RULES AND/OR RELATIONSHIPS

In most of the contexts where I am teaching, I eventually get around to discussing the difference between religion and faith.  Religion is the codified set of customs, rules, regulations and norms essentially define the way for follower of the particular approach.  Within that code, interestingly enough, is almost always a description of who can break what part of the code and when that is possible.  These codes are sometimes written but are most often a combination of written material accompanied by a significant amount of oral commentary.

Faith, on the other hand, is often seen as a living, dynamic relationship between an individual and the deity.  While the code of the religion shapes and describes the nature of the relationship to a certain extent, the goal of faith is an ever-deepening, more fulfilling relationship with the deity.

That distinction helps me and others understand some of what goes on in our human search for God.  All too often, though, it can easily break down into a simplistic, black and white argument over whether the rules are more important or the relationship.  Which side of the argument you end up on says a lot about your personality and spirituality.

I have been on both sides of the argument,  although I do have to be honest and state that my being on the rule side happened very early in my faith life and didn’t last very long–it seems I was born with a mental condition that turns rules into suggestions for debate, something which I discovered isn’t acceptable in military or some religious circles.

After a long spell on the relationship side, I began to re-examine the value and place of rules.  It all started one day in Kenya.  I was a very young teacher in a school for training pastors for an independent African denomination.  I was filled with idealism and wanted to teach with as much openness to their culture as possible.  In my desire to strip Christianity to its most basic by getting rid of all the North American add-ons possible, I chose to get rid of one cultural attachment that I had always hated anyway.  I taught without a tie.

That isn’t all that startling these days–but way back then in the late 1970s, ties were still an essential part of the Christian faith in Canada.  But I was in Kenya and they were an independent denomination and they didn’t need cultural baggage like ties cluttering up their development of an indigenous African understanding of our common faith.

Great idea, I thought.  They get an unfettered faith and I get an unfettered neck–everyone wins.  Except that one of their rules was that preachers and teachers wear ties.  All my male students wore ties and jackets to class and everywhere.  All the other male faculty wore ties and jackets to class and for everything else.  My lack of a tie wasn’t a liberating step on the way to a truer and deeper relationship with each other and through that to God–rather, it was a road block because everyone was upset but no one knew quite how to tell this rule-breaker that although they appreciated my teaching, they needed me to wear a tie.

Eventually, the school principal found a way to get the message across and I went to class with a tie.  Eventually, I began wearing a clerical collar, since that was appropriate and desired for my position within the church.  Breaking the rules didn’t enhance any relationships–following them did.

I believe that relationships are basic, whether it is the relationship between me and God, me and students, me and parishioners, me and anyone.  Anything that gets in the way or hinders the relationships is a problem.  But I have seen that I can’t automatically class all rules as a hindrance to relationships.  Rules can also enhance relationships and enable them to grow and develop.  I might not have like wearing a tie in tropical heat (or winter cold for that matter) but if wearing that tie helped me relate better to students and church people, then I will follow the rule.  Even today, I would not think of stepping into a Kenyan class room without a tie or clerical collar.  It is also hard for me to step into a Canadian pulpit without a tie, probably because of my African rules.

The trick in the end is discovering and using those rules that enhance relationships and changing those which harm relationships.

May the peace of God be with you.

RULES

            I think I share something in common with many people–I have a strong ambivalence towards rules.  There are some rules that I follow carefully; some that I regularly ignore and some that I work hard to break and change.  Added to the ambivalence is the fact that for me, these categories are not particularly bound by rules themselves–a rule can be in one category one day and by the end of the week, have worked its way through all the other categories until is returns to where it started.

Some rules just make sense.  In my woodworking, I pay serious attention to the rule, “Measure twice, cut once”.  Obeying that rule has saved me countless board feet of lumber, which is probably balanced by the number of board feet of lumber I have wasted by ignoring the rule.

I am part of the Baptist spectrum of Christian denominations not because I always like Baptist rules but because I deeply appreciate the freedom that is foundational to the historic Baptist position.  I like to tell people that I choose to be Baptist because I don’t have to be a good Baptist–our denominational house has room for a great deal of variety in its historical development.

