A VERY LONG WEEK

I woke up Sunday morning and stumbled into my usual morning routine, heading for the exercise bike for an hour of exercise, Bible reading and worship preparation. As shuffled towards the basement, I was thinking about a family funeral I had attended and idly thinking about how long ago that had been. I woke up a bit more when I realized that the funeral had only been 5 days ago—it seemed like it had been weeks ago.

To say it had been a busy week somehow misses the reality of that week. Vacation had been over for a week and so this should have been a normal, get back into routine week. But there was a family funeral, a niece whose death while somewhat expected was still sad. This is the second death in the immediate family, a bit of an unusually low number given the number of us, our advancing age and the number of health issues we all face. Attending the funeral involved an eight hour round trip for me, which did allow a lot of time for thinking. Part of that time was spend thinking about the fact that our family will probably be doing a lot more of this as the years progress.

The next day, I tried to make up for the work I didn’t get to because of the funeral. There was some pressure because it was the only real study day I had that week. The rest of the work week and then some was taken up with our regular Bible study and the annual meeting of our denomination. I have a definite and strong aversion to meetings but I have always felt that attendance at denominational meetings is something of a duty—I am part of the organization, I receive some benefits from the organization, I want certain things from the organization and so I need to be there. There is the added benefit of getting to see some of the people I only get to see when we meet as a body.

So, for three days, I attended meetings, talked to people, attended meetings, looked at promotional displays (some organizations have really neat give-aways), read reports, attended meetings, took many unscheduled breaks, attended meetings—well, you get the idea. Almost the last thing on the program was a brief panel discussion that I was part of, which meant that there was no chance that I might get away early.

So, after that week, there I was, sitting on the exercise bike, opening my Bible and trying to make the exercise bike go and my mind work to read the Bible, while all the time, I was thinking and feeling that I should have stayed in bed and maybe even called the church deacons to tell them that I was sick. When the previous week feels like it had been two months long, there must be some ethical loop hole that allows for something like that.

There are of course some who would suggest that every week in ministry is like that. But the truth is that for me and most people I know, ministry is fairly predictable and we can establish comfortable and effective week to week routines. I happen to like routine and predictability. I like knowing that at 7:30am on Tuesday, I will begin working on one of the two sermons I need to write. I like knowing that when I finish that, I can move on to item two and so on. The predictability helps me keep on track and keep organized and allows me to know that I can get things done.

Interestingly enough, that predictability and organization also come in really handy when I have unpredictable and disorganized weeks like the week that this post focuses on. This was not a normal week—but I could and did cope with it because there is some structure to my work, a structure that is flexible enough to allow for funerals, meetings and other assorted emergencies by allowing me to see just where the stuff I missed from the structure can be fitted in and accomplished at some point.

I like my weeks to be comfortably predictable—but because I know that ministry is rarely that predictable, I have learned to develop schedules and structures that allow for both the predictable and the unpredictable, although more and more, I am preferring the predictable.

May the peace of God be with you.

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A BIBLE STUDY QUESTION

Part of my pastoral responsibility involves spending some time thinking about and praying about the church, trying to figure out where God is leading us and what he is asking of us. This isn’t exclusively my job but because I am actually paid to focus on the church, I tend to have more time to devote to the process. This process works best when I base my thinking on what I am hearing and seeing from God and the church.

So, with that in mind, come with me to the first Bible study after vacation. As I drive to the study (about 30 minutes away from my home), I am thinking about the church and its direction and its future and what I could/should be doing. I don’t have a lot of ideas since it is just after vacation but I am thinking.

I arrive and Bible study begins. As usual, I ask about their response to last Sunday’s worship, joking that for a change, I couldn’t say anything because I wasn’t there. Those who were there made some positive comments about the worship and the supply preacher and then the discussion took a different direction, something that happens regularly at our Bible study.

One of the members was obviously trying to formulate a question. Since he normally doesn’t have a lot of trouble putting his questions together, I asked him what he was working on. His commented that while the visiting speaker was great, he was wondering is maybe the next time I went away, the congregation could take responsibility for the service. He was quick to point out that this wasn’t a comment about the fill in speaker but rather a real question that he had been looking at.

