A GOOD COMBINATION

There are some things in life that are just made to go together. Hamburgers obviously need fries to be complete. Abbot needs Costello to make the comedy work. The Old Testament needs the New Testament for the Christian revelation to be fully understood. A blank page (or computer screen these days) needs meaningful words to become something valuable and inspiring. A good stew needs uglai to be perfect. (If you haven’t tried stew and ugali, trust me—or better yet visit East Africa and try it out).

Another combination that makes sense but which works out less often that a burger and fries is the combination of a pastor and a congregation. When the combination works, it is a beautiful thing. When it doesn’t work, it is a disaster not only for the church and the pastor but also for the wider Christian community because it shows our inability to actually follow the faith that we claim.

There are a variety of reasons why the combination doesn’t work. Sometimes, both congregations and pastors enter the relationship without God’s clear leading. That combination is going to fail simply because it results from people presuming to know as much or more than God. They either ignore the need to consult God on the potential combination or assume that what they want it what God wants.

While that is unfortunately a more common reality than most churches and pastors want to admit, I am going to ignore it in this post—I may deal with it sometime. Today, I want to look at why a combination put together by God goes wrong. Presumably, if God in his infinite wisdom brings together a pastor and a combination, it is literally a match made in heaven—so why would it fail?

Most of the time, the match fails because one side or the other or both forget something vital and important. They forget that God himself has selected this congregation and this pastor to be linked together for this point in time. God created the combination because at the point in time the pastor and congregation come together, it is the very best for both in the ever unfolding divine plan for the redemption of creation.

That may sound like a pretty big understanding of what is a very common reality—afterall, there are probably millions of churches around the world and therefore millions of pastor/congregation combinations. Do all of them have that same divine seal of approval making that particular combination a significant and vital part of God’s overall plan of redemption? Well, if both congregation and pastor ( and denominational leadership where applicable) have faithfully engaged in the process and have been fully open to the leading of the Spirit, then yes, their combination is a divinely planned connection that has a part to play in the overall process of moving a sin-scarred world towards its eventual rebirth.

And if that is true, then congregation and pastor need to work together to discover what God envisions them as being a good combination. The gifts, talents, needs and potentials of both pastor and congregation have been carefully and divinely considered and the combination brought together so that the congregation can continue to develop in faith, so that the pastor can continue to develop in faith and so that the overall momentum leading to the full redemption of creation can be maintained. When either the pastor or congregation—or both—forget the divine reality behind their being together, the whole thing gets out of whack.

Instead of seeing their combination as being for the betterment of both and the advancement of the kingdom, each side sees only what they want and seek to achieve it at the expense of the other—and also at the expense of putting yet another kink in the overall plan of redemption which God then has to work around.

Much better for both pastor and congregation to recognize the divine nature of their calling, to accept the need for mutual submission, to humbly seek the Spirit’s guidance as they seek to discover and express the reason for their coming together. When pastor and congregation mutually submit to each other and all submit to God, they are truly a good combination that will work even better than stew and ugali because stew and uglai will have a temporary effect while a good combination of pastor and congregation will have eternal effects.

May the peace of God be with you.

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A GOOD PASTOR

I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. But that is okay since none of the congregations I have been called to serve were calling a perfect pastor. I wasn’t perfect before they called me, I didn’t become perfect when I served the church and I didn’t become perfect when I left the congregation. There are some pastors who manage to achieve perfection—but only a few years after they have left the congregation and when succeeding pastors have more glaring weaknesses than they had. But while hindsight might make a pastor look perfect, that is more a case of selective remembering than actual reality.

Like congregations, pastors are not perfect. We are called, we are forgiven, we are gifted—but we are not perfect. We pick up our calling and carry it out with a confusing blend of good and bad that can be wildly infuriating to both pastor and congregation. We provide the absolutely perfect ministry that changes a life one minute and the next, we drive three other people to question not just our call but our basic faith.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, all sorts of problems develop. Congregations forget to test the spirits, as I John 4.1 tells us. This allows us as pastors to operate without accountability—and the worst thing we can give to an imperfect individual is a freedom from accountability. With no accountability, we have no reason to see or acknowledge or deal with our imperfections. Generally, lack of accountability results in increased imperfection, not less imperfection.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, it become very traumatic when the real imperfections manifest themselves. While some congregation members can and will ignore any and all imperfections, most people will eventually discover the pastor whom they thought was perfect isn’t perfect and that will create all sorts of responses, from mild irritation to rejection of the church to rejection of the faith.