Sometimes, when I am driving, the speed limit seems totally arbitrary–when the divided highway is clear and  dry and the traffic is almost non-existent, 110 km per hour seems like a such a waste of time.  But when that same road is covered with wind-blown snow over ice and traffic is backed up and heavy, the 110kph speed limit seems criminally stupid and I think–and occasionally say–nasty things about drivers who try to drive at that speed.

I know that a society needs rules and that when we all follow the rules, things work out much better for all of us.  If you doubt that, take a drive on the Mombasa highway between Nairobi and the Machakos turnoff at Makutano during rush hour.  Most of the standard rules of driving are applicable in Kenya but many drivers regularly ignore them so they pass on both sides, use the shoulders as an extra lane, ignore right of ways, stop on the middle of the road, use the opposing lane as their own private lane all of which leads to sky high accident rates.  That drive will quickly show you the value of everyone following culturally accepted rules.

On the other hand, I also know that some rules are arbitrary and simply wrong.  A rule that enables discrimination of any kind, whether official or unofficial is wrong.  We might pretty it up and dress it in sophisticated reasoning but when rules negatively affect people because of their colour, origins, language, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or any other reality of life, the rule is wrong and needs to be dealt with.  Unfortunately, every culture and society has many such laws that it protects and promotes.

Even the Christian faith gets burdened with rules and regulations that often have little to do with the purpose of faith.  And these rules bother me more that a great many other rules because if the Christian faith is supposed to be a vibrant relationship with God through Jesus Christ, any rule that gets in the way of this relationship needs to be challenged and brought into the grace of the Gospel.

I think this is part of the message and example of the Gospel.  Jesus himself both endorsed and gave rules.  He endorsed the Old Testament rules about loving God, loving others and loving self.  (Matthew 22.32-40).  He gave rules telling us to love each other as Jesus loved us (John 13.34-35) and to carry to news of this love to the world (Matthew 28.19-20).  The other New Testament writers expand on and apply these rules in a variety of ways.  So we don’t have a faith without rules.

But we do have a faith where the rules are mean to help us relate to God.  This reality is at the root of essential struggle between Jesus and his opponents in the New Testament.  The old rules reached the point where there were getting in the way of really loving God, others and self as God planned.  Jesus challenged these rules and showed a better way, a way where the few rules make sense because they help us love God, others and self the way God wants us to.

May the peace of God be with you.

I DESERVE THIS

            I was doing the supper dishes a while ago and was watching the 6:00 news as I worked–if I sit to watch the news at that time, it becomes the 6:00 snooze.  Anyway, one item concerned a complaint an individual was making about a funeral or rather his experience associated with the funeral.  I gave this more than the usual half-focus since as a pastor in small, aging rural communities, funerals are a bigger part of my life than that of most other people except for funeral directors.

According to the news report, he and his family arrived at the funeral location a bit late and discovered to their dismay that there were no parking spots handy.  So, he dropped off his passengers and set out to find a parking spot.  After the funeral, he went to retrieve the car and found that it had been clamped and would not be released until he paid a fine.  The news report went on to tell how upset he was, how unfair he felt this was, that he was attending a funeral and should have been shown some compassion.

While the news report was fairly obviously slanted in favour of the person complaining, they did at least point out that the man had decided to park in a private for profit parking lot that had very large and very prominent signs telling people it was only for permit holders and that violators would be clamped and fined.  Returning to find the car clamped and a fine being levied shouldn’t have been a surprise to the man in the story.  But it obviously was–he felt that he should be shown special consideration because he was attending a funeral.

The story set off a chain of thought in my mind.  We live in a culture where we are becoming more and more convinced that we are all an exception to the rule and should all be given special consideration.  There are rules and regulations and standards–but they simply shouldn’t apply to me.  And in a lot of cases, I am not concerned about this trend–some rules, regulations and standards are wrong and unjust and unfair and need to be challenged and changed.

I was born left-handed and had I been born just a few years earlier, I might have been forced to become right-handed, no matter that the change would likely have caused some physical and even psychological problems.  When the rules and regulations and standards are obviously affecting the freedom and equality of individuals and groups, they need to change.

