PICKING MY BATTLES

Meetings are an occupational hazard for people in ministry. Sometimes it seems to me that no ministry can actually happen unless there is a meeting involved—and the more meetings, the more important the ministry. The problem with meetings though, is that they involve people and even more, they involve people who don’t necessarily agree with everything that I think.

At times in the past, that reality has resulted in my becoming involved in long, complicated and occasionally less than pleasant debates and even arguments. Disagreement needed to be dealt with. Everyone needed to have the benefit of my wisdom and understanding so that they could see the light and truth of the position I was holding and they were missing. Meetings took a lot of energy as I and the other participants worked hard to make sure that everyone came around to our personal view.

But I noticed something while at a meeting a little while ago. Someone said something I disagreed with. It wasn’t a small issue either—it was something fairly significant, something that affected some essential realities of the faith. But I noticed that I didn’t immediately jump into a defence of the faith. I didn’t actually say much. I think I may have said something that indicated I disagreed with what was said and let it go at that.

What kept me from springing into action, something that has been a characteristic of my ministry, at least as far as meetings go? Well, I wasn’t intimidated by the others at the meeting—I knew and was comfortable with everyone there. It wasn’t that I was unsure of my stance—the issue was somewhat foundational for me. It wasn’t even that I was too tired to argue.

No, the reality was that although the issue was a problem for me, raising it and really going after it in that particular setting would have done more harm than good. The person making the comment was deeply committed to what they said. A lot of people at the meeting were not overly interested in the issue. And even more, the meeting was supposed to be focusing on something else entirely.

To open a debate on the issue at the meeting would have derailed the meeting. It would also have created a potentially adversarial setting where two people argued back and forth about a topic both were seriously concerned about but which most people weren’t interested in. Since this was a meeting of Christians involved in a specifically Christian process, the escalation of the disagreement could do some serious damage to our fellowship.

I decided that the damage to the Christian fellowship from getting into a heated debate was potentially worse than the possible damage from the comment itself. I have discovered myself doing that more and more these days. I think I am discovering that as believers, the way we do things is at least as important as what we do. If I engage in an debate that degenerates into a non-Christlike process, I have harmed the faith.

Jesus tells us that a major part of our responsibility it to love each other as he loved us (John 13.34-35)—and doesn’t say anything about having to win every debate over the truth of every issue. I think I am making some wise choices when I choose not to engage in what may become a less than loving debate. Even when I know that I am right, I need to deal with the issue in a way that shows Christlike love for everyone involved. The win doesn’t come from scoring debating points—the win comes from responding like Christ would respond.

There is a time and a place for theological debate. There is a need to have a good discussion on points of contention. There are some things that are wrong and need to be dealt with. But in every case, how we do this is at least as important as the debate and its results. Unless we can do what we do in a way that shows Christian love and respect, we are going to lose—and even worse, the faith itself will lose because we will show something other than the love of Christ.

May the peace of God be with you.

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DURING THE HYMN

A couple of Sundays ago, I was standing behind the pulpit conducting my second worship service for the day. The first service had gone well with a larger than expected attendance. This service was also better attended than I expected. I might be the pastor of small churches and thus used to low numbers but it is still nice when there are more people than expected present.

Anyway, the congregation was singing one of the hymns, I was thinking—I have to confess that music isn’t a huge part of my life and doesn’t have the same effect on me that it has for some people. I like music but since I don’t sing well and am not really into music, my mind wanders during the singing. Sometimes, the wandering thoughts are about what comes next in the service or why so and so isn’t present or something equally pastoral.

But at that service, I found myself thinking about my ministry in general. I realized that I was leading that worship service and the dominant feeling I had was fatigue. I wasn’t excited about the higher attendance; I wasn’t caught up in the worship; I wasn’t enthused about the chance to minister to God’s people. I was just tired and my knees were hurting.

By the time we got to the second verse, I was wondering what was wrong with me—was I slipping into depression? Or was I bordering on burnout? No—a quick self-examination revealed that I was just tired—but not sleepy tired and not didn’t sleep well tired. It was not even the results of a too busy week tired. It was a fatigue that comes from being involved in some form of ministry for around 40 years. It is the tired that comes from doing something that requires me to give a lot of myself to a lot of people for a lot of years.

I don’t have the emotional energy that I had 20 or thirty or forty years ago. Early in ministry, everything was new and exciting and I could and did experiment and play and have fun. I didn’t know a whole lot about what I was doing but what I lacked in knowledge, I tried to make up for with enthusiasm and commitment.

