Pastoring is hard work (parts 1-3).

Pastoring is hard work, and there’s stuff I wasn’t expecting.

I did not exactly grow up in a manse, I was 14 when my family moved into a church-owned house, and I was 17 when my father was ordained and we had our first manse as a ministry family.  I lived in all of my father’s manses for various amounts of time first as a still-at-home teen.  Later I lived with my parents as a post-Uni gap-year resident, later still as a “returned to be nursed by parents through a debilitating illness” thirty-something, and finally (twice) as a ministry student living-in to do prac.  I have seen my father work from home, I have seen my father called away from home, I have seen my father come home after meetings/church/visits/councils, and I have answered my father’s phone.

And still there’s stuff I wasn’t expecting.

Growing up in the leader’s house, being on the leadership team (lay preacher, elder, secretary of church council, school chaplain and a member of ministers’ fraternal in my own ministry), being the one to man the phone and hold the fort at times, I was still left with things unknown when it came to my own manse and my own ministry.  I never thought I knew it all, but I didn’t know what it was I didn’t know: I didn’t know the extent of what my father did, and what he put up with, even though we’ve shared a ministry house and a love for beer in each other’s company for more of my adult life than not.

Ministry is frustrating: that’s the key thing.  Yes it is rewarding, yes it is challenging, yes it is my job and therefore it is work, and yes it is my calling and therefore it is a privilege and a blessing.  I suppose life for everyone is frustrating at times; it certainly was for me as a teacher and as a prisons officer, but I wasn’t expecting the frustrations to come from where they came from.  My father was good, is good, at hiding his professional and pastoral burdens and at keeping confidentiality: and so he should be. I don’t feel cheated by his lack of communication of “what it’s really like”, but I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

  1. The Church is not what it used to be, in society and in church, and this is especially evident for me in that people don’t come at Christmas and Easter anymore.  If they haven’t come during the year they won’t come even for the special occasions now.  I knew that I think, I’ve been to church on the high holidays and seen the size of the congregation (or lack of size): the world has stopped going to church once or twice a year.  What I didn’t know is that many Christians, people who are there many Sundays, don’t come at Christmas and Easter either.  Christmas Day means a road trip to Nana’s house, so no time for church (or if church then church with Nana at Nana’s church).  Easter is a long weekend, so no time for church (or if church then church near the campground).  People don’t come at Christmas and Easter anymore.
  2. Pastors work when everyone else doesn’t. This is not a universal truth and I’m not on night-shift; and even if I were well others work odd hours too.  My point is that I work and am paid to do a job where everyone else is a volunteer and their participation occurs in their spare time; which is usually on evenings or weekends.  I remember a time when I was in my office planning a worship service and I rang the lead musician to check on some aspect: she asked me to ring her in the evening instead because she was “at work right now and can’t talk.” Fair enough; but I was also “at work right now” in that I was at my desk planning a worship service, and I had intended to spend that evening decidedly “not at work”.  Pastoring therefore requires a lot of waiting for people to be available and fitting in around them.  That is the nature of the job, however it means that deliberate attention must be paid to scheduling rest and time-off.  The standard hours of time-off in Australia are exactly when my otherwise-employed-during-working-hours volunteers are available to meet up with me, therefore I must be available for them outside business hours.  The other side of this is the minister’s day off: because we work on Sundays, when everyone else is not at work, ministers usually have a mid-week day of rest.  This can cause consternation when church members ring during normal business hours on that day with the understanding that they are at work so why aren’t I.  Of course even when it is not my day off I might be taking some time off during the day conscious of the fact that I’ll be at an appointment that evening.  Try explaining that to someone on the phone: I don’t bother, I just answer the phone.
  3. Prayer is work.  Not that prayer is hard (although sometimes it is) but praying for your congregation takes time in the day and the diary.  If I’ve got to 11:30am and not typed anything or phoned anyone, have I really been “working” if all I’ve done since 8:30 is ponder and converse with God and an open Bible?  Of course I have, it is what I’m paid to do, but I didn’t know that until I started doing it in my own office.

