THE OTHER SIDE

I need some surgery sometime in the near future. While it is fairly serious surgery, it is important because it will prevent even more serious stuff down the road. After thought and prayer and some consultation, it just makes sense to me to go ahead with the process.

However, committing to that process also commits me to another process, one that I am normally involved with on the other side. I need to inform and involve my church people. Normally, I am the one church people inform and involve—they want my prayers, my pastoral concern, my connection with God. I am happy to be involved in their process. My giftedness, my calling and my temperament enables me to support them and do what I can to help them through the process. Most of the people I have provided pastoral care for through their process have seemed to be appreciative.

But approaching the whole thing from the other side—well, that is and has been and will be a huge shift for me. I haven’t actually had to deal with medical issues in my ministry. The only time I have been hospitalized was for kidney stones and that occurred between public ministry activities and so I didn’t miss anything. For this surgery, I will be out for at least a month, which means that I have to tell people so they can make arrangements.

My introverted inclination was to simply forget about telling people and have my wife call the deacons the day of surgery and tell them I won’t be there for a while. Aside from the fact that my wife simply wouldn’t assist my fantasy, that really wouldn’t be a very good way to deal with things.

I teach, preach and encourage Christian community and sharing. I seek to have people involved with each other as an expression of their faith. I want people to know that faith needs to involve us with other people so that we can both give and receive the love and grace of God through each other. For me to follow my introverted fantasy process would be hypocritical at best and ministry destroying at worst.

So, pushing the all too tempting fantasy out of my mind, I set about informing people. I had a meeting scheduled with the church leadership before I knew about the surgery so that became the first place to announce what was coming. I didn’t swear them to secrecy and released them to tell others in the church what was coming. I think I was secretly hoping that the message would quickly travel through the church the way most things do.

That didn’t happen, or it didn’t happen the way I wanted or as fast as I wanted. I faced a congregation on Sunday made up of people who knew and people who didn’t. Since the surgery is coming soon but not that soon, I chose not to make an announcement from the pulpit—that will come when I know dates and so on. But I did find myself telling individuals as the opportunity arose during the potluck that followed the worship.

I have spent most of my life on the other side of this part of ministry and now I have to learn how to receive what I have been giving. I could continue the role of pastor and say that it is good for the church to learn how to minister to the pastor—and that is a good thing. But the deeper reality is that I need to learn more about how to be ministered to. I haven’t done that well over the years. Being an introvert means that I tend to keep to myself and be somewhat self-sufficient. I have had times when others have ministered to me and they have been very important and valuable—but overall, I am much more comfortable providing the ministry.

So, the coming surgery will not only take care of a medical problem but will be another step in the more significant learning process that is helping an introvert who encourages community to experience the fullness of Christian community. I really do want and value the prayers and concerns and support of my Christian community—I just don’t like telling people that I need their prayers and concerns and support. Like all of us, I have a lot to learn about the fullness of my faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

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DON’T GET CAUGHT!

I grew up physically and spiritually in a rural, conservative environment. The church I was part of for most of my childhood wasn’t hyper-rigid like some but it was conservative in its views and teaching. I absorbed that mindset along with the cookies and juice served at snack time during Vacation Bible School.

I don’t think I ever heard a sermon explicitly giving the rules but I pretty much knew by the time I as a teen that “good Christians” obeyed the big three: “Don’t drink, Don’t smoke, Don’t dance.” There were of course, other evils, like anything sexual but Christians didn’t even think about stuff like that so we didn’t need rules in those areas. There were, of course, Christians who did that stuff—but they were always from other churches, not ours. We obeyed the rules.

But even then, I sort of noticed something that I liked to pretend wasn’t there. Some of the “good Christians” from our church actually did some of the big three—occasionally at the same time. How did I know? Well, we were teens in a small town who didn’t have a whole lot to do so we talked and eventually the “good Christian” would get around to telling some of us what they did—or those of us who didn’t break the rules but stood as close to the boundary as possible would see them break the rule.

As long as it was only us who knew about the infraction, they pretty much got away with it—and actually became something of underground heros in the group. The peer group rules wouldn’t allow anyone to tell about the infraction so we would all attend Sunday School and worship pretty much knowing that Mike wasn’t actually suffering from a cold coming on–he was a bit hung-over.

