BACK TO BASICS?

It’s summer time. At worship, we have an ever shifting congregation because of summer travel. Some travel to our area and join us for worship while others travel away from our area and are therefore absent from our services. A few are involved in seasonal activities that involve commitments on Sunday and there are a few who simply decide to take the summer off. The end result is that most of the time, summer feels like a slower, less hectic and less stressed time in the church.

Summer provides time for a couple of things for me as a pastor. The first is that I get to slow down a bit myself and recover some of the overtime hours that I accumulate during more active times in the church cycle. I am actually getting pretty good at that—I rarely feel guilty enough to find work to do and can even relax a bit during these hours.

And the second thing I get to do is slow down and do some thinking and examining and planning. Some of it is very work focused—I have time to look at what I will be preaching on in the fall and do a bit of research on the coming Bible study topics. I can and do try to see the bigger picture of the church, where we are and where God is trying to lead us. It is much easier to do this sort of thing when there isn’t the pressure of the next meeting or sermon or study.

Some of the thinking and examining and planning focuses on my personal choices: when do we take vacation and what do we do? I might actually find the time to take that long delayed trip to the city to replace my ailing e-reader. And there just might be time to replace the rotten board on the deck.

And some of my thinking concerns personal directions: when do I retire? Do I continue working on this blog? If we do actually retire someday, where do we want to live? Can I actually live without having to do at least one sermon every week?

This last category of questions is the most difficult and probably most important in many ways. While I have already passed the socially accepted age for retirement, I am still working and not actively planning a retirement date. But the time is coming. I realize that I am tired—not physically tired and not emotionally tired so much as vocationally tired. Ministry, at least the way I have practised it, is demanding. It takes a lot of energy to do the work that I believe God has called me to do.

I work closely with people in lots of different life situations. I work hard at finding the messages from God for the people I have been called to serve. I take seriously my role as pastor and teacher. I spend a lot of time with a lot of people in contexts as diverse as potluck picnics and grief counselling. And I personally do all this as an introvert, which I am sure must add another layer of complexity to the equation.

As a result, some of my summer time thinking these days has focused on some important and basic “why” questions: Why keep working? Why keep writing a blog? Why mow the lawn? (Well, maybe not that one). The thinking and examining process has been interesting and valuable, although the only answer I have come up with so far is “because”, which is really a non-answer that suggests I don’t yet have any real reason for making big changes like retiring from work or blogging just yet.

And that is probably the best I am going to get during this spell of thinking and examining. I am vocationally tired but I don’t think I have finished the work I have been called to do where I am now. Some days, I am not overly interested in writing a blog but overall, I still like writing and eventually I discover something that interests me enough to write about. And the thought of lots and lots of free time is appealing but not quite appealing enough just yet to overcome the need to follow the calling that God has given me.

May the peace of God be with you.

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GROWING PAINS

One of our church fund raising activities is a yard sale. This provides a time for people to get rid of stuff too good to trash but not good enough to keep, as well as replace it with a lot of other stuff that they probably don’t need and will probably donate to next year’s sale. Anyway, one of the items at the sale was an 8-track player and some 8-track tapes. Most of us there remembered 8-tracks, which had an active and flourishing life of 2.5 weeks.

Well, they actually lasted a bit longer than that but not much. Because I am a techie, I got thinking about the changes I have experienced just in that area: I began buying vinyl LPs and 45s, moved on to cassettes (I skipped 8-tracks completely), then switched to CDs and now, I have downloaded music on my phone which I can play through Bluetooth in the car. I like technology and so I kind of like the changes and new inventions and like to keep up—but it means that I have spent a lot of money over the years just to have music to listen to. Mind you, most of the time, I am more interested in the technology than the music.

The last 100 years or so have involved almost incredible technological change. Before the beginning of the 20th century, technology was basically static, with few significant changes. Gunpowder did introduce some changes but essentially, people lived, worked, made war and died pretty much the same for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. But then, the 20th century changed everything. Life changed in dramatic and drastic ways because of the advances in technology. For me, the iconic picture of the change is an East African herder walking behind his sheep as has been done for hundreds of years but talking on his cell phone.

