Thanks for dropping by. This serial novel is based on my many years of experience as an ordained ministry. It is purely fiction, but is based on some actual events, farfetched as many seem. The characters are fictional (but I have met a few of them.) Hope you enjoy reading as much as I am enjoying the writing.
Preaching in Homiletics class is one thing. Preaching before a large congregation for the first time is quite another. at least from a human perspective. But it really shouldn’t be that much different. I had to convince Tom Harding of that. He was getting a case of the nerves. That happens when the focus is on oneself.
I stepped in on him to see how his sermon preparation was going.
“Do you think that it is good to begin a sermon with a joke?” Tom asked.
“Well, I used to think so. I joined a clergy group who collected opening jokes for sermons. They printed out all the jokes and numbered each one of them. They knew the jokes so well that all they had to do is call out a certain number they thought might fit with a particular sermon and everyone would laugh. I was new to the group so I didn’t have the jokes in front of me. They gave me a printout so I could get familiar with them. The next time we met i called out a certain number that I thought was perfect for the sermon. No one laughed. I asked someone after the meeting why they thought no one laughed because I thought the joke was funny and fitting. The person answered, ‘Well, some people just don’t know how to tell a joke.’”
“You just told a joke, didn’t you?”
“Why yes,” I said. “How did I do?”
“It was a little lame,” Tom said.
“Well, that is my point. I really can’t tell a joke. If I put one in at the beginning of my sermon and it bombs. then the enemy is surely going to try to heighten my fears and make me feel uncomfortable for the rest of the sermon. I think it is better just to let one’s natural humor come out in the sermon. Tell the sermon as a story from your perspective, allowing your responses to the text be seen by the congregation. As you speak they will be thinking about their own responses. And they will laugh at some of the similarities, thinking yes, that’s me.
“You mean you are supposed to put your own self in the sermon,” Tom asked.
“Why not? The sermon is not a boring lecture. You are not putting your own self into the sermon. You are putting in the universal self. The human experience. The Bible is full of Godly acts, but also of human experiences. How we interact with God. Let your sermon tell a story which you are a part of. If not, it will sound like you are preaching down to the congregation.
“How do I overcome stage freight?” Tom asked. “I am not used to starring at so many people.”
“Don’t stare at them. Don’t even concentrate on them. And don’t try to have confidence in yourself. Pray about the sermon. Listen to what God is sharing with you in the sermon. And have confidence in what God shares with you. See how it may apply to yourself. And then share it with joy, thinking only about the exciting message that God has given you. Without his message you should have no confidence at all. Do your study. But be sure to ask God what is going on. If you wait on him, he will tell you. Start early in the week with your preparation. Let the appointed scriptures wash over you each day.”
“You believe in preaching from a lectionary?” Tom asked.
“Yes, it is a good platform. It will helps focus our sermon preparation. It was used in the Synagogue when Jesus preached there. He read from the appointed readings The Spirit can easily use the platform as exploration. But the lectionary still allows the Spirit to flow as it wishes. By going through a lectionary we are preaching from the whole Bible over a three year cycle. The lectionary cycle and the cycle of the Church year are pretty much in sync. We need to preach the appointed feast days of the Lord that Jewish people observed. But we preach with a broader Christian understanding, of course.
“Do you think you could look at some of the appointed readings with me this week?” Tom asked.
“Let me read this passage from the appointed Gospel.” Tom suggested.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)[b] Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’John 4:7-10
“What would you say is the primary topic?” I asked.
“Living water. I looked up ‘living water’ in the commentaries,” Tom said;
“That’s good, but the best commentary on the Gospel of John is the Gospel of John. Look up John Chapter 6.” I suggested.
“On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”John 7:37-39
“What is the living water?” I asked.
“The Holy Spirit?” Tom replied.
“And what was required for the Spirit to be given, because at the time that Jesus said this it had not been given?”
“Jesus had to be glorified?” Tom replied.
“Yes, and what does that mean?”
“His crucifixion and resurrection.” Tom replied.
“Very good, Tom. And why was that important?
“We had to be cleansed from sin by his blood before we qualified for the Spirit?” he answered
“Right on. You are becoming a full fledged theologian. Now we are getting to the essence of the Gospel reading. The Holy Spirit is a gift because Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that is it. And how did the woman respond? More importantly, how do we respond?” I said.
“What do you mean?” Tom asked.
“What do we do to receive this gift? Jesus did say it was a gift, right”
“Well, he told the Samaritan woman that she had to ask for it,” he said.
