Monday, May 7, 2012

Why Bibles wear out

I’m for a multi-laypreacher system, yet not a multi-pastoral system.  That would surely mean many needs would get dropped.

After almost nine decades of listening to sermons, I think I have a right to express an opinion. My  first sermon-listening experiences took place in the little Mennonite Brethren Church at Laird, Saskatchewan – but only during the summer.  During the winter we children attended the United Church of Sunday school and a worship service only rarely. A frozen river between where we lived and the church meant winter travel was impossible. 

This Laird congregation was a small group of Kanadier, Mennonite  descendants of  the first wave of immigrants to Canada in the 1870s, and a smaller number of Russian Mennonite Brethren, who came in the 1920s.  Services were held in German in the mornings and English in the evenings – a good tradeoff.

“Do you have a word from the Lord for us this morning, Brother Funk?”  the church leader asked my father when our family entered the small entry way.  Long distance telephone calls  were too expensive in the early 1930s and letters too uncertain.  A good preacher always knew if God had been speaking to him during the week, knowing he might be asked to preach.  

Yes, Dad a message from the Lord in his Bible and his heart.  He had wrestled it out for several weeks, maybe even months, while stocking shelves in his grocery store, dusting cans, waiting on customers, watching the weather.

He worked at it like I do a blog – while baking chicken for lunch, knitting a square for an afghan, walking, resting.  His sermons came out of his life experiences with his customers and his early life in the Ukraine. I  have only one of his sermons one he preached to me one Sunday afternoon in Edmonton before his death, while he was sitting on the living room couch and I took notes.

This sermon came out of his life and had to do with how the wind affected the the windmill his father owned and operated high on the hill in Rosenthal near Chortitza.  It had to do with the similarity between the wind and the Holy Spirit, and that he, as a miller, couldn’t control the direction of the wind. The application was clear:  you can’t control the working of the Spirit. Don’t force the mystery of how the Spirit works.

I grew up when Bibles got worn out – literally. I showed my father’s Bible to my son James recently. The cover is crudely patched with tape and artificial leather.  I can still see him, sitting at the table,  wetting his thumb with this tongue, before turning the page, which resulted in deeply gouged pages.  Passages are underlined, explanations added in the margins, and the book itself  full of clippings. A Bible used this much fell apart. 

The Bible was my father’s source of inspiration, and he worked hard to connect it to life – to  discrimination, prejudice, and the need for making personal peace with Christ as Savior.  After all, he had been an ordained deacon/evangelist in Russia. Whether he succeeded is not for me to judge.  He preached what he thought he had to say.

To preach every Sunday with a message that enlightens, inspires, challenges, comforts,  is a tall assignment – especially one that  meets the specific needs of  the congregation for that time. 

I have been reading Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. I was struck again by how rich his language was – studded with gems of similes, metaphors  and symbols arising from the life of the Israelites.  He  spoke to a specific situation:  Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon will capture  you and take you away, don’t flee to Egypt,  you will return.  Jeremiah knew his God and knew his people and he tried to bring a message from the Lord for the people.

The lectionary is a good idea – but not when it binds the preacher. The present professional pastoral system is a good idea – but  I look for the surprise sermon by someone who has been working on a word from God for weeks, maybe months.  I keep looking for the church leader to ask a man or  woman coming into the building, “Do you have a message from God for the people today?”   

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