MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR

When I began this blog back in late September, I was partly looking for something to do as a way of getting down some ideas that have been rolling around in my head for a while. Some of the things I have written I have worked on before in sermons, lectures and seminars. Others have developed as I have been doing the blog.

I am enjoying the opportunity to write–and what makes it especially enjoyable is that there are people reading what I write. While there may be some writers whose enjoyment comes solely from the writing, I think most who write (or maybe only me) need to know that there is a reason for the writing, a reason provided by people who want to read what we write. Some of you who read this blog have passed along your comments directly when we meet, others have done so via email or even third party messages and a couple have even used the comment section of the blog site. While I have always enjoyed writing, the fact that you are reading what I write “makes my joy complete” as Paul phrases it in Philippians 2.2.

But this is Christmas and I am planning on taking a break to enjoy the season. I have some ideas to work on that are not quite ready to write out yet–and I just want to relax and enjoy the season, as much as possible given the lack of snow in the forecast. My guess is that you who are reading will have other things to focus on as well.

So, thank you again for reading and may you have a great Christmas and New Year.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST BE RECONCILED

Any congregation that consists of more than one person is going to have disagreements and differences among its members. And, given the reality of the human condition, if there was a congregation of one person, that congregation would also experience disagreement and difference. Being a believer doesn’t mean that we miraculously begin agreeing with each other on everything. It doesn’t mean that we will agree that every idea brought forward will automatically be accepted. Our diversity and our divinely given freedom mean that there will always be disagreement and difference when people gather together in a group.

The presence of disagreement and difference in the church isn’t a problem. It is a reality and in the end, probably something to be appreciated and even celebrated–diversity is another of God’s gifts to humanity. The issue the church faces in not that we are different and have different ideas–the issue the church faces is how we deal with those differences.

Because we live in North America, we have a tendency to see differences as something to be overcome–when there are differences, one has to be right. We live in a very competitive culture and difference becomes a reason to compete. So, if one church member prefers worship with the traditional hymns played on an organ while another prefers choruses played by a worship band, that difference almost automatically leads to a contest to see who can gain the most support for their choice so they can win. Winning, you see, is the key point in our culture and this cultural trait has become an essential part of church life in North America.

So, whether it is pastor against congregation, congregational leadership against pastor, congregation members against congregation members, the church has been seriously infected with our cultural love of competition and we firmly believe that it is God’s will that someone win whenever there is a difference or disagreement.

Of course, we have to ignore the cost of winning: unhealthy congregations, church splits; believers who won’t talk to each other; a poor witness in our communities to mention but a few of the consequences of making winning the point.

Christianity was not built on winning–or perhaps it is better to say that Christianity is not built on the North American cultural understanding of winning. In Christ, we are all winners–through our faith response to God’s grace, we win because we are reconciled with God. And the idea of reconciliation provides the Christian pattern of dealing with disagreement.

Jesus puts it this way in Matthew 5.23-24:

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. (NIV)

Reconciliation, not winning, is the key here. The state of the relationship between Christians is more important than the issues they disagree on. Now, reconciliation doesn’t mean they have to agree on everything. Reconciliation is not a theological word for winning. No, reconciliation occurs when people look beyond the issue and focus on their relationship with each other. Reconciliation is not a sneaky way to win a contest. It is a concrete expression of the love that believers have for each other working itself out by maintaining the bonds of love in spite of difference and disagreement.

If maintaining a loving relationship between believers is not the first and most important consideration in any disagreement, the church has already lost no matter what the outcome. If believers are willing to put their side before the need to love each other as Christ has loved us, the church doesn’t have a chance of winning no matter what the outcome.

Disagreement and difference are basic realities of the human situation, which means they are also basic realities of the church as well. The church wins when it is willing to put more effort into maintaining the quality of relationships than it does into winning the various disagreements that come up. The church can and does exist when its members disagree with each other. The church can and does exist as a powerful witness to the world when it can allow disagreement and difference and still love each other as Christ loved us.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHOSE FAULT IS IT?

