Tag Archives: Preaching

The Saturday Demon

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

It’s simple really. All I have to do is put one word in front of another, types of words ordered in a particular way. As I often do when I am having difficulty writing, I begin gazing around my bookshelf and my eyes stop at Stephen Dobyns’s book, Best Words, Best Order. That’s it, I think, all I have to do is find the best words and put them in the best order.

I have the opportunity to tell the story of grace and redemption every single week. I cannot think of a greater privilege than this.

But today it does not feel like a privilege. The best words cannot be found and the best order cannot be mapped.

It is the Saturday Demon.

The Saturday Demon comes around on Saturday when I am trying to put the finishing touches on my sermon for Sunday. I have spent all week studying, reading, praying, researching, translating, and beginning to write, but Saturday is my finishing day.

“It doesn’t really matter” the demon whispers in my ear. “None of it really matters.”

For me, the real danger that the Saturday Demon poses is not that it creates doubt, it is that it highlight and fortifies the doubts which are already so present.

“You’re a fraud,” it tells me. “You lie to people and give them false hope.”

The Saturday Demon knows exactly how to attack. I begin to wonder if this is worth it. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, perhaps I am doing this all for nothing, perhaps none of this is real.

Confession time: I am a pastor, and I have great doubt.

***

I’m a doubting Thomas, as some might call me, although I loathe this term. Why does Thomas get such a bad rap? Peter denied that he knew anything about Jesus of Nazareth not once, not twice, but three times. Do we remember Peter only as a denier?  Do we call someone a “I Don’t Know Him Peter”? No.

But Thomas’s reputation is forever stained as being a doubter, and doubting is seen as something terrible. Doubt is the antithesis of faith, we tell our young people, doubting is weakness. Doubting is sin, we say, God wants us to have confidence.

***

The more I try to ignore the Saturday Demon, the louder is speaks. Rather than trying to ignore it, I decide to listen to it for a moment. Hear it out. After all, Jesus didn’t just try to ignore the devil when he was being tempted in the desert, he carried on a conversation.

“Just stop,” it tells me, “none of this matters anyway, you’re just wasting your time.”

“Are you finished?” I ask the Saturday Demon. “I’m going to get back to work now,” and I continue pounding away on the keyboard trying to find the best words and trying to find the best order. The Saturday Demon continues to assault me, but it is important that I do not give in to its attack, I cannot become defeated, and the best way to do this is to keep working, even when these doubts erupt on schedule like Old Faithful. After all, I have people who depend on me.

I’m a pastor. I’m a doubter. Maybe this is why God has called me to this kind of ministry at this point in my life, so that even when I have great doubts, I still have to show up, stand in front of the congregation, and tell them the good news of the story of grace and redemption. It is through telling of the same story over and over again that I can, in some way, continue to believe even with my doubts.

Perhaps the reason that we will always link doubt and Thomas together, perhaps the reason that we remember Thomas for nothing other than his doubts is that we see ourselves in Thomas. In seeing in this mirror, we can see in ourselves what we so greatly despise, and we attempt to ensure that we keep him and his doubts at arm’s length.

This disapproving way that we speak of doubt is incredibly unfortunate. Truly, if doubt has no place in the church, it is no wonder why so many young people leave the church. If doubt has no place in the journey of faith, it is no wonder why there are an increasing number of “nones” when asked about religion.

Perhaps it is not the absence of doubt which is to be prized, but the ability to have faith and doubt at the same time, and live with the tension.

Being faithful with my little

I often find myself frustrated. I have been given very little.  I have very little in terms of number of people in my congregation, very little in terms of my facilities, exceptionally little in terms of financial resources, and little in terms of other resources in my congregation and community.

I don’t want to have little, I want to have much. I want to have a resourceful congregation. I want to have a big and beautiful building that will make people want to stop in if nothing other than to see the facility. I want to have a church which has a large endowment so that I can have some sort of stability and that we can follow God’s leading without having to worry about from where the money for the electric bill will come. I want to have a community in which people want to live, and where people have jobs and some sort of stability.

I often find myself dissatisfied and think about moving on to somewhere else. This is one of the problems with our governance. I am not placed, I interview and accept a call, if offered. As such, it feels much like looking for secular employment. I decide where I want to apply to. I interview, if they like me, they will extend a call which I can decide whether or not to accept.  While these procedures do have to pass through the regional assemblies, in practice, the bulk of the processes reflect secular employment. I have no term of service, I was not obviously placed here by the church.

Because of this, I feel like I can sometimes just leave and go to greener pastures.  To those type of churches in which I always imagined I would pastor. However, this is not just dependent on me. I have to believe that God placed me where I am for a reason. I am a servant of the sanctuary, after all.

“‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much'” (Luke 16:10, NRSV).

This is a sobering verse.

A judgement, almost.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little…”

Perhaps it is not a mistake that I am here. Perhaps my desires have run rampant. Perhaps my desires for more, my desires for much are too much too soon. Perhaps I am not fit, at least right now, for much.

I find myself sometimes jealous of others who have much. This makes me want to search the parish openings, freshen up my profile, and try to move somewhere else with much.

Perhaps, however, I am not in the wrong place. Perhaps I am in precisely the right place. Perhaps what is wrong is my pining for more. Perhaps I desire more than I ought to. Perhaps I have little because that is all I can have now. Perhaps God is actually smarter than I, and knows that I am not yet ready for much. Perhaps I am being taught how to be faithful with little.

