PLAYING WITH FIRE

During the second Wednesday of the ecumenical Bible Study, I took a cup of de-caf coffee rather than water with me—the various churches supply muffins for the study and water really doesn’t seem to go well with chocolate chip/banana muffins. The next day, the church Bible study was meeting in a home since it is too cold for the community hall to be open. Since the host makes great shortbread cookies, I chose another cup of coffee ( caffeinated). The next Monday, I had coffee with a friend. The following Wednesday, more Ecumenical coffee and muffins. Finally, the Thursday study in another house, this host providing great ginger cookies, which obviously required another coffee.

That is actually more coffee than I normally drink in a month and even though most of it was de-caf, by the end of the second Thursday in the sequence, I was noticing the effects: upset stomach, heartburn, the coffee cough that has plagued me for years. None of this was a surprise to me. Although I love coffee, I have been suffering the effects of drinking it for years.

My coffee addiction goes way back. Although I grew up in a tea drinking house, my father drank coffee at breakfast and one of the perks of getting up first when he was working day shift was getting to eat the piece of bacon and quarter cup of sugary, milky coffee he left for which ever kid was up first. I moved on to develop my own coffee habit—black, no sugar and relatively strong. At times, I would be up to 4-5 cups a day. But I liked it, it kept me going and it wasn’t harming anyone.

Eventually, though, I began to suffer the effects of too much caffeine and in the mid 1990s, I decided to quit coffee and all forms of caffeine. For well over a year, I didn’t drink anything with caffeine and even avoided de-caf coffee. I knew that even drinking de-caf was going to be a problem, given that I really like coffee and was seriously missing it. But after I got over the withdrawal effects (headache, grouchiness, inability to get moving), I was able to avoid it.

After more than a year, I began allowing myself a cup of de-caf now and then. I could even treat myself to a cup of real coffee occasionally. Because it was an occasional treat, I made sure that it was really good coffee—no instant or bargain perk coffee for me. If I was going to have coffee, it would be good coffee—an African blend, strong, hot, black and no sugar, something to be savoured and enjoyed.

But with each cup of de-caf and each treat, I was reminded again just how much I liked coffee—and more seriously, how easily I can become re-addicted to caffeine. Mostly, I remember the problems and am pretty good about setting and keeping limits. Coffee was reserved for long drives and occasional breakfast treats. Unfortunately, my will power breaks down when I haven’t had any coffee for awhile and the presence of cinnamon buns, muffins, shortbread and ginger cookies make the temptation too much to resist. Then I begin to pay the price and swear off coffee, at least for awhile.

I am aware that my addiction and struggle with coffee isn’t a serious problem and really doesn’t compare to the struggles people have with other more dangerous and serious addictions. But it is a struggle and it is an addiction and I do have to deal with it. I think it helps me on a very practical level understand the reality of the human condition. We like the stuff that isn’t really good for us—and no matter what our level of will power and commitment, we can’t guarantee that we are free from the stuff that we shouldn’t have.

Whether it is me and my coffee; the workaholic and her dangerous work ethic; the alcoholic and his single-minded commitment to alcohol; the approval addict doing everything possible to be liked, we all struggle with something controlling our lives. And as a Christian, I think that allowing anything to control my life is a problem. My need to be in control of caffeine in my life grows out of my understanding that I was made to be free to become what God wants to help me become—and anything that gets in the way of that is a problem.

So, I am off coffee again, at least until the next Bible study, when there will again be those great shortbread cookies.

May the peace of God be with you.

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LIFE IS GREAT!

I ran into a friend recently whom I haven’t really connected with since his retirement over a year ago. We were both involved in the same event so didn’t have a lot of time to talk but we did exchange the basic information pertinent to our relationship: my knees are worse, he is now serving a church quarter time, I am not retired, he is loving retirement. He sort of wondered why I wasn’t retired because he is finding retirement to be really great.

I could, I suppose, have questioned how great retirement is if he is back at work after such a short time—I think he had been retired only a few months before he started at his new position. He was also involved in the same inter-church program I was in that evening as well, which suggests that maybe his retirement isn’t as retiring as he wanted me to believe. I have no doubt that his life is great right now and that he is enjoying himself—but maybe retirement isn’t the whole reason why he is doing well.

