Tag Archives | preaching

My first Christmas sermon

I was 24 years old when I preached my first Christmas morning sermon. I was not the congregation’s first choice, but they had few options.

Between my second and third years of seminary, I took some time to get married and to test drive this thing called ministry. I became what was called then a “student pastor” in a university town in Iowa, where I hoped to learn the ropes from a seasoned pastor.

That seasoned pastor took one look at me and decided to pursue a call to a church in Colorado which, according to his tearful congregation in Iowa, would be a whole lot closer to the ski slopes which he loved. That left me as the best – and perhaps the only – choice for Christmas morning 1977.

With my shoulder-length hair, aviator glasses, and an ill-fitting, three-piece corduroy suit, I must have been quite a sight, standing at the front of that church. Photos from the era confirm that I was tall, disturbingly skinny, and not exactly a charismatic presence in the pulpit.

It was my first Christmas away from home, and it was to be the first of nearly 40 – and still counting – Christmases away from home.

I hope I had the good sense to throw away that first Christmas sermon, but more than likely it is in a box in a damp basement, along with a lot of other old sermons, waiting to be recycled.

The sermon I preached that Christmas morning nearly 40 years ago was titled “The Gleam That is Christmas,” and my main point, rooted nowhere in the biblical text, was that we should be childlike in our approach to the Christmas story. It was best, I remember saying, to read the story and sing the carols and lose ourselves in the wonder and mystery of it all. My congregation was probably relieved that I did not plan to make my sermon the main point of worship that day.

Looking back, I was probably grieving the loss of my own childhood and trying my best to hold on to some part of it, especially the childlike wonder and mystery of it all.

I will be preaching the Christmas morning sermon once again this year – in Zurich, Switzerland, of all places – and I already know what I am going to say. My sermon will be, as I hope all of my sermons over the years have been, something about Jesus. I am glad he was born.

(Photo: That’s my backyard in Holland, Michigan.)

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What in the world is God up to?

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If I were standing in a pulpit in the United States today, I would know exactly what to say.

I would say something about the U.S. presidential election, of course, which took place last week, and I would not be alone in that. I am guessing that some very fine sermons are going to be preached today all across the U.S.

In times of national crisis, America’s preachers have searched their souls and found wisdom that many of us didn’t know they had. Preachers who don’t sound eloquent most Sundays of the year somehow manage to be profound and memorable when it counts.

If you want to know the truth, I have thought about little else in the days and hours since last Tuesday. I have been searching my own soul about that election, wondering what it means, looking for divine wisdom and guidance.

But I do not serve an American church, not these days.

A small group of people came together more than 50 years ago and founded the church I now serve, and with an astonishing amount of foresight they called it an “international” church – not an “American” church.

The church I serve today is a church for people of all nationalities: no matter what passport you hold, you will find a welcome here. That was the vision, and it was a good one. It still is.

I don’t know – because we don’t keep these records – but I’m almost certain that U.S. passport holders in the congregation are not in a majority. When I first arrived, only one member of the church’s Council was a U.S. citizen. More than two dozen nationalities are represented in worship every single Sunday. It is a congregation that is staggering in its racial and ethnic diversity.

So, many people in my congregation have been sleeping just fine these last few days. They have been more than a little curious about what is happening in the U.S., but with the exception of a few from the U.S. most of them seem to be sleeping just fine.

On the other hand, we do have several members who are from Hong Kong, and I saw in the news – in the midst of all the coverage about Donald and Hillary – that the Peoples Republic of China has prevented two pro-democracy legislators from taking their seats in Hong Kong’s legislative council. That number may grow to 10. Why? China decided to make clear who was in charge.

I know several people who lie awake at night thinking about that.

We also have at least one member from Ethiopia, and because I have come to know him well I have been paying attention to nationwide protests in his country against the government. Government security forces killed 55 people one day last month in the Oromo region, where my friend is from, as part of an ongoing campaign of violence and terror.

My friend was able to bring his wife and children to Switzerland in the last year after being separated from them for several years, but he worries about others he knows who are still there.

And finally, we have members from Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon, which is where another wave of refugees is headed, though the West is not all that interested in receiving them.

When I think about all of this, I realize that a presidential election in the U.S. is only one news story among many. Don’t get me wrong. When a country with the world’s largest economy and military elects a new president, that’s news. But it is only one news story among many.

