WHY?

            One of my favourite questions is “Why?”.  No matter what is happening or not happening, I want to know why.  When the lawn mower won’t start, I want to know why–I am   not always overly upset at not being able to mow the lawn but I still want to know why it won’t start.

When a person does something, I want to know why.  As a pastoral counselor, I often find myself using this desire to know why to help people explore their lives and motivations to see how their present behaviour results from past events and then using this insight to make positive changes in their lives.

When congregations become dysfunctional, I want to know why the dysfunction developed so that I can help the congregation deal with the causes and move on to health.  It is no real help to the congregation to have them make cosmetic changes if they don’t know why they got in the state they were.

Asking and answering the question “why” is important to me.  It is without question my favourite question–but at the same time, it is also my most frustrating question.  While some whys immediately become obvious (The lawn mower doesn’t work because the gas tank is empty), others take some serious work (The lawn mower doesn’t work because I hit a rock and broke the shear pin on the shaft) and some, well some just have no real answer (The lawn mower doesn’t work because something in not right in its mysterious inner works).

I keep asking the question even in my spiritual life–but in that area of my life, the unanswered whys become more and more common.  Lots of other people have the same whys and often look to me as a pastor to provide answers to those whys.

Someone gets terminal cancer and everyone wants to know why–and they aren’t looking for a medical, scientific answer to that why.  I could probably give them a somewhat reasonable answer to the medical, scientific why.  But they want a spiritual answer, one that involves God and unseen purposes and long reaching positive benefit somewhere.  They want to know that there is a deeper purpose, a significant why to the situation.

And while there are lots of traditional answers to their why questions, most of them are based on little more than a desire on the part of the answerer to say something that will at least sound spiritual even if it is really the spiritual equivalent of cotton candy–fluffy and somewhat tasty but with no real substance except for sugar which will rot your spiritual teeth and produce spiritual flab.

I think we need to learn that sometimes, the why questions have no really good answer.  I don’t know why a young mother dies of cancer.  I don’t know why a long anticipated child is still born.  I don’t know why a loved father has a heart attack.  I get asked why about those situations because as a pastor, people assume I have an answer to their why that will help them.  But I don’t have answers–and I refuse to fake it by using one of the canned, overly-sweet non-answers that some have tried to pretend actually say something of substance.

When I am asked that question, my response is to say I don’t know.  I am willing and able to agree that it isn’t fair.  I agree that is shouldn’t be.  I admit to my own pain and anger in the situation.  For some, that probably is proof that I am not a very good pastor–but since I don’t claim to be a good pastor most of the time, such proof really doesn’t matter.

What I can do and work at doing in these situations is offer what I can–the presence of God.  Sometimes, that presence of God is mediated through me.  Sometimes, it is shown through a simply prayer that confesses our need of God’s help, even as we are angry at him.  Sometimes, it can be through letting people vent their frustration, hurt and fear in a safe place.

I don’t know the answer to all the whys, especially the big whys of life.  Sure, maybe I will know them when we all get to heaven.  But here and now, I still ask why, knowing that I won’t get a satisfactory answer.   But I do know that God is present and at work–it may not answer why but it does make a difference to me and to many others.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY ME?

One day a long time ago in a galaxy far far away–sorry, wrong story.  Any way, way back in our family past, we lived on a rural road when a cable TV company was putting up wire for cable, something our kids were excited about until we told them we weren’t getting cable.  That too, is probably another story.

The line crew neared our house and went past–I had some distraction from sermon preparation watching the process.  I also noted one man whose job seemed to be to drive up and down the road inspecting the newly installed cable, presumably to ensure that everything was done properly and no hangers had come lose.

This particular day, he was driving down the road, looking up towards the cable.  I am pretty sure that his view of the roadway itself was quite limited.  What he was seeing was out of the corner of his eye and didn’t have much of his attention.  For some reason he turned into our driveway which, like many rural driveways, had a culvert over fairly deep ditches on both sides.  Carefully watching the cable, the driver turned into the driveway, didn’t see how wide the driveway was, didn’t see the ditch on the side, didn’t do anything to avoid the inevitable.  He dropped a front wheel right off the end of the culvert, grounding his pickup truck and coming to a very abrupt halt.

What came next was classic–no TV script writer could have got it better.  He wasn’t hurt, just a bit confused.  He opened the truck door, got out, walked around the front of the truck, looked at the front end hanging over the ditch.  Then, he looked up to the sky, raised his fist and shouted, “Why me?”.  He said a few other things, all of which indicated that he was personally and deeply upset that somehow God had either not prevented this mess or that God had specifically commanded the truck to drop off the driveway.

