Dear Disciple of Christ,
Have you ever heard the phrase (from a book by Robert Fulghum), “All I really needed to know I learned in Kindergarten”? I guess, in some ways, much of what I’ve learned for and about ministry came in my first 6 ½ years of serving my first church in Brooklyn. It was there that those eight years of “theoretical” perspectives of ministry and even theology learned in theological schools and seminary were first put into action. They were “tested in the trenches” and were the foundation for the other 40 plus years of ministry for me.
My first church was the place that I lived out a concept I had heard in seminary. It applies to any “leader” or “up front” person who understands their role as a “Moses type” of leader, passing on the Word and will of God. Not every pastor holds this perspective. I’ve met some pastors who take literally (and in a self-limiting way) what it says on our call documents. Pastors receive a call from a group of people (a congregation) to “Word and sacrament” ministry. That means, officially, we are at a church to preach the Word and to administer the sacraments. One way to live that out is to spend our time in our offices, preparing sermons, working on the upcoming services and their design and making sure all worship participants are prepared and present their part well. All of that is so the sermon can be preached and the communion provided for all the worshipers. I’m not saying that isn’t what we pastors do but I believe that is only part of what we do.
If our preaching is based on the Word, it must proclaim the Word in context. In this case, it’s not only the context of the Word (verses before and after the lesson of the day) but the context of life. What the Word says must be lived before and after the sermon is preached or the sermon is simply theoretical theology (or even offensive if the actions and words are at odds with each other). That would be a sermon “out of context”. As St. Francis is reported to have said, we are to “preach the Word all the time and, when necessary, use words.” Our words make sense if they are backed up (and preceded) with those words lived out. Going visiting to shut-ins or those in the hospital or at a hospice center is the living out of the care of Christ we will likely preach about on Sunday.
All of that has impact especially on the preacher, that person sitting up front and standing in a pulpit. In becoming a pastor I had switched places. I went from being a layperson to being a pastor. I was still in worship on Sundays but I had switched seats. I was facing a new direction and instead of seeing the backs of worshiper’s heads, I was looking at their faces. AND, they were looking at me. I had studied hard and was committed to what I was doing. I had accepted a call to a small congregation who appreciated my presence as much (or more) than my presents (gifts of and for ministry). Prior to my coming they wondered if they would ever have a pastor (much less a full time pastor) with a budget the size of theirs ($11,000 per year).
So, having heard God’s call and having received the “call of a congregation, I did feel pretty confident in my leadership role. And there was one more thing that gave me encouragement and confidence in preaching. Actually, it was one more person; Marie Huhn. Marie was a real supporter of the new young pastor (me) and every new and young pastor wishes they had a Marie or two in their congregation and on their side. What was her way of supporting and encouraging me? It was her comment after worship, after my proclamation of the Word. Pastors receive many different comments about their sermons (often having to do with the length or the stories or the volume). We do keep trying to work on any limitations we have in proclaiming the Word. But Marie’s comment was what every pastor would want to hear.
On the way out, several times a month, Marie would lean over, I would bend down and she would whisper to me, “I saw it today” or, “Your glow was there today.” She had described what clearly seemed to her to be a “holy glow” around my head. No other comments of other members (even positive ones) carried the weight of her comment and, even when I felt the sermon wasn’t “fully formed” or could have been “better,” if she mentioned my “holy glow,” it was OK. I could only assume that God was able to take my limited abilities and bring about some good, a glowing representation of His will. I felt I had joined the apostles on Pentecost and had shared the good news of Jesus by the power and in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
After years of mentioning my glow and affirming my preaching, it changed. She saw it less often and didn’t mention, as often, my “holy glow.” OK, maybe it wasn’t that it “simply” stopped but there was a coincidental event; Marie had cataract surgery. Yep. No kidding. You were probably wondering about Marie’s eyesight (at least if you know me and realize a “transfigurational glow” is not likely to come from me). But for me, believing in the presence of God in my proclamation began in earnest with those comments from Marie. It secured in my heart the importance of speaking what the Lord has spoken, proclaiming both law and gospel and living it out. It caused me to believe that the pulpit is a sacred place and what is spoken by a preacher (me or any other) should be only one of the places that bring light into the darkness of the world and our hearts affected by sin.
So, personally, I thank God for Marie and her cataracts. As the little children’s song puts it, “This little gospel light of mine – I’m gonna’ let it shine! All the time!”
Peace, shining in His service,