Life needs purpose and direction and meaning, I think. For most people, that is found in the process of work and family and the normal stuff that we do along the way. I am aware that that is a significant over-generalization but I think it does contain a lot of truth as well. I do know that there are many people whose work and family and living situations don’t provide sufficient purpose and direction and meaning. But the truth is that most of us find enough in the realities of living and working to keep going, even if we have times when we want more.

And that is why for many people, retirement creates some serious problems. Suddenly, everything that provided meaning and purpose and hope is gone—and for some people, it is really hard to replace that. In one fishing village that I used to be the pastor for, the men used to have a way of expressing it: a fisher who retired and didn’t go back to the wharf regularly died within a year of retirement. I think they recognized the reality that losing work and not having anything to replace it produced a hopelessness that made life hard to continue.

While this has traditionally been a problem with men, it is becoming more and more a problem for all people. In a more traditional times in the past, men worked outside the home and women worked inside the home, meaning there was still a purpose and meaning for the woman since their job of cooking and cleaning and care giving as still needed. But with everyone needing to work, everyone faces the life dilemma of what gives meaning after retirement.

Some of my older friends in ministry approach this problem by having several retirements. They retire, accept a call to “interim” ministry, retire again, accept another call and so on. I like to joke that they just do this because they really like retirement parties. More likely, they don’t like the feelings that come from not doing what was so important and central to their lives.

So, why write about retirement aside from the fact that it was on my mind after talking with my happily “retired” friend? I suppose part of it is because I plan on retiring someday. I am not sure when—the ministry I am doing now isn’t done yet and I want to see where God is taking me and the churches I have been called to. But I am past retirement age, my pensions will provide a comfortable income, my aging process is producing more and more aches and pains and limits and I am beginning to think that it will be nice at some point to wake up on the morning and not have to get moving because the sermon isn’t done or there is that meeting or I need to lead worship.

So, I am planning on retiring someday—but I am also planning my retirement already. I have a list of things I would like to do and explore. Nothing is written down but I keep seeing and thinking of things I want to try when I have some time. I want to learn how to make chocolate croissants and built scale model Cape Island boats for example. Will that be enough? I don’t know—but if it isn’t, I guess I can try my friend’s part time retirement approach.

May the peace of God be with you.

SHARING THE LOAD

In common with many congregations these days, the worship in both the pastorates I serve has a prayer time, where members of the congregation have the opportunity to share prayer requests. Some Sundays, there are no requests, not because nothing needs prayer but likely because no one wants to share their concerns that particular day. Other Sundays, the list of requests is long—which means I have to take good notes so I can include them in the subsequent pastoral prayer time. The longer the list, the more likely it is that I will not be able to read my handwriting by the time I arrive at that point in the prayer time.

Anyway, I have noticed something interesting about the nature of the prayer requests that people bring. As expected, there are often requests for members of our worshipping community: things like return to health, safety in travel, successful operations and so on. There are also requests for people we know in the wider community who are dealing with illness or grief or some other issue that someone in our group feels should be prayer about.

And then there is another set of requests. Many of our members tend to be aware of what is going on in the world and because many of them are also caring and compassionate people, the things they read and see on the media trouble them. And so many of our prayer requests during the sharing time focus on people and events in places where we have no real connection and are not likely to have any connection.

But some want a connection of some kind. In some cases, they could and probably do make a connection by donating money—there is always someone or some organization willing to take money to assist in whatever the media is covering. But some of our people want a different connection. We have concerns, we want to do something and money doesn’t seem to be enough. And so we pray. I am pretty sure that those making the requests pray about them personally and privately, we pray about them during worship and some, I believe, are inspired to pray about them later on their own.

There are lots of possible comments to make at this point. We could question the value of such prayers; we could wonder if the suggestion is a way of avoiding actual involvement; we could even look at the whole issue of the value of prayer. But to me in my context, none of those seem to have much validity. I am the pastor and I have some insights into the motivations of those making the requests—and I believe that they bring the request because they are concerned and want to make a difference.

And because they are people of faith, they see prayer—and more specifically our public prayer time—as a valid and significant and important way of becoming involved and making a difference. We join together as a Christian community and open ourselves to God around those areas and situations that concern us. We might not have a personal involvement with any of the people but we make it personal when we take it to God in our prayers. We might not have any ability to personally intervene but we are enabled to personally intervene through our faith in God, whom we believe is all powerful and present everywhere. Our prayers to him are received and answered.

