MUTUAL SUBMISSION

One of the overlooked themes in the New Testament teaching on the Christian faith is the idea of submission. The idea of submission is clear and not subtle, as we see in Ephesians 5.21, for example: Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (NIV). The problem, though, is that we western Christians have serious issues with the concept of submission.

That is partly based on our perception that submission is the same as surrender. We tend to see submission as giving up, letting our lives be taken over by someone or something else—and real, independent, self-respecting western believers don’t want to surrender anything to anyone. They will have to pry our independence out of our cold dead hands. Of course, if people want to submit to us, well that is great—it might even be an act of wisdom on their part since we likely know better than them anyway.

But I am pretty sure that the New Testament idea of submission is based on something very different from surrender and giving up. To start with, remember that the context of the teaching on submission in relationships begins with the need to love each other as Christ lives us (John 13.34-35). This gives us a very different context for submission. Submission in the Christian sense isn’t about winning and losing or gaining or giving up power. It isn’t about making people do what we want or giving in and doing what they want. And even more, it isn’t about losing ourselves and becoming mindless automatons controlled by the need to submit to everything.

Mutual submission in the Christian faith begins with a commitment to love each other with the same kind of sincere, powerful love that Christ showed us. He was willing to die for us—and even more, willing to live for us and make it possible for us to be with him always. Along the way, he offers help in whatever we need, while at the same time always respecting our freedom, even our freedom to be stupid and/or sinful.

To love as Jesus loved doesn’t take away from who we are—it actually requires that we know who we are and offer ourselves to other believers, just as they know who they are and offer themselves to us. We seek to be of service to each other, a service that may at times require self-sacrifice but which more likely requires a giving of our real self. We seek to love the other person as they are while being there for them as appropriate. We seek to let others love us this way as well. Christian love isn’t about dominance or control or manipulation. It is about a commitment to each other before God that enables each person to become the fullness of what they were meant to be as we grow towards God.

Within the context of Christian love, we learn to submit to each other. This submission is a willingness to recognize that we need each other and at times, one or the other is going to have a better sense of God and his desire in any given situation. Mutual submission recognizes both the weakness and the strength of individuals and makes choice that are appropriate in each context.

When the gathering of believers meets to discuss the colour scheme of the sanctuary, I submit to the leading of fellow believers who can actually see colours. The reality of my colour-blindness makes any comments about colour I make worthless. On the other hand, when the discussion of which colours to use gets heated and threatens to get out of hand, the group might be wise to submit to my attempts to help us move to a more loving process—one of the things I do know how to do is help groups have positive discussions about difficult topics. As we recognize each other’s gifts, strengths and weaknesses in the context of loving each other in the way Jesus love us, we learn how to submit to each other.

Far from being a surrender, mutual submission is a powerful expression of the reality of our faith. We can and do love and respect each other enough to let the Spirit work through each as appropriate in the situation. Mutual submission among believers isn’t about some winning and some losing but about all winning as we together seek to help each other grow closer to each other and to God.

May the peace of God be with you.

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I CAN DO IT BY MYSELF!

The man just wants to be left alone. We don’t know about his past but hints and clues suggest that his life hasn’t been easy. There may be something terrible back somewhere but all we see now is a strong, independent individual who just wants to farm his farm, herd his cattle, fish his fish, research his research, raise his family—that part varies depending on the movie. What doesn’t vary is the need for independence and the lack of a need for much in the way of relationships with other people.

This movie, book, TV show, coffee shop tale is something of a theme for our western culture: the strong, capable independent hero who just wants to be left alone. He (sometimes, she) needs nothing beyond what he produces himself. We in the west like to think of ourselves in terms of this cultural archetype—we are all like this, or wish we were like this.

And this cultural desire for independence is part of the reason why Christian worship attendance in Canada is so low when claims of being a Christian are still relatively high. Just as we celebrate the hero taking care of business by himself, we have developed a faith culture that sees faith as not needing anything beyond an individual and God—and if we are really honest, the God part of the equation is open to a great deal of interpretation. We are not all that comfortable with God unless we have the independence to tinker and edit so that the God who is the focus of our faith looks and feels like we want him (her, it) to look and feel.

We are, in reality, a culture that celebrates independence. We don’t really like obligations that are imposed by relationships. We don’t want to owe people. In fact, we have created a culture that tries to reduce every interpersonal transaction to the lowest common denominator—and that tends to be money.

