A CHRISTMAS GIFT

Christmas is almost here.  The outside decorations are in place, the tree is up, the presents are (sort of) wrapped.  And like any good pastor–and even the not-so-good ones, I am busy trying to keep my head above water as I deal with all the stuff that churches and our culture have built into this season of the year.  There are extra worship services, extra social events, extra shopping, extra cooking–it seems like there is extra everything except time.

I realized a few days ago that I am waiting impatiently, which seems to be a culturally  acceptable response to Christmas.  We expect it mostly in children but it is still acceptable for adults, even senior-discount qualified adults.  However, I am waiting impatiently for something different.  I am eagerly awaiting the lasagna and movie that are our Christmas Eve ritual.  It will be nice to open the presents on Christmas day.  I am looking forward to cooking the turkeys and making the gravy for the church sponsored Christmas dinner.  I am even happily planning on turkey leftovers.

But as nice as these things are, they are not what I am impatiently waiting for.  They will come in due time and I will enjoy them.  But what I am impatient for begins on the day after Christmas.  No, it isn’t Boxing Day sales.  What I am really waiting for is the free time that comes between the week between Christmas and New Years.

That is a great and wonderful time.  All the special stuff in the church is over.  Even the regular programs like Bible study take a break.  The cultural bash takes a break as we digest Christmas dinner and wear out batteries.  New Years is coming  but we don’t need to do much about that.  People tend to hunker down and rest up from the strain and stress of the holiday.

And all that means that aside from working on a sermon for the next Sunday, I don’t have a long list of things to do.  As long as the sermon and worship service are put together, my week is pretty much free.  We have some plans but mostly the week will be about unwinding, relaxing and taking it easy.  We will likely take a day to see a movie that we want to see, which will include a meal of course.

We will sleep in.  We will watch movies.  We might go cross country skiing, although the weather predictions make that look less likely.  We will eat at strange times.  We will spend some time reading the books we got for Christmas and eating the goodies that showed up in the Christmas stockings.

I am looking forward to that relaxing and relatively unscheduled time.  The Advent/Christmas season is busy and hectic and demanding.  I do what I do voluntarily and willingly but it is tiring and gets more tiring each year.  But I learned long ago that that week between Christmas and New Years is another gift, a gift of time.

Somehow, our church culture and our actual culture have come together to produce a week of dead time, a few days where nobody expects much of anyone–and that includes pastors.  I could call it a happy coincidence.  I could spend a lot of time exploring how the church and the culture end up with a space at the same time.  I could research the development of this time in history.

But truthfully, I am not likely going to do any of that.  I am going to enjoy it to the fullest.  I will write a sermon and plan a worship service.  But for the rest of the time, I am going to treat that precious time for what it really is–a gift from God to all of us who are tired from the Advent/Christmas activity and who need some space and time before we step into the New Year and all its activities.

However it came about, these few days are too valuable and important not to see them as a another sign of God’s grace.  And so, I wait in eager anticipation of the time to relax and rest and sleep and do whatever.  I like Christmas–and I really like the break following Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

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IT SNOWED

We have had an unusually dry and warm fall here in western Nova Scotia.  Most years, the ice scraper gets dug out in early to mid October and stays busy pretty much until spring.  But this year, the temperatures have been at or near record level highs all fall.  We actually had night-time lows of 17 Celsius (mid 60s for those who don’t use celsius), meaning that the ice scraper remained lodged in the space between the back seat and the cargo area of my Jeep until well into November when I had to find it one morning.

This made great weather for our local economy.  We are heavily dependent on tourism in this area and the extended summer like weather seems to have encouraged a lot more people to travel here a lot later than normal.  It also meant that the people who provide lawn care were working longer, which may or may not have thrilled them but work is work.

But for me, well, the fall was something of a disappointment.  I really don’t like heat much and I especially don’t like heat at night when I am trying to sleep.  Mostly I cope but the extended warm weather was getting to me.  I really don’t have anything against warm weather or sunny weather except when it interferes with my sleep.  I would like a lot more rain that we have been getting but since the dryness slowed down the growth of the lawn, there was a bit of a benefit to the dryness.

So a few days ago, I was sitting in my “office”–the living room.  I was writing something, probably a sermon that wasn’t really coming together.  I was sort of aware that it was a dark and dreary morning, with rain in the forecast.  Given the number of times that rain has been forecast and failed to show up, I wasn’t expecting all that much precipitation.  It was also cold–near zero.  I actually had the heat turned on, probably for the second time this fall.

