters in Christ, that anger will find an outlet somehow.

If you’re hurt and angry with God, reach out.  Talk with your pastor or church leaders.  Talk with trusted friends and family.  Find a place where you are safe in venting your emotions and getting them out there.  God can handle it, and I’d like to think that his people can handle it as well.  With forgiveness, with love, and with encouragement and support so that the anger isn’t twisted into an expression that is damaging to others as well as to the person.

A Pastor’s Call

July 16, 2016

I serve a congregation of primarily retirement age and older folks.  Great folks.   Some of them are really post-retirement, safely into the epic range of age.  And some of them are alone.  Not just widows or widowers, not just with family out of the area, but really alone – few if any remaining living relatives; no children or grandchildren.   They are fully reliant on outsiders – non-family members – for their care to one degree or another, even if they’re still living independently.  Outsiders is meant in a purely descriptive sense, not pejorative.  Many of these caretakers are wonderful, committed people.

The blessing and challenge of some pastors like myself  is to care for people in this situation.  To bring them the Word and Sacraments of God when they can no longer make it to worship.  To check in on them from time to time.  To develop relationships with them similar to the relationships we have with other parishioners.  We learn about their lives to a certain extent, what they’ve been through, who they are.  Which is wonderful, but it brings certain challenges as well.

As someone grows older and less independent, what is the pastoral role in watching for this person’s well-being?  I don’t have any legal standing with these folks.  The fact that I’m seeing them on a regular basis for years at a time means nothing in a legal sense.  It’s not appropriate or desirable for me to have any sort of legal standing – it complicates everything and this isn’t a reasonable or safe duty for me to take on.  But when I begin to worry about their well-being, my role is rather limited by the legal documents they have drawn up identifying who makes decisions about their life.

I’ve been discovering all of this recently with one of my parishioners.  They voiced some concerns or uncertainties about certain aspects of their care in terms of fiscal fiduciary duties.  But I have no authority to do anything.  But I can make sure that they’ve been in contact with their attorney.  I can make sure they follow up with their accountant.  I can offer to be with them – a highly uncomfortable conversation, I can assure you! – so that they have someone else in the conversation.

But these people have their duties and responsibilities as well – which include keeping outsiders like me out of the loop.  Protecting their client from any possible detrimental disclosure.  Which means while I can help push for a meeting to occur, I can’t ask what happened.  They won’t tell me – and this is the way it’s supposed to be.  But it means that my parishioner may still be at risk of someone taking advantage of them.  It means that while I can assure them of the forgiveness they have in Christ and the glory to which they are called through faith in him, I may not be able to protect them from the wolves of this world.

My only recourse is reporting suspected elder abuse, and bringing in additional outsiders, people further removed from the situation.  From subjecting my parishioner to a system of cause and effect which could even ultimately involve law enforcement.  Which could result in them being forced into courses of action that they don’t want.  Which could shatter the trust they have developed with me, and perhaps even with Christ’s Church.

That’s a heavy thing to consider.  That’s a heavy risk to take into account in my prayers and wonderings.  But it’s a good reminder for me – and for others – to make sure that you continue to ensure that there are people you trust who have a voice in your life as you get older, particularly if the natural choices for those voices are not so evident (kids, etc.) or if there are complicating factors (dysfunctional or adversarial sibling relationships, etc.).  Make sure that people who know you and who you trust have some ability to be involved with you as you get older.  It’s a very uncomfortable thing, but it can be a very helpful thing.  Perhaps a less intrusive thing than the only other systems and options available in situations like this.

 

What Do You Assume?

May 12, 2016

Assumptions are powerful things, and no more dangerous than when someone asserts to have transcended them, to have reached a true objectivity and impartiality that is, by definition, impossible.  People who avoid going to certain churches – or any church – because they “just want to read the Bible and follow it” are misguiding themselves.  It isn’t that they can read the Bible impartially.  They simply have their own assumptions about it.

As a preacher, I have to constantly acknowledge and identify my own assumptions.  What do I assume about the Bible?  What do I assume about Jesus?  What do I assume about myself?  What do I assume about my parishioners?  The reality is that I’ll never be able to identify all of my own assumptions.  But I can identify some of them, and this is incredibly valuable and necessary.  In this range of assumptions, over the past few years I’ve been dealing with what are my assumptions about the role of preaching?   What are my Sunday morning sermons intended to do?