If I pay for something, I am still independent and in control. I made the money, I chose to spend it. The relationship is bounded by the financial transaction. There is no need for gratitude, returning favours, mutual support—all that kind of ucky and troubling stuff that relationships and commitments bring.

I am aware that I am overstating the reality. But our western independence is a reality and it does, I think, have an effect on how we western believers relate to each other and the church. To be a part of a church might suggest that we need something or someone. At the very least, it suggests that someone might be able to ask us for something and we might not be in a position to say no. And so it is easier and safer in the long run to conceptualize our faith as a part of our independence.

My very western faith is focused on God—we have a good thing going here. I don’t really need God and he doesn’t really need me but we can get together now and then and within the rules of my independence, I can do whatever—maybe complain about the difficulties of life, maybe blame God for some trouble, maybe tell God how to do her job. I don’t actually need God but it is nice to have him or her around, as long as God doesn’t make any unreasonable demands, like suggesting that I join a church.

So, we have become a culture of independent Christians, people whose faith is expressed in solitude and not in community. And while there is certainly a need and encouragement in the Christian faith for solitude, it isn’t the defining characteristic of the Christian faith. And the deeper, darker, ignored reality is that it really isn’t a defining characteristic of our western culture.

Remember the independent hero standing on his own two feet, dealing with life on his terms? Well, doesn’t that movie always end up with the hero discovering the wonder of a relationship as he battles for the woman or the child or the older couple or even the dog or horse? Doesn’t the movie end with the independent hero happily trading his independence for the relationship?

Our culture may love the theory of independence but the practise tends to be lonely and boring. Our culture and our faith in the end need us to be in real relationships with real people.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO AM I?

The classroom was hot, stuffy and basic. We didn’t even have a blackboard—just a square of black paint on the white wall. But we were working hard. Some of the students were sure that Jesus’ main message was one of judgement and demand. I was asking them where love and grace fit into the picture. The discussion kept going around and around, with each of us making claims and counter-claims.

As the teacher, I realized I was losing control and had better do something to get things back on track. So, I suggested that all of us were making a mistake—we were trying to define Jesus based on our desires, our cultural perceptions and the theology we had absorbed over the years. I suggested that had better stop and take to time to read the Gospel accounts of Jesus because unless we made use of that basic and most primary of resources, we were all arguing from ignorance and personal preference.

Since issuing that challenge, I have spend a lot of time looking at what God has told us about Jesus. I began with the Gospels, which gave me a firm and solid base. It also moved me into the rest of the Scripture as I discovered the need to know how the rest of the Bible tied in with the Gospels. My abilities in reading Greek and Hebrew were sufficient to pass both courses in university but truthfully, not all that good in practise. I compensated by reading a variety of translations to see how others had understood the texts. I very quickly realized that I could read the Bible through in about a year if I could discipline myself to followed a basic and simple reading plan—three chapters of the OT and 2 of the NT every day. I supplemented this basic reading with more focused reading and in depth study at various times along the way.

The results have been important and significant and crucial to my faith. Often, the most important things I learned was what Jesus wasn’t. Jesus wasn’t a white westerner, for example. Jesus wasn’t a capitalist—or a socialist for that matter. He actually wasn’t even a Baptist, although some suggest that his cousin was and that gives him a family tie with us Baptists. I discovered that Jesus wasn’t particularly conservative or liberal when it came to politics.

I also discovered that Jesus was deeply and powerfully concerned with the reality of the human condition—and he mostly dealt with the human condition one person at a time. I also learned something that has made me increasingly uncomfortable over the years. I learned that Jesus tended to have hard and pointed words of disapproval for religious people and leaders who refused to distinguish between their wants and desires and what God was saying in and through Jesus. Trying to appropriate Jesus for personal means gets some serious negative comments both from Jesus himself and others in the Bible.

The more I have tried to discover Jesus, the more I discover how hard to is to discover Jesus. This isn’t because Jesus is hard to discover. It is true that there is lots of stuff about Jesus that is hard to understand mostly because Jesus is both the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity. But most of the problem with understanding who Jesus really is comes from my inability to fully differentiate Jesus and me. I want Jesus not only to love me but also to approve of me and validate me completely.