There’s a better Question

Recently I was at a meeting where the topic of prayer came up, or rather the topic of asking God for an answer.  There were various topics of interest at this meeting but there was a common question: what is God’s will in this situation, what does God want us to do.

In the first instance the topic was new to us, and a situation was presented to us where a local church was being asked to support “toleration” of a certain group of people.  Now this church doesn’t like the concept of toleration, they believe God has called them to do more than just “agree to get along” or “put up with” others of different opinion, they want to go the steps further which will enable them to be inclusive and invitational.  Rather than “yes you can come in, but stand over there” they are a church that says “welcome to the table, long black or flat white? grab a chair next to me”.  So they decided to ask God about how they can welcome and still be the sort of people that God calls to be light in the world, when they (and we) have deep concerns about some of the ethical values of this group of new people.

In the second instance the topic had already been introduced to us, and we had each gone away to “seek God”, and then come back with what God’s Spirit had lead us to, to share this intelligence with each other.  What became apparent is that the answers that God had brought to us, through us, (which were internally consistent, they all lined up to form a complete picture even though no two responses were identical), were “a bit obvious”, and the conversation leader wondered out loud whether any prayer had been undertaken at all.  “Did you actually pray, or did you just think about the question and bring along your own thoughts?” was the leader’s question: and to be honest he was very aggressive and rude in the way he presented that opinion.

In both of these situations the question is “did you pray”.  In the first situation it might be asked of the one who brought the situation to the meeting, along the lines of what God had already said to him about it.  In the second situation the question was asked (in a rather exasperated and aggressive tone) in the exact words “did you pray”.  But I think there is a better question.

There is a better question because the question has a simple and rather abrupt answer: which was the cause of the offence in the second situation.  We are Christians, of course we prayed.  Of course we prayed, we pray all the time, we’re Christians and that’s what we do.  To ask someone “did you pray, did you actually pray about this or did you just think about it” can be misconstrued as a doubt on the veracity of someone’s faith at all, and also in their capacity to pray.  (Well if you prayed then you’re not very good at it are you.)

I wanted the conversation leader in that second situation to ask, “how did you pray, and how did you hear” rather than “did you pray”.  An answer had come from God, which should have been enough evidence that prayer had taken place: but the fact that the answer was the obvious one, one that sociology if not plain common sense might have answered in the same way, came to overshadow the conversation.  Better to ask “how did you pray, and how did God give the answer.”

Leadership, even discipleship, is not always about the answers but about the questions.  And better leadership (and discipleship) demands a better question.

Pentecost Day

This is the text of the message I presented to KSSM on Sunday 9th June 2019, the Day of Pentecost.

Genesis 15:5-11, 17-18; Tobit 2:1-5; Acts 2:1-21

Pentecost.  Pentecost is one of those tricky days when a preacher could say so much that he ends up saying nothing at all.  More than once I have been in church on a Sunday when a lay person gets up to preach and he takes every opportunity to say everything he knows in that one sermon, such that three sermons were probably preached and none of them were particularly good.  I don’t say that as a slight on lay people, I’m a lay person myself and have been for over forty seven years.  No I’m speaking as someone who might easily have said so many things today, and who has had to discipline himself to keep it down to one sermon and one and a half hours.  So, if I don’t mention your pet Pentecost topic today that’s okay, come back next year.

The other thing about Pentecost, other than that there is so much to say about it, is that there is an obvious story.  Wind and fire, indeed tongues of wind and fire, and speech, and 3000 saved in one sermon.  A good preacher might just read Acts 2:1-21 and say “okay, youse all know how it goes, that’ll do” and end it there.  What a blessing it is for you that you don’t have a good preacher, you have a great preacher, so I’ll be here and you’ll be there for longer than five minutes…far longer than five minutes.

