Last week I was privileged to be one of the presenters at the annual Celebration of Biblical Preaching Conference at Luther Seminary, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Five of us (Karoline Lewis from Luther, Barbara Lundblad from Union, Luke Powery from Duke, Otis Moss from Trinity UCC in Chicago, and I) addressed three hundred (mostly) Lutheran ministers from throughout the Midwest. Each presenter preached one sermon and delivered one lecture. The overall theme of the week was “The Courage to Preach.” It was a helpful event to me, as I was able to listen to the other four presenters talk about what preaching requires of them (and of us all who seek to do it), what it means to speak The Word in the presence not merely of God’s gathered people but truly in the presence of God, what is the difference between having to say something and having something to say, and how we go approach this sacred craft in similar but also particularly personal ways.
Among the most inspiring things for me, however, was what occurred outside the Worship and lecture sessions. Around tables for lunch and dinner, in the garden area during breaks, on the deck of a local restaurant, in a St. Paul bar and grill for a night-time session of song and laughter, and in those occasional in-between moments when one stranger stood with another and discovered a common faith, I found myself receiving ministry from those I came to teach. They told me of their labors in small, off-the-beaten path churches in Minnesota and North Dakota and Iowa, and each time it was obvious those pastors were describing labors of love. Some told me of personal crises they had endured, family or financial or health issues, but how the God they share with others had drawn close to comfort them. A young woman in her clerical collar told me of having a life-threatening illness at age four, but how (her words) “God, my mom, and Sesame Street brought me through it.” Today she is a wife and mother of two small children and serves as a minister out of gratitude that God restored her life. The bar and grill that night was turned into something of a revival hall. A group of pastors and educators (two of them professors with PhD’s) used banjos and guitars and fiddles and sang old-time hymns like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Love Lifted Me.” The lead singer, a wonderful and brilliant biblical scholar and professor, sang from a wheelchair. He has lost both legs to cancer, but as he sang of the beauties and blessings we find in Jesus, his face literally glowed with faith and joy. People were there who have faced (and are facing) all sorts of obstacles in life, and one by one they witnessed to me as they talked about how good God is and how ever-present God has been with them and for them.
I hope I said a few things that some found helpful. But, this much I know – I received ministry there, more than I could have provided, by simply hearing the stories and observing the spirits of people who have learned that Jesus was serious when He said, “Lo, I will be with you always.” I hope they invite me back to teach those folks again sometime, because there’s still so much I want to learn from them.