Not only are we inventing new technology but we are having to invent new rules of conduct to take technology into account. What is the polite thing to do when I am having coffee with a friend and my phone rings? Do I ignore it completely; check to see how important the incoming call is; apologize and answer at the table; apologize and leave the table to answer or simply answer and ignore my friend? Is it polite to carry on a private conversation on the phone while in a public place?

Can I take videos and pictures where ever and whenever I want and do whatever I want with them? When film camera technology was introduced, the general rule of thumb became that you could take pictures of people in public places and publish them because they were taken in a public setting. But the technology of film and publishing were relatively expensive and so most people never got their picture taken for generic publication. Today, however, technology assures us that we will all be able to get our 15 minutes of fame, whether we want it or not and whether we know it or now.

And while our culture is struggling with all this and more, I also struggle with technology and its implications from the perspective of my faith. Some questions are easy—I am not going to answer my phone during a worship service. In fact, I even try to remember to turn the sound off. I am not going to turn the phone off because the backup copy of my sermon is on it and my tablet has been showing signs of age lately.

But what happens when the person I am visiting gets upset with the fact that the Bible I am reading from happens to be on my phone? That has actually happened—not everyone shares my love of technology. Some find it scary and intimidating and reading the Bible from a phone is a bit much for them. Since I no longer carry a printed Bible, I generally ask if they have one I can read from, which seems to be an acceptable solution.

Technology is a real blessing—but the blessing hasn’t been totally integrated into either our culture or faith yet. It might seem like it has been completely integrated but the truth is that for all the technological advances and toys, we are still in the process of figuring out how everything fits together. I love the tech toys and what it allows me to do, but I think we need to spend some more time figuring out how it all fits into life.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO ARE YOU?

Every now and then, I get caught by my assumptions. I learn a thing or two about someone or something and on the basis of that, I assume a whole bunch of things. One of these situations involved someone who showed up as a worship service where I as preaching. I knew a bit about the person—he was a member of a fairly conservative church group that I knew something about. I didn’t agree with some of the group’s ideas and practises—I am somewhat less conservative than that group.

That particular Sunday, the sermon was on a topic that could have created some real issues between this person and me. I was in the middle of a sermon series and was dealing with a topic where that group he represented had some seriously different ideas from mine. I was pretty sure that my sermon would offend him. My assumption was that it he didn’t walk out during the sermon, I would either be ignored at the end or get told how wrong I was.

All through the sermon, I was conscious of that person and their response. I didn’t preach to him alone. I didn’t ignore him or spend all my time watching his reaction but I was aware of his presence and basically assumed that he was going to be upset by what I was saying. He didn’t give out much in the way of body language but I was pretty sure that he didn’t like it—my assumptions are based on lots of experience with his group.

He didn’t actually leave, nor did he go to sleep or stare out the window during the sermon. He didn’t get visibly agitated or angry—I assumed that he had been taught to control himself in preparation for setting me straight at the end of the worship. The sermon ended, we sang the hymn—I sort of hoped that he would sneak out during the singing but he didn’t. We finished the hymn, I pronounced the benediction and limped towards door to greet everyone as they left.

The rest of the church spent some time talking with this guy, welcoming him and all that and so it was a while before he got to the back. I stuck out my hand to shake his. He grabbed my hand, shook it firmly and told me that my sermon was the best and clearest treatment of the topic that he had ever heard. Over the noise of the rest of the members chatting and laughing, I heard the sound of my assumptions shattering.

I will confess right now that this is a preacher story—there is a core of truth in it but I have embellished it a bit and jammed several incidents together . We preachers simply have an inborn inability to release a story without some polishing and editing. But the story does capture a common reality for me. I tend to make judgments based on my assumptions that turn out to be seriously and completely wrong.

Fortunately, God has been at work through the Holy Spirit to help me grow through such incidents. It has happened enough that you would think I would have learned a long time ago not to make such assumptions but I am not all that bright, I guess, because I keep doing the same thing time after time.

This does help me understand the reality and power of God’s grace, though. God uses an incident to teach me something that I need to know. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I learn the lesson. And then, through the power of my humanness, I forget the lesson and make the same mistake based on the same assumptions. God, in his infinite grace, forgives me and uses another incident when I make the mistake to teach me again. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I learn the lesson, only to forget it again and need a refresher.