And so, what I have in mind for tomorrow is not a sermon about a U.S. presidential election or Hong Kong’s grievances with the Chinese government or even Ethiopia’s repressive and brutal regime. I have had a fair amount to say about refugees in the last couple of years too, and I don’t plan to revisit that subject tomorrow either. What I have in mind is a sermon about God’s providence, which involves all the nations of the world, all races, all ethnic groups.

What in the world is God up to these days? Is God still caring for and preserving the world he made? Now those are questions that more than a few believers around the world might wonder about.

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My last pilgrimage

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I returned last night from my seventh pilgrimage to Israel.

Except for the people who stayed behind for a visit to Petra (across the border in Jordan), everyone returned safely and in good health. I always breathe a big sigh of relief when everyone finds their luggage and waves goodbye at the airport.

I also resolve never to go again. “This is definitely the last pilgrimage for me,” I told myself last night. Frankly, I’m not sure how excited I can get about one more boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, or one more visit to the souvenir shops in Bethlehem. I have had my fill of olive wood trinkets, long lines at holy sites, and 6:30 wake-up calls from the front desk – “Please have your bags outside your door by 7:00!”

But then, a few years will pass, and another group will convince me that it’s time to go again. I have given in each time.

During my first visit I cried pretty much every day for the first three or four days. Maybe it was the jet lag, but something about seeing the Sea of Galilee for the first time brought waves of tears. Members of that tour group probably wondered how much blubbering they would have to tolerate from their pastor. A lot, as it turned out. Every new site brought more tears.

And I still cry, more than 20 years after that first visit.

Last week I found myself for the first time at the synagogue in Nazareth where Jesus preached for the hometown folks and nearly got himself tossed over a cliff outside of town. The structure has been rebuilt several times, but the floor, we were told, was the original. I had my doubts about that, as I did with the authenticity of many of the sites we visited, but still … I found myself there last week, reading the story from Luke’s gospel for members of my tour group who were seated in small plastic chairs, and I was weeping over the thought of it – that Jesus had once stood somewhere near there and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The scene has never been more vivid in my imagination.

This, I have come to realize, is the meaning of pilgrimage. No one knows anymore where Jesus preached that sermon in Nazareth – or where exactly he was buried – but none of that matters. We go to breathe the air, smell the smells, hear the sounds, see the rocks (they are everywhere), and then remember the stories. We go to have our faith deepened and renewed, to see for ourselves where all of it happened, to have old stories come alive.

My only souvenir this year was a little twig from an olive tree at the Garden of Gethsemane. I tucked it into my travel Bible where it will stay until the next time I go. Can you imagine how many pilgrims over the years have pulled on the branches of those trees?

I am glad I was there … again.

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A tribute to a mentor, colleague, friend, and fine pastor

Pine Street Presbyterian Church

Fred Anderson is one of a kind. And everyone who knows him knows what I mean.

I can’t quite believe that the day has arrived when I would write a tribute to him, but I am honored to do so. In fact, I feel compelled to do so. Few people have had a greater impact on my life and work.

When news came to me that Fred’s farewell celebration would be held in May – at a time when I would not be able to travel to New York City – I was deeply disappointed, more so than you can possibly imagine. I write these words in lieu of being present. I hope you sense in them the genuine affection I have for him.

I first met Fred when I, along with a few dozen other graduating Princeton Seminary seniors, interviewed for church positions. I have no idea how the process works now, but back then pastors came to Princeton, usually along with an elder or two, and they would interview seminary students like me who were hoping to find work in the church.

We were coached to say that we were “looking for a call,” but we knew better. This was the job market, and jobs were scarce. We were coached, further, to sign up for as many interviews as possible, mostly to get interview experience.

As it turned out, I need not have signed up for as many as I did.

Fred was the first person I interviewed with. I liked him immediately. And I eagerly accepted his invitation to be his “assistant pastor,” which is what we were in those days, a kind of a two-year audition before becoming an “associate pastor,” a title which carried with it a bit more job security. I was the first in what has become a long list of associates whom Fred has invited to serve and learn with him.