This secrecy would continue until the good Christian was caught breaking the rules by someone important, like another church member or a deacon or the church gossip or, heaven forbid, the minister. Then, well, the phrase “all hell broke loose” was coined just for times like that. The newly discovered sinner would be the talk of the church and town. Their infraction, as well as suggested and real punishments would be the topic of conversation everywhere, including the local barber shop, where the barber was a member of our church.

And the rest of us good Christians, who knew about the infraction before it was discovered, including those in the peer group who were equally guilty but undiscovered? Well, we picked up stones and heaved them as accurately and as powerfully as anyone else. As we stoned the offender, we also prayed. We joined the rest of the church in praying for the soul of the offender and we also prayed with even more fervor that the offender would remember the rules of silence that controlled the peer group.

As I have reflected on all that, I realize that our group, like all groups, actually had another rule, one that nobody ever actually articulated but which was nonetheless as powerful as all the other rules. This unspoken rule was simple: “Don’t get caught!”. In many ways, getting caught was a more serious infraction than breaking all the others at the same time. Getting caught was not just a sign that you were a sinner but even more significantly, you weren’t all that bright a sinner. Getting caught jeopardized the whole elaborate hypocritical structure that allowed the rest of us to indulge in rule breaking while still getting to keep our saintliness intact. Someone getting caught exposed the reality we didn’t want to have exposed and so we needed to attack mercilessly just to protect ourselves—how could someone who threw so many stones so hard and so accurately be guilty of such a sin?

In our current cultural environment, I see a lot of my past. Wrongs are being exposed—and that is a good thing. Much evil has been done and much hurt has resulted and it all needs to be dealt with in an open, therapeutic and cleansing manner. But at the same time, those of us who haven’t been caught need to be wise. We might not have done what is currently being revealed but since none of us is perfect, maybe we should use fewer stones and more mercy when someone is caught.

May the peace of God be with you.

SINNER OR STUPID?

Another public figure has recently been outed. A picture has show up; a blog post has surfaced; an informant has come forward. The past has been revealed and the public figure is now in the process: denial, grudging admission, pleading for understanding, all followed by the inevitable crash and burn. For political figures, that means resignation and finding a real job; for media celebrities, it means no more screaming fans; for church leaders, it means loss of pulpit and reputation.

Since we live in an age where everything is likely documented somewhere and someone has the ability to discover the past, it is pretty much inevitable that nothing can ever be hidden forever. I fully expect that this trend will reach the point where the startling revelation will be that so and so messed their diapers at age 3 months, which shows that they are totally unfit for whatever prominent position they are currently occupied.

Leaving aside the basic problem that our western culture, after having dethroned the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition that was used for so long, is now in the process of developing a new ethical system on the fly, a system that seems to be based on highly subjective feelings tinged with a strong desire for revenge and which changes with the volume of outrage that can be stirred up, there is a problem with all the revelations and reactions.

The problem is that people aren’t being allowed to be real people. Real people are sometimes sinners and sometimes just plain stupid—it is hard to tell the difference but there is a real difference, especially in the way they need to be dealt with. Sin is a deliberate choice to break the rules. Stupidity may also break the rules but tends to be the result of poor thinking choices sometimes encouraged by peer groups, substance abuse or bravado.

Sin, that deliberate choice to break rules that can cause harm to society, others and self is only really dealt with when people confront their inner motivations and desires and accept whatever help they need to make changes. In a culture increasingly divorced from religion and faith of any kind, it is harder and harder to deal constructively with sin and sinners, which may be why condemnation, denunciation and punishment are the go to approaches in our culture.

Stupidity, however, is sometimes a bit easier to deal with. What I am labelling as stupidity is more likely ignorance—people don’t actually know that what they are doing is wrong or offensive or unacceptable. Ignorance can be dealt with by providing information. We can teach people out of stupidity and ignorance. Most of us have successfully grown past a lot of our ignorance and stupidity. But if, after being taught and understanding the teaching, they persist in whatever was wrong, then they are likely following the path of sin.

So, some public figure gets caught about a decades old problem. Again, leaving aside the shifting moral sands that our western culture pretends isn’t a problem, the response to the revelation probably needs to be more nuanced. Was it sin or stupidity? If it was stupidity, has the individual in question learned and grown out of the stupidity? Are they as ignorant today as they were back then? If the action in question was the result of stupidity and the individual has grown out of that particular stupidity and both knows and lives better today, maybe we need to let it go, just like we let the dirty diapers of infants go.

