Monday, November 19, 2012

The benefit of "week-by-week"

[From Pastor Ed… 11/18 and 11/25]

It's Monday… and for the last 24 hours a recurring thought has been going through my head: "yesterday's sermon bombed." I can't quite put my finger on how I think this particular sermon bombed; maybe it was a text that I didn't explain very well, or that I tried to weave too many diverse ideas together, or my application points kept missing the mark. Or maybe it was just boring. One way or another, it was one of those Sundays.

Some pastors are great preachers, and every week it seems like their sermon is a "home run." I don't expect a home run every week — I'll be content if I have a decent on-base percentage! I think most of us who preach feel this way, or something close to it.

And I know that the way I feel today is a common struggle for most preachers, be we sluggers or utility players: it is one of the best ways that a congregation might pray for their pastor, according to Joe Thorne (a pastor in Illinois). I once accompanied one of my seminary professors as he preached out of town; on the way home afterward, he turned to me (and the other two guys with us) and said, "I'd be grateful for your prayers; the Accuser of the Brethren is whispering to my soul, telling me that my words fell on deaf ears and did no good." After we prayed for him, we talked about how this was/is a common challenge and threat to preachers: Satan loves to attack in that vulnerable moment.

The late Presbyterian Preacher Bruce Thielmann defined preaching this way:
"Preaching is the most public of ministries and therefore, the most conspicuous in its failure and the most subjective to the temptation of hypocrisy… There is no special honor in being so gifted–there is only special pain. The pulpit calls them to it as the sea calls its sailors, and, like the sea, it batters and bruises and does not rest, but always there is the lure of its ‘better and incomparable’ society. To preach, to really preach, is to die naked a little at a time, and to know each time you do it that you must do it again.”

Whew! That's daunting. Yet, in light of that — and in light of my reflections on yesterday's sermon — I have a particular hope: it was just one Sunday.

One of the prevailing concepts through these last two months' worth of sermons on Worship is that the impact and power of worship is cumulative. What happens on any given week matters unto itself, but what matters even more is what happens week-by-week, month-by-month, season-by-season, year-by-year. The power of worship to shape and identify us is as much, if not more than anything else, about the sum of many services of worship collectively — and in that, as in so many things, the sum is greater than the whole of its parts.

If you have a Bible that you've been using for a while (several years or more), close it and look at the long side where the pages are exposed. Do you see the darkened smudges from where, over time, the oils in your fingers have discolored the edges of these pages? This can't be attributed to a single reading, or even to a few weeks' worth; rather, those darkened edges are the fruit of a season of life — or perhaps even a lifetime — spent immersed in God's Word. Each devotional moment had its immediate impact, but with rare exceptions, the greater impact of your devotional life has come from the net effect of the many readings.

So with worship! And such is my great comfort as a preacher, on Mondays when the special pain of the pulpit is particularly acute. Were your spiritual well-being dependent wholly on the power of each particular sermon, the weight of that burden would be crushing to any preacher, no matter how many "home runs" he delivered. There would be no margin for error, no room for anything less than 100%.

But despite my or any other preacher's best efforts to give 100% to each sermon, some will fall short. Another illustration: a few weeks ago, Marcie and I went to a concert by one of my favorite musicians. I know all of his songs, and we have seen him play and sing several times. His music is a blend of wit and philosophy that resonates exactly with me, and I have also had a few opportunities to interact with him personally. I wouldn't exactly say that I am "friends" with this musician, but it is a warm acquaintance, and certainly some of his songs are dear "friends" in their own way.

Was it the best concert ever? I wouldn't say that, but that's partly because I wouldn't really describe the concert in comparative or superlative terms. I didn't evaluate it based on how well I felt he performed. Rather, it was for me another opportunity to gather with a beloved singer/songwriter, and with others who also love him and his music, and spend an evening together delighting in music, words, humor, truth, and connections.

I think this is true of worship as well: each week, however different from the weeks before, we are invited to gather, commune, pray, listen, sing, and be re-formed. Some weeks feel more disconnected or disjointed than others; some weeks have a stronger resonance with the circumstances of our lives than others. But week after week, we join in the worship of God! And as one of my friends said, "that's kind of like pizza; the worst it ever gets is still pretty good."

I'm thankful that the Holy Spirit sometimes surprises me with feedback of how even those sermons I felt were not "up to snuff" were useful to some. I'm thankful that some weeks seem to echo and soar with the presence of God among His people, and while I am a participant it is obvious to me (and to everyone else) that it has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with God and what He is doing!

I'm also thankful that the benefit of "week-by-week" means that, if I was tired, or some folks seemed restless, or the congregation felt disconnected, or yesterday's sermon was a total bomb… there's always next week, and the weeks that follow.

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