A CUP OF COLD WATER

Recently, we were in the city for a special night out–supper and a evening out.  We have both been working hard and felt we deserved a break.  When we arrived at the city and Elizabeth had made a pastoral visit (pastors rarely get a complete break), we were off to find someplace to park, get supper and head for the event.

As we were walking to the event after supper, we spotted a street person begging–since there were lots of people on the street and relatively warm, it was probably a good time to be out with an empty takeout coffee cup.  I followed my normal procedure–don’t look at the person and continue walking.  I assumed Elizabeth would the same thing–but instead, she smiled and told him she had no change.

Before we arrived at the next one, she had dug around and found a toonie (we are Canadian–a toonie is a two dollar coin) which she dropped in the cup of the next street person we saw.  By then, we were at the event sight and joined the line up.

But, here is the issue for me.  How far does helping people go?  Who gets the cup of cold water given in Jesus’ name? (Matthew 10.42).  I have no problem helping organizing school breakfast programs for hungry kids.  I think child sponsorship overseas is a great idea.  As a pastor, I have always encouraged congregations to set aside funds for food and other emergency needs in the community.  I have often pulled money out of my pocket to help meet a need.

But I am reluctant to give a loonie or toonie to someone on the street.  I was a little more willing to do it in Nairobi, Kenya–but not much.  I have read the reports concerning the issues of people living on the streets in Canada and know the various reasons why someone would be there with an empty coffee cup.  I am aware that they are not the mythical scam artists who have a BMW parked around the corner to take them to their suburban mini-mansion financed by their begging.  I know that many struggle with mental illness, various addictions, family breakdown, long term unemployment and so on–but with all that, I still want to hang onto to my loonies and toonies.

Does that make me a bad person, a terrible Christian?  Perhaps.  But maybe it also makes me a confused Christian, one who is still struggling with the limits and boundaries and responsibilities that come with the faith.  Is God calling me to give a cup of cold water to the person on the street with an empty coffee cup?

I don’t know the answer.  Certainly, part of the answer would be to make sure that I walk with my wife in the city and let her put the money in the cup.  Interestingly, I would even give her my loonies and toonies to give put in the cup if she couldn’t find hers, without expecting to get repaid.

Most likely, there is a connection between my reluctance to part with my change and growing up poor–I rarely had money of my own growing up and when I did, it was in the form of change since only grown-ups had bills.  So, while I can and have occasionally  handed out the last bill in my wallet to someone with a pressing need, the change in my pocket represents a more difficult challenge.  I don’t really want to give that away–and I don’t know if I need to go that far in helping people.

Fortunately, I don’t need to solve that dilemma right now.  I am not in the city all that often–it is a 2.5 hour one way trip.  But even more importantly, God gives me the grace I need to work through the various decisions I make in my life.  If I get it wrong or am slow in dealing with something, he is loving and graceful and will keep working with me.  I may decide that no matter what Elizabeth does, my loonies and toonies stay in my pocket or I may decide that I need to drop them in a coffee cup–but either way, God in his love and grace will continue to be with me, both accepting and teaching me.

May the peace of God be with you.

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YOU ARE GOING TO GET CHEATED

A long time ago, I was sitting in my office–this was one of the churches I served that actually had an office for the pastor–and a parishioner dropped in.  I have generally enjoyed drops in such as this–it beats working most times because I get a chance to offer them coffee and sit and chat and feel like I am actually working.

Anyway, this particular day, the man dropped in because he had some information and a warning for me.  The church was involved in helping some families in the community who were struggling financially.  We had some connection with the local food bank, we had a benevolent fund, we worked with other local churches to provide Christmas boxes and we were helping the community develop a school breakfast program.  My drop-in wanted to give me some information that he felt I needed to know.

Basically, he had heard that in previous years, some of the recipients of the Christmas baskets had registered with several different benevolent organizations and ended up with 2 or three Christmas baskets.  My visitor wasn’t upset that we were helping people–but he was upset that some people were scamming the system and getting away with it.  He wanted to tell us we should tighten up the system a lot more.

I assured him we were working on it.  We had begun coordinating our efforts with the other groups in the area and we were making sure that people applying for support were recommended by someone we trusted.  And then I told him the basic truth of helping ministry–the only way to avoid getting cheated was to do nothing.