If, however, it is actually sin, a conscious choice to do wrong (again, ignoring the fact that our western culture doesn’t have clear standards of right and wrong) and the individual hasn’t shown any desire to be different and only stops because they got caught, we need to deal with that differently. There is a way to deal with it, a way that involved confession, remorse and asking for forgiveness, a process that can still be found through God, even if our confused culture isn’t sure what to do with real sin beyond seek revenge.

People are going to do sinful and stupid stuff. The more prominent a person becomes, the higher the likelihood that their past will end up as headlines somewhere. Before we start piling on, maybe we should try and discover if the person who was sinful and stupid back then is the same person before us today. That would be the graceful thing to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

SEVENTY TIMES SEVEN

There are some parts of the Christian faith that bother me—well, actually, I have to be honest and say that sometimes, I positively hate some aspects of the faith that has guided my life for so long. I wish those parts weren’t there—and I have discovered that I am not alone in disliking parts of the faith. I have also discovered that I have a tendency to handle my dislike differently than some people.

Some I have heard and read deal with their dislike by ignoring the parts that they want removed. For all practical purposes, they remove the offending ideas from their thinking and their version of the faith. I can’t actually do that because as much as I dislike or even hate some of what the faith teaches, I have to take it seriously and figure out how I deal with it.

And that means that I have to regularly spend time looking at what is probably one of the most offensive parts of the faith for me at times—the whole issue of forgiveness. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am all for forgiveness. I encourage people to forgive; I try to practise forgiveness; I have done extensive theological, Biblical and psychological studies of forgiveness. I deeply value the forgiveness that I was given when I accepted Christ. I get excited when someone discovers the reality of forgiveness in their lives.

None of that bothers me. What bothers me is that as far as God is concerned, forgiveness is so easy and so complete and so freely given. Jesus, in fact, suggests that if someone sins against me, I need to forgive him seventy seven times (or seventy times seven times, depending on the translation) for the same offense. When I am the offender and the offense is raiding the chocolate stash too much, I am okay with that, although some of that may be from the psychological effects of the chocolate.

But when the offender is a child sexual abuser whose habit causes deep, long term trauma for his victims, I am much less willing to forgive. I don’t actually want to forgive once, let alone seventy seven or seventy times seven times. I much prefer the vision of such an individual suffering in the fires of hell for all eternity. As a pastoral counsellor, I have spend a lot of time helping victims of such abuse try to repair lives shattered by such people.

What I like even less, though, is that any limits on forgiveness that I want don’t just apply to the sins and sinners I choose. If we humans were allowed to set enforceable limits on forgiveness, ultimately no one would have to forgive and no one would be forgiven because somewhere, somehow, someone is going to be deeply offended by any given offense—someone is sure to be deeply upset by my relatively minor infraction of sneaking the chocolate too often.

God has taken a much different approach to forgiveness. He forgives-in fact, he is in the forgiveness business. “Are you a sinner?” he asks? “Do I have a deal for you on forgiveness!” Then, he proceeds to offer all humanity full, complete and no strings attached forgiveness. I do appreciate this, right up until it includes the child abuser who has caused so much trauma for so many people—and then I want to draw a line.

Fortunately, I am not in charge of forgiveness. God is in charge and he has seen fit to create a limitless forgiveness that covers my chocolate raids and the child sexual abuser. I do appreciate the forgiveness for my small and unspectacular sins—but accepting it means that I also have to accept the fact that God offers the same forgiveness to the habitual child sex offender.

In the end, I think I am glad that God is in charge and not me. I might have some serious trouble with the limitlessness of God’s love and forgiveness at times but because I want his love and forgiveness to apply to me, I have to accept that it applies equally to everyone. I may not like that reality at times but it is part of my faith, a vital part that allows me to be reunited with God—and if I take that part away from others, it may not apply to me either.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY AM I NOT ASLEEP?

I have been up for about a half an hour this morning. It is a seriously cold winter morning in Nova Scotia, which means that it is dark and windy outside and dark and cold inside, at least until the heat we turned down last night comes back up to comfortable levels. There is no real reason for me to get up and several suggesting that I not get up.

