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.

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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.

WE CAN’T JUDGE

            One of the parts of ministry that I love the most is Bible Study.  When I lead a Bible Study, I try to create an open, caring and safe atmosphere where anyone feels free to say anything.  My role becomes a combination of traffic director and moderator.  I also love to play devil’s advocate, raising questions and making comments about the questions and comments that come as part of the group’s discussion.

One comment that eventually comes up in most Bible Study groups commonly arises when the group or some of its members begins discussion some group or individual whose conduct goes against the standards of some members of the group.  As the group begins to discuss the rightness and wrongness of the conduct, inevitably, someone will make the following or similar comment, “But we can’t judge others!”

Unless we are in the middle of a really important thought that just can’t wait to be dealt with, I generally respond to that comment by shifting from discussion moderator to a  more aggressive mode of leadership–I want the group to really look at that comment because it is one of those comments that sound really good and Biblical and loving and all that but which is in the end a too simplistic understanding of an important Biblical message.

The comment comes from Matthew 7.1-2 and isn’t actually a prohibition on judging.  Rather, it seems to be to be a good statement on the reality of the human judgementalness.  The passage says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  (NIV)

I think that while the passage views a lack of judgement of others as an ideal, it also sees the reality that we humans will be judgemental–all of us have a line between our accepting side and our judging side.  For some, the line is well defined and clear, with very little on the acceptable side and a great deal on the unacceptable side.  Others have a very big acceptable side and a very small unacceptable side–but the unacceptable side does exist and anyone on that side will be judged.

We are human and something about our human nature causes us to judge others.  Jesus might prefer if we didn’t judge others–but if we can’t stop our judgemental side, we need at least to be aware that the standards we use to judge others will be used on us.  I don’t think Jesus is telling us that God will judge us by our own standards–God shows his judgement standards through the grace of the cross and the resurrection.

Most likely, Jesus is telling us that the way we judge others will be the way they judge us.  If we are harsh, critical and unwilling to accept any deviation from our standards, we will eventually discover that that becomes the way people look at us.  Rather than see us as paragons of morality, we will be seen as small and critical people, whose lives will be under scrutiny all the time as people look for the chinks and cracks in our armour as avidly as we look for their chinks and cracks.

Harsh judgement based on narrowly defined limits of acceptable and unacceptable always returns.  It is like a boomerang–we throw it out and mysteriously, it returns to us, occasionally hitting us if we are not careful.  If I let everyone I see know that I find this or that part of their behaviour unacceptable, they will let me know that they find my behaviour and attitudes unacceptable, either by directly telling me or more likely by ignoring me or going out of their way to ignore me.

And this is bad on many levels.  As believers, we are to be a positive model of the Christian faith–and being overly judgemental simply isn’t an attractive model of the Christian faith.  We end up not developing the kind of relationships that God can use to bring people to faith.  In some cases, we will actually drive people away from the faith–in my pastoral ministry is has not been unusual to hear people tell me that the ultimate reason they haven’t been open to the Christian faith is the judgemental attitude of some believer.

While judgemental attitudes should probably not be part of our faith, they are there.  But as Jesus warns us, we need to remember that the judgement we use will always come back to us. That by itself is probably a good reason to temper our judgemental attitudes.

May the peace of God be with you.

EMBRACING COLOUR

            Recently, one of the congregations I serve held an outdoor worship service at a local park.  As part of the worship, I asked people to look at Creation and find something of God to share with the rest of the group, using Romans 1.20 as a springboard into the exercise.  One of the participants chose to talk about the greens he was surrounded by.  He was excited about God’s extravagance in creating so many shades of green.

While I could appreciate his excitement, I didn’t share his vision.  I am colour blind and have difficulty recognizing green at all, let alone being able to see many different shades and variations of green–for me, there is maybe green and beyond that, a blob of indistinguishable colour.

But my physical disability doesn’t predispose me to black and white thinking.  I like colour, even if I don’t see it well.  In my photography, I have always preferred colour to black and white–and in life and theology, I much prefer colour to black and white.  In fact, I have come to realize that even what I and others sometimes call grey is actually a riot of colour that is best appreciated when we are willing to put the effort into understanding it.

Any issue that some people want to make black and white and I have called grey is probably better viewed as a riot of shades of all the colours that some claim to actually see.  And maybe our role as believers is to learn to embrace the colours of life, rather than try to reduce them to a simplistic black and white or less simplistic grey.

For me, the colours of life represent the stories and circumstances and happenings and pains and joys and heights and depths that make up a real life.  To try and reduce an individual’s life to black and white denies the reality of that person’s life.  To see it is shades of grey misses the vitality and aliveness of that life.