I have been accused at times of being very hard on pastors because I tend to hold pastors responsible for a lot of the issues the church faces–either because pastoral mistakes have caused the problems or because a lack of good pastoral work has allowed a problem to develop to crisis proportions. In fact, an artist friend once made me a door hanger that said “Do Not Disturb” on one side and “It’s the pastor’s fault” on the other side. If you read my blog yesterday, you will be aware that in truth, I do have high standards for pastors.

But that is not to say that I think lay people have no part in church issues. When a church is having problems, there is more than enough responsibility to go around. I might hold the pastor responsible for a lot of the problem but everyone involved has a part in creating, sustaining and solving the problem.

There is a saying that I hear now and then: “If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem”. It is meant to motivate people to take an active part in dealing with whatever issue the person quoting the saying is supporting. There is wisdom in that saying but when it is applied to the church, it misses the point.

In the church, a better saying is something like, “While you may be part of the solution, you are also part of the problem”. Remember the sad truth about the church is that we are an imperfect gathering of imperfect people who not only multiply our strengths but also multiply our weaknesses and failures. So, while I might be inclined to place blame on the pastor, every part of the church has some responsibility for both the problem and the solution.

For pastors, congregational leaders and laity, the problem and the solution come from the same place. It is tempting to lay blame and point fingers and divide into groups. It is comforting to think that some group or some individual is responsible for all the problems a congregation faces–but the reality is that everyone is part of the problem and the solution.

Again, rather than point fingers, let’s take another look at Corinth. Among the problems in the church was a spirit of division. Various members were lining up behind former pastors, creating power blocks, presumably so that their perception of that leader’s teaching would be the standard for the church. Paul refers to this in I Corinthians 3. Since Paul is the leader chosen by one of the groups, it would seem logical that he would support this group.

But he doesn’t. He doesn’t debate the merits of the teaching of the various leaders involved. Instead, he seeks to return them to the basics of their faith. They were called by Christ and they are to be example of Christ. This doesn’t happen by accident. We must work at being followers. We need to develop our faith; we need to challenge our weakness; we need to confess our failures; we need to love one another.

This is where many churches struggle. We aren’t always encouraged to grow in faith and to develop a more Christ-like attitude, especially when it comes to fellow believers. Most church struggles come down to the fact that Christians are acting in very non-Christian ways towards other Christians. And the irony of the whole thing is that none of the issues that are the focus of the struggle have ever been commanded by Christ.

Jesus only gave two commands: that we love one another (John 13.34-35) and that we be witnesses to the world (Acts 1.8). Certainly, there were other things that he recommended and Old Testament commands that he reinforced (Matthew 22.34-40) but he only gave these two commands. Clearly, they are important–more important than any issue that threatens the church by ignoring these commands.

When we aren’t basing our church life on these two commands, we are automatically part of the problem. And since none of us is perfect, we are all going to be part of the problem at some point. In the life of the church, no issue is worth the problems caused by ignoring or breaking these commands. If church members can’t love each other as Christ loved them, they are the problem. Becoming part of the solution requires confession, repentance and a re-commitment to doing what God asks of us.

May the peace of God be with you.

LOVING THE CORINTHIAN SAINTS

One of the things that comes to me very clearly when I read Paul’s letters to the Corinthian believers is how much he loves these people and how deeply he cares for them. He isn’t physically present with them, he has other vital ministry going on where he is located at the time, he is hurt by the attitude of some of the members towards him–but in spite of all that, his deep love and concern for the church comes through.

For me, that evidence of love between a pastor and a congregation has become something of a foundation for my understanding of ministry. Because I am a pastor, I see and understand this foundation. What I am writing here also applies to other congregational leaders and although I will refer to pastors, the material is directed towards deacons, elders, teachers–anyone in a leadership position.

