HOW TO WITNESS!?…

The title of this blog isn’t suffering from one of those strange electronic glitches that sometimes produces unexpected characters in text. It actually represents something of my personal journey (and confusion) when it comes to the process of being a witness to my faith.

Early in my faith, I was sure that being a witness involved direct action, strong words and clear purpose, hence the !. Witnessing was and is a basic requirement of all believers and as a young, evangelical new believer, I knew that I had to witness to my faith always. The books and sermons and seminars on witnessing always included a “!”—there was always someone telling me how to be a more effective witness—with at least one ! in every title and paragraph.

I read all the classic witnessing tools: Four Spiritual Laws, The Roman Road, The Sinners’ Prayer. I knew all the arguments to cut down opposition to the faith. I had answers for the questions I was going to encounter. I had lots of !!! in my approach, my understanding and enthusiasm.

But no matter what I am doing, I am an analytical person: I need to examine things, take them apart, understand them and evaluate them. And I discovered that the certainty of witnessing wasn’t all that certain. Most people weren’t paying attention—and no matter how many !!! I and others used, our approach wasn’t working.

I began to see witnessing with a ? instead of a !. I had lots of questions: Why aren’t people listening? Why aren’t the approaches working? Why can’t I find the right words? How come the !! aren’t working? My analysis began to suggest to me that the witnessing process wasn’t as clear-cut and as easy as all the books and trainers had lead me to believe. In fact, I began to wonder if it was possible to witness at all.

My journey from ! to ? didn’t stop me from wanting to share my faith and it didn’t stop me from actually sharing my faith—but it did change my approach. Rather than understand witnessing as an aggressive, verbal offence on my part, I began to see it as a waiting for the other person to give me an opening, which I could then exploit. It didn’t actually happen all that often but when it did, I found that none of the canned responses actually worked. My witnessing sessions had a lot less ! and a whole lot more ?, questions from both the witnesser and witnessee.

And the ? phase of the witnessing journey also didn’t produce all that much in the way of results. I had some great conversations about faith and sometimes really was aware of the presence of the Spirit in the process but often, the person would thank me for the time and insights and continue on their way, not having walked the aisle or raised their hand or prayed the sinners’ prayer.

And thinking on that has led me to the present stage of my witnessing journey. I see witnessing as a process, something best exemplified by …. Witnessing is a long and involved process that is much bigger than me, my words and my actions. I am not THE WITNESS—I am a witness, one among many influences, all of us working under the leading of the real witness, the Holy Spirit.

Ultimately, it is God who brings people to himself. In the process of helping someone to open themselves to his love and grace, God graciously allows us to play a part. He could do his work without us and many times, I am sure that he would have an easier time if we weren’t involved. But he invites us to participate in his work of bringing others to himself. Sometimes, we have a clearly defined and clearly important part in the process—he uses us to deliver the right words to the right person at the right time. Other times, he gives us a less clear but nonetheless important part—who knows how the cup of cold water delivered in his name is going to affect the process?

So, for now, I see witnessing as …–an ongoing process where God is seeking to bring someone to him and gives me a task along the way. As I faithfully seek to know and do what God wants, he lovingly and graciously uses it in his process—and the witnessing goes on…

May the peace of God be with you.

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JUMPING FENCES

I was recently visiting a spot near an urban setting where there are several waterfalls, deep gorges and beautiful views. Since it is near a lot of people, there were lots of visitors, even on a cold, cloudy day like the one when we visited. Whoever ran the sites had provided parking, good trails and lots of fences along the steep drops. The fences were high, strong and plastered with signs telling people not to climb the fences or cross the fences because of the dangers presented by the steep high gorges.

We stopped at one spot to take pictures and as I was looking for the best angle, I spotted two people who had clearly decided the signs were not for them—they were at the bottom of the gorge, clearly enjoying their much better view. A little later along the trail, at another photo spot, I saw another pair of people who had crossed the fence line and descended the steep cliff to get a much better view.

One of the people accompanying us on the visit mentioned that the local fire department has a special unit trained to rescue the significant number of people who cross the fence and get stuck at the bottom of the gorge. The unit has lots of practise because the signs simply can’t overcome the desire to go where no one has (or shouldn’t have) gone before.