When pastors forget that pastors aren’t perfect, the consequences are even worse. When we pastors forget that we don’t have it all together, we then begin to minister from our imperfection, not from our commitment to God. Our desire for power gets wrapped in “doing God’s will”; our need for approval overshadows the need to speak the truth of God; our desire for affection rewrites the moral standards of the faith. We end up hurting not just ourselves but the wider church. Our imperfections can often become the institutionalized dysfunction of the congregation or denomination.

So, let me be clear. Pastors are not perfect—nor will we be perfect this side of eternity. And since that someday perfection simply isn’t the reality here and now, we pastors need to learn to minister as imperfect people and congregations need to accept the reality that their pastor isn’t perfect and won’t be perfect—and wasn’t actually perfect in the case of former pastors.

How do we imperfect pastors minister to imperfect congregations? I think we start with honesty. It isn’t quite the blind leading the blind—but is the imperfect pastoring the imperfect. If we all start there, then we can become mutually accountable and responsible. As an imperfect pastor of an imperfect congregation, I need to make sure that both I and the congregation are willing to commit proper time and resources to seeking the leading from the Perfect that we need. My latest and greatest idea that will revitalize our church and change the face of Christianity needs the careful and prayerful consideration of the congregation to make sure it isn’t actually an expression of my imperfection wrapped in a few decontextualized Scriptures. While I am called to be their pastor, I am not called to be their boss or dictator. Rather, both pastor and congregation are called to mutual responsibility and accountability as we together seek to offer our imperfection to God so that he can bring us all closer to what we are meant to be.

The churches I have been called to serve as pastor didn’t get a perfect pastor when they called me. But then again, they didn’t have one before I arrived (no matter what the older members say) and they won’t have one after I leave. As long as I and the congregation remember that, we are better able to seek God’s perfection to deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

A GOOD CHURCH

I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. In fact, sometimes, I have found myself called to churches which were struggling with some serious dysfunction. I have also had contact with a lot of other churches over the years and have yet to find a perfect church. Because of the nature of the connections I have had with many congregations, I have often ended up discovering the hidden dysfunction in even the best of churches.

Now, I want to be clear at this point—I don’t go looking for the problems in various congregations. I am actually not overly interested in the internal dynamics of other congregations—most of the time, it takes most of my energy and ambition to cope with the realities of the congregations that I have been called to serve. But because I have taught pastors, written about the struggles of small churches and been the pastor of churches with open problems, I have learned much more about many congregations than I want to know.

The end result of all this experience with churches is the depressing insight that there are no perfect churches. That might seem like a totally unnecessary statement of the obvious to some people. But I think many people pay lip service to the imperfection of churches while at the same time assuming that the congregation they are part of or want to be part of is somehow an exception to the rule. Whatever the reason, there are plenty of believers out there looking for the perfect congregation.

To those of you still looking, let me be clear: there are no perfect churches. They don’t exist. Every Christian congregation in the world is going to be a confusing blend of good and bad; right and wrong; inspiring and depressing; perfection and imperfection. The congregation that produces the deeply spiritual Good Friday worship will also discriminate against some people groups. The congregation that condemns any deviation from their norms loudly and publically will also love and care for their disabled members in ways that put others to shame.

No matter what the congregation looks like from the outside, once you become a part of it, you will see both the good and the bad. Well, actually, you might see both, although there is a more than even chance that you will only see one or the other. We human beings are prone to selective vision so we can and do block out the parts we don’t want to see. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will soon discover that the great congregation has some serious problems and the dysfunctional congregation has some seriously good expressions of the faith.

There are no perfect Christian congregations. There are just gatherings of believers who are trying to work at and work out their faith in the context of a Christian community. Running through the whole of the New Testament is the assumption that believers will form communities and that these communities, which we call churches, will be imperfect expressions of the ideal that the New Testament writers keep pointing is towards. Many of the letters in the New Testament were actually written in response to the lack of perfection in various congregations.