I didn’t know the guy and was only concerned with how long my driveway would be blocked but from my perspective, I could have given him a very clear and specific answer.  This accident occurred because he was driving distracted.  He wasn’t really watching the road, most of his attention and focus were on the cable and so he simply didn’t see the width of the driveway.  What happened wasn’t really an accident–it was the direct result of driving while distracted.

God really didn’t enter into the picture.  Well, he did because God is always present, always active and always working to bring about his ultimate will.  But in this case, God didn’t plan this event; he didn’t miraculously extend the driveway or put an energy absorbing wall in front of the truck to stop in safely–God’s involvement was to let the driver of the pickup truck reap the inevitable consequences of his very unsafe behaviour.

But like most people, the driver wasn’t willing to deal with his responsibility.  Because he had some connection with faith, God provided a convenient scapegoat.  Somehow, what happened had to be a great divine event, part of the cosmic struggle between good and evil.  It was easier for the driver to see himself as a pawn in this cosmic struggle rather than admit that he was doing something stupid and dangerous.

As I mentioned, I didn’t get into that discussion with the man.  And in truth, very few people I know actually want to have that discussion.  Most people, including me, would rather have something beyond ourselves to blame of the pain and trouble of life.  We are quite happy accepting the responsibility when we do something right, observing the social conventions about being appropriately modest of course.  But we don’t really like admitting that some things that happen to us are our own fault, the result of actions or inactions on our part.

There are certainly many times when we can’t make such a direct connection, times when what we are experiencing really isn’t connected with us and our action or inaction.  Those times do create problems and difficulties.  But there are a good many times when we would be much better off facing the reality that what we are experiencing is our own fault rather than seeking to blame God or someone else.  “Why me?” is an important question but we trivialize both the question and our faith when we use it to avoid taking our own responsibility.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SPIRIT PRAYS FOR US

When it comes to prayer, I am a very experienced and maybe even competent public, priestly pray-er.   Privately, I am not sure just how much I pray and definitely don’t follow many of the traditional devotional practises associated with prayer, meaning that I may or may not be an experienced and competent private pray-er.  Like many believers, I have at times struggled a great deal with the prayer issue, wanting to be better at it, to do more of it, to be more effective at it.  Like many believers, I have felt guilty about not being better at prayer, for falling asleep when I should be praying, for not spending enough time in prayer.

But I eventually realized that worrying about praying was a colossal waste of time.  Whether I am praying or not, whether I am doing it enough or now, whether I am following the right process or not–absolutely none of this matters.  Whether I know what I am doing or not, my prayer happens.

That is because as Christians, we have a God whose grace knows no end–and this endless grace deals with our prayer issues.  In Romans 8.26-27 we read, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” (NIV).

The Holy Spirit prays for us.  What we can’t express or don’t know how to express or struggle to express, God himself through the Spirit expresses.  If I don’t know how to pray, it doesn’t really matter–the prayers I need to pray are being prayed by the Spirit.

Now, that doesn’t take away my responsibility to work at understanding prayer better.  It doesn’t mean that I can ignore prayer.  It doesn’t allow me to throw everything on God and sit back putting no effort into prayer.  I do need to pay attention  to prayer, I do need to learn more about prayer, I do need to put more effort into my prayer life.

But in the end, God is making sure that my prayers are prayed.  All ma prayers–the ones I know and should be praying, the ones I don’t know and therefore am not praying, the ones I can’t express and so don’t pray–God has already prayed, heard and answered.  There is a freedom and release in accepting this manifestation of God’s grace.

Once again, the grace of God comes in and helps us in an area of life and faith where we just can’t seem to get it right.  Whether I spend three hours on my knees or fall asleep during a prayer time or pray deeply and powerfully for hours, God’s grace is making sure that all the real prayers are being prayed.  And the Spirit that prays the prayer on my behalf  is God who answers the prayer.  God himself personally involves himself completely and intimately in my prayer life.

That old saying, “You don’t have a prayer” can never be true for a believer because we always have a prayer, a prayer that is prayed by God himself through the Holy Spirit.  Our confusion, our reluctance, our lack of discipline, our whatever–none of this can stop our real and true prayers for being prayed and answered.