Metaphorically, I am no stranger to climbing fences and wandering in territory that could be difficult or dangerous—a lot of my work in ministry has taken me into areas that others have warned me to avoid. That has caused some problems and produced some significant ministry. As a teacher and mentor of other pastors, I have tended to encourage people to see the fences and occasionally challenge them, while being aware of the possibility of danger.

But that metaphorical fence jumping somehow doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the same as the physical jumping of a real fence and deliberately stepping into a dangerous situation that just might require significant time, effort, expense and risk on the part of other people to pull out the fence jumper.

I am not entirely sure what inspires such behaviour. I know that some of us see warning signs as a challenge. Others are pretty sure that only normal people need to avoid the dangers. Some might suggest that it is their right to step into dangerous positions. Others, perhaps ignore signs and warnings and assume they can do what they want. And the majority of people who jump the fence seem to get away with it, probably through a combination of luck, skill and possible divine intervention.

But each success encourages another attempt. Each time a fence jumper is spotted, another is encouraged to go deeper or higher or further. And eventually, the rescue crew has to step in; the sign painters prepare another sign; the lawyers begin figuring out who pays for what—and in the meantime, someone else is going to jump the fence, probably using the sign as a support to climb the fence.

We humans don’t like limits. We have all sorts of justifications and reasons and explanations. But probably the best and most profound explanation comes from the Bible. We are sinful people. I am using that word in the broad sense—we are essentially self-centered and selfish, convinced that if the world doesn’t revolve around us, it should. This self-focus is at the root of all fence jumping going all the way back to the day when a man and a woman climbed a fence to eat from a tree that they had been told not to eat from.

In our desire for self-gratification, we miss some significant realities. We miss the fact that some things are bad for us. We will suffer physically, emotionally, spiritually or some combination of those. Others will suffer as well—and unfortunately, others will sometimes suffer a whole lot more than we do when we cross the fence. The person who falls down the cliff because they copied my successful attempt at jumping the fence suffers much more than I do.

But for all that, I can’t quite bring myself to say that we must always stay within the fences. Some fences need to be jumped—the real trick is figuring out which ones need to be jumped and which ones need to be respected.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?

I made two trips to our regional shopping area recently. One was shortly before Christmas and the other was a couple of days after Christmas. Neither trip was primarily for shopping but since that is where the biggest stores and best prices are, both trips involved shopping. On both trips, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people driving to the stores, filling the parking lots, jamming the store aisles and stretching the checkout lines. I was also amazed at the number of heaped shopping carts.

Of course, I really shouldn’t have been amazed. The first trip was just before Christmas, when everyone was busy completing their Christmas shopping—a task that I also had that day. The cultural norm requires that we spend and spend and fill carts and jam store aisles. If we don’t spend enough, the economy will collapse.

The second trip happened on the day of Canadian Boxing Day sales—the day when everything that was full price before Christmas is now seriously discounted. People need to get to the stores to take advantage of all the deals on all the stuff that they didn’t know they needed but now that it is on sale at 40-60% off, is a must have—and maybe we even need two of them.

I don’t much like shopping and really don’t like shopping in crowded stores and that fact probably affects my thinking about the whole shopping process. But I can’t help but ask myself what is actually going on here. Where does this desire to have more and more come from? And perhaps even more basic, there is this question: How much is enough?

It seems that as a culture, we have decided to answer that question by saying that we will only have enough when we get something at the next sale. But since there is always another sale coming up, we never really have enough. When 50% discounts are dangled in front of us, we rush out to the malls, charge cards in hand, ready to buy more stuff that we just realized we need or might need or might find a use for—after all, a 50% discount saves us so much money that it is worth it to get whatever we can.

I don’t think we actually ask the right questions. For me, a much better question is “Why”, as in “Why do I need that?” or “Why does something being 50% off mean I need it?” or “Why does spending money on something I don’t really need qualify as saving money?” When I get home, I have less money that I started with and more stuff that I am not really sure what to do with or where to put while I decide what to do with it.

I think we have developed a cultural norm that is wrong and even dangerous. We believe that more is always better—and that getting it for less than expected is a good thing. But really, how much do we really need? The continual quest for more simply enriches those who have lots of money and impoverishes those who don’t have as much money. We buy and buy. Our culture has even spawned yard and garage sales to allow us to buy more—we sell off some of the stuff we accumulate so that we can afford more.