But mostly, I was fighting with the sermon that refused to come together.  The theme sounded great when I prepared the sermon plan a couple of months ago but the actual writing was hard work–I would compare it to slogging through sand with a full backpack but I have actually done that and it was easier than this sermon process.

Because I was fighting with the sermon, I wasn’t paying much attention to what was happening outside.  I normally glance out the window a lot, looking for the deer who frequent our street or the squirrels looking for acorns or to see whether the tide agrees with my tide clock or just to get a break from whatever I am writing.  But this day, the fight with the sermon was taking all my attention.

But eventually, I looked out the window and it was raining.  But even more exciting was the fact that there was snow mixed with the rain.  That was exciting and gave me a real lift.  Now, I knew that it was too warm for the snow to amount to anything.  It was just a brief flurry quickly overcome by the rain and above zero temperatures–I doubt that one flake ever made it to the ground.  But it was snow.

And that means that we can get on with the year.  I can find the snow shovel, check the supplies of salt and sand for the driveway and most importantly sleep under covers at night.  I am aware that most of the people I know, including the majority of the people in the churches I serve saw that snow as a depressing omen of things to come.  I am also aware that sometime next March, I will greet snow with a very different attitude.  But right now, seeing the snow was a bright and positive note to my day and week.  I am aware that that makes me somewhat strange but my church people all knew I was strange when they called me to be their pastor so I am not worried about that.

I like snow and cold weather.  I don’t mind shovelling snow, especially since the church gets most of it plowed and I generally don’t have more than half to 3/4 of an hour clean up.  Seeing that brief flurry gave me some optimism.  The sermon was still hard work but at least it was snowing.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE LETTER

I got a letter the other day.  I almost didn’t bother opening it because it came from a large, international Christian organization and so I assumed that the letter was a begging letter, especially since it wasn’t actually addressed to  me personally.  Letters that come addressed to “Pastor” or even “Senior Pastor” tend to have a request for money somewhere in them.  But I did open it and was a bit surprised that a return envelope didn’t fall out when I pulled the letter out.

The letter was a letter of thanks to me for being a pastor.  The letter arrived in the middle of October which someone has decided is “Pastor Appreciation Month”, one of the many special days and weeks and months throughout the course of the year which I tend to ignore.  But this letter from this large international organization was thanking me for my work as a pastor.  I confess that the letter didn’t do a whole lot for me.

While it might have seemed like a good idea to someone at some point, it really didn’t  make me feel appreciated because it really wasn’t addressed to me.  The fact that it was a computer generated letter with a generic “Dear Pastor” salutation and talked about ministry in such vague, general terms didn’t help.  Nor did the fact that I got two other copies of the same letter with others probably coming as the various congregations I pastor get around to passing along the mail they have collected since they last saw me.

I will take some of the blame for the lack of appreciation.  Most of the mail I get from this organization is asking for money and I expect that this letter is part of a well thought out campaign to make me feel better about them than about all the other organizations that didn’t send me a letter.  If I feel better about them, maybe I will send them money.

But generic appreciation really doesn’t do all that much for me.  A letter from a huge organization which doesn’t know or care that I pastor several congregations, which doesn’t know the specifics of my ministry, which doesn’t know the particular stresses I deal with really doesn’t make me feel appreciated as a pastor.

I do feel appreciated as a pastor–but not because it is pastor appreciation month and not because some organization sends me an appreciation letter.  I know that my ministry is important and helps people.  Some of them actually tell me now and then.  But I can also see and hear the appreciation in the way people respond to my ministry.

Ministry is demanding and doesn’t always provide a whole lot of tangible appreciation.  A lot of the people I minister to are dealing with serious stuff that takes most of their focus.  People struggling with death, people excited about their wedding, people dealing with life crises don’t always have the emotional space to tell me they appreciate what I am doing.  Church members who take part in the weekly Bible Study and who listen to the sermon every week don’t often feel a need to tell me how much they appreciate what I taught and preached.  When they do, that is great.

But when they don’t, which is more often the case, it isn’t the end of the world.  I actually am pretty independent and can function without a lot of thanks and so on–a very helpful character trait for a pastor.  I don’t do what I do to get expressions of appreciation.  I do it because it is part of who God is helping me become.  He had given me gifts and abilities and desires and following those is important to me.  If people along the way thank me for it and let me know they appreciate it, that is great but I will be doing what I do anyway.