By about the third verse, I was doing some deeper reflection. Was I cheating the church or maybe even slipping in my commitment to God? Before the guilt kicked in, I realized that wasn’t the case. I was and am working hard for both pastorates. We are involved in self-examination; we are trying new ideas; we are enabling each other to grow in faith; we are discovering and developing new ministries to ourselves and our communities. As pastor, I am involved and engaged and working hard to help us as churches discover and carry out God’s will for us.

I realized that these days, I minister much more from knowledge and wisdom that from emotion. I still experiment and play with things. I still examine, research, hypothesize and work to help implement new ideas and ministries. I may not get overly excited but I am still completely committed to what I am doing. I am still giving the best that I am capable of giving.

Early in my ministry, the best I could give was a little knowledge and lots of energy and enthusiasm. These days, I have much more knowledge and wisdom (maybe) but less energy and enthusiasm. I am pretty sure the ultimate sum is the same: lots of energy and enthusiasm plus little knowledge probably produces the same results as flagging energy combined with significant knowledge and wisdom. I may be more tired these days, but I still know what I am doing and am still committed to doing it as well as I am able. I might need more naps and breaks in the process but I am aware enough to know when and how to take the nap and the break without harming the overall ministry.

Finally, we arrive at the last verse of the hymn and I move on to the next part of the worship service, feeling better about myself and my ministry. I am tired and it is a fatigue that probably won’t go away after a nap or a vacation. But it is also a fatigue that isn’t taking away from my ability to do what I have been called to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

GIVE ME A GOOD BOOK

I have always been a reader. I discovered books early on life and began reading them as early as possible. There were some rough early years when books were hard to come by—we didn’t have much money and the town we lived in didn’t have a library. Books came to us through the same route as clothes and most other things: a few gifts, a lot of hand-me-downs and the occasionally purchase. I remember that a lot of the money I earned splitting and piling wood for neighbours or picking and selling blueberries ended up being spent of books. A significant part of my first steady income ( a newspaper route) also went towards books.

At one point, I was suffering from frequent headaches, which was automatically attributed to my reading too much. That, and the fact that I preferred reading to actually doing chores meant that there were times when my reading was on a timer—I could only read a certain amount a day. That was a powerful stimulus to change the behaviour that lead to the restriction.

I have enough understanding of people to know that not everyone shares my love of reading. Very early in my life, I realized that for some people, reading was a chore, something they did only when they had to and then only if someone was actually watching them. I discovered that many people would rather read a commercially available summary of books we had to read for school—the summaries were shorter and pre-digested. Given my love of reading, I probably read the assigned book and then read the summary also—reading is reading, right?

These days, I do most of my reading via an electronic platform. If there is a debate over the merits of paper versus electronic books, I am firmly and completely on the electronic side. When I have to sit at the car dealer for a couple of hours while my car is serviced, my ereader is a vital necessity. The hundreds of books I can carry that way mean that I will never run out of reading. And if the battery runs down, well, I still have access to the books through my phone, tablet and computer. As an added benefit, moving electronic books involves far fewer boxes and much less muscle power than print books.

There is something about a well written book that goes well beyond the actual words. Reading at its best involves my whole being and even all my senses. I read and the reading draws me into the material. Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, I can enter the world of the writer and live in the material. I can get to know not just the topic but also the author. I become a part of their world and they become a part of mine. I read—but at the same time, I see, I feel, I understand, I grow—I become different because of having spent time with Stephen Hawking, Tom Clancy, Martin Noth, Isaac Asimov, Jurgen Moltmann—the list goes on and on and will continue to go on and on. I fully expect that on my deathbed, the doctor will have to move a book of some sort to listen to my fading heartbeat—and me being me, the book will probably be describing the process I am going through or be something totally and completely unconnected to anything.

Because I am a Christian and a pastor, a good part of my reading involves books about faith and ministry. And no matter what else I am reading, I am reading the Bible. I have read through the Bible more times than I can count in more translations and versions than I can count. And that isn’t an exaggeration or literary conceit. A few years ago, in an effort to make life simpler before moving to Kenya for work, I got rid of most of my print library, including most of my collection of print Bibles. I literally can’t count them because I don’t have them. That, by the way, is another reason why I love ebooks—I never have to lose my books that way again.

