Last Sunday after worship several people came up to me and expressed gladness … and sorrow … that I was planning to take a church in New Hampshire. They were sorry to see us move away, but happy that I was getting back into the pulpit. “You need to preach,” one woman said to me in the middle of a hug. Those words have been echoing in my heart.
It is true. I need to preach. It is not a unique experience. The apostle Paul said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” The prophet Jeremiah said, “But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.”
Do not misunderstand me. I have enjoyed not preaching during these fifteen months of mini-retirement. When it comes time for me to really retire, I will embrace it without regret. During this extended sabbatical we have enjoyed traveling, relaxing, and spending time with family and friends.
I have even enjoyed sitting in a pew and hearing someone else preach. I have been blessed to be part of a great church with a great preacher for the past year. I have heard a lot of bad preachers in my time. In fact on a recent visit to Florida, it took all of my willpower not to walk out of a horrible sermon. But the pastor at “our church” is good. He is the age of my eldest son, yet he has wisdom beyond his years.
I have enjoyed writing this blog and a book (unfinished but not forgotten.) I have read widely in controversial areas. I have had freedom in the Spirit to express emotions and explore new ideas - ideas that would have been self-censured if I had to second-guess how a congregation might receive my words. It has opened up new spiritual vistas for me.
But I need to get back into the pulpit. It is what I do. Strangely enough I also need to shepherd people. I missed church people. I did not miss the innumerable endless meetings. Neither did I miss the bickering and pettiness of church life. But I missed the intimacy of sharing deep times – crises, illnesses, deaths, joys, births, and weddings – with sinner-saints.
I missed talking openly and frequently about spiritual matters. Unless you are a pastor you can’t invite yourself to someone’s home and then ask pointedly, “So how is your spiritual life?” It would be considered presumptuous. But it is okay if your pastor asks that question.
I missed interaction with children and elders. I missed riding the heartbeat of a spiritual community. I missed the camaraderie of other pastors struggling to balance the expectations and responsibilities of the pastorate.
I missed the richness of pastoral ministry. Back when I was a seminarian I had a decision to make after I got my Master of Divinity degree: preach or teach. I decided I would teach. I entered the Ph.D. program with a plan was to teach in a college or seminary.
Then I had second thoughts. I felt like I needed to explore pastoral ministry first. So I took a church … just for a few years. But like Frost said, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.” I did not fully realize it at the time, but I had permanently left academia for the pastorate. Thirty-four years later, I am not sorry. I need to preach.
Art is “Saint Paul Preaching in Athens,” Raphael 1515-1516