DO YOU WANT TO BE HEALED?

Most of us have heard the saying, “We learn from our mistakes”.  Making mistakes is a valuable but painful way of learning and growing.  As a result of my experiences, I have added a modification to the saying:  “We learn from our mistakes–but we can learn from the mistakes of others with a lot less personal pain.”      This addition to the saying has been very helpful to me over the years, especially in terms of my professional life.

At one point, I was talking with a neighbouring pastor, who was telling me about the great grief ministry he was providing to a family I knew.  He showed up at the house right after the death and basically cleared his schedule of everything so he could be with the family and minister to the all day long for several days.  He was quite proud of his ministry to the family, feeling that he had enabled them to do really well during their time of grief.  The unspoken message was that I should copy his example and my ministry would be a lot more effective.

A while after that, I ended up            in a conversation with a member of the family–I can’t remember how it happened but we ended up together.  I told him I was sorry to hear about the death in the family.  That comment seemed to open a door he need to open because he began to talk about his personal experience during the process.  Among the things he needed to talk about was the pastor’s ministry during that time. Essentially, he told me that while he did appreciate the pastor and what he was trying to do, he got tired of having the pastor around and wished that he would have left them alone more–they had no time to do their own grieving in their own way because he was always there.

I think the mistake the pastor made was a common one.  As caring people, we are sometimes so focused on our task of helping people that we forget something important, something that Jesus shows us quite clearly in the story of the man at the Bethesda.  The story is found in John 5.1-9.

According to the story, the pool was a site where people could be healed if they could be the first in the pool when the water was disturbed.  The man in the story had been disabled for 38 years but was unable to get into the water first.  Now, on the surface, this man seems like an obvious candidate for help.  He had a long-term disability that prevented him from living life to the fullest.  Surely, Jesus would see the need to heal the man.

But instead of simply reaching out and healing the man, Jesus asks him, “Do you want to get well?”  (John 5.6, NIV)  Why ask the question?  Well, the reality is that this man may not have been really serious about being healed.  As I used to say to my students when I taught on this passage, the fact that the man was there for so many years and hadn’t figured out a way to be first in the water suggests that he might not have been as serious about being healed as it might appear.  If nothing else, he could have chosen to lie right beside the pool, ready to roll in as soon as the water started moving.

Jesus was showing respect for the man’s freedom here.  Jesus could have healed the man whether he wanted it or not but he chose to give the man a free choice.  Rather than give them man what he may or may not have wanted, Jesus asks the question.  His respect for the man’s right to choose to accept the help or now is important.  It is an expression of his love for the man, to give his a choice.

Jesus had the ability to help everyone and he had the desire to help everyone.  We definitely don’t have the ability to help everyone and probably don’t have the desire to help everyone.  But like Jesus, we need to have the willingness to give people the freedom to accept or reject our help.  Being like Jesus brings with it the need to give people their freedom to choose, whether we like their choice or not.

May the peace of God be with you.

JUDGEMENT DAY

When I begin to think about what Jesus was actually like, my thoughts almost immediately turn to the story found in John 8.1-11.  It appears to me that this story has presented problems for the church since it happened.  While most translations include the story, there are often notes suggesting that the story doesn’t appear in some early manuscripts or appears in some other place.  The general feeling is that this is a true story about Jesus but the nature of the story presented some serious problems.

We lose some of the impact of the story because of the moral climate we live in.  Adultery is still a serious issue–but there are so many more moral and ethical issues that people today would consider much more serious.  Even within the church, there have been cases of high profile church leaders being caught in adulterous relationships who feel justified in continuing on in ministry.

But in Jesus’ day, there were few moral issues more serious than adultery.  For a variety of cultural and religious reasons, the Jewish faith considered the marriage bond sacred–and breaking that bond was an offense requiring the death penalty (Leviticus 20.10).  For the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, this provided a perfect opportunity for them to discredit Jesus.

I think they knew enough about Jesus and his teaching that they were aware he wouldn’t want to have the woman killed.  But if he took as stand against the Law, they could prosecute him for breaking the law.  If he went along with them and agreed to the execution, that would destroy his reputation among the people.