But Jesus keeps frustrating me. He loves me with an undying and eternal love—but he keeps calling me to become something I am not. He accepts me with a basic acceptance that assures me that I am with him always—but he also keeps pointing at beloved parts of me and suggesting that with his help, I can do better. He gave of himself completely so that I could be with him—but he also keeps suggesting that that great idea I have might not be completely valid or acceptable.

There are some days when I might rather have the Jesus I used to follow, the Jesus who followed me more than I actually followed him—but in the end, most of the time, I prefer to follow the Jesus I have been discovering, Jesus revealed to us by God.

May the peace of God be with you.

FOLLOWING JESUS

I have been doing a lot of thinking these days about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And mixed in with the questions and ideas and possibilities was a nagging and annoying thought that just wouldn’t go away. I would much rather spend time on other questions but this one keeps popping up both in my thinking and in my reading. And it probably should keep popping up because it is actually an important question.

The question that annoys me and stops me is this: If I want to follow Jesus, which Jesus do I follow?” It might seem like a pointless question—there is only one Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, who lived, died and rose to life, at least according to my sort of middle of the road theology. Unfortunately, the reality isn’t as simple as that. There are a variety of Jesus models out there. Basically, Jesus has been edited and redefined by everyone and their neighbour.

So, we have the gentle and mild Jesus who tells us to love everyone and be nice to each other but who can’t really seem to get any traction in dealing with drug addiction, family violence and the endemic lack of plaguing our culture.

We could switch to the militant Jesus whose tough, no nonsense approach demands obedience and is backed up by the threat of hell. This Jesus confronts the painful realities of human life with a big stick—but doesn’t offer much in the way of compassion and comfort.

Or we could follow one of the innumerable cultural versions of Jesus, the Jesus figures who support any culturally sacred idea that we want supported. There is a Jesus for carnivores and vegans; a Jesus for savers and spenders; a Jesus for hunters and animal rights activists; a Jesus for activists and pacifists. We live in a glorious age where there is a Jesus for everyone, a Jesus who can be counted on to support whatever we want supported and to condemn whatever (and whoever) we want condemned.

This multiplication of Jesus isn’t anything new—our culture might have a bit of an edge on the actual numbers of alternate Jesus models but there have always been multiple versions of Jesus. Even before the actual incarnation, there was serious disagreement over the nature and person of Jesus. The Old Testament prophets predicted one Messiah and the popular religious thinking wanted another.

When Jesus was teaching and preaching, there was serious disagreement over who he really was. Some saw him as a miracle worker who could feed people for free. Some saw a political liberator. Some saw a threat to the status quo.

After he died and came back, the number of versions increased. For some, he becomes a mythical figure whose life and resurrection probably didn’t happen but whose words have some great stuff behind them. Others see him as a shining example of what people who really know themselves can do. Over the years, more than a few have even claimed that Jesus is exactly like them because they are actually Jesus.

And in the midst of all of these confusing and often conflicting claims and counter claims, I want to follow Jesus. Would the real Jesus please stand up? But this isn’t a TV quiz show and the real Jesus isn’t going to stand up to the applause of the audience and the rest of the contestants who willingly reveal their deception and congratulate the real Jesus.

Finding the real Jesus among the fakes and frauds is both an important and demanding task. For me, the real process began many years ago with an interchange in a class room in Kenya. A couple of the students were setting me straight on the real Jesus and I found myself struggling to answer them. I was pretty sure that were wrong but didn’t know for sure how to deal with what they were saying.

I made a suggestion to the class that I at least have appreciated and have been using every since. I suggested that we shelve the actual discussion for a bit while we all took the time to re-read the four Gospels, which are our primary source material about Jesus. Where that that went is the focus of my next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

LIGHT BULBS AND GETTING OLDER

All of the buildings where I lead worship were built in the days before electricity was an option for small congregations. The original lighting would have come from candles and oil lamps. Because the buildings were designed as houses of worship, they were built with high ceilings to give a sense of grandeur and awe—people in those days didn’t seem to worry about heating costs or efficiency.

Eventually, electricity was discovered and wires were strung and after some initial reluctance, the churches wired their buildings. The candles and hanging oil lamps were removed and replaced with electric bulbs, generally hanging down from the high ceiling. The installers made a couple of assumptions that plague our churches to this day.