How much is enough? My guess is that most of us need a whole lot less than we think we need and much less than advertisers would like us to think we need. Life needs to involve more than just accumulating things. It needs to be about more than just filling shopping carts with discounted stuff that will go into next year’s yard sale. When we fill all the carts and save all the money and fill all our storage space, what do we really have?

Maybe our push to accumulate stuff is an attempt to fill holes in our lives, holes that would better be filled with deeper more significant human relationships and a deeper and more fulfilling relationship with God. Maybe we need to discover that even if we manage to accumulate the whole world, it won’t really fill the holes in our lives that need to be filled with love, faith and hope that really only come from relationships with others and God.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS VACATION

During the Advent season, the two Bible studies I lead chose to spend some time looking at Christmas, technically from the Biblical perspective but practically from any perspective we wanted. In the course of the discussion with one group, I mentioned the movie Christmas Vacation as the example of how people have unrealistic expectations of the Christmas season. Most of us had actually seen the movie—and the one who hadn’t seen it was quite happy to watch it when I loaned him my copy.

I realized a while ago that although my expectations for Christmas aren’t the same as the “hero” of the movie, I was also in possession of some seriously unrealistic Christmas expectations. I wanted the Advent process to be a deeply spiritual journey for the churches and me. Together, we would explore the wonder of the Incarnation through worship, study and conversation. We would also develop and implement ways of using the Advent/Christmas season as a means of sharing our faith with our communities.

At the same time, I would thoughtfully and carefully choose perfect presents for all the significant people I buy presents for. I would participate in both secular and church Christmas events, parties and processes to the full. That tended to involve a great deal more activity when our children were home but even after they left home, there were a considerable number of events to take part in both inside and outside the church.

And then, because all this wasn’t enough, I wanted Christmas to be a time for me to both grow spiritually and get some much needed rest and relaxation so that I would be able to enter the winter church season ready to lead the church well as they continued to follow God and seek to do his will.

Obviously, there are some significant and irreconcilable conflicts build into those expectations. It is pretty much impossible to experience cultural and spiritual Advent/Christmas to the full and end the season rested and revitalized. While juggling a full church schedule and full cultural schedule is required at this time of the year, it precludes the kind and amount of time necessary for personal spiritual growth. The need to develop and write compelling and inspiring sermons, Advent Candle programs and Bible studies for the church pretty much eliminates the ability to inspire myself.

And so I tended to end the Advent/Christmas season worn out and somewhat depressed. My expectations were high and unattainable—I was almost guaranteed to fail. I would be able to accomplish some things but overall, the results were much less than I anticipated or wanted, which when combined with the physical fatigue meant I began the new year down, depressed and lacking motivation.

It took a while before I realized that the problem was my expectations. I had to admit that I couldn’t do everything the way I thought it should be done. And so I began to focus and select. There are some things that just have to be done—the churches pay me to preach, for example, and so I do need to give attention to my preaching. That might mean that I have less time and mental space to work on perfect presents—but the truth is that there are no perfect presents and the search for them could actually be cut back.

It was important for me and the church that I come out of the Advent/Christmas season ready to move into the new year of church activity somewhat rested and at least partially prepared—and that would mean that there had to be some careful selection in what I did and didn’t do over the Advent/Christmas season. It also meant recognizing that just as most people in the church pretty much stopped for a few days after Christmas, I could do the same. The sermon had to be written but nobody really needed or wanted a visit from the pastor, unless they were facing a crisis.

These days, I have fewer expectations for the Christmas season. I don’t do as much—but what I do, I have the opportunity and time and energy to do well. And I also have the space needed to rest and relax a bit before things get going after Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS VACATION

During the Advent season, the two Bible studies I lead chose to spend some time looking at Christmas, technically from the Biblical perspective but practically from any perspective we wanted. In the course of the discussion with one group, I mentioned the movie Christmas Vacation as the example of how people have unrealistic expectations of the Christmas season. Most of us had actually seen the movie—and the one who hadn’t seen it was quite happy to watch it when I loaned him my copy.

I realized a while ago that although my expectations for Christmas aren’t the same as the “hero” of the movie, I was also in possession of some seriously unrealistic Christmas expectations. I wanted the Advent process to b a deeply spiritual journey for the churches and me. Together, we would explore the wonder of the Incarnation through worship, study and conversation. We would also develop and implement ways of using the Advent/Christmas season as a means of sharing our faith with our communities.