To be honest, I had never dreamed of living and working in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, few people do, but as some wise person once told me (it was probably Fred), “If you get along with the senior pastor, you can live just about anywhere.” Fred presented Harrisburg to me in a way that Harrisburg has never been presented before. After riding around town with Fred in his tiny Chevy Chevette, and hearing him extol the virtues of life in Harrisburg, I would easily have chosen to live there over, say, Zurich, Switzerland. Such were his powers of persuasion, finely tuned during one of his previous careers – no kidding – as a Fuller Brush salesman. Fred could sell sand to Saudis.

My wife and I stayed at Fred’s home for our first visit to Harrisburg because, as he put it, it was important to know “if we could live together.” I am reasonably certain that Fred does not give this advice concerning other areas of life, but his reasoning made sense to me and I went along with it. Fred and Questa warmly welcomed us, and looking back I think one of the key tests during that visit was whether or not I could stay up late talking about the church and still function reasonably well the next day. We were to have many of those late-into-the-night conversations about the church over the years.

Fred told me early on that he had learned his administrative skills in the Air Force, and that piece of information should have set off an alarm in me. And when it didn’t, he added that “when I tell you to jump, you should ask me how high on the way up.” I had never before heard authority claimed so easily and comfortably. I half expected him to be joking, but it turned out that he wasn’t.

And curiously, you may find this hard to believe, that’s why I trusted him. Fred knew who he was, and he always challenged other people to figure out who they were.

As comfortable as Fred was in his role as senior pastor, I don’t recall that he ever felt threatened by my own achievements, accomplishments, and successes. In fact, Fred repeatedly looked for ways for me to succeed. He opened doors. He introduced me to people I should know. He sincerely wanted me to do well – expected me to do well. And since I was never a threat to him, I could find success every day of the week as far he was concerned. I didn’t, of course, but it would have been alright with him if I had.

Some of the best and most memorable sermons I have ever heard were ones that Fred preached. I had never seen anyone own a pulpit the way Fred did. He overpowered it and made it his. The pulpit at Pine Street Church was actually quite large – “twelve feet above contradiction,” we used to say – but Fred’s presence was equal to it. I have seen piano players take command of a piano and bend the instrument to their will, and that’s what Fred did with the pulpit most Sundays. He made it his.

One of the sermons I remember – not because it was his best, but because of the sheer audacity of it – was titled “Gross or Net?” It was a stewardship sermon, and the title referred to an often-asked question when Presbyterians are challenged to tithe. “Before or after taxes?” they usually wanted to know, and Fred responded by demolishing the question. If I can summarize his point, it was that “if you have to ask the question, then you don’t understand Jesus’ claim on your life.” Fred made a tither out of me in my first years of ministry, something that simply would not have happened without his conviction and example.

I regularly heard Fred preach more than once on a Sunday, but his sermons were never the same, which was curious because he always took a manuscript to the pulpit. I never knew what those pieces of paper were for, because he never seemed to refer to them. His sermons were memorable, though, mostly because they were strong and courageous. He always said what needed to be said and never sugar coated anything. When he was finished there was never a question as to where Fred stood. He stood squarely within the Word of God.

And that’s another point that should be made about Fred – his commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I remember leaving a funeral service for one of our colleagues, a pastor at another downtown church. The service consisted of one tribute after another for the deceased pastor, and I could sense while sitting next to him that Fred very much disliked everything about the service. As we were leaving, he leaned over and whispered, loudly enough for the entire balcony to hear, “If it should ever become your responsibility to lead my funeral service, then preach the gospel!”

And the thing is, Fred always did. No matter what.

Fred did his best to teach me to be a preacher. On the occasional Sunday mornings when I was preaching, he would pick me up on his way to church, and then he would sit in the back at the sound console while I would nervously preach my sermon, over and over again, to a darkened and nearly-empty sanctuary.

Fred also taught me to baptize babies. On the Sunday morning before my first baptism, he and I arrived early, found a baby doll in the church nursery, and I said the words of the baptismal formula while soaking the doll I was holding in my arms. Somehow I missed the class at seminary where these kinds of things were demonstrated, but am glad now that I learned to do them with Fred.

The morning I baptized my own child, Sarah, I was so overcome with emotion that I only managed to baptize Sarah “in the name of the Father.” When Fred realized I could say no more, he reached into the baptismal font, grabbed a fistful of water, showered both of us with it, and said, “and in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” It was, I’m sure, one of the few tag-team baptisms in the history of the church, and I still smile about it.