Assumption one was that since light bulbs last almost forever, it wasn’t necessary to think about how to replace them. That assumption lead people to do away with the system in place for the hanging oil lamps—a rope and pulley system that allowed the lamps to be lowered for cleaning, refilling and lighting. Those new electric fixtures were hung from the ceiling on a chain or wire at the same height as the oil lamps—well beyond the reach of even a star NBA player.

The second assumption was that the church would always have a significant number of young, athletic and risk-taking members who would love to take on the challenge of replacing the burnt out light bulbs. Over the years, there have been some truly interesting and dangerous methods utilized to change the bulbs—but young people don’t care about the danger and it was part of their way of expressing their faith.

However, some things have changed in our churches. The light bulbs are still in high and inaccessible fixtures and still burn out. However, we no longer have the young, energetic spiritual athletes in our congregations. We tend to ignore the burnt out bulbs for as long as we can—and since most of our worship events happen during the day time, we can ignore them for years.

But in two of our buildings, the situation got so bad that we can’t really ignore it any longer. We have to change light bulbs. That reality has sparked more discussion and consternation than our budget shortfall. None of us is all that comfortable with heights—aging seems to heighten the awareness of the things that can happen when the human body makes an unexpected vertical drop of that height. Also, aging knees and ladders don’t always work all that well together.

So, the congregation struggles. There are those who demand that something be done about the lights. There are those who might have done it years ago who are happy to describe the process but whose increased maturity makes it clear to them how bad a solution it really was. And then there are people like me who figure that the light on my tablet is fine for most stuff and when I really need it, I have the flashlight app on my phone.

In the end, we will replace the bulbs. One building has already been taken care of—I helped design a relatively safe process that was too high for me but one of the other men was comfortable climbing. In another, well, we are pretty sure a son will take care of it on his next visit home—we can wait for that one. In the other buildings, at this point the bulbs are all still working so we are fine for a while. When we include the time we allow ourselves to ignore the burnt out bulbs, we probably have a couple of years or more in them.

This sounds like a silly and even frivolous problem, especially if you are reading this in the context of a church whose building has people to care for these things. But these are real problems that some of us have to deal with. Fortunately, small churches are adaptable, flexible and enduring. We will find a way to deal with whatever we have to deal with, whether it is burnt out bulbs, serious financial problems or difficulty finding a pastor willing to work part-time for low pay.

We may sit in the dark for longer than we should but eventually, we will take care of things as we continue to discover how God can still use us aging people in the work of his Kingdom.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHOSE SIDE IS JESUS ON?

I have been involved in learning about my faith from the very earliest beginnings of my faith journey. I have had a lot of teachers: my parents, pastors, professors, writers, friends, parishioners. Being a perpetual student allows me to learn from almost anyone and almost any situation. I have learned that I need to be discriminating and willing to evaluate what I am learning, though, because not everything I learn has equal value—and in the end, not everything I learn is true.

And that is important because it seems that the amount of information about faith has exploded. Mostly, this is a result of the increase in media options. Everyone today had an opinion and a way to make that opinion known. And so we are inundated with information about faith. And if we are not willing to think about what we hear and read, we are likely in trouble.

According to various media sources, for example, if Jesus were alive today, he would support banning assault weapons or he would be carrying an AR-15. He would be in favour of opening immigration doors wide or he would support restrictive regulations that protect our homes. Probably, he would speak in King James English—or maybe he would rap the Gospel. Jesus would be a capitalist—or a communist. He would be a conservative voter—or a liberal one. Jesus wants the unborn protected—but he also stands for reproductive rights. I personally am pretty sure that Jesus was left-handed but there are many others who suggest that he was right-handed.

Jesus and our faith get drafted by everyone and everybody who feels that their ideas and causes need a bit of a push. And the real tragedy is that no matter what side drafts Jesus, there are believers who are prepared to accept what they are told without question. The underlying reality is that we all want to assume that Jesus is like us and believes like us and that gives us a divine supporter for our side. The fact that the New Testament is silent on many of the major cultural issues allows us to pick and choose and cherry pick bits and pieces that we can weave into a divine approval of our side.

To see Jesus and the rest of the Christian faith as simply a support and confirmation of what we already believe and want is really to miss completely that reality of Jesus and the faith. Jesus didn’t come to us to confirm what we want confirmed. Jesus came because not one of us was getting it right. The best of us still weren’t what we were supposed to be. And if we couldn’t get it together individually, there was and is absolutely no chance that we can get it together as groups—our cultural standards are as shot through with wrong and evil as our personal standards.