At the same time, I would thoughtfully and carefully choose perfect presents for all the significant people I but presents for. I would participate in both secular and church Christmas events, parties and processes to the full. That tended to involve a great deal more activity when our children were home but even after they left home, there were a considerable number of events to take part in both inside and outside the church.

And then, because all this wasn’t enough, I wanted Christmas to be a time for me to both grow spiritually and get some much needed rest and relaxation so that I would be able to enter the winter church season ready to lead the church well as they continued to follow God and seek to do his will.

Obviously, there are some significant and irreconcilable conflicts build into those expectations. It is pretty much impossible to experience cultural and spiritual Advent/Christmas to the full and end the season rested and revitalized. While juggling a full church schedule and full cultural schedule is required at this time of the year, it precludes the kind and amount of time necessary for personal spiritual growth. The need to develop and write compelling and inspiring sermons, Advent Candle programs and Bible studies for the church pretty much eliminates the ability to inspire myself.

And so I tended to end the Advent/Christmas season worn out and somewhat depressed. My expectations were high and unattainable—I was almost guaranteed to fail. I would be able to accomplish some things but overall, the results were much less than I anticipated or wanted, which when combined with the physical fatigue meant I began the new year down, depressed and lacking motivation.

It took a while before I realized that the problem was my expectations. I had to admit that I couldn’t do everything the way I thought it should be done. And so I began to focus and select. There are some things that just have to be done—the churches pay me to preach, for example, and so I do need to give attention to my preaching. That might mean that I have less time and mental space to work on perfect presents—but the truth is that there are no perfect presents and the search for them could actually be cut back.

It was important for me and the church that I come out of the Advent/Christmas season ready to move into the new year of church activity somewhat rested and at least partially prepared—and that would mean that there had to be some careful selection in what I did and didn’t do over the Advent/Christmas season. It also meant recognizing that just as most people in the church pretty much stopped for a few days after Christmas, I could do the same. The sermon had to be written but nobody really needed or wanted a visit from the pastor, unless they were facing a crisis.

These days, I have fewer expectations for the Christmas season. I don’t do as much—but what I do, I have the opportunity and time and energy to do well. And I also have the space needed to rest and relax a bit before things get going after Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

A TRIP TO THE ER

The other day my wife was feeling some medical symptoms that had been bothering her for a while. Our doctor told her that the next time she felt them, she should immediately head for the ER to have them checked out. So, we rushed to the local health centre and joined the group waiting to see a doctor. The symptoms she was feeling bumped my wife to near the front of the line and she was called to an examining room almost immediately. The nature of the symptons required a lot of tests, some of which had to be repeated at various intervals so we were going to be there for most of the day.

Initially, I sat and waited in the waiting room. Now, both my wife and I are pastors working with churches located in small rural communities. Sitting in a hospital ER waiting room isn’t an anonymous experience for us. We know most of the staff and many of the visitors to the ER know us and some are participants in the churches we pastor. My first response whenever I go to the health centre or ER is to take a quick look around to see who is there. When I arrived this day, I was a bit agitated because of the nature of our visit so I was glad most of the people there were nodding acquaintances, although a few were at the “hi, how are you doing” level.

As I settled in to wait with my book, I was joined by a church member. We checked each other’s reason for being there and then went on to have an extended conversation about Christmas and some difficult choices he was facing. Shortly after he left, one of the staff who attends my wife’s church came over and we talked a bit about her Christmas plans and how the weather was affecting them.

After that, a friend came in, obviously dealing with some serious stuff on his phone. I waved and when he was done on the phone, we had a talk about his reason for being there, my reason for being there and several things that he was involved in that were causing stress and how he was dealing with it.

Meanwhile, between visits from the various medical personal providing tests and treatments, my wife had time to talk to several of her church members and some of the staff about a variety of things, including church/faith issues. I had to leave for a bit but eventually got back and we continued waiting for the various test results. Eventually, the tests all came back negative and the best conclusion is that the symptoms were likely a result of lifting some heavy stuff the day before.

We compared notes and discovered that even though we were at the ER as a patient and a concerned spouse, we were both also there as pastors. I suppose either one of us could have cited our reason for being there and ignored the people also sharing our time at the ER but the truth is that neither of us can do that easily—nor do we actually want to do that. We are both called to ministry and responding to the needs we perceive is second nature to us, even when we are sitting in an ER waiting or treatment room.