By the way, there is no moral, no hidden purpose, no hidden meaning in this post. I may be a preacher but this isn’t a preacherly attempt to hide the meaning in an extended story. I just love reading and wanted to write about that today.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE BRANCH

For the past few weeks, I have been watching a particular branch on one of our neighbour’s oak trees. When I am sitting in the living room (which is my office these days), I can look out the window and see the tree and branch—and since my creative process tends to involve a lot of staring out the window searching for inspiration, I see the branch a lot.

This particular branch broke sometime this winter, maybe because of the snow load or the wind or whatever—oak branches don’t always seem to need a clear and visible reason for breaking. The break wasn’t complete and the branch has been hanging pretty much straight down for weeks. Initially, it was attached by a fair amount of wood but that has been getting less and less which each windy day we have. Since we live in south-western Nova Scotia, we get a lot of windy days.

I am not sure exactly what is holding the branch these days. It swings freely in any breeze and looks like it should have come down days ago. But it hands on, swinging and twisting slightly all day and providing a something for me to look at when the sermon or Bible study or blog post isn’t coming together like it should. I am pretty sure it is going to fall one of these days—I am hoping that I will actually be watching when it falls.

Now, I am going to resist the temptation that all preachers face, the temptation to turn that hanging branch onto a sermon illustration. Sure, it can be a great story about persistence or doing your best no matter what or—well, you have probably heard enough sermons to know what we preachers can do with a branch hanging from a tree.

Mostly, I like watching the branch because it is something to focus on when I need a short break from the keyboard. If the deer and squirrels aren’t playing around and my neighbours aren’t doing anything much, the branch provides something to focus on that occupies my conscious mind so that the deeper layers of my thought process can shove the needed idea up to the surface. When the branch falls, I will find something else to look at. The added benefit is that since it is on my neighbour’s lawn, I won’t have to pick it up.

The branch is important right now and as long as it hangs there, I will watch it. It isn’t particularly important—it’s not big enough to do any damage when it falls; it isn’t going to fall on anything; it’s loss isn’t going to affect the tree. I personally have nothing invested in the branch aside from its temporary value as a distraction. That distraction value will be easily replaced when it actually falls.

I think the branch is important because it isn’t important. Most of my work involves me in significant and important stuff. I am a pastor, called by God to help people grow in their relationship with themselves, with each other and with God. I am called to help the churches I serve become healthier and be better witnesses to the wonder of God. I work with people on an individual and couple basis as they try to work through various crises and issues and problems. I have my own issues to deal with: the effects of aging, decisions about my future after retiring someday, figuring out when to schedule surgery for my bad knees.

In short, like most people, I deal with a lot of stress, both my own and others. And while I think I deal with that stress fairly well most of the time, it is stress and it does have an effect. The tree branch, well, it has absolutely no effect on my life, I have absolutely no responsibility towards it. It is just there, hanging and swinging where I can see it. It provides a distraction, a brief interlude where I can ignore the pressure of the sermon, the stress of the upcoming counselling session, the concern for the future of the church. I can look out the window, look at the branch and let everything else go on hold for a few seconds. And even better, when it finally falls, there will be something else equally unimportant to provide the necessary distraction.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING SALT AND LIGHT

I knew a guy one time who was looking for the perfect church, one where he would be free to develop his understanding of God and the Kingdom. He was convinced that when he found that perfect church, everything would be great. He was a pastor and had some connections with the people who helped churches find pastors so he used the connections and discovered a church that looked good. Unfortunately, after he had been there a short time, he began to see some problems—and if the truth be told, he himself began to create some problems. Eventually, the imperfection in the church became so serious that he resigned to go to another church that looked perfect.

I am pretty sure that he is still looking for that perfect church. Personally, I entered ministry with the understanding that neither churches nor pastors are perfect and that we both need to try and help each other become a bit better at following the faith that we claim. So, whenever I am called to a church as their pastor, I know without question that I am not going to a perfect church. That is alright, though, because I also know without question that when they call me, they are not getting a perfect pastor.

Neither the church nor the pastor is perfect—and given the theological realities of sin and its persistence even after we become believers, there is no chance of a perfect church or perfect pastor this side of eternity. For me, that raised all sorts of questions, issues and concerns. One of those many questions, issues and concerns grows out of the fact that we are supposed to be sale and light in the world, a visible and concrete reminder to the community of the love and grace of God.