Jesus came to rescue us from ourselves—and there was no question that we needed rescuing. We were going to hell in a handbasket. Jesus came to deal with our wrongs, beginning with the individual personal wrong in our lives and moving out from there to the cultural wrongs. To treat Jesus as anything but a divine statement about our inability to get it right is to miss entirely the point of the Christian faith and reduce Jesus to a personal and cultural flunky that we can use to support our stupidity, wrong and evil.

Jesus isn’t the supporter of our ideas that we often want him to be. In reality, he came to point out just how wrong we are and that even at our best, we are still a long way from what we were meant to be. He came to rescue us from our self-induced messes and at the same time, to stand as a clear and powerful statement in opposition to our self-centered wrongness. Rather than use Jesus to support our ways, we need to see Jesus as standing outside our lives, existing to show us a better way than any culturally, politically or personally correct idea that we might have.

May the peace of God be with you.

HEAVEN, HELL AND ALL THAT STUFF

One of the Bible study groups I work with decided last year that we should spend some time looking at the Biblical ideas of heaven and hell. Since this was the first time in my long ministry that a group had requested that topic, it gave me a chance to do some original research. While the research took more time than digging stuff out of my old files, it is kind of fun to spend some time looking at something different.

At first, I thought this would be a relatively easy research project—after all, heaven and hell are basic topics in the Bible and the Christian life. Anyone who has spend any amount of time in the conservative church knows all about what heaven and hell will be like. Of course, we have tended over the years to get fuller descriptions of hell than heaven—the conservative church has traditionally been more comfortable scaring people with stories of hell than we have enticing them with pictures of heaven.

But as the research progressed, I began to realize that this wasn’t as easy a project as I first thought. Heaven and hell are important topics in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. But as I read through the various references, it soon became clear that the New Testament, while assuming that there is a heaven for the faithful and a hell for the unfaithful, doesn’t actually tell us a lot about them. And, as I dug further and further, much of what it does tell us about them is likely more an attempt to use what we know to understand what we don’t know.

And far from being troubling or a problem, I found that reality quite pleasing. After years and years of listening to descriptions of heaven and hell, I can take a new look at the whole thing. I don’t need to expect streets paved with gold running past huge mansions in heaven. I don’t have to squirm and twist internally at the thought of eternal flames torturing people forever and ever. The relatively few descriptive images we have in the New Testament about what comes next are God’s attempt to compress the infinite so that we finite beings can have something of a glimpse of what it is really going to be like.

The few images are built on the idea that to be fully and completely in the presence of God will be great but beyond our imagining—and being fully and completely without God will be terrible beyond our imagining. I am pretty sure that we can’t even imagine the greatness and terribleness.

The essential message is that there is much more—and the much more is so far from what we know and understand and can comprehend that we can only have vague and very imperfect glimpses of it. This realization does a couple of things for me.

First, it serves to remind me that God is God—he (or she) is infinite and eternal and beyond anything I can imagine—and given that my imagination is partly fueled by science and science fiction, I can really imagine a lot of far out stuff. I need to be reminded at times that God is beyond my ability to comprehend. God is—and most of that being is outside my ability to get a hold of.

But that reality isn’t scary or confusing or depressing because of the second thing it does for me. I may not be able to comprehend heaven, I may be seriously limited in my ability to understand the reality of God but one of the things that God has made very clear is that in his (or her) infiniteness and eternalness, God wants me to be with him, to be in relationship with him (or her).

I don’t know why God would want that. In fact, I doubt that I will ever be able to figure that out this side of eternity—I am limited here and now by my finiteness. But I can and do believe it. It is a core and foundational part of my life now. I believe that God loves me. There are a lot of details that I don’t and probably can’t understand but this, I can understand and trust—God loves me with an eternal and undying love and because of that, there is more to me and life than the here and now.

May the peace of God be with you.

PRAYER

In both of the collections of congregations that I serve, our worship service includes a prayer time. We do the traditional pastoral prayer followed by the Lord’s prayer. But in both, we have introduced some variations. First, I don’t do a long pastoral prayer—it is short and focused on something growing out of the sermon. We also include a time of silence for people to make their own prayers. Normally, this comes at the beginning of the prayer time but now and then, we have it in the middle of the pastoral prayer.