Jesus said in Matthew 26.11 ” The poor you will always have with you…” and my experiential addition to this truth is “And along with that, there will be people trying to scam the system”.  If you make the system tight enough to shut out the scammers, you will automatically make the system so tight and unyielding that people with legitimate needs will be shut out–but the scammers will still likely find a way to use the system.

If we want to help people in need, we are going to have to accept the fact that we will get cheated at some point.  We need to be diligent and we need to be prudent and we need to be careful but we are going to be cheated.  We are also going to help a lot of people.

I keep going back to the Biblical stories of Jesus feeding the crowds (Luke 9.10-17; Matthew 15.29-39).  In both cases, Jesus was faced with crowds of thousands of hungry people.  Now, this was not starving to death hungry–this was missed meals because of the impromptu teaching session with Jesus.  Once they were home, they could eat and things would be fine.

But Jesus fed them–without a means test, without checking to see if someone was hiding a peanut butter sandwich or a chocolate bar in their pocket, without eliminating the people who could obviously afford to skip a meal or two.  He fed them–all of them.

I am sure in those crowds there were people who had food with them–there has to have been someone like me who would think ahead and pack a survival kit.  I am equally sure that there were people there who could have made it home without collapsing from hunger on the way.  And because Jesus had all the knowledge of God available to him, he knew or could have known the state of everyone there.  He could have easily separated those with real needs from those who were not so needy and at the same time deal the potential scammers.

But Jesus didn’t do any of that–there were hungry people there and he fed everyone–those who really needed it and those who needed it a bit and those who would have scammed the system.  Did he get taken?  By our standards, probably.  But his standards, probably not.  Jesus decided to feed the people and he did it.

Are we called to help people in need?  Yes.  Are we going to get taken? Yes.  Does that mean we should stop trying to help? No.  In the end, if we are going to follow Jesus’ pattern of helping, we need to realize that we will get taken at times–but we will also help a lot of people who need help.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO NEEDS HELP?

A few days ago, my wife and I treated ourselves to supper out.   The food at supper was good and it is always great to have time together, especially when it doesn’t end with having to do the dishes and clean up the kitchen.  We are both pastors and have been in the area for a long time so most places we go, we run into someone we know.

This particular evening, we ran into a couple we hadn’t seen for a while and so we chatted while we waited for our meals.  Very quickly, the conversation broke into the husband and I carrying on one conversation while the two women carried on another one.  During my conversation with the husband, he mentioned some work he was doing through his church, helping provide support from some people in the community who needed help.

That was great, I thought–but then the conversation took a bit of a turn as he began making some pointed remarks about the local efforts to settle refugees in our area.  Several committees have been formed by church and community groups to settle and support a number of refugees in our area, which I also think is great.

I am pretty sure that the person I was talking to didn’t share this viewpoint–he wasn’t reacting to the presence of the refugees; he wasn’t showing some of the paranoia some people have about refugees from Islamic areas; he wasn’t being bigoted.  Rather, he was, I think, upset at his perception that the refugees were getting all the attention and the local needs were being ignored.  Listening to him, I got the impression that he felt he was the only one caring for the needs of the local people.

Many people seem to get caught in a dilemma over who we help.  There is the “Charity begins at home” faction; the “They are living in camps with nothing” faction; the “We are ignoring the hungry in our own backyard” faction; the “What about the (fill in the blank)” faction, all busy saving their own corner of the world and wondering why no one else is as concerned as they are.

I thought a couple of things about that.  First, I know that there are other people involved in helping out with the local needs–as near as I can tell, the concern for refugees hasn’t diminished the support for local needs, at least in our area.  Food banks, church benevolent funds, various service groups and organizations are as busy as ever.  They are all saying they don’t have enough resources but to be fair, they said that before the refugee crisis as well.

The second thought is more theological or theoretical in nature.  If our neighbour is someone who has a need, which seems to me to be the message behind the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.30-37), then we are called to help those with needs wherever they are.  It isn’t a matter of local over refugees; hungry local children over the hungry far away; the needs at home over the needs far away–in the end, it is a matter of meeting needs in the name of Jesus Christ.

Some of us will find our calling to the needs close at home.  Some will be led to refugees or disaster victims somewhere far away.  Some will be called to be organizers of school breakfast programs.  Some will become committee chairs for refugee resettlement.  Some will be called to give money and support to a variety of these causes.

The problem comes, I think, when we make it a competition.  Essentially, the competition begins when I see my ministry as more important than your ministry.  And being human, we are much more prone to this kind of competitiveness than we want to admit.  If I am involved in something, everyone else should be involved in the same thing, with the same amount of commitment and enthusiasm.