And we are involved. We are doing something—not doing the only thing we can do and not doing something simple to avoid doing something more serious. We are doing the best we can do, which is to share our concerns with each other before God and then in faith, trust that the God of all creation will continue to be at work in whatever has concerned us. We are not drawing God’s attention to whatever—we are, I think, reminding ourselves that the God we trust is already there and already at work and because of that, we can share the burden of those more directly involved.

We pray—not because it is the only thing we can do but because it is the best thing that we can do. We pray because we need to, because we want to, because God invites us to. We pray—and through our prayers, we share the load.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO BLESSINGS

According to the schedule, this was going to be a really busy week. I had all the regular stuff to do: two sermons, two Bible studies and all the other associated stuff that comes from being a pastor. On top of that, there was an extra Bible study for our inter-church council, a part in the annual memorial service our funeral home sponsors plus added Advent/Christmas stuff. While I like being busy, I don’t actually like being too busy and I especially don’t like being in a position where I simply can’t do all that needs to be done—but that is what this week looked like when I began work on Tuesday morning.

I had to do some mental juggling, wondering what bits and pieces I could put off, which involves not just figuring out what isn’t as critical but also trying to find a spot to put it in later. I have found over the years that just postponing doing stuff without planning on when I will do them leads to even more stress down the road. It was a tough process but by the end of Tuesday, I had a sort of a plan that would allow me to get stuff done, sort of on time.

Wednesday arrives—and brings with it snow and wind and cold temperatures. I checked the local cancellation list and discovered there is no school. Since all our kids are grown and living too far away, I didn’t check it for them. I checked because the inter-church Bible study has a neat and effective rule—when school is cancelled, it is cancelled. Suddenly, I have a whole morning with nothing planned. And even more, one of the requirements for that day that wasn’t going to get done was to have a handout ready for the next study.

The cancellation pushed the coming studies a week down the line, giving me some breathing room to get the final study session ready. It also meant that rather than rush around and head for the study, I had some choices.

Among the possibilities were a significant session with some books that have been occupying memory space on my electronics. There is a small project sitting on my work bench in the basement, a set of Advent candle holders for a couple of the churches. There is always the option of doing almost nothing or even nothing.

I actually chose to focus on getting some of the stuff cluttering my need to do list out of the way. The extra time the cancellation gave me was a blessing. I probably wouldn’t have cancelled the study that day but since we had the rule in place, I chose to embrace the blessing the cancelation brought with it.

The next day, the morning weather was actually worse. There was more snow, more wind and even colder temperatures. I checked again and school was cancelled again. That wasn’t an automatic cancel for the church Bible study but it was a indication that I had better make some phone calls and discuss the situation, which resulted in another cancellation. Once again, I had time—and another blessing.

The deferred list got even shorter. I actually got some serious work done on the last of the inter-church studies, a start on the Christmas Eve services and some reading done. I also got the Advent candle holders finished and had some time to actually do nothing. I think the second blessing was even more valuable than the first one. The first one took the pressure off—but the second one allowed for some actual relaxation and de-stressing.

My work plan doesn’t count on these unexpected blessings. But when they happen, I can and will embrace them because of the space that they give. I am aware that having got a head a bit on all the stuff won’t be a long term reality—but in the short term, I did get some stuff cleared that might have clogged things up down the road. There will be more stuff that needs to be done and diminishing time to do it before too long.

But for now, I had two blessings that allowed me to catch up and even get a bit ahead. That is great, although I just realized that I need to find time to prepare the Christmas newsletter. But thanks to the cancellations, there is time for that.

May the peace of God be with you.

DEPRESSION ALERT

This has been a very busy weekend. One of the pastorates I serve had a major fund raising event on Saturday—it was a great event, from what I saw and heard, although my sight and vision were limited since my skill set pretty much confines me to the kitchen, well, really the sink washing dishes. I am pretty good at that task and it does keep me from spilling coffee and tea on guests at the tables. Sunday, of course, it always busy with two worship services and lots of people to talk to. We even had some visitors at the early service, which was nice.

But I work up this morning a bit before time to get up. As I enjoyed the warmth of the bed while thinking over the day’s activities, I had something of a shock. I caught a glimpse of my depression peeking around the corners of my thoughts. It wasn’t strong but it was there. I began to recognize the symptoms—feeling tired after a good night’s sleep; a lack of real interest in what I had planned for the day; an inability to go back to sleep combined with the fatigue feelings; a desire to crawl in a hole and disappear.