As for the multiple copies of an impersonal letter of generic appreciation, well, that didn’t do a whole lot for me.  I tossed two of them unopened into the recycling and might do the same with any others that arrive, although maybe not.  The letter did have one redeeming feature.  It was a one page letter with nothing on the back, which means that it can also go in my scrap paper pile to be used as scratch pads or working paper for church meetings.  I do appreciate that, a bit.

May the peace of God be with you.

I AM A…

I grew up in a small town that had at least five different denominational congregations with at least one independent congregation.  I also grew up in the era when basically, everyone when to worship on Sunday–as far as I know, we didn’t have any Seventh Day groups in the community.  That meant that everyone in the town “belonged” to some group or another.  It also meant that we generally knew why we didn’t belong to one of the other groups.

Of course, the reasons we didn’t belong to one of the other groups were always because of something our group did much better.  We Baptists, for example, were proud of the fact that when we worshipped, it was under the leading of God, not some canned worship program written long ago by people who obviously weren’t Baptist.  We were also convinced that those groups that actually used wine for Communion were just opening the door to alcoholism.  And of course, we allowed ourselves to be lead by God, not the Holy Spirit because the group that talked a lot about the Holy Spirit was definitely off base.  And we certainly were holding to the true Gospel, unlike that group that was moving off the theological base into liberalism.

So there we were–at least six separate groups, meeting at about the same time on Sunday morning, listening to each other’s church bells peel around the same time, singing many of the same hymns, reading from the same Bible (although some were using the RSV not the KJV), worshipping the same God of love and grace and working really hard to make sure we all knew how different we were.

Except, we really weren’t that different.  Our Baptist insistence on extemporaneous prayers rather than a prayer book tended to fall apart when you actually listened to the prayers we made–the prayers tended to sound pretty much the same from week to week.  We didn’t have written prayers but we did a lot of repetition and saying the same thing week after week.

And more seriously, we all had our theological strengths and our practical weaknesses.  The “liberal” denomination was trying to actually show God’s love in concrete ways.  The “Holy Spirit” group was trying to open themselves to the movement of God in daily life.  The liturgical worship approaches were trying to tie is together with the deep historical roots of the church.  Our Baptist group, well, we were trying to make sure that there was room for individuality in faith.

Together, we has a deeper, fuller and more complete understanding of what God was trying to show us and teach us and ask of us.  Together, the churches in our community came close to understanding the fullness of the Gospel.  Unfortunately, we were too much interested in our own small insights and understandings to really benefit from the things that we could learn from each other.  We had to be right and they had to be wrong.

I am deeply appreciative of the fact that I live and work in a very different church climate.  I am aware that there are still many places where the church or parts of it are more concerned with division and difference than unity and similarity but I don’t work there and don’t want to be there.

I think the process of moving to a new place began when I started to understand that it was alright to question my own group, to be open about the things that we did and didn’t do that caused problem for the faith.  I moved from there to realizing that others had similar realities–there was some good and some bad.  And I realized that I was free to challenge the bad in my group and import some of the good from other groups.  I didn’t stop being Baptist–but I did begin to realize that before I was Baptist, I was a follower of Jesus Christ.

And as a follower of Jesus Christ, I am united with all other followers and can look at what others do in their journey in a different light.  When their journey helps someone else’s journey, it is great.  So I can borrow printed prayers, new translations, emphasis on the Holy Spirit and couple it with extemporaneous prayers, traditional hymns and grape juice–the goal is God, not Baptist.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT NOW?

Recently, several things have come together to suggest that I am not where I used to be.  It began one morning on vacation.  Our almost six year old granddaughter was playing with sidewalk chalk and decided that it would be great fun for her to draw my outline on the pavement.  I thought it would be fun as well, until I remembered that while I might get down on my back on the pavement, I probably wouldn’t get up, at least not without serious complaining from my knees.

I also spent some time with a friend who is planning a major week long wilderness hike along a trail that I had done a few years ago.  He gave me a serious invitation to join the group, an invitation that I very quickly turned down–it my knees can’t deal with getting up off of pavement, they are definitely not going to deal well with that hike.

Then, after getting back, I was catching up on some bits and pieces including looking at our denominational website.  I clicked to the page telling about various pastoral changes and discovered that a lot of pastors were retiring this year.  Some were part of my peer group and some were actually second career pastors whom I had taught during my various teaching stints.