The response around the table was interesting. One member of the study reacted a bit negatively—she had been responsible for doing just that in the past and didn’t really enjoy the process. Speaking in public just wasn’t her thing. But most of the others looked sort of interested.

So, as always happens with our Bible study when an interesting topic comes up, we followed it. I assured the group that there was absolutely no reason why they couldn’t lead the worship service, including the message. And, to help the person who had obviously been pushed into the preacher role unwillingly, I talked about leading worship in accordance with the gifts that God has given us. As we talked, various people got more and more excited as they began to see things that they could contribute to a worship service.

At some point in the discussion, I realized that I definitely didn’t want this to happen while I was on vacation—given the level of interest and developing excitement, if the congregation was going to lead the service, I wanted to be there, at least the first time they did it. I wanted to be able to share in and benefit from the spiritual process that was obviously going on here. I suggested we look at having the congregation arrange and lead the service sometime soon and I would be there. Before the service, I would be there to help people develop and understand their gift and contribution.

That was where we left the discussion—the congregation is going to lead worship, with various people who are gifted using their gifts. I will help out with advice and suggestions and moral support. In the next week or so, I will look at the church schedule and come up with some suggested dates for the worship.

I think we were all excited by this discussion. I may have been even more excited than the others because this question and the discussion ties into my thinking about overall direction of my ministry. This is a small congregation which may have some difficulty finding a regular preacher when the time comes that God calls me to something else. But if they discover and develop their gifts and abilities, they are not as dependent on finding someone, anyone to fill the pulpit.

I saw this question and the discussion and the plans coming out of it as part of God’s answer to my questions about ministry direction. He was not only letting me know where he was leading us but also reminding me once again that he speaks to and through the whole congregation so that together, we can find and follow his leading.

May the peace of God be with you.

BACK TO WORK

After a two week vacation, I am back at work—well, I have actually been back at work for a few days now. After two weeks of sleeping in, playing with grandchildren, visiting and all that fun stuff, getting back into the process of writing sermons and all the other stuff that I was supposed to do was hard work. For a variety of reasons, my first week back didn’t include much time with church people, beyond some phone calls and emails, although I did do one Bible study. It was mostly preparation, dealing with stuff that I put off until after vacation, planning for the fall church season and resting my knees from too much time spent with busy and active grandchildren. (In the interest if clarity, the too much time was just on the part of my knees, not the rest of me.)

So, the first real contact I had with church people was Sunday worship. They had had a substitute preacher for two weeks and I has two weeks off, including one Sunday where I didn’t actually attend worship at all. Driving to both worship services, I did my usual contemplation about who would be there and who wouldn’t—in small congregations like ours, it is fairly easy to remember who is going to be where when. I actually don’t know why I do this to myself because my anticipated numbers are always smaller than the actual attendance.

But when I arrived and as people started arriving, we got to the real point. We had missed each other. I was happy to see them and they were happy to see me. We talked about my time off (the family retreat was great, the grandchildren were even better, I needed to get back to work to get a rest from my vacation); their time while I was away (We really appreciated hearing the supply preacher, we miss Bible study, did you know she is having surgery tomorrow, isn’t is great that it isn’t as hot, we need to have a business meeting to discuss this); and anything else we could think of.

It was good to be back. I have to confess that during my vacation, I spent some time wondering why I am still doing what I am doing. I have passed the accepted retirement age, I have sufficient funds available to retire, I have lots of things I would like to do that I don’t have time to do because of work, writing sermons is getting to be harder work that it used to be—I thought of all sorts of things in an attempt to figure out why I am still doing what I am doing.

And while I don’t yet have a complete answer, I do think I found part of the answer at those two worship services the first Sunday back. I am a pastor, called by God to be in a special relationship with a specific group of people. We are in a God ordained relationship where we work together to help each other in our common journey through life and towards God. I am the pastor, called to give whatever it is that God has called me to give. As the church, they are called to receive whatever it is that God has ordained that they receive.

But it is more than that because the roles are flexible and changeable—often, the church is the pastor and I am the recipient of the pastoral input. I teach and preach—but often, the church teaches me and preaches to me. Our relationship is deep, complex and multifaceted. We are joined together by our common faith and by God’s calling. Working in and through all of us, God has something to accomplish in the church, the individuals who make up the church and me.

