HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I have often wondered why our culture ended up with New Year’s in the middle of nowhere chronologically speaking.  By that I mean there is really absolutely nothing to mark the transition except an arbitrary mark on a calendar.  Other cultures have clear and explicit reasons for the new year beginning.  Judaism ties the new year to the events connected with the Passover.  Islam connects it to Mohammed’s return to Mecca.  Agricultural societies use planting season as a mark for a new year.

But us, well, we get a new year beginning a week after Christmas.  If we didn’t need to replace calendars, we could easily miss it, except for the parties and so on that go with it.  But even they would be more fun if we had them at a time when we weren’t already partied out from Christmas.

I did some quick research and discovered that according to some sources, the Romans started the practise of using January 1 as New Years Day.  The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus, who is portrayed as having two faces so he can see both forward and backward and therefore that makes him a god who can split time into new and old years.   But even with that insight, our new year is an entirely artificial and somewhat pointless holiday in our culture.  It doesn’t mark the time when I need to get busy planting the crops I need for food next winter.  It doesn’t mark the transition of a season.  It commemorates no significant date in our cultural history.  It just sits there, requiring us to change calendars and remember to change the last digit of dates.      As one of the guys said after worship one day, “The only thing New Year’s does is make you a year older–and I really don’t want that much.”

Perhaps some of my discontent with New Years comes about because many seem to think that I need to preach a sermon about the holiday–and given the realities I have just pointed out, there isn’t a whole lot to say about it in a sermon.  There are a few sentimental poems and stories that I could toss in; I could reflect on the past year and hope for better in the year to come; I could suggest a list of resolutions we would all benefit from; I could even proclaim the coming year “The Year of (Something)” and call people to commit to that.

Of course, all this runs smack dab into one of the painful realities of New Year’s worship services:  the worship service after Christmas is easily the worst attended worship service of the whole year.  I have often suggested that people who attend worship the Sunday after Christmas are probably going to receive a major reward when they reach heaven.  Clergy–well, we get paid to be there so we probably won’t get a reward, unless it is for figuring out what to say that isn’t trite, sentimental or pointless.

So, again this year, I will struggle with what to preach on New Year’s.  I may deal with the New Year and then again, I may follow my more traditional approach of ignoring the day in favour of something more Biblical and more significant.  That I will work out later–I have time still–not a lot but still some time to figure what I will be doing.

But for now, since New Years is coming and it does mark a change in the calendar, I will follow protocol and wish you a Happy New Year.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT NOW?

Christmas is pretty much over for this year.  All the rushing and spending and planning and cooking and giving and receiving–it is all pretty much over for most of us.  Some may have some gifts that still haven’t shown up yet and they will be a pleasant little blip in the after Christmas let down.  But basically, the focus now is on resting a bit, thinking about exercising a bit and wondering when the pack the Christmas stuff away.

For many, there is an inevitable let down after something like Christmas.  All the activity, all the work, all the energy expended has to come from somewhere and when it is over, we need to pay for it.  We are tired and worn out–and the bigger the Christmas, the more tired we are.  It might be tempting for some to lapse into a depression, especially since the after Christmas let down can easily provide a spring board for the beginning of seasonal affective disorder.  And if not depression, then there are other ways to deal with the let down, many of them as undesirable as depression.

I think we should recognize a couple of things.  First and most importantly, we don’t live on a holiday high all the time.  Holidays like Christmas are bright spots in life, times and places when we can have some fun and do something different.  But these high spots take time and energy which need to come from somewhere.  When we elevate our time and energy expenditure, we are draining reserves.  At some point, we have no more reserve and we are forced to cut back to normal levels.

Christmas and any other high energy event in our lives is going to produce a slow down–a slow down that will express itself in physical, emotional and spiritual ways.  It isn’t that we have done something wrong; it isn’t that we have lost the real meaning purpose; it isn’t that Christmas or whatever event wasn’t good or worthwhile–in the end, it is just because we lived beyond our limits and now we have to get back to our regular pace and rebuilt the reserves that we used up.

And that brings us to the second reality.  When we party, we need to pay.  Now, I am not suggesting that we pay for our sins or anything like that.  Rather, it we use our energy, no matter how much we enjoyed it, we have to slow down and take it easy for a while.  So, relax and take it easy.  Read the new book you got for Christmas and don’t worry about how many times you fall asleep in the process–the words in the book won’t disappear if you sleep more than you read.

