Saturday, June 24, 2017

CP 278 The reverend learns to read

CrossPurposes 278

The reverend learns to read.

Hello friends, this CrossPurposes is about the ability or freedom Pastors have to do the reading without which they cannot properly do the job they are supposed to do. It is not about how much time a pastor puts into preparing a sermon, nor is it about his (her?) ability to read English well. The thoughts I’m expressing in this blog are the end product of a reflection process that began in the months after I began work in that far away Parish of Eudunda in 1979. It’s about a personal journey.
I flew out of the starting gate, preaching/teaching all that wonderful knowledge which had been mine to absorb during the years at the seminary. It was only a short time later that I realised that sharing someone else’s hard-won insights without truly digesting the text myself was to deliver, often at least, stale bread to my hearers. It clearly had to be more than information, more than simply quoting the ‘Confessions’ and citing important people like Dr Martin or Doc Hebart. My insight and conviction then, and still is now, is that it made the world of difference if the message I was delivering on Sunday morning was to have impact, it must first be straight out of the scripture. I knew that, of course, but one week early on in Canberra, around 1984 I had an ‘ahah’ moment while working on a text from Mark’s Gospel. It changed the way I read the scriptures.
Something prompted me to ask, ‘What is this Gospel telling me about the Kingdom of God?’ That question has driven much of my searching in the scriptures for over 30 years. It became cosmic clear that it was not only about ‘reading the Bible’, but also how I read the Bible.  It makes a world of difference when I read the OT as having just one purpose, which is to prepare us for ‘The kingdom of heaven’ at hand in Jesus the Christ. I have been a relentlessly annoying ‘New Covenant in Christ’ person ever since. So that is the first text to read before I get to the pulpit.
Another awareness developed. I found I could not freely preach the message to the congregation on a Sunday unless it been preached to myself in the preparation. It was then, from the congregation’s point of view, that my preaching came across as a living word. What I’m saying is that there was a second text to read each week, quite apart from the scripture. That text was my own heart. I often felt conflicted, and Saturday was always stressful, because each week the apparent hypocrisies of my life got a painful fresh-airing. Not only did the Law give me a bruising each week, but the sheer wonder, grace and holiness of my Lord and his journey often sat me on my backside as well. It took me years to snap the pressure of that tension. It came when I finally saw, slow and obtuse learner that I am, that as a Christian I have two hearts. Yes, two. I have the heart of the first Adam, which betrays me at every point. I also have the new heart of the second Adam, my Lord Jesus the Christ, who loves me at every point. The two are at war. I have come to know that the reality of that never-ending war is a sure sign I’m in a good and right place.
At some point down the track it dawned on me that there was a third text to read, and, surprisingly, I’d been reading it for a number of years already. I’d had significant training in how to read it as well. My Vicar-Father was an Englishman named John Sims who freely admitted that his entire time of ministry had been transformed when he started to ask the Kennedy-Biesenthal questions as he visited his people. The more he asked those two questions the more he realised that he needed to ask those questions. And so he did. In every home in his parish. The result was, as I’ve said, transformational. In-home discussions switched from being a nice cup of tea and hasn’t it been dry weather, (or hot, wet, cool, windy, nasty – take your pick) or about the footy, or the crops, or whatever. Suddenly his people were speaking of grace, and ‘no condemnation now’, and forgiveness and Jesus Christ, and joy and hope, and the Kingdom, and a heavenly Father who loved them.
I learned so much from him about reading that third text, the hearts of my people. I had to know my ‘sheep’ and their journeys. I copied him in asking those two questions. I have asked them in each home, often sitting around the kitchen table, in each parish where I have been a Pastor. I was hearing their stories, mostly unedited and unembellished. These are the stories of grief and sadness, joy and hope, pain and rejection, yet keeping faith in the Lord’s promises. Many lived with a sense of constant failure and unforgiven sin, all the while longing to be clean and drinking fresh water. Long years of bondage and times of despair interspersed with seasons of encouragement. They did not know what to do with their unasked and unanswered questions, all mixed with thankfulness and somehow also knowing they were loved. Almost all simply longed to be heard from the heart. I learned to question my clever pastoral assumptions. I needed to.
So, I had three texts to ‘read’ each time I prepared a message. First, the scriptures, secondly, my own heart, mind and will before the Lord, and thirdly, the hearts and minds and lives of my people. There is, of course, a fourth text to read, and reading it is part of knowing why Jesus the Christ came in the first place. It took some time to put it into words, but when it did it was obvious. I had to learn to read the text of the world in which we live, especially so because all of us are enmeshed in it, usually without knowing it is so. It is now almost 39 years since becoming a pastor. Hardly a day goes by without my becoming aware of some other way I have danced with the world. I’m glad the Spirit shows me these things in the context of a merciful Father under the Cross. I deliberately listen to the undercurrents in the news, in the culture and in the global environment. I don’t shy away from knowing about the very worst that the human race is capable of, either communally or personally. Often it’s disturbingly depressing, but my sense of marvel and awe about my heavenly Father’s holy love, and the majesty and magnitude of the gift delivered in and through Jesus the Christ, and the insight, conviction and power the Spirit gives, knows no bounds.
Strange feeling…
Writing this CrossPurposes feels strange somehow? Maybe it’s because we assume all Pastors have always known these things. But that is an assumption too easily made. Especially in regard to the text which is in the hearts of their people, I’d challenge every single Pastor I know to regularly sit with their sheep over a kitchen table and love them enough to let them share what is really in their hearts. Now that would be something…



Anonymous Jim said...

Thanks, Fred, for this reflection. I suspect you might just as well have blogged that 'the reverend learns to listen' or 'to receive'. Yes, we are invited to (we need to) read/listen to/receive 1) The Word, 2) what this Word works within ourselves, 3) the hearts and minds of our people and 4) the voice(s) of the culture(s) we are immersed in. But is not one of our challenges to be aware of how the cultures (even our church culture) can filter or distort our freedom/ability to read/listen to/receive each of these four? For example, if we have been formed/trained and live in a church or theological culture that does not believe that Spirit-worked faith is actually transformative and that 'experiences' of faith are to be regarded with suspicion (but what about the Spirit-worked experience of Christ's/the Father's love for my enemy in my own heart - my awareness of what you so rightly name as our second heart (for me, my Christ-heart)), are we not at risk of this culture imposing itself on how and what we might receive from each of the reading/receiving places? I expect you would agree that, to counter this cultural filtering (or, in some cases, indeed blindness) we are blessed also by reading/listening/receiving the wisdom of others whose cultural surrounds are quite different from ours and yet in whom we discern the kind of humility and love and searching for the truth that seems authentic for one whose greatest joy is to be 'in Christ'.
Fred - 39 years. Really? That makes me 40. Until you mentioned it, it had not crossed my mind.

2:25 PM  

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