But that is a different issue from the attitude of entitlement that suggests that everyone is an exception to everything.  It may sound like I am just an old-fashioned ranting Baptist preacher but that route is exactly the route that the first man and woman followed and is at the root of all human sin–we think we are important enough to be an exception to every rule and regulation and standard.  In Genesis 2.16-17, God made one rule for humanity–they were not to eat from a certain tree.  According to the story, at that point humanity consisted of one man and one woman, who ultimately decided that they were an exception to the rule,

I break rules a lot–in my writing, I have been known to deliberatively split infinitives; in my driving, I occasionally drive too fast; in my work, I often challenge and go against the accepted approach to church activity.  Sometimes, I do this because it makes sense.  Sometimes, I do this because it needs to be done.  Sometimes, I do it because I don’t know the rule.  But I decided a long time ago that when I break the rules, I need to be willing to accept the consequences. As an old prison adage puts it, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

So, if and when I get caught for speeding, I won’t argue–I deserve the ticket because I chose to do something wrong.  And if I am caught speeding while on my way to a funeral, well, that is my problem.  Trying to make myself an exception to everything is really only the same thing Adam and Eve did and we all know that that didn’t work out well for anyone.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW CAN I HELP YOU?

            This is another preacher story–one of those stories we love to use in sermons but have to change enough details so that no one really recognizes the people involved.  In this story, I am on a mission–a parishioner has had an accident and has suffered some injury.  She slipped on some ice and ended up lying in the cold for a time because her injuries prevented her from getting up on her own. Since she, like most of my parishioners, is elderly, I figured that she would have lots of worries, anxieties and stuff resulting from the fall, lying in the cold for so long and the further limits on her life style because of her injuries.  Like a good pastor, I wanted to help her as much as I could.

As the visit progressed, I used all the pastoral care techniques and approaches to give her the opportunity to talk about anything coming out of the experience that was bothering her.  I anticipated fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, depression–all things that I has seen in similar situations over the years.  Instead of this long and expected list of issues, there was really only one thing that she wanted to talk about and needed help with.

She was required to rest and take it easy and so she and her friends had made her a nest in her living room, using her recliner as a base.  Everything she needed was close at hand:  her books, the TV remote, the radio, the portable phone.  Friends were dropping in the check on her, get her meals and just to chat.  She was feeling secure, comfortable and cared for, except for one real issue.

Something sharp was sticking into her ankle every time she moved in her chair.  None of her friends could figure out what it was for sure and even the ones who could find the sharp object didn’t have the tools to deal with it.  Her cozy nest was much less cozy and the sharp point was fast becoming a major irritant.  She asked me to take a look, just as she had been asking everyone who came in.

I quickly located the object and identified it as an upholstery staple that has come loose on one end.  She then asked if there was anything I could do about it.  With her permission, I pulled my multi-tool out of its pouch and pulled the offending staple out of the chair  The staple was tossed into the garbage can, the problem was solved and all the anticipated problems simply weren’t issues that day–and I checked carefully, using all the pastoral care stuff I have learned over the years.

There is a point to this story beyond the obvious one that all pastors should carry a multi-tool or Swiss army knife for such emergencies.  The point is that in the end, only this lady knew what her problem was and only she could identify it.  As a contentious and caring pastor, I visited with a long list of possible things I would run into, a list that was valid based on my experience and research–in many similar situations in the past, I had helped surface and deal with lots of those issues.

Having that mental list wasn’t a problem–it is sort of the mental equivalent of the multi-tool I happened to have with me that day.  Should the issue present itself, I was mentally prepared to help deal with it.  The problem would come in if and when I assumed that she must have some of the issues I was prepared for and kept looking for them, even trying to solve them for her before I even knew what the real problem was.

That particular day, the only thing she needed was someone with pliers and enough strength to pull out an upholstery staple.  All the other issues I anticipated were either non-issues for her or had been taken care of by others.  My visit as a pastor was appreciated as was the prayer I offered at the end of the visit–but the best pastoral work I did that day was use my multi-tool to pull out a staple.

As a pastor, I would prefer to pull a staple that is a real problem rather than waste her time and mine trying to fix problems that she doesn’t have and therefore doesn’t need help for.

May the peace of God be with you.

I UNDERSTAND COMPLETELY

As a pastor, I work with a lot of people who struggle with lots of things.  I regularly deal with people facing illness and loss of functions.  I spend a lot of time with people dealing with death–their own or that of someone close.  I work with victims of terrible abuse.  I visit parishioners who have had to have a pet put down.  Now and then, I even find myself spending time with a techie whose laptop is sick or dying.  I also spend a lot of time with people whose problems are less earth-shaking:  a stalled car, a lost book, a staple sticking through the upholstery of a favourite chair, a cake that didn’t turn out right.