I don’t have to work today; I have no scheduled appointments; we have no major plans for today. It was warm and comfortable in bed. So, why, when the clock read 7:00 did I get out of bed, close the door behind me (my wife and her dog were sleeping in), turn on some lights and my computer, turn up the heat, get some breakfast and settle down in the living room chair that is my office?

I was pondering that question when I was looking at the outside temperature as I got my breakfast ready. And the answer I came up with is that I am not totally sure why I got up when I did. I am a morning person and do my best thinking (and writing, maybe) early in the morning. But all I really have to write today is a post for this blog, which won’t actually be posted until next week—with both sermons and blog posts, I like to be ahead of the due date so that I am prepared for emergencies like funerals or pastoral calls.

But being a morning person doesn’t seem to be a valid enough justification for getting up this morning. It isn’t because I am opposed to sleeping in. Saturday is sleep in day and on occasion when I am really tired, I decide not to get going as early as normal. As I have got older, I have discovered some real value in getting the proper amount of rest.

I have decided that the ultimate reason for getting up this morning was that it was time to get up. I am up at 7:00 six days a week and so it was time to get up so I got up. I got up because it is part of my personal discipline. Some things we do simply because it is good for us to have some discipline in our lives. I am not talking rigid, every minute scheduled, agenda anxiety producing, fear and trembling discipline. But I am talking about giving life some structure and organization that sometimes takes us in directions that we might not want to go in.

I could easily have stayed in bed this morning and the only real consequence would be that my post this morning would be a bit late and this post would be written some other time. But for me, there is value in having some discipline in my life—and one form that discipline takes is having some structure to my time. There may be some people who can function without such discipline but I realized a long time ago that I can’t actually live that way. I need some sense of what is coming.

Perhaps it was because I have been called to ministry, a vocation well known for its unpredictable twists and turns, that I discovered the need to manage what I could to be able to respond to the unmanageable. While that may have been part of the process, I think I also realized early that I function best with some sort of structure and schedule. I have a sense of how my days, weeks and months will go, which paradoxically means that I am more able to deal with the unexpected and unpredictable which is definitely a part of the vocation and life to which I have been called. I know that if I get called to help a family work through their grief/funeral process, there will be a spot to get everything displaced by that call taken care of.

So, the end result is that when 7:00am rolled around this morning, I go up. I didn’t have to but I choose to because it is part of my personal discipline necessary to help me keep my life and work on track. There is also something kind of peaceful being awake and active with my thoughts when everyone else is sleeping, even on a cold, wintery Nova Scotia morning.

May the peace of God be with you.

LET’S TALK

I got a phone call from a friend a while ago. We don’t know each other all that well but we were neighbours for years and had a comfortable relationship. He was calling because he was going to need a pastor in the near future—his wife has an incurable illness and he wanted to be somewhat prepared for what was coming. He didn’t have any real church connections but he did know me and knew that I was a pastor—in fact, the last time I was talking to him was at a funeral I was conducting.

I don’t actually like this sort of thing. The dying and grief process are always painful and difficult and when I am called in because of friendship, it is more difficult. But he is a friend and I am a pastor so I arranged a time to meet with him and talk. Because we are friends, the conversation dealt with more than just then essentials of pre-planning a funeral service. We did that but then went on to talk about lots of other friend stuff: how things were going for each of us, where we were each working, why I didn’t walk anymore and so on.

In the course of the conversation, I discovered that he did have a church connection. Like many kids our age, he had attended Sunday School—and had attended at one of the churches I now pastor. That was quickly followed by the almost obligatory apology for not actually being involved in church anymore. We actually had an interesting conversation around that revelation and half-hearted apology.

I suggested to him that maybe the reason he wasn’t involved in church was more the church’s fault than his. Since we had already been talking about his involvement in a local club, I suggested that if church actually met some of his needs, he would be there—just like he was part of this club because it met some of his needs. Somehow, we in the church hadn’t been able to provide what he needed to maintain a connection.

I think my friend represents a great many people today. The problem isn’t that he is anti-faith. He has a spiritual side: he wanted a pastor to help him through the process of his wife’s decline and death; he enthusiastically welcomed my offer of prayer; he remembered hymns and even some Scriptures that he wanted as part of the coming funeral. He might not be on a first name basis with God but he isn’t rejecting God.