Relax–and don’t get too bent out of shape about how much you over-ate during Christmas.  You probably don’t have enough energy to consistently do too much about it right now anyway.  A walk might be a great idea but whether you do it today or after a couple of days of taking it easy isn’t going to make all that much difference.

Relax–things will get back to normal soon enough and if we allow ourselves to rest a bit before that, normal isn’t some soul-destroying rut that we hate and want out of.  Normal is normal and if we rest and relax a bit after the party, we are ready for normal–we will even welcome it because it is normal and comfortable.  We had the fun, enjoyed the party and the season–now we rest and then get back to the reality of normal live which necessarily is lived as a different pace, one that in the end, we probably enjoy more than we want to admit.

So, for now, relax and enjoy whatever slow down and in-between time you can get.  I plan on taking it easy this week, relaxing, puttering in  the workshop, spending time with my wife and enjoying the break.  Christmas is over, things aren’t quite back to normal yet and so I can use the in between to rest from the party that is Christmas and be ready for next week, when things begin to slip back into the normal routine, where I will be until the next high point, whatever that will be.

May the peace of God be with you.

TRADITION!?

For a variety of reasons, we gave serious thought to an artificial Christmas tree as opposed to the traditional fir that we used to cut (with permission from the landowner) and now buy from a local service club.  After some discussion and looking, we opted to stay with tradition this year, although we might look at the sales after Christmas.  When I shared with a few friends, there were two responses:  some were extolling the virtues of artificial trees and others were saying that they would miss the smell of a real tree.

At the same time, I was working on plans for Christmas Eve services.  Since I am still in my first year, I was asking some questions about what has been done and what is expected.  I discovered that I can do pretty much whatever I want, as long as:  it is short, we have everyone light a candle and we close with Silent Night.  I am actually wondering if I plan a service with the congregational candle lighting and Silent Night right after the opening prayer if that would be all I need to do.

This is a season of both the church and secular year where traditions abound.  We have to have the right kind of tree with the right decorations put on by the right people.  We need to right foods at the right times and the right presents for the right people in the right wrapping.  Changing the traditions is hard, difficult and provokes a powerful emotional response, even if the tradition is only a year or two old.

I have a marked ambivalence about traditions.  Sometimes, I see myself on a mission to root out and change every tradition I run up against.   I have my worship notes and sermon on a tablet that I use in the pulpit–no traditional paper and bulletin for me.  I sometimes use Christmas music at Easter and Easter music at Christmas.  I read and use a variety of Biblical translations, some of which I carry with me as an app on my phone.

Other times, I find myself defending and loving traditions.  I love the older hymns in worship.  I wear a suit and tie in the pulpit.  I want our traditional family meal of lasagna on Christmas Eve and turkey on Christmas Day.  And, when I am thinking about Scripture passages, they come to my mind in KJV English not the language of one of the modern translations that I champion and use.

And as I think about traditions, that is likely the way it is for most people.  Some traditions we love and some we can wait to change.  Traditions become traditions because they have a meaning that is important to us.  The meaning is often as much an emotional meaning as anything and because of that, we may have difficulty explaining why it is so important.  And because so much of the meaning is emotional, those who don’t share the tradition have great difficulty understanding why it is so important.

All of this means we need to be careful around traditions, both our own and those of others.  We can’t just throw them away because they mean nothing to us.  The tradition means something to someone and throwing it away needs to be given some thought and some preparation–and sometimes, that importance means that we simply endure what has little meaning for us for the sake of others.

I happen to like the Silent Night tradition on Christmas Eve–but if I didn’t, I would still follow it because the majority of people who come to that worship would go away unsatisfied if we didn’t use it.  And while there are times when it is good to challenge people’s traditions, there needs to be a good reason–and I have yet to find a good reason to challenge that particular tradition.  But if I ever find a reason to challenge it, I will do so–carefully and with much discussion and planning so that everyone knows why and has a part in the process.  Fortunately, I don’t see anything on the horizon that will cause that challenge to come any time soon.