But what probably tied these things together was the fact that I turned 65 during our vacation–one of the few birthdays I have been able to spend with at least some of our kids in a long time.  Normally, I am not too concerned with age but culturally, 65 is a significant point.  We get to retire, start drawing pensions and enjoy senior discounts.

But since I had decided a while ago that I was wasn’t ready to retire this year and so have deferred all my various pensions, I didn’t expect to pay much more attention to the birthday than any other.  The senior discount is a nice perk, but I am discovering that there are enough restrictions that even that may not be all that great.

So, I am 65.  In some ways, that doesn’t make any difference–I couldn’t have been a chalk model for my granddaughter last year or two years ago.  While I could retire, I am committed to the churches I work for a while yet–we are involved in things that will take more time to process.

But at the same time, it does make a difference.  I am discovering that I am not what I used to be and not what I see myself as.  Mentally, I have tended to see myself as some indeterminate age between 40 and 55–an age where I have few physical limits, good career prospects and lots of options.  But the reality of 65 is that I have serious physical limits, mostly associated with arthritis and other age-related issues.  My career options are limited–most congregations aren’t looking for 65 year old pastors and other options want the potential for a longer commitment.

On the other hand, I am 65.  I am doing what I am called to do to the best of my ability.  I might not be able to do a week long wilderness hike or lie down on pavement but I can use the exercise bike and find other ways to play with my grandchildren.  I might not have all the career options I once had but I am comfortable with the calling that God has given me right now and an content to let tomorrow take care of itself, or rather, to trust that God is at work taking care of tomorrow.

I am 65–do I feel 65?  Sometimes, I do–and sometimes I don’t.  In a week or two when the newness of 65 wears off, I am  probably going to treat my age as I always have.  It is there, it is a reality and I don’t need to let it have too much effect on me as I deal with the realities of my life.  There are things a lot more significant to deal with than the number of years I have accumulated.  But, if the senior discount is a good one, I will flash the 65 to get it.

May the peace of God be with you.

TIME

            Both my Bible study groups recently had a discussion of time–that may have something to do with the fact that our average age clearly indicates that we have all accumulated a lot of time here on earth, an accumulation that adds an interesting experiential flavour to our discussions.  One benefit of the discussions was that I got to pass on one of the few bits of Biblical Greek that I have managed to retain in the long period of time since I studied Greek for two years as a student.

In the Greek New Testament, there are two words translated as “time”.  One of them refers to time in the way we commonly use it–time measured by the clock and calendar.   The Greek word is chronos, and supplies the base for our word chronometer.  Much of our lives are controlled by time.  We wake up when an alarm tells us it is time to wake up.  We eat when a clock tells us it is time to eat.  We work when the clock tells us it is work time.  We watch TV when the schedule tells us the show is on, although with streaming that isn’t as true anymore.  We relax when  the calendar tells us it is the day to relax.

The other Greek word for time describes a different kind of time.  It is used to describe a context where everything is ready, such as the time for Jesus to be born.  The Greek word is kairos and it is a very different kind of time.  When all the right conditions are met, when all the pieces come together, when all the actors are ready, when all the obstacles are gone or moveable, then it is kairos time.  This time has a connection to clock and calendar time but only a tenuous one–kairos can’t be predicted or scheduled with chronos.

So, what is the point, beyond the fact that I actually remembered something from a university class 40+ years ago?  Well, part of the point is that I am fairly chronological in my approach to life.  I have a schedule and like to keep it as much as possible.  Looking at my watch not only tells me what time it is but also what I am supposed to be doing. If it is 4:30 on Tuesday, I should be preparing supper.  At 7:30am on Friday, I should be posting something on this blog site.  If it is 7:00am on Saturday, I should be sleeping because that is my sleep-in day.

If you are reading this and aren’t overly scheduled and structured, it may sound like I am an overly rigid and even uptight individual.  But I am not.  I can and do relax–my schedule requires me to do so regularly.  Actually, I find having a schedule allows me the freedom to relax that I might not have otherwise.  I know when I will get to whatever I need to get to and so can allow myself time to take it easy.

The real point of this post, however, is that although I am basically a chronos individual, I am called by God to work in a kairos context.  A big part of my calling is anticipating, understanding and responding to the kairos moments in the lives of the people I serve and the churches I pastor.  I need to be aware of what is going on, looking for the convergence of circumstances and issues and people and stresses and read it all well enough to respond properly when the kairos arrives.  A sermon preached before or after its kairos doesn’t do the church much good.  A pastoral visit before or after the kairos might as well not happen.