And so part of the answer to the question of why I am still doing what I am doing is that God isn’t finished with this particular pairing of pastor and church. He still has things to accomplish through us. Church and pastor are still united by God because we both still have stuff to give and receive from each other. This relationship is a powerful and profound one and while I know that someday it will end, that day isn’t right now. We all have more to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

BE ANGRY—AND DON’T SIN

I have always had a problem dealing with my anger. Now, if anger were an infrequent and uncommon emotional response in my life, I wouldn’t have as big a problem dealing with it. An emotional response I have once on a blue moon is much easier to handle than one that happens all the time and where one episode impinges on another. But I get angry a lot—my emotional response to a lot of issues involves anger.

I get angry when someone cuts me off in traffic—and I get angry when I cut someone off in traffic. I get angry when religious leaders abuse their position and harm others. I get angry when self-serving politicians lie and cheat. I get angry when children starve while over-weight people don’t care. I get angry when I get hurt. I get angry when I can’t find the advertised sale item that I have gone to buy. I get angry when I am not as prepared for worship as I want to be. I get angry when the hero in the movie gets cheated and beaten up by the bad guys.

Now, before you get the idea that I am a seething ball of anger who is going to snap and so something that will make the national news, let me state very quickly that my anger is a normal reaction in most of those situations. Anger is a natural and normal emotional response, one that all of us experience. Most anger is a momentary experience that we move on from, like most emotional responses.

When I see a beautiful sunset, I feel a sense of joy, which I move on from to other emotional responses. When a driver cuts me off, I get angry—and then I move on from that anger to something else on the drive. Joy, happiness, anger—they are all equally valid emotional responses that all of us have all the time.

But anger has a way of getting out of balance, probably because we don’t really know how to deal with it. Anger is a heavy and even scary emotion and we have generally been trained to avoid it in ourselves and others. Being angry has often been equated to being bad and sinful and wrong.

But anger isn’t bad or sinful or wrong. Some of the consequences of anger can be bad or sinful or wrong but the anger itself is simply one of the many emotional responses that God created us to experience. What we need to learn is how to better process our anger.

Ultimately, we are angry in response to something. And I have realized that the key to handling to my anger is discovering what it is that has produced the anger response and dealing what that. When I am angry, I need to look at what created the anger. I deal with the anger by dealing with the context that produced the anger.

So, a driver cuts me off and I get angry. My anger is a result of my fear about what could have happened and the lack of respect the other driver showed. I can nurse and feed my anger or I can recognize and accept the fear and hurt and concentrate on driving defensively so I can be ready when someone does that again.

Or, my employer treats me unfairly, maybe even fires me. I get angry because I have been treated unfairly and fired. I can nurse and feed my anger or I can think of a constructive way to deal with the situation: by filing a complaint with the appropriate body, taking legal action, finding another job or making a conscious decision to move on. All of these can be appropriate responses to the anger producing situation.

In effect, I have discovered that the best way to deal with my anger is to discover and deal with the cause of the anger. Anger is an emotional response to something, a marker to show me that something is having a negative effect on me. When I follow the anger to its source, I have something clear to deal with. Dealing with the source can be difficult but it is much better than letting the anger fester and take over my life. I would much rather use my anger as a way to improve things than let it rule my life.

May the peace of God be with you.

DON’T TALK TO ME!

I was very happy about the fact that one particular story didn’t get resurrected at our recent family reunion since it involved me. According to the story, I was upset over something and was outside grumping. A neighbour walked by and said something to me, at which I am supposed to have responded, “Don’t talk to me cause to be I’s mad.” I am pretty sure the whole story was made up, likely by some family member looking to divert attention from themselves.

I had—and still have to some extent—a problem with anger. Things and people would set me off and I would react. I had a variety of responses, depending on the level of anger and the context. Sometimes, the anger would lead to depression and self-isolation. Sometimes, my anger would lead me to break things, including my own treasures. At other times, my anger would express itself in caustic and deliberately hurtful comments. And there were times when my anger would cause me to respond physically.

Part of my growth process as a person and as a Christian was learning how to deal with my anger in healthy and positive ways. I won’t make any extravagant claims about how I have completely conquered my anger. It is still a reality and I still need to keep an eye on it and every now and then, it manages to break through the barriers and cause me and others problems. I have learned to understand my anger and have developed ways to deal with it that are consistent with my faith, mostly.

