A GOOD COMBINATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

A SQUIRREL IN A TREE

I woke up this morning to a light snowfall. The ground is covered and the trees are wearing white veils. The old oak tree beside the house still has more than half its leaves (oaks are notoriously slow losing their leaves in the fall), which are now covered with snow. Most of the acorns have fallen off, littering the neighbour’s lawn and our driveway. Leaving or entering the driveway is always accompanied by the pop-pop-pop of the tires crushing the acorns.

Needless to say, looking out at the gently falling snow is much more inviting than stating at a blank laptop screen. One such glance provided a bonus. Sitting on a branch was a big squirrel having his breakfast. The oak tree obviously hasn’t shed all its acorns yet because he found some. I doubt is he collected the food from the ground and then ran up the tree—our collection of houses has no free-ranging dogs and the one cat that wanders the neighbourhood is so well fed that it presents no real danger to a squirrel. Mostly, they sit and eat where they find their food, although they sometimes stop to stare at me if I happen to move to the window for a closer look.

This squirrel is quite content. The remaining leaves provide some shelter from the falling snow. The thick tree trunk protects his from the gentle breeze. The tree provides an seemingly endless supply of food. There may even be a hidden hole or two in the tree that provides him and his family with shelter. What more could a squirrel want: high protein food, shelter, minimal threat from predators—it sounds like a made in heaven setting.

And actually, it is. I doubt if the squirrel realizes or cares but he is enjoying the grace of God but he is. The acorns, the oak tree, the gently falling snow, the whole neighbourhood depends on the eternal grace of God. He brought it into being, he sustains it and he is also redeeming it. If we would spend a lot more time just looking at the world around us, rather than trying to figure out how to use it to make more money for us, we would all be better off, I think.

To be honest, I am not really interested in the tedious creation/evolution debate that some inside and outside the faith think is so important. However it came to be, we have this world because of the grace of God. He caused it to be and set it up so that that oak trees can grow and produce acorns to feed squirrels (and people when properly prepared); so that humans can use the oak wood for sturdy and beautiful stuff; so that the snow which some hate can protect the dirt-based life during the cold and provide moisture for next year’s growth. Everything is connected and interlinked and comes from the hand of a loving and graceful God.

If we spent more time looking for the evidence of the grace of God in creation, we would all be better off. That squirrel peacefully eating his breakfast in the oak tree really doesn’t care if it took 14 billion years or 6000 years to produce the tree that provides his breakfast—he is just enjoying breakfast. The squirrel probably doesn’t do much theological reflection on the grace of God but in the end, his breakfast and his breakfast nook are still powerful signs of the grace of God.

We could probably learn a lot from the squirrel. Some things are pretty obvious, like enjoy breakfast on a snowy day. Other things are a bit deeper but probably even more important, things like remembering that we are not God and are as dependant on the grace of God as that squirrel. We might have a broader understanding of oak trees and natural history and theology than the squirrel but we are still not God. We can plant acorns, we can grow oak trees, we can produce acorn flour, we can make oak boards—but we didn’t bring the oak tree into being and we didn’t design its place in the overall scheme of things. And more importantly, we probably won’t understand the full picture until we are fully reunited with God in eternity.

Until then, enjoy the snow, have a good breakfast and hold firmly to the eternal grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEGINNING AGAIN

September has arrived. The days are noticeable shorter and even though they can still be quite warm, mornings have a fall feel. The air is cooler and sometimes, there is a vague hint of frost in the air. Summer is over and for most people, the year is drawing to a close. We look ahead to the coming of really cold weather, snow and winter. The next big bump in the year is Christmas and then it is over.

Except for me and many other clergy, September really marks the beginning of the year. For many of us, the church year actually runs from September to May or June. I make my plans based on that year and most of the people I know in ministry follow the same pattern. So, for me, that means the coming of September means the start of a new year. The programs and groups we shut down in May or June start back up. The new initiatives and plans start to unfold. We will turn on the engine and get things moving as we begin another church year.

This is generally a hopeful and enjoyable time. When Bible Study starts up, we will reconnect and rekindle our exciting process. The new ideas we have been planning for get brought online. Our numbers stabilize after the summer fluctuations—summer visitors go home, regulars come back and preaching can focus on more in-depth themes. For the next eight or nine months, we will be full steam ahead, being the church the way we interpret God’s calling on us, with the Christmas shift and the anticipated snow days.

I have been involved in the September New Year activities for a long time—I began serving churches as a pastor a long time ago and consider myself a seasoned veteran of the church New Year process. I have made a few changes over the years to cater to cultural shifts and ministry trends—we start a bit later in September than I used to because of the summer creep that has pushed the summer slump further into September. Some programs have disappeared—when there is no Sunday School, there is no need to plan and push the Sunday School opening.