“Doesn’t that apply to us? We always want to bring the conversation back to us. She did ask for the gift. What would keep us from asking?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Read the text. What did Jesus say to the woman?”
“If you you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you ‘Give me a drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’” he said.
“Three things are required.” I said.
“We have to know Jesus and we have to know the gift,” Tom proclaimed with a smile.
“Yes, and we have to ask Jesus. Have our churches taught this?” I asked.
“Not too well. This sermon is going to get me in hot water, isn’t it?”
“Probably with a few people. But God has given you the privilege to preach it. Do you want the praise of people or the praise of God?” I asked. “People have spiritual hangups. What hangup did the Samaritan woman have?”
“I don’t know,” Tom answered.
“Well, notice how she changes the subject on Jesus,” I said, as I continued the reading from John’ Gospel.
The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you[c] say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.John 4:19-20
“What did she just do there?” I asked.
“She got into religion.” Tom said.
“Very good, Tom,” I said. “Does that hold us back today? Jesus moved her out of religion into the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit:”
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.John 4:21-23
“The woman believed him and helped evangelize her friends and neighbors,” I exclaimed.
“I think this sermon is going to be very hard for me to preach,” he said.
“Because I do not have any confidence in myself,” he said.
“Have confidence the message. Remember how Tony said to get the amen from God before the sermon. Then you will not need any other amen.
Spend time with God in prayer. Let him assure you that you have his word. Make adjustments where the Spirit directs you. Then you will have confidence in the word. It will mean more to you than anything else. When you know God is with you and that he has given you his message, preach the message boldly. It may be a baptism by fire, but it will be a Holy fire. It will be a fire that burns up the dross in you and it will spill over to the congregation. Most of the people will recognize that you are preaching the word of God and their focus will not be on you. Some will not, but they will be too shocked to speak out. But if they do, you will feel the peace and protection from almighty God.”
“I don’t think I am in Kansas anymore.” he said.
“No, and you are not in seminary. You are in one of God’s houses of worship and prayer. You have been picked up by the whirlwind of God and moved to a different level. I am praying for you and will back you one hundred percent. If there is heat from anyone in the congregation, they will have to deal with me.”
Did Tom preached the sermon? Yes, he did. The congregation was very quiet. A few people left before the sermon was over. But nearly everyone stayed and received Communion. There was talk in the coffee hour about the boldness of the new intern. And there were some who said; “I want that fire.” Others said: “We need to hear more about this living water.” And there were one or two who said we never heard anything like this in our home church. But it is not about which church is right, it is about the Spirit and the truth of God’s word.
Later, I had a number of people come up to me and ask me to teach a series on the living water. These people were eager to learn. I asked Tom to develop a course in which we both could share the teaching. It was extra work for Tom, but he had already been sucked in by the Spirit, so to speak, that he was thrilled to be doing the teaching.
It is hard for the seminarian to adjust to the reality of actually doing ministry from a certain artificiality in the seminary. But the field work assignment sharpens the focus and brings things closer to home.
This morning John Simpson came to me in tears.
“What is the matter, John?”
“I think my wife hates me,” he said.
“Yes, she says the church always takes me away from my family and that it isn’t fair,” he said.
“There may be a little truth in that,” I replied.
“Yes, but now she tells me I am insufferable. I am just joyful all the time and that it annoys the hell out of her.”
“I did that with my wife for awhile,” I confessed.
“What are we supposed to be doing? Tony tells me that the joy of the Lord is a product of being Spirit filled. Is the Holy Spirit going to wreck my marriage?” He asked.
“No, let us give some of joy of the Lord away. Remember in Nehemiah when the Israelites were rebuilding the temple:
Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord, and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”Nehemiah 8:10
The joy we have we can give away, because God will resupply us. Let me explain. I had been seeking the Lord. This was my preparation for the seminary but I did not realize it at the time. What I did realize was that something dramatic had happened to me which changed my whole life. I was a pretty somber guy, not downtrodden, but not particularly chipper every day, especially in the morning. Well, my wife noticed the change right away.”
“After a few days of my singing praise songs, it was more like making a joyful noise unto the Lord, she asked me to stop. Why, I asked. Well she said that I was a different person and that she did not know who I was.”
“My wife seems to be reacting the same way,” John said.
“Give her time. It took some time for my wife.” I said.
“So we just wait around?” John asked.
“No, do not try to fix your wife. I couldn’t fix mine. Actually I needed fixing.”
“You did?” John asked.
“Yes, I did a lot of praying and I lot of digging into scripture. I learned that I needed to radically change my behavior with the help of the Holy Spirit. We need to learn to use his help to our advantage,” I said.