But I am always aware of the potential—which perhaps explains why I am so aware of the level of anger I see around me. We seem to have developed a very angry culture here in North America. No news report is complete without an interview with someone who is passionately angry about whatever the report is about. Anger shows up in the form of road rage, gang violence, social movements, protests.

It seems like no one can express an opinion or idea without someone getting angry and expressing that anger. If I think school buses should be yellow, someone is most likely going to angrily express the opinion that I am wrong, while at the same time expressing opinions on my intelligence and heredity. As we argue further, we will probably begin to hurl threats and maybe even engage in some form of violence.

It seems that we have allowed our culture to legitimize unhealthy anger. We don’t process anger—we express it. We don’t try to understand and deal with our anger—we broadcast it. We don’t grow through our anger—we seek to cause pain and hurt. This epidemic of anger has created a cultural context where everyone is somewhat paranoid and we are all on edge, wondering who is going to start shooting where.

I am very aware that anger is a legitimate, normal and even valuable emotional response. We were created with the ability and need to be angry. But it seems that we struggle with figuring out what to do with this emotion. At times, we have tried to force people to repress their anger, an approach that was and is extremely unhealthy. Repressed anger is extremely unhealthy for individuals and society—I am pretty sure that much of the depression that I struggle with is a result of repressed anger.

But at the same time, unrestrained anger is just as unhealthy to individuals and society. The kind of anger that I see so much of these days, the anger that is always present and which shows itself with little or no provocation is not helpful.

In the end, when anger expresses itself in violence that causes people to be hurt and killed, it doesn’t much matter if the actions are the result of long repressed anger or open, burning anger—the damage is the same. The ever increasing anger level in our culture is a serious problem, one that we don’t seem to really know how to handle.

Anger is a part of our emotional response to the world. It is a basic part of the makeup of humanity, a part that God gave us and which he had a purpose for. But if we don’t learn how to deal with our anger, well, the results are visible on every newscast.

May the peace of God be with you.

A SCARY DRIVE

We were taking our son and grandchildren to the airport after their visit. Part of the drive included a lunch stop—we ran it, picked up food and everyone was going to eat in the car on the way. With my coffee beside me, I pulled into traffic and headed for the on ramp. There was some confusion in the back seat as the grandchildren got their meal organized and just as I began to turn onto the ramp, I hit a pothole which rattled the car seriously. I was distracted and didn’t watch the on ramp carefully and as a result I cut off the driver who had the right of way. He let me know I had goofed with a blast of his horn.

I waved and was planning to go slow so that he could go by—but he maintained his distance and didn’t go by. With my head filled with recent stories of road rage shootings, I got more and more uncomfortable with him behind me. I watched him closely in the mirror, positive that at some point, he was going to step on the gas and catch up with me to do, well, to do something that I wouldn’t like. I was a very nervous driver until I saw him turn off after a few kilometers.

I find myself reacting more and more like that these days when I am driving. The other driver that day had simply reacted to my serious mistake—but we live in an increasingly self-centered and self-focused culture where a significant number of people feel justified in expressing their personal outrage in increasingly violent ways. The other driver in this event did nothing wrong and acted appropriately to my mistake. If anything, he was quite gentlemanly about what I did—but since I didn’t know him, I really had no idea of how he was reacting and so I was anxious until he turned off.

My paranoia was wasted but in truth, it wasn’t out of line. As a culture, we have exchanged civility and forgiveness for anger and revenge. If you cut me off, I get to give you the finger or ram your car off the road or even shoot you. Certainly, the majority of people are not going to react this way—but we are seeing more and more people who feel justified in making their upset clear in increasingly violent ways.

I would like to make a direct connection between that reality and the increasingly depressing church attendance statistics but I can’t. The increase in self-centered behaviour in our culture is a result of a great many factors, some of which have also led people to abandon things like worship. As a culture, we are becoming much more concerned with self and less and less concerned with anything else. While I can and do speculate on the various causes of this, I will leave it to social scientists and historians to write the definitive study of the causes.