I also learned to chair board (Session) meetings from Fred. As you might imagine, if you have never seen him do it, he chaired board meetings with authority. Part of that came from being the best prepared person in the room. Fred always knew every item on the agenda and how the discussion was going to go. He knew parliamentary procedure too and didn’t hesitate to shepherd the elders through its complexities. But as strong as Fred was in those situations, no one should have felt intimidated or cowed into silence. Everyone with an opinion to express had ample opportunity to do so. And then a decision was made, and we moved on. Fred knew what he wanted and usually got it.

My favorite part of the monthly board meeting was the debriefing later in the evening at the Tuesday Club which was always empty by the time we arrived. Fred seemed to know his way around the kitchen and made the best ham sandwiches I’ve ever had. He also introduced me to Manhattans at those late evening seminars, and over ham sandwiches and Manhattans we would dissect every aspect of the meeting which had just concluded. I realized years later that I had been given a doctoral seminar in managing a church board. My diploma should bear the coat of arms not of Princeton, but of the venerable Tuesday Club.

One more story. I’m pretty sure no other first-year pastor has ever had to officiate at so many funerals. After one particularly difficult stretch, with at least three maybe four funerals in a single week, Fred must have seen my war-weary look, and so he said, “You’d better figure out what you believe about life after death – and do it quickly!”

He was right, as he usually was in those situations, and that year I learned to lean hard on my faith. I have not officiated at a funeral service in the years since then without thinking about those words. You can’t do this work if you don’t know what you believe. Fred knew what he believed, and so do I.

To say that I had a good experience in my first five years of ministry would be an understatement. I realize that I had one of the best transitions into ministry it was possible to have. And I knew at the time, from listening to my classmates who were often in less-than-ideal situations, that I should not take this experience for granted. I hope I didn’t. I tried to learn as much as I could. I tried to enjoy my life as a pastoral staff member as much as I could, because there are many advantages to not being the one ultimately responsible . And I tried to grow into my new identity as a pastor as much as I could.

For all of that, and more, I will always be grateful to a fine mentor and one of the most capable pastors I have ever known.

I love you, Fred. And I am thankful for the ministry we shared over the years.

(Photo: That’s the sanctuary of the Pine Street Presbyterian Church where Fred Anderson was once the pastor and where I was ordained on the chancel steps 34 years ago. Fred is retiring this spring after more than 20 years as pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.)

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What would Jesus say about 50 Shades of Grey?

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This is the big week, the one we’ve all been waiting for!

In my sad, dark, out-of-touch corner of the world, this is the week that Lent begins, always preceded by the Feast of the Transfiguration, one of my favorite days on the church calendar. I look forward to preaching about the transfiguration every year.

But then that’s me.

The rest of the world has been waiting – breathlessly – for the release of 50 Shades of Grey, a movie based on three novels by E. L. James. I assume there will be at least two more movies, and maybe the last book will be divided in two, which seems to be the trend, resulting in a total of four movies about … a fictional and, from the reports, utterly implausible relationship that I don’t care anything at all about. (Most billionaires I know, unlike the main character in the novel, spend long hours at the office doing actual work.)

But there is always someone in the church wanting me to “take a strong stand” about whatever is happening in popular culture.

I remember back in 2003, when The Da Vinci Code was published, that there was a clamor for me to “say something” about the book “from the pulpit” because those “new to the faith” would be harmed by it.

Ordinarily, a book like The Da Vinci Code would not be on my reading list, but at the time I felt compelled to read it. I don’t usually enjoy reading books I feel compelled to read, but I found The Da Vinci Code to be entertaining, more of a guilty pleasure, though not especially great literature. I ended up offering an adult education class about it anyway. I even bought the curriculum developed by the denomination to refute the book’s main points.

Even after a lot of publicity fewer than 10 people attended.

I feel the same pressure once again to “take a strong stand” about 50 Shades of Grey. And to be honest, I feel more sympathetic than I have in the past because I too am concerned about the topics addressed by the books and the movie. Being a father to two daughters has changed my mind about lots of things.

But is this what a sermon is supposed to be?

In the last community where I served, a pastor started a church that grew almost overnight to several thousand attendees on a weekend, and his sermon titles, published in the local newspaper, were always eye-catching. He once preached a series on “What would Jesus say to…?” LeBron James, Lance Armstrong, Barack Obama, Miley Cyrus, and a host of other sports and popular culture figures.