“You mean the Spirit will help us to have an advantage over our wives?” John asked.
“Not at all,” I exclaimed. “TheSpirit is our guide. He will give us strategies on how to deal with different situations. I stopped judging my wife and trying to fix her. I needed to forgive her. I needed to ask God for forgiveness for not wanting to understand her point of view.”
I learned to use the reconciliation instead of condemnation. I am talking about the ministry of reconciliation. I opened my Bible and read from Paul’s Second Letter to the Church in Corinth:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.2 Corinthians 5:17-20
“We have been given a very special and powerful ministry,” I explained. “We are to help bring others into the awareness that God loves them and has made it possible for them to have a fellowship with him. This is a tall order. On our own we cannot do it. But Paul has told us how we do it. We, ourselves, must first be reconciled to God. We must do so on a daily and continuous basis before we can truly help others.”
“Forgive me for asking, but how do I do that?” He asked.
I answered: “We must move away from building ourselves up and allow God to do it. He will build himself in us so that we may become a new creation. The Apostle Paul wrote:
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.Galatians 2:19-20
You might want to hear about some practical applications?”
“Yes, please. I am desperate!” He said.
“So we need to move entirely away from proving ourselves in any way and from keeping score on ourselves or others. Let us say your wife says something that greatly annoys you. You instantly and quietly pray this pray: ‘Lord, bless my wife and heal me.’ I learned this prayer when I attended a national conference on healing at a major university. I can remember little of what was said now. But I remember this prayer that one of the participants taught me to this day and use it often. I have shared this prayer with my wife and am sure that she has used it on me quite often.”
“You mean I am to bless my wife when she is in the wrong?” He asked.
“No, we need to stop keeping score and allow God to heal our wounds. We must remember that we say things that upset others, sometimes without even realizing it. God will bless us when we put things in his hands. He wants to bless us both, our wives and ourselves.”
You wife will eventually begin to notice that you have not reacted in your usual way to her comment or criticism. She will begin to wonder what has changed in you. Very soon you will see a change in her. God will be changing her as he is changing you. Without a word from you, your wife will be hearing a word from God,” I replied.
“What is she just thinks I am a wimp?”
“What does it matter,” I asked. “You have died. You have been crucified with Christ. You no longer live. Christ is now living in you.”
“If you say so,” he replied.
“Why not find out? What do you have to lose? You have already tried your way and found it to fail, just as I have tried it my way and failed. Paul wrote:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’”(Romans 12:19-21
I could see that John was getting tired of me preaching to him. But I felt like the Spirit was giving me one more verse. So I looked it up in James:
Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.James 1:19-21
I read this to John and said that we need to speak God’s words and not our words. The Spirit will help us.
“Okay, I will give it a try,” he said.
I did not see John for a while. He stopped coming to our Bible study for awhile. I prayed for him, but I wondered if he had understood anything that I had said, or that the Spirit had said through me. But then I remembered that the Spirit of God had been planted in him. Maybe he did or would understand because the Spirit leads us into all truth as Jesus has promised us:
But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.John 16:13
I continued praying for John and his wife, but time moved on and I had not heard from him in awhile . But on one Sunday, when I was preaching in the Cathedral, I noticed someone in one of the back pews. It was John. He was waving at me and giving me a big thumbs up. I started to be filled with pride, but then I remembered, I have died and it is Christ now living in me. Satan is not going to pull that one on me. I remembered the words of Paul:
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.1 Corinthians 15:57-58
“Honey, do you think a prayer-chain is a good idea for the Cathedral?” Sarah asked.
Someone who recently joined our Cathedral congregation came from a church that had a prayer-chain and brought it up to my wife.
“That depends on what you mean by a prayer-chained,” I answered.
“You know, it gets the word out if a worship service or meeting has had a change of time or has been discontinued. Like a coming snow storm might impair safe driving. A few number of people has a list of people to call and those people have lists,” she responded.
Oh boy, another prayer group question. I like prayer. I need prayer! Questions about prayer or another matter.
I am reminded that I was serving in a small church that had a prayer-chain. It could get information out quickly to the whole congregation. This prayer-chain was not just for sharing information. It was used for praying for the sick and for alerting that someone had been hospitalized.
I would visit the sick, of course. At times I took a little precocious girl with me. She wanted to go with me when she could. Her mother once asked if her daughter could serve with me at the Communion table in church. I told her that her daughter might be a little too young. I was sorry, but any distractions might interfere with the Communion. The mother asked me to try her out in a practice service with just she and her daughter. I did. It was more than a practice service. The Holy Spirit was there.