What didn’t happen in the story is as important as what did happen.  At the end of the story, the woman walks away, alive and uncondemned.  Her accusers slink away, leaving behind their condemnation and stones.  The woman has not confessed, hasn’t begged for forgiveness, hasn’t apologized but she has been forgiven–at least that would be my understanding of Jesus words in John 8.11, ” … neither do I condemn you…” (NIV)

The woman, whose guilt doesn’t seem to be questioned, walks away freely.  The religious leaders, whose official guilt isn’t supposed to exist, slink away in embarrassment. Is that any way for a story dealing with religion and morals and all that to end?  No wonder the early church had such a hard time with the story–it seems to allow people to get away with their sins, something that was unheard of in that day.  Religious people want sins to be condemned–and that often means that we want sinners condemned.

But here is Jesus basically ignoring sin.  He focus on the people in the story, wanting all involved to make changes.  He gets the religious leaders to make a change–they lose their desire to execute this woman.  He encourages the woman to change her ways but when he says, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” he doesn’t even give her an “or else”.

My guess is that the story ran into trouble because of the fact that it seems to treat sin lightly.  But the point of the story isn’t that Jesus was being soft on sin.  The point of the story is that Jesus is showing us that for him, people are always more than their sins and helping them is more important than punishing their sin.  Jesus knows how serious sin is–he came into the world to be a solution for the problem of sin and was willing to die to solve the problem of sin.  But because he had the solution for sin taken care of, he is free to focus on people and helping them in love and grace.

Maybe we in the church would be better off if we followed this pattern and began to ignore sin so that we could focus on really providing people with the love and grace of God.  If we accept the reality that Jesus dealt with the seriousness of sin with his death and resurrection, we can forget about dealing with sin and deal with real people who have a real need to understanding the love and grace of God that Jesus shows so powerfully here.

This desire to love people, to look beyond their sins, to love them in spite of their sins–this provides us with powerful insight into what Jesus was like and an equally powerful insight into what we need to be like.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT WAS JESUS LIKE?

            In 1896, a man called Charles Sheldon wrote a book entitled In His Steps.  According to Wikipedia, the book was a novel based on a series of sermons he had preached.  I wonder a bit about how you create a novel out of sermons–the two seem to be somewhat unrelated in my mind.  I, like many other people, have never read–or even seen the novel.  However, I, like many other people, have a connection with the novel because of its sub-title.

Sheldon used the phrase, “What would Jesus do?” as the sub-title of his book and through a series of events, that phrase became something of a Christian fad in the 1990s.  There was a little twist, though, because at the end of the 1800s, people had time and spoke in complete thoughts whereas by the 1990s, we were too busy and stressed to use complete thoughts so we used initials.  As a result the 1896 phrase, “What would Jesus do”  was reduced to “WWJD”–we also didn’t have time for punctuation in the 1990s.

As well as being faster to write and perhaps say, WWJD was also short enough to be easily reproduced on jewellery and WWJD bracelets became very popular.  Sheldon’s work in the 1890s enjoyed a new burst of popularity in the 1990s.  In fact, it may have been more popular in the 1990s than the 1890s because wearing a bracelet is a lot less work than reading a book, especially one published in 1896, a time when language was formal and somewhat overly wordy.

The good thing about the whole fad was that people were actually thinking about their actions in the context of their faith.  Anything that encourages us to really integrate our faith is a good thing.  I didn’t actually wear a bracelet but like many preachers of that time, I probably at least referred to it in my preaching.

And while I think WWJD is a good thing and would encourage people to ask themselves that question, there is one little (or maybe not so little) problem with WWJD.  If we are looking to Jesus’ actions as an example for our actions, we are fine if we face a starving crowd of people, 10 lepers looking for healing, a woman caught in adultery and so on.  Mind you, we might have some serious difficulty feeding thousands with biscuits and sardines but we could stretch the interpretation to include food banks and emergency food aid programs.

However, what of the things that we face that Jesus didn’t face–or may have faced but the Gospel writers didn’t choose to record?   The Gospels don’t show us Jesus interacting with a gay couple wanting to get married.  They don’t show Jesus talking with a young rape victim trying to decide if she should have an abortion.  They don’t show Jesus dealing directly with terrorism and racial prejudice and gender issues.

In many of those situations, the answer to WWJD seems to be that Jesus would do what I want to do–so Christians end up acting in totally opposite ways in response to the same thing and all claim to be doing what Jesus would have done.  With no actual precedent to quote, WWJD ultimately allows us to baptize our actions.