The traditions of Christmas, the traditions of the church, the traditions of a family or group are all there for a reason.  There are times and purposes for changing them–but as long as the reasons still hold meaning for people, we might as well enjoy the traditions.  So, I will close my short Christmas Eve service with candles and Silent Night and go home to my lasagna, remembering to turn off my tablet when I am done.

Merry Christmas.

 

May the peace of God be with you.

A NOT BORING SERMON

Most of the church buildings I have worked in over my many years of pastoral ministry have had only one door and the few that had more than one often had only one “official” door–there had to be a really good reason to use the other door, as well as someone handy with the key to open it.  While there are lots of security and safety issues associated with such a building, there is one good thing about it from my perspective.

It means that by parking myself near the door, I get the chance to see everyone who comes in or out.  Before a worship service, there is a lot to do and I sometimes miss people coming in but after the worship, I am a committed devotee of the old rural custom of the pastor standing at the back greeting people as they leave.  That means that no matter what happens, I at least get a brief opportunity to touch base with people.

So, one Sunday a week or two before Christmas, one of the congregation meets me at the door.  Since everyone else was busy catching up and talking, we were alone at that point with no one waiting to get out.  As we talk, he said something like, “I came this morning expecting another boring Christmas sermon–but you made it really interesting and worthwhile–thank you.”

I appreciated his words partly because he says what he thinks and partly because I had worked hard to avoid preaching “another boring Christmas sermon”.  But when I was working on the sermon, I was actually only conscious of not boring myself.  I have been preaching for over 40 years and in that time, have been responsible for leading and preaching Christmas worship for most of those years.  Trying to find some way to do Christmas sermons that doesn’t bore me gets harder and harder.

But I hadn’t really thought about the fact that most people in my congregations have heard those 40+ years of sermons–not all from me, of course.  There are certainly congregations where that isn’t true–but for my area and the congregations I serve, this is very true.  And after I thought about it a bit, the whole thing made me a bit sad.

Christmas, stripped of the commercial and cultural tinsel that it has accumulated over the years, is an exciting story.  It is the story of a loving and graceful God shaking up the way things are to step into the lives of a rebellious humanity.  It is a love story of epic and even eternal proportions, a story that has touched lives all around the world since that night when the angels announced the birth.  It is a story of hope, a story as real as today’s headlines, a story that should be anything but boring.

Maybe it doesn’t stack up well when compared to the hype surrounding the latest must have kids’ toy.  Maybe it doesn’t have the drama of the latest political production.  Maybe it doesn’t have the attraction of the most recent sexual scandal.   Maybe it doesn’t produce as much hope as the on and off ceasefire talks in the latest conflict.

But then again, maybe it is a story that outclasses all these stories and the real problem is with the presentation and the presenter, with some of the blame going to the presentees. (I know that isn’t a real word but the symmetry appeals to my preacher side).

There is an old saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”    While I don’t think our familiarity with Christmas breeds contempt, I do think that it has produced a bit of boredom, especially when we don’t make the effort to really hear and enter into the story.  We who are preaching and teaching the story probably need to work at opening ourselves to God’s Spirit to find new ways to approach the story.  We who are listening probably need to open ourselves more to the Spirit who is trying to show us new facets of the story that we hadn’t seen or haven’t seen in a long time.

Maybe all of us need to chop thorough the tinsel and gift wrapping and culture and turkey and find the story at the heart of it all–the story of how God loves us so much that he comes to us on our terms and on our level so that he can bring us to his level.  I’m glad I didn’t bore my friend with that sermon because the story is too great and too important to be made boring.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT TO DO?

As a pastor, I have spent my career working in contexts where most of the people I deal with need a self-esteem boost.  As a missionary in East Africa, I worked primarily with theology students and church leaders and only a few church people–but again, the majority of people I worked with needed some help in loving themselves.  At one point, I was a part-time chaplain  in a correctional facility for young offenders and discovered that most of the youth I was working with needed a major infusion of self-esteem.  Some of the staff probably would have benefited from some help in that department as well.

Basically, I understand and can deal with low self-esteem.  I approach people with an awareness of the issues and difficulties that can cause the lack of self-appreciation.  I have studied, researched, practised and developed some ways of helping people improve their self-evaluations and have used my skills as a pastor, preacher, teacher and counsellor to help them. And because right now, my self-esteem is fairly healthy, I can write that I have helped people develop a better view of themselves without feeling too uncomfortable.

