WHAT IS GOSSIP?

I love digging into the meanings of words–but I generally don’t bother much with dictionary definitions of words, unless it is a totally unfamiliar word to me or it is a Swahili word I haven’t used in a while.  Dictionary definitions of words are important and significant because they tell us what the general population means when the word is used.  But there are two problems with dictionary definitions.

The first problem is that that what words mean to people changes over time.  For some reason, people seem to shift the meaning of words in ways that no one can predict.  As an example, consider the word “gay”.  At one point, it was a synonym for “happy” and was used that way–a Christmas carol says, “Don we now our gay apparel” and the old Flintstones cartoon show promised us “a gay old time” in its theme song.  Today, the word has a very different meaning, one that can give a very ironic meaning to these old songs.

The second problem with words is that words also have another meaning, one that can be harder to define but which people tend to understand.  The meaning can have an emotional content, a practical content, a contextual content–all of which can go well beyond the dictionary meaning.

All of that is to lead into a discussion of gossip.  Dictionaries suggest that gossip is the passing along of information whose validity is in question.  But as I have been thinking about the word and the practise–or, to be perfectly honest, my own practise of gossip–I think that definition really only scratches the surface.

When I gossip, the issue generally isn’t whether what I am saying is true or not.  In fact, I have an aversion to being wrong so I try hard to have my facts straight, even when I am gossiping.  Generally, the issue for me is why I am saying something about someone.  And after some soul-searching this week, I realized that the times I can be accused of gossiping are the times I am saying something to make myself look good–I want to be seen as someone in the know, someone with knowledge, someone who has a superior grasp of the situation.

In my desire to look good, I turn another person into a tool.  I can climb on them to get myself higher.  Ultimately, I am guilty of disrespecting and dehumanizing the other person so that I can gain some selfish advantage.  And that selfish advantage doesn’t generally have to be some grand and long-lasting thing.  Just getting the best comment at coffee with someone by showing how much I know about another person’s issues is sufficient.

I don’t like that–and am not too happy that I wrote myself into the corner of having to admit not only that I gossip but also making myself look at why I do it.  Now, I could make myself look better by saying that I don’t do it very often and I at least try to have my facts straight and–well, there are lots of other ands but nothing really changes the fact that I actually abuse other people for my own temporary and minor gain.

I would like to say that having forced myself to take this look at myself and confess my sin, I am now going to change and never gossip again.  I would like to say that  but I know it isn’t that easy.  In all honesty, I have to say that I will likely gossip again–but I am hoping my confession means that I will feel guilty enough that the gain from gossip is blunted.  I am hoping (and praying) that having confessed, I will be more willing to seek another path that leads me away from using other people for my own gain and benefit.

While there are sometimes when people experience overnight change, I have generally found that I have a slower, more incremental process which I hope I have started with this blog entry.  When I realized that my gossip is actually an abuse of others, that hurt me and my self-image.  Now comes the hard work of changing patterns and doing what I have been telling others to do and which God is obviously telling me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

A PRAYER REQUEST

I mentioned gossip in the last post and that began a train of thought leading to this blog.  Mentioning gossip reminded me of a joke I sometimes use when talking about gossip and the church.  It goes like this:

Q:  How do Baptists (or whatever group you prefer) gossip?

A:  They say, “I have a prayer request to share with you.”

We humans love to gossip but since gossip is one of those things specifically mentioned in the lists of things we believers shouldn’t do, we need to find a way to do it that at least sounds acceptable.  We all know that the prayers are really a minor part of the whole process but it at least gives a veneer of respectability to something which is no different from what everyone does.

We humans love to talk about other human beings.  Sharing what we know, think we know or speculate we know is probably as old as speech.  Probably the first intelligible conversation between people was a warning about the predator hiding in the tall grass–but the second was probably someone telling about how so and so was so stupid that he almost got eaten by the predator.

Gossip seems to be almost a necessity for humanity.  Get people together, provide coffee, tea, wine, beer or boredom and the talk will almost always turn to someone who isn’t present.  Rarely will it stay on basic concern for that person’s welfare.  Eventually, the comments will become negative, pointed and exaggerated.  Depending on the status of the individual in the group, the comments can be gentle or nasty but in the end, the group members will feel something that made the process of talking about the absent one(s) worthwhile.  The person being talked about, however, rarely gains status as a result of the conversation.