I started out for Seminary years ago with the assumption that people need to be guided towards proper behavior.  They don’t know what is expected.  They don’t know what is right.  When presented with the Gospel, the natural reaction is likely to be Gee, now what do I do?  So the sermon should conclude with some very pointed encouragements and exhortations.  Not the Law, mind you – but something applicable.

But I’ve changed my mind about this.

Everywhere I go, I hear people talking about the Law.  Christians.  Parishioners.  Non-Christians.  I have yet to meet anyone who isn’t aware of the Law, who truly feels as though it either doesn’t exist, doesn’t apply to them, or that they already obey the Law fully.  Everyone I know will admit that there is a Law (God’s or their own, in addition to societal laws), will admit that it applies to them, and 99% will readily acknowledge that they don’t fully obey it.  Ever.

The problem I experience isn’t that people don’t know the Law, but rather that they don’t know the Gospel.  Not really.  Not fully.  Not in it’s complete, world-altering, mind-blowing, life-granting, death-defeating totality.  And grant you, I won’t be able to convey the fullness of the Gospel because I’m a poor, sinful being.  But I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s my job to try.  I need to try to give people on Sunday morning purely good news.  Good News contextualized by the Law they already acknowledge failure of.  Good News that doesn’t allow them to justify themselves and earn the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Good News that doesn’t allow them to sit in smug superiority over those other, lesser people who don’t vote the same way or dress the same way or talk or drive the same way.

And if that’s what I want to convey, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Law still plays a role in my sermons – but it plays an earlier role.  That’s the role it has always played – highlighting our own shortcomings, my own failures in areas that we might not be aware of.  The Law prepares us – drives us to the Gospel.  But once we get the Gospel, once we get forgiveness of sins based on the perfection of Christ, once we get citizenship in the Kingdom of God based on faith in the resurrection of Christ, then I’ve done my job and I need to shut up and sit down and let the Holy Spirit work that Gospel realization in each person’s heart, just as He does in my own.

So I fight the tendency – the near-manic need – to direct people at the end of the sermon as to what to do next.  Be more loving.  Be nicer.  Be honest.  Because these aren’t helpful encouragements.  This is the Law again.  Because they aren’t more loving.  Aren’t nicer.  Aren’t more honest.  Little by little, hopefully – but never to the point at which they can say well now I’ve done what Pastor told me I should do.  I wonder what advice he’ll give me that I can completely fulfill next?

It’s uncomfortable to end with the Gospel, to let the Gospel predominate despite the fact that my denomination (and most Christians for that matter) claim that the Gospel should always predominate!  We say it, but we don’t really mean it.  We say it, but we’re terrified that people will hear the Gospel and decide that there really isn’t any more work to be done in their lives, that they’re perfect and can go on blithely sinning in peace.

I don’t believe the Gospel really allows for that sort of calmness.  The essence of the Gospel is not that now I’m good enough, the essence of the Gospel is that Christ is good enough.  The essence of the Gospel isn’t that there aren’t areas I need to improve in my life, the essence of the Gospel is that much-needed self-improvement is never enough, and can never equal the grace of God I’ve been granted through faith in Jesus Christ.

If I want to assume anything, then, about my hearers, I need to assume that the Law is crushing them in one way or another, leading them to despair and frustration, and that they haven’t really heard the Gospel.  I try to assume that they really need to hear the Gospel as the solution and escape from the condemning voice of the Law.  I need to assume that having heard the Gospel, their immediate result is not going to be licentiousness, but rather thanksgiving to God and changes in their lives that sprout from their new identity in Christ rather than some internal desire to be better people.

It makes me feel uncomfortable.  It makes me worry I’m not discharging the duties of my office properly.  Maybe that’s a good thing.  Maybe I’ll be led to change my mind again, to shift my assumptions to a better place.  So be it.  I trust the Holy Spirit will lead me to that conclusion if I’m in error.  That’s part of how I see the Gospel functioning in my life, part of the way I assume it functions because I need it to function that way.  And maybe that’s how it functions in my parishioners lives when they hear it each Sunday.  I pray it is.  Not to my glory, but always and only and forever to God’s.  Sola Dei Gloria.