We do balance that with the awareness of a need for breaks and both have ways of ensuring that we get those breaks. And I am almost positive that had the reason for the visit to the ER been more serious and acute, neither of us would have been as pastoral—I remember the time I went to the ER with severe kidney stone pain, a time when I was definitely not concerned with anyone else.

But we are pastors in a rural area where we know and are known—and for most people, seeing their pastor in the ER becomes something of a blessing. There is someone there to help them as they deal with the reason for being in the ER in the first place. The fact that we were there for stuff of our own isn’t unimportant or insignificant but we have both realized that in the end, the nature of our calling is that we are going to respond as pastors, right up to the point where we are incapable of making that level of response.

May the peace of God be with you.

LET US PRAY

I have been involved in some form of ministry for more than 45 years. That reality has a lot of implications and connections and complications and even some confusions. One of the implications is that fact that I have a very long history of being a professional prayer maker. Because I have been involved in ministry for so long and rarely ever spend time in places and situations where people don’t know that, I am the go to person when prayer is needed. I pray a lot: during worship, before meals, in hospitals, in homes, before funerals, during weddings—if something seems to need a prayer and I am around, I pray.

I can and do rise to the occasion—but I find that praying is much harder for me than it was 45 years ago. Way back then, it was easy to rattle off the prayer and fulfill my role. I had lots of words and had no trouble pulling a prayer together for any occasion. But as the years have piled up and my understanding of people, situations and prayers have all grown, I find it more and more difficult to throw words together and snap off a prayer.

This isn’t because I have had a crisis of faith somewhere along the line and have trouble praying because I don’t believe or struggle to believe or anything like that. I know this happens and have known people in ministry who have had such crises and who have not only stopped praying but also have stopped ministry. I can’t actually say they have stopped believing but they have stopped believing in their faith.

No, my struggle with prayer is more basic. I see prayer as an opportunity to specifically address God about a specific focus. Prayer is more than just a time to toss some words into the air and hope that somehow they catch God’s attention. When I am praying for and with people, I am acting as their priest, the one who carries their needs to God and carries God’s reply to them. For me, this is a scary and demanding task. As a Baptist, I know that anyone can and should go to God on their own at any time about anything.

But as a pastor and counsellor and theologian, I know that there are times when we all need someone else to pray for us. We all need a priest—and I have discovered over the years that when I or someone else needs a priest to talk to God, it needs to be more than just throwing words into the sky. This priestly prayer needs to find the words I cannot find myself and carry them to the God I need to connect with but need help with in the process.

When I am the priest in the process, I am deeply concerned with understanding the cause of the need for prayer and shaping the prayer to express the needs of the person I am interceding for. I know that I can ultimately rely on the all knowing God to understand the need and the situation before any of us involved is even aware of it—but while that theological reality is important, it needs to be balanced with the reality that I as priest and the other(s) as supplicant(s) are better served emotionally and spiritually when we have a handle on what we are praying.

And so I work hard at prayer for others. I listen carefully to both the verbal and non-verbal messages. I make use of my ability to collate information and see themes and trends and underlying issues. I ensure that people have as clear an idea of what they are needing as possible. And before I pray for and with people, I will often share with them the intended content of the prayer to see if that is really what they want me to say to God on their behalf. Only then do I pray. My prayers are short, focused and sincere. Rather than trust that if I throw enough words upward, the message will get through, I seek to understand the request or need well enough that I can clearly and succinctly fulfill my role as priest.

I pray a lot—and when I pray for others, I work hard at being an effective and caring priest.

May the peace of God be with you.

NO VISITING

Both our Bible study groups are now on Christmas break. Before we closed down, we switched gears and put our regular topic on hold because so many of our people are travelling and visiting family that it wouldn’t be fair to cover new stuff while they were away—we would just have to do it again when they got back anyway. So, we spent some time looking at the Christmas story, comparing the Biblical story with the culturally accepted version of the story.

Along the way, I was again struck by a part of the story that always catches me. Matthew tells of the wise men calling in at Herod’s palace to discover where the king had been born. While this probably made perfect sense to them, it was a real problem for Herod and anyone who knew him—historical records tell us that Herod was quick to execute anyone who even looked like he/she might someday possible entertain a thought of replacing Herod.