When we show our imperfection to the community, which we do with depressing regularity, what does that do to our saltiness and lightness? It can and all too often does turn into anti-salt and anti-light, discouraging people outside the faith from seeing our faith as a viable option for their lives. Mind you, if we try to cover up our imperfections, the community is also very aware that we are not perfect and our cover up attempts also discourage people when it comes to the faith.

We are called to be salt and light—and we are imperfect. And any approach to being the church or an individual believer that doesn’t keep those two basic truths in mind is doomed to failure. We can’t be perfect—and we can’t help but give witness to our faith. And so it seems to me that the only real choice we have is to be upfront about who and what we really are.

We need to be willing to admit to any and all that we are imperfect. What makes us people of faith and churches is not our perfection but rather the fact that we have admitted to God that we can’t deal with our imperfection by ourselves. We surrender ourselves to God who then has our permission to work in our lives: smoothing the rough spots; teaching our ignorance; forgiving the sins; guiding our footsteps and all the rest. God knows we are not perfect—but he loves and graces us anyway.

We are salt and light when we freely admit our sins and imperfections not just to God, each other and the church but also to the community and the rest of the world. We don’t always get it right—in fact, we get it wrong as much as anyone else and maybe even more than some people. What sets us apart is that we have discovered that God can deal with us in our imperfect state and wants us to be in a deep relationship with him even in our imperfect state. When we live our faith and run our churches conscious of our imperfection and our dependence of the love and grace of God, then our sin and imperfection become part of our divine saltiness and lightness because our confession and forgiveness and trying again point beyond our imperfection to the perfect God who can and does provide a way for us even in our imperfection.

We show salt and light when we remember and then let the community know that we are not perfect—but we believe in a God who is and whose love and grace can deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

Both the part-time pastoral positions I hold consist of small congregations meeting in old buildings that have been a part of their communities for well over 100 years in the case of newest of the congregations and well over 200 years in the case of the oldest congregation. All of them are currently struggling. We deal with a variety of issues—aging membership, declining abilities, financial shortfalls and so on.

We sometimes feel that we are pretty much alone in whatever we are doing. But the truth is that we have a wider support base than we realize. That wider support base may not consist of people who attend our worship or support us financially but that base it present. The communities around us pay attention to us and tend to know what is going on within our fellowship.

When we are being faithful and doing what we are called to do, the community knows—and whether we know it or not, they appreciate us. We are salt and light and in a variety of ways, the wider community appreciates our salt and light.

But when we are not being faithful and not doing what we are called to do, the wider community also sees that—and they don’t appreciate that at all. Instead of being salt and light in our community, enabling people to discover something about the love and grace of God, we become anti-salt and anti-light, giving the community a message about faith that upsets and antagonizes them.

They see what we are doing, they talk about what we are doing—and they are offended that we would act in such a non-faithful way. This is a reality that we in the church often forget, especially, it seems to me, when our church is small and struggling. We become so wrapped up in our perpetual and demanding attempt to keep the doors open that we forget we are being watched by a great many people whose understanding of God’s love and grace come from what they see and hear concerning our congregation.

But the wider community sees and talks and makes decisions based on what they see. When we get ourselves into a mess and end up fighting and not talking to each as we try to ensure our side wins the war over what colour hymn books to buy, the wider community sees us as flawed salt and light. We bring harm to the wider community, not just our community. Our internal mess creates a crisis in the wider community. We disappoint and hurt them. They want us to be a positive example of what faith can do and when we fail to do that, both we and the wider community hurt.

Our church hurts because we are failing to follow the path we have committed ourselves to. And the wider community hurts because the salt and light they want and need has been taken from them. They don’t have a clear connection with God, a connection that they want to have in place even if they don’t seem to pay much attention to us and what we do. The anger and disillusionment and frustration we see in the wider community when the church messes up is a sign of several things. It shows that the community is watching us. It says that the community wants us to be what we claim to be. It proclaims that we hurt them when we aren’t being adequate salt and light. We have failed our community as well as ourselves and God when we aren’t the gathered community that we have committed ourselves to being.

I am not sure that we in the church pay enough attention to this reality—and I am equally sure that a lot of what we see as resistance to the faith in local communities is a result of the fact that we have not been the salt and light we could or should be in our community. Our failure to love each other as Jesus loves us becomes a failure to our community, a failure that they feel more deeply than we or they can fully understand.