And maybe if we were Jesus, we would have the energy and enthusiasm to be involved in everything everywhere.  But we aren’t Jesus.  We follow him and in his grace, he is going to use us to meet the needs.  He won’t call all of us to the same needs  but he does call us to be his agents in helping him meet the needs of the world.  It isn’t a competition but a division of labour so that God gets the most out of his people in terms of helping meet the needs.  We do our work for God and rejoice that someone else is doing their part.

May the peace of God be with you.

EARTH DAY

            This year, April 22 is Earth Day.  I never remember Earth Day until I begin to see comments and articles about it on some of the websites and blogs I check regularly.  It isn’t because I am not interested in Earth Day but more because I have enough dates to remember and Earth Day always comes somewhere in the busy Easter season, although this year it is about a month after Easter.

I do remember one or two years in my pastoral ministry that I actually remembered Earth Day and focused the worship service on it.  Among some of my clergy friends, that was considered a bit much–after all, Earth Day is a secular event and has very little to do with our faith.  The fact that I would not only focus a worship service on Earth Day but also preach on it made me just a little suspect in some of their minds–like maybe I had jumped the barrier and ended up in theologically liberal territory.  Among the more conservative parts of the church where I live and work and feel comfortable, becoming a liberal is probably the worst thing that can happen.

But at the time, and still today, I think that Earth Day is a valid focus for the Christian faith.  Earth Day itself may have been developed by secular environmentalists, but a lot of the concern and reasoning behind Earth Day has deep Christian roots.  Unfortunately, neither the Christian church nor the environmental movement are terrible aware of that reality.

In fact, Christians are often described as being among the causes of the current ecological disaster.  The Protestant work ethic and the Industrial Revolution were partially responsible for the increase in the over-exploitation of natural resources.  Many of the early exploiters used their faith as a justification for the destruction of the natural environment, or at least that is the theme of some of the things I have read at various times.

And I have no doubt that there is some truth in this–historically, all faiths have been used as justification for what people want to do.  Some early industrialists most likely believed it was their God-given right to destroy landscapes and toss waste where ever they wanted.  Some of them likely believed that the poor were there to exploit along with the natural resources. Some may even have had Biblical proof tests and captive clergy to validate their claims.

But the Christian faith can’t really be used as a justification for ecological destruction.  True, there isn’t a great deal in the NT about the environment and its care.  There is the passage in Romans 8.19-21 which tells us that all creation is suffering from the effects of sin and is waiting for deliverance through Jesus Christ.  This can be referring to the damage humanity has done to creation as a result of our greed and ignorance.

But even more significant is the charge God gave humanity in Genesis 1.27-30.  There, humanity was given the task of looking after the creation that God had lavished so much love on.  Some read this as a justification for any kind of use and abuse of creation but I think the passage needs to be contextualized.  God is the creator and it is his creation.  Humanity is not being given creation to exploit as we see fit–rather, we are being given an important position as managers of God’s creation.

We benefit from the creation, we are provided with food, shelter, economic benefits and so on–but we are not to manage creation for our benefit alone.  We are God’s managers, tasked with the job of managing what God has so carefully and lovingly put together.  While we benefit from creation, it isn’t ours and we need to remember that.

Our faith should actually put us in the forefront of the environmental movement–we are, after all, God’s servants and agents in the world.  That calling includes caring for the poor, spreading the Good News and caring for creation.  If giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name (Matthew 10.42) is a blessing, it is an equal blessing to ensure that that cup of cold water not only is available but also is free from pollution and disease.  Care of creation is also part of our Christian task.

May the peace of God be with you.

RECYCLED

About 35 years ago, my wife, our two children and I left Kenya after working there for a couple of years.  It wasn’t a planned or happy departure and we were struggling in many ways when we arrived back in Canada in January.  Among our basic requirements were a job and a place to stay–we could only live with family for so long

Eventually, with the help of some friends and mentors, I was called to serve as pastor of four small congregations who had been through some painful times of their own.  They had need of a pastor and were willing to supply a salary and a big old parsonage.  We moved in and I began work.  We spend almost 10 years there, years that saw both our family and the church grow stronger.  Our third child was born there.  Both my wife and I entered and completed doctoral programs.  The churches came out of their slump and grew in numbers and faith.