Almost lost in the story of Herod’s attempt to use the wise men as spies and their journey to Bethlehem is the interesting way they discover where this baby was to be born. Herod doesn’t know who or where or what concerning this birth—he just knows that he doesn’t like the idea. So, he calls in his version of the wise men. This would have been the religious leaders, the priests and scholars and temple officials. Herod was half Jewish and so probably has some understanding of the promises that someone was coming at some point. He naturally turned to the people who were supposed to know—the religious leadership.

This was a natural and east choice. These people had spend their whole lives reading, studying, interpreting and understanding the texts that God had given them to help people reach God. They knew the words, they knew the prophecies. Their whole lives were lived in anticipation of the time when God would act decisively and clearly to bring his chosen one into the world. No one else had the potential to answer the question Herod was asking—no other group of people could know where the king would be born.

The story doesn’t tell us if they had to consult their texts or have a conference or hold a long debate. I would have liked to know their process—having spent my entire career and clergy and academic circles, it would be interesting to know how these academically inclined clergy worked. Matthew, unfortunately, was a tax collector and seems to have only been interested in the conclusion.

The religious leaders come through—they know where the king will be born. Their years of study; their learned discussions; their generations long debates—all of it comes together and they know the answer. I can picture the delegation confidently standing before Herod with the relevant scroll open to the spot as they read the prophecy point to Bethlehem as the place where the king would be born. They pacify Herod temporarily, allowing him to make plans to use the wise men.

The wise men happily head for Bethlehem. Herod begins alerting soldiers about a coming mission. The city breathes a sigh of relief—Herod’s well know wrath won’t be expressed towards them. And the religious leaders? What of them? What did they do after giving the answer to this question?

What we know is that they didn’t go to Bethlehem. As far as we can tell from the story, they didn’t even send a delegation of the least senior to check things out. It seems like they went back to their offices, poured glass of wine (not Baptist, remember) and went about their regular business that had been interrupted by this question.

My question is why didn’t they go to Bethlehem? They knew the prophecies; they had the startlingly unusual visit of foreign astrologers; they saw Herod’s apprehension; they above all people knew that God was going to do something—so why, seeing all that was going on, why didn’t they go to Bethlehem to at least check it out?

I have been struggling with this question for years and still don’t have a satisfactory answer. But somehow, the answer is a faith issue—and it becomes a larger question. How come we who believe and who know the wonder of God in action, how come we too are slow to move in whatever direction God wants us to move in? Maybe if I can find an answer about the wise men, it might help me understand me and my faith more.

May the peace of God be with you.

NATIVITY SCENES

We tried something new this year as part of our Advent process. One of the church members really likes Nativity scenes and has a considerable collection. She was also aware that others also have such scenes so she suggested that we have a display of them before and after worship. We announced it for a couple of weeks to get people ready. A couple of people had of the display ready when I arrived and added my two Kenyan versions to the mix.

It was really interesting to see all the variations on the theme. There were a variety of materials, a variety of styles, a variety of approaches. Some were elaborate and some were simple. Some would be classed as folk art and some were pretty close to professional artistic standards. I kind of thought one of my contributions would be the most unique one there—it was hand carved in Kenya from a single short branch and opened to reveal mother, child and Joseph along with a star. I was somewhat surprised to discover an almost identical one already on the table—someone had a friend who had been in Kenya who gave them the scene as a gift.

I am rather ambivalent about Nativity scenes. I appreciate the devotional thought that is behind them—the various characters and animals arrayed around the new born Christ, worshipping him who is destined to bring salvation to the world. But at the same time, I know that the traditional scene never happened. There was never a point when the holy family, the shepherds and three wise men were all together in the stable with a star beaming overhead.

There definitely was a stable or barn; there was definitely a new family; shepherds did show up; there was a star and there were even wise men. But the actual story took a lot longer. Mary and Joseph weren’t in the stable all that long, perhaps a few days. They would have been visited by the shepherds—but shepherds working the night shift were not high on the social scale in those days and most likely, their story about the night would have been written off as coming from the empty wine skins.