And this is the real problem with gossip–it contributes to a lessening of both the one being gossiped and those doing the gossiping.  There are certainly legitimate times and reasons to talk about someone who isn’t present–but in general, the purpose isn’t to help anyone but to make the gossipers feel something–a superiority, a sense of being better, a feeling of being in the know, all at the expense of the absent person’s reputation.

As a pastor, I have an ambivalent relationship to gossip.  I think it is wrong to talk about someone absent without their permission and knowledge.  But at the same time, the gossip going around the church and community often provides me with important information that benefits my ministry–the gossip helps me anticipate and deal with issues that may or may not develop in the church.

But in order to get the information, I have to hear the gossip, which encourages the whole process.  I let people know that as pastor, I am not going to tell them anything I know about people and their situations because of confidentiality issues but in the end, it is as much gossiping to hear it as to say it.  I am still working on that dilemma because it does help me as pastor to know what is being said.  Could I do my work without hearing a lot of what I hear–probably–but I would likely be slower picking up on some things that are easier dealt with earlier.

If I could make everyone stop gossiping, things would be great.  But in truth, I can’t even really control myself in that area.  Give me a cup of coffee, some free time and a group of non-church friends and before too long, I am telling the group about our mutual acquaintance who….

So, at best I am a passive consumer of gossip (purely for professional reasons) and at worst, I am as involved as anyone on the giving and receiving of gossip.  But then, it gets even more complicated.

I am sometimes called upon to give a reference for people, a process that generally involves no more than writing a letter.  But sometimes, I get a call from the person who received the letter.  Or, I might simply be contacted about someone in the context of a job search, asking me about someone we both know.  Is it gossip to talk about the person to the prospective employer?

This is getting complicated.  Maybe I need to figure out just what gossip is–it might help me to know when I am receiving and sharing legitimate and important information as opposed to gossiping.   So that is my task and the topic for the next post–what is gossip?

May the peace of God be with you.

CHURCHES FIGHT

Recently, it was our church’s turn to lead the weekly worship service at a local nursing home.  It was my first time doing this since starting at the church but some of the choir had been there before.  I arrived early as always and chatted with some of the staff and residents as they gathered in the multi-purpose room that was our sanctuary for the afternoon.  One of the staff people had heard I had been doing some fill in preaching at another congregation, which prompted her to ask how things were going at that church.

That quickly lead to her talking about the recent struggles the congregation had, which lead several of the residents to talk about struggles that other congregations were having.  In the midst of the back and forth, a young woman staffer brought another resident to the room and as she was positioning the wheelchair, was obviously listening to the conversation.  Picking me out as the obvious pastor, she asked, “Do churches really have fights?”

I immediately thought that she was being ironic, since everyone knows that churches fight.  But it quickly became clear that she didn’t know this.  She didn’t have a church background and said that she just assumed that churches were supposed to be places where stuff like that didn’t happen.  It was difficult to follow up with her, interact with the others having the conversation and greet new patients coming to the service so all I was able to do in response to her question was assure her that although churches do fight, they are not supposed to.   With that, she headed off to other duties and I began the worship service.

Given the nature of life in small communities, I may or may not get another chance to talk with this woman–there is so much I would have liked to say about the church and its potential as well as its propensity to fight.  I do have a concern that she might write the church and the faith off because of this chance conversation–I hope and pray not but the reality is this may be what happens.

Churches do fight–and in rural areas like ours, everyone soon finds out about this reality.  Although only a minority of people in Canada actually attend worship or are actively involved in churches, we are all related in some way, shape or form and being human, we love to trade stories–I won’t call it gossip because that might be a good topic for another blog.  The woman at the nursing home who didn’t know that churches fight obviously hadn’t been a part of any such relationship net but I am sure that she will eventually know people who have been involved in and hurt by a church fight.

What bothers me is that in spite of this woman’s lack of knowledge, many others do know about church fights–and often, this is the only real knowledge of the church that they have.  This becomes the public witness of the church and the faith–we fight.  I know lots of churches in our area that are doing all kinds of good ministry, have good worship services, provide their communities with support and service and so on but mostly, if I hear about a church, it is because they had a fight, are having a fight or look like they are getting ready to have a fight.