We exist in a wider community—and that community sees us and wants us to be salt and light. When we are anti-salt and anti-light, the wider community sees and reacts strongly. We have failed ourselves, we have failed God and we have failed the community.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SNOWSTORM

As I mentioned in the last post, I had a crazy, overly full week that required me to work more than I wanted to, including on my day off. But there was more to that week than that. The week began not only with my awareness that I would be too busy but also with the awareness that there was a snowstorm in the wings that just might develop into something major. It is late in the year for major storms but they are not unheard of and can sometimes be worse than a storm at the appropriate time.

My first worry was that the storm would come before the predicted time—creating problems for the funeral that was coming. Funerals are difficult enough for families and to have to wonder about postponing it or attempting it during a storm would add another level of difficulty. Fortunately, the storm didn’t arrive early and we held the funeral.

But that put the storm on track to disrupt plans for the next day, when I have a class scheduled for some church people interested in seeing if they could preach. This was to be our second meeting but if the storm came on schedule, we would have to cancel and plan another time. I am Canadian and have spend most of my life dealing with Canadian winters and so I had a backup plan which I emailed to the class members. We would make our final decision an hour before the start time.

I have to confess that I was a bit conflicted. It was a crazy week and I had a lot to do—as well as the class preparation, there was the sermon and worship that needed to be done sometime. I was looking forward to getting together with the class members—we were having fun with the process. On the other hand, if we had to cancel the class, well, that would give me some time to work on the sermon.

Well, the predicted storm began. By the time we were to make our decision about the class, it was pretty clear we would be rescheduling. After a brief flurry of phone calls, the class was postponed and I suddenly had most of the morning free—or at least unscheduled. Suddenly, the day—and week—got less constricted. I switched gears and worked on the sermon and worship service. It was one of those sermons that pretty much flowed onto the screen. The worship planning was just as easy.

Suddenly, it was about 11:30 and I was done everything I needed to do for the day and everything I could do for work that week. There was more work that needed to be done but that was scheduled and involved other people and I had to wait until the next day. So, there I was—I was finished all that I could do and while there were tons of things that I could be working on, there was nothing critical or time sensitive. Thanks to the snow storm, I had some options, several of which didn’t involve work in any form.

And I opted to take the non-work options. There was a book I have been struggling to find time to read—I spend some time there. I spend some time idly doing unconstructive stuff that didn’t require thinking or creating or much of anything. I napped—a real nap, unconstrained with having to sandwich it in between things that needed to be done. I played a few games on the computer. I watched the storm grow and develop and pile up snow. Basically, I relaxed and took things easy.

Thanks to the snowstorm, I had some free time, which I put to good use by being non-productive. I gave myself a vacation—a short one, measured in hours, but a vacation nonetheless. I didn’t feel guilty about not working; I didn’t tell myself I should do something constructive; I didn’t fret over what the storm was causing me to not get done. I accepted the gift of time that the storm gave me and I enjoyed it.

I am pretty sure that God didn’t send a snowstorm just to allow me the opportunity to have some free time during a too busy week—but it did come and I can thank him, if for nothing else than the fact that he designed the world so as to produce snow storms that sometimes give me some free time.

May the peace of God be with you.

MY DAY OFF

One day recently, I was so tired at night that I barely made it through the 10:00 news—I think I was awake during most of it but I am also pretty sure that I didn’t focus fully on what was being said. My reading time before going to sleep was rather brief—the words on the ereader didn’t seem to make sense, either because of a software problem with the ereader or a different problem with the actual reader.

I know why I was tired. The day had been very full and part of a very full week. It began with study time. I had a worship service to prepare for the local nursing home. I got that done and then turned to the funeral service that I had prepared the day before. I read it over, tinkered a bit with it and transferred it to my tablet. By then, it was time to leave for the funeral service. I arrived early, spent some time talking with people and at the appropriate time, lead the funeral service.

When that was done, I went home for lunch ( and a brief nap), followed by some work on a session for the lay preaching class that would be happening the next day. I also gave some though to a sermon because Sundays inevitably show up each week and the congregation expects me to have something to say. And so until the lay preaching class members are ready, that means I need to have a sermon prepared. I didn’t write the sermon that afternoon—I reached a point where I couldn’t do any more creative stuff and so too a bit of time to do very little.

But the day wasn’t actually done. After supper, I had a counselling session with a couple I have been working with for a while. We had been doing well but there had been some external trauma that we needed to work through. But after that session, I was done for the day. At that point, I think I began counting the minutes until I could actually go to bed.