So how does a pastor who prefers clock time deal with the flexibility and unpredictability of kairos?  Well, the short, quick and only answer is that I depend a lot on God.  I try to work at being open to where and what God wants, whether it is the next sermon series or who to visit.  Fortunately, I have learned that God speaks to me in a variety of ways, often using the people I work with the give me clues to the kairos realities that I need to know about.

A minor point of this post is that the kairos and chronos for our vacation has arrived so I will be taking a break from work and blogging for a couple of weeks.

May the peace of God be with you.

AM I DEPRESSED?

A few days ago, I was sitting in my work chair in the living room.  I was supposed to be writing one of the two sermons I have to produce each week.  I had done the research, I had a theme, the sermon was part of a series so I had some sense of where it was supposed to go–all I had to do was start writing and soon, I would have a sermon ready.  Except, that wasn’t happening.  I was struggling–not because of the topic, not because of interruptions, not because the computer was giving me trouble.  I just couldn’t get started and when I finally got started, the words didn’t want to come.

I finished the sermon finally and went on to other stuff until it was time to go see some people in the church.  Being an introvert, that is something I always struggle with a bit but that day, it was really hard to get motivated to go out and see people.  I went, I saw people and I actually enjoyed the contacts.

But on the way home, as I was thinking about it and had a scary thought.  I put my struggle with the sermon together with the increased difficulty going to see people and began to think, “I’m depressed”.  Depression is something I struggle with and the thought that it might be making another appearance bothered me a lot.

But as I began the process of dealing with the depression, I ran into further problems.  Normally, once I realize I am slipping into depression, I look for the trigger(s), whatever it is that started the process.  But try as I might, I couldn’t find any trigger.  Nor did I find all the normal stuff associated with my depression–for example, I was still listening to the car radio when I was driving.  When I am depressed, I just can’t do that–I have to drive in silence.

So, I wondered some more–was I slipping into some new, unknown expression of depression that was growing out of some deeply repressed stuff that would send me into a long and difficult bout of depression and struggle and all the rest?  I don’t like the depression process that I have dealt with too often in my life and so tend to be somewhat anxious about everything connected with depression.  Not being able to get a quick hold on it was depressing me.

As I worked through the stuff, I realized that what I was experiencing might not be depression.  It also wasn’t likely some other form of emotional upheaval either.  There was nothing major percolating up from the depths and the surface stuff wasn’t all that much of a problem, except for the fact that there was a whole lot of it and my personal time was getting lost.

I was missing exercise time; I was having less personal time, I was spending much more time in intense contact with people, I was putting in too many hours at both my jobs.  I looked at the whole picture and realized that in the end, I was tired, not depressed.   I do realize that physical fatigue can and does lead to serious stuff and in my case, prolonged physical fatigue can indeed lead to depression but what I was (and am) dealing with here was tiredness, not depression.

I can deal with that–probably not right now  but eventually.  I am tired because a variety of things have come together requiring a lot more work than normal.  There is a slow down coming–that isn’t the workaholic’s “someday” dream but rather is a basic reality.  A lot of the stuff keeping me so busy will soon be done and churches simply don’t do all that much in the summer.  In the meantime, I can do a few things, like allow myself to take longer to write sermons (and blog posts), exercise when I can, take a nap now and then, watch a TV show, plan and take some vacation time or just enjoy sitting and doing not much of anything.

I am tired and not depressed.  I do need to take the fatigue seriously but fatigue is much less painful for me than depression.   While I might not be overly thankful for being tired, I am deeply thankful that it isn’t depression and even more thankful that I can tell the difference.

May the peace of God be with you.

EASTER SERMONS

            I have been preaching for a lot of years, which means I have been preaching about Easter for a lot of years.  Some years, it gets really hard to find something to say–or maybe it is more precise to say it gets really hard to find some way to say something in a fresh and attention grabbing way. As a preacher, I don’t get to listen to too many sermons but  have been bored enough by some of the ones that I have heard to work hard at not boring those who listen to my sermons.