Very early in ministry, I realized some implications of the lack of perfect congregations. If there are no perfect congregations, I will never be called to one—and even more importantly, I will never create one. My ministry goal isn’t to create a perfect congregation but to work with the imperfect congregation I have been called to so that together, we can overcome some of the imperfection and dysfunction and become a better congregation—not a perfect one but a better one. And the goal of every member of every congregation should be the same. We become part of a congregation and seek to use our gifts to make an imperfect gathering a better gathering, all the while recognizing that we are never going to be perfect.

Rather than look for a different congregation when we see the problems in the one we are at—or give up on the church completely, as some have done, our response to the reality of imperfection in the church probably needs to be confession of our part in the imperfection, acceptance of the reality of the imperfection and commitment to doing what we can to make things better. We might never become a perfect church but we can become a good church.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE HAPPY PLACE

Many years ago, I sometimes watched a TV comedy with a cast of over the top characters whose activities provided some needed diversion during my busy and active weeks. I am pretty sure that a significant part of the attraction of this show was that although the characters all had seriously dysfunctional lives, I didn’t have any obligation or responsibility to help them deal with their dysfunction. That is a rarity for a pastor who has lived for a long time in the same rural communities.

One of the characters had a tendency to slip into dangerous rages which could be destructive. Now, since this was a comedy, the rages never resulted in people getting hurt and only produced slapstick comedy but all the other characters in the show were suitably afraid of the rages and did whatever they could to prevent them.

Somewhere along the way, some therapist or friend had taught the character to develop a safe place in his mind that he could go to when he felt the rage coming on. And so on the show, whenever he or his friends saw signs of the rage, everyone would begin repeating, “Go to your safe place, go to your safe place, go to your safe place….” until the danger had passed, unless of course the writers needed the rage to come on to complete some comedic theme.

The show, like all others has passed on. It can probably be found somewhere given all the media outlets available today but to be honest, it wasn’t on my list of shows that I need to watch again and again. But I did like the idea of a safe mental place. I am not sure the idea is an overly effective remedy for a person with the kind of rage the TV character had but as a relaxation tool for more “normal” people, it might not be a bad idea.

Whether it is a real favourite chair, a physically comfortable couch, a spot under a specific tree or a imaginary white sand beach in the tropics, we all might benefit from having a place where we can relax and de-stress and be at peace. Life tends to be hectic and demanding and busy and active and have too little time and space to unwind and relax. For most people, the default setting is move, do, rush, prepare. Our lives are dominated by active, compelling verbs that keep us moving and rushing and doing.

And maybe we all need a place where we shut off the action verbs and enjoy things like peace and quiet and relaxation and rest. Maybe we would all benefit from some static nouns in place of active verbs for a bit. But because of the reality of life, we need to specifically seek out the static restful nouns. If we don’t, the active verbs keep pounding away, driving us to keep active.

A happy place just might be what we need to get out from under the demands of the verbs. Maybe we all need a place, either a real physical place or an imagined place where we can hang a sign saying, “Static noun zone. No action verbs allowed”. We might benefit from a place where we can just be, a place where rest and relaxation and peace dominate, a place where we can undo the effects of all the action verbs that are so powerful.

I have several such places. One is the chair where I sit and write or stare out the window at the trees. The nice thing about this place is that it is also the place where I do most of my work so I can quickly and easily transition from the action verbs of writing and planning and thinking and designing to the static nouns of resting and relaxing and being at peace. Using the same place for both might now work for everyone but it does work for me.

I can be deep within the pressures of writing a difficult sermon that just won’t come together and with a glance out the window, be in a whole different place. When I get back, after 5 seconds or 2 minutes or whatever, the sermon is still there but I am in a better place because I have been to the other place.

May the peace of God be with you.

WAITING

Both the Bible study groups I pretend to lead keep coming back to Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5.22-23, where we are told, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (NIV) By now, some of the members of the group have the entire list memorized—although to be fair, I do have to say that some of them had the list memorized before we started using the verse so much in our study.

Those who have memorized the verse don’t need to look it up every time we refer to it. I have to look up the verse. Mentally, I tell myself I am looking it up to ensure that I get the right words in the right order—with the wealth translations available these days, that just makes sense. And while that is a very practical and prudent reason for looking up a verse of Scripture, there is another reason I look up the verse: I can’t actually remember the list beyond the first four. This isn’t a secret—I have confessed this to both Bible study groups and anyone else who has occasion to discuss the verse with me.