I can’t stop churches from fighting.  I can’t stop the stories of church fights from spreading.  I can’t give everyone a long explanation of why churches fight and why they shouldn’t. What I can do is work with the churches I am called to and help them learn better ways to deal with their disagreements.  I can work with myself and learn how to better deal with myself in the context of the disagreements that I am involved in.  I can write and teach and pray things that will encourage the wider church to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.

To me, the church is the place where people of faith are supposed to be–the gathering of believers called together to help each other grow and serve.  A church fighting itself is a complete denial of all that we are supposed to be and are called to be.  While I wish church fights were so rare that the staff person’s reaction was normal, that isn’t the case–but I can hope and dream and pray.

May the peace of God be with you.

A CUP OF COFFEE

            When I am on the road by myself on a long trip, I am wise enough to stop regularly for a break, which generally involves a bathroom and a cup of coffee.  But because I don’t want to stop long, the coffee is takeout and I want to be in and out as quickly as possible so I can get on the road again to get to wherever I am going to do whatever I am going to do.  Generally, that involves some kind of ministry–visiting someone in the regional hospital, for example.

So, I stop for coffee and a bathroom.  I stand in the line for the coffee, getting a bit frustrated when the people in front of me haven’t looked at the signs showing what is available to make their choices.  Instead, they get to the counter as ask a million questions, ordering the most obscure and time consuming items on the menu.  The frustration grows as the counter person struggles with the process, quickly showing that this is likely the very first time this particular individual has worked here.

Finally, I get to the counter and place my order–only two things:  a coffee and a snack (you can’t drink coffee on the road without a snack, right?).  The counter person gets the order wrong and I have to correct it.  As it is being filled the counter person makes another mistake and another when punching in the prices.  And to top it all off, the card reader won’t read the gift card I want to use, the card I know has enough money on it to cover everything.  All the while, I am getting more and more frustrated, watching the time pass and the mistakes multiply.  I want to bolt out of the line and get back on the road–don’t these people realize that I have important ministry to do and that they are wasting my time with this “fast” process?

I would go somewhere else but I like the coffee here and anyway, somewhere else is probably going to be the same and then I would waste even more time.  I just want a cup of coffee (and snack) so I can get back on the road and get on with both my life and my ministry.

Hold that scene in your mind–I have confess that this has never actually happened to me this way.  All these things have happened but not all together.  This is the coffee stop from hell, the time when all that could possible go wrong goes wrong.  But it does provide a sense of what I sometimes feel and think when in a situation like that.

My question is, “What do I say to the counter person?”  I am always tempted to slam them with some comment about the service, their lack of skill or intelligence, or my decision never to return.  I would like to make their day as miserable as mine has become because of a simple coffee stop.  I want to grumble and complain and make them at least feel bad that they have inconvenienced me.

But I generally don’t do any of that.  I know that I will be back–I like the coffee and they have a convenient location.  Getting even won’t do anything much because most likely, anything I say will have been said before and with a lot more choice words than I generally use.  Making a scene of any kind just slows me down even more.

And besides all that, I am a Christian and my faith needs to be an active part of my life, even when I am suffering through the coffee stop from hell.  Even if the counter person doesn’t know or care that I am a Christian, I know I am a Christian and I know that part of my commitment to God is buying my coffee as a Christian.  I can’t leave my faith in the car while I run in to the coffee shop.  Mind you, giving a condensed version of the Christian faith probably isn’t a good idea in the coffee shop lineup either–that will only encourage others to act like I want to act.

So, I take my coffee and thank the counter person with a smile.  If they apologize for the confusion, I offer them a kind of forgiveness by telling them it’s okay.  Then, I head for the car, hoping they actually got the order right.  It might not be a big thing, but I feel that I did at least function in as Christian a way as possible, maybe shining some light in the darkness.

May the peace of God be with you.

DOING GOD’S WILL

When I was in my early teens, I graduated to the teen boys Sunday School class.  We met at the back right hand corner of the sanctuary with the adult Bible class at the front middle.  Our teacher was a great guy who was willing to show up every week to teach this group of teen ages boys, some of whom  were only there because they were forced to be there by parents.

Needless to say, that class wasn’t the most attentive and focused.  The teacher was patient and loving and everything that the teacher of a class like that should be.  I was a relatively new Christian at that point and while I wasn’t yet aware of God’s call, I was beginning to realize that my faith was calling for more of me that I had originally thought.

