I think that sometimes those of us in ministry tend to overlook the working of the Spirit in our lives. Take sermon preparation, for example. As a Lutheran, I was schooled in the art of carefully crafting a sermon through prayer, study, and a solidly written homily. We were taught that it was irresponsible to think that the Holy Spirit was going to bail us out if and when we failed to adequately prepare our sermons. This makes sense to me, especially given my past life as an English teacher and freelance writer. A potential problem with this approach is that it can lead one to become too “text-bound.”
Aileen, my wonderful intern supervisor, provided bold and helpful critique, praising my careful writing and good content, but wondering if my devotion to the printed page didn’t hamper my ability to engage the congregation. Her challenge was to find some way to become less bound to my written page. So I’ve tried various techniques—writing the manuscript and then summarizing it in bullets on cards, or outlining it, or even printing it small and book-fold so that I could slip it in my worship book—with the goal of not having the appearance of delivering an academic paper at a professional conference. Working hard to not look like I was working so hard, it’s easy to forget the working of the Spirit in the creation of the word to be delivered. But as I’m out in the parish and becoming “at home” in this particular context, it becomes more and more apparent that the Spirit does move and breathe each week in the art and craft of the homily.
A few weeks ago I was having a horrible time putting anything together that made any sense. I struggled all week with it to no good result. Finally, on Saturday night, in a fit of desperation, I looked in my files for the last time I preached on that particular text in Year C. With apologies to God and self, I reworked it for this present context and put in a couple of fresh illustrations and then went to bed. I was still frustrated that my original direction had led only to dead ends. So at the early service at the country church I got up and preached the revised, reworked, rehashed sermon. It felt awful the whole way through—like wearing pointy-toed, too-tight stiletto heels. But I chalked it up to just one of those days that wouldn’t work. We all have a couple of dreadful sermons, right?
By the time I reached the town congregation for the 11:00 a.m. service, I was still fretting over the sermon. During the entrance hymn, I looked out at the congregation and suddenly knew—deep in my gut—that I couldn’t preach the revised, reworked, rehashed sermon. So I prayed—VIGOROUSLY. I also knew—again, deep in my gut—that this one was not meant to be delivered from the pulpit (my usual style). I’d worked long and hard on trying to get this idea to gel, so which direction to take was not a problem; what I didn’t have a clue about was how to end it. Yes, the Spirit was goading me, driving me into a place I would rather not have gone.
The end result was nothing short of amazing and God-breathed. I knew from the expressions on the faces of folks in the congregation and from the tears in the eyes of a particular few and from the energy I felt that this was a Spirit moment and the word of God, with me being purely and only the instrument on which it was played out. After worship the organist came up to me (she played at both services) and asked “Where did that come from? It wasn’t the same sermon!” So I shared the story with her. “Well it was powerful, and it worked,” she said. Chalk one up for the Holy Spirit. Humble and amaze one pastor.
The most recent time I experienced the gift of the Holy Spirit in worship came this past Sunday at our Synod Assembly with what I'll call the story of the “improper preface.” I was on the planning team and had to miss a couple of meetings due to parish conflicts so told them to plug me in wherever they needed me. Well, they did, as presiding minister for the Sunday a.m. worship when the bishop was preaching. That should teach me to miss meetings in the future! But like Ado Annie, I'm just a girl who can't say no.
Typical of the overstressed and overbooked, I forgot a couple of things. First of all, I left my collar at home. I woke Saturday morning out of a sound sleep to that realization. Fortunately, the two voting members from the Norwegian town church hadn’t left yet, so they were able to bring it with them (I’m one of the few women in my synod who doesn’t wear a tab collar, so I knew there would be no replacements to be had.). I also forgot that they don’t use a leader’s ritual edition on the altar at assembly, so there was no proper preface for the Eucharist. Things had been so crazy before worship began that I totally overlooked that fact. I was more worried that there was no font for the affirmation of baptism (we ended up with a plastic punchbowl).
Talk about silent panic! I pondered whether I had enough time during the offering to run around to the Augsburg Fortress store and grab one, but no, that wouldn’t work. I asked the bishop what he would do. Very pastorally he replied to either forget it or make something up. So I prayed—VIGOROUSLY. I could remember the beginning and the ending of the preface but not all of the middle part for Easter (memorization is not my strong suit), so I quickly jotted something down, took a deep breath and plunged ahead. It all worked fine; in fact, I had a more difficult time breaking the bread (a delicious and crusty sourdough that proved quite stubborn). In the end no one castigated me, and clearly the Spirit was at work because I couldn’t have come up with those words on my own. A couple of folks thought it had been written especially for the assembly (well, it had been—sort of).
Lessons learned? First, never underestimate the power of the Spirit in what we do as rostered and lay ministers. Second, just like they say in seminary, never rely on the Spirit when you haven’t done your part of the work. Finally, be as forgiving to yourself as God is to you. Life generally works out, sometimes better than other times, but the end of the world hasn’t come yet, and the use of an “improper preface” probably isn’t going to hasten its happening. Grace and peace to all ya’ll. Keep up the good work in a world that sorely needs the Good News. And if you wear a collar, don’t forget to pack it when you travel. Pax et lux.