Wednesday, January 17, 2007

January 16, 2007 - The Homiletical Feast

I’m writing these words in Bradenton Beach, Florida, where I’m spending a few days with a group of ministerial colleagues from around the country. We call ourselves The Homiletical Feast. Our official reason for being here is to present papers to one another on how to preach from various Bible passages listed in the Revised Common Lectionary (a three-year calendar of Sunday-morning scripture readings that many preachers use as a guide). Some years, we invite a seminary professor to join our discussion. Other years, we go it alone. This is one of those “other years.” We don’t mind. We’ve come to value each other’s insights so much, that we often learn as much from each other as from the hired consultant.

The biblical and homiletical work (“homiletical” means “preaching”) is what attracted most of us to this group, in the first place. Yet, after not so many years of pursuing this discipline, most of us would agree that the real reason we come – what keeps us returning year after year, anyway – is the fact that this is also a support group.

In our first meeting, each year, we sit around the conference-room tables, lay out our laptops and notepads, and prepare to begin our work of biblical exegesis. Every year, without fail, we end that first session with the laptops still closed and the pens still capped, having spent the whole time bringing each other up to date on our lives and ministries. That opening session is, in many ways, the best part of the week.

Most people outside the trade don’t realize that parish ministry is a high-stress occupation. The old joke is that we ministers have it easy: we only work for one hour a week (well, maybe two, if it’s a big church). In fact – as any one of a whole raft of recent, gloomy books will bear witness – mainline Protestant churches are experiencing unprecedented pressures in America’s rapidly-changing culture. Often, the person who feels these pressures most intensely and most personally is the pastor. There’s a growing consumer mindset, that leads people to expect their church to cater to their every personal whim. “Have it your way,” goes the old, fast-food jingle. Church members hear that drumbeat six days a week, and on the seventh, they come to expect their church to hold the pickles, too. (So much for “Take up your cross, and follow me”...)

Those of us who have been out of seminary more than twenty years or so (as I have) can page through our old student photo directories and marvel at how few of us are still at it. Some of our classmates have simply drifted away from the pastorate, entering specialized counseling or teaching ministries, or leaving the church altogether. Others – having been chewed up, emotionally and spiritually, by nasty church fights – have lost the heart for this work. A few others – only a few, though the newspapers would have us believe otherwise – have gone over to the dark side, falling into illegal or immoral conduct. The dozen or so of us sitting around this table in a Florida hotel are all survivors - and more than survivors. We draw strength from each other, colleagues whom we trust and respect.

I haven’t been to the Homiletical Feast for two years. Last year, I dropped out at the last minute. The very same week my colleagues were meeting together, I was having port-implantation surgery and receiving my first chemo treatment. In my worst moments, I wondered if I’d ever sit at the table with these friends again.

This year, it’s different. Most of my fellow Feasters have been following my progress through this blog, or through e-mail, or through more personal contacts. They know the facts of my treatment, and of my going into remission last May. It feels good, all the same, to tell the story (or at least sketch out its broad outlines), and to hear their words of encouragement and celebration.

“How very good and pleasant it is
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,
life for evermore.”

- Psalm 133


Anonymous said...

We're so glad that you can have this time with your friends to share and learn from each other. Sounds like a great support group! We're also glad that you "blog" from time to time. Thanks, Charlene & Harvey

presbybop said...

Thanks for your kind words. You've summed up our group really well, and I am proud to be a member.

I'm even more proud to be your friend.


Anonymous said...

I haven't ever commented on your blog, Carl, though I have been reading it over the last months, and this particular post caused me to want to drop you this note and thank you for reflecting on the struggle that ministry can be, even when we are physically healthy. It's nice to read about our group from your special perspective. Thank you.