It is not uncommon when pastors get together for at least one to begin talking about how difficult his/her congregation is. Because the group is primarily pastors, there often seems to be the unspoken assumption that the church is always at fault. In pastoral circles, some congregations have reputations as being “hard” or “difficult” and the suggested advice is not to go there but if you do, by very careful.

I have talked with churches and pastors where the relationship between the two is marked by suspicion, mistrust and even paranoia. There are often deliberate attempts to hide things, mislead people and create power groups. And if I happen to hear about the underlying causes from either or both sides, I see that there are some serious problems–after all, there are no perfect churches, no perfect pastors and therefore no perfect pairings.

And yet, once the deep, dark secrets are out in the open, they are generally bad but somehow never quite as bad at the stuff going on in Corinth. That is not to minimize the real problems that some pastors face–there are serious problems in churches and pastors often end up dealing with the effects of these problems both professionally and personally.

But the issue for me becomes the way we as pastors often deal with the issues we see. It seems like we fall into the classic “fight or flight” pattern. As pastors confronting the issues in the churches we serve, we either run away from the church or turn it into a battle that either we pastors or the church has to win. Unfortunately, most of the time neither flight or fight helps the situation.

Running away from the problem just means that someone else will have to deal with it–and probably have a harder time dealing with it because it will be bigger and stronger. But an open fight doesn’t solve the problem either–no matter who “wins”, both church and pastor are seriously damaged, as is the congregation’s witness in the community.

For that reason, we need to take a look at how Paul handles his difficult congregation in Corinth–and realize that the love and concern that comes through so clearly in his letters is the crucial factor that allowed him to help that congregation. Certainly, he is at times very blunt and even harsh with the congregation. Sure, his language isn’t always as diplomatic as it could be. But no matter what he writes, it is clear that he loves these people. And I think that in the end, this is why his letters had an effect on the church. He didn’t run away from the church nor did he battle them in to submission. He loved them–and that love was used by the Holy Spirit to help the church change.

When I teach pastors, I generally find some point to make a strong statement to them. I tell pastors that we need to compliment and praise the church we are called to serve–and then, I tell them that if we can’t find anything to praise the church for, we are the ones with the problem, not the church. Our first responsibility as pastors is to love the church. Unless we as pastors can fulfill this requirement, we are not qualified to help the congregation deal with its issues–before we can help them with the sawdust in their eye, we need to deal with the plank in our eye. (Matthew 7.3-5)

Paul dealt with what was probably the most dysfunctional congregation of all time and did it with love and grace. Maybe if we church leaders were willing to follow that example more closely, there would be fewer Corinthian problems around today.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SAINTS IN CORINTH

After Paul left the church in Corinth to continue following God’s leading, he maintained a connection with the church. Some of the members also maintained contact with him. And since the early church was small and well connected, he heard news of the church from other believers as well. I imagine it created a real problem for him as he began to hear of the things that the church was doing. In an attempt to deal with the problems, Paul wrote three letters (which somehow got transmitted to us as two letters), send representatives and even planned to visit himself. The problems in the church were serious enough that Paul felt it necessary to put so much effort into dealing with the issues.

As we read through the letters, we see Paul opening himself to these people. He is at times angry, at times a loving parent, at times a teacher, and at times a concerned pastor. It is clear that he loves these people and is deeply concerned with them. What I find most interesting is the beginning of the two letters. After introducing himself as was the custom in letter writing in those days, Paul writes who the letters are being sent to. In I Corinthians 1.2, he writes, “To the church of God in Corinth..”. II Corinthians 1.1 includes these words, “To the church of God in Corinth….” A bit later in I Corinthians, he refers to the church members using a word that many Bible versions translate as “saints”. Throughout the letters, he makes frequent use of the word “saints” when referring to believers, including the members of the Corinthian church.

I think the message is clear–Paul is writing to people whom he considers to be believers and to a group which he considers a church. In spite of all the problems the church has, in spite of the open and serious sins they are committing, in spite of the divisions tearing the church apart, in spite of the terrible witness they are providing, Paul still sees this group of people as a church. He isn’t being naive–he clearly has good information about the church and its problems and isn’t pretending the problems aren’t there. Nor is he being sarcastic–he shows a great deal of love and respect for these people in his writings.