The depression hasn’t really arrived. This event was more of a preliminary message, a sort of an “I’m coming” promise. The conditions are right: lots of work activity; some personal stuff that is taxing; some frustrating circumstances preventing some important decisions. There are lots of reasons why the depression shouldn’t be there. Things are going well in the churches; my knees are not as painful, the cold didn’t develop into anything serious and it is actually snowing. But the potential is there—and it is close enough that the depression feels confident enough to show itself.

Now, I have to make some decisions. I need to decide what I am going to do about it. I recognize that not everyone fighting depression has the same options I have. My particular brand of depression tends to be closely related to my decisions and my willingness to take care of myself physically, emotionally and spiritually. I know all that and even do a pretty good job of paying attention to all the relevant factors most of the time. But when life gets hectic and things pile up, I take less and less care of myself, opening the door for the depression to worm its way in.

The problem is compounded by the fact that I am committed to what I do. My faith and my work are intimately connected—God has called me to ministry and whatever form it takes wherever it is, I am going to do my best, which involves more time that I probably should give it, more thought than I should give it, more energy that I should give it. I appreciate the opportunity God has given me to make a difference in the lives of the people he has called me to serve. I thrive on the opportunity to match Biblical teaching with the specific needs of the congregations. I love connecting churches, individuals and other groups with God through sermons, worship, Bible studies, counselling sessions and so on.

But it is too easy to lose myself in the process. And I know that the call to faith and service comes in the context of sacrifice and commitment and self-denial. Answering a call to ministry is demanding. But what I forget is that there is still a need to care for myself in the process. And once I forget that call to care for myself, everything else is built on a sandy foundation.

The threatening depression is a warning of that reality. I really can’t do what I have been called to do and want to do when I am depressed. I can go through the motions, letting momentum carry me but it isn’t really what I have been called to do. And while God can and does gracefully promise to work around my weaknesses, it is much better for me when I look after myself so that I can give him, the church and myself the best I am capable of at any given time.

So, thanks for the warning, depression. But because I have seen you peeking around the edges of my life, I am watching for you—and even more, I am pretty sure that God is looking after me.

May the peace of God be with you.

KEEP MOVING

I was talking with a friend on ministry the other day about our mutual occupation. We were both in the midst of the fall rush. Basically, from mid-September to mid-December, pastors and church workers don’t have much time for anything beyond work. And as the fall transitions to Advent, things get even worse. The time period is filled with special events, new programs, pastoral emergencies, church and denominational meetings—the list goes on and on. I find myself taking a deep breath in the middle of September and basically beginning to run the marathon.

Except that this marathon has a nasty surprise near the end. Fall church programming leads into Advent and Christmas programming. To use the marathon analogy, this marathon ends with a steep uphill climb. I don’t actually run marathons but have children and friends who do—and from their stories of marathons, I am pretty sure that a marathon with a steep hill at the end would be the very last thing they would want to do.

So, with Advent beginning soon, I find myself in the middle of the hill. Because of my preparation process, I hit the hill a bit before some of my colleagues in ministry. I try to stay a week ahead in all my preparation which does give me some psychological and practical wiggle room but also means I hit the crunch earlier. So, this next two weeks are probably the busiest I am going to have. Two sermons, the Bible study for the area churches that seemed like such a great idea last April, the church fund raiser that helps ensure I get paid, the Advent programs that need to be prepared, the Christmas newsletter, the meeting to prepare our next year’s worship schedule, along with all the other stuff that must be done means that I need to take another deep breath to make sure I keep going—I am definitely feeling the steepness of the hill right now.

Based on previous years of ministry (and I have a lot of those), I will get everything done and I will survive the climb. Eventually, the middle of December will come and things will slow down a bit and then, well, there is always the post-Christmas slump which also brings with it the possibility of a Sunday snow storm with produces a cancellation.

The issue for me is always doing the best I can. I used to be concerned with doing my best, which sounds noble and heroic and faithful but which in practise leads to stress, fatigue, anxiety and burnout. I know that I am capable of doing some pretty good stuff—but the unfortunate reality is that I can’t always work to my limits. Or maybe it is better to say that my limits are moved by my circumstances. The fantastic sermon I could produce with unlimited time becomes a somewhat less fantastic sermon because I also have to write the ecumenical study, the Advent candle program and our regular Bible study.