When we left, I think both sides had benefitted from that ministry.  I went on to other ministry, including more pastoral ministry, teaching part-time at a nearby seminary, and several  more trips to Kenya of varying lengths.  We always lived in the same area no matter what I was doing, except for the extended stays in Kenya so I was always in contact with the churches–we would run into each other in town; I was on call for pastoral emergencies when the pastor was away and spoke now and then at special events.

Recently, their pastor got married, resigned and moved away and the congregations were suddenly without a pastor.  A lot had changed since I left 25 years ago.  Numbers were down, the congregation was aging, the church buildings were showing signs of severe age–the “newest” building is over a hundred years old.  With the numbers being down, giving was down and the churches discovered that they really couldn’t afford full-time ministry any more.  If they were going to continue, they would need to down-size their ministry and maybe even sell their parsonage.

The pastor who was leaving passed my name along to the church leadership as someone who could help them design part-time ministry.  I have been doing part time pastoral ministry since the early 1990s and had even written a handbook to help congregations make the transition from full-time to part-time.  Since I knew a lot of the leadership, I was quite willing to volunteer my time to help them with their transition.

I was surprised at the meeting to discuss part-time ministry–they didn’t so much want to pick my brains about how to set up part-time ministry as much as they wanted to know if I would be their part-time pastor.  They were willing to change their time of worship to accommodate the other part-time position I was beginning and didn’t much care how the eventual ministry looked if I would be willing to accept a call to their congregations.

So, almost exactly 35 years after I began there the first time, I again stepped in the pulpit as their pastor.  A lot has changed for both of us.  While there are some familiar faces, there are also some who are conspicuously absent.  There are a few new faces, but not all that many.  All of us are showing the signs of the passing 35 years.  I used to hop onto the platform in one of the buildings, ignoring the steps–now, the steps are a necessity and a railing would be even nicer.

But I am there–recycling even works in the church.  I don’t know where God is going to lead us as we serve together.   I don’t know how long we will be together.  In fact the list of things I don’t know keeps getting longer and longer.  But I do know that for now, God has brought us back together and obviously has some plans for us.

Did I expect to be back when I left there 26 years ago?  No–but then, one of the wonders of following God’s leading is that we really don’t know where things will go.  But if we follow in faith, it is always an interesting trip.

May the peace of God be with you.

FOUR PEOPLE AND ME

            Just recently, I began a new ministry.  I am serving part-time as pastor of two small congregations that have been struggling for the past few years.  Last year, I began working with them as a supply preacher–showing up on Sunday to preach.  But of course, ministry can’t really be done like that or at least, I can’t do it that way.

Before too long, I was focusing my preaching on the congregation, helping them look at themselves and their real potential in the faith.  I did some funerals and made some pastoral visits.  As the months passed last year, the small group of 12-16 got re-motivated, began to see that they didn’t have to close and even began to see a future for themselves.

So, we met together and talked together and planned together and prayed together and worked out a plan that would have me working with the congregations 2 days a week.  The plan called for Sunday worship, a Bible study and some pastoral visitation.  The congregations closed for the winter with the service on Christmas Eve, filled with excitement for the ministry that would begin again on Easter Sunday.

And so we started.  And immediately, we hit our low point.  I showed up on Sunday morning, early as usual.  One member arrived–and since we have been friends for years, we had a chance to talk and catch up as time for worship got closer and closer.  Finally, another arrived and the three of us chose some music they could do without our musician.  Eventually, another arrived–by himself since his wife was sick.  As it approached time to start, a fourth arrived–by himself since his wife’s disabilities sometimes make it impossible for her to get out.

So, there we were–four people and me.  Now, I know exactly where all the others were:  some were not back from extended stays in places warmer than western Nova Scotia.  Some were sick and some were there every other weekend, and this wasn’t the every other weekend. Some were scared of the 2 cms of snow we received during the night.

I had worked hard on the worship service and sermon, seeking to build on the momentum and enthusiasm that had been so evident before we closed down last year.   But–four people and me?  How can you build on that?  Even knowing the reason for only four people and me and knowing that soon the others will be back and the numbers will climb, I couldn’t help but feel a bit down and discouraged.

But I started the service.  With just four people, I didn’t bother with the pulpit.  I stood in the pews just in front of the four people and we worshipped together.  We have been developing our own unique worship style and so there is lots of back and forth, discussion and questions, comments and laughter during our worship and even during the sermon.  And with only four people and me, it is much easier to have that kind of informal but meaningful worship.

