As associate pastor at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, sometimes I am a preacher of sermons and often I am a listener to sermons.
I can tell I am listening to a good sermon when I find myself wanting to take notes not just on what the preacher is saying but also on what I am thinking about how the scripture text and the preacher’s reflections apply to my own life.
One Sunday this month, listening to my colleague Jonathan Chute reflect on words from the prophet Isaiah as quoted in the gospel of Luke, I sat with pen in hand scribbling on my worship program. I was eager to capture what felt to me like helpful connections.
The announcement from the prophet was this:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:4-6)
The preacher suggested we listeners could consider our own circumstances and challenges, and receive the earth-moving imagery as God’s promise to us. I thought about the difficult terrain I and my family are facing as we seek to assist my father in a time of physical frailty and declining capacities. I realized how much we needed the road to rise up and meet us.
And, amazingly, as the list I made on that Sunday morning has helped me to see, there is some evidence that a divine “road crew” of some sort has been at work.
The chasm of all we did not know about how to help my father is gradually being filled as we talk to home health providers, physicians, office managers, brokers, accountants, insurance and real estate agents, and friends who share his profession.
The mountain of my father’s fierce independence and determination is gradually lowering its defenses and learning to accept assistance. The twists and turns of the process of setting up electronic access to financial information (a thing my father has long resisted!) is starting to straighten out. The rough places of tension, anxiety and worry are being soothed and smoothed as problems are solved and solutions put in place.
Thanks be to God, the world is home to many kind, caring and helpful professionals.
We are meeting with patient responses to our questions, good counsel for understanding our options and generous compassion as we seek assistance. We are making our way forward. I am glimpsing salvation.
I may not have come to the awareness of God’s nearness during this time of family crisis had I not been in worship, alongside the community of faith, listening to passages of scripture and having my thoughts awakened by the preacher’s commentary.
Looking back on that Sunday, I feel glad for the habits induced by being part of the church.
Once each week, we gather. We sing. We pray.
We greet one another with friendly enthusiasm. We read scripture. We listen to the pastor share stories, scholarship, questions, commentary and insights. We let our minds wander. We open our hearts. And through that hour-long encounter with one another and with God’s word, we are stirred to new understanding and revitalized hope.
Of course, becoming aware of God’s nearness and God’s goodness can happen at times other than Sunday and places other than the sanctuary.
Walking on the beach, writing in a journal, spending time with friends, carrying out an act of service, giving generously of our time and talent, or exercising our creativity and powers of concentration to accomplish a goal are a few of the multitude of ways that we might be reminded God is with us.
But I wouldn’t want to be without the time in church, where the architecture, and the music, and the faces of all the people, and even the sermon, routinely offer inspiration.
I am thankful for the opportunity worship gives me to listen, to dream and to feel the assurance of God’s care. I am glad to see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears each week that God cares for everyone, not just for me.
“All flesh shall see the salvation of God,” Isaiah promised.
I have shared an example how that “seeing” happens for me. The Christmas and other holy day celebrations taking place this month help me to trust and pray that it is happening for many others as well.