So, one hot, sunny Sunday morning, a couple of the students in the class were really disruptive and difficult.  They talked all through class, had a fight during the prayer, laughed when the teacher asked them to calm down and were generally typical teen aged boys cooped up in a stuffy sanctuary on a beautiful day. The teacher worked hard that day, trying to teach us a lesson and keep these two on line.

In my mind, I was planning on helping him.  These two were being totally disruptive and even more, being disrespectful to the God I was just beginning to understand and follow.  It appeared to me that both the teacher and God needed my help on this one.  So, as the teacher struggled to teach the lesson, I was making plans to take care of things.  Some of the plans included getting the two of them alone and physically making sure they knew not to mess with the teacher or God anymore.

Fortunately, I never carried out the plans.  Unfortunately, I still am prone to the thought that God needs my help to straighten situations and people out.  I see things that aren’t right and begin to think that God needs a little bit of help–or a lot of help–on this one.  And as I look around, I realize that I am not alone on that.  Lots of people in lots of situations think and act as if God needs some help to accomplish his will.

The help we think God needs can be anything from a severe tongue lashing of the offender to excommunication to actual physical violence.  We feel that somehow, we need to defend God and protect him and the faith that he calls us to.  Protecting God is really doing God’s will, isn’t it?

The truth, I have discovered, is somewhat different.  In the end, a God who needs my protection isn’t much of a God.  A God I have to defend probably isn’t worth the effort of defending.  A God who can’t accomplish his purpose unless I take independent action really doesn’t have much going for him.

My desire to protect, defend and help God out comes from my desire to have God become an extension of me.  The God I feel the need to protect, defend and help is a god who wants what I want, does what I think should be done and does it in the way I think it should be done.

But I am not God, which is fortunate for me, God and the rest of the world.  Rather than needing me to defend him, God calls me to become like him.  Rather than me protecting God, he wants me to learn how to surrender to him and follow him.  God doesn’t need me to defend him–he wants to show me his love and grace and wants me to be with him.

God is in control and doesn’t need my help.  He does invite me to take an active role in doing his will and work, not because he needs me but because he loves me and wants me to have the blessing of being involved.  Being God, he is capable of doing all that he wants and needs done on his own but chooses to allow me and the rest of us the privilege of being part of his process.  But it is his process and his direction and his way.

I have discovered that when  I stop trying to defend God, I have an easier time being with God and taking part in his real work.

May the peace of God be with you.

SPEAKING FOR GOD

Almost every Sunday of the year, excluding vacation Sundays, I stand in a church at least twice a day and preach a sermon.  Before that point in time, I have spend a lot of time thinking about what I am going to say, reading the Biblical passages that I am working on carefully, doing some commentary work and so on.  I write out my message and go over it several times, revising and editing and trying to make sure that it says exactly what I want it to say.

Part of what pushes me in this preparation process is that I am literally speaking for God.  I am telling people what God wants them to hear–or at least, that is what I am supposed to be doing and hope I am doing.  And even more significantly, the people I speak to on any given Sunday will hear what I have to say as a message from God.

And that understanding of what I am doing Sunday after Sunday scares me–a lot.  I remember the first time I realized what was actually happening when I was preaching.  I was speaking at the university chapel when I was a student.  The chapel wasn’t full but there were a number of people there, all of whom were supposed to be paying attention to what I was saying.  While there were a few who were obviously somewhere else, the majority were paying attention, listening to what I was saying–and I was suddenly aware that I was feeling really scared.

This wasn’t the fear of being in front of people–I have that nervousness every time I speak in any public context but even back then, I knew how to deal with it.  It wasn’t the fear of any particular person in the audience–the fact that there were faculty members whose courses I was taking or would take didn’t bother me all that much.  No, this was a deep fear that maybe what I was saying wasn’t what I claimed it was–maybe I was speaking my words and ideas instead of speaking God’s words and ideas.

How would I know the difference?  My messages don’t come to me as a special delivery from heaven.  I don’t get an email from God@heaven.net each week with my sermon attached.  My sermons grow out of a process of thinking and praying and reading and researching and writing that I put a lot of effort into–but how do I know that what I am saying is actually what God wants me to say and not the product of my own needs and wants?