The service finished, the four people and I talked a bit before we left, all of us sending greetings to the two wives who hadn’t made it to the service.  I was the last one out, making sure to slam the door (it doesn’t always close and lock properly unless it is slammed).  As I was driving home for a quick lunch and short rest before the service at another pastorate where I also serve part time, I realized that although I was disappointed that there were only four people and me, I wasn’t depressed nor was I discouraged.  Part of that was because I knew where all the non-attendees were and why they weren’t there.  But a bigger part was the realization that I had actually counted the congregation wrong.

It wasn’t four people and me.  It was actually five people and God–and God was the most important.  We were there because we believe that God wanted us to begin this ministry and if he wanted us to begin it, there has to be something there.  I don’t know where this is going but I do know that five people plus God is much better than four people and me.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE ETHICS OF SIN

One of the classes I taught the last time I worked in Kenya was a course on Christian ethics, focusing specifically on the ethics of Christian leadership.  I had fun teaching the course and I am pretty sure that the students enjoyed the course as well, although the evaluations did contain the traditional student complaint about courses–too much homework.

Among the things we dealt with was the problem of sinful leadership in the church, a topic that provided a great deal of discussion since all the members of the class were church leaders in contexts where the perks of office often included some built in free passes for some sins.  I was forcing the students to deal with an issue the church as a whole has not yet successfully dealt with.

Church leadership sets the rules for sin:  what it is, how to avoid it, who deals with it, how it is dealt with and so on.  But church leadership also invariably builds in special privileges and dispensations for itself.  At the heart of most complains of hypocrisy leveled at the church is the reality that those in leadership treat their sin differently than they treat the sins of others.

Now, that is actually a Biblical principal–leadership in the faith does have different requirements.  Matthew 23, for example, shows Jesus taking religious leaders to task for their harshness towards others while allowing themselves lots of freedom.  There is also the equally scary passage in James 3.1, which cautions, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” NIV

Jesus and the Biblical writers take seriously the reality that those in leadership have a significant impact on those they lead.  When we get it right as leaders, we have a very positive and often long-lasting effect on the lives of the people we lead.  And when we get it wrong, we have an equally negative and long lasting effect on the lives of not just the people we lead but also people associated with the people we lead.

Unfortunately, when church leadership sets different standards for leadership and followers, they tend not to look at things from this perspective.  Often, those in leadership choose to see the difference in terms of privilege rather than  responsibility.  The call to leadership is too often too often seen as allowing more latitude than others have.

I remember one fairly domineering pastor who demanded that all his church members get rid of their TVs.  Since he was a dominant leader in an almost cult-like group, they did what he said.  But everyone in the church and the rest of the community knew that he kept his TV and regularly watched whatever he wanted.  What was sinful for the rest obviously wasn’t sinful for him.

Maybe part of the problem of sin is that we in leadership don’t take our own sinfulness seriously enough.  We might require rigid compliance of others but we allow ourselves latitude and freedom which effectively undercuts our ability to lead people and help them deal seriously with their sins.  If people know that I am doing what I am telling them not to do, they are neither going to listen to me nor avoid the things I am telling them to avoid.

In fact, the more I tell them not to do something, the more convinced they will become that I am doing it and that it might be interesting to give it a try themselves.  Meanwhile, those on the outside are going to ignore the whole bunch of us–they have enough issues and don’t need the ones we manufacture.

As leaders, we need to learn to take our sin seriously.  We need to be aware of and willing to hold ourselves to a higher standard.  We need to recognize our propensity for sin and need for grace.  We need to use the power of God to challenge and change that which in sinful in us so that we don’t become the hypocrites whose presence in the church keeps so many others outside the church.

Maybe instead of focusing so much on the sin of others, we need to spend a lot more time and effort focusing on our own sin.  We might be surprised at how much grace we discover and how much more graceful we can be to others.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE RULES OF SINNING

Growing up in a conservative church in a rural community, I quickly learned the basic rules about sin:  It was wrong so don’t do it.  Don’t even think about it!  Don’t let other people do it!  These basic rules were part of my spiritual growth and development and worked well, at least in that context.  There were, of course, some discussions and disputes–not about the rules but about what exactly constituted a sin.

School dances, for example, were a terrible sin for some believers but a safe and normal part of life for others.  Watching TV could be sinful or okay, depending on which family and which denomination the watcher was part of.  While we might have had some disagreement on the definitions of, the basic rules were clear and undisputed.