So I made her an official acolyte. Each Sunday she would assist me, in many ways. She would hold the big Altar Bible up for me when I read from the Gospels. That way I could connect more easily with the the congregation. And other ways, but I digress.
When I visited the sick I often brought along a small book of prayers. I would then try to find the appropriate prayer for the occasion. Yes, I believe that such prayers can be useful. This was early in my ministry. I think of Psalms as a prayer book. How about this prayer?
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.
I wait for the Lord; my soul waits,Psalm 130:1-6
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
Well, to get back to my story. On one occasion a church member was admitted to a hospital at the beginning of the week. I can’t recall his sickness, but he was gravely ill. I went by to see him in the evening and his prognosis was not good. I notified the prayer-chain as soon as I could. During the week I kept hearing that his condition was worsening from various church member.
We talked a little. I could see some concern on his face. I got out my prayer book and was looking for the right prayers. Let me see: prayers for the dying. I could tell someone was behind me. It was my acolyte. Her mother had brought her to the hospital. I looked back and she was shaking her head. I turned to other pages and then she nodded. I put my finger on the prayer I was going to use and she smiled in agreement. So I prayed the prayer for full recovery, wondering if I was not giving the patient false hope. The patient’s family were in the waiting room. I prayed with them and then went home.
Later that evening a team of doctors, I was told, would be meeting to closely examine the patient’s condition. What would they find? I was hoping for the best, but I was very anxious to say the least. The following morning I learned that the patient had been released from the hospital. Wow! What happened?
As it turns out, my precious little acolyte had read the prayer book I was using and knew it better than I did. She also had a great deal more spiritual discernment.
Out of the mouths of babes and infantsPsalm 8:2
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
I asked God to tell me please what was going on. He answered me very clearly. He said he had heard the prayers of concern for the patient. He was doing a mighty work of healing throughout the week, but that the prayer-chain was giving him a bad name. They were not keeping up with what was going on and kept repeating old news instead. I thanked him, asked him for help with my discernment, and repented for my unbelief.
I needed to explain to the congregation what had happened. I made a funny joke about it, making myself the butt of the joke. I think I got my point across without offending the prayer-chain.
As I thought about the episode I began to realize that people get more excited about negative news than positive news. The media understands this about human nature and uses it to their advantage. They need to more heads to buy the products they are advertising.
Gossip is the opposite of the Gospel. It is mostly negative. The Gospel is always positive for those who believe. Thus, Satan is selling bad news to distract us from the good news of God. Receiving bad news of any form can have an instant effect on our bodies. Our adrenaline may start pumping and our mind may begin to race to several worst-case scenarios in seconds.
I am reminded that Jesus said:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.John 14:27
So I hesitantly told Sarah that we must guard against the dangers of Gossip.
“We will have to be sure that confidence and privacy or maintained,” I said.
She remembered my little acolyte episode and laughed: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
What has been is what will be,Ecclesiastes 1:9-10
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been
in the ages before us.
We decided to form a prayer-chain for the Cathedral. All members needed to be in a Bible study to become a candidate. They would then need to go through training on how this ministry must be in support of the overall ministry of the Cathedral.
John Simpson was not through. I did not hear all this first hand. I am sort of speculating, but I do think that I am not far from the truth. John tracked down Tony to question him again. He thought that Tony and I had tricked him into a scenario that made him look bad in front of his friends. He was upset. Worse than that, he did not believe our interpretation of the Gospel of John. It was a fraud. He thought we were calling into question the very foundation of his faith. That foundation was based on a tradition that he firmly believed in.
Tony filled me in on some of the details of his conversation with John.
“You and the dean tricked me,” John said to Tony. “You acted surprised, but you already knew the answers the dean was looking for because he gave you the questions.
“I read a little from the Gospel of John every day. John’s Gospel always surprises me,” Tony replied.
“You read John every day? Why?” John asked.
“Because John is so deep that is takes awhile to get into it. And the more I get into it, the more I understand and the more I want to know,” Tony answered.
What probably was throwing John was that Tony seemed so sincere. He never seems to be flustered, no matter what the question. Tony is so secure in the word of God that he does not rely on anything else.
“You mean to say that I could actually understand the Gospel of John by reading it often,” John asked.
“Well, you would have to be reading it with an open mind. That way you would allow the Spirit of God to help you understand.
“What is this Spirit of God thing,” John asked.