In the long term, it is probably much better for our spiritual health if we work at developing our ability to pray.  As we develop our prayer ability, we will have a stronger sense of the presence of God, we will see wonderful answers to our prayers, we will help both ourselves and others when we become more comfortable in our prayers.

But whatever we do, we can trust that God is at work, gracefully and lovingly helping us.  Prayer is important, so important that God himself is involved in our prayers from start to finish.  I might have some confusion and struggle with prayer but God doesn’t and in the end, that is alll that matters.  My prayers are made and heard and answered.

May the peace of God be with you.

PRAY WITHOUT CEASING

Every now and then in my reading, I run across the story of some great giant of the faith.  Generally, the story tells about how this saint would get up at 3:00 or 4:00 after a couple of hours of sleep and spend hours and hours on their knees in prayer.  This is almost always accompanied by an  editorial comment that this prayer was the secret of their powerful ministry for God.  The writer then either explicitly or implicitly suggests that weak faith and poor ministry on the part of the reader is a result not following this model of prayer.

When I first began reading such reports a long time ago, I used to feel guilty and inadequate.   The only times I was up at 3 or 4 am was to go to the bathroom, not to pray.  As for kneeling down, I have suffered from arthritis in both knees since I was in my teens, which means that if I ever managed to actually get down on my knees, getting back up would probably require ropes and a paramedic.

Other books about prayer and faith suggest keeping a prayer list or prayer journal.  I tried that.  For years, I religiously maintained a prayer list that kept a careful daily balance of praying for church members, family members, missionaries, and so on.  Creating and maintaining the list took longer than praying it.  Eventually, I realized that doing the list thing wasn’t really helping my prayer life because I was basically reading off the list on autopilot.

I expect my failure to pray according to many of the accepted and heroic practises means that no biographer is going to write stories about my prayer life.  But since I am a writer and have a blog, I can write about my own prayer life–unfortunately, I am not sure what to say.  I do pray a lot professionally, as I mentioned in the last blog.  But privately, I sometimes wonder if I actually pray much.

I don’t have regular prayer times.  I don’t have a prayer list.  I do try to pray immediately when I receive a prayer request or hear about some need but I rarely carry that need on beyond that time.  I don’t use traditional formulas in my times of what may or may not be prayer–no “Our Father”, no “amen”, no kneeling, no bowed head or closed eyes.

What I do is try to be aware of the reality of God’s presence in my life.  I don’t necessarily try to feel God’s presence as much as be aware of the faith reality that no matter what I think or feel, God is with me.  I am not always successful with that–but when I am able to carry that thought in my mind, I find that I am talking to God a lot.

I realized that I respond to the awareness of the presence of God in the same way I respond to the presence of my wife or a good friend.  I make comments, ask questions, have periods of silence, tell jokes, express feelings.  Just as I rarely say to my wife, “Let’s begin a  conversation” and “End of conversation”, when I am aware of the presence of God, I don’t say, “I’m praying” and “I’m done praying”.

I might wonder why mosquitoes fit in the overall plan of creation, mention a friend or parishioner who is facing surgery, ask that the slow driver in front turn off the road soon, confess a failure to do what I think God wants me to do, comment on the beauty of a tall tree in full leaf, wish for rain for the grass seed I put in,  hope our middle child has the patience to deal with his somewhat difficult doctoral advisor, joke about something I heard, marvel at the ingenuity behind some new tech toy and on and on.  It sounds like two friends having a normal, everyday relationship.

If I am doing this with my wife, it feels good and ultimately helps our relationship grow.  If I am doing it with God, it still feels good–but it is prayer?  I think it is.  It may not follow the traditional patterns but it has two great advantages for me.  It protects my sleep and knees and it deepens my relationship with God.  It is an approach to prayer that won’t work for everyone but it does work for me.

May the peace of God be with you.

LET US PRAY

As a pastor, I pray a lot.  One of the unwritten rules that pastors discover very early is that people with “Rev” in front of their name are much better prayers than people without that designation.  There is very little if any truth in that rule but that is a topic for another blog.  The point for today is that as a pastor, I pray a lot.  During the two worship services I lead each Sunday, I begin with an invocation prayer, followed a bit later for an offertory prayer, then there is the pastoral prayer.  I also do a prayer before and after the sermon and close the worship service with a benediction, which is also a prayer.  If, as sometimes happens, we have a business session or a meal after the worship, I end up praying again.  And once in a while, someone will mention something before or after the worship and ask for prayer–which I often will do right there and then.