I am not sure why I have trouble remembering the list but I suspect that it has something to do with the fourth fruit of the Spirit, patience. I like to think that I am patient but in truth, I am not the most patient person in the world. I really don’t like waiting. I can remember long sleepless nights as a child while I waited for Christmas Eve to turn into Christmas morning. Waiting for anything important is difficult.

Right now, I am waiting to go into the hospital for surgery. While all surgery is serious and brings a certain amount of risk, all of which has been carefully explained to me a couple of times, I am not overly anxious about the surgery. I have confidence in the surgeon and know the hospital’s reputation and have lots of people praying for me in the process.

But I have been struggling with significant impatience in this process. I have known since early in the year that this was coming. My surgery date wasn’t as early as the surgeon had first suggested because of circumstances beyond his control and so the waiting has been even longer than we anticipated.

The first part of the wait was okay—I was busy and could ignore the whole thing. But once I had a specific date and began to make arrangements, the impatience kicked in—I just wanted to get the thing done. The closer the day comes, the more impatient I become. It hasn’t affected my work—if anything, I am doing more work as I prepare for the surgery and resulting time off. Making arrangements for the various responsibilities I have, helping groups decide what to do during my absence, getting stuff done before I am off—all these and more have taken up my time.

But I just want to get the thing done. Waiting is a pain. And the closer and closer it gets, the slower time passes and the more I want it to hurry up. Last week was slow and frustrating. This week is worse because I have the surgery in two days. I am pretty sure that I won’t be sleeping all that much or well the next two nights as my impatience kicks into high gear. Time will perform a psychological miracle and slow to a crawl, with seconds taking hours and two days becoming an eternity as I wait.

However, what I lack in patience, I make up for in trust. I might be seriously impatient about getting there but I have a strong sense of peace about the whole thing. Peace, those of you who have memorized the verse in question will remember, is the third fruit of the Spirit. Being third means it is in my remembered list of the fruit. I may not be a very patient person at this point, but I am at peace. No matter what happens, I know that God is with me. Now, if he would just give the time wheel a bit of a nudge, that would be great.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE WEATHER

According to the calendar and the trees outside, the grass that has already been mowed once, the dandelions that somehow escaped the mover, the geese and other migratory birds that are back, it is spring in Nova Scotia. But no matter what the signs suggest, it has been a cold, wet, miserable spring. We are Canadian so we generally endure. We have lots of ways of making ourselves feel “better” about the slow coming of warm sunny weather.

All the rain is good for the farmers. Of course, we have to ignore the reality that although they might be grateful for the rain, it makes it pretty much impossible to get fields ready for planting—tractors churn the soil into mud and then get stuck. The rain also makes the grass grow—as if that is a good thing to someone like me whose dislike of mowing lawns verges on the pathological. And there is always the old saying, “April showers bring May flowers”, which might be somewhat helpful if May had some actual sunshine that encouraged us to get out and find the may flowers.

In the end, the weather is the weather. We live with whatever comes. Whether the weather is good or bad, it does have a vital function in human relationships—it gives us something to talk about. That is more than just a cynical attempt at humour. Talking about the weather may well be one of the most common conversational themes among people and as such, it serves a vital role in human relationships.

Talking about the weather is more than small talk. It actually serves as a powerful tool that helps us determine whether we can and should engage in further communication. It allows us to gauge the status of the person we are meeting without asking outright if they are in a good mood and if it is safe to talk to them. Talking about the weather tells us a lot about the individual, their current state and the relative value and safety of carrying on with the conversation.

Most human are totally unaware that this is what we are doing when we talk about the weather. Some, in fact, downplay and even claim to hate talking about the weather. They believe such small talk gets in the way of real conversation. My experience has been that if we aren’t going to talk about the weather with someone, we probably aren’t going to have a pleasant, good or constructive conversation with the person. We might talk but without the lubricant and evaluation provided by the weather discussion, we have no sense of the other’s context or state and rather than enter the serious side of the conversation prepared, we go in cold and have to discover the context and status while at the same time dealing with whatever heavy stuff the conversation brings.

So, over the years, I have learned to deeply appreciate small talk, discussions about the weather, TV shows, new cars (and old cars), kids and grandkids and so on. Sometimes, the small talk has been interesting all by itself—one friend years ago had a seemingly inexhaustible store of old sayings related to the weather that I found fascinating and more than a bit true. Sometimes, the small talk has been the whole conversation—we complain about the wet, the dry, the cold, the heat and then move on. But somehow, something has been put in place that allows a deeper conversation somewhere down the road.