We also encourage people to share prayer requests with the congregation which I then incorporate into the pastoral prayer. Occasionally, we have a Sunday when we get no such requests. Those are unusual because we generally have a few requests for prayer. Some come from within the congregation and others come from people outside, requests passed on to us because even people outside the church want prayer.

As a pastor, I am obviously in the prayer business. I pray a lot both publically and privately. I do Bible studies and other courses on prayer. I write about prayer. I encourage people to pray. But for all of that, I have to confess that I am still working on understanding what prayer really is.

You see, most times when people talk to me about prayer, they seem to want something. They want God to know that they have this need that they want God to take care of, generally is a specified way. There is an unspoken assumption that it we can get enough people to pray for us about the request, God is more likely to answer with the answer that we want.

And so while we are divinely encouraged to bring all our needs to God, it does seem to me that a lot of people view prayer as some sort of spiritual version of 911, something that it great to have but which we only use when there is an emergency. We pray when we are in trouble and need God’s help.

I don’t want to take away from the right and ability to approach God in prayer when I or others am in need but the more I think about it, the more I wonder is maybe we have allowed ourselves to take prayer down a side road and in the process of following the side road, have missed the main road of prayer. I wonder if we have settled for a stripped down version of prayer when we could just as easily have the full-featured version.

The full-featured version may be hinted at in Genesis 3. There, in the midst of the tragic story of sin entering the creation, we find the story of God walking in the garden in the evening (Genesis 1.8). Now, I managed, with great effort, to pull off a shaky “D” in Hebrew so what I am going to say about the passage comes from others, whose ability to understand Biblical Hebrew obviously far surpasses mine. But many commentators suggest that the underlying grammar suggests that this walk was an habitual thing, something that God did every evening.

My conjecture would be that God walked in the garden with the man and the woman and they talked and shared. The man and the woman were praying. I suspect there wasn’t a lot of “Give me, grant this, fix this, do this, heal that, remove this”—there was likely some of that during these evening walks but mostly, I think, God and the humans enjoyed each other’s company and shared or walked together quietly as people who know and love each other do so comfortably and well.

That has always been my vision and goal of prayer, to be able to be comfortable in the awareness of the presence of God. I can ask for things if I want. I can make comments about this and that. I can ask questions. I can tell a joke. I can enjoy a comfortable silence.

I am definitely not there in my prayers. I would like to be and I work at being there but I have a ways to go—my introversion means that I don’t do this well with people and it is much harder with God. But I want to walk in the garden so I keep working at it.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE EXPERIMENT

I did something recently that I haven’t done too often in my preaching career. I used the same sermon in three different congregations. Normally, I try to match the sermon to the needs of the congregation, something which requires different approaches even with the same Scriptures and themes.

But recently, well, using one sermon is three different places just sort of evolved. The sermon began as part of a preaching plan for the year round pastorate that I serve. But since the other pastorate has closed down for three months, I have been doing some fill in preaching for another local congregation. Rather than put together a whole new sermon, I wrote the original sermon with them in mind as well as the regular congregation.

And then, after getting back from vacation and picking up all the pieces and getting back into things, I realized it was also the week to prepare for the monthly worship service we have at the pastorate that has closed for the winter. When we made this plan last November, I had visions of preparing a special message that would fit there and help us celebrate being back together after several weeks.

But the time just wasn’t there—nor was the energy or creatively necessary to pull things together. I expect that playing with grandchildren may have depleted my creativity storehouse, although a sleepless night on the flight back home probably didn’t help. Given the situation, the special sermon became the already written sermon. I felt a bit guilty, but not guilty enough to force myself to write a whole new sermon.

There were certainly some minor differences in the delivered sermons. In one congregation, I was more tied to the manuscript because one of the worshippers is quite deaf and follows the sermon with the aid of a printed copy of the sermon so I can’t ad lib as much as I might like. In the other two, I could wander a bit. But in the end, all three congregations got the same basic message, with the same illustrations and even the same hand gestures.

