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Learning from Experience

A friend of mine had a stock question he would ask any experienced or well-preacher he met. It is a brilliant but almost an impossible question to answer completely.

“Is there something you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your ministry?”

It is a brilliant question because it seeks to reveal what the really important values and priorities are in life. Yet it is almost impossible to answer because that is not the way that life works.

I have been working with a preaching team preparing to preach a series of sermons on the book of Job. Imagine trying to ask Job the question after the remarkable denouement of the story in Job 42. It would be impossible for Job, because what he had learnt was wrapped up in the process of engaging with his experience and his friends, and of wrestling with their questions and his own.

You cannot short circuit wisdom. Try telling a 14-year-old something that they will love to know when they are 25? Most parents have tried to do this, but most 14-year olds are not listening. The wisdom we gain from experience is shaped by that experience. It changes the way we see things. The game change in our lives is a change of perspective that helps us to see life through new eyes. It like what the Puritans said about providence: “Providence is like a Hebrew word. It can only be read backwards”.

Most of life is lived in hindsight rather than foresight. Perhaps the better question might be: “If you could do so, what advice would you pass on to your younger self?” Of course, the danger is still that our younger self would tell us to “mind your own business”.

We do tend to learn most of our lessons from the twists, turns and dead ends of life. I like the story of the two young children who are walking up a hill. The older child, a boy, suggests to the younger child, a girl, that they choose the first path up the hill. The girl complains: “This isn’t a path, it’s all bumpy!” To which the boy instantly replies: “Ah! the bumps are what you climb on”.

I wonder that if it were possible for church leaders to pass on some advice to their pre-Covid self, what it would be. “Prepare for a marathon not a sprint.” “ Shape you programmes in a way that is sustainable.” “ It might not all be over by Christmas.” “Invest as much in relationships as in tech.” “ If you use new tools make sure you can use them appropriately.” “Less is more.” “Listen before you speak.”

I think of the words that Jesus spoke to his disciples at the Last Supper:

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear” (John 16:12).

Maybe it’s for the best that all we need to know is not dumped on us like several decades of snowfall suddenly cascading down on our heads?

Perhaps there is a good reason why we experience life’s lessons in real time?

“Father God,

Thank you that you faithfully lead me on life’s path.

In my life and preaching help me to be as wise as I can be in my decisions.

Forgive me my sins and mis-steps in serving you.

Make me humble enough to learn from wise people.

Give me the skill to use experience to adjust my life and ministry choices.

Help me to have the perspective that sees you and people as the central focus of all I do.

In Jesus name,


Photo by Zulfa Nazer on Unsplash

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