I learned early in ministry that even if I think the problem is trivial, I can’t treat it that way–it is their problem and their response to it that matters.  I might think it is trivial and in fact the rest of the world might think it is trivial but since it isn’t trivial to them, I need to accept that and work on that basis.  Some days, that can be difficult but I think I learned that lesson fairly well.

What took longer to learn is that even if I have the same experience, I can’t assume that my emotional experience is the same as theirs.  I can’t assume that I understand exactly what they are feeling and know exactly what they need.  Just as I can’t try to make a problem small because I think it is small, I also can’t assume that I fully and completely understand the problem and am therefore completely qualified to give them the benefit of my wisdom and experience.

Certainly, my experience can be helpful in understanding their experience–but my experience isn’t their experience and I can’t forget this.  When I deal with children grieving the loss of a parent, I have some inkling of what they feel, having been through the grief of losing my father, my mother and my step-father.  But I really can’t know exactly what people are feeling.

Every experience has twists and turns and undercurrents that only the person in the middle fully understands–and even then, they may not fully understand them.  When  I claim that I understand, I am actually proclaiming to people that I don’t really care enough for them to find out what is really going on in their lives.

When my father died, for example, it was painful and difficult.  We had a good relationship and got along well and respected and loved each other.  But not every family has that same relationship with a father.  The internal realities of such relationships are hidden under the surface of the visible, public presentation–but they are very real and very much a part of the grief process.  If I assume that everyone who loses a father feels just like I did, I am probably going to do a very poor job helping people with their grief.  A family struggling with the death of a father who was an abuser or a alcoholic or simply not present emotionally will have their grief compounded if I assume their experience is just the same as mine.

I don’t know what people are experiencing.  I might have some idea, based on my experience and my study and what I have heard–but I really don’t understand what people are experiencing, at least not until I have spent some serious time with them and they have been willing to open up about what they are experiencing.

One of the strong reactions I have seen from  people suffering is their anger at people telling them they understand.  Out of politeness, the struggling people nod and say thank you but at some point, they end up telling someone like me that they were angry because the people didn’t really understand–no one can really understand.

We can actually come to understand what people are feeling, it we are willing to admit that we don’t really understand and commit to spending the time it takes to really listen and let people work through their feelings.  While I may never fully understand what someone is feeling, I can understand their need to be understood and make the effort to suspend my assumptions so that I can hear the reality of their experience.

May the peace of God be with you.

TROUBLING TIMES

Today is going to be a difficult day for me–actually, it could be the beginning of several difficult days.  I am going to be dealing with some hardship, some deprivation, and a loss of my (perceived) ability to function effectively.  The reason:  my laptop needs to go in for repairs and I probably will not have it back for a couple of days.

Now, I have been planning for this process.  I worked out with the repair shop the best time to be without the laptop–it’s not that I don’t need it for the two or three days but that these are the days I need it less.  I will be transferring the most necessary files, the ones that I will be working on (I hope) to my tablet and if I get really desperate, there is that old, obsolete laptop on a shelf in the TV room.  I suppose for that matter, I could even do some work on my phone.  I will survive but it won’t be pretty or fun.

I know that compared to the pain and suffering in the world, not having my laptop for a couple of days really isn’t all that much of an issue.  I know some people, in fact, who would see not having a laptop for a couple of days as something of a blessing.  Others might think that I probably need to re-adjust my priorities and think about what it really important.  There are some, however, who might be prompted to send my sympathy cards because losing their laptop would severely traumatize them.

When it comes to dealing with the pain and difficulty of others, we all need to look at the fact that we are tempted to evaluate the suffering of others on the basis of our experience and our understanding.  What upsets us must be traumatic for others and what doesn’t upset us is something others should be able to deal with easily.  When we give in to this temptation and evaluate their situation from our perspective, we are not likely going to be able to provide real help to the person going through whatever they are going through.

If we think the situation isn’t that serious, we will have a tendency to down-play whatever they are going through.  Our approach will often be to try and help them see that having their laptop sit in the shop for a couple of days isn’t all that much of a problem and may even be a blessing in disguise.  We might suggest all sorts of possible options the person has:  the tablet, the smart phone, the old computer–why, the laptop deprived individual might even appreciate the opportunity to rediscover pen and paper, an old but still viable technology.