Maybe he was on to something. Maybe my sermon tomorrow should have been titled “What would Jesus say about 50 Shades of Grey?”

That’s not the title I chose, sadly, but now that I think about it, what I have planned fits that topic.

What Jesus did on that mountain with three of his disciples, what we call the transfiguration, was to offer an alternative, something not based in popular culture, something deeper, richer, more compelling. The glimpse of glory that the disciples saw stayed with them for the rest of their lives and became the focus of their lives.

The transfiguration, I believe, was Jesus’ way of “taking a strong stand.”

If you happen to be in Zurich tomorrow, join us at the International Protestant Church as we all “take a strong stand.”

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The sickness unto death

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I woke up this morning feeling lousy – cough, sore throat, you know the combination.

I attributed my condition to my 15-month old grand-daughter who, in addition to being beautiful and brilliant, is a petri dish of micro-organisms, enough germs and bugs to take down a healthy adult male, which is what I was until a week ago when I couldn’t resist holding, cuddling, and reading to a sick child.

So, today I am sick, but have no regrets about it. I am also aware that what I have is “not a sickness unto death,” which is what Jesus once said about his friend Lazarus’ illness. I should be back to normal in a few days.

One reason – among many – that I enjoy reading the gospels is to notice the way Jesus often left his listeners scratching their heads: “What did he just say?”

Did his listeners the day he described Lazarus’ illness know what he was talking about? Maybe, but I have my doubts. In fact, it’s not clear why Jesus didn’t hustle off to Bethany when he first received word of Lazarus’ illness. What could have been so important that he couldn’t drag himself away to see his dear friend one last time?

That’s Jesus for you, I’ve always said. Mysterious, unpredictable, making comments that leave you wondering for days, pondering what he might have meant. The way I imagine it, it was only years later that his followers came to understand what he had in mind by mentioning a “sickness unto death.”

For most of my preaching life I have been content to let mystery be mystery. In other words, I have been content not to answer every question, to allow some things to gnaw at us, to keep us awake at night. I love to send my congregation away on Sunday afternoon with something to think about for the rest of the week and, if I’m lucky, for the rest of their lives.

And that approach has worked for more than 30 years in what is still a mostly-Christian culture, the United States. Today, though, I find myself in what cannot be called a Christian culture, in spite of the ringing of chuch bells at all hours, and interesting questions to think about no longer feel quite right.

My people – not all, but a few – are telling me that I need to “connect the dots.” I need to make things clear, when – almost instinctively – I prefer the open-ended question. In a truly missional context, it may be that we no longer have the luxury of enjoying the mystery and pondering the questions. It may be that certainty must win out over mystery.

From the bookshelf behind me, I grabbed Kierkegaard’s slim volume titled, The Sickness Unto Death, and opening it I recognized the underlining and enthusiastic marginal notes of an undergraduate philosophy major, which is what I was or pretended to be. Kierkegaard’s explanation for this “sickness unto death” is rooted in the spiritual condition of despair, and I am persuaded that he’s right about that, though I can’t help pointing out that the best explantion I know of – Kierkegaard’s – took a number of years to develop. And frankly, there is probably still more to be said.

Flu symptoms are nothing to be concerned about – my own or whatever it was that drove poor Lazarus to his untimely death. It’s the other conditon, the spiritual condition, that Jesus was always far more concerned about. It was the other condition that Jesus came into the world to do something about.

Let there be no ambiguity about that.

 

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What I learned at seminary

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Have I mentioned before how difficult theological training was for me, how uncomfortable seminary education made me feel pretty much on a daily basis? And I don’t mean the academic work, although that was challenging enough.

Theological training – going to seminary – is often one of the most difficult experiences there is in education, and that’s counterintuitive, I suppose, because most people probably think seminary is like one big Sunday school – with snacks and craft projects and loving moms who teach. In other words, just like Sunday School – only better.

But, curiously, that’s not what I found.

In fact, there were no snacks or craft projects or loving moms anywhere to be found. There were no flannel boards to illustrate Old Testament stories.

What happened instead – and this is probably not what happens in the sciences or business administration – what happened instead was an immediate confrontation, a confrontation with everything I had ever been taught, with everything I had ever believed, with everything I previously thought.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think chemistry does that. Or tax law.

