Betting on the Spirit

Whitsun(Creative Commons Image by Alice Popkorn on Flickr)

Back in seminary, and when I teach preaching, we emphasized over and over again to our students the importance of taking time to prepare and craft a sermon for your people. We suggested reading the text well in advance, doing at least some Greek, studying commentaries and researching the hermeneutics, thinking of current events in the life of the congregation and the world, and using language in creative and engaging ways. Take time for your sermon, we lectured. It’s a relational activity, we told them. It’s one of the most important things that you do; it’s what you’re called to, you bear the Word.

Well, you know the saying, those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. That’s me these days.

I’m no busier than any other pastor, but I do feel frustrated that I can’t get to all the things I want to do. I lie there in bed at night and think of the meetings I can’t make, what’s happening with the youth this weekend, and all the people I should be contacting. And although I’m busy, and many of the things I do are relational, I don’t feel as if I have enough time to read and be thorough in my sermon preparation, and I feel like my priorities are out of whack. Too many times as a parish pastor, I feel like I’m putting out fires, making sure proper lines of communication are open in this day and age of Facebook updates, emails, texts (Leaving someone out is my worst fear and yes, my worst fear has come true because someone didn’t get an electronic message), and running from here to there that I don’t have time to thoughtfully put together a sermon. Preach the gospel, I implore, and then wonder in my own head if there’s an old sermon I can repurpose because I’m booked up the kazoo in meetings. What has happened?

I do think a lot has changed in the last 20 years. (Well, that’s a silly understatement). But, I can’t imagine the days of a pastor being a scholar as I struggle to keep up with current trends in theology and preaching. It seems like a great luxury to be able to visit people all day or lie with the dog or garden or get into the little, frustrating scrapes of small town, parish life, like what is popularized by Pastor Inqvist in Lake Wobegon or Pastor Tim in Mitford. As charming as those stories are, they are never realistic. My concern, like many pastors, is if there is even going to be a church in twenty years, not just simply how we’re going to pay for a new boiler. What do I tell promising young candidates who are thinking about going to seminary and ask me to tell them the truth?

I’m not sure I know what the answer to my own question is, which is “how do I take time for more sermon writing and more relational activities when I’m so busy with simply hoping people show up for an event,” except to do what I value, which is spend time on a sermon. I suppose I (maybe we) have to start letting things go a bit. Even last night at Bible study, I noticed that in week five of the Bible study, only half the people were there. Did people get bored? Are they only willing to commit to a one-week Bible study anymore? Can I put something flashier on Facebook that will make people want to come back? It is a great Bible study led by a great leader, and even if I found the Bible boring (which sometimes I do), it was as good as a Bible study could get. But, still, it tapered off and I felt that sad, sick feeling of spinning my wheels.

But then. Always, but then. I am reminded again and again that it is not dependent upon me, that the Holy Spirit blows where she chooses, and it might not be the mainline church. In the meantime, I will do my best to do justice to my next sermon. I will pray over the upcoming text, go over the Greek, read the commentaries, and do everything I am able to preach a word of gospel hope to my people. Because I love them, and they deserve the best of me, and the Holy Spirit is patient and kind and merciful. And it’s this patience and kindness and mercy we, you and I, are betting our lives and the church’s, upon.