But as a theologian, I will make a comment. This drive to self-focus isn’t really new nor should it be all that much of a surprise. It has been around since the beginning. The essence of what the Bible calls sin is the desire on my part to be the most important. I want to be God—remember, that was the original temptation and it has never lost its appeal.

We are created as pretty amazing beings—but we also need to remember that we are not alone in the world. We live in a world that also includes others. Those others are inevitably going to intersect with our lives and when our self-centeredness clashed with their self-centeredness, there are going to be sparks and tensions and problems.

The only really effective solution to the issue is self-centeredness is God. As we relate to the Divine, we discover who and what we are and we are able to locate ourselves in the universe. I am not the most important, I am not the only one. I am one of many created by, sustained by and loved by God—and as I discover more and more of what that means, I discover more and more how to live with other people.

I am going to make mistakes—as are others. We can learn from our relationship with God how to live with the reality of our mistakes without resorting to evil and violence.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE FAMILY OF GOD

One of the suggested activities for our family reunion was attending a worship service at the church where we all spent a lot of time while we were growing up. Given that there were 40-50 of us at the reunion, this could have the potential for being a major influx of people for a mid-summer worship service. I have to confess that I was hoping that no one organizing the reunion thought to let the church know that we were coming for purely selfish reasons—I was pretty sure that if they knew we were coming, I would be asked to preach, which I didn’t really want to do since I was going to be on vacation.

No one told the church and I didn’t get asked to preach. So, Sunday morning, we ended up walking from our hotel to worship since both our cars were needed by our children not to attend worship. It was a nice walk, just at the edge of my aging knees’ limits. Unfortunately, we arrived just as the church bell was ringing, not my usual 10-20 minutes early. We were almost the last of the family to arrive—I managed to jump head of one of my sisters on the steps.

The pastor greeted us, members of the congregation greeted us and just before worship began, the pastor asked if I would lead the pastoral prayer, which I declined, and if we would introduce ourselves once things began. Although we had all grown up in the church, if had been a long time since most of us were there and a lot of the congregation had changed.

We were well received by the congregation—the “new” people were pleased to have a larger congregation and to have some connection with the past. But the reaction of the people who were there when we were there was significant. There was genuine joy and appreciation. Some of these people had taught most of us in school and in Sunday School. Some had attended school and Sunday School with some of us. All of us had a significant set of memories and connections and emotional responses.

One of the women got up to read Scripture but prefaced the reading with an appreciation for our family, including some memories and her personal appreciation for being a part of helping us become who we were now. That triggered a lot of thoughts for me because I began looking at all the connections with those present and those not present. The woman reading the Scripture had been one of my school teachers. Her father had been Sunday School superintendent and had also hired me to help work on the extension to the church building while I was a teen.

One on the men whose presence I deeply missed had been the Sunday School teacher who happily volunteered to teach our group of teenaged guys all through our Sunday School tenure, a task that I know now was demanding and onerous but which he loved because he cared so much for each of us. As the pastor preached, I couldn’t help but remember the pastor whose ministry had covered my whole time at that church and who baptized all of us.

Going to worship that day was another family reunion. The Family of God is a deep and significant part of my life and my involvement in it really began in that congregation in that building. The reality of the Christian faith, which has been the basis of my career and my life, began for me in that congregation as people accepted this large poor family that started filling the middle pew one Sunday long ago. They took us in, found us a place in Sunday School, youth group, VBS, worship. They picked us up and took us home when Dad was working and the weather prevented us from walking. They nurtured and taught and played and corrected and made us a part of the family.

And so when we arrived on Sunday morning, we were as welcomed at the church as we were at the reunion site—and for similar reasons. We were family and we belonged. We might not have been there for a long time but we were family and when family shows us, everyone is happy.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE FAMILY REUNION

I come from a large family—I am the second oldest of nine. These days, we are scattered all over Canada, which is something of an improvement from the times when some of us have had international addresses. For a variety of reasons, we haven’t been together for a lot of years. A major factor in that has probably been that we have had no real family base for many years. Everyone in the family has moved out of the community we grew up in, the house has been sold and there was really no reason to go there.

But one brother has bought a house nearby and so this year, we had a family reunion. All but one of us attended, along with various partners, children, grandchildren, cousins and some whose relationship I am not totally sure of. For three days, we gathered, talked, laughed, ate and remembered. The hot, muggy, rainy weather didn’t create too many problems, although it made the family picture a bit more difficult and interrupted the camp fire.