Or, at least I thought so.  As I grew and became more involved in the life of the church, I began to see that the basic rules weren’t as rigid and as clear as it seemed at first.  It began to dawn on me that there were some exceptions.

When the men’s choir sang, the shy guy with the great voice was allowed to show up smelling like he had had a drink of rum before he got there.  We were a seriously non-drinking church but his bay-rum “aftershave” gave him courage to add his voice to the choir, which wouldn’t have been much otherwise.

And then there was the pastor who was abusing kids, including his own who was quietly resettled somewhere else and the families and kids convinced that it wasn’t his fault–he was doing great things for God and it would be a shame to let something like that stop his ministry.

Of course, there were also the generous givers whose contributions played a significant role in the congregation’s finances and somehow allowed them a free pass on some things that others were not able to get away with.

I began to realize that the rules were not as simple and clear.  Not all sin was equal and not all sinners were equal.  In fact, the rules get murkier and more confusing the longer I look at them.  But it seems like there were some essential rules that superseded all the others.  One was, “The more important I can make myself in the church, the more I get to break the rules.”  Another was connected, “The more the church needs my money, the more I can get away with”

Others include, “The better I sing, preach, teach, etc, the more rules I can break”; “The closer I am related to someone who can break the rules, the more rules I can break”; “If you must break the rules, don’t get caught”.  In the end, it seems like the basic rule about sin is that I get to condemn your sin and justify mine.

I am not sure if what I have just written qualifies as cynicism or whether it is a “tongue-in-cheek” poke at one of the real issues in the church but the problem is real.  We really don’t have a comfortable way of dealing with the reality of human sin within the church.  The uncomfortable route we tend to follow allows some people to sin with impunity while others pay a disproportional price for the same sin.

Now to be honest, I have spent much or my ministry trying to avoid the issue of sin–I prefer to deal with important things like grace and forgiveness and reconciliation and love.  But I also recognize the pain caused by our uncomfortable and inequitable way of dealing with sin.  In fact, many of the people I know who are not a part of the church are outside the church because somewhere along the line, they encountered the hypocrisy that is such a basic part of the conservative church’s approach to sin.

I don’t have clear answers yet–just a recognition that the results of sin can be painful and serious and the results of poor handling of sin can be even more painful and serious.  But since we are all sinners, we need to find a way that recognizes the reality of the pain we cause ourselves and others while at the same time, allowing everyone sufficient access to God’s love and grace.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT ABOUT SIN?

            In many areas of Western life, the idea of sin no longer exists.  Certainly, we can find it in the more conservative corners of the church but as a real, live concept in the general population, sin is becoming increasingly rare.  Some new religious groups even suggest that there is no sin anymore, except the sin of thinking that sin exists.

I am ambivalent about this movement away from sin.  Having grown up as part of the conservative church, I heard all about sin–too much about sin.  I realized at some point that the continual emphasis on sin wasn’t doing a whole lot that was positive.

I used to ask my Kenyan students about the preaching on sin they experienced, specifically in terms of anti-alcohol preaching, which is very popular there.  I would ask how long the church has been preaching about the sin of drinking and be assured that it had been done from the very beginning of the church.  I would then ask about the results in very specific terms:  how many people stopped drinking, how many bars closed and so on.  The reluctant consensus answer from the students was that few if any stopped drinking because of the preaching and there were more bars than ever.

So, we waste a lot of time and effort on sin.  But at the same time, there are things that are wrong and unjust and painful and even evil.  No amount of emphasis on human improvement and human potential can obscure the reality that genocide is a powerful 20th Century trend; that child abuse in all its forms robs millions of the fullness of life; that greed motivates great injustice; that some don’t mind others starving and suffering if it allows them to have a good life.  I don’t know what we call these sort of things unless we call them sin.

An old definition of sin is “missing the mark”–and no matter what we human beings would like to think, we do miss the mark regularly and spectacularly.  Doing away with the word doesn’t do away with the underlying problem.  Unfortunately, as my Kenyan students reluctantly discovered, simply telling people not to sin doesn’t get rid of it either.

So maybe we need a new and revised theology of sin, one that takes it and its consequences seriously but which also gives us a better understanding of how to deal with it.  And maybe, rather than have this new, revised theology point outward, we need it to be pointed inward.  Maybe we need a theology of sin that enables each believer to confront his/her own sin; then encourages the church leadership to confront their own sin; and then causes the church as a whole to work at eliminating their sins.

