Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Study Break

(I wrote this two days ago while I was away on a study break.)

Study Break

I am on a study break for 2 ½ days in a mountain cabin in southwest Washington beside Speelyai Creek which rolls by outside cold and clear. My goal is to lay out 17 sermons from the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs). By ‘lay out’ I mean I want to leave on Wednesday noon with a Title, Textual Reference, Theme, and thumbnail sketch of each message.

I brought my box of tools – 2 Bibles, 1 systematic theology, 1 book of sermons on the Old Testament, 1 Old Testament survey, 2 overviews of the books of the Bible, 1 book on Job, 5 books on the Psalms, 3 books on Proverbs, 2 books on Ecclesiastes, and 1 book on the Song of Songs. In addition I packed 5 more books – a commentary on 2 Timothy (for the messages I preach in Russia in 2 months), Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV.1 (personal reading project), Spiritual Wholeness for Clergy(required reading for the Academy of Spiritual Formation & Direction I attend in February at Mt. Angel), Whole Life Transformation (I am reading this because I’m intrigued by the sub-title, ‘becoming the change your church needs’), and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (something ‘fun’ to read).

My alarm rings at 5:30a.m. First I build a fire and second I make my coffee in the espresso maker I brought from home. I read/pray the daily Psalms. I slowly read 1 chapter out of 2 Timothy and then read what the commentary has to say about it. I write down a few thoughts in my journal. I turn out all the lights and sit in silence in front of the fire for 10-15 minutes, trying to be quiet, to be calm, and to sink down into my soul. Afterward I pray as I walk back and forth in front of the woodstove pouring out my heart to God in praise, confession, thanksgiving, petition for myself, and intercession for others starting with Heather, Hannah, and Elizabeth. By now it is light outside and I am ready for a little breakfast, juice and a toasted 8 grain bagel.

I make a second cup of coffee, Starbucks Via Ready Brew Caramel flavored instant coffee. I am disappointed with the caramel flavor but it is better than nothing. Before I sit down to study I put more wood on the fire and bring in more logs from the wood stack in the carport.

I light a candle, put on Bach on my iPod player, and sit down at the dining table surrounded by my mini library. I read my Bible, read my books, think, scribble down thoughts, and lay out a 5 month Sunday schedule on a lined, yellow legal pad. I prayed about this time before I left home and asked others to pray for me as well, for inspiration and direction. It’s time for answered prayer. What’s it going to be?

Slowly my sermonizing juices begin to flow. I break down whole books into digestible sermon parts. I fish mind and heart for message titles. I latch onto themes from my reading and scribbles. I ‘see’ sermon parts come together as a whole. I write down the final version on my yellow legal pad and move on.

At 11:30am I drive into Cougar and eat lunch in the only greasy spoons restaurant open. I’ve had better and I’ve had worse. I feel out of place among all of the locals who seem to know each other. Today at lunch 2 old-timers drank coffee at the table next to mine. In a conversation with the waitress one of them realized that he knew her father in the area when she was just a little girl. Her parting comment as she rushed into the kitchen, their order in hand, with a big smile on her face, “It’s a small world, isn’t it?”

I put more logs on the fire when I come back and take a 30 minute nap but not before I read another chapter from To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus shines in court as he pulls out all his stops to defend Tom Robinson against false charges of raping a white girl. I want to finish the book before I leave.

Early afternoon is more of what I did in the morning but my mind is not as sharp and results come slower and harder. By 2:30-3:00pm I reach my limit for work. Sermonizing is done for the day. I spend the rest of the afternoon reading and working on other projects.

At 4p.m. I go on a 4 mile walk that takes me a little under an hour to do. I pass a herd of elk feeding in an open field about 75 yards away. They scamper off into the brush and trees to avoid me. Once I get out on the highway I notice empty beer cans and cases strewn up and down the side of the road. There is money to be had if someone takes the time to scourer the shoulder in search of empties. I wonder to myself what is it that makes people toss their trash out of their cars and trucks alongside a beautiful windy highway in such stunning mountain country.

When I come back I build another fire, take a shower, and eat my dinner of Chicken Corn Chowder, Tim’s Potato Chips, and a Pink Lady apple. I wash dishes, clean the kitchen, and bring in more logs for the fire. It’s going to be a cold night.

I sit in the recliner in front of the fire and read Whole Life Transformation. I feel like I’ve already read this book at least 8-10 times. It reminds me of others I’ve read. They all sound the same. Pastor so and so comes to a crisis in his life and ministry. In a moment of desperation God meets him and he discovers a way out of his crisis and feels liberated and enlightened. He wonders how he could have lived in such darkness for so long. Suddenly everything at his church and in his ministry looks different. He begins to make changes, big changes. He goes about un-doing everything he worked so hard at building for the new philosophy and perspective he now wants to implement. In the process he either quits or gets fired. He starts a new ministry, writes a book about it, hits the conference trail, and tells the rest of us how we can discover what he has found. So far I haven’t read anything in Whole Life Transformation that I haven’t read somewhere else 2 or 3 times over. I ask myself why I am such a succor for books like these and wish I had saved my $17.95.

I grab the 3 by 5 card from my journal on which I wrote my most pressing prayer concerns for my life, family, and ministry. I sit next to the fire and quietly pray my way through each item. I pause and linger over some that seem to hold more gravity than the others, at least tonight. There are times when I feel like I have the whole world on my shoulders and all I can do is pray. The answers or solutions are beyond me but not God. I can’t heal cancer or reconcile broken marriages or make people want to want God or straighten out situations that have splintered or soften hardened hearts or bring deep, lasting comfort to those who grieve the loss of someone they loved or put my hands on enough money to pay for my children to attend college. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.

I turn out the lights and climb the stairs to go to go to bed. I read 2 more chapters of Mockingbird and fall asleep with the deep, abiding sense that it has been a good day and I am thankful to God to be alive and to live the life I live with the people and church I love in one of the most beautiful places I know on the face of the earth.

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