And occasionally, the weather talk leads directly to a significant and serious conversation that likely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been willing to give the right signals during the discussion of the wet or dry or snowy weather.

Mostly, I don’t care about what the weather is. I do appreciate rain on the days I am supposed to mow the lawn because it gives me an excuse to sit inside and read or write. But I do deeply appreciate the weather because of its profound effect in human interaction. If we can talk comfortably about the weather, we set the stage for being able to comfortably talk about almost anything. So, we have had a wet, cold, miserable spring—think about how many conversations have been able to grow and flourish from that wonderful beginning.

May the peace of God be with you.

FRIDAY MORNING

Because of the nature of my work week, Friday is one of the days when I try to avoid doing any work. That is not always possible: funerals, wedding rehearsals, nursing home services and other bits and pieces of ministry end up getting scheduled for Fridays. But as much as I can, I plan on avoiding work on Fridays.

In many ways, Friday is the end of the work week for me. I see my work week as running from Saturday to the next Thursday. Saturday involves preparation (and nervousness) for Sunday. Sunday involves worship and then opens the door to the rest of the work week with its requirements for sermon preparation, Bible study preparation and attendance, pastoral visits and everything else that I need to cram into my two 40% pastoral positions.

So, when Thursday evening rolls around, I am ready for a break. Friday morning becomes a mini-vacation, a day to focus on my stuff, not work—provided, of course, it isn’t nursing home service Friday, there isn’t a funeral and no one has picked this weekend to get married. I rarely have glamorous plans for Friday.

Fridays off often involve running errands like grocery shopping and banking. It can involve mowing the lawn during the appropriate season. Sometimes, it will involve a date for a movie and supper—not often enough for that but that is the reality of our lives. Now and then, it involves getting at some repair or maintenance issue that I have put off all week because of lack of time and/or energy.

What is generally doesn’t involve is sleeping in. Somehow, it feels wrong to sleep in on Friday. I am a morning person and normally, church works gets to claim mornings as I wrestle with sermons and Bible studies and how to get all the required information in the Sunday bulletin without having to produce an insert as well. And that is fine with me—working for the church is not just my job, it is also my calling and I need to give both God and the church my best, including the time of the day when I am at my best.

But Friday mornings—well, I have the sermons and the bulletin and the Bible study done. There isn’t a meeting, a nursing home service, a funeral or wedding rehearsal on the schedule. I can wake up at my regular time and know that when I sit in my chair with my breakfast granola and banana, it is my time. I can write a blog post, stare out the window, read a book, play solitaire—anything is possible and nothing is essential. For a couple of hours on Friday morning, my time belongs to me.

I am an moderately strong introvert and times like this are important to my overall mental, physical and spiritual health. Since my work keeps me connected with people, I need these spaces where there are no people. Ministry is people intensive—even when I am not physically with people, they are present. I write sermons with church people in mind. I think and pray about church people when I am reading for work. I am aware that for most people, I am just a phone call away.

But on Friday mornings, I am not working. The phone is in the bedroom, far enough away that I can pretend not to hear it, especially since my hearing aids are there as well. Any writing I do is for me—I know that people read my blogs, something for which I am deeply grateful but I don’t have the same level of connection with blog readers that I have with the church people I work for and with all day. Writing a blog is something for me—and the fact that others read it is icing on the cake.

So, Friday mornings are mine. The first couple of hours is my time, time that I need to feed and nurture me. And so I take it, I enjoy it, I grow because of it. The benefits of early Friday morning more than make up for the fact that I don’t sleep in after a busy week. Thank God for Friday mornings.

May the peace of God be with you.

MORE LIFE

I am going to be a preacher in this post. When we preachers tell stories in our sermons, we have to be careful. We want people to be able to identify with the story but we don’t want anyone to identify the actual persons or events in the story so we engage in a lot of conflation, obfuscation and editing of the story. I don’t want to say that we lie or make up stories because that would be unpreacherly. We do, however, take more than a few liberties to protect the innocent and the not so innocent.