Because my mind generally works in a structured and questioning way, I began to look at this as an experiment: I was going to see how one sermon played out in three different congregations. I would look for differences in response—how well people listened, what they said, how many slept and so on. Mind you, the experiment would be quite limited in scope since the process of leading worship and preaching takes most of my energy and focus. Couple that with the fact that data recording isn’t really possible in that context and I had a very unscientific experiment. If it had been offered as a project in one of the classes I have taught on research methodology, I would have rejected it.

But over the course of two Sundays, I preached basically the same sermon three times. My biased and unscientific observation is that it went over fairly well. People seemed to respond to the basic theme; they responded well to the humour I used to drive the point home and a significant portion of each congregation made positive comments about the message.

It probably helped that all three congregations have a lot in common coming out of the fact that they are all small, struggling congregations wondering about their future. My sermon writing mind was probably thinking about all three on some levels when I was writing the message. And the theme touched on an issue that is pretty common to most Christian congregations and which has been an issue for all three at some point in their recent history.

I think, though, that in the end, the sermon worked not because of my unconscious mind pulling all three congregations together; not because I had great illustrations; not because I am such a great orator—in the end, the sermon worked in all three places because I did my best in the circumstances and the Holy Spirit did the rest.

I have discovered that this is an important faith reality: I am responsible before God for doing the best I can in any given situation. But in the end, the results are the work of the Holy Spirit, who can and does take both my best and my worst and accomplish God’s will. It is better for all though, when I give God my best than when I give him less than my best.

May the peace of God be with you.

FREE TIME

One of the pastorates I serve shuts down for the worst of the winter. From January to March, I have a block of free time that would have been used to work for that church but which I can use for whatever I want. Again this year, I made the same mistaken assumptions about that free time. Along about September, I began to fantasize about all the free time I would have during those three months.

There were lots of things I could do. There is the ever growing list of ebooks I have acquired that are begging to be read. Statistically, there is a good change that I will get out cross country skiing a couple of times. My drone might get taken off the window ledge and spend some time in the air. And, just to make sure that I make effective use of the free time, we decided that we need a cabinet and shelf combination to match the buffet and hutch I made a few years ago.

The months between September and January passed, with more and more bits and pieces being added to the free time list. There were other things coming up as well. We realized that we need to take some vacation during that time period, partly to finish up the vacation time we didn’t take last year. Then there was the call from the neighbouring pastorate about my filling in some Sundays during my break like I have done for the past couple of years. There was the request to mentor a student from our seminary. None of these was a problem—I would have lots of time.

Except that I am not real good at actually seeing how all this fits together. I spend lots of time visualizing how I was going to fit the fun extra stuff into the time off: woodworking in the mornings, unless it was really stormy (I have to use my saws outside); skiing when the driveway is cleared; reading in the afternoon (after the refreshing nap) and maybe even a coffee visit or two with some friends.

Well, it is now almost the end of January and the free time isn’t as free as I thought. There seems to be a temporal conspiracy at work that sees free time for fun stuff as some sort of oddity that needs to be filled with other stuff. The fill in preaching takes more time that I allowed. It also comes with requests for funerals, which are pretty much impossible to say no to. The vacation was great but required extra time before and after to get ready for and pick up after for the churches I am continuing to serve throughout the winter. Meeting with the ministry student takes a block of time that I could be reading or skiing or napping. The unexpected need to buy and set up the new laptop ate up a bunch of time.

I did get some of the reading done—my earphones and the airplane sound system didn’t work together all that well so I got lots of reading done on the plane trip. But the woodworking—well, I finally got started this week and realize that there is absolutely no way I am going to be finished by the end of March.

Fortunately, this is only mildly frustrating mostly because on most levels of my planning and thinking, I knew that this block of free time wasn’t going to be all that free. I enjoyed the planning process but actually knew that there wouldn’t be as much time as I would like or anticipate. Based on past experience, I am aware that free time functions like a vacuum and sucks in all sorts of unexpected and unanticipated bits and pieces that end up having priority over the really fun stuff.

My response is not to get frustrated and bent out of shape. Rather, I have learned to be flexible. Some of the demands on the free time can’t be avoided—funerals, for example, are hard to put off. But at the same time, I can and do find ways to get into the wood work. If we get some snow that actually stays on the ground, I will go skiing. I squeeze in the reading as I can—and it is ridiculously easy to find time and place for a nap. I will make use of the free time, even if it isn’t as free as I anticipated in September.

May the peace of God be with you