With Lent only days away (tonight many churches, like ours, will celebrate some sort of party in a sanitized imitation of Mardi gras) I have found myself wondering what to do on Ash Wednesday---as regards preaching. On Friday I began my fourteenth year at St. Andrews. My kindergartener then is now a college Freshman and her baby brother at the time, not much more than a toddler, is now well over six feet tall and pondering his own college choice. A lot of living has gone on in that time, with hundreds of people come and gone. Enough to fill the church several times.
There is something to be said for a long pastorate. The level of trust is pretty secure. The connections are deep. Funerals are sadder because it is often an old friend. Celebrations are richer, because it is often an old friend. There are some who think pastors should leave after seven years to stir things up and make them fresh. There is something to be said for fresh. But there is also something to be said for consistency. If you are doing what you are supposed to do, then even if it is stale, it is "right." Change is really neither good nor bad, it is simply different. So my plan is to stick around a bit longer, well a lot longer, and most of the folks who are still here seem fine with that.
One challenge is to find ways to preach and teach so that it can still inspire listening ears. I am sure there is a certain "heard that before" to my instruction, even if I start from scratch each week. Even a well read person has a limited amount to offer. Of course, with attendance patterns what they are, and the limited amount of time we actually spend together each week, innovation is not an overwhelming concern. Hammering the basics is.
With that in mind, I have reconsidered my plan for Lent. There have been many exhortations over the years. They have centered on prayer, study, Scripture. I have offered different spiritual disciplines and areas of concentration. Every year we invite folks to "give up" something and put the money aside which would have been spent on themselves and donate it in the first collection for outreach. From Lent 1 until Easter Day we will do two collections. If everyone did it we would have lots of money to make positive impact in the lives of others. Enough people have done it so far that we usually have a significant amount every year. We will continue to do that.
But this year I thought that I want a singular focus. I felt called to lead my church in what seems to be the primary desire which they expressed in a recent survey. They want to know Jesus. So this Lent I am going to try to focus my folks on that quest. I am going to try to bring them to a focused seeking. Look for Jesus everywhere, every day. That is the Lenten directive. Be conscious and mindful of wanting to deepen your relationship with Jesus. On Easter Day, if you can say, "I know the Lord Jesus better" then it was a good and fruitful Lent. If not, perhaps we need to assess why not?
It occurred to me that Jesus wants us more than we want Him, so seeking will look a lot like being available. I heard one of my favorite hymns from my seminary days today: "Here I am, Lord." I recall singing it so often as I struggled with my own vocation to be a priest ("I have heard you calling through the night, I will go Lord, if you need me...). If we are closer to Jesus then everything follows. His love for the poor will flow into us and through us. Collections will be bigger. We will long to enjoy His presence, Bible reading and prayer will blossom. We will want to be filled with His love and love others. Community and service will happen automatically.
So I was clear, that is the theme of Lent: Seeking Jesus.
We will have church in an hour or so and twice tomorrow. I was planning to announce it today. As always I came early to spend time with Jesus in prayer. As it usually is, the prayer was a quiet time of longing and talking and listening. I knelt there desperate for that connection which I rarely "feel" but which I was told three times in the last two days radiates through me. It is odd, I guess I am a good conductor, I do not feel the heat which is passing through me. [those familiar with John of the Cross's teaching know what all this means, those who don't can not be instructed in a blog post, even one as wordy as mine tend to be] Suffice to say I constantly prayed long ago, (during the same time I used to sing "Here I am"), that God would use me. I told Him using me was more important than me anything else. He took me at His word. So while I may struggle from time to time, He continues to shine. As His sacrament I am blessed to be a blessing, a source of strength for others in my weakness, a source of life and joy to others. A tool.
And He opens my mouth and makes the words life for some each week. And He keeps me aware that I am on the right track when He affirms through the scriptures what I am doing. In the daily scriptures which we read each day He frequently affirms something I had taught the day before in a Bible study or alluded to in a class. Like today, an hour ago, when after praying about the Lenten theme of seeking Jesus I read today's Gospel for morning prayer (okay, I was late...) I close with what I read from John 12:20-26:
They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus" Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
I am the rector (or pastor) of St. Andrew's church. I am calling people to seek Jesus. To look for Jesus.
And the message from the reading today confirmed what I am doing.
Seek Jesus this Lent.