Please, O God, help me to be faithful with my very little, and banish my desire for much.

On Being a Doubter-Sensitive Church

I had a conversation with someone the other day on the sidewalk in front of church.  I was picking up some trash that always blows into our bushes from the park across the street.  A person stopped and asked me some questions about our church, which I answered.  I told him about our Saturday morning breakfast ministry, and I also invited him to join us for a service on a Sunday morning.  He mentioned that he’ll probably show up on a Saturday morning rather than a Sunday morning, for now, because he didn’t want to have to pretend.

He took his leave and we exchanged pleasantries.  His comment about not wanting to pretend stayed with me for quite some time.  As is usually the case, after time of reflection, I came up with some good responses.  You don’t have to pretend, I thought, everyone is welcome.  You are welcome to come as you are, I thought.  You are welcome to journey along with us, regardless of where you are on your journey.  Of course, he was gone, and like many people I meet, I will likely not see him again to share these insights.  So at this point, the best that I can do is learn from it.

What was even more important than how I would have responded to this fellow is why he would felt as if he would have to pretend.  Perhaps he was referring to the more ecstatic utterances that some traditions emphasize.  Perhaps he was referring to singing songs and hymns of praise if he didn’t believe what he was singing.  The truth is, however, that I will never know what he meant, and what prompted him to say that.  However, what I am able to do is to reflect on what our church says not only to those who are members or adherents of our congregation, but also those who come in off the street.

Now first of all, our church is quite unique.  We are a church properly organized according to our denomination’s government.  However, in actuality, we function more as a mission.  We are placed in a community that has a lot of churches, but also a community where a high percentage of the population is not regularly involved in a church.  Therefore, our goal is first and foremost not teaching doctrine, but to introduce people to God in word and in deed.

I come from a subculture where the hot topics were debating the benefits and drawbacks of the Canons of the Synod of Dort and whether or not Article 36 of the Belgic Confession is based on sound biblical exegesis.  In my current context, however, those doctrinal discussions have turned into basic, “who is Jesus and why does he matter?” discussions.  Most of the people in my community don’t care about doctrine, they care about how God impacts their daily life.  This is not to put them down, it is simply a reality.  I have come to understand that debating and discussing the finer points of doctrine is an activity in which the privileged are able to engage.

I have found that the mindset in which I prepare sermons must change.  I can no longer prepare my sermons with the assumption of faith, but I must always prepare my sermons with the intent of inviting people to faith.  There are some that argue that “reaching the lost” is not the purpose of Sunday morning, however, I disagree.  Even those of us who identify as Christian, or who identify as disciples of Jesus are still lost, in one way or another.

I believe that faith is a gift from God, but I do not think that faith and doubt are necessarily opposed to one another.  There are many days where I’m not even sure if I have faith!  After all, I think that in some way, we are all crying, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).  Even for those of us who have faith, it is only natural for us to have times of doubt.  Sunday services are then, not simply a time of expressing faith, but also a time for creating and renewing faith.

The church, then, should be the best place for us doubters.  Those who have iron faith should be hermit monks in the desert to whom others can visit on pilgrimage.  The church is the place where we can go when we have seeds of faith, and the church is the place we can go when we are sure that we don’t have any faith. Our church is certainly not “seeker-sensitive.”  However, I don’t think that our church operates on the presumption of faith either. The best thing that our church can be is “doubter-sensitive.” A place where no one has to pretend, but where folks want to have faith, regardless of whether or not they feel like they do at the time.  After all, faith is a journey not a destination.

In all of our hearts, there is a voice, “I believe; help my unbelief!”  I love it when people passionately express some variant of this.  When it comes down to it, I am no different; I am just another pilgrim on the journey to restoration and redemption.

Water From the Rock

It is a privilege to preach every Sunday.  It is an opportunity that not everyone has.  My community has entrusted me to faithfully exegete and interpret the sacred scriptures.  It is truly a humbling privilege and responsibility, and it certainly is not one that I take lightly.  However, after preaching almost every week for the past seven months, I find that my spring is not gushing forth like it did six months ago. To be sure I am at the beginning of my ministry, so I am certainly not coming to the end of my time (at least I hope not).  Nonetheless, I feel like I am pounding my staff against a rock hoping that, as with Moses, water will flow forth.

Preaching is a task which requires much withdrawal from one’s well.  Sermon preparation and writing is a form of writing that takes much of oneself, far more than the academic writing which I am accustomed to.  Sermons not only have to be composed excellently, they not only have to hold together, a sermon must not only speak to one’s mind, but also one’s heart.

I’ve been struggling the last few weeks to continue bringing rivers of living water to nourish my congregation.  A few months ago, my well was a spring which was bursting through the ground, and it did not take much effort to retrieve water.  Now, I have installed a pump, and each pump of the handle seems to take up less and less water.  A well which ran deep now seems to be a shallow stagnant pond.

There are dry seasons, and there are rainy seasons.  During rainy seasons we collect enough water to fill our cisterns so that we can be sustained during the dry seasons.  I am not sure when this dry season will end, but I deeply hope that the rainy season comes soon.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), my calling does not depend on my feelings on any particular day. It is my job to continue offering my congregation living water.  That is my responsibility which has been given to me.  So until a rainstorm comes, I will continue dashing my staff against the rocks to squeeze out every bit of moisture that I can, and pray that my well will be filled soon.