When that doesn’t work, the helpers might try to force comparisons on the person–suggesting that an unavailable laptop really isn’t that much of a problem when compared to starvation, genocide and other things that people face.  This approach became popular as “I used to complain about having no shoes until I met a man with no feet”.

There is also the “dose of reality” approach, which somewhat confrontationally tells the person to get over it–its only a laptop and only a couple of days and really isn’t the end of the world so just snap out of it and stop whining or moaning or whatever.

These all sound like proper and appropriate ways to help someone deal with a problem that we are pretty sure isn’t as much of a problem as they think it is.  Obviously, our job as helpers is to convince them that what they are dealing with isn’t a problem, or at least isn’t as much of a problem as they think it is.  Once we succeed in helping them see the problem in the right way (our way, of course), then the problem is solved and everything is fine.

Except it isn’t fine.  We don’t really help people by trying to convince them that because we don’t think the problem is significant, they should think the same way.  In the end, people need to deal with their issues based on what they think about the issue, not what we think about the issue.  Trying to revise their thinking so that they see things like we see them doesn’t help–it just adds a layer of frustration and more pain to the problem.

May the peace of God be with you.

 

 

Mathe peace of God be with you.

GROWING IN FAITH

One of the Bible study groups has been discussing the gifts of the Spirit recently.  We started talking about using the Spiritual gifts and that lead to the need to develop the gifts, which caused some significant discussion–it was hard for some members of the study to understand that we could have a gift from the Spirit and not be automatically able to use it.  In the process of the discussion, I mentioned that I have the gift of preaching, which didn’t really surprise anyone in the group.

(I am aware that the New Testament doesn’t specifically mention the gift of preaching, although several of the gifts: prophecy, exhortation and encouragement could be seen as being related to preaching.  However, I am just going to skip by the issue at this point so that I can deal with the issue I want to look at–something I don’t always get to do in Bible study.)

I then went on to suggest that although I have that gift, I am probably a better preacher than I was when I started preaching 40 or so years ago.  At that point, a couple of members of the study who had heard me preach regularly 30-35 years ago agreed with me emphatically.  The strength of their agreement caused some laughter in the group and before anyone else could say anything, one of them quickly assured me and the group that I wasn’t a bad preacher in those days but am definitely a better preacher today.

I have to confess that while I appreciated the affirmation of my point, there was a small part of me that found it disconcerting that I had changed enough in the area of preaching for it to be noticeable.  While I firmly believe in the need to grow in faith, hearing the evidence that it is happening can be a bit painful.

It can be painful because while the reality of spiritual growth is positive and good, the fact that we had to grow reminds us that we were not perfect–and maybe, more significantly at least for me, that I wasn’t as perfect as I thought I was.  Theoretically, I know that, I confess that, I teach that.  Practically, I occasionally need to confront the pride that would like my development as a preacher to have been only a minor improvement of what was an already impressive ability even all those years ago.

Tied with that is the idea that I am probably not at evolved spiritually today as I think I am–I mean, if I wasn’t all that clear about what I was back then and how far I have come, I am probably not as aware of where I am now as I think  am.   Maybe the childish things that I think I have put away (I Corinthians 13.11) haven’t really been put away.  I may have a newer, more expensive and more sophisticated version that looks better but it may still be the same thing I had before.

Fortunately, my place with God doesn’t depend on how much I grow or in what direction I grow.  That is one of the bed-rock realities of the grace of God.  But growth in the right direction does help me connect better with the God whom I serve and enables me to better do what he calls me to.  And, even more fortunately, God provides all kinds of help and resources to me to enable me to not only know the direction of my growth but also to have the strength, courage, support and all the rest needed to grow in that direction.

Whether that growth involves showing me how to become a more Christian driver, a better preacher, a more attentive listener, a more understanding pastor, a more focused researcher or whatever, God has a direction and a plan and offers me the resources that I need for the process.  I can choose to stay the way I am–or I can take the steps of faith this grace from God asks of me and continue the journey from being what I was to being what God knows and wants me to be.

Either way, God’s grace assures me that I am loved and accepted–but for me, at least, that same love and acceptance almost always encourages me to take the next step.  Following God may not always be comfortable but it is always fulfilling and worthwhile.

May the peace of God be with you.