So, maybe before we ask WWJD, we need to ask another question, one that probably doesn’t get asked enough.  Maybe we need to focus on “What was Jesus like?” first–we can even reduce it to WWJL as a concession to our era.  Jesus’ actions grew out of his character and personality and if we have a better understanding of his character, we stand a better chance of answering WWJD in a way that is consistent with what he was.

Unfortunately, WWJL isn’t as easy to answer as WWJD.  WWJL requires that we take the time to serious look at Jesus.  And that means serious time with the Gospels.  We don’t have the physical presence of Jesus–but we do have the record of significant parts of his life and from that record, we can develop a picture of what Jesus was like.  And once we have a better sense of WWJL, it becomes easier to answer WWJD.  It also becomes less likely that we will be tempted to baptize our desires–the more we learn what Jesus was like, the more we discover that we have a long way to go in our spiritual development.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT DID YOU SAY?

One of our former students in Kenya is a good pastor and missionary has been recognized by the ABC as a result of his gifts.  He holds a high rank in the church structure and tends to be given important and significant postings.  Whenever we are in Kenya, Silas and I try to connect sp we can talk and share.

Part of our connection, I think, goes back to our earliest time in Kenya when I was teaching preaching and Silas was in my class.  One midweek afternoon during class, Silas asked a question.  The question concerned preaching but wasn’t quite on topic.  But, it was a hot afternoon, both I and the class were tired and for a change I wasn’t behind in the teaching schedule so we looked at the question.

Silas began with an explanation.  He had preached a sermon in his assigned congregation on a Sunday.  On Wednesday when he was doing some visiting in the community, he asked the people he was visiting what they had thought of his sermon.  While the people had been in worship, they couldn’t remember the sermon.  Silas’ question was what he could do to make sure people remembered his sermon.  From the nods and whispered comments, I could tell that the whole class wanted an answer this question.

My first response was to jokingly suggest that he–and the others–needed to prepare more interesting sermons, which got a bit of a laugh.  But then I went on to a  more serious response to the question. I asked the class how many students had preached the Sunday before.  As I expected, almost every hand went up–the ABC, like all denominations, didn’t have enough leadership and so students were sent out to preach almost every Sunday.  When their hands went down, I asked the next question, “How many of you remember what you preached on?”

Again as I expected, not one hand went up.  I did help by confessing to the students that I too had preached the Sunday before and didn’t remember my sermon either.  We then had an interesting and worthwhile discussion on the value and place of preaching in the church, which accomplished two things:  it helped the students understand their tasks of preaching better and as well, kept us all awake during the rest of the class that hot afternoon.

Most of us who are part of the church and who faithfully attend worship week after week don’t remember sermons.  Preachers who work so hard to prepare and deliver sermons don’t remember last week’s sermon–we have already moved on to next week.  On the other hand, we generally have lots of memories about the preacher–not about his or her sermons but about the time he or she did this or that.  If what they did was positive, we remember them well and would say they were a good preacher.  If what they did was negative, we remember that and would probably say they were a poor preacher.

It is the same with Sunday School teachers.  We most likely don’t remember any Sunday School lesson–but we do remember the teacher.  We remember how they treated us, how they showed their faith towards us and so on.

We live in a world filled with words but sometimes we forget that words are not as important as personality and character.  We listen to people’s character before we listen to their words–and when the words and the character are at odds, we believe the character.  The character of the speaker validates the words.

Where is this all going?  Well, the point is that if we are going to present Christ to the world, our words are not going to be the primary vehicle of that presentation.  The presentation of Christ stands or falls on the person doing the presentation, not the words we use to make the presentation.  The more our character reflects the character of Christ, the better our presentation and the more likely our words are to be heard.

This is not to devalue our words or our preaching or our teaching–this is, after all, a blog post where all you have are my words.  But it is focused on elevating our willingness to model ourselves on Christ.  When what we are and what we say come from the same place, our message is much more likely to be well received.

May the peace of God be with you

WHO ARE YOU?

I was standing in the line up at one of our local grocery stores, waiting to pay for the few things I had picked up.  Normally, the lines are short but this particular day, there were actually a couple of people in front of me.  I immediately recognized the person in front of me–I had done some extensive pastoral counselling with her a few months ago, helping her work through a serious depression.  When she turned around, I said hi to her, only to be greeted by a blank stare.  The expression on her face clearly showed that she had no idea who I was.