Because I am a preacher, I don’t get to hear a lot of other sermons.  But when I have taught preaching at various times and places, I have had the task of telling other people that their practise sermons seemed to be more their own invention than a message from God.  Leaving aside the issue of whether I am qualified to do that for another time, how is it that I can see when others are disguising their own stuff as God’s stuff and not be able to know when I myself am doing the same thing?

I have always encouraged people to question my sermons and have even taught them how to do that.  Unfortunately,  most people listening to a sermon aren’t much interested in doing the work necessary to critique and evaluate my sermons to determine if I am actually speaking for God.  I have even experimented with feedback times and have found them very valuable but there generally isn’t much focus on whether what I said was actually what God wanted me to say.

And so, week after week,  I stand in the pulpit and speak for God.  I work hard at the preparation process, I encourage people to do their own thinking and research, I study and read the Bible daily.  But in the end, I have to be accountable to myself and God over whether I am actually speaking for God or not.  And for me, one of the ways of doing that is not to allow myself to assume that whatever I want to say must be what God wants said.

I am human and that great idea for a sermon may not be from God–it might come from my internal drives and needs and wishes.  Regularly asking myself if I am really speaking for God is an important part of keeping myself accountable before the congregation and God.

May the peace of God be with you.

SO, DON’T ASK?

Every now and then when I am leading a Bible Study someone in the group begins to struggle with a particularly deep issue, one that eventually leads us to one of those mysteries of faith that may or may not have a final answer.  Since my Bible study groups are flexible enough to allow discussion of just about any question, we spend a bit of time on the student’s issue.  Sometimes, as we discuss, the student who began the question begins to look concerned.  When I ask them what is going on, I sometimes get an interesting response.

They want to know if we should be talking about this.  It seems like drawing near to these faith mysteries worries them–maybe we are trampling all over sacred ground.  They begin to wonder if the proper approach to the mysteries of faith isn’t to metaphorically at least remove our shoes and bow down, acknowledge our dependence on God, accept that he is God and we aren’t God and back away from the question or issue in fear and trembling.

There is good reason for some people to react that way.  People of faith, any faith, have not always been the most open about asking and allowing questions.  There is almost always a rule against asking certain kinds of questions in faith, any faith.  The rules might be written but more likely they are unwritten–but no less powerful for being unwritten.  The rules generally include not questioning the agreed upon basics, the structure and organization or the leadership.

In my Bible study groups, I try to operate without those rules because I think they are unnecessary and limiting.  Questions are important–and questions that some say shouldn’t be asked are, in my mind anyway, some of the most important.  And, when I run into a question that some say I shouldn’t ask, I immediately have another question, “Why shouldn’t I ask the question?”

Even when those questions take us into the realm the unanswerable, we need to ask them.  Going back to the book of Job, it was Job, the man who asked the questions that others thought he shouldn’t ask, who received satisfaction at the end of the book.  He didn’t really get an answer to his questions, at least not an answer he was looking for, but the asking and the conversation with God resulting from the question did something very positive for him and his faith.

Asking the questions isn’t wrong.  Asking the questions, even the hard and unanswerable questions is a valuable process.  If we ask and get answers, that is great.  If we ask and discover in the process one of the unanswerable mysteries of the faith, that too is great.  We have still learned something about ourselves, God and our faith.  We might not have learned what we were asking about, but we still learned something important.

There is one caveat here, though.  There is a time when we might want to at least consider not asking questions.  If we are not sure we want to know the answer, we might want to hold off asking the question, at least until after we have asked why we don’t want to know the answer.  If we ask the question knowing we might not like the answer, it is much harder sometimes to hear and process the answer or lack thereof.

Aside from that, ask the question, whatever it is.  There may be a readily available, easy to grasp answer just sitting there.  There may be a more difficult, harder to understand answer that will take some work.  There may be a wealth of unsatisfactory answers that we have to dig through.  There may not be a good answer now but in asking and encouraging the question, we may get an answer someday. And occasionally, the question may point us directly at the deep, mysterious unanswerable questions that show us the limits of our humanness in the face of God’s unlimitedness.

There may not always be answers but there will always be questions to be asked.  And when we begin to realize that the questions we allow ourselves to ask are sometimes as important as the answers we get, we will probably be much better off.

May the peace of God be with you.