But somehow, somewhere, the church missed him and his real needs. We couldn’t or wouldn’t supply what he needed to help feed that faith spark that is still fairly evident in his life. We had nothing on offer that he wanted and so he stopped looking in our shop, finding substitutes elsewhere. But even he knows that we have more available. It seems, though, that we aren’t really making it easy for people to discover what we really have.

We claim that Christ is the answer—and I believe that he is. But when we don’t really know the questions that people are looking to have answered, we probably don’t have the required answers on display—and even more, we might not even know that the answers are available. We have sometimes even questioned the legitimacy of the question, preferring that people ask the easy questions that we can quickly answer with tried and true formulas.

Meanwhile, people like my friend wander around, looking for stuff, settling for substitutes while all the while knowing something about the faith that we seem not to know. They know that the answers they are looking for are found within the faith that we follow. They might not know the answer; they might not see the answer; they might get tired waiting for us to hear the actual question they are answering but they believe that there is an answer and that somehow, the church and its agents can provide it. And so when people like my friend really need an answer, they pick up the phone and ask the question again, hoping that maybe we have dug around in the storeroom and found that we actually have an answer to that question in stock.

I am hoping that with the power of the Holy Spirit, I can help my friend find the answer he is looking for.

May the peace of God be with you.

GOING BACK

Like a good many other people today, I am deeply concerned about the present and future of the Church in the west. I became involved in the church in the late 1950s as a Sunday School student so I remember a different church era. Those were the last of the glory days of the church—the days when Sunday School was a part of every kid’s life; when every almost adult attended worship at some point; when faith leaders were respected and consulted; when it seemed that the Kingdom of God had arrived in its fullness.

My whole ministry has been spent dealing with the reality of the western Church’s downward spiral. I have ministered to declining congregation that decline even in the face of new believers joining. Although there are some bright spots in the North American church scene, overall, the picture isn’t great—the Church is losing ground and only the most naïve refuse to see that this is a serious problem.

While there is much that can be and should be said about this whole painful situation, one particular aspect of it caught my eye again recently. Given the level of concern about the state of the Church, it is not surprising that many people are writing and speaking about this issue. And among the myriad of writers and speakers, there is one group whose approach I find equally fascinating and annoying. This is the group who wants to solve the whole thing by going back.

There is generally one key thing that needs to be changed back to the way it was that will wipe out the whole problem. The decline of the Church began with that one change and all we need to do is go back to what was and the decline will magically disappear. Over the years, I have been told that once we get prayer back in our schools, all will be well. Others suggest that we need to go back to the days when Christian men were men and Christian women were women. Or, as some suggest, if we allow parents to really parent, things will change.

A few have some more disputed suggestions. Getting rid of new music in favour of real Christian music has its supporters. The proliferation of translations and paraphrases in English is the problem for others—going back to the real Bible, the KJV, will fix everything. Occasionally, I run into someone who suggests that the problem is that hell has been removed from the preaching and if we would give people more hell, the church would flourish.

There are lots of other suggestions of things from the past to bring back—but the painful reality is that if any of these suggestions were the reason, we would be seeing results. Every suggestion has people trying to bring it back—and the results are almost uniformly underwhelming.

I think that the problem is bigger than we want to realize. Somewhere along the way, the Church in the west has lost its way. There isn’t one mistake or change or event that we can point to as the essential problem. I think we have made a bunch of mistakes, we have shot ourselves in the foot too many times, we have missed people too much for any one thing to be both the problem and the solution.

In fact, I don’t really think that there is a solution, at least not one that will magically fix the whole church. The decline of the Church and the Christian faith in the west is the result of uncounted mistakes, issues and even sins, so many that church historians will had doctoral thesis topics and book themes for centuries.

But I am not without hope. The future of the Church doesn’t actually depend on what its theorists and pastors and theologians think and do. The Church depends of the power of the risen, living Christ expressed through the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit. God will take care of the Church—even a quick glance at church history shows how the Church has defied every attempt to destroy it.

It is God’s church and he will care for it. We might have created the mess—but in the end, God is and will be working in, through and even around us to accomplish his goals for us, churches and the Church.

May the peace of God be with you.

FAITH, GENDER AND BEING ME

Issues surrounding gender have been making the news a lot these days. And, as is often the case, the church hasn’t been as helpful as it might be in helping people discover a way to deal with the issues being raised. I just finished reading a book promising to help me become a better Christian male. As a disclaimer, I will say I didn’t actually buy the book—it was offered free from a website that sends me frequent lists of offers.