No, I think Paul is being completely honest and serious when he calls this group of people a church and saints. He looks beyond their obvious imperfections and sees the faith that it underneath everything. It may be shaky, it may be ignored at times, it definitely needs to be strengthened–but it is still faith and that faith makes them both saints and a church as far as Paul is concerned. And because these letters were chosen to form part of God’s written revelation to us without a divine footnote telling us that Paul was mistaken on this point, we are safe in assuming that God himself saw these people as saints and their gathering as a church.

So it seems that when we look at the question of when a church stops being a church, the Biblical answer is that a church can go pretty far astray before it stops being a church. The most fractious, bickering, quarreling group we can find today probably doesn’t come close to Corinth in their imperfection. The church whose imperfections are repeated in hushed tones whenever pastors gather is probably not going to pass Corinth in being a bad example of a church. The church that no pastor in his right mind wants to be called to still is a better example than Corinth.

But Corinth was still counted as a church and its members were still called saints. Pastors disappointed with their calling; believers dissatisfied with local expressions of the church; church hoppers looking for the perfect church–all need to pay close attention to the message of the Corinthian letters. We can be imperfect and still be a church. In fact, the reality is even stronger than that. We are the church and we are imperfect–those two basic realities need to be in the forefront of our thinking about the church.

We won’t find a perfect church–but we will likely not find one as imperfect as Corinth. Congregations exist somewhere between perfection and Corinth. Looking for a perfect congregation is a pointless exercise. A better choice is discovering what we do about the very real imperfection that affects every church–and that will be the topic of the next few blogs.

May the peace of God be with you.

THINKING ABOUT THE CHURCH

I have been thinking about the church lately. Not so much “THE CHURCH” but churches–local congregations made up of real people who express their faith by coming together to worship God, do his will, share potlucks, get angry with each other, play politics, do tremendous works of grace and drive each other up the wall. You know–the kind of church all of us belong to.

In my ministry, I have spent time with congregations of many denominations all across Canada and in several other countries. Over the years, I have met many people, both pastors and lay people, who are looking for a perfect church. Their search often involves going to a church and spending enough time to get a sense of the church and once they see signs of imperfection, moving on to another one only to repeat the pattern.

If they would listen to me, I could save them a lot of time and effort. Their search for a perfect church is going to be a long and frustrating one because there will be no perfect church until Christ returns and brings all believers to him. On that day, the church will become perfect because we who make up the church will be transformed and made into the perfect beings God meant us to be.

But until that day, we live with a basic reality: imperfect Christians produce imperfect churches. As believers, we are called to be working at removing the imperfection from our lives and from our relationships which has the result of producing better believers and better churches but the reality remains–we are imperfect believers and as we gather together in churches, we add together not only our attempts at perfection but also our imperfections. Given that reality, the search for a perfect church is seriously wasted effort.

One of the questions I have been thinking about comes out of this imperfection. If enough imperfection is present, does the a church stop being part of “THE CHURCH”? Another way of putting it is “When does a church become so bad that it is no longer a church?” I am sure that anyone reading this blog can think of some congregation somewhere which might be the one that has crossed the line from being a church to not being a church–and if you can’t think of one, I have a few that I can suggest.

However, I am not in charge of deciding which congregations are actual churches and which are wolves in sheep’s clothing. That particular decision is part of God’s responsibility and the evidence we have suggests that he has a far different standard than we might use when it comes to churches.

To see this, we just need to spend some time in the New Testament letters. Most of the letters were written to local congregations that had something that needed to be corrected. Some had errors of doctrine; some had errors of practise and some had a combination of both. But the hands down winner of the bad church category has to be the congregation in Corinth.