This year, when I began sermon planning for the Easter season, I followed my usual practise of typing the date of each Sunday and then staring at the computer screen, hoping for inspiration.   I reviewed what I did last year but that didn’t help whole lot–I began working at one of the pastorates on Easter Sunday and the other the Sunday after Easter.  That should have made the whole process easier but it didn’t–I was forced to confront my own boredom when it comes to Easter preaching.  I needed to see the story from a different perspective.  I needed something that would interest me so that I could have some enthusiasm to communicate to the congregations–and since I am working for two different pastorates with two different set of needs, I really needed two new interesting approaches.

Fortunately, God is merciful and graceful even to aging, bored (and maybe boring) preachers and helped me with some inspiration.  For one set of sermons, I have been giving serious thought to the choices that led Jesus to the cross.  As I was staring at the blank screen, I began to see how Jesus makes choices at critical points along the way to the cross.  At several points, his choice can either stop or continue the process.

I began to think and mediate on the reality of the freedom Jesus had–he wasn’t a robot, pre-programmed to head for the cross, ignoring everything else.  Jesus had the freedom to not go to the cross.  As God, it is his creation and his plan. He is in charge and therefore has the right and the freedom to change the plan.  Even more, since he is God and makes the rules, whatever he decides is right by definition.

While the cross and resurrection are absolutely essential from my perspective as a beneficiary, from Jesus perspective, they were always an option.  Not going to the cross was also an option–a good option from Jesus’ perspective, even if it is a terrible option from my perspective.  When  I look at the choices Jesus made that led him to the cross, I see his love and grace in a whole new light.

He volunteered–and kept volunteering.  Right up to his death he kept making choices that would put him on the cross–and he kept making them because of his love towards us.  Now, I have been preaching about the unending love of God for us forever (at least it feels like that) but this year, making myself look at how Jesus kept making clear decisions to go to the cross, I have seen anew the depths of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

As I contemplate the choices, I see the depth of fear and pain in the prayer in Gethsemane–this is not some robot following a program; this is not some remote-controlled being dancing to some controller; this is not a drone acting out of instinct and programming.  This is the story of Jesus, who has to work hard to get to the cross.  He has to make the right decisions at the right time, all the while being able to see the consequences of each decision and each alternative decision and therefore, likely feeling the pain of the nails long before they were actually driven into his wrists.

There are days when I can’t make a non-self focused decision to save myself–but Easter tells us that Jesus’ whole life was a series of non-self focused decisions to save everyone else at the cost of his own safety and life.  That is a real love story, one that I will have an eternity to contemplate.

May the peace of God be with you.

ONE MORE RULE

Way back when I was a theology student, one of the strongest rules I learned came from the professor teaching us pastoral counselling.  Our group was assigned to do our practical work in a long term care hospital specifically for people with chronic lung problems.  During our initial briefing, we were given this basic and most important rule: “Don’t sit on the patient’s hospital bed.”  This was undoubtedly an important rule–sitting on the bed while convenient for the visitor did tend to make movements that upset the patient and likely increased the possibility of catching something from or giving something to the patient.  I have tended to be pretty good about obeying that rule.

But an even more important rule for me has always been concerned with the love of God.  His rule is that he loves me unconditionally and permanently.  Nothing can make God love me more or less.  His love for me–and the rest of humanity–is basic and unchanging, a constant in the ever-changing universe that we inhabit.

This is one rule that I have no interest in challenging or changing.  But as I look at the church and how we have approached this rule over the years, I discover that unfortunately, none of us in the Christian faith has been all that great about keeping the reality of this foundational rule in front of us.  Some of what I read, hear, see and occasionally practise myself suggests that the rule about God’s absolute and unconditional love is open to flexible application.

There is a church group, for example that regularly proclaims that God hates homosexuals, although they prefer to use a derogatory term for homosexuals.  I have heard Christians suggest that we need to do something about Muslims because God doesn’t love them.  I know of believers who are anti-immigrant because it seems that to them, the love of God doesn’t apply to immigrants, at least from some places and from some historical periods.

There are also the traditional theological flash points in our faith where believers line up and call names or worse, on the assumption that God can’t really love someone who doesn’t believe in the inerrancy of the Bible or the right of homosexual couples to be legally married.  The aura of anger, hatred and nastiness seen in such confrontations brings into serious question the reality of God’s universal and unending love.

But if this one basic and foundational rule isn’t true or is open to interpretation or is seriously flexible, none of us has a chance.  If that rule that God loves all equally and totally isn’t true, then there is really no hope for any of us, given the reality that none of us is perfect.  I think we sometimes get so focused on pointing out the flaws and imperfections of other people that we forget to look at the reality of our own.   And if we do look at our own imperfections, they are obviously relatively minor, more like endearing quirks than actual sins and imperfections.