“He is our confidence in the scripture. He is our confidence in the faith. Don’t you have confidence in what you believe?” Tony asked.
“No, come to think of it, I don’t. Sometimes the scripture is hard for me to figure out. I have trouble understand a lot of it, and I went to seminary.
“Well, I have never been to seminary. I am sure it would do me some good,” Tony said.
“You seem to look at the scriptures differently than I do. That is why I thought you were wrong. But now I am beginning to think you might understand them better. You just smarter than I am;”
“I doubt that. I am just the gardener. But I do not rely on my weak mind. I rely on the Holy Spirit,” Tony said.
“What is this Holy Spirit? They did not teach must about it in the seminary. We talk about it in the Nicene Creed. But I do not recall much teaching about it seminary, or anywhere for that matter.” John said.
“You are right. He is in the Nicene Creed. I call the Spirit a ‘he’ and not an ‘it.’ He is the third person of the Holy Trinity. There is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. You know that, of course.”
“What does the Spirit do?”
“Jesus tells us that he leads us into all truth,” Tony answered.
“And where is that found?” John asked.
“In the Gospel of John and the other Gospel. And in all of the Old Testament.”
“No wonder I don’t know much about the Spirit. I haven’t been reading the Gospel of John. In seminary they said that John’s Gospel was so different from the three other Gospels that they gave it little suspect. I was thinking that you and the Dean had a conspiracy going. But now I am starting to see where the real conspiracy might be,” John stated.
“Would you like me to pray for you to receive more of the Spirit?” Tony asked.
“Give me all you’ve got.”
“The Spirit is not mine to give. Jesus is the giver of the Holy Spirit. Let us pray and ask him.”
I was taking an afternoon nap because I was schedule to visit one of the smaller parishes and preach that evening. I wanted make sure that I did not fall asleep during my sermon, or that I caused someone else to fall asleep. I remember in the Book of Acts that Paul preached so long that one of his listeners went to sleep and fell out of the balcony headlong and died. Paul prayed for him and he was restored. My prayer life has not advanced that far.
I was not prepared for a visitor. Some of the best ministry occurs when no ministry has been planned. Knocking at my front door was none other than John Simpson.
“May I come in?” John asked.
“You are not busy, are you?”
“No, not at all,” I said, lying through my teeth. I was busy taking a nap.
“A group of us guys have gotten together. Some of us want to form a Bible Study. A few want to start a prayer group,” John said.
“You could do both,” I said. “You could combine them.”
“That is why I am coming to you. I am new at this sort of thing,” John said.
“Do you have any women interested in joining?”
“No, we thought about that but the ones we thought of were already in your wife’s Bible Study,” he replied. “We want something for the men.”
“John, if you don’t mind my asking, how did you get interest in this idea?
“Well, if you want to know the truth, we went to see your gardener,” he replied.
“Yes. I thought you were pulling a fast one on me with Tony. So we went to see him. He seemed perfectly innocent. So I asked him to tell mr more about the Gospel of John. I wanted to talk to you about it. But before I did that I thought I would consult Tony first.”
“Well, what did you learn from Tony?” I asked.
“I learned that John made sense, when you put all that John wrote together. And I learned that I was dead men walking. I did not have Tony’s joy. I did not have your your sense of calling and purpose. Tony prayed for me and sent me here to see you.
“Well, praise the Lord. What can I do for you?“ I asked.
“We want you to join our Bible study. And I want you to teach us from John’s Gospel. Tony told us that we could never exhaust what John has to say to us.”
“Amen. Now If we are talking a Bible study group we do not want it to be too large,” I said.
“We have eleven men.”
“Good. We would not want to be any larger than that, I don’t think. And we would want observe strict confidentiality,” I said. “When will we start?”
“You mean that you will join us?” John said with a surprised smile.
“Well, I could be a part of the Bible study. I already have a prayer group. You could do the Bible study first and then pray. I would take my leave before the prayers, but my prayers would still be with you.”
“But you would not stay and pray,” John asked.
“I wish that I could, but one prayer group is all that I can handle at a time,” I told John. But experience has taught me that few people want to hear about what the clergy are going through. And then there is always the danger or gossip.
“I’ll give you a pass, then. But I am thankful and appreciate your prayers. I am just happy that you will be a part of our Bible study. How foolish have been. I was your enemy. I was always trying to undermine you.” John said.
“John, we do not battle flesh and blood, but Powers and Principalities of Darkness. God just has to clean out the darkness in us. I still have too much darkness.
John began sobbing. He slumped in his chair. “Thank you Dean,” he said. “I am glad you are our dean. I hope you will do some teaching on the Powers and Principalities. I am just so new to the faith.”