I am going to begin today by talking about Shavuot, the Jewish festival of weeks and the reason why so many people were gathered in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. The significance of Shavuot is laid out by God in Leviticus 23:15-21 and basically it is a harvest festival, which later in Jewish history became associated with the giving of law at Sinai.  Seven Sabbaths and then the day after the first blade of the harvest was celebrated at Pesach (Passover) the Jews celebrated a festival of new grain with a wave offering. Food was prepared at home and brought to the gathering, with ritual involvement from the priest before it is consumed, and no ordinary work is done. Shavuot is one of three regalim, pilgrimage festivals (alongside Pesach and Sukkoth), hence the crowds in Jerusalem on that day, although from the language the writer of Acts uses it is likely that many of the foreign Jews listed as present in Acts 2 probably lived in Jerusalem as expats.

In the Hebrew tradition known as Jubilees Shavuot is considered to be an eternal festival, it has always been celebrated in Heaven, and Noah was first to celebrate it on earth.  The events of Genesis 15 where God promises a natural heir for Abram and the land that Abram then occupied and much more would be for his descendents, and Genesis 17 where the same promise is repeated to the renamed Abraham occur in the same Jewish month.  And it’s also in Jubilees that we read the tradition that Moses received the Law on the fifteenth day of the third month.  The story of Exodus chapters 19-24, are summed up in Jubilees 1:4 where the presence of God looks like burning fire on the top of the mountain.  As Christians we look back to the fiery bush where God’s spirit had been on Moses, and the anniversary day of the fire circling Mt Sinai, where in Acts 2:4 Ruach haKodesh was on everyone in the room and the fires burned on (but did not consume) their heads.

Shavuot has been celebrated by Jewish people throughout history: it isn’t some random Bible demand that was later forgotten.  We read in Tobit 2:1 where Tobit, an exile celebrated the festival in his home in Nineveh and where with his son Tobias, Tobit shared the plenty of his table as an act of rejoicing.  There is a direct comparison between Tobit 2:2 and Deuteronomy 16:11.  We also read in Tobit 2:4-5 and this is echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:8, where love for people comes before the ritual requirements of the festival.  Tobit and Tobias go and rescue an abandoned corpse, (think about what you’ve been told about the Good Samaritan story and how the priest and Levite each avoided the dead man beside the road), and Paul delayed his departure from Ephesus until after Shavuot because an important task has been assigned to him by God.  Paul is a Pharisee and he makes the important rabbinical legal decision that it is more important to obey God’s direct instruction to stay and minister than it is for him to acknowledge the generic obligation to travel to Jerusalem for Pesach.  By making and then recording his decision Paul shows us that the festival was still happening in his day, and that he’d have gone, except that God specifically told him to stay where he was.

So, with the history of Shavuot in mind, and remembering that everything we read from Acts this morning occurs on the day of anniversary of all of that, let’s earwig in as Peter preaches Joel. The traditions of the rabbis and their commentaries on history and interpretation of scripture suggest that Galileans are ignorant: hence the comments in Acts 2:7.  Think of that also with the point made by Peter in Acts 2:18 that in the world to come (The Messianic Kingdom of God which is what Joel was prophesying), the Spirit will be poured out even on female slaves.  God has no favourites and there is no hierarchical list with the undeserving missing the cut: no, instead of that every person gets all that God offers.  And, get this, this news is proclaimed to every nation under Heaven, since all are present (metaphorically speaking), and not only does every nation hear the gospel, every nation hears the gospel in its own dialect.  Whether you say pater or whether you say abba everybody says “Father”: that’s the point.

Pentecost is a story of wind and fire, of what the Spirit brought and did.  God came close and the city was impacted, impacted by preaching and language yes, but that’s just the evidence.  The true impact was Presence and that is what the Church needs more than human activity.  The life-giving Breath of God, which blew across the shapeless void before Creation, is now present in sound and fire in a room filled with scared little weird guys.  And like Adam the spirit is breathed into the disciples of Jesus, who filled with life (just as the pile of dust was in making a man), come to life and declare the glory of God through testimony.  When Jesus said to Nicodemus you must be born again in John 3:5 he also speaks of the breath of God (ruach) breathing where it does, the wind is blowing where the wind blows. It is not we who breathe the Spirit but the Spirit who breathes us, as if we are bellows and God is the one pumping.  We breathe to live when it comes to air, but we live to breathe when it comes to Spirit, we live when we are being breathed, our purpose in God is to bellow the Spirit.