As you probably guessed from the title, this all happened on my day off. I was not supposed to be doing any work that day, let alone everything I did. And this is where I have something of a problem. I grew up in the era of ministry being a 24-7 occupation. Clergy worked all the time—it was part of their commitment to God. There was stuff to be done—important stuff and no one called by God could expect to slow down.

I never bought into that particular myth. I have always believed that even clergy need a healthy work/rest balance and I have worked hard over the years to have such a balance. As a teacher and mentor of clergy, I have encouraged ministry students to take care of themselves and even scolded a few for not working on a healthy balance in their lives. Over the course of my ministry, I have worked hard not to work too hard.

But that week on my day off, I spent most of the day working. And it isn’t like I will get that day back during the week—that week was just beyond belief and there was no time, except for the few hours freed up because of a cancellation because of a snowstorm. I broke all my own personal rules about work/life balance that week.

And while I know many clergy who like to brag about how much they work, I don’t feel proud about my week—I feel equal amounts of fatigue and guilt. Fatigue because I worked too much with too little rest and guilt because I didn’t get the balance right.

Fortunately, not every week is like this and most weeks, I do get my day off. Equally fortunately, I have learned how to forgive myself for breaking my rules of work/life balance. Some days and some weeks inevitably demand more that I am supposed to give. But as long as I can forgive myself and make sure that I eventually get the break and rest I need, things will be okay. I am doing what God has called me to do—and part of that calling involves self care, which means I might have worked one day off but I won’t work every day off.

May the peace of God be with you.

MUTUAL SUBMISSION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT ABOUT THE CHURCH?

I have been quoting an interesting statistic for several years ago, every since I discovered it in a book written by a friend. In discussing the state of the Christian faith in Canada, he mentioned that about 16% of Canadians attend Christian worship these days. I have seen other statistics that put the number slightly higher but none of the other statistical pictures of the church in Canada put attendance all that much higher.

A quick and very unscientific (on my part, anyway) web search reveals that a majority of Canadians still claim to be believers. The sites all make the usual disclaimers about statistical validity and so on and some lament that the numbers claiming faith have dropped over the years but the reality is that most people in Canada still claim to be followers of Christ.

For me, that raises a very important and troubling question. If people claim to be followers of Christ, why aren’t they in worship? You might suggest that that is a very biased and self-focused question, given that I am a pastor and have a vested interest in people attending worship. But I am choosing to overlook that part of the question for now—over the years, I have become comfortable with being the pastor of small congregations. I am excited when someone new discovers the church and/or the faith but I don’t define myself or my ministry by the numbers.

I approach the question as one who would like to know why the discrepancy exists. Surely, if we are part of something, we would be interested in being with people who are also part of that something. People seem to love to connect with those who share their thinking and interests. If I put out an invitation for left-handed, colour-blind people who like photography and cross country skiing but who are limited by seriously arthritic knees, I am pretty sure that before too long, I would have enough responses to form a club—by the way, I don’t want to be president, secretary or treasurer.

So why do such a significant number of people who claim to follow Christ not associate with other believers? Like any significant question, I am sure that there are many interlinked answers to that question, answers that I have been hearing and thinking about for many years. This isn’t an easy question nor it is one that can be answered with a simple or simplistic response.

One of the factors in the answer is certainly a lack of understanding of the nature of the church. Many people in Canada—well probably the whole Western world, but I am really only qualified to talk about Canada—many people here have either forgotten or never really understood the strong community base of the Christian faith. Christianity was conceived as a faith that brings about reconciliation. People are reconciled to God, to themselves and to others.

There is a lot of emphasis on the community in the Christian faith, including the very blunt and powerful message we find in I John 4.20-21: “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (NIV)

This was written to believers to help them understand one of the essentials of their faith—our love of God is shown for what it really is in our relationship with other people, especially other believers. If we can’t actually use our faith in God to enhance our relationships with people who share our faith, then our claimed faith isn’t as significant as we think or hope it is.

In the New Testament, to be a believer is to be a part of a group of believers because it is within and through that group that we have our best opportunity to grow in faith. As we interact with each other in the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled and enabling in the faith. That is the point of the church—it was planned as the safe place where faith can be cultivated and grown and expressed. But for a variety of reasons, believers have forgotten or ignored that important reality—to the detriment of both church and individual believers.

May the peace of God be with you.