During the week, I pray before and after Bible Study meetings.  I offer prayer at every pastoral visit–and in all but 2 or three situations over the course of my ministry, people have not wanted me to pray.  When I finish a pastoral counselling session, I offer prayer.  If I go to a meeting of some kind, I offer prayer.  Occasionally, if I attend a public meal, I get to offer prayer.  In short, I pray a lot.

With all this praying, you would think I would be really good at it and understand prayer–after all, I am a professional pray-er.  I can and do pray at times when no one else seems to be able to.  I often have people tell me that they have lots of faith but really can’t pray out loud in public–they freeze up and stumble over words and are generally too tense and uptight to pray out loud in public.  Some of these people don’t mind at all speaking in public but praying stops them cold.

When I hear this, I am hoping that the issue is not their difficulty with praying but a difficulty with being in public.  But whatever it is, it does seem that people have a problem with prayer.  And, I confess that for all my prayer activity, I too have some questions and concerns and difficulties with prayer.  Sure, I pray a lot–but I have discovered that for me, the public prayers I do so much of are relatively easy.  I struggle with the private and personal prayers.

Public prayer is easy for me–when I am praying in public, I am praying for others–I am expressing to God their concerns and needs and thanks and all the rest.  I offer these prayers on behalf of others–I stand between them and God, communicating with each for the other.  This middle-person role is the basic definition of a priest.  I can do that.  I work at understanding what is going on in the hearts and minds of those I am praying for and do my best to present what I discover from them to God.  As well, I call on all my knowledge and experience of God to bring something from God to them as I pray.

This priestly type of praying isn’t a problem for me and my pastoral experience suggests that my priestly prayers do help people connect with God.  In both words and deeds, people have shown evidence that these prayers have helped them connect with God and find something in the connection that helps them.

But for all that, prayer of all forms is still an area of faith that I am working on.  I have lots of theories and lots of knowledge and I definitely know that prayer is an effective and powerful tool for me as a pastor and as an individual but–well, the “but” is sort of hard to define.  If I had to define it, I would have to say that for all my public, professional praying, I am not sure that I do a lot of private and personal praying.

That might sound strange–I should know when I am praying.  I say, “Dear God” or “Our Father” or some other official prayer intro and get going, ending the whole thing with “in Jesus name, amen” or “amen” if I am rushed.  I am either praying or not praying and should know the difference.

But I don’t always know when and if I am praying–and maybe I actually don’t need to know the difference.  I will look at that in the next blog.

May the peace of God be with you.

WE ARE CALLED TO JUDGE

Christianity is often seen as a personal and private relationship between the believer and God, a relationship developed through faith in Jesus.  And that is true–or at least part of the truth.  But Christianity is also a faith where the private and personal relationship with God is to be expressed in community. We are called to love each other as Christ loved us (John 14.34-35) and even more, our ability to relate to each other shows the reality of our private and personal relationship with God. (1 John 4.20-21)

So Christianity is a faith in which the community pays a very important part.  When we are in relationship with God through Christ, we are also called to be in relationship with other believers through Christ as well.  And because we are all human and all at different stages of our growth in faith, our Christian communities are not always going to be harmonious places where everything is perfect.

There are going to be times when someone within the community goes against the standards of the community or of God.  There are going to be people within the community whose words or actions are not only troubling but move into the unacceptable.  Sometimes, because of the status of the individual in the community or the nature of the community, the unacceptable is ignored, overlooked or downplayed.

But there are times when it must be dealt with.  We need to make a judgement call.  In fact, Jesus calls on believers to be willing to police the community.  He even gives us a process to use for those occasions when someone within the community of believers goes outside the lines.  It is found in Matthew 18.15-17.  Briefly, Jesus gives a four step process to deal with sins committed within the community:  a private attempt at reconciliation; a small group attempt at the same thing; having the church as a whole deal with the issue and of all that fails, treating the offender as a pagan or tax collector.  This last step, by the way, probably indicates that we begin treating the person with even more love and concern than we have been showing, based on how Jesus relates to tax collectors and pagans.

The point of this is to say that we believers are called upon to pass judgement on people within our community of believers. I have sometimes tried to make this sound less pointed by saying that we are to evaluate each other; support each other; enable each other or some other nice sounding phrase but really, this passage calls us as believers to judge each other and correct each other.