Sometimes, as I was there, I was an observer. I love watching groups of people, seeing how they interact and fit together and structure themselves. I enjoyed the process of seeing who was being the extrovert; who was doing the work that needed to be done; who was talking to who; how the groups formed and reformed and all the rest. All the skills and abilities I have developed with groups of people over the years had a field day during the reunion. At one point, I was joking with my wife that maybe we should write an academic paper about the dynamics of the reunion.

That paper will never get written because although I can’t help but watch and analyse, I was a serious part of this group and so most of the time, I was participating. Well, I was participating in the stuff that a 66 year old with bad knees could participate in. I left “Capture the Flag” to the family members who have functioning knees. But most of the time, I was talking and joking and sharing with the rest of the family.

I was part of the ever shifting groups that spontaneously popped up as we caught up with each other, shared about the triumphs and tragedies of the past few years, reminded each other of this or that event. I got to know the next generations, many of whom were much older than they were when I last connected with them—some of them even have children of their own who were about the same age they were when I last saw them. I also had some time to connect fairly deeply with some of them.

At one point, one of the brothers brought the last contents of our mother’s apartment. While all of us had helped in the clearing out, these things were somehow missed and we needed to go through them, picking and choosing. That was a very mixed activity for all of us. The old photo albums were filled with funny pictures—my 70s and 80s hair was a source of much comment and laughter. But the other bits and pieces in the box brought other, sadder emotions—I found the watch that Dad had been given for 25 years at his work place which was exciting and sad at the same time.

At one point, I found myself sitting beside a great-nephew I didn’t know too well explaining who the people in the pictures were, helping him see where he fit in this collection of people—seeing a picture of his great, great grandparents helped him see more of the context of his life. Helping him see that helped me see more of the context of my life as well.

I don’t really know when or if we will get together again. Most of us are getting on and some health issues are beginning to show up. We talked about getting together again and I expect we will once someone is willing to take on the task of organizing and arranging the whole thing. I am not sure that as many of us will make it to another one (a sad idea) but I will look forward to the next one—maybe even I will help arrange it.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO BUILDINGS

One of the realities of being a pastor for rural churches is that I get to work in some really old buildings. One Sunday recently, both worship services occurred in old buildings. One dates back to 1835 and the other to 1833. In another pastorate, we were responsible for a building that was put up in 1810. By European standards, these are of course relatively new buildings—but by our standards, they are very old.

These buildings have all the drawbacks that you might expect from such an old building: limited facilities, inadequate electricity, inefficient heating systems, no cooling system, poor parking, uncomfortable and fixed seating. Most of them are wooden buildings, which always need serious work—the 1835 building needs sills replaced and the 1833 building has had major work done recently. The majority of them indicate their age with the tell tale scent of mold and decay. Basic maintenance jobs tend to be expensive and eat up lots of time, energy and money getting them taken care of.

There are some advantages to the buildings: we have a place for our church to gather, we can enjoy the old-time craftsmanship, we can complain about the hard seats. If we get enough money and support, we can and so make some modifications that make them better for our purposes.

But lots of people ask why we are so committed to these old, expensive, inefficient buildings. Generally, the only people not asking that question are the ones who have regularly worshipped in the buildings year after year. New comers, people from away, leaders of bigger congregations in other places, denominational dealership, even theology professors ask the question a lot, sometimes assuming that just because they ask the question, we inhabiting these old buildings will see the light and abandon the buildings.

But those of us who worship in such buildings aren’t asking the question. A person like me who has pastored congregations like this for years used to ask the question. These days, I don’t bother asking because I know the answer. Why do we in small churches keep meeting in old, antiquated, expensive to maintain and heat buildings? The answer is simple: because we can.

We don’t worship the building—well, maybe a few do. Mostly, we continue to inhabit our buildings because they are ours. We worship week after week and the building itself enhances our worship. Occasionally, the enhancement is a result of the building itself–the acoustics, the craftsmanship, the view—but more often, the enhancements occurs because of what the building houses.

