“Christians are like manure,” our lecturer declared to our startled group of first-year ministry students.
We were in the birth-pangs of discovering life-changing studies: trying to unravel the intricacy of New Testament Greek while wrapping ourselves around the strange new jargon of theology; but this insight came from way out of left field.
The lecturer had our attention - and a big twinkle in his eye - as he continued: “If you spread us around, we can help a lot of things to grow. But if we stay together for too long we get crusty and we start to smell!”
Another gem – which he probably never planned to say - came as he wrapped up our discussion about the dedication a new-born baby. Strong opinions were flying around the lecture room about what we should include in such services, until he simply told us: “We aren’t conducting services! We are ministering to people! And we must serve them at whatever level they are in their journey with Jesus – whether they are still coming towards him or moving on with him!”
Memories of my years of training are filled with deep appreciation for his down-to-earth approach. As we discerned our calling as pastors, he helped us to keep our academic searches from outweighing our need to stay in tune with people’s real-life challenges: “Whether their church links are rigorous or reluctant; they are the ones God is calling us to reach with his love.”
Yet to balance my gratitude ledger, I also recall in my first month that he offered me a wonderful opportunity – with a hidden challenge. “Would you be available to preach at the Chinese church on Sunday week?”
Would I ever! I had never heard of this church before, but I was excited. So excited that I did not fully absorb the fact that our denomination had begun a mission to Chinese miners during the 1850s gold rush. But I did note the pastor’s phone number.
Opportunity was corroded by challenge as I called him, for despite his cheerful nature, his Chinese accent was very strong. Still, with the time and address established, I began preparing a sermon that I hoped would bless my temporary congregation.
The Sunday arrived, and so did I, well before starting time. The pastor met me and quickly ensconced me in his vestry. There were just the two of us, and I found him as difficult to understand face to face as I had by phone, but as worship time approached we prayed for God’s blessing.
He led the congregation, a sea (to me) of totally-inscrutable Asian faces, through all the preliminaries - mostly in Chinese - before inviting me to share my message.
I’d chosen to speak from John’s gospel, chapter four, for I felt it addressed any racial divide. But my heart was racing (a case of pulpit-ations?) as it looked like I would need to proceed very carefully.
My ser-mon be-came a ver-y care-ful-ly en-unc-i-at-ed, la-bor-i-ous ex-pos-it-i-on ab-out Jes-us mee-ting (“Mee Ting!” was he a previously unnoticed Chinese witness?) the wo-man at the well out-side Sy-char in Sam-ar-i-a.
I dispensed with a planned introductory joke about this lady being the biggest woman in the bible (Yes - the woman of Some area!) It was tough going, made tougher by my need to articulate even more deliberately, for there was an almost tangible aura of strain among those in the pews.
Finally I reached the closing blessing, after which the pastor escorted me to the door; where I was so graciously thanked and encouraged – in beautifully-modulated English!
It was then I realised that since the gold rush, several generations of Chinese doctors, university lecturers, scientists, lawyers and very prosperous business people had arisen – enough time to get a reasonable handle on the language!
I later provided my own lunch. It was very cheap and extremely high in cholesterol – since it came from a massive amount of egg on my face!
They’ve never invited me back to preach at that church.
But now my sermon preparation includes large chunks of considering who I will be speaking to as well as what I’m going to say...
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