Maybe that is inflexible rule number 2:  none of us is perfect.   We are all in some way shape or form tainted by our personal experience of rebellion against God, which is what the Bible calls sin.  And because we are all in that category, we all need rule number one to be true:  we need God to love us no matter what.

And if loving us no matter what is God’s number one personal rule, then we who claim to follow God through Jesus probably need to put a whole lot more effort into understanding, following and showing that rule.  Now, keep in mind that God isn’t going to love us more if we do a good job of this nor is he going to love us less if we do a poor job of this.  He is going to love us with his pure, unending and unlimited love, just the way he did before creation and just the way he will continue to do for all eternity.

I may not always like the rules that limit how fast I can drive; I may get annoyed by the rule that says I need to wear a tie in topical heat; I may find the rules about standing in line irksome when I could easily push people out of my way–but this rule, the rule about God’s unlimited, unending, unchanging, eternal love–that rule I like and am glad that nothing in all creation can change it.

May the peace of God be with you.

COME LET US WORSHIP

I enjoy reading the book of Leviticus.  That probably tells you a great deal about me, because many Christians see Leviticus as a major roadblock which destroys more commitments to reading the Bible through than anything.  Leviticus is a book of detail.  It describes at great length how the people of Israel are to deal with the realities of their lives.

One of the reasons why I enjoy the book is that it shows clearly that God is concerned about all of life and that people who serve God need to submit even the way they harvest their crops to God (Leviticus 19.9-10).   God covers most of life in this book, giving people a clear indication that he is concerned with everything we do, not just the “spiritual” things.  In fact, reading through the book of Leviticus shows that there really isn’t a division of life into “spiritual” and “secular”.

But the other reason I enjoy the book of Leviticus is more basic in many ways.  When I read the book, I am incredibly happy that I am a Christian pastor and not a Jewish priest of that time.  Being a Protestant pastor is demanding and difficult at times but at least I am not slaughtering animals all day or evaluating skin lesions for leprosy or conducting trials to determine the fidelity of wives.  Reading the book of Leviticus makes even the busiest and most demanding of pastoral weeks seem a lot easier and much less demanding.

There is also another insight that I pick up when I read Leviticus, an insight that concerns worship.  The more I meditate on this theme, the more I am concerned about the worship that I help lead each week.  In the book of Leviticus, we discover that worship is costly–no one in the book of Leviticus approaches God without being aware of the cost of worship.

Before they come, they must have the proper sacrifice.  While there are gradations based on the individual’s financial status, everyone must have the best within the category.  The cow or sheep or dove must be perfect–no weak, old, worthless animal need apply.  If all the worshipper has is a weak, lame, sick and dying animal, they are out of luck–until they get a better offering, they can’t really worship.  Worship was expensive–it demanded something of the worshipper.

Now, this is not a ploy to suggest that we all have to give more at offering time, nor is it an attempt to make people feel guilty for sleeping during worship.  Truthfully, I am not totally sure where I am going with this–I have been thinking about this for a long time and am not completely sure what it means to me, let alone to the worshipping community.

I think it partly means that we need to see worship as something more than it sometimes is, at least for me.  In worship, we are openly recognizing the ever-present God.  We are acknowledging our dependence on him.  We are renewing our commitment to him.  Well, we are supposed to be doing that.

But many times, we are going through the motions, making an appearance, doing a job, following a tradition.  Worship doesn’t really recognize the presence of God–it just passed the time and gives us a star for attendance.  And maybe we treat worship like that because it doesn’t cost us that much–a bit of time and a few dollars.

Theologically, our Christian worship is even more expensive than worship in the book of Leviticus.  There, the cost of worship was a perfect animal.  For us, the cost of worship is God’s own perfect Son, Jesus Christ.  We come to worship as Christians because we believe that God in Christ took care of everything.  We come to worship as God’s loved and forgiven children, who now have complete freedom to approach God without any conditions.

But our worship is still expensive–we just didn’t have to pay the price of admission.  We worship because God paid the price himself.  And maybe as we spend some time meditating on that, our worship will become a more significant part of our lives.  When we remind ourselves of the cost of our worship, it helps us open ourselves more fully and completely to the presence of God.  It allows us to really worship the one who values our presence so much that he personally paid the price for our worship.

May the peace of God be with you.