None of them will be my best work—none of them will be as good as what I could produce if I had only that one thing to do. So, each one of them gets the best that I can do given the time and opportunity I have. I can’t do my best work—but I can and will do the best I can in the circumstances.

And I will do what I always do—I will give God and the church my best and then depend on God to take care of the rest. Ultimately, I do what I do because God has called me to be his agent to carry out his will. All that I do passes through him and any effects and results are due more to his divine work than my efforts.

For me, this isn’t a cop out or an excuse of sub-standard work or an extra nap. For me, this is a basic reality that enables me to cope with the impossible task that I have been called to. Even if I could produce me best all the time, it still isn’t good enough. But if I consciously work at giving God and the church the very best I can in any circumstance, then I can take comfort in the reality that God is going to use what I do to accomplish his will.

May the peace of God be with you.

NO PHONE

I have been having some medical issues and therefore have to go for lots of medical appointments. Since most of the people I need to see are specialists who live and work at least 100 kms away, that means a lot of driving. So, my last appointment with one place was scheduled early in the morning, which meant I had to get up and leave early, which messed up my normally relaxed morning routine.

Rather than a leisurely breakfast while checking news headlines and glancing at email, followed by some initial work before getting dressed, I had to be up, have breakfast, dressed and out of the house in a half an hour. I can do that—I have done it lots of times. But the reality of the rushing is that I sometimes forget stuff. Once, on such a rushed morning departure, I forgot my wallet. Since then, I specifically check that I have my wallet.

So, wallet firmly in hand (or pocket, rather), I hobbled to the car and headed out. Fifteen minutes down the road, I realized that while I had my wallet, I didn’t have my phone. I contemplated turning around but the travel calculation didn’t work: fifteen minutes back, five minutes to find the phone, fifteen minutes back to this exact spot would make me late for the appointment. So, I kept going—after all, I had made this trip countless times before cell phones and should be able to make it today.

Except, well, if I was going there for the appointment, there was some shopping that needed to be done—and the shopping list was on the phone. So were the directions to the place where the appointment was, although since I had been there before, I wasn’t worried about that. I was concerned about the roadwork along the way—if I got stopped for too long, I couldn’t really let them know I would be a bit late.

I fretted and fussed about the lack of a phone for most of the trip—actually, I didn’t completely relax until I got home and retrieved the phone. Even though I remembered everything on the shopping list, found the place, didn’t have to call about being late and there were no missed calls or texts while I was away, I wasn’t completely comfortable making the trip without my phone.

I am not really sure what to think about that. As I mentioned, the trip I was making was a common and familiar one for me—one that I had probably made more times without a phone than with one—and many of those trips were made in cars that were a lot less reliable than my current Jeep. For years, grocery and todo lists resided in my pocket on their own piece of paper, not on my phone. For many years, being in the car on a trip was a perfectly understandable and valid excuse for missing a phone call.

But once I got a cell phone, it simply felt wrong to be out of contact. Even more, it felt uncomfortable making even a familiar trip without the phone. I have become so habituated to the phone that I even keep a charging cable in the car, just for those rare moments when the phone needs a charge while I am on the road. I specifically looked for a car with Bluetooth capability so I could safely use the phone in the car.

Like many people, I have become dependent on technology and am very uncomfortable without it. I love the ability to call from anywhere, to look up a Bible verse anytime, to write notes, take pictures, check email all from one tiny piece of equipment. I even have a back up of my sermon on the phone when I preach in case the primary tech, my tablet, has problems during worship.

I really don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing—it just is. I am pretty sure that when people first started experimenting with writing, someone complained that people would not be able to remember stuff any more—but the people who caught on to the writing would likely just make sure that they remembered the (clay) tablet with their grocery list on it.

Now when I leave in a rush, I check my wallet pocket and my phone pocket. Technology has changed me but as long as I remember the wallet and phone, I don’t have a big problem with that.

May the peace of God be with you.

I AM NOT A PSYCHOPATH

Since much of my work in the “office” involves writing using the computer, it isn’t surprising that a lot of my mini-breaks also involve the computer. Sometimes, the break involves a game of solitaire while my brain finalizes the second point of the sermon to the point where I can type it out. Now and then, when I need a longer break, the home page on my browser contains a never-ending buffer of stories, articles and pictures.