The low self-esteem thing is something I can deal with and am comfortable dealing with.  However, I have to confess that I have real problems dealing with the other side of the issue.  When the self-esteem crosses the barrier and gets too self-focused and too self-impressed, I begin to have serious problems.

Partly, that is because the nature of my contacts is that I don’t see it too often and often when I see it, I am not really in a position to do anything about it.  But mostly, the problem is that when people have an overly inflated view of themselves, they alternately scare and anger me–and neither fear nor anger are particularly good things to base a relationship on.

Sometimes, I have been able to deal with the person when they begin to realize that their problem is really an underlying lack of self-esteem that they are trying to cover up.  Once they see their over-compensation for what it is, we are in territory that I am comfortable and familiar with and know what to do.

But in general, I really don’t know how to deal with the other side, either as a helper or as someone who has to be in relationship with such people.  I tend to avoid such people since they are a serious vexation to me.  I also tend to avoid  them because they make me angry and I have to confess that my anger comes out in some unpleasant ways that benefit neither me nor the other person.  When I have to be around such people, I find myself being very uncomfortable and looking for a way out before my anger gets the best of me and the situation.

That is probably a weakness in my personality and training and professional life–after all, not everyone is going to suffer from low or acceptable self-esteem. Given that self-esteem can be distorted and become too strong, there is a need for people who understand and can deal with this distortion–God loves these people as much as he loves all the rest of us and wants them to be healthy as well.

But I can truthfully say that up to this point in my ministry, this has not really been part of my calling.  My gifts and abilities and experience have all been focused in other areas.  I might joke that I am glad I haven’t been called to deal with many over-inflated egos, but in the end, the more prosaic truth is that I recognize my limits and until God sees fit to call me beyond those limits, I don’t really have to worry about what I can’t do.

I would like to think that if God really needs me to intervene in the life of such a person, he will give me the skill and knowledge and courage to do so and I would be willing to hear and follow his call.  But up to this point, he has not called me in that direction so I am comfortable continuing with what I have been called to and have been doing.  I have enough self-esteem to know that I can do lots of things and not enough to think that I have to do everything.  I am sure that God is still working in me, though, so who knows what he plans.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE OTHER SIDE

Fairness is important to me.  When we were teaching this concept to our kids, in involved things like teaching them to share equally, not to take more than was rightfully theirs and so on.  If they were dividing something to share, the rule was that the one who cut or divided had last pick–all this in an attempt to ensure fairness.  We never really defined what being fair meant but in my mind, it means that no one should get an advantage that they didn’t deserve.

In my approach to life means that no matter what I believe, I do have to look at the other side(s).  I tend to get irritated at “unfair” writing, speaking and thinking which picks a side and simply assumes that everything else is wrong.  I don’t believe that everything is equally right but for me fairness demands that everything be given equal treatment and consideration–all of which means that I get really frustrated with election campaigns, advertising, and a lot of religious stuff.

And so, I need to write about something to be fair.  I have been writing a lot about low self-esteem and the need to give ourselves more value and challenge the debilitating myths that make us think we should see ourselves as worthless and unimportant and unworthy.  Over the years of my ministry, I think this is the default position for most conservative believers, the position that we are encouraged to adopt if we want to be “good” Christians.

I will most likely return to that theme many times as I work on this blog–but my sense of fairness demands that I write something about the other side.  I need to look a bit at what happens when our self-focus becomes too strong and too powerful and we develop an overly inflated ego. I have known a few people whose pride has become so powerful that it takes over their lives and relationships and become as serious problem as low self-esteem.  I have even been accused of this myself more than a few times.

I don’t have as much experience with the problem of over-developed pride as I do with under-developed pride but I have observed an interesting thing about some of the people who show this trait.  Underneath that over-developed love of self and the boasting and the constant self-focus that can drive people away is often a deeply submerged lack of confidence and a very bad self-image.  Yes, I am saying that an over-inflated ego often comes from the same place as the low self-esteem that I am more familiar with.  The pride and boasting and superiority are sometimes a defense for the problem that I see all too often.