“We are all a work in progress. I am reminded of as blessing from the Book of Hebrews:
Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”Hebrews 13:20-21
John started crying again. I cried with him. It was such a blessing to find a new friend. John had great promise. He is so gifted. I am reminded of the words of Jesus, who spoke with great joy when the tax collector Zacchaeus found the faith:
“Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”Luke 19:9
“Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:9)
I spoke with John as long as I could. I would soon have to leave in order to arrive at church on time. But John brought such refreshment to me that I did not need the nap after all.
How very good and pleasant it isPsalm 133)
when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
My first challenge had to do with the ordination process. John Simpson brought two papers written by two candidates for ordination. The appeared to be almost identical with only minor changes. The subject of the papers had to do with what the candidate I learned about himself or herself, as well as their concepts for ministry, during their process for ordination.
“Here are two papers required for your new ordination process. Does not look like these two candidates are taking this assignment very seriously,” John said.
I thought that John Simpson had been replaced on the Diocesan Commission on Ministry. Apparently he believes that he still has ownership of the Commission. How does one think they have ownership of something to which they have devoted so little time and attention? Isn’t the role of anyone who is in ministry, the role of a servant? John had done so little on the Commission, yet he seemed to seek validation every now and then through some crisis he was solving that no one else could do.
“Thanks John, I will look into it. You are right about at least one of these candidates. It looks like one copied from the other,” I said. I found out later that John was not serving on the Commission, but someone that was showed the two papers to him.
The two candidates were Mark Vest and Paul Harding. I managed to call both of them in for a conference with me. It was a mystery to me how one of them was able to see the paper of the other, unless someone on the Commission showed it to him.
I went straight to the concern. “Gentlemen, thanks for coming in to talk with me. The Commission on Ministry has raised questions about the recent paper you were required to submit, concerning your call to ministry and how the Commission has assisted you along the way. The papers are very much alike, leading the Commission to believe that one of you may have plagiarized from the other, “
Both of the candidates seemed very surprised. One of them must be a very good actor.
“Mark, I will start with you. Did you write your paper?”
“Yes Dean, he answered.
“How did you formulate your thoughts,” I asked.
“Well, I read an article you had written on the process for ordination and it raised important issues for me,” he said.
“That’s interesting. I would say that you have written a good paper. I am not going to take any credit for it despite what you have said,” I replied.
Mark laughed a little. “In fact, we are considering that your paper might be published in the next diocesan newsletter. Would that be alright with you?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Good. Now Paul, I am going to ask you the same question. How did you formulate your thoughts.”
“I prayed a lot and did a lot soul-searching. The paper gave me the opportunity to help galvanize some of my experience in the process and how it has affected me,” Paul replied.
“There was a requirement in the assignment to say where you thought the direction of our church may be heading. You did not write very much about that,” I said.
“Well, I think the direction needs to radically change,”he said.
“And yet you did not mention that.”
“I was afraid my answer could jeopardize my chances for ordination. I thought it better to use another platform to express my views on the direction of the church. And to be honest, I am still formulating my thinking on it,” he said.
“How about you, Mark. You did not write very much about the future direction of the church either,” I asked.
“In my view, there is no need for any radical change. You did not really cover the topic in your paper either, Dean,” Mark replied.
“My paper had a different purpose than yours, Mark. It was a technical paper on organization and procedure.” I said. “Paul, would you mind if the diocese published your paper,” I asked.
“Well, I would rather you did not,” he said.
“Why is that?”
“Some of the information is personal. I didn’t mind sharing it with the Commission. I am not sure other people in the diocese should be reading it. It was my impression that the paper should be held in confidence. I am a work in progress. I may change my thinking and opinion on certain issues in the future,” Paul said.
“You do not sound very confident in your call,” Mark interjected.
“Are you confident in your call,” I asked Mark.
“Sure. I have been confident from the very beginning,” he replied.
“And what gives you that confidence,” I asked.
“Well, I have always been confident about things. As something as important as the ordained ministry, why would that be an exception?”
“And yet you expressed some concerns on your paper,” I said.
“Oh that, I was thinking that the Commission expected to see something like that to validate their work,” he said.
At this point I dismissed both candidates and told them to wait in the hall for a brief time. I then prayed and asked God for his wisdom. I had pretty much come to a decision on the matter. The Lord gave me peace about it, but the Spirit reminded me to speak the truth in love. I then called Mark back into my office alone.
