Thursday, March 7, 2013

Every Word of Scripture

This is the third part of my series further exploring the questions I received from the floor of the Presbytery of the Pacific (EPC) when I was examined for membership.  The third question I received was:  Tell us about your commitment to Calvin's lectio continua preaching style.
Throughout my long and illustrious career, all five years of it, I have become convinced of only thing regarding the preaching ministry of the church and that is that we need to read more of it and go deeper into it.
When I attended seminary I had no idea how to approach the preaching ministry of the church.  I had learned three basic systems of selecting the text.  The first was topical, in which the pastor, hopefully led by the Holy Spirit, selects a matter to be preached and then selects an appropriate Biblical text on that same topic.  The second is lectionary, in which the pastor receives a list of pre-selected texts, usually from an authoritative body (such as those behind the Revised Common Lectionary) and the pastor then preaches from the texts.  The third system is lectio continua, or, literally, "continued reading," in which a book of the Bible (or perhaps a portion of a book in the case of Psalms or Proverbs) is read beginning where the prior week left off with the sermon based on this reading.
In seminary I was taught that good preachers use the lectionary, mega-church evangelicals use rather shallow topical preaching and some fringe conservative Reformed folks use lectio continua.  Armed with this I ventured into my first call and proceeded to watch my preaching ministry flop for my first year while I preached using the Revised Common Lectionary and insisted on all four of the readings.  It is to the credit of the saints at First, Merrill that they put up with this for a whole year.
Thankfully, the Holy Spirit smacked me up side the head at a sermon planning retreat.  A lectionary preacher usually focuses the sermon on one particular text of the four (Old Testament, Psalm, Gospel, NT Epistle).  During this retreat I had decided to focus on the epistle readings, specifically 1 Peter.  I remembered that Peter's father was named Jonah (in some translations, Jonas) and I thought it would be neat to pair 1 Peter with readings from the prophet Jonah and then call the sermon series, "Jo and Pete."  I carefully selected Jonah readings to go with the 1 Peter lectionary selections, but then I ran into a dilemma.  My trouble, basically, was that to do readings from Jonah would mean leaving the lectionary.  Now I had already dispensed with the way the Revised Common Lectionary skipped over a verse or, indeed, entire paragraphs when they seemed to be too controversial.  I learned to just ignore the lectionary and read the whole of the passage.  At this point, though, I was contemplating abandoning the lectionary and moving into uncharted waters.  If it were not for the Holy Spirit, I do not know that I would have made the move, but I took the plunge with God's help.
Now, technically in my first foray into lectio continua preaching I was still not quite all the way there.  I read selections from 1 Peter and selections from Jonah, but the seed was planted and this was the first tender shoot of my true preaching ministry.  When I finished 1 Peter (I think it was only 4 weeks) I decided that the way forward would be to move away from the lectionary and toward lectio continua.
This is when the real challenge began for me.  I had been trained as a lectionary preacher.  I did not know how to be an expositor (and in many ways, I am still a student of the Word, learning this craft) and even more, I did not know how to create a lectio continua preaching series.  What I did know was that these series were going to be long, perhaps taking months if not years.  My commitment as a Reformed pastor to the continuity of Scripture also made me want to be sure that regardless of the series, we would hear from both the Old and New Testament during every service.  Being a daily Psalm reader also called me to keep the Psalms in our worship.  I became convinced that proclaiming every word of Scripture would be my life's work as a preacher.
What developed from this slurry of commitments and convictions was my current preaching system and style.  The first lectio continua series I taught was through 1 Corinthians.  It took seven months and every reading from the epistle was accompanied by a supporting text from the Old Testament.  I recognize that this is an anomaly for a lectio continua preacher and I have taken criticism from others for this practice, but it is friendly criticism and has never even begun to sway me from my conviction.  It was also during that series that I began to employ the Psalms to call the congregation to worship.  My preaching style was still largely unchanged from the classic Princetonian sermon (three points and a poem in ten minutes or less, or your money back), but the substance of the material would soon begin to make changes.
After completing 1 Corinthians the logical next step would have been to move on to 2 Corinthians, but this is when the Holy Spirit again caught by the nape of the neck and directed me.
The new direction was to alternate the Old and New Testament.  John Calvin had the luxury to preach six times a week so he could go into more depth at any given service (usually covering only a handful of verses), and also he could preach from both Testaments in a given week. With only one worship service per week, I could not hope to go into the depth of Calvin, nor could I preach from both Testaments in a given week.  Instead, the alternating system was put in place.  Following 1 Corinthians I wanted to preach through the whole of Judges.  One of my mentors convinced me to only preach through a section of Judges (a decision I still regret), and I chose the Gideon cycle (Judges 6-8).  The six sermon series spanned Lent of that year, which meant that I needed something following Lent.  What followed forever changed my preaching ministry.
I began that year what I thought would be a one-year preaching series through Matthew.  I ended the Matthew series after two years, almost to the day from when I began it.  What I learned is that a lectio continua series will not be rushed.  It will begin and end precisely how and when it does. My role as the pastor of a particular congregation is to pace the series for those hearing the Scripture so that it is understandable to them.
My style of preaching also began to transform during this series.  I moved away from writing manuscripts and then notes from the manuscript, to just writing out notes.  This was, in part, due to a technological advance at the church that allowed us to make decent audio recordings of the sermon (and podcast them to our wide audience of 11 people, most of whom were in my family).  Over the course of the two-year series I began to become more free and extemporaneous in my preaching.  I was able to sit so long with the Gospel of Matthew that the text really shaped me and my preaching, rather than the other way around.  I grew a level of familiarity with the Scripture that allowed me to be free in my expression of God's Word proclaimed.  This was revelatory in the best sense of the word.
I continue to use my modified lectio continua system and extemporaneous style of preaching.  The careful observer will note when I feel less comfortable with the preaching material I have more notes and stay closer to them.  When the Holy Spirit is leading, however, I trust the Holy Spirit to speak loudest and I just try to get out of the way.
I have already completed three lectio continua series in Omak:  2 Peter, 2 Timothy and Haggai.  In a few short weeks our 19-month series on the Gospel of John will draw to a close.  What lies on the horizon is the prophet Joel, Colossians and the fourth book of Psalms (90-106).  After that we will study the nativity of Matthew, Micah, the Passion of the Gospel of Mark and perhaps a brief tour through the letters to the seven churches in Revelation.  The first three series are set pretty firmly, the latter is still somewhat flexible.  Following that, I am still praying for guidance and discernment.  I hope you will pray with and for me in this important part of the ministry of FPC Omak.

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