But some people who have low-self esteem follow the path of trying to compensate by building a beautiful facade which they carefully place over the fear and insecurity that is their real life.  Then, they use this facade like an army tank to defend their shaky view of themselves.  It seems that they work on the premise that “The best defense is a good offense” and blow up or run over everyone and everything they perceive to be threat to their scared and poorly developed self hiding inside the tank.

There are probably people with this over-whelming pride who come from a very different place.  Some, for example, have come from such privileged backgrounds which have sheltered them from the realities of life and they never develop a balanced and sober view of themselves.  Some may have such serious emotional damage that they are incapable of  seeing anything but themselves.  A few may get so disoriented by their distorted belief systems that they really believe they are more important than anyone else.

But my experience has been that many of us believe deep down that we are pretty much worthless and unimportant.  Some of us, perhaps most of us, let ourselves accept this as our reality and wallow around in the swamps of low  self-esteem.  A few go a different way, trying to convince themselves of their value by building an elaborate self-image to compensate for their poor self-esteem.

In both processes, the end result is the same–we don’t get a real and honest view of ourselves and therefore we have an equally distorted view of others and even God.  I don’t think one distortion is any worst than the other–and both need to be exposed to the powerful light of God’s love and grace and acceptance so that we can discover who and what we really are.

May the peace of God be with you.

NOW AND FOREVER

I love writing.  It allows me the freedom to think and process, the opportunity to take what might be a random thought and develop it and turn it over and around and occasionally inside out and see where it takes me.  It also helps me see how things relate to each other because one thought nudges another and as I contemplate the second, a third pops up demanding attention and as I put that third thought somewhere safe for further consideration, a fourth peeks around the edge of the third silently pleading for a bit of my time and attention.

As I was finishing the last post, I became conscious of one of those silent peeking thoughts.  As I was writing about surrendering to God, I wrote, “… having done it once, there is no guarantee that I will do it again.”  The thought that was peeking around the edge went something like this, “That could suggest that we are never sure of where we stand with God because of all the surrendering we have yet to do.”–or at least that is sort of what I think it was suggesting–sometimes, my thoughts make a whole lot more sense peeking around the corners than they do when I actually look at them.

But this did start another train in motion.  At some point in my life, I surrendered my life to God through Jesus.  I was around 13 or 14 and just knew that this was what I wanted to do.  I didn’t have a totally clear idea of what I was actually doing but I knew it was an important decision.  I probably knew a lot more about my decision that the thief on the cross when he made his decision but a lot less than  the Apostle Paul when he made his.

But the thought that came peeking around wants me to think about that.  Was that very early commitment, made with the incomplete knowledge I had at the time, going to ensure that I had a place with God now and forever?  I mean, I have already acknowledged that I am not always all that good at surrendering to God.  I also know a whole lot more about the faith and my faith now than I did then.  Can a commitment I made at 13 be enough to cover me now?  Or do I need to keep renewing that commitment, something like a magazine subscription?

There are many who believe something like this, that faith commitments are limited and need to be renewed on a regular basis, meaning that between the time the commitment lapses and gets renewed, we have nothing.  Such theology can produce a desire to continually re-commit just to be safe and it can also produce a huge spiritual insecurity because we can never relax and enjoy our place with God.

This uncomfortable peeking thought made things worse by reminding me of my inconsistency.  I know I don’t always live up to the commitment I made way back then.  There have in fact, been a few times in my life when I actually regretted the decision.  All in all, my first surrender to God was weak, not completely informed, and inconsistently applied.

That peeking and uncomfortable thought has a good premise–my surrender back then by itself isn’t what keeps me safely in the presence of God.  But all is not lost because that surrender was to God through Jesus and because it involves God, it isn’t all dependent on me.  God has a part in this whole process and his part is the crucial and important one.

God takes my surrender, weak and incomplete though it was, inconsistent as it is and he reinforces and empowers and guarantees it. My surrender in Christ becomes permanent because of the love and grace and power of God.  As Paul puts it in Romans 8.39b, there is nothing in all creation that “… will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” NIV

My initial surrender to God established my place with God now and forever.  Nothing can ever end that.  And, on the basis of that initial surrender, I make all the rest of the surrenders in the context of knowing that surrender or not, from that point of accepting God, I have also been accepted by God, whose constancy and love and grace and power ensure that I will be with him now and forever.

May the peace of God be with you.