To be fair, there was nothing in the book that upset or offended me. The book was calling for men who are believers to be more Christ-like: honest, moral, compassionate, committed and so on. All these are good qualities and many men of faith would benefit from using the power of the Holy Spirit to cultivate them. I don’t know but I would assume that any of the many books pitched towards Christian men would have similar themes. There is also a whole segment of the evangelical book market focused on helping Christian women become better Christian women—I confess to not having read any of them, partly because none of them have been offered to me free of cost.

My question and concern about the whole evangelical gendered spiritual growth industry deals with its validity and necessity. The one book I have read on developing good male Christianity seemed to me to be a good book for any Christian to read and follow. Good faith seems to me to be gender neutral. Our relationship with God through Christ doesn’t seem to have different categories for different genders.

Certainly, gender is a reality of life. I am male and that does make some real differences in my life. One basic difference, for example, is that I will never be a biological mother—my gender gives me the biological father part of the process. And there are probably some intrinsic gender differences that crop up along the way—but they may not be as rigid as people sometimes believe. I taught our sons and our daughter how to play ball, light a campfire and cook spaghetti. I also gave all of them a swiss army knife when they reached the age of mature knife ownership—and I didn’t get a pink one for our daughter.

Being a Christian is a process of moving from what we were in our pre-Christian state to what we will eventually be in our heavenly state. And since there is good evidence that gender will not be a significant factor in heaven, maybe the route that suggests there are different requirements for male and female Christians misses the point. Maybe we are actually looking to become the version of ourselves that God meant us to be.
That process of seeking to Holy Spirit’s guidance to discover, understand and deal with the rough edges caused by human sinfulness has a bigger focus than gender. Most of the teaching about growing in faith in the New Testament is gender neutral—and a lot of it is actually quite inclusive, or at least as inclusive as it can be coming from a culture that was very gender dominated. Galatians 3.28, for example, is pretty gender neutral: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” NIV

Gender does exist in our world and I am sure that there are some aspects of the Christian growth process that are affected by gender. But it just may be that we have actually gone too far with the gendering of the faith and allowed culture and bias and prejudice to become more important in our approach than the Holy Spirit or the Bible. According to the free book I read, being a Christian male means that I have to be honest, compassionate and caring—but those traits are basic requirements for all believers. Some of us male Christians may need to work a bit harder to develop them because of our cultural biases but they are definitely not just for male believers.

Mostly, we are called to grow in Christ-likeness. And while Christ identified as a male while on Earth, that doesn’t appear to be an endorsement of one gender over another. All of us are to move towards Christ-likeness, a process that probably doesn’t involve gender as much as some might think it does.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHOSE CHURCH IS IT, ANYWAY?

Because I am a pastor, I spend most of my people time with church people. I work for and with church people; I go to seminars with and about church people; I spend some of my free time teaching people from other churches; I read and study about church people. Some of the reason I spend so much time with church people is that I am an introvert and after spending so much time with church people, I really don’t look for opportunities to spend time with other people.

But mostly I spend my time with church people because that seems to be the nature of my calling. God has called and gifted me for the task of working with church people. And because I have been doing this for so long, I have a lot of ideas and comments and even a few complaints about the church. I am committed to the church, both the local churches I work with and the universal church that all believers are a part of. I have a great respect and appreciation and even love for the church.

But that doesn’t blind me to the difficulties and problems that are an intrinsic part of the church. Because the church, any church, is made up of imperfect people who are learning how to be followers, the church is never going to be perfect in reality, at least in this life. A major part of my calling is helping the church see, understand and change the things that are less than perfect.

And one of the major areas of imperfection that I have noted over the years concerns the ownership of the church. It has been my experience that most people who are a part of the church have the wrong idea of who the church belongs to. There isn’t any real agreement among those who have the wrong idea—the number of wrong answers to the question of who the church belongs to is staggering.

Just as an example, there are those who believe the church belongs to the pastor. Some would suggest that it belongs to those who pay the most. Another group suggests that the church belongs to the denominational structures. Another possibility is that the church belongs to whatever group within it that can come up with the most votes. The oldest members sometimes want to lay claim to the church, especially if some of the newest members want to dispute that claim with a claim of their own.