“Mark, I do not believe that you have been a sincere and truthful candidate for ordination. It seems to me that you just say what you think people want to hear you say. If you truly have confidence in your call to ministry why not fully enter into the process of exploration? Our confidence in ministry is not in ourselves. It must be in God alone. That is why we need to draw closer to him each day. If we are not going to be truthful with people, how will we be able to be truthful with God? I am going to recommend that the Commission delay your candidacy. I could be wrong about you. They will make the final decision. But if you are willing to see me for counseling and to confess your apparent deception to the Commission, there might be a path for you in the future. But not at this time. We are all a work in progress. My hope is that God may be able to use your mightily for his ministry in the future.”
Mark was shaken. He strongly stated that the paper was his and that he had been honest with the Commission. His hope was that they would keep him on. I said, “That is my hope as well, at least for the future. I trust the Commission will be as fair with you be and supportive as possible.”
Mark was eventually dismissed from the ordination process, but the seminary decided that they would still allow Mark to attend his classes and complete his education. However, Mark decided to drop out of school and explore another path. I pray for him regularly.
Toward the end of my service as interim bishop a more serous crisis arose. You might say it was a crisis in theology as well as ministry. A few of the old school pastors wanted to meet with me together. They said that they were concerned about the direction i was taking in ministry. I called them old school, not because of their age, but for their entrenched ideas about what was and what was not acceptable for the church when it came to worship. They would probably think of themselves as traditional. But to me, they gave the word traditional a bad name. I would describe them as creatures of habit, no matter how wrong the habit might be.
Naturally, the ring leader was John Simpson. When I say ring leader, I am talking about a three ring circus. But I graciously agreed to meet with them and give them every opportunity to express their views. Perhaps I could learn some useful information from them. I needed to keep an open mind.
On the day of the agreed upon meeting, twelve men showed up. That is when I realized that they were very serious their concern. John Simpson said that he had been appointed as the group’s spokesperson.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet with us,” John said. “We have been very concerned about the direction the diocese now seems to be taking that we do not think represents our traditional understand of the faith.”
“Thank you all for coming. I am glad we have this opportunity to explore the faith together. We need to be doing more of this,” I said. I was trying to avoid it, but the political language of the bishop was beginning to creep in. Maybe bishops need to be a little political, I was beginning to think
“What is your primary concern?”
“We do not thing you are following the tradition of our church,” John said.
“Traditions are help us keep the faith that was handed down to us,”I said.
“Precisely,” John said emphatically. “In fact, tradition came before the writing of the Bible.”
“Well, that certainly true of the Early Church in some ways. They did not have the New Testament. They were following many of the traditions of the synagogue. And the New Testament writings of the faith came out of their experience. These experiences and understandings were codified in the New Testament.
“That is why we are a stickler for traditions,” John replied.
“But would you not say that scripture is just as important as tradition?”
“I believe it is, especially if they are in agreement,” John answered.
I added, “Scripture is very reliable, is it not? The Apostle Paul wrote:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.2 Timothy 3:16-17
‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’
So scripture should be in agreement with everything that God is doing, even in the church, and especially in the church. Would you agree?
John looked a little puzzled at first, but then he shook his head. I looked around the room and all members of the group were shaking their heard in agreement.
“Now Jesus instituted some traditions that were not in the synagogue. Take Holy Communion for an example. That was brand new, wasn’t it. He shared it with his disciples the night before his crucifixion.”
“That gets us around to what we want to take about. We do not like the way you are teaching and celebrating the Communion,” John said.
Someone from the group added, “We used to observe it monthly and now it is weekly. It makes the worship service too long.”
Another person joked, “All those Baptists get ahead of us in the restaurants.”
Everyone laughed. I was a little embarrassed that I did too. We certainly have no right to ridicule or lampoon the Baptists.
“Well, it is implied in the Book of Acts that the Communion was celebrated quite often,” I added. “But you are here to talk more about the service that how often it is held, are you not?”
“Precisely, we do not believe that Jesus is in the bread of Communion. Communion is simply a memorial service. We remember that Jesus died for us,” John said.
“None of that Hocus Pocus,” someone said.
I said, “You may be referring to the phrase ‘hoc est corpus meum,’ the Latin translation of the phrase ‘this is my body.’ Jesus used this phrase when he was passing out the Communion bread to his disciples.”
“Well. we do not actually believe that Jesus was talking about his real body or his real blood. He was just saying that the elements of Communion should remind us of his body and blood,” John said.