I could give plenty of examples. I don’t think there was a single lecture in “Introduction to the Old Testament,” for example, after which I did not go back to my dormitory room in a cold sweat, sorting out what I believed.

For me the hardest, most difficult, most challenging classes of all were in preaching, so of course that’s what I decided to concentrate in.

I grew up with an outstanding preacher. The preacher in my childhood was like a theologian in residence. He studied all week in his office on the top floor. And on Sunday he appeared and preached brilliant sermons.

And so, not surprisingly, that’s how I imagined myself.

But church life turned out to be so much different from what I expected. Spending all week in my top floor office, keeping my Hebrew and Greek up to date, was not going to work in the church into which I was ordained.  I quickly discovered that no one much cared about my biblical language skills.

And preaching, I soon discovered, was not limited to those weekly appearances on Sunday mornings. I soon found myself offering words of comfort and hope in hospital rooms, funeral homes, assisted living facilities, and even the prisons where my church members went to visit each week.

No prison inmate has ever asked me about the meaning of a word in the original language. I was always ready with the answer, but the question was never asked.

The people I found in church (and other places) wanted someone who knew them, someone who understood a little about their lives. They wanted someone who knew what it was like to be tested, to have failed, to have been beaten up a little. Unexpectedly, that’s what the “Introduction to the Old Testament” did for me.

My theological training did exactly what it was supposed to do. It took my Sunday School faith and made it grow up. I will always be grateful.

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A burning fire shut up in my bones

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If I say, “I will not mention him,
    or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
    shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
    and I cannot.  Jeremiah 20:9

 

It’s a funny thing, this preaching life.

I didn’t want it when I started. I resisted as much as I have resisted anything in my life. I was willing to do just about anything but getting up in front of a group of people on Sunday morning.

To make matters worse, I wasn’t particularly promising with my first effort. There was the preaching class at seminary, of course, which was bad enough, but there was also that first church where I preached. If some people resigned their memberships that day when I preached my first sermon, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

In an act of grace and compassion, however, my supervisor never told me. I learned later, several years later, that people looked around when I was finished and wondered, “What was that?” Not disapproval so much as disbelief. They weren’t even sure it was a sermon.

I clearly had a long way to go.

But I kept at it. I don’t know why. Maybe it was God’s determination to have me, the way God has been determined down through the centuries to have countless others like me.

Whatever it was, I made myself do it. For a number of years I remember arriving at the church on Sunday mornings before dawn to preach my sermon over and over to an empty sanctuary. Getting there before the custodian was always a challenge, but I did it. I can’t think of anything in my life I’ve ever been so determined to do.

Now, more than 30 years have passed, and – strangely, oddly – I can’t imagine another life for myself. This way of life I resisted for so long has become so much a part of me that I actually look forward to it each week. I miss it when I don’t do it. I squirm uncomfortably when I have to listen to others do it – not because they’re bad, but because I feel deep inside as though I should be doing it.

On Saturday mornings, when I feel as though the next day’s sermon will finally preach, I do a fist pump and let out a yell, the way an athlete would who scored the winning goal or who broke the tape at the end of a marathon. Even the dog doesn’t jump anymore when I do it.

But I do it out of a sense of joy and satisfaction and gratitude.  What a privileged life.

(Photo: That’s the medieval fortress on the banks of Lake Geneva near Montreux known as Chateau de Chillon. I was there Monday, and – yes – it’s that beautiful.)

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When people listen to a sermon

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A seminary professor once told my class that pastors aren’t fired for heresy anymore, they’re fired for incompetence.

I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.

Was he saying that people don’t care anymore about heresy? I don’t think he meant to say that. Or that they wouldn’t recognize a heretical statement if they heard one? Maybe that’s closer to the truth, but not a very generous comment about church people.

More likely, though, he was trying to encourage us to be capable pastors.

Sound pastoral work, together with capable administration and a good work ethic, would probably be more important to most church people than flawless theological thinking.

It’s hard to know sometimes what people are listening for when they listen to me. I don’t think many people listen for theological gaffes, though one or two people along the way thought they detected in my preaching some minor deviation from strict Reformed or Calvinist thinking. In those situations, I think I remember feeling grateful for the theological reflection shared over a cup of coffee.