Pentecost is a new act of creation; not the act of another Creation, but another act of Creation in that the second one is like the first one, not a new one to replace the old.  Got that?  Pentecost is God again being God, because God is always God.  The point of telling the Adam and Nicodemus stories today is because we are not spiritually alive without the breath of God any more than we can be alive physically without continuously breathing air.  The activity of the Spirit’s breathing us is an eternal activity: God does it and God is always doing it.  This is why “you must be born again”, not because if you aren’t born again you’ll go to Hell, but because if you aren’t further born you won’t be further created: you won’t actually exist in spirit, only in body.  So, again, this is what it means to be born again: it does not and never did mean for Jesus that you convert to Christianity through some verbal formula beginning with “repeat after me, ‘Dear Lord Jesus…’”.  It does mean and always did mean for Jesus that you are regenerated by the filling of God, which comes through Baptism in the Spirit (complete immersion in fluid, in this case the fluid is wind and fire).  Again, it’s not about praying a “Sinner’s Prayer” on the way in, nor is it about “Speaking in Tongues” on the way out of some specific and mystical experience designated as “altar call”.  Of course it can happen in church, and the front of the hall is just as good as the back, my point is that that’s not the formula that Jesus told Nicodemus, so we don’t have to use that formula to be effective.  There is no matching formula for baptism in the Spirit like the one for baptism in water because it is God’s Spirit who does it, and God’s Spirit does what God’s Spirit does.

You all know that sometimes I like to speak about what the Bible doesn’t say, or what God doesn’t require: but why don’t I just focus on what God does say?  Fair question; but sometimes as pastor I need to speak on God’s behalf to correct error, I need to expose the lie, or the half-truth, so that the truth is made plain.  So here it is more plainly: the altar call style of conversion is effective, it works, God honours it, and if you were saved like that then you are saved.  But it’s not the only way.  To say that someone else’s conversion is not effective because it didn’t look like yours is not right.  In fact it’s wrong.  In fact it’s rude, and it may even be blasphemy, but we’ll stop at rude at this point.  The Bible says that the Spirit moves; so whether you believe in The Bible, or whether you believe in The Spirit, you must accept that ultimately God does whatever God does, and God cannot (and indeed will not) be predicted.  I don’t need to add “whether you believe in the Bible and the Spirit” because if you do believe in both then you already know that God is sovereign and resists all boxes.

One my commentators (Boice) observed that it wasn’t just fire that was seen on Pentecost Day, but tongues of fire.  Why tongues: because your tongue (along with your larynx) is the hardware for speech.  To speak is to exhale (breathe) and to use your tongue; and when there is a tongue of fire then the glory and witness of God is what you speak.  Fire is a specific symbol and sign of God’s presence in the Hebrew Traditions, think of the fire pot moving between the slain animals in Genesis 15:17 marking God’s activity (by God’s presence) in declaring a unilateral covenant with Abram.  Think of the pillar of fire ahead of the Hebrews in the wilderness, and then enveloping the sacred mountain where only Moses (and only by invitation) was allowed to approach the presence of God.

This is what I long for and what I desire for you: the presence of God is what Pentecost is about.  It’s not about whether you speak in tongues; it is about is whether God breathes you into life and breathes life into you, and whether your tongue speaks of God’s flame of warmth and light.  Are you close to God?  That’s the point of Pentecost.  Are you close enough to God that when God moves you are disturbed and made to move too?  That’s the point of Pentecost.  Are you moving toward and alongside The Father, (abba, pater, bapa, otosan, alab, vader, otec, dad) and looking forward to the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God where everyone lives secure and happy in God’s household?  That’s the point of Pentecost: so let’s do that.

Amen.