She nodded a hello, politely asked how I was doing and then it dawned on her who I was.  She apologized for not recognizing me, thanked me for the help I had given her a few months ago and then, since it was her turn at the counter, began putting her groceries on the counter.  After she paid and was leaving, she turned and said thanks again.

Over the years of my ministry, I have had similar encounters with many people.  I meet them in  the course of my ministry, work with them intensively, help them deal with whatever issue they need help with.  Generally, I invest a lot in the encounter.  I give them time–and since many are either on the edge of the church I am serving or not even involved in the church at all, it can be time that I could be using for something else in my paid ministry.  I give them my skill and ability as a pastoral counsellor.  I give them my energy–I enjoy counselling but it does take physical, emotional and spiritual energy.  Since I do the pastoral counselling as part of my calling a pastor, I give them a financial gift–they don’t have to pay for the counselling.

So, in view of all that I have given them and the help that they seem to have received, it is too much to ask that they actually remember me and recognize me in the grocery store check-out line?  I don’t want them to fall all over me with thanks and praise and all that–and there are a few whom I don’t care if they remember me or not–but a simply “hi” of recognition would be nice in view of all that I did for them.

This is one of those places where my personal stuff needs to be challenged by the real person of Jesus.  There is a story in Luke 17.11-19 that I need to spend a lot of time with.  Ten people with leprosy come to Jesus seeking healing.  He graciously heals them and sends them to the priests to receive an official declaration that they are healed.  When the reality of the healing hits them, one of them turns back and thanks Jesus.  The story indicates to me that Jesus is happy the one returned and perhaps disappointed that the other nine didn’t.

I take two things from the story that help me in my desire to be more like Jesus.  First, my disappointment in the check-out line is normal.  I could, I suppose, over-spiritualize it and say that if I was really Christ-like, I wouldn’t feel the disappointment or something like that.  But it is what I am feeling and maybe this story from Luke allows me the freedom in faith to accept and have my feelings.

And the second thing comes from something that didn’t happen in the story.  Jesus didn’t revoke the healing of the other nine.  He may have been disappointed by the lack of thanks but the nine were still healed.  For me, that is probably the biggest lesson here.

If I want to be Christ-like in this area of my life, I need to see the importance of the ministry that I am called to do.  I can feel disappointed at times, I can feel used at times, I might be upset when people forget what I do and all these things will be normal and acceptable and understandable.  But if I want to be Christ-like, I need to be careful that these feelings don’t keep me from doing ministry.

I do ministry with people because that is what I am called to do, not because of the response I get.  I can appreciate the good and positive responses and be disappointed with the negative responses–but I don’t do the ministry because of the response.  I need to be able to do the ministry because that is what I am called to do and that is what Jesus models.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTLIKENESS?

The last time we worked in Kenya, I was asked to teach a course with the riveting title of “Research Methodology”. The Archbishop, who was then working on his Doctor of Ministry degree, wanted all his pastors to know how to do research so that if they got the opportunity to do advanced study, they would not have to spend the first part of their course finding out how to do basic research like he had to. I enjoy research and study and so didn’t mind the course–except for the part where I suggested that to really do research, the students would have to know some statistics, only to be told that I would have to teach that as well.

Anyway, the students were required to develop, research and implement a project using all the knowledge they received in the course. Each student was assigned a faculty mentor to help guide him/her through the process. I had three of the students assigned to me and then for a variety of reasons, ended up with a fourth. I had laid out a clear time line for all the students, giving dates for various things to be done in order for the students to finish the project and the course. We ended up returning to Canada before the projects were due but I arranged to do the mentoring via email.

Some of those assigned to me kept in close contact, sending parts and summaries on a regular basis. One of them decided to do the whole project and then email me–he ended up starting over because he hadn’t done a very good job. As the deadline got closer, I began to hear more and more from three of them, all of whom gave me the news that the school had imposed a new deadline that was now getting close. The new deadline was later than the original but that is almost to be expected in that context.

One got his work finished early this year. Two of them got the stuff in just before the deadline–close to it and close together, of course, so I was quite busy for a week. The fourth–well, I hadn’t heard anything from him for a while and assumed that he had to drop his study program for some reason. The deadline came and I thought I was done–it was actually a little sad to be done and therefore finished with my last official contact with the school.

Then, on a Thursday evening, I got an email from the fourth student. He had been given an extended deadline–he had until the following Monday to get his project in so that it would be ready for the oral defence that week. Part of the paper was attached and the rest would follow later–could I please read, correct and mark it so he could get a finished copy to the school by Monday.