Based on the comments and feedback I get most of the time, I think people seldom, if ever, listen for theology, and I shouldn’t be surprised.

After my very first sermon, preached to a classroom with fellow students, a moment in my life if there ever was one when I needed some solid, constructive feedback, the comment I remember best had to do with the suit I was wearing. My preaching professor obviously didn’t care much for the three-piece brown corduroy ensemble that actually made noise as I strode to the pulpit. In his comments after the sermon, he sarcastically thanked me for my ‘sartorial splendor.’

I am well aware that he had a point. He also inadvertently prepared me for the future.

Comments about my preaching since that first shaky effort in the seminary classroom have mostly been along the same lines – my pronunciation of certain words, the speed at which I speak, the length of my hair, the color of my tie, the beard I brought back from summer vacation, etc. One person disliked the beard so much that he handed me a disposable razor at the door and told me to ‘use it.’

In the last few years, another kind of feedback has emerged. People in the pews use their cell phones in order to be my fact checkers. If I mention a book, a date in history, an author’s name, I will know, in painful detail, what Wikipedia has to say about that fact by the time I am finished greeting people at the door after church.

Last Sunday I mentioned in my sermon that I tend to see God at work in my life when I look in the rear-view mirror. Seeing evidence of God’s guiding hand in my life is always easier that way than seeing it in the present moment. I’m not especially proud of that, I said, but that’s my experience. That’s who I am.

I was hoping a few people would say, ‘I can relate to that. That’s my experience too!’

Interestingly, though by now it shouldn’t be surprising, it was that comment that prompted most of the comments at the door – not my helpful new insights on the doctrine of general revelation. So, conversation quickly veered from the value and limits of God’s revelation in the world around us to the pastor’s spiritual life which, many agreed, could use some help.

It’s an endlessly interesting thing, the pastor’s life. I’ll say this much: I’m never bored. I seldom think anymore about my theological orthodoxy, but I pay careful attention to what I wear. And of course to regular shaving.

(Photo: That’s the French Reformed Church in Zurich where morning worship is held. Our congregation shares the space with a French-speaking congregation. Though I am very nearly fluent in German by now, worship at the International Protestant Church is in English.)

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“I will be with you”

signs along swiss hiking trails I’m preaching about Moses on Sunday. That’s hardly front-page news, because I’ve done it before. Many times.

But what do you say about Moses if you’ve preached about him before, if over the years you’ve more than covered the subject?

Preachers will know the answer to this question.

What happens is that you come back to an old story and – this happens nearly every time – you find something new, a whole new angle on an old, old story. You think, “I’ve been hearing this story since I was a child in Sunday School, and how could I have missed that?”

I know the Moses story pretty well. I like it too, which means that I’ve used it in my preaching many times over the years because preachers always turn to their favorite stories. But this week I saw something that I’m pretty sure I had never seen before.

What often happens in these situations is that the new insight comes from somewhere else – a book, a conversation with a friend, just about anywhere. For me this week it was reading what a friend, a fellow preacher, noticed in the Moses story, and as soon as I read it, I thought, “That’s brilliant.” (I even emailed him to tell him so.)

When Moses told God that he – Moses – wasn’t really up to the job that God had in mind for him, that he wasn’t really a public speaker, that he wasn’t such a good fit as a leader, God did something surprising.

I think I might have expected God to say: “Moses, you’ve got to believe in yourself! You’re smart and good looking. You’re really a very talented person. You’ve got all the gifts you need – and then some. I chose you for this work because I can’t think of a better qualified person.”

But God – I had never noticed this before – doesn’t say that to Moses. God, in fact, seems to agree with Moses in his self-assessment. God seems to say, “You know, I think you’re right. You’re not much. You’re a shepherd, after all, without a lot of prospects for advancement. If it weren’t for a generous father-in-law, you wouldn’t even have this much.”

What makes the story memorable is that God says the one thing Moses most needs to hear, the one thing that most of us need to hear – namely, God’s promise that “I will be with you.”

Why do we imagine that God is like a parent whose child has had a bad day in school: “You’re really smart. You’ll just have to try harder.”

God may well think those things about us (I’m not so sure), but he says the one thing that we most need to hear. “I will be with you.” And in the case of Moses that was enough.

As always, I can’t wait until Sunday.

(Photo: Am back home in Switzerland, looking forward to Sunday and to some hiking.)

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