Rather than point fingers outward and spend all our time and effort telling people outside the faith they are sinful, we need to begin by admitting and dealing with our own sin.  After all, we are in the best place possible to do this.  We already have the solution to the whole problem–the forgiveness that is ours in Christ Jesus.  We can safely and freely admit our sins and deal with them because they have already been forgiven through our faith in Jesus.

And there is no point in pretending that we believers aren’t sinful.  If we can’t see our sins, there is always someone around who is willing to point it out to us.  Denial, while a frequently exercised option, isn’t particularly effective in the face of the reality of our sins.  Confession, as difficult as it might be, it actually a much better way of dealing with the sins we know are there but want to pretend aren’t there.

I think the stakes are quite high here.  All humanity deals with the issue of sin–and we all generally do it poorly.  But if we can build on our forgiven status and discover a better way of dealing with sin than denial or attack, we not only help ourselves grow in faith, but we also then present those outside the faith with a better way.  Sin exists, what we have been doing is helping much, deny it doesn’t make it go away–so maybe we need to get serious about finding a better way to deal with our own sin.

May the peace of God be with you.

GUNS AND JESUS

I few months ago, I was reading some news on the Internet when I stumbled across a story about a restaurant somewhere in the US Midwest.  The restaurant’s claim to fame was that all the staff openly carried handguns and encouraged the customers to do the same thing.  What really caught my attention, however, was the conclusion of the article.  One of the waitresses was being interviewed and was gushing about how great their restaurant was and how carrying guns was so important–and she concluded her comments with “Guns and Jesus–that’s what we’re all about!”

Now, I am not going to get caught up in the firearms debate in the United States–I am Canadian and don’t really feel called to address that particular cultural difference between the two countries.  Nor am I going to comment on wait staff carrying handguns, except to suggest that a gun toting waitress might get better tips, especially from unarmed patrons.

What I want to do is use this story to show a really common problem that we all have as believers.  We have a tendency to think that somehow, Jesus likes our particular life style and what Jesus would do is generally what we would want to do.  So, if I like guns, Jesus must like guns.

There isn’t any Biblical evidence for Jesus liking guns–he was on earth long before firearms were invented.  There is little evidence that he owned a weapon of any sort.  He does talk about swords now and then but those references tend to be more figurative than literal.  And a great deal of his teaching can easily be interpreted to suggest that believers and offensive weapons are not a good match–loving our enemies, for example, seems to require an absence of weapons to really show love.

But as believers, we tend not to do our homework and make the assumption that Jesus would be a lot like us.  I am pretty sure, for example, that Jesus would travel 10kph above the speed limit on the highways, which makes my doing it okay.  Jesus obviously didn’t drive a car and there is more evidence that he tended to be more law-abiding than otherwise.  But because I drive too fast and I am a follower of Jesus, he must be somewhere up in front of me, not holding up traffic like those slow pokes driving the speed limit.

Maybe the time has come to develop a new set of basic assumptions about Jesus and our character.  Maybe, instead of assuming that we and Jesus are together in everything, we need to begin with the assumption that our desires are not right, that our characters are flawed, that the things we like might just be signs of our fallen state.

I am not trying to suggest that we are totally evil beings without an redeeming qualities, nor am I requiring a return to what some call “worm theology”, the idea that we are such awful beings that only God could love us and even then only if we can clean up a bit.

Because we are made in the image of God, there is something valuable and worthwhile a and significant about us all.  But our fallen human state has affected everything.   If we begin with the assumption that we might be wrong, then we are forced to do the work necessary to discover if we are really wrong or if we have somehow stumbled onto one of those areas where we are in the right place to start with.

When we begin with the assumption that we are always in agreement with Jesus, we are rarely interested checking ourselves out–the image we use to gauge our Christlikeness is one that we have developed by putting Jesus’ picture on our package.  The real Jesus gets lost and we champion guns and Jesus, speeding and Jesus, bigotry and Jesus, racism and Jesus, slavery and Jesus.

But if we begin with the assumption that our whole being has been tarnished by our fallen state, then we do the homework.  We might discover that we need to change.  We might discover we need to tweak things a bit.  We might discover that we got it right.  Whatever the case, beginning with the assumption that Jesus isn’t like us probably is a better starting point for our growth in faith.

May the peace of God be with you.