So, with that in mind, let me tell you about my friend—a person whom I have never really met but who borrows bits and pieces from lots of people I have met, read about or listened to gossip about. My friend suffers from some learning disabilities, which made school a difficult process. She (or he) was also abused in a variety of ways by a variety of people: neglected by parents, beaten by siblings, sexually abused by family and strangers. They ended up in the child welfare system, where sometimes they had good homes and sometimes had the homes all TV shows love to show.

Along the way, it was discovered that they had some major chronic and incurable health problems which were sort of controlled by medication but which created some major limits physically and emotionally and financially.

I could go on but why bother—the point of the story is that my imaginary friend has the deck seriously stacked against them. Actually, let’s add the fact that they were born in a poor rural community in a country where poverty is endemic and the government so corrupt that the poverty is institutionalized.

When faced with a life with as many difficulties and drawbacks and roadblocks as this, most people choose to live. Suicide is always an option and while suicide rates are high, they are not as high as they might be. No matter how difficult the life situation, most people choose to live for as long and as well as they can. They will fight to live. They may steal to get food, seek counselling to deal with their demons, beg to get medicine, illegally cross borders to get safety, start a charity to benefit themselves and others, find a tutor to explain the realities of math, fall prey to a scam artist or cult leader promising something, join a church, get community support for a power wheelchair—but they will keep going, seeking to live as best as they can given the realities of life.

And the truth is that most of us do that. We are somehow designed to choose life, no matter what. Certainly, there are some for whom the prospect of continued life is too much and they choose not life—but given number of people and the number of issues, limits and problems all of us face, the deep and powerful reality is that the majority of people choose to live. We almost always manage to find some hope that keeps us going.

Right now, I sit here writing this suffering with serious arthritic pain resulting from mowing the lawn and the dampness from the coming rain. But I am writing, not sitting moaning and groaning, although I do some of that at times. But like most of the rest of the world, I am going to keep going: writing, working, watching TV, walking (or limping), preaching sermons and helping others as they also keep going.

We are designed to live, to thrive and grow. We find hope in the most hopeless of situations. While we might not thrive in someone else’s life, we all work at coping with our own life. That seems to be a part of our God-given nature—we are hard wired to live and seek the best life we can, which means that we will life with, around and through almost anything. Those who find it too much are few and far between and we need to view them with compassion rather than judgement. But for most of us, we are going to keep going, no matter what.

This drive to live is, I think, one of God’s blessings. Our human sin makes life hard and difficult—but our divinely given drive to live keeps us going.

May the peace of God be with you.

LIFE

The front lawn at our house is marked by the decaying stumps of two trees. The trees were cut down so long that I have no idea what kind of tree they were but they were obviously big—each stump is at least half a meter in diameter. The two stumps are slowly rotting away and eventually, will be no more than a slight hump on the lawn. Right now, however, they are something of an annoyance when I am mowing the lawn.

They are big enough that I can’t just mow over them—and the mower doesn’t get close enough to cut right up to the stump, even though I purposely bump the stump seeking to knock of some of the decaying wood and hasten their eventual disappearance. There is, I suppose, the option of stump grinding but I don’t own the house or the lawn or the stumps and so have no vested interested in making the stumps disappear sooner.

And the stumps are actually filling an important ecological niche on the front lawn. Both support thriving communities of insects and small life forms—that is what is causing the breakdown of the stumps, the various life forms eating and nesting and whatever in, on and around the stumps. One of the stumps also has a significant colony of fungi. For some reason, the old roots of this particular stump are closer to the surface and so provide a home for some giant puff balls. Watching them grow is kind of interesting and more than makes up for the black spots on the lawn when they eventually burst.

So, when I was reluctantly pushing the lawn mower for the first time this spring, I was mildly interested in the condition of the stumps. I was annoyed that I would have to weed eat around the stumps and interested to see that some of the puff ball black spots had made it through the winter. A few more bits and pieces of the stumps has fallen off and were quickly mulched by the mower.

And then I noticed that the puff ball stump has another occupant feeding off the old wood. Two trees somehow managed to sprout from the top of the stump. I am not sure what kind they are beyond the fact that they are conifers—both a pine tree and a fir tree are close enough to be likely parents and I am more of an expert on the “Tree of Life” than the life—and birth—of trees. But it is interesting that the two seeds somehow managed to sprout in the rotting tree stumps. Now, when I mow, I will be watching with interest to see how well the trees survive in their rotting home.