God reveals his infinite love and grace and patience because as many times as I need the same lesson, God will happily provide it. And if and when I finally learn the lesson, he will move on to something else that I need to learn. I am a slow learner but God is a loving and patient teacher, which is great for me and everyone else.

May the peace of God be with you.

ASSUMPTIONS

Our area has just come through an early and serious heat wave, which produced my normal reaction to extreme heat—I began to complain. I don’t do well in heat. I am very much a winter person and like things cool and even cold. Cold is much easier to deal with than heat—I can always put on more clothes when I am cold but there is a limit to how much I can take off when I am hot, especially when I am preaching.

My complaining produced expected results. The people I know who thrive on heat look at me like I am strange and tell me that they are enjoying it. Some suggest that I shouldn’t complain about the heat because in a few months, I will be complaining about the cold. I remind those people that I rarely if ever complain about the cold.

And then there are the ones who haven’t known me for a long time but who do know that I have spent a lot of time in East Africa. Their response to my complaints about the heat generally revolve around the irony of someone who has spent so much time in Africa complaining about the heat, because as we all know, all of Africa is hot. This is an assumption that everyone knows is true—to say that Africa is hot is like saying that the sun rises in the east.

But like many assumptions, this one isn’t exactly true. I kind of like pointing put to people that the part of East Africa where I have lived and worked so much might be pretty much on the equator but it is also at an elevation of over 5000 feet, which means that the temperature there isn’t that hot. While it gets warm, the highest temperatures experienced there are lower than the highest temperatures in the summer where I live right now. I am pretty sure that most people simply don’t believe me.

After all, everyone knows that Africa is hot and so I must be mistaken, joking or don’t know what I am talking about. My comments about African heat oppose the assumptions being made by the other person. And one of the realities of life is that most people prefer to have their assumptions unchallenged and pristine.

And actually some assumptions are safe to leave unchallenged. When I assume that other drivers on the road are going to do something stupid or dangerous, that assumption keeps me alert and safer. It probably isn’t a totally valid assumption but I and my passengers are safer because I make that assumption.

However, when I assume that someone who belongs to a certain church will have what I consider a distorted theology or someone who speaks a different language will be a danger to me or someone who doesn’t have much money will want to take my money or someone of a different colour isn’t as important as I am or someone whose sexual orientation is different than mine is somehow less human than I am, my assumptions are a serious problem and need to be challenged.

Unfortunately, it seems that we live in a world where instead of being encouraged to challenge our assumptions, we are encouraged to harden and tighten our assumptions. Politics has degenerated into a process of encouraging assumptions rather than enabling development. Religion seems to strive to baptise and sanctify assumptions rather than produce personal growth. Leadership seems to have become the process of harnessing as many assumptions as possible and using them to build a power base.

The end result is that our world is becoming more and more dysfunctional because more and more of us are treating our assumptions as truths that need to be defended with walls, legislation, guns and organizations. In the process, we are losing our ability to really relate to each other as real people. I see others through the lens of my assumptions and so miss the real person.

But all of Africa isn’t hot—and most of the rest of our assumptions are equally flawed. But we can only discover the flaws when we are willing to challenge even our most cherished assumptions so that we can discover the truth and reality that our assumptions hide and distort.

May the peace of God be with you.

AN INTERESTING MEETING

I was working on a sermon recently and remembered a meeting that I attended years ago that seemed to be a perfect illustration of a point I was trying to make. Since the story involved our time in Africa, I kept thinking about it after finishing the sermon—and even after preaching the sermon, the story of that meeting stayed with me. The more I think about the story, the more I discover exciting realities about God and the Christian faith and the difference it can make to individuals and the world.

The meeting happened in a classroom of a pastoral training school in Rwanda. The school was somewhat hard to get to—either a four hour drive over roads that included a rickety bridge that we walked over after the car successfully made it across or a 30-40 minute boat trip. We were meeting with the school faculty and officials of the denomination that ran the school.