During a break the other day, I clicked on an article suggesting that people who do a certain thing might be a psychopath. The article suggested that people who drink their coffee black and who make a point of letting people they drink it black just might be psychopaths. From the day I began seriously drinking coffee, I have drunk it black with no sugar. I have also been known to proclaim that if God meant us to have milk and sugar in coffee, he would have created milk and sugar trees linked to the coffee trees. So, obviously I am a psychopath.

I wasn’t actually ready to accept that diagnosis, especially since I have some background in psychology and have done almost every psychological test invented at some point and never had even a small indication of psychopathology show up. But rather than simply click out of the article, I kept going. Way down near the end of the article, the author indicated that the black coffee thing was only one out of many many other things that were found to be correlated with the issue and the correlation with black coffee was actually fairly small.

So, instead of saying if you drink black coffee, you might be a psychopath, the article would have been much more honest to suggest that a very small percentage of people who drink black coffee have a chance of being a psychopath, which is pretty much the same as saying that a small percentage of any identified group of people might be psychopaths. But such truthful but vague statements don’t entice people to click and therefore don’t increase the views of the page, which I suppose puts up advertising rates.

The article does illustrate perfectly a dangerous and all too common human reality. We have a tendency to categorize and define people on the basis of one or two obvious characteristics or qualities, which may or may not actually have anything to do with the reality of that person.

So, for example, it isn’t hard to find someone telling us that all Muslims are terrorists and all evangelicals are republican. All illegal immigrants are criminals. All politicians are liars. All car salespeople are crooked and dishonest. The list goes on and on—and is as misleading and wrong as calling black coffee drinkers psychopaths. But we all do this.

There is an antidote to this kind of thinking. Rather than define people by one or two almost incidental traits, we get to know people. We move beyond the identified marker and we discover the real person. Occasionally, we are going to have our initial assessment proven right—but in general, we are going to find that behind the biased and ignorant assumption, there is a real person, a person with whom we can have a great relationship and even deep friendship.

But that takes both effort and courage. It takes courage to break out of our carefully defined boxes and embrace what is different or unknown or too quickly defined. And then, because the person we have categorized has likely been the victim of fast and mindless categorization before, it takes effort to develop the kind of relationship that allows each of us to get to know the other. It is much easier and simpler in the end to watch for the one or two defined markers and place the person in the appropriate box.

But most of the time, the markers don’t tell us what we think they tell us and the boxes we use don’t really work for us or the other. I drink black coffee—but I am actually not a psychopath. I am an evangelical Christian but I am not a republican—actually, I am not even American. Maybe, if we sit down and have a coffee, we can actually see beyond the preconceptions and get to really know each other. By the way, I take my coffee black, the way God meant it to be drunk.

May the peace of God be with you.

FORGIVE ME

One of my Bible study groups is studying the Lord’s Prayer. We are slowly moving through the content of the prayer, with many journeys here, there and everywhere as we examine the implications of the prayer for our lives. Eventually, we arrived at the place where we ask God, “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. That verse kept our study going for several weeks.

This isn’t a passage telling us that God will only forgive us as much as we forgive others. That would be at odds with the rest of the New Testament, which makes it clear that God’s forgiveness in Christ is unrestricted and unfettered, a limitless offer of love and grace that most of us will never fully understand.

As I and various people, including the Bible study, have grappled with this passage over the years, it seems to me that the real message the passage is trying to get to has to do more with our ability to forgive than with God’s ability to forgive. The bottlenecks and roadblocks and impediments to forgiveness all come from us, not from God.

And the biggest problem, I think, is our inability to actually forgive ourselves. Most people, especially faithful people, are terrible at forgiving themselves. We often have a sense of what “good” people should be like and an even better sense of why we are not like that. We know that God forgives—but we are uncomfortable believing that he could actually forgive us for that terrible sin of having an extra piece of pie (or maybe even the first piece, depending on the circumstances).

Often, we who are people of faith have our insides cluttered with sins and perceived sins that we are pretty sure are the worst sins in the history of faith, stuff that makes us feel guilty and unworthy and sinful and which we are sure that God couldn’t ever forgive. And if God can’t forgive us, who are we to let ourselves off the hook?

But the Gospel truth is that God can and does and even did forgive everything—that is the point of the cross and the resurrection. God can forgive us. And if God can and has forgiven us, who are we to argue? We can’t claim to know more than God; we can’t suggest that he doesn’t have the full story; we can’t argue that he has missed something—although in truth, we do all that stuff. But God is God, he does know the full story, he didn’t miss anything and when he offers to forgive, he can and will deliver.