To see the colours of that life makes that life more understandable and approachable.  It allows us to understand the person better, to celebrate the bright and lively colours and struggle with the dark and heavy colours.  It gives us the opportunity to be used by God to introduce the colours of love and grace and hope that the Gospel offers, colours that can brighten and even replace the darkness of despair and confusion and pain.

The more I get to know people, the less I am concerned about the black and white issues that used to upset so many when I was in college.  And, I have discovered, the more I discover and embrace the colours of an individual’s life, the better I am at becoming God’s agent in that life, being used by God to introduce even more colour into that life.

Life really can’t be reduced to black and white.  Morality for some believers may seem like it can be made black and white but even morality cannot be made so simple and simplistic without doing theological and practical damage to the reality of life in general and individual lives in particular.  And even more, trying to reduce life to black and white or even shades of grey takes love out of the picture.  And, as I Corinthians 13.1-3 points out so clearly, without love nothing else matters.

So this has been my journey from my first encounters with black and white, moving on to grey and then to the discovery of the range of colours available.  Real life is a riot of colours and shades and tones and hues.  Many of these colours and shades and tones and hues I can’t see in the physical world–I probably can’t even describe them without resorting to a very scientific listing of wavelengths and so on, which sort of takes the colour out of the colour.

But I have been and am learning to recognize the wealth of colour in life, the shades and tones and hues that make up an individual’s particular life situation.  I have been and am learning how God wants to introduce new colours into that life and how he can use colour blind me to be part of that process.

I am colour blind in many settings–but this blind person is learning how to really see others–and it is great to see the fulness of colour, even if it is only metaphorically.

May the peace of God be with you.

DISCOVERING GREY

The summer before I began my year of study at the Christian college, I spend  most of the summer in Jamaica as part of a Canadian Army Cadet exchange program.  A large group of us from all across Canada had been selected as a result of our performance on various tests and military activities.  While it didn’t raise much money for college, it was a great way to spend the summer.

Most of the guys on the trip were looking forward to one thing–the cheap and easy to obtain alcohol.  Jamaican rules on alcohol consumption were somewhat relaxed at that point and everyone on the exchange knew how cheap and easy it was to obtain.  I didn’t drink alcohol so was more interested in the chance to see another culture, which made me a bit strange in the eyes of the other guys.  However, it didn’t make me an outcaste since I didn’t bother spending any time telling them about the evils of alcohol.

We became friends and generally enjoyed being together but as is always the case, some of us were better friends that others.  One member of the group, Ken, and I spent a lot of time together.  He drank alcohol heavily and frequently–and it was clear that his alcohol use didn’t begin with the trip to Jamaica.  Looking back now, I realize that he was a 17 year old alcoholic.  I never did get all the details but learned enough to realize that the alcohol provided him with a way to deal with some pretty difficult life issues.  We would talk and laugh and joke and he would carry on with life like all the rest of us–but then at least a couple of times a week, he would finish a pint of rum and space out for a while.  He was never belligerent, never aggressive, never obnoxious–he would just space out and the next day, he would be fine.

So, I went from there to college, where the majority of the student body openly and clearly made it plain that alcohol was an evil, disgusting thing that destroyed people and those who used it in any way shape or form were on the way to hell.  In the black and white thinking of many, alcohol and those who used it were one and the same–both alcohol and those who used it were to be avoided and condemned.  There was no other way–to do anything but condemn and avoid opened the door to following them right straight to hell.

I listened–most of it I had heard before.  But as I listened, I thought of Ken.  There was no question that he drank alcohol.  There was no question that alcohol had a major hold on his life.  But I simply couldn’t condemn Ken.  It wasn’t just because I like him and we got along well together.  It was because I saw beyond the alcohol to the real person, someone who had great potential that was being stifled not by his use of alcohol but by the factors in his life that drove him to the alcohol.

I began to realize that condemning alcohol wouldn’t help Ken.  Condemning Ken wouldn’t help Ken.  If all the alcohol in the world were removed, Ken would still have a major problem and would likely find something to help him avoid the problem.  Alcohol was red herring in the Ken story–something flashy to catch our attention but which really wasn’t the real issue.

In short, my exposure to black and white thinking coupled with my experience with people like Ken was forcing me to look at the vast grey blur that is real life.  Black and white solutions may exist in some times and places–but more often than not, life is seriously filled with grey situations and realities that aren’t dealt with by the simple application of a black and white formula.

Ken’s problem wasn’t really that he drank alcohol–his problem was the life situation that forced a 17 year old to become an alcoholic in order of cope.  The grey reality was and is that in order to really help Ken, Ken would have to be the focus, not the alcohol.  And as long as we focused on the alcohol, we couldn’t help Ken.

While it would sometimes be nice if life were as black and white as some believers want it to be, the truth is that life is grey and black and white answers can do more harm than good in the grey reality that we live in.

May the peace of God be with you.