I have generally approached September with a positive outlook. I work with the church leadership to make plans for the new year which will help us as a church. I see each year as an opportunity to help the church become more and more the church. Sometimes, we are using our new year to clean up and repair some problem whose time has come. Sometimes, we use our new year to look at ourselves and explore God’s leading and grace. Sometimes, we are looking beyond problems and using the new year to try something new and different that will help us become what we feel God is leading us to become. Every now and then, there has been a new year when we haven’t had to do clean up and haven’t planned new initiatives—those have been rest years, something like the Jubilee year the OT sets for the people of Israel.

Each of these approaches to the new year has its excitement and requirements and blessings and setbacks. Each requires pastor and church to focus and work and gives us a direction and goal to properly harness our energy. Each helps us define and express our nature as believers and churches. Each helps shape not just our present ministry but also our future ministry.

As pastor, I have a vital part in the whole process. I am paid to focus on the church. My calling and my position give me the luxury of being able to focus most of my time and energy on the work we are doing together. I become the cheerleader, the analyst, the encourager, the teacher. And so the new year always brings new demands, new directions, new things to do and try. Since a healthy church isn’t just doing the same old stuff every year, my role as pastor means that each year, I have to be looking at new and different stuff, challenging myself and the church to make the best of the year to come.

I know that by the middle of next May, we will all be ready for a break—but right now in September, we are at the beginning of a new year, filled with excitement and possibility. Happy New Year!

May the peace of God be with you.

A CROW IN A TREE

It’s Monday morning, which means that yesterday was Sunday. I lead two worship services, one of which included a lunch afterwards. I preached twice and felt that both sermons went over fairly well. Attendance was good for both services, given the time of the year and all the other factors that determine worship attendance. I even managed to grab a short nap between the worship services. But when the day finished, I was finished. In fact, I was beyond finished because I stared the day tired—I lead a funeral service the day before that involved extra time visiting the family and preparing and so on. It probably doesn’t help that I have a really crazy week coming up with more to do that I have time to do it in. Nor does it help that this mid-winter day is dark, dreary and drippy and the thin layer of unskiiable snow is going to disappear probably before noon.

So, it’s now Monday morning and I am sitting in the living room, trying to figure out what to write for this blog post. So far, the most interesting thing to cross my mind has been the crow that landed on the top of one the pine trees I can see out the living room window—it is much easier to look out the window that at a blank computer screen. But even our normally active street is quiet on this Monday morning. The deer haven’t been around in a few days, the squirrels seem to be sleeping in today, it is too early for one of our neighbours to leave for his coffee group. So, I keep coming back to the empty computer screen.

Staring at a blank computer screen is marginally better than staring at a blank piece of paper, at least in my opinion. In the old days, back when the creative process involved a piece of paper and a pencil (I always worked in pencil until it was time for a final copy), there was much less distraction. A computer screen with no words on it at least has all the information supplied by the word processor program. It also holds the potential for some serious distraction—with just a few key strokes, I can play solitaire as I allow my sub-conscious mental process to wake up and get to work.

I can use a few other key stokes to open the whole world to me. The connection I have to the wider universe through the Internet means that I can discover anything I want. I haven’t tried it yet but I bet that if I type “cure for writer’s block” in a search engine, I will find tons of suggestions—all of which will provide welcome distraction from the demands of a blank word processor page.

I could even use the computer to access some of the many books that are in my various online accounts. While a lot of them are fiction, there are also a lot of books that have and will helped me with my professional development. Reading some of them would not only provide a distraction from the blank screen but might also provide an idea that I can steal adapt for my blog. I am sure that there must be lots of blog ideas in the as yet unread book that discusses the science behind the Star Wars universe.

But it is Monday morning—and so far, the crow in the tree top has been the only thing that has grabbed my attention and even it has gone somewhere else, probably to enjoy a breakfast at the local crow watering hole.

Monday mornings are difficult for those of us in ministry. We are probably at our lowest point physically, emotionally and spiritually. It is no coincidence that one popular ministry book many years ago was titled, Never Resign on Monday. I have modified that a bit for my particular situation to tell me Never decide to stop blogging on Monday.

It’s Monday morning—a drippy, dark, dreary Monday morning. I am tired as much from what I have to do this week as from what I did last week. I am not going to resign from the churches, I am not going to stop blogging. The crow in the pine tree obviously dealt with Monday morning and so will I.

May the peace of God be with you.