The meeting included both Hutus and Tutsis—and although this was about 10 years after the genocide, the scars and trauma were still obvious and real. Several of those at the meeting has lost family members, others had suffered personally, all carried emotional issues relating to that time. There were some others there from the Congo, who were dealing with their own issues from the genocide and the civil war happening then in the Congo. There was one Kenyan, separated from his family and somewhat concerned about what was going on back home. And there was also two Canadians. While we didn’t carry the emotional load that some of the others did, we were part of the wider international community which had effectively ignored the genocide and was pretty much ignoring the civil war in the Congo.

The first order of business was language. With so many languages represented, we had to discover one that we could all work with. At the end of a brief discussion, we discovered that all of us at the meeting were fluent in Kiswahli, a language that none of us were born speaking. All of us had learned to speak it as at least our second language.

That to me provided an essential key to understanding the significance of this meeting. None of us felt the need to insist on our native or national language. It would have been possible for some group or another to insist that we meet in their language and rely on translators for those of us who couldn’t speak the chosen language. The Rwandans didn’t insist on Kinyarwanda. We Canadians didn’t insist on English. We happily went with a language that all of us spoke with some degree of fluency so that we could all be a direct part of the meeting.

For me, this has always been a Kingdom moment. We met there in that classroom as fellow believers. We were discussing ways that we could work together to carry out the work God was setting before us. And we were able to do that in spite of all the barriers that could have disrupted the meeting, things like ethnic tensions, national rivalries, language issues, cultural issues, national and international politics and on and on.

The Kingdom brings people together. Our shared faith bridges divisions. Our faith in God through Christ changes our perspective. We learn how to work together. We learn how to care for each other. We learn how to give up what some consider important for the sake of a bigger cause, the Kingdom of God.

We met together and the spirit and flavour of the meeting was set by our common willingness to give up our language for the sake of the others. We all gave up our fluency and familiarity with our birth language to work in a second or third language that none of us spoke well but which we all spoke well enough to understand each other. That is the Kingdom at work, one of the many manifestations of the Kingdom here and now that give us a glimpse of what the fullness of the Kingdom will be like.

The Kingdom call us out of our selfish and sinful ruts and allows us to open ourselves to the wonder of being united with the rest of God’s Kingdom people so that we can all reach well beyond our human limits.

May the peace of God be with you.

DON’T MESS WITH THE BIBLE

When I was about seven or eight, my mother began a short-lived practise of reading the Bible with all of us kids at bedtime. We would sit together and read the KJV—those of us who could read would get a turn and the rest would squirm and listen. The custom didn’t last long—there were too many of us kids and not enough time in the day and a million other things that got in the way. But I have actually been reading the Bible pretty much continually since that point. Sometimes, my reading has been hit or miss; sometimes it has been forced; occasionally, it has been in aid of learning a new language—but there have been very few stretches of my life when I haven’t been reading the Bible.

I also have a deep desire to understand what I am reading so I do a lot of study, discovering the meaning, contextualizing, looking at the original languages (sort of), reading commentaries. My appreciation for the Bible and its wisdom is an essential part of my spiritual development. I read it, I study it, I teach it and most of all, I try to understand and practise it.

And so I find myself getting angry and upset with people who trivialize the Bible and its value. I don’t get really upset with people who want to deny the Bible or turn it into a collection of fairy tales—I tend to be more concerned with the underlying reasons for their ideas, the emotional, cultural and experiential things that lead them to deny the truth and value of the Bible.

No, what really ticks me off are the people who claim faith and who seek to use the Bible as a club or weapon to defend their particular view points. My latest frustration was a politician who attempted to use an out of context Bible verse to defend his very controversial political stand. The fact that I think his stand is wrong and unbiblical itself doesn’t bother me as much as his casual and opportunistic treatment of the Bible.

We who are part of the Christian faith have a tendency to approach the Bible from a very wrong perspective. We are often guilty of looking to the Bible for some sort of divine backing and support for what we want to do or believe or advocate. We begin with who and what we are and want and then comb the pages of the Bible to find God’s words of support for our position. Armed with this divine backing, we can club our opponents into submission because God is one our side. Unfortunately, the other side probably had another verse that they have discovered that they use as a shield against our club.