So, many of us in the faith walk around as forgiven children of God who are still carrying heavy imaginary burdens of unforgiveness simply because we won’t in the end forgive ourselves. We make God into a liar and a weakling because we refuse to believe that he is stronger than us and our sins.

And then it gets worse because we are pretty sure that if we don’t really deserve forgiveness, that no one else actually deserves it either. If I can’t forgive myself for that second slice of pie, how can I forgive you who joined me in the raid on the fridge? Or even worse, if I don’t eat the pie and can’t forgive myself for even thinking about it, how can I ever forgive you for actually eating the pie?

Our theology of forgiveness needs to be improved. Actually, it needs to be real theology, not our thoughts and feelings. God has made it clear that forgiveness is a consequence of his love and grace. He makes it clear that there are no limits (I know about the sin of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit in Matthew 12.31 but essentially worrying about this sin is a pretty good sign you haven’t committed it). He goes to inhuman lengths to let us know that he is prepared to forgive us no matter what.

So, if the God of all creation, who know everything there is to know about me and everything else is willing to die to forgive me, I should probably learn how to forgive myself—and at the same time, that will help me forgive others. When we let God’s rules about forgiveness guide the process, we will all do better.

May the peace of God be with you.

FEELING GUILTY

The other day, I was at the fall fundraising event for several of the churches in our area. Rather than set up competing events, the churches get together, rent a large hall and do the event together. So, in one big space, there are bake sales, jam sales, quasi-yard sales, silent auctions and a really good brunch. Since we browse the tables at different speeds, my wife and I quickly got separated but since we both knew we would end up at the brunch tables, that wasn’t a problem.

As I looked at the tables and talked to people I knew from all the various churches, I came to the table run by a neighbour who is on one of the same committees I serve on. She had volunteered to take the minutes of our last meeting, which I would then scan and send on to the rest of the committee. As soon as she saw me, she joked about feeling guilty because she didn’t have the minutes done. My joking response was that my job as a pastor was done because I had made her feel guilty. We both knew we were joking and went on to talk about other things—and in the process made a tentative plan to get the minutes done.

I have been thinking on the topic of guilt since then—well, to be honest, it is a topic that I have been thinking about on and off for a while. It seems like guilt is almost synonymous with being a person of faith. I have heard pastors (and comedians) talk about various religious groups as being the inventors of guilt. I remember one person whose faith I admired telling a visiting speaker that she really appreciated his message because it made her feel so guilty—she was giving him what was her supreme compliment.

There is a connection between faith and guilt but not the one that is popularly assumed to be there. It seems like many people both inside and outside the faith want guilt to be the supreme quality of a religious person. Such thinking almost has a valid point. Most religions begin with the idea that we human beings are imperfect and that there is a better, holier and perfect something beyond us. Our continued imperfection is a problem—and guilt seems to be the appropriate response for most people.

Interestingly enough, most people want to maintain a perfect level of guilt. They want to have enough to feel religious but not enough to change behaviour. This is a hard balance to maintain, though, and often people get caught in the swamp of uncontrolled guilt that causes them to slip into low self-esteem, despair, even hopelessness. The process isn’t helped by the vast amount of guilt producing preaching, teaching and advice given by religious leaders.

But what if guilt isn’t the purpose of faith? What if, instead of guilt being the goal and focus of faith, it is only a tool to get us to something greater, a tool that has a important but limited use? What is God uses guilt to motivate us to confess and accept his forgiveness so that we can be free of guilt? What is guilt that can’t be dealt with by God’s offer of forgiveness is false guilt and isn’t something that we need to or should deal with?

I think that this what if is actually the case. I think our Christian faith is based on the reality that God doesn’t want us to feel guilty. In actual fact, he wants us to feel forgiven—and forgiveness by definition ends the hold of guilt on our lives. God wants us to live in the freedom that comes from knowing that we are forgiven and that there is no need to hold on to the guilt that led us to accept God’s forgiveness. Sometimes, that left over guilt is really a sign of our inability to really accept and appreciate the forgiveness that God has given us in Jesus. We hold on to our guilt probably because we feel better feeling guilty that we do feeling free.

But as believers, we are free, we are forgiven and for us, guilt should only be a temporary reminder that we have more to take to God and when we take it to him, he takes care of us, relieving us of the need to feel guilty. Real faith is marked by a sense of freedom from guilt, a freedom that comes from opening ourselves to the grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.