Eventually, the crowd of people in Bethlehem moves along and places open up. They move to a house, which is where they are visited by the wise men. We actually don’t know how many there were—the number three probably developed because that was the number of gifts. But as anyone who has ever attended a baby shower knows, there is a lot of duplication of gifts and so a simple recounting of how many types of gifts can’t really be used to tell how many people attended.

We aren’t even sure how long after the birth this visit actually was. Herod, in his attempt to discourage a potential rival, kills all the male babies under two years old, which suggests a long stay in the town after the birth. Travelling was difficult in those days and I expect that Joseph found work rather than try travelling with a new born.

None of that takes away from the story but it does make the traditional Nativity scene inaccurate. The traditional gathering of all the characters is a powerful symbol of the events that are so important but it is only a symbol, making use of compression and artistic licence to capture a significant event in an inaccurate but effective way.

I like the idea of everyone being there at the same time even while I know it didn’t happen that way. Symbolically, the traditional scene expressed the universality of Christ. He brings together the socially outcaste shepherds, the cultural outsider astrologers, the new parents and their child. And that bringing together of the diverse and the outcasts is a powerful part of the Christian message—there is room for everyone. We all have a place.

I suspect that we could create a manger scene with another character or two—unknown visitors who represent each of us. We weren’t actually there but since the birth affects us and we are involved in the ongoing worship of the risen Christ, we have as much right there as the wise men.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING ORDINARY

I was at a meeting the other day and on my way back from the snack table, I stopped to have a short chat with one of the people who attends one of the churches I pastor. We were joking a bit and talking a bit about the meeting and our Bible study and generally enjoying seeing each other. I made what I thought was a somewhat innocent comment that wasn’t phrased in “ministerial” language. Her response was interesting. She said, “I love it that you are so ordinary!”

We both laughed because I pretended not to know what she meant—and she knew I was pretending. I then thanked her for the compliment. Being ordinary is part of my self-identity. I really don’t want to be seen as “THE MINISTER” or ‘THE PASTOR” or any other “THE”. I am a pastor and I take pride in doing my pastoral and ministerial work well. I have spent a lot of time and effort over the years to ensure that I am good at what I have been called to do. I also appreciate it when people recognize that I am good at what I do. But I really don’t want to be perceived as being something special because of that.

That attitude does sometimes make me feel a bit strange, both in clergy circles and lay circles. Laity have often been taught and encouraged to treat pastors as if our calling turns us into spiritual and moral and general experts, who are somehow out of touch with the rest of humanity because we are so close to God. Other clergy sometimes want to maintain a distance between clergy and laity—one of the ongoing debates in clergy circles, for example, it whether clergy can actually have friends in the church they serve.

My denominational tradition supports my thinking, at least theoretically. Baptists began partly in protest to the elevated position of clergy. We espoused the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which means that all believers have the freedom and responsibility and ability to approach God directly, without the need for an intermediary. When I begin with that theological position and add to it the Biblical teaching on gifts and calling, I very quickly come to a position that has a equal place for all people of faith.

We are most definitely not equal when it comes to our abilities and gifts—we are very unequal in that area. I am much better at preaching that some of the members of the church, a few of whom can’t even manage to croak out a word when they are in front of people. On the other hand, I am much worse at singing that some of them—my croaking tends to encourage people to call for silent singing or loud organ playing. Some of our church members who can’t preach or sing bring to the congregation the ability to count and care for our church money—they can actually add and subtract numbers and get them right.

Our inequality in terms of gifts and abilities is part of our overall equality. Each gift and ability and individual has a part of play in our church and ministry—and that makes us equal. My gifts are important at times and at other times, they really aren’t important. When the church puts on their annual tea and sale, my gift of preaching and teaching isn’t overly important, which is why I get assigned to the dishpan in the kitchen, where my lack of tea and sale specific gifts isn’t a problem. But the member of the church whose gift of organizing and administering becomes the most important person that day.

I appreciate my gifts and my calling. I work hard at keeping myself current and capable. I want to be the best I can be at understanding and using my gifts. But I don’t want my gifts and calling to stand out simply because they exist. I much prefer the situation where people recognize my gifts, their gifts and other’s gifts and feel comfortable calling on the gifted person for the exercise of their gifts in the appropriate ways—and when the gifts aren’t needed, everyone is equal and ordinary. When we see each other as both gifted and ordinary, I think we have a solid and strong foundation for our church, one that God can and will build on.

May the peace of God be with you.