Along the way, we seriously mistreat and disrespect the Bible. We take passages out of context; we interpret the truth out of them; we bend and break applications; we massage and tweak words; we ignore the inconvenient places that disagree with us; we even lie about what it says. It seems that as long as we can find some words somewhere that can somehow be forced to say what we want it to say to support what we want, we are fine.

I am pretty sure that isn’t what God had in mind when he gave us the Bible. The Bible’s beginning position is that we are separated from God because we are imperfect and sinful. The words and ideas and themes and teachings of the Bible are there to help us overcome this sinfulness and its consequent separation from God. The Bible exists as a mirror to show us our failure to be what God planned us to be and at the same time, to provide us with a way to get to where we are what God planned is to be. (Hint—we get there by trusting God, not ourselves).

Reading the Bible as anything but God’s revelation to us to help us become what God knows we can be and actually wants us to be is to risk distorting and even destroying the value and purpose of the Bible. God didn’t give us the Bible to defend our narrow, bigoted, partisan, selfish and sinful ideas—he gave it to get us out of that rut and into his love and grace.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO CARES?

When I started this blog back in 2015, I had a sort of a vague goal—or maybe a couple of them. I was unemployed at the time and needed something to do that would relieve the boredom and depression of unemployment. And I wanted to be able to think and organize and share some of my thoughts and ideas relating to faith, the church and spiritual growth. Very early in the process, I decided that I wasn’t comfortable dealing with some topics and since it is my blog, I can and do pretty much ignore anything I don’t want to write about.

One area I have avoided is commenting on current political and cultural events. I am a news junkie and so I am aware of what is going on but have never really wanted to wade into the cultural and political debates that are so prevalent and so divisive in our culture and churches these days. I have been troubled by a lot of what I see; I have been enraged by some of what I see; I have been saddened and depressed by what I see—but up until today, I haven’t been inspired by what I see.

And even today isn’t going to be a rant for or against some particular political move or figure—there are enough comedians and bloggers who make a living doing that way. We really don’t need another.

But maybe what we do need is someone who is willing to step back, forget the partisan politics and ask some difficult questions that come from the heart of our faith. Given that most major questions these days get addressed from the perspective of nationalism or partisan political stances or narrow perspectives, maybe we need someone to open the questions up and give them a bigger, divine context.

For example, some statistics suggest that over 65 million people are classed as refugees or internally displaced people—that is a good sized nation. Mostly the response to this crisis is that someone should do something, preferably far away from us and at no cost to us. Politicians debate and people are dying where they try to live and dying trying to get to safety. And while that might be a popular political response, what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Recent statistics in Canada suggest that around 20% of Canadian children live in poverty. There are all kinds of political suggestions about how to deal with the problem but since most of them require people who have helping people who don’t have, there tends to be a lot of talk but little action beyond band aids like food banks. So politicians debate and plans get drafted but since little money gets spent, the poor remain poor, get poorer and go to school and bed hungry and cold. But what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Our political and cultural responses tend to be narrow, self-serving, protectionist, biased and prejudicial—we like ourselves and ours. Being different is grounds for exclusion, mistreatment, name-calling and persecution. Unfortunately, politicians of all types love to build a base on these self-centered realities. We are all afraid of the other—and politicians know how to work that fear. But what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Too often, we have tried to fit God and the Christian faith into the cultural and political armour that we wear ourselves. But even a quick reading of the message that God has given us shows something far different. God has a deep and powerful concern for the alien, the poor, the different. God cares—and even more, he requires that his people care. He wants us to step out of the narrow and constrained ruts we dig for ourselves and begin to really care. He calls us to follow his example—he cared enough for selfish and self-centered people that he went to the cross for us. God cares. He made his care real, at great personal cost.

And us—well, we are called to care as well. And maybe that care demands that we step outside the cultural and political and show some real care, care based not in cultural and political fears and prejudices but in the love and grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?

I am not the leader in the churches I serve, no matter what some of the people who make up the churches think. I don’t want to be the leader and actively resist pressures and temptations to become the leader. And even more, I actively encourage, seek out and develop leaders within the congregation. I am aware that this means I am seriously out of step with a lot of the books and theories of ministry these days, which tend to emphasize that as pastor, I should be and even need to be the pastor.

