January 1, 2016

The sweet taste of anticipation

Photo by Kai Stachowiak

Anticipation. I first learned this word from the musical accompaniment to a 1970s catsup commercial. I remember watching the child actor’s face change, in exaggerated slow motion, from disgust at how long the catsup was taking to drip from the container, to an almost unnatural delight as it finally plopped from the bottle onto the surely cold-by-now French fries. I never liked catsup, so I was thoroughly unimpressed.

Anticipation has always seemed like one of those words adults used to positively spin the need for patience. The word is even harder to comprehend in an era where we don’t save up for things or put items on layaway in anticipation of Christmas, for example. We simply buy them on credit and take them home. Is there a way to build anticipation anymore? Or does the idea leave a bad taste in our mouths?

Last May, I received my first call in full-time ministry. My first Sunday in the pulpit was Pentecost. The next Sunday was All-Choir Sunday. Choosing scripture passages for those two Sundays was as easy as boiling water.

But then there was a five-week stretch of summer Sundays to fill until I was scheduled to leave for Annual Conference. It was like opening the cupboard and finding it bare. The liturgical calendar calls this stretch of time “ordinary time” – and that’s not terribly appetizing!

I was just starting to know my congregation. Every good host knows it’s hard to plan meals when you don’t know the likes and dislikes of your guests—when you don’t know what their allergies are—when you don’t know what they ate last night. I didn’t know what scripture they’d been working with recently, and I wanted to do something other than the Revised Common Lectionary to flex my “new pastor” muscles. I wanted to whip up something special.

As I registered for Annual Conference online, I poked around the site to learn more about Tampa, the host city, and the options for insight sessions. I looked at the speakers for each of the worship services and the scriptures they would be using. And there it was – the unanticipated taste of sweetness.

I had five Sundays to preach before conference, and there were five worship sessions at conference. Voila! Five different scriptures related to the theme: Abide in My Love and Bear Fruit. I could make my own kind of catsup with that kind of fruit!

Now I had ingredients, but I still needed to know my congregation better. I was inspired to start a weekly Scripture Chat. The premise was simple and required no extra preparation on my part. No extra shopping, cutting, or dicing. Simply read the scripture out loud in community and talk about it. Let it marinate.

I placed the scripture for the following week’s sermon (the first scripture of Annual Conference) in the weekly bulletin under the heading Scripture Chat. I invited folks who couldn’t join us in person to read the scripture ahead of time on their own. But folks who were available were invited to church on Wednesday mornings at 10 a.m. to read the scripture out loud and talk. No reservations required! We talked about what struck us anew with this reading. We heard the words from different translations of the Bible, and we literally heard the word in different voices.

Basically, it was a potluck! Everyone brought their own dish to share. Sometimes those dishes were personal testimonies, as the scripture brought memories to mind. Sometimes other scriptures surfaced, as the Holy Spirit led. Sometimes, burning questions surfaced. You could almost hear the sizzling.

The shared discussion, stories, and questions were the perfect makings for a feast on the Word. I learned from them what they thought about each passage. I learned their growing edges. I never felt compelled to have all the answers prior to our meeting, and their questions gave me a launching pad for sermon preparation. They gave me the ingredients to begin cooking.

Sometimes the appetizer prompted hungry participants to go home and do some cooking on their own. I received e-mails from them saying, “I went home and started looking into our question. Here’s what I found,” or “I went home and read the scripture again, this time in a different translation. This time it really made sense to me.”

Here are some of the other reviews I received:

“I find myself thinking about the scripture all week—wondering what you are going to say on Sunday. How are you going to tie this all together?”

“I feel sorry for people who are hearing the scripture for the first time on Sunday morning. They’ve missed the anticipation. They’re basically coming in cold.”

“I bet you’re excited to get to Annual Conference to hear others preach on the scriptures you have been poring over in the weeks leading up.”

“I can’t go to Conference this year, but I’m planning to watch the webcast because I want to hear how the Spirit has led others to wrestle with these passages.”

“I wonder how many other churches are doing their own Scripture Chats? If they aren’t, they really should!”

Like anticipating a good meal, we can’t wait until the next time we gather around the table. Food just tastes better when shared with good company and conversation. And, like news of a good restaurant, word is getting around. Attendance has been strong. We’ve kept going, every single week, even though Conference is long over. People have attended who are not even members of our congregation. We’re looking at offering a second helping—an opportunity for those who work during the day to come to a Scripture Chat at night.

When I was asked if other churches had their own Scripture Chats, I realized this recipe was too delicious to selfishly hoard. It’s not an ancient family secret, like Bush’s Baked Beans. Experienced chefs are not required. Tailor the recipe to suit your congregation’s taste buds. Preheat the oven and let the anticipation build. Taste and see that the Lord is good.

Angela Finet is pastor of Nokesville (Virginia) Church of the Brethren.