Ascension (WWHS)

This is the text of the reflection I perpared for the West Wimmera Health Service (Kaniva Hospital) Day Centre service of worship on 4th June 2019.  I didn’t present it as I was called away that morning for a pastoral need.

Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11

 Have you ever been told a story that has left you wanting more?  You know, the broad brush-strokes are there, and maybe the point of the story has actually been shared, so you do know what’s going on; but somehow you’re still left wanting more?  Is that a familiar experience for you, do you know what I’m talking about?

Thursday last week was the feast of the Ascension in the calendars of those churches which celebrate such things.  It’s not a big deal in the Uniting Church, and it’s no deal whatsoever in the Churches of Christ, but the Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and the various national forms of Eastern Orthodoxy tend to get excited about such things.  If you don’t know what ascension is then let me tell you, it’s the anniversary of the day when Jesus returned to Heaven for the final time after his resurrection.  Ascension is forty days after Easter, and ten days before Pentecost, and since both of those vents are always on a Sunday Ascension is always on a Thursday.  So it’s easy to overlook if you’re not looking for it especially, it’s never a Sunday thing so it can be left alone.  But I think that’s a shame, because I like ascension.

It seems that Theophilus, the addressed recipient of the gospel according to Luke also liked ascension, because the accounts of it appear in both Luke and Acts.  It’s as if there was a reply to the first book where old mate Theo said “ta for the Jesus story, but I’m a bit confused about the end part: what happened when he went back to Heaven the last time?”  Then the author, maybe Luke, wrote a bit more detail in the first chapter of Acts before going on to describe the coming of the Spirit on the Church at Pentecost in Acts 2, and then on with the rest of the book as a rundown on the activities of some of the apostles.

In the first story, recorded in Luke 24:50-53 and describing an event that takes place in the evening of Easter Day, Jesus simply steps away from the group and then goes up.  Previously on that day Jesus had walked out of the tomb and bypassed the garden, (it’s actually angels who speak to the women), and appeared on the Emmaus road.  After walking to Emmaus he vanishes, only to reappear in Jerusalem where he eats some fish, leads a Bible study, and then takes the group out to Bethany where he speaks a blessing over the disciples and then steps out of view. It’s no wonder that Theophilus needs a bit more information.

In the second story, recorded in Acts 1:1-11, there’s a brief recap of the whole of Luke in Acts 1:1-2, and then we get a bit more info about that final few hours.  The first thing we are told, in Acts 1:3, is that the ascension takes place forty days after the resurrection and does not occur on Easter Day evening at all.  This isn’t necessarily a contradiction, the two books have different points to make and the emphasis on events is different.  Jesus commands the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes with baptism, and they ask when the Kingdom will come, and he says that that’s not their concern but that they will be involved in its arrival.  Then, as in the first story, Jesus goes up, and again like the Easter story angels appear and ask why the disciples are looking for someone who obviously isn’t there: Acts 1:11 and Luke 24:5b.

So, two stories with basically the same plot, told by the same teller to the same hearer: the second story filling in some of the gaps left by the first, but making the same point.  And what is that point?  The point is that Jesus is bodily removed from Earth now, he’s no longer here like he was before the crucifixion, and he’s no longer here in his risen form which can eat fish and appear in locked rooms or alongside open highways at will.  But God is still with us, in the form of the Holy Spirit who came and filled these same men ten days after and who has never returned to Heaven without returning again to Earth.  The ascending Christ, risen and glorified, is seen in the descending Spirit, powerful and glorious, and that experience, that vision, that presence and comfort will never be taken from the Earth until the fullness of the Kingdom comes to complete the work of Christ.

The message is lift up your heads, not to look at the empty sky, but to look away from the sorrowful ground.  There is no need to fear, there is no need to despair, there is no need to feel alone or abandoned.  The risen one now sits enthroned in Heaven it is true, but the king on his throne is a good thing; and the blessing of Father, Son, and Spirit almighty which Jesus prayed over his friends in his final human words on earth remains upon us always.

Amen.