I have taught and written and mentored theology students over the years of my ministry and have always worked in that context from my bias—they don’t have to be the leader. It feels a bit like trying to hold back the tide at times—being on the wrong side of a cultural trend is exhausting and somewhat isolating. As I approach the end of my time of active pastoral ministry (no date set but it is coming), I have been doing some introspection and asking myself a lot of questions as I think over the various things I have done in ministry.

And one question I keep looking at is the one that provides the title for this post: What difference does it make? So, what difference does it make that I am not the leader? Is this important enough to justify the energy and time I spend over the years practising it, teaching it and resisting the other views? Or was this just some distraction that I could have and should have ignored so that I would have time and energy for other things?

So far, my thinking is that the issue does make a difference, in my context. I work in small churches—that has been where God has called me and what he has gifted me for. And in this context, how the pastor approaches the issue of leadership does make a real difference. Many of the current ideas about ministry come from big churches and, from what I can see and understand from my study, are based on good theory and practise.

But small churches such as I and at least 80% of the rest of North American pastors work with are not big churches. Most of them are not even potential big churches. And most pastors will never pastor a big church—we will spend our ministry doing God’s leading in small and occasionally medium sized churches. And if we try to use the theory and practise necessary for a big church in a small church, both we and the church are in for a rough, painful but relatively short ride.

Small churches generally already have leaders. They generally aren’t trained, qualified, ordained leaders. While many are recognized with official church titles (deacon, elder, trustee, treasures, moderator), more than a few have no official office or title but are nonetheless the leader of the congregation. Often, even a small congregation has more than one of these leaders who generally develop working relationships that range from seriously dysfunctional to seriously functional.

The small church likely doesn’t need another leader. It likely needs a pastor to care for the hurting. It probably needs a teacher to help it grow in its understanding of and practise the faith. It may occasionally need a loving prophet to help it find its ways. It most certainly will need a shepherd to show it the way to the pastures and waters that will nurture it. But another leader—well, to be honest most small congregations need another leader about as much as they need another bill.

The pastor and the leadership in the small church have complimentary and important roles in the church, roles that God can and will use to enable the congregation to become what he knows it can become. But the moment I as the pastor in a small church begin to feel I need to be the leader, I am probably starting down a road that can only lead to problems. The problems come because not only am I not doing my God given job in the congregation but I am then also interfering with others trying to carry out their God given jobs.

It works much better when we all know and seek to fulfill our particular calling, so in the end it does make a difference whether I am the pastor or the leader.

May the peace of God be with you.

I AM NOT THE LEADER

One of the pastorates I serve finally got around to holding our annual meeting. We tend to have that meeting fairly late in the year because of things like the possibility of bad weather in the early part of the year (snow in Nova Scotia in January?), the need to hold several other meetings before that meeting (who can meet with who when?) and mostly because most of us really don’t much like meetings.

So, we gathered for the meeting and amid the chatter and discussion and all the rest that goes with a meeting of people who like each other and don’t like meetings, someone made a comment that bothered me. In the course of a discussion about something that we were doing or going to do, one of the people looked at me and said something like, “You are our leader”.

The comment bothered me because I don’t want to be a leader. I am not interested in being a leader. I am, I realize, a leader in some areas of our church life and even at times in our denominational life but in general, leader is not a title I use about myself nor one that I seek. If I need to describe my role, I prefer pastor or teacher.

I realize that this puts me at odds with the majority of ministry practitioners these days, as well as with the majority of those who teach and write about ministry. Some of that may be my age, although many of those espousing the leadership mantle are close in age to me. Some of it may be my basic personality—I am a somewhat introverted individual who basically likes to do my own thing. I like neither being a leader nor being led. I can do both when I need to be prefer to work in situations where there is a more free-flowing, less formal structure that allows me and others to work out our gifts and roles together.

For me, that means that my ministry doesn’t focus on my leadership. In the church meeting that sparked this post, we have several leaders. One leads well when we deal with organizational needs. Another leads well when it comes to our financial needs. Another always has a handle on our music needs. One of the people there doesn’t generally say a lot but when he does, we tend to accept his leadership. We have a variety of leaders in our group and we have learned that when we let each one express their leadership abilities and gifts, we are stronger.