It houses our memories. That seat at the back left—that is where I first went to Sunday School. The third pew from the front in the centre, that is where Deacon Zeke used to sit—he was a wise and wonderful example of the Christian faith. That pew right there—that is where I was sitting when I decided to follow Jesus. That Communion table—that was donated by my great-grandparents and my great-grandfather made it by hand from wood he cut himself.

The building houses other memories as well. We remember those we grieved and whose lives we celebrated at the funeral. We remember the weddings when new families came into being. We remember those who grew up in our midst and went on to serve God in the pulpit or the mission field. We are reminded each week of the faithful whose memories are collected and celebrated in our buildings.

We keep our buildings because they hold the memories. We keep our buildings because they allow us to celebrate the cloud of witnesses that are part of our story. We keep our buildings because they are a visible symbol of the endurance of our faith. We keep our buildings because they help our faith.

We don’t worship our buildings and we don’t need the building to have and express our faith. If the building is beyond repair or suffers a fire, we will grieve. We will mourn the loss—but we won’t lose our faith. We will still be believers, albeit believers struggling to find a place to locate our memories.

Our old, inefficient and expensive to maintain buildings could disappear and our faith would continue. But we have them—and because we have them, we can and do use them to enhance our faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

YOU, ME AND JESUS

When I was starting out in the Christian faith and becoming involved in youth rallies and programs, we were introduced to a simple understanding of the way to really live life. We were taught JOY—the way of life was Jesus first, Others second, Yourself third. Some religious supply company or organization even produced a banner that was quite popular among many more conservative Christian groups—I think I had one that I carried around and posted prominently where ever my theological student wanderings took me.

The JOY idea is one of those religious catch phrases that sounds really good and is simple enough that anyone can understand it—and it has the added benefit of providing the perfect three-point outline for a sermon. It works on many levels, which is probably why it became something of a fad among some people for a time. It was also the perfect counter to the open self-centeredness that was becoming a significant part of our culture at the time.

But no matter how many levels it works on, it is a flawed statement. The theology is wrong and the approach to life it fostered was wrong. In many ways, it was a disguised version of the same old selfishness that plagued humanity from the beginning. In one of the perverse twists of apparent reality, putting ourselves last amounted to taking pride in our humility and our ability to take the last place. Following JOY, we all strove to be the least important, which ultimately meant that we are all pretty sure we were really important and therefore had to work hard to present ourselves as unimportant. Selfishness disguised as unselfishness is still selfishness.

The JOY approach did capture one basic truth—that the way to overcome selfishness is to put Jesus first. I suspect that the developers of that idea were not delving deeply into that part of the theology and psychology of the concept—they seem to have been more concerned with having us submit or defer to others.

Theologically, we human seem to have a built in need to serve something or someone. Sometimes, we serve ourselves; sometimes we serve something that benefits us; sometimes we get caught in something that ultimately harms us—but we all seem to need something beyond ourselves to follow and even serve. This gets confused and wrapped up in our selfishness and it sometimes becomes really difficult to determine where we end and the thing we serve begins.

Jesus, however, shows us a way to serve in a way that helps us deal with our selfishness without pretending we are less selfish that we really are. Mostly, he does that by example. Jesus never claimed to be the least of the least; he never developed a sense of false and sick humility. He was the son of God. He was God in human form. He had power and authority and was sinless and perfect and all that.

He was well aware of his place in the universe—all humanity depended on him and his decisions. He put humanity before himself in the sense that he gave up what was rightfully his; he accepted limits and limitations that he didn’t need to accept; he put up with stuff that he could have easily avoided—and all the while, he was aware of the fact that he was divine, powerful and didn’t have to do what he was doing.

He chose to do it as part of his commitment to the divine will. Jesus the son was serving God with his full being. He gave himself to God and for humanity, knowing exactly who and what he was and just how important he was. He was self-aware but not selfish.

That, I think, becomes the goal for us as his followers. We seek this sense of self-awareness of who and what we are and who and what we can be through Christ. Rather than trying to make ourselves unimportant, we can and should recognize the importance we have in God’s eyes. We are valuable to God; we are worth something to him; Jesus was willing to both die for us and rise to life for us.

My awareness of who I am because of God through Jesus allows me to commit to him—and gives me a way to overcome the selfishness that is at the root of all the evil in life. As believers, we are to develop self-awareness of our place with God.

May the peace of God be with you.