“I understand, it is a matter of interpretation. Would you be will to run an experiment? We could take someone out of the pew who was untrained in the use of the Bible and its interpretation and just ask that person what he thinks. We could read a little of the scripture concerning the Communion and ask them to interpret it. He or she would not have any preconceived notions about it. Might this person be more likely to gain a common understanding of the Communion than coming some writing in a commentary by a New Testament critic,” i suggested.
“I am surprised you suggested this, coming from a theologian,” John said. “This would be right down my alley. What do you guys think.”
“Sure, we would be willing to give it a try,” was the consensus.
“I have an idea. We could bring in the bishop’s gardener. He probably does not have any training in the matter, and he is close at hand,” I suggested. We could read him some scriptures concerning the Communion and ask him what he thinks.”
“What do you guys think,” John asked.
After a brief huddled they all signals that they were in agreement.
“If we have the time, we could bring him in now,” I suggested.
“Bring him in, John said. “But we get to ask him some questions before we start the real questioning, right?”
“That is fine with me,” I said.
Fortunately we were able to locate Tony quickly. He was sprucing up the garden and had his work clothes on. Perfect. Tony had no idea what I was doing, but he caught on almost immediately. what was going on.
“OK Tony, what is your job around the cathedral,” John asked.
“I do some gardening and light maintenance.”
“Are you a member of this church?” John asked.
“Are you a member of our denomination?” John asked.
“Do you go to church here?” John asked.
“Where do you go to church most of the time.” John asked.
“I like to attend many of the local churches.”
“Why move around?” John asked.
“Well, I like to catch the vibe of different churches.
“Catch the vibe? I see. Have you ever gone to any of the Dean’s teachings?” John asked.
“No. But I heard they were good.”
“Have you ever attended any teachings or activities here?” John asked.
Well I went to the Deans’s wife’s Bible a few times. Sarah is my friend. She is nice to me. It get’s lonely for me around here sometimes. I like to talk to her.
“Did you learn anything in her Bible study?” John asked.
“Yeah, I try to learn new things every day.”
“That’s nice. OK Tony, I am going to read something from the Bible for you and I would like your thoughts. I need to get your vibe on it.” John said.
“Sure. I love the Bible.”
John said, “Here goes.
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’1 Corinthians 11:23-25
What does that mean to you?”
“I think Jesus was preparing his disciples for his death,” Tony replied.
“What does he mean, in remembrance of Me?” John asked.
“He wanted his disciples to remember?”
“Great, Tony. Good answer!” John said.
“I did good?” Tony asked.
“Yeah, sure. Your turn, Dean,” John replied.
I shared this scripture,
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”John 6:35
“What does the mean, Tony?”
“It sounds something like feeding on Jesus.”
“Wait a minute. That is from the Gospel of John. John never even mentions the Communion in his Gospel,” John said.
“Well, I just wanted Tony to listen to these words from John,” I said. “Here’s another verse, Tony. Jesus said:
‘I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’John 6:48-51
What do you think that means?” I asked.
“Jesus’ bread gives life?” Tony answered.
“What about this one?
So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.’John 6:52-58
What does that mean to you?” I asked.
“It means I need to eat on some Jesus big time,” Tony replied.
“Wait a minute. Isn’t Jesus just saying that we should remember him just like the Israelites remembered the manna in the wilderness?” John asked.
“I don’t know. It sounds like to me that he is saying that his body is real food to eat and his blood is a real drink. But what do I know? I am just a simple man,” Tony replied.
“OK, you can go now, Tony,” John said.
“Thanks for coming in, Tony,” I added
“Sure Boss,” he replied.
As Tony was leaving the room, I could see that most of the members of the group were agitated. John looked the most upset.
“Wait a minute, This whole thing was a setup. There is something that is not smelling right here,” John said.
“Was Tony trying to confuse us,” I asked?
“Never mind Tony. He’s nothing. You just manipulated him,” John said.
“But I just read scripture,” I replied.
“Yeah, you read out of the Gospel of John, which is hard to understand. The average person is not going to get John,” John stated. “I don’t ever get John. We need to stick with what we know.”
All the rest of the meeting was downhill. It was like someone peered over the edge of a cliff. He got too close and fell headlong over it.
“You have not heard the last of this,” John said, as he and most of his group stormed out.
“Well, maybe we can bring it up again when the bishop returns. I am just a temporary filling in for him,” I said.
A couple of pastors did remain behind to thank me for the teaching. They said they wanted to hear more and asked if I could do a class on the Communion. There were other skirmishes along the way, but this one was the major one. I am now going home for a nap on the couch, first stopping to thank Tony for being a simple man.