There is even a leadership role for me in that mix. I tend to provide leadership is our Bible Study and our ministry focus—but since we have some others who have insights and ideas and proven abilities is those areas, I am not the sole leader even there. I can and do step up to the leadership plate when necessary but in truth, I much prefer it when someone else provides the necessary leadership.

That is not to say that I am passive and laisse-faire in my ministry. I work hard at developing and presenting the teaching I believe God is calling our church to look at. I seek to identify and develop the gifts among our people. I am not afraid to speak clearly and directly to issues and concerns that will affect our overall church health. I take an active part in determining the direction of our ministry and regularly present ideas and proposals and plans to the church for discussion and implementation—but I do all this in the context of not seeing myself as the leader of the church. I am one of many, seeking to use my gifts and abilities to the best of my ability for the sake of the whole church.

I will gladly accept the role of teacher in our church. I am comfortable with the role of pastor for our church. I am able to function as a counsellor or therapist when necessary and as time allows for our church. But leader—well, I can handle that as long as we all understand that I am not the leader, but only one among many leaders, all of us pooling our leadership to enable God’s will to be done in and through our church.

May the peace of God be with you.

FOLLOW THE LEADER

I grew up in a town church that had an average sized congregation for that day—in the 60s, rural Atlantic Canadian churches had not yet begun to feel the downturn in church attendance and membership that began in that decade. So, our congregation of 200 or so carried out church in a variety of ways. We had lots of worship services—two every Sunday.

The morning worship was a formal, structured worship event while the evening was a more relaxed worship—we would often begin with a hymn sing where members of the congregation would pick their favourite hymn. That wasn’t as daunting a task for the organist as it might sound—most of the hymns were predictable, picked by the same people week after week. There were always a few surprises, like when someone was visiting and picked an unfamiliar hymn or especially when we members of the younger attendees tried to mess things up by suggesting random numbers.

After I finished struggling with God’s call to ministry, I discovered a hymn that I could regularly call out at those hymn sings and at others wherever I was. I love the hymn, “Anywhere With Jesus”. I do need to explain the attraction of the hymn though. The chorus of the hymn proclaims that because of our faith, we can go anywhere without fear because we know that Jesus is with us. It is a powerful, inspiring hymn but I don’t think I like it because of my total agreement with its message.

Theologically, I agree with the hymn—God is with us and we never go anywhere without the presence of God. In fact, God is where we leave from, he goes with us and he is waiting for us when we arrive. The presence of God is one of the foundational beliefs of my faith, something that has been a part of my Christian thinking, preaching and teaching from the beginning.

But I have to confess that I struggle with following God. I am not always ready and willing to go where God wants me and do what God wants me to do. I don’t know if you have noticed but God has this well established practise of calling us to places and things that we would rather not be involved in. I didn’t struggle with God calling me to serve as a missionary but I have always struggled with a calling to be a pastor. I didn’t much struggle with a calling to study and learn—that really appealed and appeals to my introversion—but I really struggle with a calling to engage in helping real people with real problems—that tends to conflict with my introversion.

And so I pick the hymn “Anywhere with Jesus” not as an affirmation of my deep, powerful faith that propels me onward and upward in ever more heroic service of God in places where people of lesser faith fear to tread. No, I pick the hymn as a heartfelt prayer of what I would like to be true. I would like to claim that I can go anywhere with Jesus. I actually believe that I can go anywhere with Jesus—but in practise, I am hesitant, afraid and hoping that God has got his assignment papers mixed up. I know that he hasn’t and I know that he will go with me and I know that if I follow, he will be there and that therefore things will work out—but I still struggle.

And so I pick and sing the hymn, hoping that it, along with all my other spiritual practises will help me surrender to the calling that God has set before me. Mostly, I do go anywhere that God calls—although the process of getting there isn’t always easy or peaceful or painless. Mostly, following and going anywhere works out, although there are occasionally glitches and problems. Mostly, I am faithful and the words of the hymn become a reality.

I try to follow the leader but I know the difficulty, the fear, the apprehension that comes from following God into whatever he has called me to. I also know that he is with me and will be with me—and so I sing the hymn, using it as a sign of my desire to actually be able to follow God anywhere.

May the peace of God be with you.