Life amazes me with its ability to cope and thrive and overcome incredible odds. Grass grows in cracks in the pavement; flowers poke through rocks; puff balls feed on dead tree roots; trees sprout in decaying stumps. Some desert insects in the Namib desert have learned to harvest water from the wind blowing off the ocean in the mornings. Fish find ways to live in dark caves. Animals and plants are adapting to the radiation scared Chernobyl landscape. Coyotes and racoons have become unbanites.

Life adapts and overcomes and survives. When one form fails, another takes its place, often using the failed life form as a starting point. I am aware of the ecological catastrophe unfolding as a result of human interference and meddling and lack of concern. I am deeply concerned with the mess we humans are making of the world.

But within that reality, there are two points of hope. The first is the resilience of life as shown by the ecosystem that developed around the two stumps in the front year. Life adapts and keeps going.

The second point of hope comes from my faith in the Creator. As destructive as humanity is, God is even more powerfully creative. This is God’s world, not ours and the divine creativity will always triumph over human destructiveness. That doesn’t absolve us and allow us to do whatever we want. It does provide hope that in spite of our greed, stupidity and senseless exploitation, God will triumph. Just as he redeems fallen humanity, so also will he redeem the creation we have messed up.

May the peace of God be with you.

BUSINESS MEETINGS

I don’t like meetings. There are a few that have been tolerable, many that have actually been important and a whole lot that could have been shorter, tighter and more effective. Generally, given an even choice between attending a meeting or going to the dentist, I would pick the dentist, except for the fact that going to the dentist is a lot like going to a meeting.

I don’t dispute the need for meetings. They are important and significant and are a necessary part of church and denominational and even normal life. I am not an anarchist, a dictator or a megalomaniac. Getting people together to talk about stuff is often the only way we can discover God’s leading and figure out how he wants us to do the work he has called us to do. Over the years, I have become very good at enabling meetings to become places where people have the freedom and encouragement to share and grow and develop ministry. I have also tied to teach other church leaders how to make meeting more effective and more a part of the process of discerning God’s leading.

But for all that, I don’t actually like meetings. So, when a new year rolls around, I brace myself for the wave of annual meetings I have to deal with—these days, that means anywhere up to a dozen different meetings by the time I count finance meetings, deacons’ meetings, congregational meetings and pastorate meetings. Sometimes, I am the chair of the meeting and other times, someone else chairs the meeting (I prefer someone else to be the chair).

Typically, church business meetings have been somewhat restricted to church members but because of the nature of our churches, we have been having open meetings and specifically inviting our non-members to be part of the process. I jokingly tell them during the announcement of the meeting that they are really a part of our fellowship and if we members have to endure the business meeting, they should have to as well.

One pastorate just wrapped up our season of annual meetings. And in spite of my antipathy to meetings, I felt that all the meetings in the process had a positive flavour. We did more than look at financial statements and hear reports. We spent time together, sharing about family and friends, passing on information about absent people, joking about who did what when. We were comforted by the fact that we didn’t go into debt over the past year and that we actually did some good stuff over the past year.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses—we talked about those who had died or had to move in the past year. We wondered how our aging creaky membership could look after our aging creaky buildings—none of us is able anymore to grab a hammer and fix the rotting sills that make the floor sag around the front door. But there are ways to deal with that, especially since we do have some money in the bank.

As pastor, I had some good things to report. Our churches grew over the year—not so much in numbers but definitely in faith. We have a sense of confidence in our churches. We have a developing understanding of how we are being salt and light in our communities; we are seeing some positive response from the community to the ministry we are doing; we have encouraged and enabled people to try a variety of things; we have experimented with worship and mission; we have shared life and all its triumphs and crises with prayer and support and casseroles. We have been the church.

So, I still hate meetings. But this meeting cycle has been worthwhile because it allowed us to take a look at ourselves and see where God has been working, what he has been doing and how he is leading us into the future. We have a bit of money, enough for our needs. Our buildings need some work but we can handle it. We have grown in a lot of ways—and we can all see it. We might have seen all that stuff without the meetings but then again, without the meetings, we wouldn’t have had the chance to get it all together at the same time. I won’t actually say “Thank God for meetings” but I will thank him for what he has shown us through the meetings.

May the peace of God be with you.