I was driving home from Christchurch the other day. We take a "short cut" through Timaru, one of the towns on the way, which takes us through the suburbs and away from the traffic lights and busyness of the main road. We past this modern looking Church which looked well cared for and it had a big street sign which read, "Try God".
Now there was a time in my ministry career when I could have had that on a Church noticeboard. As I drove past it the other day it grated. Somehow it assumed that the average person has no deep spiritual experiences and that this "religion" was going to put them in touch with "God". But my view of God is greater than that. The Apostle Paul speaking about God, said to the Athenians that "in Him we live and move and have our being." He was speaking to the people of Athens and was trying to build on their religious experiences, and recognised that they were already "religious". God is not hidden in Church buildings. The sacred is experienced in the midst of life. We have insights into what is right. We sense a deep call from "somewhere" to help, "it just seems the right thing to do" people say - "I had to do it." These are "spiritual experiences", they are experiences of the sacred, of "God" and most people, religious or non-religious have them. So people like me driving past this Church already experience God. Many have and are "trying God". It is wrong, and in some ways disrespectful, to assume they aren't. I would prefer something like, "Together we deepen our life." or "Join us exploring depth in life." .....Just sayin...
I was talking to a man in one of my chaplaincies the other day. He opened up about personal difficulties he battled with and our conversation was deep and meaningful. He asked me "Why did you became a minister?" and we chatted about religious perspectives. Then he told me of experiences of compassion at work, compassion toward him. He then went on to tell of the "Buzz" that he and others experienced when they helped somebody, or helped each other during difficult times. You see, he had begun to relate his "God Experiences"... as a workplace chaplain I do not bring God into his workplace.... God is already there and I encounter Him along side, and within the workers there.
"He just ad-libs..."
When my wife and I went for morning tea this morning, as we entered a cafe we bumped into a minister from a different denomination who we both know well. He greeted us and shared some comments but both my wife and I felt that his attitude and comments were patronising, as if he felt he was superior to us. I suspected that he saw himself as a real minister, properly academically trained and that Church of Christ ministers were a lower breed. Now I would stack my training up against his at anytime. Both academically and practically it would be superior. I also have kept up my academic reading. He has been in a congregation where I have spoken, and that could be the problem. I speak without notes, not from behind a pulpit but just standing on the platform with nothing between me and the congregation and I often use simple life stories to illustrate. I suspect he does not see that as a "proper dissertation" and probably would say "Oh he just ad libs." When I do not use notes it does not mean that I do not prepare. I perhaps prepare more than most. A man who has made a far greater impact than I ever have or will, never used notes when he went into a lecture or sermon. Dr Albert Schweitzer never used notes at the pulpit or lectern. But he wrote in his autobiography, that he wrote his lecture or sermon out at least three times in preparation. It looked like he was just ad libbing, but he was profoundly and deeply prepared. When I speak, (as I did the other day in a secular setting with student volunteers) I have written it out several times. I have mulled over illustrations and sentences, honing them so that they make their point as directly and as concisely as possible. I am not just "ad libbing", I am presenting a carefully worked dissertatioin without notes, because it allows me to connect with the listeners in a better way. I tell simple life stories that do not make my sermons sound like academic dissertations, because I want to connect with my hearers, sometimes at a different level than just their intellect. I suspect some ministers would look down on them as being a bit too much like children's talks. But I know they communicate! The aforementioned minister sat in one of my services once. The next week he was leading the service and he commented that he was "pleasantly surprised" with my service the week before. .. now that was patronising! But it was interesting that instead of reading his sermon like he usually does, he decided he would try to be chatty and ad lib. It was terrible... long, wordy, meandering and all over the place. Not using notes is NOT ad libbing.
Preachers please, please, please prepare, and prepare well, with your listeners in mind. It is an important job that you do!