Let’s see–I have a trip to the city that will take the whole of the next day. Saturday, I have some plans involving the basement steps and dog hair. Sunday, I have to preach. There are also things like some relaxation, Skype conversations with some of our children and grandchildren, some research I am doing for a project of my own and whatever else comes alone.

The paper is late–well beyond the deadline. No one bothered to tell me about the extension and the student hadn’t bothered to tell me he was having problems and wasn’t able to do a lot on the project. I have things that I need–and want–to do myself. So, I either give up some of my stuff and spend the hours necessary to go over and comment and mark the project or I let the lateness and lack of notice allow me to forget the whole thing and teach him a lesson about punctuality and all that.

The easy answer, of course, is that I be Christ-like and do the marking. But the truth is that I was frustrated and annoyed with both the student and the school–I don’t like things that I have to rush through and resent being asked at the last minute to do major stuff that really requires more time.

But I am also called to love as Christ loved–so I did the marking by the deadline. The point of this post, though, is that we need to realize that being Christ-like isn’t easy or automatic–it is demanding and ask that we make changes and do things that we might not do on our own. Recognizing that it isn’t easy being Christ-like is an important part of the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

JESUS, ME AND MY CULTURE

If Jesus does stand outside my culture and outside me seeking to show me a better way as an individual and as a culture, does that mean that everything about me and my culture is wrong? While there are some Christian writers who might suggest that is the case, it seems too simplistic an approach to me. After all, we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1.26), which suggests there is something good somewhere in our being. Certainly, the image has been affected by human sin and all aspects of our being are touched by it but the image is still present. That is actually the meaning behind the theological term “total depravity”–not that we are totally and completely wrong but rather that all aspects of our life have been touched by sin and its consequences.

When I look at my life and my culture in the light of Jesus, I have found it helpful to think in terms of three categories when it comes to the effect Jesus might or should have. I really can’t remember if I developed these on my own or borrowed them from someone else–so if they sound familiar, let me know so I can give credit where credit is due.

In the first category I put things that really aren’t going to be affected by Jesus and aren’t going to affect Jesus or my ability to follow him. The things in this category are neutral and will be unchanged by Jesus. Whether I live in a house built of wood or brick or concrete or mud is pretty much neutral, unless I steal the house or refuse to pay my rent. Whether I drink my coffee from a mug, tea cup or tin can is neutral in terms of Jesus. Whether I prefer to read from a printed book or a E-reader is neutral, although the things I choose to read can fall into another category.

The second category involves things that could be neutral but for some reason are affected by faith. To use a somewhat controversial example, limited alcohol use is pretty much neutral. Biblical teaching condemns overuse of alcohol and sees value in some people refraining from alcohol use as part of a spiritual vow but moderate use of alcohol is seen in the Bible as a norm.

However, the Christian faith often ends up having a powerful effect on alcohol use. It challenges abuse of alcohol and behaviour that would encourage abuse of alcohol. Some believers find Jesus leading them to stop drinking alcohol because they can’t stop with one drink and their faith liberates them from the tyranny of alcohol. Other believers feel led to refrain from drinking alcohol to avoid enabling those who need to stop but find it hard, using Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 8.

The third category involves things that are simply against the example and teaching of Jesus. Murder, for example, simply doesn’t fit with Jesus’ call for believers to love self, neighbours and enemies. Behaviours and customs that harm others, deprive them of freedom, prevent them from living as God wants them to live and so on are all simply wrong when placed in the light of Jesus’ teaching and example.

I realize that this is not a precise classification and that there are all sorts of exceptions and lots of debate about what fits into which category. But for all that, I do find it helpful to look at myself and culture from this perspective. Using the classification effectively does require that I have a good understanding of myself, my culture and the teaching of Jesus. It also requires that I be willing to look critically at myself and my culture.

As believers, we sometimes waste a lot of time with first category things that we would like to be third category–male hair length, for example, really belongs in category one. Unfortunately, we also spend a lot of time ignoring or trying to justify things that really belong in category three–as believers and as members of a culture, we do and support a lot of unloving and uncaring things that really should be changed.

Not everything I do needs to be changed because of my faith. Not everything I think is okay is okay when looked at through the lens of faith. If I am serious about following Jesus, I need to learn to see what has to be changed and then be willing to change it.

May the peace of God be with you.