This debate over the ownership of the church is more than just an intellectual discussion. It affects the very nature and work of the church. If the church belongs to any individual or group or organization, the policy, direction and activity of the church is set by the ownership. The owners decide what the church does, when, how and where. If the owners decide that the mission of the church is comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable, that is what the church does.

But the debate misses the point. The church doesn’t belong to the pastor, the moneyed, the connected, the right age group, the organization. The church belongs to God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is his church. Christ is the head of the church and the owner of the church. Certainly, he works through his human agents—but it is his church. Forgetting that important reality opens the church to incredible pain and suffering.

Our task as the church is to discover and do what the owner wants—and if the Bible is any indicator, the owner generally wants us to act in ways that go against our generally self-centered desires. In other words, what I want for and from the church are likely not what Jesus wants for and from the church. The church doesn’t exist to make me feel good—it exists to serve Christ. And one thing that pleases Christ is seeing me challenge and change the selfish and sinful aspects of my being that get in the way of really knowing him.

And when I gather with other believers to form a church or the church, the purpose of the church isn’t to make us all feel good—it is to help us all become better at serving the owner personally and as a body. It is Christ’s church, not ours.

May the peace of God be with you.

FAITH AND CULTURE

Whether we realize it or not, much of Western culture is being affected by a non-western religion. While many people in Western countries aren’t aware of how deeply this non-western religion has affected us. Mind you, many participants in this faith aren’t aware of how much the western culture as affected this approach to religion either. Both have been modified and re-arranged by the other.

Unfortunately, the culture has tended to gain the upper hand in this modification process. Some of the ways this old, non-western religion has been changed have had beneficial effects on it. For many years, for example, some branches of this faith explicitly required that it be practised in a language that many followers didn’t really understand. Eventually, the cultural pressures allowed the religion to discover the value of using the language of the people. Another change in this ancient religion came about in the way the worship was conducted-over time, cultural pressure brought about more culturally appropriate styles and approaches to worship. Mind you, parts of this religion have successfully resisted all such changes.

But for all the good changes, the religion has tended to be on the losing side of the culture war. It’s essential teachings have been tampered with; it’s codes of conduct have been weakened or selectively ignored; it’s followers have been encouraged to follow cultural norms rather than original teachings; it’s greatest insights have been blunted or ignored. In many geographic areas of the west, the legacy of this ancient religion is all but forgotten while a culturally modified façade seeks to use bits and pieces of it to bolster cultural norm and patterns.

The irony is that this ancient religion has at it’s core a call to change culture. The basic teachings and tenants of this faith call for a different approach to life, an approach that stands in sharp contrast to the individualistic and self-centered western approach to life. This religion began claiming to be a divinely given alternate to the destructive and selfish realities of human life. And at times, it did a fantastic job of changing culture.

It was and is especially effective on the individual level. People discovered the core of this religion and made changes in their lives, changes that made them stand out. Sometimes, they were seen and noticed and gave others courage to follow the faith. Other times, they were seen and noticed and the difference was so dramatic and so counter-cultural that they were shunned, scorned, persecuted and even killed. But often, the religion reached enough people and for a time, the culture it found itself in changed for the better.

But human selfishness is a powerful force—and faced with a force that tries to set limits on selfishness, it reacts in self-defence. Culture comes roaring back and begins chipping away at the core of this religion. Eventually, this religion stopped being a cultural change agent and becomes an agent of the culture, one more way of channeling the essential human selfishness into self-serving ways.

Our western culture has been deeply affected by this ancient religion, Christianity. We see the continuing effects of this change in the continuing calls for equality and fairness in our culture. But at some point in the last century, it seems like a line was crossed and the changes western culture made in Christianity became more significant than the changes Christianity made on western culture. The faith no longer stands outside the culture, seeking to make the culture better—now, unfortunately, it has too often become the weaker partner in the relationship and has become nothing more than a tool to force people into being better players in the cultural games.

But culture rarely has the final answer because the Christian faith is a living and dynamic faith empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. No matter how strong the call and temptation of selfishness, the Spirit will eventually act, bringing about a reformation, a reformation that will break some of the tangled bonds it has with culture. Human culture is always based in our human selfishness—Christianity is based in and on God’s eternal love and grace and no matter what it looks like at any given point in time, God will always win.

May the peace of God be with you.