If ever there was a congregation that would qualify for having its church status removed, it was Corinth. If there was a way to get things wrong, this congregation found it. They messed up doctrinally; they trivialized the worship of God; they made church politics into an art; they blessed any and all kinds of immorality; they made the name of God into a joke in their city–whatever they could do to make the church imperfect, they found it and did it.

And the irony of the whole situation is that this church was founded by the Apostle Paul, who spent a year and a half working there, one of his longer stays at a church he founded. Paul was the theologian of the early church, a person whose writings make up a significant part of the New Testament and are the basis of much of the church’s understanding of itself. But somehow, even with that powerful beginning, the church in Corinth managed to find numerous ways to get off track.

And so, for the next few posts to this blog, I want to look at the church in Corinth as I continue my thinking about the church at its worst. I have found that when I look at the dark side of churches, it is much better to look at Corinth than it is to look at contemporary examples–it is much safer to point fingers at Corinth than at churches I know and that know me.

May the peace of God be with you.

A CHRISTMAS STORY

In early December, 1978, we arrived in Kenya for the first time. My wife and I and our 15 month old daughter along with another couple and their two children were there to work with the Africa Brother Church as teachers in their training school. But before we could teach, we needed to learn language, culture and church. The first month was to be an orientation to the church, which meant that we stayed in a church guest facility, with the couples sharing the common spaces.

Being somewhat aware of cultural issues, we quickly realized that Christmas in Kenya in 1978 wasn’t a major celebration–there were no carols, no sales, no parties and no snow. We agreed that our Christmas would therefore be subdued and quiet–maybe some presents but nothing big. Since we were in the guest house, it probably also mean no decorations and no tree.

As the month progressed, we were carried around from church to church, sampling the life of the ABC. We also got tired of not being in our own space, disoriented by the new culture, frustrated by the language barriers and seriously homesick. We got physically sick, we got testy with each other but pretended that everything was fine and that we were doing great–after all, we were missionaries and serving the Lord was the important thing. We could live without a North American Christmas–it was really a small sacrifice compared to what God has done.

Fortunately for us, we were working with a denomination whose leadership was very wise and very caring and they saw the state we were in even if we didn’t. Their wisdom provided us with one of my more memorable Christmases.

One day near Christmas, we were out on another of the church visits, which always involved hours in the hot car travelling over rough dirt roads to go to a place where one of us would preach and other people would say lots of stuff that we probably didn’t understand because of the language issue. At the end of the long day, we arrived back–tired, grumpy, hot and still homesick but still pretending that everything was great.

The church has assigned a prospective student to babysit us for the month. She hadn’t gone on the trip that day and when we got back, I noticed her sticking branches of a thorn tree in a bucket of sand. My curiosity overcame my fatigue and I asked her what she was doing, expecting to discover some obscure Kenyan custom that I could file away. Her answer was a wonderful gift to all of us.

She was building us a Christmas tree. The church leaders has seen our homesickness and wanted to help. In building us a Christmas tree, they gave us permission to have a better Christmas that we had been planning to allow ourselves. Those thorn tree branches formed one of the most memorably Christmas trees I have ever seen.

From that beginning, we went on to make decorations for the tree and the guest house common room. We planned a Christmas dinner with chicken as an adequate substitute for turkey–making sure to invite our babysitter. We bought presents and relaxed–even got less grumpy with each other.

We didn’t get a white Christmas, although we may have been able to see the snow capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro at some point. But we had a Christmas because of the care and concern of the church, who went out of their way to help us overcome our homesickness. Our thorn branches were the only Christmas tree on the church compound and probably one of the few in the whole town. But that tree represented the true love of Christmas–not because of the paper and popcorn decorations but because of the care and concern of people we barely knew but who showed us the love of God in a very powerful way.

That thorn branch Christmas tree has stayed with me all these years. For me, it represents the best of Christmas, not because someone gave us a tree but because several people showed a powerful love to us at a time when we really needed it. What more can you ask of Christmas celebrations?

May the peace of God be with you.