And it is not an isolated concept.  We run into a similar sentiment in Galatians 6.1,”Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.”  NIV.  No matter how we spin the passage, it requires believers to make judgements about the behaviour of other believers.  We are called to look at others and decide if their behaviour, words and attitudes are within the acceptable bounds of the Christian faith.  And then, we are called to correct those whom we judge to have crossed the line into the unacceptable.

Certainly, the Scriptures show us that correction–and presumably the judging–are to be done in an orderly way and “gently”.  But the evaluation or judging is to be done.  It is part of the nature of the Christian community–we help each other grow and develop in faith.  At least some of the time, that help towards growth and development will be the result of a judgement call by some other member of the community.  Neither Jesus nor Paul is dealing with self-reporting here.  They are both calling on members of the Christian community to become aware of and concerned with the lives of the rest of the community partly through making judgements as to the rightness and wrongness of the behaviour, words or attitudes of other community members.

This has the potential for disaster, which is probably why Christian communities prefer one of two approaches to applying these passages.  Some, perhaps the majority, prefer to ignore these words, citing the importance of not judging.  Others jump in with both feet and create a coercive and damaging community that generally takes itself in directions that neither Paul nor Jesus envisioned with their words.

Fortunately, there is a way to care for and even judge each other in the community in a way that respects both the Scripture and those involved–and we looked at that in the next post. Sorry about that–I mixed up the posting dates on the posts.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW TO JUDGE

As humans, we seem to have an innate desire and ability to judge others.  We might feel a bit guilty about doing it; we might be very quiet about it; we might even restrict our judgements to a very few carefully defined areas of life–but in the end, we are all going to make judgements about people and their actions.   Not even Jesus’ words from Matthew 7.1, “Do not judge…” actually stop us from judging.  These words might slow us down a little and drive our judgemental opinions underground but they really don’t stop us.

And that may be why Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He goes on to tell us about people with planks and sawdust in their eyes.  This is one of those Biblical passages that reveal Jesus’ sense of humour–it we forget for a moment that these are supposed to be “holy” words, we are treated to a scene worthy of a Three Stooges movie.

A man with a huge plank in his eye walks around, pretending he is fine.  He encounters another man struggling with a small piece of sawdust in his eye and immediately sets about scolding the man for getting the sawdust in his eye while at the same time moving in the remove the offending sawdust.  Then the fun really begins.  The plank bumps the sawdust man, knocking his down.  As plank man reaches down to help him up (plank man is obviously a Type A fixer), the plank bangs against the ground, jolting plank man and causing severe pain.  Sawdust man gets up, only to be knocked down again as plank man shifts position to relieve the pain in his eyes so he can remove the speck of sawdust from sawdust man’s eye.

Anyway, Jesus has a solution to the avoid the whole slapstick scene.  He says to plank man the words we read in Matthew 7.5, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (NIV)  The whole comedy falls apart when plank man no longer has a plank in his eye.

It seems to me that Jesus is telling us that judgement begins at home.  We look to ourselves first.  One of the pop psychology notions that people like to repeat actually has some truth behind it–we often get most upset by what we see of ourselves in others.  It becomes much easier to judge and condemn someone else for doing what we are doing than it is to judge and deal with ourselves.

Following Jesus’ words about first removing our plank, maybe we need to be willing to turn our judgements around before we act on them.  When I see something in others that upsets me and just begs to be judged, maybe I need to spend some time in front of a spiritual/psychological/emotional/behavioural mirror looking for the same or a similar thing in my life.  That often requires some painful and difficulty self-honesty, which is why we prefer to find it in others.

We find the issues in ourselves and we judge ourselves as being in need of help.  Removing the plank will involve getting the help we need to remove the plank and since it is in our eye, the removal will sometimes be as difficult and painful as keeping the plank in our eye.  It will likely take serious time–the plank may be painful but it is our plank and we are attached to it on some deep level of our being.  It will definitely require that we ask for and accept the help that God so freely offers to all of us, as well as the help of others, regardless of the size of the plank we carry in our eye.

While we are in the process of dealing with our plank, we are disqualified from judging others, at least in our plank area–if we judge others while we have the plank, both we and the other person are going to be hurt and neither the plank nor the sawdust will be removed.  But once our plank is gone, we have a whole different way of relating to people.  We can share the story of dealing with our plank and offer to use our experience to help people deal with their sawdust–or even their plank.

We are still making a judgement that the sawdust they have is a problem–but since we began with ourselves by judging our plank, we are going to be more graceful and loving as we offer to help with the sawdust.  We will be God’s agents in the process, able to really help someone because we have found a way.

May the peace of God be with you.