Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Place to Preach

Like most United Methodist preachers who are appointed to serve in different places by their Bishop, there have been those moments when I questioned the wisdom and the spiritual discernment of the one doing the appointing.  In other words, there were times when I would have appointed myself to some place other than the one to which I was actually appointed by my Bishop!  Usually such thinking happened when I was enjoying a "pity party"  which gave me liberty to tell God that I deserved better.  And whenever such happened, God would inevitably rain on my party by telling me that any pulpit was more than I deserved.
Indeed, it is true that I have been blessed with a place to preach all these years.  Even now in this season of retirement, I still am blessed to have a pulpit from which to preach the gospel each Sunday.  The Rocky Ford United Methodist Church is not a large congregation by any definition, but it is a privilege to stand in that holy place each Sunday as the preacher of the Word.  Stapleton, Bethel and Zoar made up my first Bishop appointed preaching place.  From there I went on to Tennille, Talbotton, and St. John in Columbus.  From Columbus I went to Vidalia, Perry, and Richmond Hill and then here to Rocky Ford.  Each of those churches to which I was appointed by my Bishop gave me what every preacher wants--a place to preach.
When I heard that call to preach back in 1966 at the Alamo Methodist Church, I could not have conceived of the journey before me.   Looking back is to know I have been blessed far more than I deserved for each Sunday since the beginning days, I have had a place to stand and proclaim the Word of God to the people of God.  No preacher could ask for more.

One Nail

Even though I have been preaching for a little more than forty-two years, I still find myself drawn to reading what other folks are saying about preaching.  Sometimes I get the notion I could write my own book on the subject, but it is much easier to find others sounding some of the themes I would sound were I writing such a book.  This recently happened as  the author I was reading wrote, "Sermons should be about one main concept...the preacher should pound only one nail in a sermon, never two or three.  Every point in the outline should help pound the big nail."  My preaching book would have this "one nail" image, too.
While I have not heard a lot of others preach, I know my own preaching style has evolved over the decades of preaching.  I have always figured this was true of others as well.  The way I preached in the beginning of my ministry is nothing like these sermons I preach closer toward the end.  I came out of seminary preaching three point sermons which always in a laborious manner let the listener know each of three points.  Somewhere along the journey of preaching, I came to a place where sermons had only one point.  Such is where I am with current preaching.  What has worked best for me is finding one point and driving it home again and again like someone taking a hammer and driving in the nail. 
Of course, there are many preachers and many styles of preaching.  The important thing for all of us who preach is to preach the Word.  No sermon should be a treatise on what the preacher thinks.  As my preaching professor said, "No one is really interested in what you think."  Preaching what the scriptural text is saying is the right goal for all of us who preach whether we write sermons with one point or too many to count.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Just Two

I pass them every Sunday morning on my way to preach at Rocky Ford.  While I do not notice them every Sunday, few are the times I pass by without thinking about them.  Actually, most people who pass along that stretch of road do not see anything except the ditch and pine thicket on the other side of it.  However, I do not fault these who do not see.  I never would have seen them either if someone had not told me to slow down and look carefully in the edge of the woods along that stretch of road.  When driving along at normal driving speed, it is impossible to see them.  It is only when driving just faster than a crawl that they come into view. 
What stands there on the edge of the road between Portal and Rocky Ford is a cemetery with two headstones.  Around the graves is a panel fence to separate the burial ground from the rest of the ground around it.  Most likely at some time, someone figured more than just two would be buried there, but plans are often changed by the living we do.  Fortunately, someone along the way cared enough about preserving burial ground, even one as small as this one, and a protective fence barrier was erected to set it a part from the rest of the land.
Burial places have always been important to us.  Joseph's ancestors carried his bones out of Egypt to a proper burial back home.  Some interesting stories take place in some New Testament cemeteries.  One day when I do not have on my Sunday shoes and preaching clothes, I want to stop, go down in the ditch, climb up the other side, make my way through the brambles, and stand alongside this mostly forgotten cemetery.  If I can read the names, I want to speak them once again and ask God to keep blessing the good that was a part of their lives. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Horizontal or Vertical

You know how it is.  When you think you have heard it all, someone shows up to say it in a new and different way.  Such is what James Macdonald did for me as I read his book, "Vertical Church."  His book is built on humanity's need to encounter and experience a transcendent God.  It is the one thing we need; it is the one thing not found if it is looked for anywhere except in the church; and, tragically enough, it is the one thing often impossible to find in today's church.  Macdonald contends it is almost impossible to find because the church of our day is the Horizontal Church.  The Horizontal Church is the one which places doing whatever is necessary to attract people above all else.  It is the one which would rather be seen as relevant to people around it than one which seeks first of all to glorify God.  The Horizontal Church discovers that "shallow converts can't be discipled because that requires breaking the 'me-first' contract."  All of this comes out of the author's conviction that the core of humanity's sin problem is not horizontal behavior to be corrected, but a Vertical relationship to be restored.
It is a book which has caused this retired preacher to do a second read.  At this stage of the game, there are those moments of asking yourself, "Did I get it right?  Did I do it right?  If I were doing it again, what would I do that would be different from what I did?"  Sometimes the answers that come are not easy to swallow and even harder to digest.   To reflect back over what has been is to admit that there were too many times when I got too caught up with the horizontal stuff which seems to be such a driving force for the church today.  But, there were also moments when I realized that I managed to get it right because God was determined to work through me and sometimes despite me.  Perhaps, this is more the experience of the preacher than we realize as we are engaged in the work.
Regardless of our take on what Macdonald and others like him are saying, going on with a business as usual attitude is not going to get us or the church we love anywhere except where it is.  And if we do not know it, surely, God knows that it needs to be something other than what it is in too many places.  Maybe pursuing with holy passion the glorious presence of God in our weekly gatherings would take us closer to where God wants us to be.  Such a pursuit would at least cause us to arrive on Sundays with a different set of expectations.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Prayer Never Prayed

I often think of Ron.  Ron left this life for life in the heavenly place a few years ago, but he is remembered as a valued friend.  We shared life in Vidalia together.  While I served the United Methodist Church, he served the Episcopalian Church.  Each week several of us met in his office for a clergy sermon group.  Ron brought me to a place of great appreciation for the written prayers of liturgical traditions.  Often he would speak of praying prayers that had been prayed by others through the generations.  He described it as stepping into a stream of prayer already flowing toward the Father.
What has triggered my thoughts about my friend is a book by Phyllis Tickle entitled, "The Divine Hours."  She writes out of the Episcopal tradition and seeks to provide for individuals the kind of liturgy which can be useful for daily worship and prayers.  There are four liturgical offices laid out for use each day.  To use them is to be brought to a place in the heart where worship can be offered to God.  One of the prayers which has been so powerful for me is a short and simple one.  It is a part of the final act of worship for the day.  The prayer is, "Lord Almighty, grant to me and those I love a peaceful night and a perfect end.  Amen."  For the last several weeks it has been the prayer I breathe quietly in my spirit as I lay down to sleep.

Not since my Mother taught me the "...if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take," prayer have I prayed about the end with such regularity.  Before finding this written prayer, I do not think I have ever prayed for myself and others a perfect end.  Peaceful nights?  Yes.  Perfect end?  No.  I wonder some nights what would make a perfect end.  Maybe such is beyond my ability to figure out, but still very much within God's ability to grant.  So, for now I will continue to pray, "Lord Almighty, grant to me and those I love a peacful night and a perfect end. Amen."